“Who needs a God who suffers?” is just one of many discomforting questions God on Trial dares ask, intending to provoke and challenge believers and nonbelievers alike. The compelling and disturbing television drama, to be broadcast on PBS stations Sunday, November 9, is as powerful as anything you’ll encounter on the stage or big screen this year.
It opens with a bus arriving in modern-day Auschwitz, Poland. The tourists on board are informed that, for a mere ten zlotys extra, they can peruse the grounds, see the death camps. Among the tour troupe is someone who needs no introduction to the camps. He is an Auschwitz survivor.
As the tourists enter the gates, another bus unloads its passengers onto the same camp grounds. But these are no tourists: They are prisoners of the Third Reich. Heads shaven, frames emaciated, eyes hollowed out, they are quickly sized up by the camp doctor. Those sent to the right will live a little longer; those sent to the left will die the next day. Survival of the least unfit.
Back in the blockhouse, the prisoners, half of whom were sent “left,” begin to consider their fate. How did this happen? How did they get here? Among the prisoners are rabbis and scholars, men of science and men of commerce, working class and peasants. How to make sense of this? Suddenly Moche (Dominic Cooper), a glib young man with little regard for the feelings of his compatriots, explodes in rage upon hearing someone’s sotto voce prayers.
“What are you praying for? . . . Anyone else trying to help God make his mind up? . . . He’s an evil b. He should be here. With us. We’ll put the b on trial. Then maybe he’ll hear it.”
The very thought of such a thingGod in the dockrankles Kuhn (Jack Shepherd), an elderly defender of the faith. But not all agree. There is precedent in sacred history: Abraham bargained with God; Jacob wrestled with an angel. Even “the name Israel means ‘he that striveth with God.’” Why not put a few pointed questions to the Almighty, especially considering the circumstances?
So three men preside as judges: Baumgarten, a professor of criminal law (Stellan Skarsgard); Schmidt, a rabbi (Stephen Dillane); and Kuhn’s son, Mordechai (Rupert Graves), who plays the role of prosecutor. One more thing is missing for a valid rabbinical court: the Torah itself. But where will they find a copy of the Scriptures in Auschwitz? In Rabbi Akiba, the holy man whose incessant prayers had incensed Moche. Akiba is believed to be “one of the thirty-six . . . the secret saints who carry us on their shoulders. . . . He is called the living Torah,” having committed so much of it to memory.
And so the trial of God begins. The charge? Moche, the instigator, chimes in: “Are you blind? Murder! Collaboration!” The Almighty is charged with the murder of his own people. He has broken the covenant. He had promised to drive Israel’s enemies before her. He had promised that the throne of David would endure forever.
“So God broke the deal,” Mordechai says. But his father will have none of it. “Bad things have happened beforeread your history,” says Kuhn. “We are Jews. We suffer.” He recounts Egypt, Babylon, the razing of Jerusalem, Masada, Spain, Russia. “And now here!”
“Is his breach of contract habitual?” asks Baumgarten. “Are you defending God or attacking him?”
For Kuhn, it is a test. “A test of our faith. The light of Torah must be kept burning in dark times.” Rather than examining God, they should be examining themselves, for sin. “Some Jews have turned their back on the Torah. They thought they knew better . . . they became socialists or Zionists or capitalists or anarchists. God knows what. Forgetting everything of the precious Scriptures.”
Schmidt bristles at the direction the discussion is taking. What of the pious Jews in Rabbi Akiba’s village? Why would God punish the good Jews as well as the reprobate? Again, Kuhn can only see the issue as one of cause and effect: “God is just, so we must have done something wrong!”
“In law,” says Baumgarten, “the punishment must be proportionate to the crime. There are children in the camp. What punishment does a little child deserve?”
But it’s not always the case in biblical history that the punishment is proportionatetake the Flood. “The mistake is to make this personal,” says Schmidt. “God does not act against the individual. His covenant is with Israel . . . this is not personal.”
“Do you know what a God who is not personal is?” asks Mordechai. “Weather. Just weather.”
The notion of punishment is sidelined, and the concept of purgative suffering is introduced. God as surgeon: cutting but “lovingly purifying his people.” Didn’t God use Nebuchadnezzar as an agent of his wrath, only to bring his people back to Jerusalem and restore the Temple?
“The deaths of the innocents are sacrifices for Israel,” says Kuhn. “A sacrifice. A holocaust. And when a man sacrifices something, it must be the best. The most beautiful. . . . Where are the Romans now? They are dust. Hitler will die. The war will end. The people and the Torah will live. We must trust in God.”
His son erupts at the very idea: Hitler as their generation’s Nebuchadnezzar? Hitler, an agent of God? “To stand in Hitler’s way is to stand in God’s way? To take arms against Hitler is wrong? Isn’t that insane?!”
Charges and countercharges, rebuttals and fresh retorts, are fired one after another. The crux of the argument is not God’s existence so much as his character: Either God wants to save his people from this horrible fate and he can’t, or he can but he won’t--and therefore he is not just. But what of free will? Man is free, which means he is free to sin and suffer the consequences. But how free was the prisoner Lieble, who was given a “choice” as to which of his three beautiful sons to spare from death by a particularly sadistic guard. Yet Lieble refuses to judge God. Job-like, he can only throw up his hands in the face of the Lord’s inexplicable purposes. “Have I ever given orders to the morning or sent the dawn to its post?”
It is here that science, reason, takes the stand in the person of Jacques, a physicist who accuses his fellow prisoners of being childish. Is it reasonable to believe that the same God who created hundreds of millions of stars has focused his attention only on “one little planet? And not even on one planet? No, just with the Jews.” Jacques introduces a brief sociology of religion. From polytheism to monotheism to monomania: “It’s all about power. And you have lost. Someone had a better idea. Hitler had the idea. There is one godand it is me. . . . I ask you to look at things not like babies, but like men. Use your reason.”
Again Kuhn jumps to God’s defense: “You have denied God. What did it give you? . . . There are many here who have denied God. . . . What did you gain? . . . These educated boys say they saw a truth we did not see. But here they are. And all the same . . . facing death.”
The judges confer. Baumgarten maintains that the Germans have stripped the Jews of everything in an effort to rob them of their dignity and make them appear to be the forlorn people the Nazis have caricatured in their Jew-hating propaganda. “Don’t let them take God from you.”
So it appears that the Almighty may, finally, win an acquittal. But there is one more witness to be heard: Rabbi Akiba, the living Torah, who had yet to speak except in prayer. “Who led us out of Egypt?” he begins. “God led us out of Egypt,” answers Schmidt. “Why were we in Egypt to start with?” “Well, there was a famine” “Who sent the famine?” Slowly, methodically, deliberately, Akiba recounts the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the genocidal slaughter of the Amalekites, the death of David’s son, a temporal punishment for David’s sin. “Who punishes a child? God does. Now, did the child die suddenly, mercifully, without pain? . . . Seven days . . . seven days that child spent dying in pain . . . The people of Egypt, the people of Amalek, what was it like when Adonai turned against them? It was like this. . . . We have become the Moabites. We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. . . . What did they learn? That Adonai, our God, is not good. . . . He was not ever good. He was only on our side.”
There is now only stunned silence. No more testimony. No more debate. A verdict is rendered (which you can discover for yourself this Sunday). Suddenly, guards burst into the block house. The prison doctor begins reading off the numbers of those to be taken to the gas chamber.
Mochehis arrogance broken, his will crushedcries out: “What do we do now?” “Now,” comes the surprising reply, “now, we pray.” So each man covers his head, a bare hand his only skull cap, and begins to pray, until the serpentine hiss of the Zyklon B drowns their plaints and entreaties.
You will have a difficult time simply walking away from this difficult drama. The performances are rich and moving but never overwrought or maudlin. Rabbi Akiba’s appraisal of God’s goodness, delivered with such eloquence, intensity, and terrifying honesty by Sir Antony Sher, is unlike anything you have seen or heard on television. The direction by Andy de Emmony is claustrophobic, immediate. You are given no choice but to be a juror in this trial
And if you think this tale is intended for Jews alone, don’t tell that to Frank Cottrell Boyce, from whose pen the intelligent and provocative script flowed. Boyce, whose previous scripts include Welcome to Sarajevo and Hillary and Jackie, is not even Jewish but a believing Catholic. He drew inspiration for his drama from an event depicted by Elie Wiesel in his play The Trial of God. Wiesel contends he had witnessed such a trial as a child in the death camps. But Wiesel’s version transplants the debate to seventeenth-century Russia, in the wake of a pogrom. Boyce, however, argues that the original story is apocryphal, that no such trial of God by Auschwitz prisoners ever took place. But that is neither here nor there. “God On Trial isn’t a Jewish issue,” says Boyce. “It’s a question about God and who God is, something that people are asking themselves in all contexts all the time.”
Yesand don’t we also put God on trial in all contexts all the time? C.S. Lewis, in a 1948 essay called “Difficulties in Presenting the Christian Faith to Modern Unbelievers” (retitled “God in the Dock” by his editor, Walter Hooper), wrote: “The ancient man approached God . . . as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: If God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in his acquittal.”
For Lewis, this role-reversal is a symptom of modern man’s indifference to sin. But the “sin defense” on behalf of the Almighty is found wanting in Auschwitz. At the very least, what about the children? Does original sin cancel out personal responsibility? And how do we continue to defend the sanctity of each and every human life in view of biblical history? The slaughter of the innocents by Herod was only prefigured by the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn by God himself.
The professional atheists publishing today want us to believe that there is no God because the God of the Bible is not good as they understand goodness. But one does not necessarily follow from the other. What if there is a God, and he is simply beyond good and evil? Who hasn’t seen the suffering of a child or an elderly parent and said, “If only I had the power. . . .” But God does have the power. Wouldn’t most of us have mercy on the most vulnerablethe very young and the very old? Can’t it be argued persuasively, as Rabbi Akiba goes on to do, that we have a higher sense of justice in our hearts than does this God we Jews and Christians worship?
If God is sovereign, he is ultimately responsiblefor everything. Human freedom can only ever be a relative thing. God alone is absolutely free and undetermined, or he is not God. So isn’t even the Fall, from which we abstract the idea of original sin, to be laid at his feet too? After all, who asks to be born with a sinful nature? Who asks to be born into a fallen creation? If “everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16b), and it is not possible to not sin, then aren’t we playing a game that’s rigged against us?
“Jesus makes the difference,” I can hear a Christian say. “Jesus is our God. Jesus is the lens through which we must interpret Old Testament historyand everything else about the human condition. Jesus came to identify with our pain, our confusion, our disappointment, our feareven our frustration over the apparent unfairness of God. What was fair about the crucifixion? Jesus is the only answer to the questions asked at trial in Auschwitz.”
But as the irascible Moche put it: “Who needs a God who suffers?” We want a God who ends sufferingnot in the sweet bye-and-bye but now, here, today. Moche could also have added: “And what difference did Jesus make to all those Germans who are shoveling us into ovens? And if he did make a differencewas it for better or for worse? Who was this Jesus? A man who put himself in the place of God? ‘I and the Father are one’? That is blasphemy. A man who identified himself with the Passover lamb, a sacrifice for the people? That is madness. If he were alive today, he’d be just another Jew. Here. With us. Abandoned by God. Like us.”
And so he was. Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy and of deceiving the people. Guilty of not being the promised Messiah, the Messiah as expected. Guilty also of breaking the unwritten pact between Rome and Jerusalem that quiet submission would win the Jews freedom to perform their obscure rituals in honor of their invisible god. Jesus is a rabble-rouser. Jesus is a covenant-breaker. Jesus works on the Sabbath. Jesus reinterprets Torah. Jesus stirs up the passions of the people. Jesus breaks down walls that were built to protect the integrity of God’s holy ones. Israel remains fractured, under the iron heel of Rome. The Church remains fractured, shattered by egoism. Jesus has failed us. The Messiah has not come. God’s people remain oppressed by the principalities and powers of this worldas much in 2008 as in 33 a.d. Jesus promised an abundant life. And yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
If we’re really honest, we’d probably admit that Jesus is not the Messiah we would have fashioned for ourselves, not really the Messiah we want. We don’t want a Savior who is passive in the face of injustice. We want an avengernot at the end of history, but in our history. And like Kuhn, we want an explicable cause-and-effect relationship with our God. We want to know that if we play by the rules, we will prosper. Why do you think the health-and-wealth preachers draw the audiences they do? And if we fail, we want the punishment to be in proportion to the offensenot one that follows us into the grave. We want a real choice to love God, not the threat of eternal torment if we don’t. We want to be protected from the arbitrary, the chance, the meaningless. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, we can endure the unendurable if only we’re convinced it has a higher purpose and is not just a case of bad luck.
But this thing we call grace is unpredictable, unreasonable, and unfair. Jesus heals Jairus’ daughterbut not mine. Jesus heals the paralyticbut not me. Jesus sends his Spirit to convert Saul, the persecutor of his Church, but allows dutiful men and women to lose their faith and succumb to despair. Jesus was right: Why do we call him good? He was simply ours for a time. And our verdictlike Rome’s, like Jerusalem’sis guilty. And their sentence is ours too: Crucify him.
But make it quick. The Sabbath is coming. Pull him down quick. The guards are watching. Bury him quick. Darkness has fallen. “A sacrifice. A holocaust. And when a man sacrifices something, it must be the best. The most beautiful.” Roll the stone. Quick. The Sabbath is coming. Who was this Jesus? Didn’t you hear? Jesus was a Jew. A Jew before Pilate. Forsaken by God. Jesus was a Jew, a Jew before Torquemada. Forsaken by God. Jesus was a Jew, a Jew before Hitler. Forsaken by God. Jesus was a Jewa Jew in Selma, a Jew in Sudan, a Jew in Orissa, a Jew in Tehran. And where is God? Quick. The Sabbath is coming. We’ll return Sunday. But to whom shall we go now? What do we do now? Now . . . we pray.
Anthony Sacramone is the former managing editor of First Things.