I watched God on Trial this past Saturday night. God on Trial is about concentration camp inmates who conduct a trial of God, charging him with neglecting his covenant with the Jewish people by allowing the Nazis to persecute and kill them.
The speeches are powerful, and each subsequent speech makes the one before it appear shallow and empty. An elderly pious gentleman says that the Jews are being tested, and that they must pass their test of faith as their ancestors did before them. This kind of gave me a cozy feeling, as if we’re all a part of something that extends back for many generations. But later speeches cast doubt on such piety. Some asked why bad things happened to good people, and why God couldn’t use less brutal means to accomplish his righteous purposes. An educated Jew questioned the whole idea of the Jews’ chosenness, since why would God favor a small group of people in such a vast universe? There was also some back-and-forth on Intelligent Design.
Unbelief also got scrutinized. A man who had lost his two sons said that he still felt God’s refreshing presence, even though he was disappointed with God. One of the judges told a powerful story about how he didn’t even know he was a Jew until the Nazis arrested him, and he urged the Jewish people not to let the Nazis take their God away from them, as the Nazis had taken away everything else. Right when we think that this is the last word, a man who’s been quiet throughout the movie suddenly opens his mouth and denounces the atrocities of God in the Hebrew Bible: “God was never good. He was cruel. He just happened to be on our side. Now, he’s on the side of our enemies.”
In response to the last man’s speech, the court finds God guilty of violating his covenant with Israel. The Nazis then storm into the quarters to take the weak to the gas chamber. As this occurs, the Jews pray to God. The end of the movie is set several years into the future, and a group of Jews tours the concentration camp. “Was their prayer answered?,” a young woman asks an old man. “It must have been,” he replied. “We’re still here.”
Two issues that I thought about as I watched this movie were (1.) limited perspective and (2.) collective versus individual punishment.
Let’s start with (1.), limited perspective. I got to watch this movie with the knowledge of how things turned out: the Nazis got defeated, and the Jews survived as a people and received their own nation. From a larger perspective, justice prevailed, and God kept his promise to preserve the Jewish nation.
Many believers like to say that we can’t judge God because we don’t know the end from the beginning, and God sees and knows more than we do. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but I’m not sure if it makes the whole problem of theodicy magically disappear. The Jews in the concentration camps still endured a horrible experience, and many of them didn’t even survive the ordeal. I can’t imagine what that would be like–living a normal life one day, then the next day being separated from my family and placed in a concentration camp, with little hope of seeing my loved ones ever again. Can anything justify that, even a larger picture?
(2.) The man who lambasted the God of the Hebrew Bible made good points. He said that God had the option not to kill the Egyptians, since he could have easily blocked their path with the waters of the Red Sea rather than drowning them. He asked if the mothers of the dead Egyptian firstborn believed that the Hebrew God was just and kind. He noted that God did not punish David and Bathsheba for their adultery and murder of Uriah, but instead he killed their child with a slow death. Some of his details were incorrect, as when he said that God was unhappy with Saul for sparing the Kenites in I Samuel 15. But many of them were right on the money.
My question is this: Would the enemies of the Israelites who experienced God’s wrath have deemed the Hebrew God to be unjust? We live in a time when the guilty individual is the one who’s punished for his crime. We see this sort of mindset in the Ten Commandments movie with Dougray Scott. The Pharaoh says to Moses, “Your problem is with me, so punish me, not the entire Egyptian nation!” And Moses’ step-brother (Sayid on Lost) wonders why God had to kill his (Sayid’s) firstborn son. When Aaron tells him that the Egyptians slew all the male babies of Israel several years before, Sayid was not convinced of God’s justice: “I didn’t know about that! My son wasn’t even there!” The premise of the movie is that God is wrong to punish the innocent with the guilty, since what matters is individual guilt.
But I’m not sure if the ancients saw things that way, at least not totally. Their mindset was more collective. In the Code of Hammurabi, there is a law in which a man’s son is put to death for the sins of his father. So, from a collective point of view, the people of Egypt suffered on account of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart because he was their leader, who stood for the entire nation. Similarly, the Egyptians could suffer and die for the sins of their ancestors because they were all part of the same people, who prospered and suffered together. The Egyptians may not have liked what Israel’s God did to them, but they probably accepted his actions as the rules of the game, in which people are treated as a collective and not just as individuals.
Within the Hebrew Bible, the Deuteronomist argues against this sort of mindset, as he affirms that people should suffer for their own sins rather than the sins of others (e.g., their ancestors). Ezekiel writes lengthy essays in favor of this view (Ezekiel 18). But their emphasis on the guilt of the individual probably went against the grain of society, which tended to emphasize the collective.
Was God interacting with people based on their own cultural mindsets, even as he tried to move them to the position that we consider more just: the one affirming that each individual should be punished for his own sins, not the sins of others?