Friday, September 21, 2012

What if you could put God on trial?

Today's entry is a re-post from September 2010. I was writing something today that made me think of the post and I decided to re-post it.

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. Psalm 51:4 and Romans 3:4 in some translations take the view that it is saying "when You God are judged, You will be found righteous".

    I think that's a minority view.

    Why does evil happen to good folks? I always recall Christ on a cross and Paul was beheaded. Until the resurrection, it ain't God running this deal down here.

    We believers are called to suffer, this is not a nice place the cosmos, not yet.

  2. Catholic dogma has the idea of ‘redemptive suffering,’ as one of its central tenets. If any Christian has doubts as to the wickedness of the world, they need look no further than the crosses mounted in their churches or the words inscribed in their gospels, to see that our common plight can inspire doubt and sorrow even in gods.

    C.S. Lewis’ treatment of “God on the Dock” is a fine work, as is St. Augustine’s. Personally, I’ve found Joseph de Maistre’s theodicy in “The St. Petersburg Dialogues” most useful. De Maistre’s central assertion is that it is foolish to indict the almighty for permitting earthly evils, because if he intervened in every temporal affair, free will would cease to exist. Alternatively, if he acted selectively, if more frequently, while still permitting free will, there would be no guarantee that the man whose life he saves one minute won’t sin grievously down the road the next, perhaps even taking another life in the bargain. Fundamental to Maistre’s argument, whether one buys it or not, is the Catholic conception of original sin, which to him, explains why God will not, and must not, play favorites.

    Strangely enough, the infamous sorcerer-hunting manual, ‘The Hammer of Witches,’ also has an engaging, discourse on evil and how it must occur with God’s permission.

    Pre-Christian philosopers and moralists such as Plutarch (On Delays in Divine Punishment…) and Seneca (On Providence) covered the subject admirably as well, in my opinion.