God on Trial

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December 30, 2009 by D Stack

God on Trial

This is what the LORD of hosts has to say: ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt. Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.’

– 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (New American Bible translation)

It’s an apocryphal story, the type that can never be proven. Among those who tell a version of this tale include Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

The idea is this. In Auschwitz a group of Jews convene a Rabbinical court in absentia for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people. Frank Cottrell Boyce has written a television play entitled God on Trial, produced by the BBC and PBS/WGBH. It’s available on DVD and I’ve watched it via streaming for Netflix.

In this discussion I’m going to be making no effort to avoid spoilers for the film. That said, the power of the film is not in knowing how how it ends, but rather in actually experiencing it, of witnessing the debate the inmates have. With that warning, spoilers lay beyond.


As I suggested above, the film is more an experience than a story. It asks tough questions. One of the best issues it puts forth is something along the lines of “If God is all-powerful he could stop this but is choosing not to. If he is not all-powerful then he is not the God we believe in.” Which of these would be worth.

The film also reviews the actions of the God who has supposedly favored the Jewish people. How King Saul fell out of favor with God for sparing some of the cattle of Amalek and its king (though he did go ahead and slaughter the women and children as instructed and in a futile to regain favor chopped up the king of Amalek).  How God, to punish Pharaoh for oppressing the Israelites, did not slay Pharaoh but rather every first-born male of the Egyptians. How when the Egyptian soldiers followed the Israelites through the parted Red Sea, God did not simply block their way but rather waited until they were well within so they could be killed by the returning waters.

The film itself is a powerful experience, much like Wiesel’s Night is. Both of which deal with fundamental questions of faith. Why is there evil? Yes, there is free will, the choice to do evil. But how can we accept the idea of an all-powerful God, especially one which seems to intervene in the Bible countless times, yet chooses apparently to do nothing in cases like the Holocaust or Shoah.

I’d be a liar if I said despite my Christian beliefs that I had a simple answer. I do believe in the concept of God, that there exists being outside our conception of time and space – or perhaps that is our concept of time and space. Einstein, while not objecting to the idea of God, did reject the idea of a personal deity. As I continue my own journey I find myself on a similar tract. The idea of a superman sitting in the clouds whose main job is to tally up the good and bad to determine eternal reward or punishment seems absurd to me. “You almost made it to heaven but you had one too many sexual fantasies in 10th grade, so sorry.” Do I trivialize? Perhaps. But I think most modern ideas of God are trivializations. To read the book of Genesis as science would have struck early Hebrew scholars and Christians as absurd. I suspect they’d laugh their heads off at our current debates in the United States about intelligent design.

I recently listened to American Public Media’s production Einstein’s God which featured modern physicists such as Freeman Dyson discussing Einstein’s concept of God. One of them discussed the difference between believing in a divinely created physical universe and intelligent design. It was pointed out how intelligent design fails when confronted with the competitive struggle to reproduce. However, there is no competition in the laws of physics. Why is light a certain speed? Why is it that perception of time is not a constant? Why is there something instead of nothing? These are the beliefs I find myself going to when it comes to understanding God. If God is a personal being like me, only infinitely greater, I find myself, as theologian Paul Tillich discussed, forced to rebel. I believe God exists, but not in the way I do. Perhaps a better way is to say God is existence.

I’m able to believe in this sort of deity much more easily than a personal one who makes choices like “I think I’ll intervene in someone’s cancer treatment but will allow the Holocaust to occur”. Where I am spiritually is reconciling this with the idea of a good God. What I’m describing above is more akin to the watchmaker God of the deists. But I  reject that as well. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and just about any other religion I can think of do have a concept of how to live a “good” or “balanced” or “centered” life. And I rationally accept that as true. It is clear there are crimes against existence. And many of these are indisputable to any person of conscience. All religions teach us that it is wrong to murder, steal, lie. Even when we do those things we justify it in that we’re not really doing those things. It’s not stealing because I deserve it. I can kill him because he’s an infidel. Very few people will say I do these bad things because I want to.

However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?

Give up the old ways—passion, enmity, folly.

Know the truth and find peace. Share the way.

– Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha

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