How God Views History

28 Dec

The other night, I got into a long discussion with a friend and colleague about why God allows evil to exist in the world. Her view is that he cannot prevent it because it is a consequence of the fall of man and sin entering the world. My view is that God permits unpleasant things to happen because they are an essential part of getting us to where he wants to take us.

Naturally, the subject of the Holocaust came up. How could there be any justification for allowing so many people to suffer such an unjust and horrific affliction? Before I discuss this, I must first make one thing perfectly clear. The Holocaust was a horrible atrocity and the Jews who suffered did not in any way shape or form deserve their fate. Nevertheless, the event did take place and anyone attempting to account for the appearance of evil in relation to God must explain this event. If you do not feel that you can tolerate any such explanation, you should stop reading NOW.

Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I utterly reject the possibility that God performs magic tricks. He is only able to help us and guide us through the medium of natural science. I have discussed the means by which he accomplishes this and his limitations in other writings.

Is it impossible that the Holocaust ultimately brought humanity to a better place? I can think of at least one plausible line of reasoning for how it could have improved our lot. Please suspend judgment until I finish my analysis and also keep in mind the purpose of this inquiry.

While Albert Einstein was visiting America, Hitler came into power in Germany. Since it was not safe for Einstein to return, he remained in the United States. He was one of the people who convinced President Roosevelt to start developing the atomic bomb. Although the mindset of someone like Albert Einstein is difficult to penetrate, it is not inconceivable that an otherwise peace loving man effectively prescribed the development of an unthinkable weapon because he anticipated Hitler’s agenda. Through the course of World War II the atomic bomb was developed and the resulting invention was utilized twice at the end of the war. That was horrific. However, atomic bombs have not been used in a military conflict at any time since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Suppose the bomb had been completed later and/or by a different power than the United States. Instead of becoming the parting shot of the Second World War, it may have been the opening shot of a third world war. In that environment, it may have been used extensively and indiscriminately and resulted in the end of human civilization. Since the bomb was completed at the end of the Second World War and was used precisely twice, it entered the world’s imagination as an unimaginable horror that might result in mutant monsters or universal death. Humanity, as a species, learned to fear it at a time when their fear would have an opportunity to grow and fester. As a consequence, the atomic bomb has not been used in a military conflict at any time since the end of World War II.

However, there is a side effect of our fear of atomic weapons that became unmistakable at the end of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Since every large nation quickly developed a massive stockpile of atomic weapons, the world became afraid of entering into a serious military conflict. Large nations have been afraid to get into direct conflicts because they fear that such conflicts may result in one side or the other becoming sufficiently desperate to deploy atomic weapons. As a result, they have fought mostly proxy wars and wars of posturing (cold wars) that have cost human lives but nothing on the scale of an all-out world war. It could be argued that the atomic bomb has been the greatest instrument of peace the world has ever known. Who would have guessed that sheer terror was the key to world peace?

So, it could be argued that the Holocaust resulted in the early creation of a weapon too terrible to use and that this weapon and its time of development has kept the world from entering into an all-out military conflict for 75 years. Again, I am not justifying the Holocaust. I am merely showing how it could actually have resulted in fewer casualties and less destruction than might otherwise have occurred.

If the scenario I have presented above seems too Rube Goldberg-esque, consider this simpler possibility. The Holocaust and comparable events perpetrated by Japan brought those nations and the whole world considerable shame. However, the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has inevitably been compared to those atrocities. Nearly every world power is worried about being the next one that is compared to Nazi Germany and they know that if they use NBC weapons (colloquially WMDs) such comparisons are inevitable. In this way also, the Holocaust may have saved the world from a civilization ending third world war.

I should point out at this juncture that the notion that horrible acts can be permitted by God and give rise to positive long term consequences is not completely alien to either the Christian or Jewish world view. In the Biblical account of Joseph (the one that was given the Technicolor coat), when he explains his brothers’ act of selling him into slavery, he says, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” The idea that a horrible act permitted by God can ultimately have positive consequences is not new. It just is not often considered at the scale of something as historically troubling as the Holocaust.

However, all of this kind of misses the point. Whether or not I, as a limited human being, can imagine how something as horrible as the Holocaust could have been an overall benefit to the world, I suspect that this general apprehension only touches on how God views it. God has a definite objective that he intends to arrive at. I have described what I think that objective may be in other discussions. History is apparently something like a giant tree where possibilities are continually pruned away as time progresses. Every branch that remains on the tree of history represents possibilities for where we are headed as a species and every branch that is pruned away represents possibilities that have been eliminated. The paths leading away from the Holocaust were pruned away at least eighty years ago.

Apparently, for some reason that we may ultimately guess, but may never actually be sure of, the branch of the tree that extends to where God wants to take us led through the Holocaust. In that sense, it was neither good nor bad. It was merely one length of the long branch that takes us where God wants us to go. It would probably be impossible for any human to perform a calculation that shows all the people who lived and died as a result of the Holocaust or all the deeds they might have done or not done or how any of them might have turned out. God apparently sees the whole tree and can make such calculations accordingly.

So, this is how I suspect that God views history. He does not see it as a balance sheet of good works weighed against harm done. He sees it as a path to an objective that may, for whatever reason, take us through some rough territory.

The argument could certainly be made that we could have gotten to where we are or where we ultimately need to be without so much horror, but that is a very limited and human view of the tree of history. As humans, we cannot know what is and is not essential.

It would certainly have been difficult to convince a hypothetical person standing at the beginning of the Holocaust and knowing what is about to happen that it will all be for the best. That person would have objected, saying, “But wait a minute! You are saying that the end justifies the means. What if we do not get to the end that you are proclaiming? In that case, we will have gone through all this horror for no reason at all.” That person would have been correct. That is why humans should not perpetrate unthinkable atrocities as a means to an end. They may perpetrate them anyhow, and God may have reasons for allowing them to do it. However, such large scale planning is for God, not for men. Men should try to do only good. God alone is capable of permitting evil as a way of ultimately accomplishing good.

This is a difficult construct to wrap one’s head around and seems to suggest that God has no concern for individual lives. However, that is not the case. While I have presented this concept of trees with branches in a simplistic manner, the reality is that it is an extremely complicated construct with more inns and outs than any human can possibly take into account. It is a certainty that God looks at the lives of individuals and does for them what can be done while not neglecting the overall structure of the tree. Humans can never see events in that way…simultaneously at the microscopic and macroscopic scale. God can. He can juggle an infinite number of variables and maximize every one of them. Humans can handle at most a few variables and can rarely maximize more than a couple. We have developed mathematics and we are developing computers that are capable of extending our ability to do such calculations, but we are still relative infants where that kind of calculation is concerned.

I realize that this essay may be offensive to some. I hope I have not seemed to take a horrible historical atrocity and present it is as a mere mechanical process. Possibly, the Holocaust is still too fresh and raw in many minds to entertain such a discussion. Long ago, I attended the funeral of a cousin’s two year old daughter. Someone attending the funeral suggested to her that it was God’s will that her baby die. I learned on that occasion that one does not say such things to those who are still grieving. Nevertheless, the Holocaust is the big elephant in the room for anyone attempting to explain the appearance of evil in the world in relation to God, and I may not be around in fifty years when everyone has sufficiently recovered from the trauma to be able to look at it from a historical perspective. I have done my honest best. I can already hear a shout in the distance: “How dare you suggest that the Holocaust was anything but pure evil! How dare you suggest that it ever accomplished any good!” For some reason, I envision this shout coming from Sarah Silverman, although I have no idea why she in particular comes to mind. Note, however, that this is the premise that leads many to reject the possibility of God. They argue that a good God could not allow such suffering in the world and therefore that he cannot exist. While they may reject my premise, I must reject their conclusion. I am not attempting to justify a horrendous act. I am trying to explain God’s relationship to such acts. If someone rejects my argument and their rejection ultimately causes them to reject the possibility of God, they are at the greater loss. Their inability to get past their visceral emotional reaction is costing them every chance of achieving any genuine hope for the future.

The same historical tree that I have depicted will ultimately be my judge. If I am pruned away tomorrow, hopefully my words will still be a benefit to someone…if only as an example of places where one should never go.

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