Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Nature

Only the biblical understanding of human nature can account for both the evil of the Holocaust and the compassionate response of the world community after the fact.

“What a freak, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a marvel! Judge of all things, and imbecile earthworm; possessor of the truth, and sink of uncertainty and error; glory and rubbish of the universe.”

Blaise Pascal

Selections from The Thoughts


As Blaise Pascal recognized, human beings are a paradox, capable of both great nobility and horrendous evil. Today, April 8, 2013, a day designated as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, we come face to face with one of the starkest reminders in our time of the human capacity for great evil.

A recent New York Times article reveals new research that only heightens the reality of the shocking levels of violence and oppression of which humans are capable. The new findings show that during the Holocaust there were some 42,500 Nazi camps and ghettos throughout Europe, including 30,000 slave-labor camps, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 980 concentration camps, 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps, 500 brothels containing sex slaves, and numerous other camps for euthanizing the weak and elderly, performing forced abortions, or shipping victims from camp to camp.

It can be difficult to comprehend how human beings could possibly descend to the depths of evil that we see in the Holocaust. Faced with this uncomfortable reality, many attempt to rationalize genocide as somehow deriving from outside forces. Thinkers as diverse as Gustav Le Bon, Sigmund Freud, and Reinhold Niebuhr explained genocide as a result of the evilness of the collective, believing that while individuals are capable of goodness and morality, groups are inherently selfish and uncaring. Others attempt to explain genocide on the basis of ideology alone or as resulting from leaders with an authoritarian personality type. However, none of these explanations can fully account for the existence of genocide and mass killing.

The most realistic conclusion is that reached by leading genocide scholar James Waller in his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, which concludes that all people share a human nature that includes the capacity for both extraordinary good and extraordinary evil under the right circumstances.

The Bible on Human Nature

As uncomfortable as it is, this diagnosis fits with what the Bible teaches about human nature. The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good Creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork, everything from light to land to living creatures, is called “good.” Humanity, being the image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation—“behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:15).

In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” In the very beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: “in the image of God.” This expression reveals the inherent dignity of all human beings, because it designates human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe. As God’s image-bearers, human beings are imbued with dignity and worth beyond that of animals. Speaking to Noah after the flood, God emphasizes that human life is to be highly valued, and that violence against any human being is to be rigorously punished (Gen. 9:5–6).

But Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and the peace God intended was violated. In a moment of cosmic treason, Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience. The Bible sums up the bleak condition of human nature after the Fall in Genesis 6:5, as “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Human evil is described as being characterized by intensity (“great in the earth”), inwardness (“thoughts of his heart”), pervasiveness (“only evil”), and constancy (“continually”).

As fallen human beings, all kinds of evil now comes out of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, false testimony, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Matt. 15:17–20; Mark 7:20–22). As Jesus tells us, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). In Galatians 5:17–21, Paul follows Jesus’ lead and tells us that inherent within us is sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

The Hope Amid the Evil

The only explanation that can account for both the evil of the Holocaust and the compassionate response of the world community after the fact is the biblical understanding of human nature. The reason we react with horror to the Nazi atrocities is because we are made in the image of God, which includes the conscience that God has given us and our capacity for compassion and love. Yet the ultimate reason such atrocities could be carried out is the same reason every one of us is capable of evil: human nature is fallen under the curse of sin.

Because of sin, human beings do evil, but we are not as bad as we could be. In his mercy, God restrains human evil from always reaching the depths that it could. Yet our true hope for change is ultimately in God’s power.

The Holocaust is a sobering reminder of the capacity for evil present in the human heart. It should lead us to look to God for deliverance not only from the evil of others, but from the evil in our own hearts. It should remind us that we need rescue and that Jesus is our ultimate hope.