Atheism & Christianity

A long time ago my mom told me a story that had reputedly happened in a concentration camp. Prisoners were forced to watch the hanging of a man. But he was too light and the hanging didn’t work quick enough. The prisoners were forced to watch the poor fellow die slowly for the better part of an hour. While the man was still writhing, someone asked aloud: ‘Where is God now?’, and a voice from the back of the group of prisoners answered: ‘He’s hanging there, on the gallows.’

My mom told me this to illustrate a central point in Christianity: God suffers with those who suffer, quite literally. Whatever you do to your fellow-man, you do to God. Basically she told us a Midrash on Mat 24:40 and Mat 24:45. The story always impressed me, because it makes God so very human and because with an idea like this, you don’t need follies like voluntarism, or hollow phrases about God’s ways not being ours (a gross misinterpretation of Isa 55:8 by the way) to explain it all away.

More importantly, if my mom’s exposition were correct, then the idea of the incarnation was something far more magnificent than what I had hitherto understood about Christianity. ‘Magnificent’, however being a totally wrong choice of word. Compared to this Nietzsche‘s Umwertung aller Werte was just child’s play. Ever since my mom told me this story, I’ve considered the Christian idea of the incarnation a brilliant one.

It took me years until I finally found the original source of the story. It’s a passage from Eli Wiesel‘s Night, a book I consider required reading for everyone. The story is different in its details:

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
‘Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.
‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting.
‘Bare your heads!’ yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
‘Cover your heads!’
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me I heard the same man asking”
‘Where is God now?’
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…’

The story is also very different in its intent. It does not show from this particular passage, but from what Eli Wiesel writes in the rest of Night, it is clear that this was one of the key events that turned him into an atheist. My mom had heard a rendering of the story that had been Christianised to the bone. The last quoted line above was definitely not ment as a confession of (Christian) faith, rather the very opposite!

Still, I think Wiesel – or my  mom – made a valid point about Christianity: where there is no humanity, God is dead, truly dead. ‘Truly dead’ in the exact same sense in which Christians confess that Christ is ‘truly God and truly man’.

I found this post- some four years old – among my many unpublished drafts, and thought I might as well post it…

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