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January 05, 2013

sachsenhausen and my soul

In November of last year, my friend and I visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just north of Berlin, Germany. It was the chilliest, rainiest and most sobering day of our Europe excursion. We scuttled down paths from one covered area to another, avoiding the autumn rain while listening to stories and browsing old paperwork and photos.

Reading books and watching movies about this era does not quite prepare you for entering the the triangular grey expanse that is this concentration camp. You cannot be entirely ready to stand in the basement of an abandoned Nazi mortuary, which also doubled as a brothel used by the guards. You cannot notice a small marker reading "mass grave site" without reeling internally at the magnitude of the tragedy that took place there. It's grim and grisly.

When new captives came to Sachsensausen, they were told, “There is a way to freedom, but only through the chimney [of the crematorium].” A few were freed through the gates rather than the chimney, and the story they tell describes a Europe gone mad. Humans doing to other humans things that seem almost unimaginable. 

In the early afternoon, we packed our soggy selves onto a train back to Berlin. As my mind began to process what I had seen and heard, questions rose. They weren't the angst-ridden, angry cries of an unbelieving rebel; they were simply questions that needed addressing after a day of witnessing seemingly unbridled evil. 

Questions like: Where was God when all this was happening? If God is good, why did he allow this to happen? If so many of the concentration camp victims believed in the Judeo-Christian God, why didn't He move Himself for them? Why did He allow such atrocities?

There the questions sat, next to me, waiting for answers. As if to say, "Handle us, will you?" Indeed, I had to handle them, because little rattlings of unbelief, if not quieted, could cause quite a ruckus. I know that questions will always be with us on this earth, but the way in which we answer questions is of utmost importance.

Children have a lot of questions. Important questions, too. One day one asked me, "What happens to babies when they die: do they go to Heaven?" How would you answer?

Would you say the Bible is crystal-clear on that question? I know what the feel-good answer is, but I tend to think there's more Biblical support for the idea that they don't than the idea that they do. That said, I don't want to raise Cain and then find out I was wrong. Because, either it's unclear or I haven't studied enough to understand. Therefore, I told them: I don't think it is explicit enough in Scripture to be 100% sure either way. So let's not be dogmatic.

But the question remains, right?

To anchor ourselves, we looked at nine character traits of God (posted on our wall), and talked about what God is like: loving, just, all-powerful.... We asked ourselves, "Would God do something unfair and unloving to babies who die?" The answer is clearly, "No." Whatever God does is both just and loving. So we left the issue there. We must train ourselves to rest in God's character.

Someone who overhead the conversation I had with the kids addressed me later. He quoted an obtuse verse and suggested it as an answer to the same question. He meant well. I cannot remember what his suggested answer was, but it was hermeneutically shaky and a bit obscure. It reminded me that we need to give believers (even young ones) tools to deal with questions, not just quick answers. I cannot think of a better way to frame a difficult question than to: (1) address it with any clear teaching from the Word of God, and (2) trust in the character of God for the parts that are still unclear.

In my e-mail inbox a few weeks ago I got a list of questions from a girl whose unbelieving classmates are assailing her with questions intended to brutalize her faith in the Biblical God. She wanted a list of helpful answers for the questions she's being pelted with. I told her that Google could come up with good enough answers to many of their questions, such as "How could the ark fit so many animals?" With all due respect, if her classmates genuinely wanted to know the answers, they could have looked them up themselves. They're attacking her not because they want to believe, but because they want her not to believe. My concern was not so much with the list of questions, but with how necessary it is to train her mind to frame questions correctly. Deep soul rest from questions comes not from a debate "won" here and there, but from deepening the foundation of Truth in our lives. From getting to know God's character and His Word.

To not be toppled by the questions raised by Sachsenhausen, I had to (by God's grace) dig up the ideas beneath the questions. The presuppositions, if you will. The questions that rise upon seeing God's apparent passivity at the grief of humanity are generally questions that attack His character. These questions assume that God cannot be both all-loving and all-powerful. Because, the fallen brain deduces, if He were all-powerful and all-loving, he would have stopped these terrible acts. That is to say, "Sachsenhausen proves to us that God is not who He says He is."

In these attacks you hear an echo of one of the snake's original questions: "Has God indeed said...?" The snake cunningly questioned the character of God; "He's not really good. He's not actually honest." His tactic was to get Adam and Eve to question God's character; we all know what disaster followed.

It is not essentially through logic that God woos man to Himself. Logic can point to Him, but fallen logic can also seem to point elsewhere. God says his followers must come by faith; it is a prerequisite. In sweeping narrative, the Bible gathers together all little stories into one big story. Throughout history we see this: He is loving. He is all-powerful. He is good. He is just. He says, "This is My story. This is what I'm like." On that basis, He asks for our trust. 

(Note that in God's story, we find basic answers to all of life's big questions. Answers skeptics do not have. Skeptics can't explain why concentration camps were even wrong. They can't explain where we get our universal concept of what's fair. Their questions are a lot bigger than ours.)

Hopefully you're not disappointed to learn that I don't know why Sachsenhausen, or why World War II. I don't know why you in particular have cancer or lost a loved one. But I praise God for the story of Lazarus' death. The fact that Jesus was able to weep at Lazarus' death shows that He could be angry at sin and its consequences without being angry at Himself. Do you understand? If Lazarus' death was His fault, those tears would have been false ones. If Jesus did not truly love, He wouldn't have cried at Lazarus' tomb. At the tomb of Lazarus we catch a glimpse of how the suffering on earth was not caused by God, but allowed by God. We know the suffering down here hurts Him, too.

We can also piece Scripture together to build a basic framework to understand why He allows it, if it hurts everyone and if He is all-powerful. For example, humans, created in the image of God, carry bits of His sovereignty in their ability to make choices. The Bible teaches principles of sowing and reaping. Evil things happen for various reasons, but one of the big reasons is because God allows man to make choices, and man trusted lies rather than in the character of God. My mind finds a resting place here, from the biggest questions.

Above I said that "you cannot be entirely ready to stand in the basement of an abandoned Nazi mortuary." But in essence, you can, and for your spiritual well-being, you should be. You can (1) address your situation with any clear teaching from the Word of God, and (2) trust in the character of God for the parts that are still unclear.  

Whichever your train, your Sachsenhausen, your questions, don't ignore them. But find in Him an anchor for your soul. A sure foundation. A rock. He's all that.


  1. You nailed it down so succinctly with your #1 and #2 Julie. Two very important truths to cling to indeed! Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. Such historical realities are sobering and mind-boggling. I can only imagine how you were feeling.

  2. Thanks, Les. Thankful for the anchor of our souls!