“Tortured for Christ” Illustrates the Dreadful Impact of Bad Ideas
Was Charles Darwin in any way responsible for the torture of Christians 90 years later?
Yesterday (March 5), for its 50th anniversary, the Christian Ministry Voice of the Martyrs premiered its movie Tortured for Christ in theaters across America. The movie is a dramatization of true events in the life of Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor imprisoned and tortured for 14 years in communist prisons in Romania in the 1950s. The film crew was allowed to use the actual prison where the events took place: episodes of extreme brutality and unspeakable horror, including vicious beatings, deprivations, hanging upside down while being poked with hot irons, being held in solitary confinement for 3 years, suffering from tuberculosis without treatment and being left to die. And why was Pastor Wurmbrand treated so? Because of his Christian faith. His allegiance to Christ did not allow him to compromise with the Stalinist plan of ‘registered’ churches, which became puppets of the regime, controlled and dominated by the State. His love for the brethren did not allow him to betray them, even when it might have reduced his own beatings and tortures. He watched other prisoners whose fate would be even worse: 25 years or more of imprisonment and torture.
Pastor Wurmbrand’s wife Sabrina was also arrested and sent to a hard labor camp for 3 years, the guards leaving her two children behind to fend for themselves. Along with hundreds of other women prisoners, she was forced to move heavy wheelbarrow loads of soil every day in the cold outdoors for a useless canal project. At one point, when she stumbled and fell, the guards mocked her for getting dirty, and threw her into the icy cold river. She barely got out alive as they laughed at her and mocked her faith: ‘Where is your God now to save you?” Throughout their ordeals, Richard and Sabrina shared the love of Christ to the other prisoners and to the guards. How could gentle, innocent people be treated this way?
As Russian communists swept into Romania in 1948, they brought with them the ideology that had turned the Soviet Union into a house of horrors. Atheism became the state religion. The contrast between the Christians and the communists, as revealed in the film, cannot be overstated. Communism turned men into monsters. At one point during his beatings, Wurmbrand cries out to the guard, “Have you no pity for a fellow human being?” The guard laughs, explaining that since there is no God, there is no good or evil. He felt liberated, he said, to express all the evil in his heart. His ideology led him to rather enjoy the power he could exercise over other men, knowing there would be no consequences. At another point, when a guard rails on Wurmbrand for being caught in prayer again, telling it was useless to pray to his imaginary God, he shouted (paraphrased), “Your wife is a prisoner, your children are without help, you will not get out of here alive; what are you praying for?” The guard’s look of rage and consternation at Wurmbrand’s answer illustrates the contrast of ideologies: “I was praying for you.”
Wurmbrand certainly would have died unknown after spending more years in the dark, damp prison, had not a prisoner swap allowed him and Sabrina and their son to emigrate to America. Shortly afterward, Wurmbrand wrote, in tears mixed with Sabrina’s tears, his best seller, Tortured for Christ. Until this book, most Americans had no idea what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. He founded Jesus to the Communist World to help rouse awareness and support for the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain. The organization was later renamed Voice of the Martyrs. Today, VOM continues the mission, helping persecuted Christians in 68 countries including North Korea, where unimaginable tortures under communism continue to this day under guards who have lost any sense of pity or human dignity, and where atheism, relying on Darwinism, remains the state religion.
In the opening moments of the movie, three names are revealed that led to these events: Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx. Since Nietzsche was a Darwinian, and Marx looked to Darwin for the scientific justification for his views, the fingers of history point to the remaining one man who pushed the domino that started a chain reaction reaching to the horrors of that Romanian prison. That one man was Charles Darwin. Was there ever a more dramatic illustration of the proverb, “Ideas have consequences”?
In this commentary, I want to ask if Darwin can be held responsible for what happened to the Christians behind the Iron Curtain. I also want to pre-empt some of the objections. You can already hear angry atheists in your mind’s ear, complaining that the Bible endorsed slavery and genocide, or that Darwin himself, a Victorian gentleman, would have been horrified at what happened to Richard Wurmbrand. Others will say that torture and imprisonment are as old as humanity, and were committed by all kinds of regimes, including religious ones. Christians, in fact, tortured people in the Inquisition, committed holy wars, and enslaved people. It is completely unfair, they will object, to accuse Darwin for these atrocities. Well, is it? When is the founder of an ideology responsible for ‘unintended consequences’ of an idea?
I would say that it depends on the idea, and the purpose for which it was promoted. Consider, for instance, Oppenheimer’s response to witnessing the first nuclear blast under the Manhattan Project. He was appalled at what they created, saying, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Was he responsible for the nuclear standoff in the world today, and for the deaths and sufferings of the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? No; he was obeying orders under the President’s plan to end the most destructive war in human history. The Allies’ strategic calculations had mercy as their goal, fighting fire with greater fire, to put out the fires of war lit by evil regimes, so that they could no longer spread their terror around the world. (Incidentally, the Axis powers had their ideological roots in Darwinism.)
Is torture ever justified? Many would say no. Others would allow it in extreme circumstances. Consider a hypothetical case where a mad scientist makes a doomsday machine that will obliterate all life on the planet, and only he knows the secret code to deactivate the machine. If there were a chance he would confess under torture, would it be justified in that case? What about the American practice of waterboarding of terrorists that led to information that prevented attacks that would have killed many people? Americans are understandably divided about the question, and we offer no position. The important point is the reason for the debate: to save innocent lives against a great evil. The object is mercy for the greatest number.
What about historic atrocities justified by perpetrators on Biblical grounds (e.g., the Inquisition)? The Apostle Paul admonished his student Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). The Bible can be twisted and misused. Distorting God’s word has been a plague on the people of God throughout history. One needs to follow the flow of revelation in context and in its entirety to understand God’s will and the proper application to new questions. Cults fail to do that, drawing on proof-texts to justify deviant doctrines. Who could get torture out of the Sermon on the Mount (love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you) or the love chapter of I Corinthians 13? The faith chapter of Hebrews 11 shows the people of God through history enduring torture, not perpetrating it. You don’t get an Inquisition from the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, its victims were often the true heroes of the faith who wished to spread the message of God’s love against a corrupt, powerful religious institution that had strayed far from the Word of God. The Bible’s greatest ideal is the balance of love and truth. We decry the abuses of the Bible that have been used to justify great evils, but argue that the Bible itself is the greatest force for mercy and justice that the world has ever seen. The ongoing work of Voice of the Martyrs is a good example.
What about Charles Darwin’s responsibility? Atheists, Darwinians and materialists will undoubtedly express outrage at the suggestion that he was in any way responsible for the tortures in that Romanian prison that occurred well after his death. Darwin was a gentleman who opposed slavery and even gave money to merciful causes. By all accounts, he was mild and well mannered, with many friends. He can’t be blamed for what happened after his ‘scientific’ theory about biology any more than Jesus can be blamed for the Inquisition and cults, right?
This is where the content of the message makes all the difference! When asked by an honest inquirer, Jesus summed up the “Greatest Commandment” as twofold: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind”, and (“like unto it,” i.e., of similar importance), to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus followed up by saying, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets,” meaning that the entire revelation of God flows from those principles. These commandments provide a measuring rod for all lower issues. It would be a huge strain to rationalize any evil practice from these principles. Maybe for the case of the doomsday machine, but little else. That’s why Richard Wurmbrand loved his fellow Christ followers too much to betray them, and paid a high cost in his own pain. That’s why he preached to other prisoners about the love of God, knowing he would be beaten for it. That’s why he prayed for his enemies. It’s impossible to imagine Wurmbrand treating the guards the same way they treated him as long as he followed Jesus’ commandments.
Now consider Darwin’s message. It wasn’t simply a biological theory. It wasn’t limited to the origin of species, like finches on the Galapagos. It represented a major change to the Western concept of the world. Instead of love, Darwin offered selfishness. Instead of mercy, Darwin exalted ambition. Instead of humility, Darwin offered pride (survival of the ‘fittest’). Instead of truth, Darwin offered meaninglessness. Instead of purpose, Darwin offered happenstance. Instead of human exceptionalism, Darwin presented animal instinct. In place of scientific integrity, Darwin excused imaginative storytelling. Instead of responsibility, Darwin offered determinism. Instead of fixed morality, Darwin offered evolving social behaviors.
It would be hard to find two ideologies more completely opposite at every level than the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Darwin. When you consider the inherent propensity for evil in Darwin’s message—the exaltation of meaningless, selfish, unguided pursuit of “fitness” (whatever that is), it really doesn’t matter how “nice” Charlie was as a Victorian gentleman. He served up a dish of poison that contained in its very molecular structure the seeds of terror. The content of ideas matter to the downstream consequences. When Christians show mercy and love, they are acting in line with the teachings of Jesus rightly understood. When torturers in a Romanian prison beat Wurmbrand senselessly with no remorse, they were acting in line with the teachings of Charles Darwin. That guard shown in the movie was perfectly justified, given his dependence on Darwinian understanding of the world, to exercise raw power over his victims, inflicting as much pain as he could, for his own pleasure. Why? Because as Darwin taught, there was no God as Creator. Hence there was no such thing as good and evil, and there would be no consequences for his evil actions.
So was Charles Darwin responsible for the torture of Christians in communist prisons? Look at it this way. What would you think of someone who served poisoned fruit to people, and then said, “It’s not my fault they got sick”? Darwin was warned what his ideas might produce. His geology professor, Adam Sedgwick, after reading the Origin, warned Darwin that his theory, which obliterated man’s moral nature, would produce dire consequences. He said, “humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.”