Elie Wiesel's Night and the Question of Evil
Elie Wiesel's Night is the autobiographical account of a 15-year old Jewish boy caught up in the Nazi death camps. Separated from his mother and sister, who were gassed at Auschwitz, he and his father struggled to survive in Buna (a satellite camp to Auschwitz) and later Buchenwald. His father eventually died after a grueling march from Buna to Buchenwald in January 1945. Night reads like a neverending nightmare of cruelty and is a damning testament of what people can do to each other.
However, one episode really stuck out with me and captured an unresolved (or unresolvable?) philosophical problem that I'll touch on below.
Elie describes an execution where two men and a young boy accused of sabotage were sentenced by the Nazis to death by hanging.
On the day of the execution, the SS guards brought everyone out to the yard to witness the hanging.
He narrates what happened next:
“To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lagerälteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”
Needless to say, Elie's ideal of a good and just God was rocked by the reality of Auschwitz. His time in the camps made him question the moral worthiness of a deity who would let such evil exist in the world. And given all the horror he experienced, who can blame him for that?
Belief in such a benevolent God in the face of the Holocaust brings to mind the concept of theodicy, or the attempt to show that God's perfection still makes sense despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Many have tried, but the Holocaust is perhaps the starkest example of absolute evil we've seen in the modern world and stands as an indictment to the concept of a good God.
David Hume summed up theodicy's dilemma as such:
Epicurus’s old questions have still not been answered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from? (Hume 44)
Elie eventually found his way back to God, but one wonders what kind of God that was who would let something like the Holocaust happen.
To me, Epicurus's questions remain unresolved, unless you want to argue that God is not pure goodness personified but merely raw omnipotence. But once you do that, you're back to arguing for something like Zeus or the Old Testament Yahweh, beings omnipotent but hardly omnibenevolent.
Maybe that was our mistake all along? Perhaps the Greeks (and other pagans) had it right. God, or the gods, if they exist, should not be seen only through the lens of human goodness, virtue, and well-being. No, those are only parts of a greater whole. Gods are there to be respected and honored like supernatural overlords with the incomprehensible power to create and destroy. We're too puny to understand their motives or even question why. Wasn't that the gist of God's angry reproach to Job's very legitimate complaints in chapters 38-40 of the Book of Job?
With these capricious gods, "goodness" is merely the result of following rules to appease them enough to avoid their wrath. Or not. Sometimes evil happens with no rhyme or reason. Maybe the world and all the suffering in it are, in fact, accurate reflections of divinity's real nature? Maybe good and evil are parts of the same whole? Could it be our idea of divine goodness is merely a human construct, an act of wishful thinking, and something we erroneously apply to a God who, if he exists, can only make sense as the incarnation of both good and evil? An unsettling thought: God and Satan are one and the same. Yes, we're told by the true believers that good someday will triumph over evil, but someday is never today and never will be.
Perhaps human beings are manifestations of good and evil in the flesh, and we create gods to divert blame from ourselves? Good and bad - we do them to each other, and God is a figment of our imagination to give our actions greater meaning.
Yes, I know, so many questions and so few answers! At the end of the day, all we can do is promote human flourishing while working to reduce suffering in the world. And meanwhile, fight against those who would do harm. These time-tested platitudes still apply, even if we don't consistently follow them.
That's all. Pray if you want or not, but our actions will determine the outcomes.
Maybe those are the simple answers.
I can't say for sure.
But it seems a good place to start.