I recently watched a PBS presentation entitled, God On Trial. The setting was a barracks in Auschwitz, in which the Jewish men there decided to “hold court” and put God on trial. The issue they set forth to decide was this: “Was God guilty of breach of contract with the Jewish people?” He had promised to be their God, and to protect and care for them if they held to the covenant—and yet there they were, in Auschwitz, waiting for the next roll call in which half of them would be sent to the gas chambers.
It was a gripping and thought-provoking DVD in which the age-old questions about God were debated: Is he just? Why do innocent people get punished along with the wicked? If he loves his people, why does he allow them, not just to suffer, but to be systematically annihilated?
As a Christian, and as someone who has extensively studied both the Old and New Testaments, this presentation impelled me to try to answer such questions in light of the biblical witness of both Testaments. I hope my comments will be able to shed light on such difficult questions, in particular to the question of how Christians are to view and understand the Jewish people.
The Charge Against God: A Summary of the Movie
The fundamental charge brought against God by the Jews in that concentration camp was that he was guilty of breach of contract—he did not keep his part of the bargain of the Mosaic covenant. Along with that charge, though, were other complaints: he allowed innocent Jewish children to be killed, so how could he be a just God? Killing and genocide has happened throughout history, so is there even a God at all?
The Jews who defended God tried to make their argument along these lines: as with the Babylonian exile, God would use the Holocaust, as horrific as it was, to further refine the Jewish people for something more glorious than before. Other Jews argued that the reason why God allowed the Holocaust to happen was that too many Jews had failed to keep the covenant.
The counter-argument to that came quickly: even if there is something more glorious in store for the Jewish people later on, that doesn’t change a thing for the good Jews who were gassed. And if God brought about the Holocaust because some Jews failed to keep the covenant, then why did so many faithful Jews suffer and die for it?
In the end, a rabbi stood up, and shockingly argued that God was powerful and almighty, but he was not good—he just happened to be on the Jews side throughout their history. And now, he has switched sides, and they now knew what it felt like to be like the Amalekites that Samuel butchered, or the Moabites that David lined up and killed. It was simple: God had switched sides, and the Jews had become his enemies.
In the end, though, they decided to pray anyway, even as a host of them were led off to the gas chambers. Why? Because even though the Nazis had taken their property, their identity, and even their gold fillings, they were not going to let the Nazis take away their God…even if he didn’t exist.
Question: Was God Still Bound to the Mosaic Covenant?
On one hand, this sobering presentation makes an almost convincing argument against God’s goodness. There was one thing, though, that was missed, and it is something that ironically even most Christians miss: God is not guilty of breach of contract with the Mosaic covenant because Old Testament Israel, by breaking it themselves, had already rendered the Mosaic covenant dead.
What needs to be made clear is the difference between God’s covenant with Abraham, and God’s covenant with the Israelites (i.e. Mosaic covenant). When God made his covenant with Abraham, he promised Abraham three things: (1) He would make Abraham’s name great, (2) He would make a great nation out of the descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac, and (3) that through that nation, all nations would be blessed. Not only did God promise those things, but he bound himself unconditionally to that covenant. No matter what Abraham or any of his descendants might do, God would be faithful to his covenant with Abraham, and eventually, blessing and salvation would come to all nations.
With the Mosaic covenant at Mount Sinai, though, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s second promise to Abraham, and the making of that great nation. But here is what cannot be missed: the Mosaic covenant was completely conditional. If the Israelites worshipped YHWH alone and kept his law, then YHWH would be their God, would bless them, and would allow them to live in the Promised Land. But if they turned away, worshipped idols, and oppressed the poor and needy among them, eventually YHWH would bring about the curses of the Mosaic covenant. They would be driven from the Promised Land and sent into exile. As a nation, they would be dead, and the Mosaic covenant would be broken and no longer binding. And thus, with the Babylonian exile, the curses of the Mosaic covenant came due, and the Mosaic covenant itself was no longer applicable—it was a broken contract that no longer was binding.
After the Exile: Re-Creation, but What Would God’s People Look Like?
With the return from exile, though, the returning Jews were faced with a dilemma: now that God had brought them out of the exile and was in the midst of re-creating his people, what would that people look like? A large segment of the exiles, no doubt influenced by Ezra/Nehemiah, believed that the re-created people of God were supposed to adhere more fiercely to the Mosaic Torah, so much so that under Ezra/Nehemiah, they divorced and kicked out any foreign wives or children. And from that point forward, there was a strong “anti-Gentile” strand in Judaism up through the time of Christ.
Yet there were also strands of Old Testament prophecy (as in the second half of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Jonah) that clearly envisioned God’s re-created people to include Gentiles somehow. After all, the whole purpose of God making that “great nation” from the descendants of Abraham was to be the means by which he brought blessing and salvation to all nations! How can the Jews bring about blessing and salvation to all nations if they choose to exclude all Gentiles from their midst?
Fulfillment in Christ and the Church
The answer to that mystery (i.e. how was God going to use the Jews to bring about salvation and blessing to the nations?) was revealed in the New Covenant in Christ. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who was born among a Jewish people who had, for 400 years, clung to the stipulations of the dead Mosaic covenant, and who had become more and more hostile to the Gentile world. This was despite the fact that the prophet Jeremiah himself, in 31:31-34, who declared that the New Covenant would not be like the Mosaic covenant.
So when Jesus reached out to the Jewish “sinners” who didn’t keep Torah like the Pharisees, and when Jesus condemned the hypocritical and oppressive Temple establishment, the Jewish religious leadership conspired to arrest him at night, to condemn him to death, and to essentially frame him before Pilate so that he could be crucified by the time most Jews were waking up the next day.
Such actions by the Jewish religious authorities prompted Jesus to proclaim, both in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and at his trial before the Sanhedrin, that they had become God’s enemies, they were the beast who sought to destroy God’s people, and that they would suffer God’s wrath—and that wrath came in 70 AD, when Rome came and destroyed the city and Temple.
The Church is True Israel, the True People of God
That was part of the essential message that the early Church proclaimed: the true people of God, the true Israel, comprised of the remnant of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and the full number of Gentiles brought in who submitted to his Lordship. Simply put, true Israel were the people of Christ…Christians. Ethnicity had nothing to do with salvation…it never did. It was always a matter of faith in the Living God who brought salvation through Christ.
So how does this relate to God on Trial? Simple: God was not guilty of breaking his covenant with the Jewish people, because ancient Israel had already broken that covenant long ago. The curses of the Mosaic covenant had been brought, and therefore the Mosaic covenant was over and done with. God had not been bound to the Mosaic covenant since 587 BC, when the Babylonian Exile began. But God was still bound to his covenant with Abraham—and the entire New Testament bears witness that he had indeed fulfilled his promises to Abraham. Through Christ, God’s Holy Spirit was, and is continuing to be, poured out on all flesh.
That Being Said…
This does not mean, though, that this justifies the persecution of Jews. Whether it’s the anti-Semitism of Medieval Europe, or the Holocaust itself, there is no justification for the slaughter of innocent people. What this does mean, though, is that the Jews, like many other peoples throughout the past 2,000 years, have suffered evil at the hands of evil men. Their suffering, though, has come about, sadly, because of their adherence as a people to the Mosaic Law…to a broken covenant that has been over and done with for 2,600 years. It was that adherence to the Mosaic Law that kept them distinct as a people, and thus more vulnerable to evil men who seek to twist Christ’s message of salvation and love into an excuse for genocide.
In a strange way, we see that what Paul said in Romans 7 can be applied to the Holocaust: on one hand, the Law/Torah is holy and good, but because of the power of sin in the world, it worked through the Law/Torah to bring about death. Simply put: the Torah is itself good, but it is powerless. Those who submit to Torah will suffer death, not because the Torah is bad, but because it is powerless—sin and evil will always manipulate it to bring about death.
Jewish people are in need of salvation, just like any other people. Why? Because they are just like any other people. As Paul makes clear, their adherence to the Mosaic Law gets them nothing, for it is powerless, empty, and dead. The Jews, as an ethnic people, are not God’s people. God’s people are those, whether Jew or Gentile, who put their faith in Christ and accept him as Messiah and Lord.
So how should we as Christians view the Holocaust? We should weep for those victims, not because they were Jews, or that they were God’s people, but simply because they were oppressed and afflicted—and Christ came to save those who are oppressed and afflicted. We should actively work to make sure that such genocide never happens again to anyone. And we should never forget the horror of the Holocaust, or any of the genocides of the 20th Century for that matter. For they all should be seen as the bitter fruit of the godless, Modern-Enlightenment age that stripped away the dignity and nobility of human beings, and tried to eradicate the truth embedded in the human soul that Man is made in God’s image.