Cliff's Edge

Adventism After Auschwitz

Imagine there being a rational reason for the Holocaust. That's a scary thought.

Clifford Goldstein

An Adventist friend, apt to be critical of the church, griped: “Why didn’t the Seventh-day Adventist Church change its theology after the Holocaust?”

The idea behind the question is that because of the astonishing evil of the Holocaust, how could people view God, faith, or anything the same again? Once the smoke of Auschwitz’s ovens cleared, many religious thinkers felt steamrolled by the hard questions raised by the atrocity.

This challenge, of course, hit Jews the hardest. Richard Rubenstein argued that the Holocaust proved that no God existed. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews, in contrast, argued that the Holocaust was God’s punishment because the Jews weren’t keeping the 613 laws faithfully.

Christian thinkers, too, found themselves forced to reconsider their beliefs after Auschwitz. What did kids learn in Sunday school about Jews that allowed them, as adults, to line up Jews—women and children included—and shoot them? Though Rosemary Reuther argued that anti-Semitism was the “left hand” of Christian theology; more thoughtful thinkers nevertheless had to wrestle with the question of how this horror could have happened in the “Christian” West.

Some theologians wondered, too, if the traditional understanding of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God was just wrong. After all, how could such a God be squared with the Holocaust? Others, who tended toward an optimistic view of humanity, of human potential to better the world, and even of the power to create “the kingdom of God” on earth, found these ideas shattered by World War II.

But what about my friend’s question? Why didn’t the Seventh-day Adventist Church change its theology after the Holocaust?

Because it didn’t need to.

First, something like the Holocaust should have caused any thoughtful Christian of any denomination, anywhere, to rethink how they looked at Jews. Only the greatest perversion of anything our church teaches could have led to this genocide.

Second, Adventist theology presents nothing optimistic about either the nature of humanity or of the present world. The Holocaust was a shocking and painful example of just how fallen we are, a fact that only affirms Adventist theology.

Third, our Adventist worldview is framed, expressed, and interpreted through the great controversy motif. For us, Satan isn’t poetry, philosophy, mythology; he is not some literary device symbolizing the darker side of human consciousness. He is a being of astonishing supernatural power whose sole purpose is to wreak as much pain and suffering and damage as possible on us here—the Holocaust being one of his most successful ventures yet.

“Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time” (Rev. 12:12, NKJV).*

“Woe” is right.

No matter how rich and deep, Adventist theology can’t fully explain the Nazi genocide, because nothing can fully explain evil. (Imagine there being a rational reason for the Holocaust. That’s a scary thought.)  But contrary to my friend’s gripe, our theology didn’t change after Auschwitz because, frankly, it didn’t need to.

*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.

Clifford Goldstein