Radical Jewish theologians such as Rubenstein are not alone as they wrestle with the loving God of traditional Judaism and the sickening horror of shocking evil. As even Orthodox rabbi Irving Greenberg writes, “To talk of love and of a God who cares in the presence of the burning children is obscene and incredible; to lean in and pull a child out of a pit, to clean its face and heal its body, is to make…the only statement that counts.”
Jewish theologian Seymour Cain adds that the Holocaust is a “stumbling block,” and “whatever may be the case with Christian theologians, for whom it seems to play no significant generative or transformative role, the Jewish religious thinker is forced to confront full face that horror, the uttermost evil in Jewish history.”
Messianic believer and theologian Jakob Jocz notes, “Auschwitz casts a black pall upon the civilized world. Not only…man’s humanity…but God himself stands accused. Jews are asking insistently: Where was God when our brothers and sisters were dragged to the gas ovens?…Faith in the God of Israel… is…a challenge, but after Auschwitz it is an agonizing venture for every thinking Jew.”
Many Jews believe that evil won out and that God died in the Holocaust. That settles the quandary for them, but it didn’t settle it for Wiesel. His bitter experiences during those horrific years of the Holocaust did not deprive him of belief in God once-and-for-all. Wiesel’s progression of thought on this issue may provide valuable insight for those Jews who suffer the same kinds of existential confusion as he did over their own religious atheism.
It appears that further reflection and the passage of time forced Wiesel to adjust some of his perspectives on the Holocaust. He recorded this shift in his lesser-known and more-reflective pieces. We shall note only three examples from these writings, although there are several that bear similar testimony.
In a journal article, Wiesel affirmed that any genuine protest against God—such as those of Abraham (Gen. 18), Moses and Aaron (Exod. 5, 32; Num. 16), Job (Job 13, etc.), David (Pss. 10, 13, etc.), Jeremiah (Jer. 12; Lam. 3, etc.), and Habakkuk (Hab. 1)—must come from within the covenant context, not from without. Specifically, he stated, “The Jew…may rise against God, provided that he remains within God.”10
Later, in a television interview, Wiesel propounded the following thought: “For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But to simply ignore God, that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference to God, no. You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God.”11
Finally, Wiesel testified to his own ongoing struggle with God when he declared, “To be a Jew is to have all the reasons in the world not to have faith…in God, but to go on telling the tale…and [having your] own silent…quarrels with God.”12 The emotional Wiesel refuses to embrace the painful reality of the God of his tradition; the rational Wiesel, like Jacob of old, grapples with God as a living Being, seeking blessing for himself and his people.
It is likely that Wiesel ultimately refused to abandon God altogether because he was able to envision the logical consequences of his Holocaust-induced religious atheism. To begin our case for God’s existence during and since the Holocaust, we must lovingly nudge our Jewish friends toward those same logical conclusions. In other words, we must ask, What would be some of the inevitable consequences of persisting in the belief that there is no God or that God really did die in the Holocaust? A rational exploration of these consequences may cause our Jewish friends to reevaluate their atheism.
Consequence no. 1: Illegitimate Law
Laws do not come from nowhere. They must come from lawmakers or lawgivers. If there is no God, laws must come from humans; that is, they must be derived from the best and worst proposals of humankind. To embrace atheism is to embrace a world without any transcendent Lawgiver.
Without a transcendent moral Lawgiver there can be no transcendent moral laws, and the people who govern or control therefore will be the elite who are in power, either the consenting majority or the empowered minority or individual (e.g., Hitler and the Nazis). As Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) observed in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, if there is no transcendent rule or reign of law, that is, “if there is no God, all things are permissible.”
So it was in the dark days of the Judges, when “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). Evidence of this in our own day is clearly manifest: public opinion reigns supreme. Gallup and his polls have replaced Moses and his laws!
Like laws, morals and ethics do not come from nowhere; they come from moral and ethical determiners. Any set of morals that is not transcendently based, that is, determined from outside the human frame of reference, of necessity must be determined from within the human context. This means that any moral or ethical system derived from such a godless world must be relative to its very core. We, accordingly, could not talk about “morals” (i.e., prescriptive norms: what people ought to do), but only about “mores” (descriptive norms: what people actually do).
Philosopher Norman Geisler states this dilemma as follows: “How would you know that the Holocaust is ultimately wrong [or evil] unless you knew what was ultimately right? If you don’t have an absolute standard for right, you can’t say that [the Holocaust] is absolutely wrong. That’s just your opinion, and somebody else’s opinion could be, the Holocaust was the best thing in the history of mankind.”
When our Jewish friend or colleague protests in a vehement moral outrage that there has been no God since the Holocaust, it is imperative that we lovingly remind him or her that such a moral outrage, if it is to be valid, must be grounded in the very existence of God, His transcendent law, and His absolute morality. Otherwise, it is ultimately groundless emotional ranting.
We must help our Jewish friend recognize, along with Elie Wiesel, that the consequences of denying God’s existence are far worse than accepting it, even after the Holocaust. In fact, if there were no God, the Nazis could not have been held accountable for their evil deeds, for there only would have been deeds, not evil deeds. There can be public opinions and private viewpoints, but without God, there can be no legal or moral accountability for one’s actions.