Christ and the Horror of the Holocaust

holocaustIn his book Grace in Auschwitz, Jean-Pierre Fortin[1] provides an account of Auschwitz by summarizing the stories of the survivors of Auschwitz. Here, we see an event reaching the heights of insanity and the depths of horror and tragedy. The cruelty, the evil of Auschwitz, which epitomizes that of the Holocaust as a whole, is so great it is almost unfathomable. How can one group of human beings (the Germans) commit such evils against another group of human beings (the Jewish people)? An even more pertinent question emerges, at least for our purposes: how can God still remain God in the face of such horror?

Auschwitz, if it is the epitome of the Holocaust, is even more so a full display of evil and sin. Most obviously, the many millions of victims were reduced to lifeless beings, corpses without voice, without feeling, without minds. Those who survived, as Fortin recounts, reflected the lifelessness, the horror, of a place that can be aptly described a living hell. Barely able to speak, the frail, starved bodies of the survivors, as medical examiners reported, lost much in the way of similitude with their fellow human beings. Though the physical realities could be described, recounted, and even made visual by use of a photograph, another aspect ought to be highlighted, namely, the sheer silence which the survivors felt and displayed in their very beings.

In the camp,[2] extermination of the camp prisoners did not start with actual loss of physical life, but rather, began with the psychological, emotional and, indeed, all-encompassing reduction of the victim to something less than human. The reason for the innumerable crimes wasn’t mere brute evil (though there was that too), but rather the reason lie in a deeply rational evil design: to treat the prisoners in a way that reflects what they were per Nazi propaganda—beasts. Beasts are silent. Beasts do not have rights, worth, dignity, honor nor importance. Beasts, like so many cattle, are expendable, and, so the ‘logic’ goes, are even worse than cattle for, though beasts, they resemble human beings. Thus, as beasts-that-resemble-humans-though-found-not-to-be, the only recourse is death, the entry to which began with reducing the Jewish people to mere beasts.

What is the nature of horror, of evil, then? Horror and evil, products of a fallen world, are, at base, the reduction of creation to something which it is not—the reduction of life to death, of human to beast. The loss of human dignity is a horror because it diminishes image-bearers of the living God to something less than what is befitting that dignity. The victim finds themselves, in the event of horror, traumatized, with that trauma forever imprinted on them. Silence results and is accompanied by the unforgettable loss of dignity, with that moment replayed into perpetuity.

To draw from another example: at that moment when a child becomes prey to sexual assault, that child no longer has a voice. The voice is not merely muted; it is mutated into something other than a voice. The voice of protest, the voice of resistance to evil, is swallowed up by the carefully crafted environs of the abuser. In the same vein, at the moment when a Jewish person was ripped from their home, taken from their family, and placed in an atmosphere of death, their voice was silenced. Resistance was devoured by death. But, again, this silence is not a mere loss of voice; it is a tragic disfiguration of that voice. The victim of horror is lead to believe by all that lies under the vast expanse of death that they are the cause of their own victimization. Thus, their voice is turned against them, becoming an instrument for the repetition of the horror experienced.

Though virtually everyone would admit the utter horror of the Holocaust or the sexual abuse of children, many fail to take into account what these actually teach us. When human beings are silenced and reduced to something subhuman, indeed, when their voice is subsumed under the narrative of death, the depth and breadth of evil is revealed.[3]

Everything good, everything beautiful, everything worth thinking on and caring about ultimately find their significant in that they reflect the goodness, beauty and worth of the living God. The good and beautiful and true things of this world are not for themselves but to reflect the one in whom all beauty, goodness, and truth is found. Truly, so vast and infinite is God’s goodness, beauty and truth that every expression of these found in the entirety of creation fall so very far short of that which is found in God. Because all that is found in God is vastly superior to everything which reflects God in his creation, we can only speak analogously of goodness and the like in re God. Goodness, truth and beauty are found perfectly in God; God defines these within himself. As such, every other expression of these is derivative and contingent.

Moving from these relatively dense theological woods, we can put it this way: God has created us to image him, to exist in relation to him as creaturely sons and daughters who participate in his life. What follow from this is that every good, true and beautiful quality of creation is rightly understood and experienced when oriented toward God. When these qualities are detached from their Godward orientation, something malevolent and grim results: creation slides effortlessly into the place which ought only to be held for God.

One may wonder why this is the case. We are made to find our entire meaning, satisfaction and sustenance from God as his image bearers. Yes, God does allow us to enjoy him in and through his good creation, but, nonetheless, if his good creation is detached from enjoying him, it is detached from its purpose. Because we are made to image God, indeed, to worship him, something inevitably must take the place of worshipping him, and, clearly, that something will be less than him for it will be created reality.

Though many will recognize the horror, the unfathomable evil, that is the Holocaust, it is often overlooked that this same horror was birthed out of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Alistair McFadyen writes:

Nazi racial ideology and policy … descended … from the Enlightenment’s hopes for a perfect, rational order of society, in which the givenness of social and natural order is not to be received uncritically and unquestioningly. Nature and society become projects, to be re-created and re-ordered in line with either a superior, artificial rationality or the original and true, natural order which has been lost or distorted, to be recovered by rational artifice. The vitality of this dream of perfection, characteristic of modern faith in rationality, is directly related to the development of technological means by which reality might be brought under rational control …[4]

So, while the Holocaust, on the one hand, is an indefensible evil, on the other, it was driven by two good things: (1) order and (2) creativity. Yet, these two good things, as severed from their Godward orientation, are harnessed for evil; indeed, one of the greatest evils known in our modern era. Evil arises when created things take the place of God.

Putting it in stark relief, we can say that the Holocaust and other horrors are a vivid display of what life is like without God. It is not unimaginable that if we divorce ourselves from the living God in whom beauty, goodness and truth are found in unparalleled manner that the converse would result, namely, ugliness, evil and lies. Yet, God does not leave us in this bleak circumstance; this grim, hopeless reality. Rather, he brings relief, he brings comfort; there is light even in the darkness, even in our suffering. Fortin writes:

The quintessence and perfection of the revelation and embodiment of the divine by the human, as human and through human (which in no way entails the reduction of the divine to the human) for us Christians is found in and identifies with the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ can be perceived present and at work whenever humankind compellingly conveys the divine.[5]

Whenever goodness, beauty and truth is experienced in this life, whenever someone clothes the naked, offers a timely word, or shares a piece of art with another, there is a real sense in which God is at work. Every good thing comes from his hand. In such things, God shows his active presence in his creation. Yet, as we’ve already stated, it is always him beckoning those made in his image to look behind and beyond these created things to him to whom they reflect and point. The good, true and beautiful are always invitations to come into the presence of God, no matter how much they may pale in the face of utter evil and horror.

The silencing and distortion of ourselves is brought about by the canvas of death which we find ourselves in and our muted, disgraced persons can only be restored by the one who intercedes for us, speaking to us and in turn giving voice for us in the presence of God (Heb 1-2; esp. 1:2; 2:11, 12). Jesus, though God (Heb 1:2c-3b, 8-13), became a human being (Heb 2:14, 17) in order to “become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (v. 17). This Jesus, then, became like us to reveal God to us and to give us a voice in the presence of God (Heb 4:16).

We now return to our initial question where we asked: how can God still remain God in the face of such horror? Or, for that matter, any horror?  God is still good, true and beautiful, indeed, maximally so, infinitely and incomprehensibly so. Do the horrors of this life militate against such a truth claim about God, against God’s self-revelation? No; not at all. A world without God is Auschwitz, is horror, is a complete annihilation and decimation of human beings made to reflect the living and true God. A world without God is no world at all, at least not if one means something more than an abyss or black hole. Every sign of mercy, of goodness, of beauty, of justice and truth is a sign that God is present, that he is active and involved in his creation. Yet, we cannot fail to stress that these signs must never be put in place of that which they signify, namely, God himself.

This is not some adventure into abstract theological reasoning. God did not merely use created means to invite us to himself. Rather, God came into our world; he entered into the canvas of death. Christ as the concrete presence of God entered our world of suffering and suffered himself (Heb 2:9, 11, 18; 5:8). It would be a mistake to imagine that the evil and horror-filled world did not faze Jesus because he was God. Instead, it is reasonable to suggest that as God the evil and horror that so riddles this world and the human race was powerfully apparent to Jesus. The author of Hebrews tells us that he was tempted in every way “as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:16). Unlike us, he wasn’t a participant in the evil and horror of this world; he had a far greater sense, as one without sin, of how truly evil and horrifying evil is. He was not lulled to sleep by his holiness; he was deeply away of the clutches of death which sang into the heart of every man.

God did not abandon us to horror, trauma and tragedy. Rather, Christ was and is God’s invitation for us who love and embrace death rather than life to enjoy, to be satisfied, yes, to be sustained by God’s life-giving presence for it is in his presence that the goodness, truth and beauty of God’s creation find their home. Then, and only then, do the Holocausts, the evils, tragedies and horrors we face and fear find their answer and ultimate defeat—in the presence of God in the face of Christ.

[1] Grace in Auschwitz: A Holocaust Christology (Fortress Press, 2016).

[2] This is shorthand for the extermination camps.

[3] This happens all the time and in many different ways with such events as the Holocaust making plain the reality of something that is all-pervasive and all-encompassing in a fallen world.

[4] Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 87.

[5] Grace in Auschwitz, 231.

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