Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Is There a Why? Thoughts on the Holocaust

William Edgar


By William Edgar

July 21, 2014

Seventy years ago this summer, the Nazis began the mass deportation of some 440,000 Jews from newly occupied Hungary. They had begun to realize that the coming months would bring certain defeat, and so they became more and more desperate. On January 27, 1945, the Russian army liberated Auschwitz; what the allies saw there was harrowing. The Polish government appropriately decided very shortly thereafter to turn the complex into a museum.

One of the most enlightened Holocaust survivors, Primo Levi, spent much of his life reflecting on his experience at Monowitz, the third site in Auschwitz (where the teenaged Elie Wiesel was also detained). He had escaped certain extermination because his talent as a chemist led the Germans to place him in this factory as a slave laborer to produce synthetic rubber for the war effort. He then escaped the infamous death march, a last-minute attempt to hide the evidence as the Russian liberators got close, by having contracted scarlet fever which kept him in the sanatorium.

In the book that renders the most details about life in the prison camp, If This Is a Man (English title: Survival in Auschwitz) Levi recounts a particularly chilling incident. Nearly dying of thirst, he reached out of the window to grab an icicle that had formed, hoping to put it in his mouth for relief. At that point, an SS guard seized it and crushed it under his boot. Levi asked the man, “Why?” He stared at him coldly and said, “Hier is kein ‘Warum’” (“Here there is no ‘why’”).

A few weeks ago, I had the daunting task of leading a trip to Auschwitz, preceded and followed by seminars about the death camps and the problem of evil. It was my second visit, and I hope my last; it does not get any easier from repetition. The cruelty, the systematic elimination of people (over one million people, mostly Jews, were put to death in this place alone), is unspeakable. A visit to the different blocks and a look at the glasses, the hair, the children’s shoes, the cans of Zyklon B, is numbing. Speculation on whether this is the worst in the record of human malice is probably futile. What strikes most visitors to Auschwitz is the sheer volume, the horrid efficiency of it all.

On my first visit, I was sitting in the bus with a Scottish pastor friend. As we drew near the camp, he said to me, “Auschwitz is why I became a believer.” Stunned, I ask him to elaborate. He explained that he had been a humanist and did not see the need for religion. When he was confronted with the disquieting sights of the camp, he suddenly realized that unless there were a God transcendent enough to call this phenomenon evil, then all is meaningless.

The poet W. H. Auden had a similar experience. He had been a comfortable, left-leaning humanist, as were many Britons in the 1930s. He moved to Yorkville, a largely German section of Manhattan. At the cinema one evening, he watched a clip from a Nazi documentary account of their conquest of Poland in late 1939. To his astonishment, he heard several in the audience crying out, “Kill the Poles.” Deeply shaken, he left the theater and found himself returning to the church. Humanism was hopeless, for these were not especially Germans calling for blood, but people, human beings. But how could he be sure their protests were evil? Only if there is a God big enough to define good and evil, could he trust his instincts. He wrote the following lines, perhaps not his best poetry but his most forceful: “Either we serve the Unconditional, or some Hitlerian monster will supply, an iron convention to do evil by.”[1]

Is there a “why” for evil, be it from Nazi barbarians or the relentless brutality in human history? If we look for merely historical explanations, though that helps, we come up short. Or if we try to explain why God allows such catastrophic horrors, we presume too much. If we insist on knowing why he does not put an end to this fallen world, we risk arrogance. But to assert that there is no “why” is to lose everything, our hope, the possibility of meaning, all rationality. The Bible’s God is indeed transcendent; and he is angry with human abusers, who will be judged (Isaiah 57:17-21). But he is more than a judge. He has wounds. Having gone through the holocaust of Calvary, he now offers us a way of relief from evil. That is not a simplistic key to unlock everything, but it tells us there is a “why.”

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

[1] For a full account of this incident see, Os Guinness, The Journey, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001, 75-78

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”