One of the most disturbing questions gnawing at the edges of Jewish consciousness is "where was God when the six million died?" The horrors of the Holocaust—from gut-wrenching images to mind-boggling numbers of those slaughtered continue to haunt the imaginations of religious as well as secular Jewish people around the world.
Surveys demonstrate that the greatest common point of Jewish identity is with the tragedy of the Shoah.1 But despite the myriad of Jewish institutions that investigate, chronicle and explore the depths and meaning of this dark chapter of history, the answer to the question "where was God?" eludes most who pursue it. Despite millions of books and scholarly papers, hundreds of films and a veritable treasure trove of artistic renderings, the Holocaust remains the great enigma of Jewish experience.
Tragically, many Jews have concluded that the Holocaust teaches us there is no God, or worse, if He exists He is a monster or an impotent irrelevancy. From Israel to America, Jewish atheism and agnosticism outstrips Jewish orthodoxy by a long shot. No doubt many factors contribute to this fact, but certainly the Holocaust is near if not at the top of the list.
Perhaps the greatest voice for this Jewish angst is that of Eli Wiesel, a survivor, scholar and prolific author. In his heart-wrenching memoir, "Night," Wiesel tells the story of an execution he and the prisoners were forced to witness as two men and a boy were mounted on chairs with the hangman's noose around their necks. At a signal from the guards, the chairs were kicked out from beneath their feet and the ropes snapped. The men died instantly as the fall broke their necks, but the boy, small and emaciated as he, flailed about, gasping desperately for breath. As the crowd gasped in horror, Wiesel heard someone cry out, "Where is God? Where is God?" In that moment Wiesel realized that for him, God was dying in the image of that young boy struggling to breath until his very last. It was too horrible to imagine that a loving God could allow such evil. It was easier to conclude that God was dead.
I have deep empathy for those who endured these horrors, yet the story Wiesel so poignantly described connects me to a different image and meaning. As I think of the boy struggling and dying between two men I can't help but envision another Jew, Jesus, as He suffered and died on the cross between two thieves.2 As the crowd gathered around that scene outside of Jerusalem, it was Jesus who asked the searing question: "My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?"
Herein lies a biblical perspective on the question—or for some, the accusation—where is God when such atrocities are committed?
Jesus, the son of God, became human because God wanted to identify with His lost and suffering creation. He lived a holy, innocent and undefiled life, and then willingly took upon Himself God's judgment for the sin of all humanity. That judgment caused God to turn away, in that moment, from the son He loved. Jesus knew the answer to His own question on the cross before He ever asked it. In fact, the question refers back to the cry of the prophet-king David, (Psalm 22:1) who predicted this event in Psalm 22:14-18.
That moment in history—when Jesus was alone with the sin of the world—was the central act of God's redemptive power. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). And because of this amazing eternal truth, He is still present in our suffering today, to identify, to suffer with and to provide help, hope and meaning to those who still suffer.
So where was God when the six million died? God was mourning over the dead, the persecuted, and grieved by those persecutors whose minds were scrambled with the lust for power. God was suffering along with every humiliation and each act of violence. The answer to the question is not snappy, nor is it smug and self-satisfied. It is hard to explain and hard to understand. But it has to do with love that is really LOVE.
God created human beings to receive His love and to be able to give love in return. Love must always be a choice. God made us with the power to choose love, to choose humility and righteousness and peace . . . but in our pride, the human race has chosen to ignore God's rightful place, and often even His existence. That choice consistently leads to other bad choices, some more hideous than others. And we become victims of these choices, whether they are our own, or as in the case of the Nazis, other peoples'.
There was a set of historical decisions that permitted the evil of the Third Reich to prosper. Decisions to look the other way . . . to care too little to see if rumors of the atrocities were true . . . to look upon the misery of fellow human beings as "someone else's business"—all these choices had a part in the unspeakable horrors. Like Cain, much of the world collectively shrugged and retorted, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God mourns over the depraved choices of human beings, but He never violates peoples' right to decide.
And we ask, where was God? He was right there all along. God has been present through all our sufferings. He was in the boxcars, the ghettos, the concentration camps, yes, even in the showers and the ovens. We believe that as God was present with us, so was Jesus. And He still is there today identifying with His suffering people.
This year, Resurrection Sunday falls on April 20 and Yom Ha Shoah, [Remembrance Day,] is one week later, April 27. The proximity of these two dates reminds us of the power of the cross to speak to the deepest questions of life. Jesus suffers along with His people and He alone is able to lift our eyes to see beyond human suffering to the greater purposes of a loving God. There is a resurrection to those who cry out to Him. We must believe that and trust Him and lovingly point others to this powerful truth. Though the Holocaust evokes the darkest despair even to the depths of our being, God still has a message of hope.
Our Jewish people need to know that the horrific sufferings inflicted by the Nazi regime on humanity is not, as Hitler so insidiously implied, the outgrowth of Christ's teachings. To the contrary, Jesus was not afraid to enter into the pain and sufferings of others in order to offer the hope of life with God. The God of Israel cared enough to send "that Jew"—Yeshua of Nazareth, Jesus—to die, willingly, as the atonement for our sin, as the prophet Isaiah foretold.
We believe that Yeshua rose from death, as He Himself predicted He would, and as King David also predicted centuries before. We believe that beyond this earthly life, God promises us that sorrow and tears will cease for all who trust in Him.
…Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." (Psalm 30:5)
There is no better time to meet people where they are and offer that hope, that joy, that amazing new life in Jesus.
1. Hebrew for catastrophe
2. This is not to say the men in Wiesel's story were in any way criminals; it was the execution of three people and the particular innocence of the boy that brought Calvary to mind.