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