Elie Wiesel on purpose

The October 20-26, 2007 issue of The Economist has an interesting advertisement from the John Templeton Foundation. It is a series of brief essays from well known scientists and academics responding to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?” Among the respondents is Elie Wiesel. Wiesel is an outstanding writer (fiction & nonfiction), Nobel Prize winner, lecturer, Boston University professor, and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Wiesel’s answer to the question is, “I hope so. And if it doesn’t, it is up to us to give it one.” We can understand, I think, the hesitancy of one who has seen and experienced personally the worst of human evil. Read his “Night” trilogy to get a deeper understanding of the human depravity that flourished in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s.

In his essay, Wiesel writes, “Why the world? Why people? Why did God consider it useful or even good to introduce them into his universal plan?...Confronted by their creator, are people condemned to remain God’s adversary, or even his enemy? Perhaps his prisoner? His orphan? The Jewish tradition in which I base my thoughts defines it unambiguously – we are his partner. To put it plainly: Though God created the world, it is up to people to preserve, respect, enrich, embellish, and populate it, without bringing violence to it…”

As sympathetic as we may be toward Dr. Wiesel’s history of suffering, we nevertheless cannot approach the question of a purposeful universe in a sentimental way. This is a question that requires the firm application of truth. The fact is, if the universe is godless, if it is without ultimate purpose and moral coherence then we cannot provide these things ourselves. We will only be whistling in the dark. Christian de Duve, biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, answers the question of a purposeful universe with a firm “No.” He explains that “a purpose presupposes a mind that conceived it, as well as the ability to implement it…So the question really deals with the belief in a Creator who enjoys almost infinite power and freedom…” With the exception of de Duve’s “almost” I agree wholeheartedly. For the universe to be filled with purpose means not only that God created all that is but that this Creator possesses all the power and freedom necessary to carry out His purpose. In this sense, this atheist has a better understanding of the nature of God than many evangelicals who have concocted a god whose power and freedom is limited to whims of sinful mankind.

Wiesel simply cannot conceive of a God who is powerful enough (sovereign) to have stopped the evil of the Holocaust but for His own reasons did not. He simply has no category for a God like this. Therefore God, while functioning as creator, is not the sovereign sustainer and ruler of creation. He depends upon us, his partners. And if things go south then it is a result of this partnership. Ironically, this is the god proclaimed in many evangelical pulpits across America every Sunday. “God cannot do a thing unless we allow him!” “God is a gentleman. He never violates our free will.” “God wants to bless you but he can’t unless you let him.” These ideas have a stranglehold on the American church. Our theological categories are simply too narrow to contain a truly sovereign God who exercises his power and freedom to overrule his creation. This theological narrowness is due to the tragic lack of systematic biblical instruction in most evangelical churches. We would be rightly indignant at a NASA scientist whose knowledge of astronomy was limited to the words, “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” However, much of American evangelicalism has contented itself with just such a shallow knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture.

I wonder how my faith would stand up to an experience in Auschwitz? I wonder how I would hold up if I lost my family? I do not criticize Eli Wiesel. He is wrong in his understanding of God. The God he looks to is not the one who has revealed himself in Scripture. That God, the good and sovereign God, is our only help and hope in the face of evil and suffering. When loss pays a visit to our family or when we are in the hospital bed it is a robust theology that we need. We need a faith that has made room for a God whose good purposes, mysteriously to us, include horrible things. God’s plans included the scatterings of people. His plans have included a duplicitous liar named Jacob as well as Joseph’s wicked, murderous brothers. His plans included Paul’s imprisonments. What is more, God’s good purpose included the greatest evil ever perpetrated: the crucifixion of Jesus.


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