The film God on Trial from PBS’ Masterpiece is fantastic. I’ve watched it several times now and have tried to capture the major arguments…
There is a legend that God was put on trial by a group of prisoners at Auschwitz. The people involved in the trial were from all walks of life: a criminal lawyer, a law professor, various professors of other disciplines, a glove maker, a rabbi thought to be a saint, many other rabbis, a physicist and other scientists, Torah scholars, college students, They are observant Jews, nominally observant, atheists, agnostics, etc. They run the gamut.
The prisoners decide to put God on trial after a “selection” has taken place. The prisoners know that many of them (the selected) will be killed the next day. They are trying to make sense of their excruciating suffering.
God is charged with breech of contract. The Jews have an agreement with God and God broke the deal. In the desert, Moses made a covenant with God. He said the people would obey God’s law, and God said for this obedience, the Jews would be his own chosen people. “No enemy shall be able to outwit him, no wicked man overcome him, I shall crush his enemies before him and strike his opponents dead.”
Those in defense of God say that the prisoners are being tested by God and that they must pass their test. Before they blame God, the Jews should look at themselves. Perhaps it isn’t God who has broken the covenant but the Jews. “Because of our sins.” It is in the covenant that God reserves the right to punish the wicked.
But why did he choose to punish good, obedient people rather than Hitler? In law, the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime. What crime can justify the sort of punishment the prisoners are experiencing? What punishment does the innocent child who is sent to the gas chamber deserve?
In defense: The mistake is to make it personal. God does not act against the individual. His covenant is with the entirety of the Jewish people.
But what use is a God who is not personal? A God like that is nothing more than weather.
In defense: Put aside the idea of punishment. Instead, think of God as a surgeon who has to remove the entire leg to get rid of the gangrene. It isn’t personal, it is a purification.
But is this purification in the covenant?
In defense: The first purification was the flood, the second the destruction of the temple by Nebucadnezar when the Jews were driven into exile in Babylon. The Jews took their knowledge of the Torah and the one almighty God out into the country. If they had stayed as they were, they would have been a tribe in the desert, nothing more. It was painful, but it was also beautiful. What if some great good is to come of what the Holocaust prisoners are suffering? Perhaps there is a reason why a good person is taken and not an evil man. The good person is a sacrifice. A holocaust. The suffering is therefore meaningful. Man’s sacrifice is the most beautiful. The suffering of the prisoners at Auschwitz is related to the story of Masada – rather than be taken as slaves, some of the best Jewish warriors decided they would rather be killed. These Jews fled to Masada where the Romans surrounded them. 10 men were selected to kill the other men and one man to kill the last 10. After the 10 were killed, the last man killed himself. Two Jewish women hid from the slaughter to tell the story. The goal of the Romans was to take the Torah away from the Jews so they could be Romanized. Today, the Jews and the Torah are still here, but the Romans are dust. The conclusion: Suffering is a privilege if it is part of God’s plan. Those suffering are fortunate to be purifying the people through their pain. People will die, the war will end. But the Torah will live.
So suffering is God’s way? Hitler is working for God? Is that right?
It’s possible. Going back to the gangrene metaphor. You can hate the knife, but love the surgeon.
But if Hitler is doing God’s work, then logic says that to stand in Hitler’s way is to stand in God’s way. Is it wrong to take arms against Hitler? Is that not insane?
In defense: The fellow prisoner who has been put in Auschwitz because he is a criminal and has been placed in charge of keeping the other prisoners in line says he doesn’t know whether he will be killed or not. But his sole criteria is to stay alive as long as he cans which means he has to please the people who can kill him. He agrees that he is doing God’s work because if “the bastard” (the God of Abraham) gave a damn about the Jews, he wouldn’t have given the Jews to him. He has no problem allowing others to die if it means a few more days for him.
So in the end, if the only people who survive are people like this criminal in command (the vicious, the cunning, the shameless, the pitiless), what kind of Israel would want these as their people? And if God can do all things, why can’t he purify his people without gassing them. If God is all powerful, then how can he be just? Either he is all-powerful, or he is just. He can’t be both.
In defense: The answer is free will. There is always a choice.
Free will? What about the Jewish father who is forced to choose which child will be killed or which one will get to live? The father doesn’t want free will. He wants his sons. Where was his will when he was forced to choose between the lives of his children? What choice did he have? The officer who forced the choice had free will. Not the Jewish father.
In defense: The war will end. Hitler will die. The people and the Torah will survive. And the father would like to believe it is somehow beautiful. Even though the father doesn’t understand him, he knows God is here. Maybe God is being gassed, Maybe God is suffering with them?
But who needs a God that suffers? They need a God who sends the enemy of death.
Defense: Maybe God is not all powerful. Maybe God needs us to be all powerful. You can ask,
“where does all the evil come from”, but where does all the goodness come from? Job 38:12. “Have you ever given orders to the morning? Or told dawn it’s place that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?”
But God is guilty because in the covenant, he assures the survival of the people, but the survival of the people is no longer certain. The Physicist among them tells them there are 100 thousand-million stars in our galaxy alone. And God’s whole attention is focused on one little planet? And not just on one little planet, but just on the Jews? This God signed a contract just with the Jews? And not all of the Jews, because certain Jews don’t count. If he loved the Jews so much, why did he make so much besides the Jews? The Jews come along and claim there is only one God. They create a society in which all the powers are created in the hands of one king. It’s an efficient society and it helps them to believe God loves them more than anyone else. But then the Christians come along with a better idea. Yes, there is only one God, but he loves everyone, not just the Jews. People convert. They conquer everyone. One cult, one king. It’s all about power and struggle. Now Hitler has a better idea. There is one God, and it is Hitler.
Defense: Where does it get you to deny God? What do you gain by denying God? Those who claim they see a truth that those who believe in God do not see, what does it get them? They end up in the same place as everyone else. They are no better. Even if God doesn’t exist, don’t let the Nazi’s take away your God. He’s your God, It’s your covenant. Don’t let them take that away from you.
But be realistic. The punishment that God laid upon the innocent – the children of Egyptian slaves during the plague, etc. were every bit as gruesome as what the Jews are suffering now. God has never been good. He’s only been on our side. Why did he flood the earth? What could human beings have done that was worthy of such a horrible punishment. On the belts of the Nazi’s is written, “God is with us.” So whose side is God on? God has made a new covenant with someone else.
Where do you go with this?
At the end of the trial, God is found guilty. The response? Prayer.
And yet, good “exists”. A father sacrifices himself for the life of his grown son and when his grown son realizes it, tries to sacrifice his life for that of his father’s. A mother starves in order to feed her child. We experience good, whether God exists or not. And if he does exist, then good “exists” whether God is good or not.
So was their prayer answered? The Jews are still here. The Torah is still here.