In the excellent book, “Why? Explaining the Holocaust,” Peter Hayes examines the motivations behind the German brutality directed against innocent Jews.
How could they have been so barbarous? Were they just soulless monsters?
After a lengthy discussion of the history of antisemitism among the German people, Hayes considers other motivations.
At times, German soldiers were ordered to execute Jews enmasse. Gathering thousands of Jews, they would shoot them, dumping them in mass graves.
Moral people find this inconceivable, but these young men continued to perform their roles.
“Moreover, given the assignments doled out to the shooting units and the ideological environment in which they lived, many shooters may have embraced antisemitism at the time as a conveniently available form of legitimizing what they had been ordered to do. In other words, they did not kill because they hated their victims, but they decided to hate them because they thought they had to kill them. Psychologists call this sort of mental mechanism, in which beliefs comform to behavior rather than the other way around, a response to ‘cognitive dissonance,’ and it may have been just as important as animosity or sadism in explaining why so many Germans showed or expressed pleasure in torturing and killing Jews” (Hayes, 139).
Hayes recounts several scholarly studies to determine the reasons for their behavior. One key factor was comradary. Group solidarity provided sufficient motivation to keep them going, so as not to “let their comrades down” (Hayes, 140-142). An “us against them” mentality pushed them to act.
While we’re obvously not comparing Nazi’s to ordinary sinners, the psychology provides insight into human nature. The same would be true of genocidal efforts throughout history.
Likewise, as we try to understand why people turn against God, the motivations are as varied as these soldiers. However, the two mentioned here by Hayes are crucial to consider. We must be intellectually astute enough to see the dangers in oversimplification.
Some truly do hate the idea of God. Yet the majority are like these soldiers whose actions were fueled by peer pressure and a rationalization of their own desires (Exodus 23:2; Proverbs 1:10-19). They work backwards, rather than forward. They don’t go in standing against God. It’s a means to an end.
They adore their sin so much that they refuse to give it up (Philippians 3:17-19). Either they rationalize that God doesn’t care, embrace a fake grace or they turn against God completely.
Most humans will believe whatever they have to, in order to get through the night. We throw everything into the grinder and make it come out in our favor. We will always be the winner of our own narrative.
Humility is the most important factor in salvation (James 4:10). We must remove self in order to honestly diagnose our sins. God’s Word cuts through our rationalizations, so we can see the unvarnished truth (Hebrews 4:12).
Denial may prevent us from losing our minds, but it’s useless in getting us to heaven. We must come to Christ and his Word if we truly want to enter into heaven (John 14:6).