The Problem of Evil: Two Perspectives on Violence and Suffering in the Holocaust

We are pleased to be sharing, over the coming weeks, a series of four reflection pieces on the State of Formation visit to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum this spring. Each one is a collaborative piece from two of our Contributing Scholars.

Laura Brekke

What does it mean to come face to face with evil? To look into the abyss of vicious barbarity and see, to our surprise, not the glowering fires of Hell but our own reflections? When I pause to grapple with the enormity of evil in the Holocaust, I cannot help but shiver from a knowing fear that human beings not so unlike myself thought up and executed this horror.

When I try to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust, I start not with where God was or was not, but with humanity. I believe that we are free agents, acting in freedom to do or not do as we choose. In this freedom we can act on the best qualities of our shared humanity, or on the very worst. And to talk about evil is, for me, to talk about sin.

Sin means living against the will of God – that is, in rebellion to God’s desire for Creation. To believe in the the power of sin is to both believe in a God who does desire goodness and flourishing for all of Creation, and also to believe in the freedom of Creation to reject this good will of God. I believe that we are immersed in sin, that sin stretched beyond our transgressions of moral behavior and is the very air we breath. Sexism, racism classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. – this is the web of sin into which we are born. Some cultural sinfulness runs so deep that we don’t even recognize our very actions as sin (like racial segregation, or paying women less simply because they are female). Sin is real, and dangerous.

Theologian Serene Jones describes sin as the “scripts” – that is, we are acculturated into sin from our very birth. We are steeped in prejudice and bias. So when we talk about evil, about acts of human violence that boggle the mind, we must also talk about sin and those prejudices that we may not be rationally aware of but which divide us from unity with our fellows in Creation and which mar God’s will of harmony and abundant life.

Perhaps the problem of wrestling with evil is that we want to reason through how such a thing could happen. Perhaps we must admit that the systematic murder of groups of people is incomprehensible. And, perhaps we, too, must admit that it could – and has – happened again. What is most frightening is that the evil which is so incomprehensible and repugnant is an evil which lurks within us. No nefarious demon possessed Hitler and the people of Germany. The very worst in our own human nature thought up the Holocaust. Humans thought up the Armenian genocide, and the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, and the butchering of Rwandan Tutsis, and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.

Where is God in the midst of the worst of human actions? I believe that God weeps with those who mourn, suffers with those who are brutalized, and holds those who are sacrificed on the altar of gratuitous violence and blinding hate. I believe that God rejects this evil – this sin. God rejects these atrocities, but in our freedom God does not have the power to force our hand.

This view of God may make God seem less powerful – that our free will trumps God’s ability to intervene. But I understand, too, that God was not absent from the crowded train cars or gas chambers. God was there, suffering with those who suffer and crying out for mercy. Maybe the real problem of evil we must face is that God does not neatly fit into our boxes of what we want God to do. God gave us freedom – freedom for beauty and creativity, but also freedom for cruelty and violence. We want God to let us be free when it is freedom to love, to exercise self-determination, to accept or reject God. But when that freedom means that we are free to hurt others, we want God to intervene.

It would be easier to accept the demonic possession of Hitler. It would be easier to accept that God was somehow absent. But the truth is that evil is not otherworldly. Evil is not God’s absence or abandonment. Evil is the worst of our freedom, tortured and twisted to feed our sin. And when we look at the horrors of the Holocaust – at the destruction and disregard for the preciousness of human life – we must look into our own reflection and remember that those monsters lurk in us. If we really mean never again, we must dedicate our lives to eradicating prejudice and othering. We must strive with God to reject sin, and instead live in ways that promote human and Creaturely flourishing.

A hall of pictures of the many Jews who died in the Holocaust
A hall of pictures of the many Jews who died in the Holocaust


Kendra Moore

The question of theodicy put plainly, asks: How can a good God allow evil in the world? Before attempting to answer this question (however insufficiently), I would like to first turn to some of the assumptions of theodicy and tendencies of speaking about evil in the world.

Theodicy assumes that the responsibility is on God. God should control evil, and we should be angry if God opens the floodgates of evil powers upon us. However, this is problematic precisely because it precludes humans taking the responsibility for the evil we create. If we are making God completely responsible for evil, then people will be less likely to feel the looming pressure that begs them to further causes of justice and love. We end up playing a passive game of life when God is in charge of all the heavy lifting.

Furthermore, there is a tendency to speak of evil as its own agent. This is a subtle theological language game, but an important one I think for our subconscious responses to the world. It is all too easy to anthropomorphize evil into something like the little red devil that sits on our shoulder and tells us to do bad things because this kind of imagery gives us an external, concrete entity to point at and yell aloud, “The devil made me do it!”

However, anthropomorphizing evil solves no more problems than does blaming God for allowing it to happen.

To clarify a point, I sometimes find it appropriate to anthropomorphize evil for the purpose of narrative, therapeutic purposes, etc. We learn stories our whole lives that provide us with bite-sized examples of how to have good morals and live well, and these lasting memories are helpful and constructive in many of life’s scenarios. I only wish to point to the line we must draw that separates us utilizing Evil as the scapegoat for our own misdoings from us utilizing images of evil as constructive tools to further our own self-awareness of how we might be contributing to it. It’s one thing to see Darth Vader in Star Wars and understand that you should probably not act like him, but it’s another to blame Darth Vader for stealing cookies from the cookie jar as you stand there with crumbs all over your face.

Nevertheless, maybe we’re asking the wrong question when we talk about theodicy. Theodicy makes for a fascinating discussion over hours of coffee and pastries (pastries being mostly functional to ease the frustration of the nature of the conversation), but the prominent question surrounding it that seems to garner the most attention and tends to be open-ended with no plain answer in sight is often “why does theodicy exist?” rather than “how do we address it?” I love philosophical musings as much as the next academic, but often, that’s not good enough. When we encounter the atrocities of the Holocaust, current day genocide, and the countless other injustices that afflict oppressed populations, it’s much easier to step down off our clouds of privilege (whatever type of privilege that may be) and face the corporeal suffering that remains extant beyond our intellectual musings. Sometimes the “how” should take precedence over the “why.”

For a pertinent example of addressing the “how,” I believe we should turn to the wisdom of Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a holocaust survivor who created what is known as logotherapy after his experiences in a concentration camp. Frankl’s background was that of a psychiatrist, and so he brought his psychological expertise with him in the camps to observe how prisoners reacted to the horrors of the Holocaust as well as to reflect on his own coping methods.

He understood that with violence comes the unavoidable suffering that victims are left with to bear. When a person approaches a place in life where everything and everyone is stripped away, Frankl believed this person could still live through the suffering, make meaning of it, find purpose in life, and break out of the pattern of violence. He even stated, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”

Frankl was able to live out his own therapeutic approach in a corporeal way. According to his logotherapy, one of the three primary methods of creating meaning in life is by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering, to bear it honorably as he says. He often dwelled on thoughts of his wife to help him carry his suffering, stating that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” Frankl lived it, and as I reflected on the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, his reflections on carrying suffering seem appropriate because it gives people hope that they can control their lives in some small way, even if just through internal attitudes. However, I would like to acknowledge the difficulty of stating that everyone needs to bear their suffering in this way. I realize the world is more complex, and that often for many people, a “proper attitude” will not suffice. However, I find it worth acknowledging because I think especially the scenarios in which there is a complete loss of power and purpose, Frankl’s wisdom can be quite liberating.

To find love and cling to it is what I think Frankl believed to be important when we we run up against evil, violence, and suffering. Sometimes all people have in moments of pain are thoughts of family, friends, and laughter, and I think this not only helps us bear suffering, but it also helps us refuse to give in to committing acts of evil, sometimes doing so in the name of the little red devil on our shoulders.

Ultimately, I am not trying to argue that God definitely cannot do anything to stop evil in the world, but I am saying that while we as humans live and breathe, we hold a responsibility to the life we embody for as long as it dwells within us, and while I believe that God desires for good to prevail in the world, I also believe in human free will, and I do not desire to carry that responsibility lightly.

So, why would a good God allow evil in the world? The only sufficient answer to this loaded question is: I don’t know. But I think that until we find out, all we can be responsible for is our reactions to evil and our creation of it. May we remember those we have lost to violence and suffering with the hope that we might overcome evil by overcoming ourselves.

Kendra Moore is the editorial assistant for the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies. She is currently a student at Boston University’s School of Theology pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree, and she will graduate in May 2016. Her research interests include the intersection between psychology and postmodern theology.

Images courtesy of the authors.

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