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Why didn’t God intervene to stop Hitler? – a response to Sean Faircloth

January 14, 2013

On the weekend the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) shared a photo and comments on Facebook about the inability of God to intervene to stop Hitler. The photo said: GOD INTERVENES to answer your prayer but not to stop Hitler. Seems Legit!

The RDFRS Director of Strategy and Policy, Sean Faircloth wrote this commentary: Ever met these people: they will seriously accuse you of being unreasonable if you question the efficacy of prayer? and yet will simultaneously say it is outrageous to suggest that this omnipotent god could and should have done something about Hitler? What IS the intellectual theologian’s explanation for this combination? Seriously, who can offer the theologian’s discussion of this juxtaposition? If they could offer an explanation that works, I’d sincerely be interested. — Sean Faircloth

Sean Faircloth was asking for the intellectual theologian to explain this. I am impressed with his willingness to engage intelligently with this issue. This is my attempt at offering an explanation for this combination.

1. Misunderstanding prayer. Faircloth has unfortunately misunderstood the nature of prayer. Efficacious prayer is not simply asking for and getting things (unfortunately some Christians have also misunderstood this). Prayer is speaking with God in the context of a trusting relationship with him. Prayer flows from God’s character and involves praise, adoration, confession, and supplication (i.e. asking for things). In the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) the opening contents of the prayer are to praise God’s character (his holiness) before asking for anything. Prayer is much broader than simply asking for things.

Supplication (humbly asking for things) does form an important component of prayer. But we must understand supplication is like a child speaking with her father. My daughter often comes to me and makes requests, but is the answer always ‘yes’? No it’s not. In fact if I did always positively respond to her requests, I’d be an irresponsible father because she’d end up always eating chocolate, staying up late and watching way too much TV. It’s the same with God. God does intervene to answer prayer, yet some answers are negative, some answers are ‘yes, but not yet’ and other answers are ‘yes, straight away’.

There are two classic examples of negative answers to prayer in the Bible. The first is the ‘thorn in the flesh’ given to the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 12:7-10). Paul no doubt believed in the efficacy of prayer and he pleaded with the Lord for it to be taken away, but the answer was ‘no’. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed that the ‘cup of suffering’ be taken from him (Mark 14:36), but the answer was ‘no’. A negative answer does not mean that a prayer is not answered

It would misunderstand the nature of prayer to suggest only the third type of answered prayer, ‘yes, straight away’, is the only form of efficacious prayer.

2. Problem of Evil. At the heart of Faircloth’s question is the problem of evil: How can an all powerful and all loving God allow suffering? Either he is not all good, or he is not all powerful. This raises many deep and profound questions about the nature of suffering (which we don’t really have time to explore in this blog post).

Hitler’s evil comes as the outworking of human corruption. The Bible asserts that humanity is intrinsically wicked and the late great Christopher Hitchens agreed! Hitchens was once asked the question, ‘Is man intrinsically good or bad?’ He responded emphatically, ‘Man is unquestionably evil’. The wickedness of Hitler was reflective of the human nature. Given the appropriate circumstances and opportunity humans can do the most awful things and this explains Hitler’s actions. This raises another question, ‘well, then why did God create wicked people?’  Part of this answer comes in human freedom, i.e. God creates humans free, yet humanity uses its freedom to reject God and this is why we have mass murderers such as Hitler. But I’m not sure the Bible definitively answers this question and the question of the origin of evil.

The problem of evil is further discussed in the Old Testament book of Job. Job wrestles with why awful calamity has come upon him. He hasn’t done anything wrong, yet is faced with awful suffering. The answer is provided near the end of the book. This answer may be unsatisfactory to the skeptic for God doesn’t provide a complete answer to the origin and purpose of evil. God tells Job that he is God and you are not. The Lord is sovereign. The Lord is sovereign even over the actions of wicked people. Sometimes bad things happen and we don’t fully understand.

Finally, the problem of evil receives fresh insight through the suffering of Jesus. God himself is not immune to ‘the problem of evil’ because Jesus suffers an unjust death and dies an innocent man. In his death on the cross Jesus reveals both his goodness and power. His goodness because he voluntarily lays down his life for his people and his power because he brings forgiveness and ultimately triumphs over death through his resurrection. God is good and he is not removed from our suffering. Jesus, the God-man lovingly dies for his people.

We’re not entirely sure why there is suffering, but when we see Jesus’ death on the cross, we recognise that suffering is not inconsistent with an all-powerful, all loving God.

3. Hitler was stopped! The thing that puzzled me most with Faircloth’s comments was that Hitler was stopped! It’s true it came at enormous cost and took some time but Hitler was eventually stopped. Perhaps it was one of those prayers which was answered, ‘yes, but not yet’. I’m not going to propose a reason ‘why’ God didn’t stop Hitler sooner, but to suggest that Hitler wasn’t stopped is a little untrue.

4. Why does an atheist care? My final point is a little provocative, but why does an atheist care about suffering? It’s true theists have the ‘problem of evil’, but I’d suggest that the atheist has ‘the problem of good’. Why is there ‘good’? If you take away God, you take away absolute right or wrong; if you take away right and wrong, you take away evil. If you take away evil then what “problem” do you have? In an atheist universe there is no ultimate morality, no right, no wrong, no justice. If a group of people are slaughtered, so what? If an innocent man is executed, who cares? If Hitler murders 6 million Jews in gas chambers, what’s your problem? The universe doesn’t care.

5. Summary. So why didn’t God intervene to stop Hitler? First, prayer is efficacious but sometimes positive answers aren’t immediate.  Second, human freedom and human corruption means the presence of evil in the world. Third, the suffering of Jesus helps us recognise that God is not ‘beyond’ suffering. Fourth, Hitler was stopped. Fifth, we can’t know for certain ‘why’ God didn’t act sooner. And finally (and provocatively) why does an atheist care? I hope this effectively answers some of the issues raised by his challenge and I look forward to some further engagement on this topic.

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From → Ethics, New atheism

8 Comments
  1. If I had the ability to stop Hitler before he had killed a single person, and refused, then I would be considered almost as big a monster as Hitler was. But if a god does it, it’s okay? Good, even?

    • Thanks for the comment. Yet, I feel that you have underestimated human freedom in your analysis. Romans 1 talks about how God turns people over to what they want – people want freedom and he gives it to them, with catastrophic results, i.e. we get people like Hitler. Are you suggesting that it would be better if we weren’t free?

      I would also never say that God letting evil go is ‘good’ however. Did you draw that from my post?

      • To suggest or imply that people desire to be sent to death camps and killed is, forgive me, ridiculous. And if makes the god character sound petty and childish. “If you don’t like me then I’ll let you die, even though I have the power to save you. ” sounds like the reasoning of an adolescent.

        I am suggesting that if a being exists and if that being is all good and all powerful, then it would not allow things like the Holocaust to take place. The fact that the holocaust did take place implies that, if a god exists, it is either not all powerful or not all good.

        As to your last question: can the god you believe in do non-good things?

  2. apathetist permalink

    You’re right NotAScientist. That is the reasoning of an adolescent.
    I can’t imagine any reasonable, rational person resting on that logic and still arriving at the idea that belief in an all-powerful, loving supreme being is a sane idea.

    I think you’re right about a number of things.

    There are some interesting implications for the philosophical position on life and death that you have presented here. It may just be in the way you’ve phrased the post but if I follow the logic to one possible conclusion, it sounds like you are saying that an individual’s right to live, extends to the point where a deity would be obligated to act to extend that life.

    One way or another, this life will end for all of us. We may not like how it happens. It is completely unreasonable to accept that an all-powerful, loving deity would be able to see this kind of atrocity but do nothing about it.

    I have spent a long time thinking about this. Christian theology does propose some very developed answers to these very rational problems, which I think you have skimmed over, to the point where you’re actually not disagreeing with what most theists would claim to believe. To them, your current line of argument will come across as though you want “the god character” to be the hybrid of Santa Claus and Superman who intervenes into explicitly evil moments in history and steps in to stop them. For the Christian theist, this will present some problems:

    Firstly, they will determine that you are in some senses making yourself the judge over what is evil and what isn’t by cherry picking the moments in time when a straw god should fly in to save the day, based on your own personal moral compass. You would be hard pressed to suggest that this is incorrect, no matter how reasonable it is, or how representative of broader society is is.

    In order to respond to this fairly, you need to appreciate the meta-narrative that forms the backdrop of Christian theology. The broad idea is that an all-powerful, all-loving being created everything to be good. In doing so, the capacity to freely love was instilled in human kind, which,
    admittedly does imply the capacity for people to choose whether to love or to hate others. It thus introduces the problem of ‘evil’ as a consequence of human kind’s collective rebellion against their original purpose. This concept of being in a ‘fallen’ state that requires redemption is applied equally as much to Hitler as it is to Mother Teresa. It doesn’t consider the positive or negative impact that their actions had upon others.

    Christian theists genuinely believe that this problem, often referred to in literature as ‘the curse’ or ‘sin’, is remedied not by corrective actions against all of the evil that we see around us but by the deity taking human form and dying to take the just punishment. Jesus Christ dying on the cross is proposed as the ultimate remedy to the observably imperfect condition of humanity: a ‘great exchange’ of guilt between the morally perfect and the morally imperfect that transcends even death itself.

    From here, the argument of who lives and who dies becomes a secondary issue for the Christian theist, who usually genuinely believes that death in this life is not the end of their existence. This allows them to accept the notion that people who die can trust in an enduring eternity, which they enter into, not on their own merits but at the mercy of the ultimate power that has saved them from the extent of their own personal culpability for the problem of evil in the world.

    I have good friends in both camps who inspire and challenge me in the way that their beliefs form their positive contributions to the world we live in. In growing to love and respect both camps, the conclusion that I have come to is that it actually comes back to taking an “accept” or “reject” position on the Christian view of redemption from evil.

    If the Christian view is correct, then one day you and I will be judged by a perfectly moral deity who will accept us into a perfect eternity, should we choose to acknowledge our need for the ‘great exchange’ of our fallen state in this life. Accusing the deity of being complicit with evil by failing to act in a specific way at a specific time becomes a reasonably fruitless exercise at this point because it’s very hard to argue with absolute power. The not-all-good argument starts to get some logical traction here for those who won’t accept the idea of an absolute judge of good and evil… so the Christian theist’s view of ‘the god character’ has always intrigued me here. I respect my believing friends greatly for their willingness to trust the object of their faith, whilst still openly asking questions about why we see so much evil and suffering. There are people out there who are able to believe that they don’t have the monopoly on objectively determining good and evil.

    If the Christian view is incorrect, then an objective moral evil is irrelevant. Hitler was evil on the basis that most people think that he was, which is a completely fair conclusion given the historical record. If this is the case, we still don’t have a purely objective standard by which to gauge moral conduct but we do have a functional one that offers some guidance within robust societies, most of the time. This means that Christian theists are wasting everybody’s time, including their own, with appeals to a grand design but in a bittersweet irony, typically contribute a great deal to social stability through their determination to live out of a commitment to a moral compass.

    With respect, it appears that the arguments above are premised upon an underlying rejection of theism. The only real way to know for sure is to seriously put some effort into considering both positions in earnest.

    • Mason Geoan permalink

      If all life ends then it hardly matters if we live sanely or not does it. People ought to live in happiness.

    • Your words are thoughtful but why should I take any notice of them? Whose words are worth listening to and taking action on? All anyone can do is state what position they currently hold at that particular point in their lives. Your’s may have changed in some manner in the time since you wrote what you did. Same for anyone else.

      Or put it another way; is/are there any whose words are worth listening to and taking action on? Is it even worth pursuing this idea at all?

      Society and other institutions has some ability to exercise authority over individuals, if willing to expend the effort and resources, to ensure a certain amount of social stability. But this changes and will continue to do so. Ideas can take hold and motivate a sufficient mass of people to bring about change (with or without weapons). But so what? While there can be consequences it is all temporary.

      So I seriously put some effort into considering your thoughts and reject them because they are yours.

      But maybe I’m wrong and there is something worthwhile in what you say and they do require further thought. But if there is I can’t consider a single reason why I should. I suspect you should even be supporting me on holding this position seeing as there isn’t any absolute power.

      So the original article was a waste of time, so was your reply and so is mine (although it seemed ok at the time).

      Though I am left with one thought. Where do I go to from here?

  3. 1. Why does your god want praise, adoration, and confession (which must mean making people admit what it already knows if it’s omnipotent)? Does it have narcissistic personality disorder?

    2. You purposely misunderstand the question–it means: Why didn’t god stop Hitler before he killed 20 Million People.

    3. You claim that atheists are incapable of morality is a viscous lie, in no way different from the defamatory lies racists tell about blacks or Jews. It tells people everything they need to know about you.

    4. how does the fact that according to the Bible, god orders it’s own followers to commit genocide and to keep slaves fit into the problem? How about the fact that god proudly proclaims that it will beat its wife Israel until she submits and loves it again? Doesn’t it seem more in keeping with biblical theology that god used Hitler as it’s instrument?

  4. Kuro permalink

    You’re insane, I thought you would have an answer but instead I just read something from a sociopath. And then the sicko added at the end why would atheist want to know anything? yeah, and why would a woman want to know anything too, or a black person, who ever wrote this article is a sicko.

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