Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What if you could put God on trial?

What if you could put God on trial? What if you could question God in a court of law about your suffering? You could put God in the dock and finally get answers for all of the bad stuff that you have experienced in your life or seen in the world. And when you had exhausted the evidence and turned to a verdict, what would it be? Could you find God guilty of breach of contract? Is God guilty of not being faithful or not holding up the deity's side of the bargain?

This was the premise of a film Lori and I watched recently. It is called God on Trial and is set in the barracks of Auschwitz. The story is based on a legend that a group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners held a mock trial to determine whether or not God was guilty of the suffering in the world. In the movie the actors are from all walks of life, a doctor, a rabbi, a glove maker, a professor and a criminal, to name a few. The prisoners have been selected for extermination in the gas chambers the next day. As they try to make sense of all that has happened to them, they also wonder where God is in all of this. Some are afraid to question God. Others are ready to curse God.

As the trial proceeds various witnesses are called forth to testify for or against God. The current situation of European Jewry and Israel's long history as an oppressed people is recalled. Some testify that God is working out a purifying mystery in the Jewish people. Others claim that God has broken the covenant and is no longer interested in the Jewish people. In the end, the men in the barracks find God guilty of breach of contract. He has not taken care of them as promised in the Bible. As they enter the gas chambers one of them asks another "What do we do now that we found God guilty?" His friend answers: "Now we pray."

The film is thought provoking. It examines both sides of the question of suffering and does not offer any clear answers. The fact that God is found guilty comes as a surprise since we are use to finding comfort in our suffering with a Bible verse or theological statement. None of that happens here. In light of their circumstances it is clear to them that God is guilty.

But the closing scene also provides an answer. As the gas seeps into the chamber the men who found God guilty pray. In the end they are left with nothing else but a realization of their need for God in spite of their guilty verdict of God. It is the mystery of their faith and it is a very Jewish ending.

Jews are a lot better at dealing with theological tension. Christians are accustomed to tying everything together at the end so that everything is in its place and the promises of the Bible work out exactly as we had hoped. But this is not life nor is it reality. There have been people across history who died wondering if God had abandon them. And they died without knowing the answer.

Elie Wiesel relates a particularly haunting story in Night. A young boy had been caught stealing bread. The camp guards hung the little boy in front of everyone in the camp. Wiesel remembers hearing one man cry out "Where is God now?" And Wiesel heard a voice within himself answer "Where is he? Here he is. He is hanging on this gallows" (p. 62). For Wiesel, the God he knew as a child was dead. How else could God exist and allow such an atrocity to happen to a little boy?

And yet the men at the end of the movie pray. What did they pray as they were about to die? What did they say to a God they had just found guilty of unfaithfulness? We never learn. But I think the scene says something to us about faith. It is not based on what we see God do or think God should do. It is in those moments when we lack complete understanding. When everything we had hoped, expected, and believed about God turns up wanting. It is then that we need God most. Especially when there are no answers.

What about you? Could you put God on trail?


  1. This was beautiful, Dr. Byron. Not many people seem to be willing to wrestle with the fact that sometimes our faith doesn't end up in a neatly organized, logical order when all is said and done and there is much tension within it. This definitely spoke to me and tugged on my heart strings a bit, so thank you for posting!

  2. Great post, Dr. Byron.

    I still remember reading Elie Wiesel in high school and being struck by that scene. I personally think that faith is weak until it has been examined with intellectual honesty. In addition to that, I also think that to NOT question why a powerful God would allow painful things to happen would make us less than fully human (which religion can do).

    Also true, is that when disaster strikes, such as in Haiti, most of the rescuers sifting through the rubble are people of faith. While their faith could be philosophically questioned, that same faith compels them to DO something to relieve suffering.

  3. Dr. Byron,
    I must say that this is an awesome post. Thought provoking and it ask the question that many of us have thought about ourselves. But are to afraid to ask out loud do to being ridiculed for thinking such a question.

  4. Isn't that what Job tried to do -- put God on trial? Of course, God basically said, "I'm not on trial and I don't have to explain my actions."

    C.S. Lewis discussed how we do the same thing today in his book of essays "God In The Dock." Here's a quote:

    “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed – he is the judge. God is in the Dock. He is a quite kindly judge. If God should have a reasonable defense for being the God who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench, and God is in the Dock.”

    Ultimately what Job needed was not answers, but the Answerer. I think it's interesting that God never told Job why all those things happened to him. I think God does the same thing with us. He doesn’t respond to our suffering with answers so much as with a visit. Isn't that what He did in Jesus?

  5. Thank you for saying these things out loud. They must be said, by those of us who still have voices. Many of those who suffer do not have that privilege.

    Recently, I read a memoir by theologian Stanley Hauerwas called "Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir" (reader be warned--the man curses like a sailor). In it, he tells the story of his fascinating life, which included 24 years being married to a woman with severe bipolar disorder. A couple of paragraphs stood out to me particularly in the book:

    "Learning how to say 'God' is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say 'God' forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die. We fear ourselves and one another, sensing that we are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others to sustain the fantasy that we will not have to die.

    The widespread confidence that medicine will someday 'cure' death is a fantasy. The attempt to develop and maintain a medicine so aimed, moreover, depends on the creation of wealth as an end in itself. A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself cannot avoid the creation of a people whose souls are superficial and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. They will ask questions like, 'Why does a good God let bad things happen to good people?' Such people cannot imagine that a people once existed who produced and sang the Psalms. If we are to learn to say 'God,' we will do so with the prayer, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"

    If there is one thing the Psalms do, it is to teach us how to lift up the voices of the suffering to God, whether they be ours or others'. We must do what we can to address it; but first, and perhaps foremost, we must listen. Then we must speak for those whose voices have been taken from them.

    It is true that there are those who never get answers to their suffering. At least not here. But the great hope of our faith is that one day, as Julian of Norwich said; "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be made well." We can participate in that, in part, now, and await its full flowering in the age to come.

    Sorry for the long comment! But if you ask a question like that, you might have to expect a long answer!

  6. "When everything we had hoped, expected, and believed about God turns up wanting. It is then that we need God most. Especially when there are no answers."

    Nail-on-head. Thank you for your honesty, Dr. Byron. Thanks for admitting that what we hope about God often looks very dim, and yet we can end with one of the twelve, "where else would we go?"

  7. I wonder if God holds Himself accountable? After all, ALL of this is His creation, the godly and ungodly-good, bad, indifferent. It was all created by a creator. It is my belief that He will never accept His flaws, but would rather expect that His creation make up for His shortcomings with their devout worship. With perfection, none of this would be necessary. He created imperfection, because He knew no better. We give Him too much credit. He created and left a story, and sent messengers to keep us plugged in and worshipping, while he continues watching His show. If it doesn't work out like He wants, bam! destruction, start over. He is sick and must be stopped! He has already been convicted and we now need the enforcement to find and lock up this sick thing!