How Christians have Killed God and Why They Must Resurrect Him


(system) #1

When Nietzsche wrote “God is dead” in 1882[1] he was not referring to a physical death. He was recognizing a change in worldview from theism to non-theism, a paradigm shift he called the “death of God.” Because Nietzsche saw the moral action of believers being the main function of their belief, this “killing” of God occurred, in Nietzsche’s understanding, through the hypocrisy and lack of ethics present among believers. In effect, God “lost whatever function he once had because of the actions taken by those who believe in him.”[2] While “God is dead” has popularized a man some see as a precursor to Nazism,[3] I want us to think about post-Holocaust spirituality. Since the Holocaust God’s followers have had to grapple with the “silence of God.” In humankind’s experience with God there have been the best of times and the worst of times; the Holocaust is certainly the worst of times. What had been a philosophical assertion became a reality: Christians killed God.[4]

Christians vicariously murdered God in the person of the Jew in the Holocaust, which was made possible by almost two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism.[5] Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Jewish author of Night (a book based upon his experience during the Holocaust), witnessed a hanging where a child was not heavy enough to die. He makes a powerful point in recounting his experience. “Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…’”[6] In Matthew 25, Jesus said that whatever is done to the least is done to him.

The Holocaust has forced all sincere believers in God, especially Jews, to question how he works. The belief before the Holocaust was largely that if you prayed, God would act in a saving way here and now. If you were a follower of God, you would be protected in some way. Post-Holocaust the Jews are trying to understand the “silence of God.” This is because it seemed that God was not there, even though he promised to always be with his people. Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has decided that God is good and loves his people and thus must not be able to act. While many now reject the God of the Bible, some, such as Emmanuel Levinas, now see God in the Other. Through those who are suffering and the acts of those who help them Levinas sees God at work in the world. Thus if God’s followers are living out God’s presence in their lives, God exists. If they are not, the world cannot see him.[7]

Christians, many of whom still oppose postmodern thinking, created the need for postmodernism. As Abraham Herschel has said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”[8] The Holocaust drew the dividing line between modernism and postmodernism by showing where intellectual elitism and disregard for the Other leads.[9] Though some might not agree with him, Jacques Doukhan states unequivocally, building on Hans Küng, that the Holocaust “moved us from the modern era to our post-modern world.”[10] Therefore post-modern can be paralleled with post-Holocaust.[11] The Holocaust has taught humankind that you are wrong when you scorn others for who they are. But when you believe that God has sanctioned your hate of the Other, you create hell on earth.

In postmodernism people tend to be more concerned with meaning in life and having an experiential walk with Godthan with organized religion.[12] They are seeking relationship and purpose in life, both of which I believe Christianity at its best could fulfill better than any other option. Christianity, however, no longer has a position of authority that can demand respect.It is now in the position of the early church before Constantine. Now that it can no longer demand obedience, it must earn respect. Christians have been imparted with a vital mission of sharing God’s love with the world. Sadly, it might be easier to engage people today if the name “Christian” were dropped because of its past abuse. Spiritually seeking post-moderns might be more open to following “The Way,” the original name of Christ’s followers before organization and institutionalization.[13]

Jesus said his followers would be known by their love (John 13:35), and God is known to the world through the actions of his followers (see Romans 10:14). If Christians would carry out God’s imperatives they could alleviate poverty, make significant steps towards world peace and in countless ways preach the kingdom of heaven through their actions. Instead we have been selfish and oftentimes downright evil. And in the Holocaust we killed God. But when people have actually carried out the teachings of Christ, they have done amazing things (think, for example, of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even of Gandhi who followed the teachings of Christ without ever becoming a Christian).

We have created a world in which people do not believe in God not because of who he is, but because of what his followers have done. Belief has followed action. The death of God occurs first in the wrong action of believers, and then in the loss of belief in Christ caused by these actions. As James said, faith without works is dead.[14] Not only will this killing of God make it impossible for those on the outside to believe, but many of those on the inside will also be in for a surprise. If they do not show God’s love to others by caring for those in need, they will have said “God is dead” by their actions and will no longer have a God to call on to save them.[15]

If only the spiritually (and physically) hungry of the world could see the love of God alive in his people. A quote attributed to Gandhi shows what would happen if this happened: “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India [and the world] would be Christian today.”[16] If we want to show God to the world we need to admit and ask forgiveness for our mistakes, submitting ourselves a humble process of transformation. Paul says this in Philippians 2:5-8(TNIV): “In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being…God, did not… [use this] to his own advantage; rather, he… humbled himself… to death…” so that the world could see God.[17] Instead of following Christ’s example and dying to self, some Christians have killed the idea of a Christian God in the eyes of the world by exalting self. Christians must die to self and live the Word if the world is to see God alive.

Landon Schnabel is a recent graduate of Walla Walla University. He is currently a student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.

[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft or The Gay Science, (1882) section 125. The phrase also made it into later Nietzsche publications including the well-known Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[2] Rex Welshon, The Philosophy of Nietzsche, (McGill-Queens, 2004), 40.

[3] Hitler adopted Nietzsche’s Übermensch (“Superman” or “Overhuman”) to apply to a master race. The Nazi’s used Nietzsche for philosophical underpinning in a similar way as they used Luther for theological support of what they did. Though in some ways Nietzsche would have disagreed with them, there was some ground for [the] appropriation of Nietzsche” by the Nazis. William Shirer, The rise and fall of the Third Reich: a history of Nazi Germany, (Simon and Schuster, 1990), 100. For example, as William Shirer also writes, “In Hitler’s utterances there runs the theme that the supreme leader is above the morals of ordinary man… Nietzsche thought so too.” Shirer, 111.

[4] Though Christians were not the only ones to blame, they certainly were not innocent. Though some Christians worked on behalf of the Jews (for example, Dietrich Bonheoffer and Corrie ten Boom), most in Nazi Germany were either involved with Hitler’ regime in some way or complacent. Marvin Wilson writes that “it is to the shame of Christians everywhere that the established Church did so little to prevent or protest the slaughter.” [Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, (Eerdmans, 1989), 101.] This lack of opposition unfortunately includes Adventists and what was written in Adventist publications, some of which was pro-Hitler. Hitler was going to clean up the nation and they were happy for it, at least at first (he was a vegetarian and held other “clean living” habits). On the mixed record of Adventists in Germany at this time see Erwin Sicher, Seventh-day Adventist Publications and The Nazi Temptation, Spectrum 8 (March 1977), 11-24, and Jacques Doukhan, ed., Thinking the Shadow of Hell: The Impact of the Holocaust on Theology and Jewish-Christian-Relations, (Andrews University Press, 2002). “The few non-Jews who courageously risked their lives to save Jews” are commemorated by “a tree-lined walk called the "Avenue of the Just" (i.e., the righteous Gentiles)” in Jerusalem. Wilson, 101.

[5] “We must emphasize in conclusion that the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. Though it was devised in a country with an enviable reputation for brilliant culture and intellectual sophistication, the seeds of anti-Semitism had been planted much earlier. The Holocaust represents the tragic culmination of anti-Jewish attitudes and practices which had been allowed to manifest themselves—largely unchecked —in or nearby the Church for nearly two thousand years.” Wilson, 101.

[6] Elie Wiesel translated by Stella Rodway, Night (Bantam Books, 1982), 62.

[7] See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Springer, 1979), 78-79 and others.

[8] Heschel, A.J., The Prophets (Harper Collins, 1962), 19. Though not all Christians supported the Holocaust or even knew it was happening, the fact that it happened in an “advanced” Protestant country gives us cause to evaluate all that we do. It forces to us see the worth of others and to accept pluralism at least to the point that we would never kill other people because they do not share our beliefs. Today it is usually nations operating on a modern or pre-modern mindset that enact genocides or kill people just because of who they are.

[9] In the name of progress and the development of the Übermensch (Superman) the Nazis sought to rid the earth of those who would hold back humanity’s success. They believed they were right and had a disregard for the “other” that led them to horrific medical testing for the sake of knowledge. They were intellectually advanced and may have been the most “modern” state in the world. However, postmodernism has taught us that scientific knowledge being intellectually elite does not make any group of people more valuable than any other.

[10] Jacques Doukhan, Thinking in the Shadow of Hell: The Impact of the Holocaust on Theology and Jewish-Christian Relations (Andrews University Press, 2002), x. See also Hans Küng, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Crossroad, 1992), 588-590.

[11] The generation that came to age in the 1960s was the first to experience their formative years in a post-war environment.

[12] See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Pocket, 1997).

[13] Acts 9:2 shows that “The Way” was the original name of the followers of Jesus. It’s in Acts 11:26 that we see followers of the Way were first called “Christians” in Antioch. Jesus says in John 14:6 that he “the way and the truth and the life.” The name “Christian” was at first applied by non-followers of the Way and was a derision, but was eventually adopted by the followers of Christ as they increasingly became a movement separate from Judaism.

[14] See James 2:14-19. Really, please do!

[15] See the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

[16] Though it seemed that Gandhi revered Christ he could not bring himself to become a Christian. The following quote is also attributed to Gandhi: “I'd become a Christian if I ever met one.”

[17] Though I have shortened this passage for the sake of brevity, read the whole section (Philippians 2:1-11).


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3228