I’m not sure what led me to go down this rabbit hole, but the other day I was thinking about Anne Frank.
As you probably remember, she was the young Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding in an attic during the Nazi occupation. One famous quote from her diary reads: “In spite of everything, I believe people are really good at heart.”
And we think, “Well, if Anne was going through such a difficult period with this great attitude, then she must be right. If Anne Frank could say that, then it must be true.”
But I wonder if Anne felt that way after she was captured and taken to Auschwitz. When you read about the last months of her life, it’s hard to imagine anything more horrific. First she was separated from her father, then stripped of any dignity or humanity. She and her sister became ill with a series of serious ailments, ending with typhus which finally killed them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this experience crushed that beautiful faith in humanity. And the experience of losing her faith and optimism must have been a huge loss for Anne, among all the other losses she experienced. I can imagine it was probably similar to the loss of faith that Elie Wiesel famously described in his book Night: “Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”
The truth is, that we all start out with optimistic beliefs about the world and about other people. And while (thankfully) we probably won’t have the horrific experiences of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel, we eventually do find out that the world is more than we can handle. There is a saying that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I don’t think that’s true. I think we routinely experience pain and evil that is well beyond what we can handle. Cancer, abuse, genocide, murder. The loss of people or relationships that we cherish, even need. And the fact that He allows pain which is more than we can handle drives a lot of us to question His power, benevolence, and even His existence.
One popular way of trying to resolve this ancient theological dilemma is by placing God’s power solely within human hearts. There is evil, not because of some remote power outside of us, but because humans cause it. There is goodness, again not because of some remote power outside of us, but because humans have divine goodness within them and sometimes choose to act on it.
This is a comforting philosophy, but it’s problematic to me for many reasons. To me, belief in a God who is far away and never acts in our lives is the same thing as not believing in any God at all. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of faith at all?
It can’t be denied that humans are often God’s instruments when they allow themselves to be used that way. On 9/11, God used rescuers who, by selflessly helping others, showed that God was present even in the midst of evil. During the Holocaust, God used brave people who risked their lives to save others. Yet why did He allow evil to occur on such a grand scale in the first place?
These days, most of us shy away from using the word “evil.” It’s uncomfortable for us. Yet evil exists. There is a powerful and intelligent force of evil at work in our world which is almost (almost!) as powerful as God. And like God, It can use humans as instruments with great power and success.
It’s scary to think that there are forces at work that we don’t understand. But to deny the power of evil is also to deny the power of God. If there is no evil, then we must blame God for everything, if we even acknowledge His existence. He is either apathetic and uncaring, or (worse) capable of great malevolence. But the God I know is not like that. He is not distant or apathetic, and certainly not malevolent. And so the only other possible explanation is that there is another powerful spiritual force at work in our world besides God.
Of course, this does not absolve humans of responsibility. As beings created in God’s image, it is our responsibility to work for justice and peace, to conquer evil wherever it is found.
There is more pain and evil in this world than we can handle. Thankfully, God is on our side. And while many battles may be lost, the final victory is assured.