The church has never taught that justice is inevitable.

1963 March on Washington

In 1944, the darkest of German Julys, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his friend and comrade, Eberhard Bethge. The Lutheran theologian had been arrested after the failed Wolf’s Lair attempt on Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer had not directly participated in the plot, though he was certainly connected to those who did, and he had been instrumental in forming a “confessing church” that had resisted the capitulation of the Lutheran Church to the Nazi state.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer represented the best of 20-century Christians. His father was a psychiatrist, but he chose to follow his maternal grandfather’s profession, studying and teaching theology. At the start of the Second World War, he was a visiting professor at Union Theological in New York City. He could have remained there until the Nazi scourge was lifted from Germany, but Bonhoeffer felt that the Gospel compelled his return.


Like many an imprisoned intellectual, Bonhoeffer used his time in prison to ponder, specifically, current events in the light of the Gospel and its promise. He had long argued that Christians could not cling to a “God of the Gaps,” by which he meant the deity that we invoke when something can’t be explained. The problem with this approach is that most everything, eventually, is explained by us. What gap does that then leave for God?

In his letter, Bonhoeffer went even further. He proposed that Christians must begin to live etsi Deus non daretur (as if God were not a given). He essentially conceded that the modern world, one built upon science, technology and the liberties of democracy does not need God. It is accomplishing for itself what it once looked to God to do. He wrote:

[W]e cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize—before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mk 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.


Bonhoeffer saw an explanation for his 20th century in Martin Luther’s teaching of the two kingdoms, one heavenly and one earthly, that scarcely intersect with one another, and in another beloved theme of the reformer, the cross of Christ.

God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering (360-61).


Notice that Bonhoeffer wasn't saying that God does not exist. He’s arguing that God’s apparent absence is a paradoxical sign of, what might be called, God’s humility, the humility that God showed when Christ died upon the cross. At the very moment when God acted most decisively in world history, Calvary, God appeared to be virtually erased in the world, as Christ’s lifeless body hung upon the cross.

In his new Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (2016), journalist Kenneth L. Woodward sees a long line of American successors to the thought of Bonhoeffer’s God-less world. Though, unlike the martyred German, they were much more confident in the power of progress. He writes:

[T]he mid-Sixties was a period of enormous optimism for mainline Protestantism…Between 1963 and 1966, a blizzard of books inspired by Bonhoeffer appeared and, however different from each other, bespoke his peculiar form of “hope in the secular.” Among them: The New Creation as Metropolis (Gibson Winter, 1963); Honest to God (John A. T. Robinson, 1963); The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (Paul Van Buren, 1963); The New Reformation (Robinson, 1965); The Secular City (Harvey Cox, 1965); Secular Christianity (Ronald Gregor Smith, 1966); The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Thomas J.J. Altizer, 1966); Radical Theology and the Death of God (edited by Altizer and William Hamilton, 1966). This list does not include the books about these books—titles like The Honest to God Debate and The Secular City Debate (111).


These works self-eviscerated liberal Protestantism in America, leaving behind empty sanctuaries and utterly secular universities. And with reason: If human progress itself is God’s agent of change, why does God, or humanity, need a church, need to hear a call to conversion?

What’s left of American—and increasingly global—Christianity composes two camps: Evangelicals and Catholics, both of whom reject the idea that human history always moves forward, that it ever evolves, becoming something invariably better.

The Christian faith does not teach an endlessly self-evolving humanity. The faith doesn’t say that men and woman are becoming just a little bit better with each passing age. And, without some editing, the church does not confess what Martin Luther King Jr. asserted in 1965: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” That arc doesn’t necessarily bend towards justice. To the contrary, it must be, and it was, bent toward justice in the mangled body of the God-Man.

Lots of Americans, and people around the globe, right now, feel scared and saddened. Lots of others are quite jubilant, believing that, long promised and ever-delayed, change is on its way.

This little passage from Malachi gathers up Gospel teaching. It still bespeaks the hope of Christians.

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the Lord of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays (3:19-20).


Yes, we can, and must, strive to make the world a better place. Yet we need to admit that our great secular schemes, movements in which humans marched etsi Deus non daretur, have failed: communism, facism, and, now perhaps, secular democracy.

I think Bonhoeffer was right. God does withdraw on the cross of Christ. There, God becomes something that evokes our pity. That’s where the journey back to God begins. In pitying the God of Jesus Christ, we come to love that God. And in loving God, we begin to pity ourselves, trying to live in a world without God, etsi Deus non daretur.

Malachi 3: 19-20a  2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12  Luke 21: 5-19

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 2 months ago
Allow me to add my “Two Cents” or less, to the respected Dietrich Bonhoeffe’s “etsi deus non daretur.” The Lutheran theologian and holy Christian said regarding God, it’s as if, “God were not a Given.” That’s a curious teaching, a wrap-around clinging vine, so to speak, applicable to much input, which I cannot give as I do not understand the teaching in all its profound intricacies, in all its graspings. However, maybe I understand a little as follows, meaning you cannot take God for granted. Having “given-up” as Creator part of his sovereignty, his absolute identity as a “Given” when He imparted to materiality ability to heal itself, that power too, to leaves, berries, barks, roots, of his choosing, since not all material substance has healing power, I think he “lost” so to speak a chunk of his all encompassing “necessariness” his “Given” The ability to heal no longer understood as an exclusive Divine Right, belonging to God alone. The predictable outcome happened, in that the more humanity learned how to heal, how to use the earth, the cosmos, as a partner in healing, encapsulating and packaging health and well-being, the less God became a “Given.” Through the obviousness born of and nourished in Faith, we discover we have a God who “shares” not a God who “hordes. It appears undeniable that things do happen apart from direct Divine intervention, although I believe connective tissue does exist by way of purposed indirect managerial Divine ascent – I mean somehow God does have the final word. Graciously however, God does not grasp at Divinity fearful of losing it, like humanity and creation at large grasping at power and singularity, celebrity, fearful of losing acclaim, losing that “in charge” assertiveness. Self-acclamation is not a God-thing, Note how thoroughly God “emptied himself” in the person of Jesus, referencing back to Bonhoeffer’s “not a Given” theological reality. I hope by adding my “Two Cents” I’ve not ravaged the great theological insight of the world revered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, yet somehow daring to hope that in a misty, rugged way I may have managed to say something a little useful.
Rhett Segall
2 years 2 months ago
I think it is more congruent with Jesus to recognize that God shares, as Bruce says, than that we should act as if God is not there, as Dietrich urges. To act as if God is not there is to lose the ground of our hope when facing evil. Further, it opens us up to James' judgment that man's anger does not satisfy God's justice (James 1:20). While I am in awe of Bonhoeffer's life and theology. I cannot approach them without a critical mind. Nor do I think he would want people to do so.


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019