March 6, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

“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.”





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  • Bill Neish says:

    I respectfully disagree that torture is ever justified. It does not fit the Christian call to love our enemies and shows a lack of trust that in the end God wins and will be glorified in all. Even the mad scientist (which does not appear to be a rare individual these days).

  • dsg727 says:

    One may say that torture is torture no matter what the scenario, but that person would be reductionist, in my opinion. The example provided in this article is torture to coerce a behavior, that of denial of one’s religion and conformance to the state system. It was for the purpose of breaking the individual’s will; the goal of any torture, frankly.

    There are two stark differences presented in the article. One would be of getting someone to go along with the forced state system, and one would be for the protection of the innocent. To reduce both down to being equal does not look at the larger picture and ask what the purpose of the torture is even for. In the article, it is to break the will of another human simply so that human is in compliance with some system. In the concluding scenario, it is to break the will of another human so that innocent lives can be saved. Quite the difference, in my opinion.

    James 4:17 tells us that if we know we can do good (save innocent lives, for example) and do nothing about it, then we are sinning.

    With regards to the life ending scenario, what if one session of waterboarding gave us the codes? Is that what happened to Wurmbrand? No. He was mercilessly tortured for years. The severity all comes down to the will of the person being physically coerced (tortured) and when they break. It also comes down to the intentions of the perpetrators of the torture and when they give up and let off torturing, if ever. It’s not so simple of an answer.

    I would also like to point out that with the idea of God being true and having a plan to be worked out as the end-game scenario for humanity, it certainly is not one mad man with a life-destroying machine. He has already laid down how this world will end, so even though humans are capable of obliterating themselves, this will not happen ever, should God be true (which, of course, I believe). Of course, many do not believe in God, so self destruction is a very real possibility to them. In some minds, our mad scientist spoken of here is something to be feared, and fodder for many a spy/hero movie.

  • Bill Neish says:

    A thoughtful provoking post dsg… When anyone says coerce someone’s will I can’t help but wonder if Jesus would do the same. I can see atheists all over the mad scientist to torture him/her, but as a follower of Christ we are called to a different standard.

    When James says to do good I don’t think he meant at the expense of torturing (coercion). Otherwise it is easy to justify any behaviour as being for the greater good and who gets to decide it is for the greater good? Isn’t this what Hitler and all the dictators thought? Stamp out the opiate (religion) for the greater good?

    I cannot see a scenario where coercion is justified for the Christian. Why didn’t God just coerce Lucifer if that was the case and look how much better off we all would be… but God has a better plan so we need to trust in that and do good to all and not just the ones we favour.

  • dsg727 says:

    I do agree we are called to a higher standard. I do agree that we should not use James 4:17 to justify ANY behavior regarding situational ethics. ANY behavior is not the point, though. It’s a compelling idea about what could be done by God, but He also told Israel to utterly wipe out pagan cultures in close proximity due to their ultimate bad influence upon His people. In such a case, EVIL was being brought under subjection. This is what I think torture is in an ideal sense; an instrument to bring evil under subjection.

    If it is in fact evil we are attempting to subject and that evil is couched in the will of a person bent on enacting their evil will, then we are justified as a society to stop this evil. I do see, though, how torture is a heinous thing and should not be our go-to response. If putting to death was the way to stop the evil, then that is something we grasp more easily. If the ONLY, ONLY way to stop the evil is torture, then it should be tried. Thwarting the mad scientist is ideal and preferential, if possible, but the article talks about the ONLY way. Finding ANY other way first is best, of course.

    Consider other methods of controlling or subjugating evil. We lock up criminals to coerce them into a “proper” behavior and that’s done in what on it’s face appears non-physical. We are trying to get them to behave “properly”. Well, torture, in my opinion, is that same idea sped up. Physics will tell you that when there is more speed, there is more energy (force). The faster we coerce someone to “proper” behavior, the more powerful the force is against them, i.e. physical pain. Torture, in the most non-evil sense (if you personally can imagine that), is for getting out of the person what is sought from them as fast as possible. Torture used in the most evil sense is for perpetuating evil, as described in this article.

    It would be interesting to know how a group of true Christ followers would act against our mad scientist in order to stop his evil. Even imagining what Jesus would do (WWJD) in the same situation is very difficult. Jesus healed the demoniac and he stopped being wild and terrorizing people, but that was instantly. He did not sit with the man and use gentle interrogation techniques to eventually heal the man and stop the threat he posed to others.

    Good discussion. Thank you. I will let you have the last word, if you wish…

  • Bill Neish says:

    I love talking about the Bible so it’s hard to get me to stop! 🙂

    If I understand correctly your main point is that God wiped out close by pagan cultures in the past so it may be okay for us to consider using force to subjugate evil.

    I would start off by saying it is flawed to think that to coerce is the ONLY, ONLY way. Hypothetical situations are fun to think about but they are rarely real and there is always a choice, like do nothing.

    Secondly reading the OT descriptions of Israel’s conquest of Canaan are difficult passages at best. If you look closely at the context, God will often direct to destroy every breathing thing and they obey and then later in the same book it will say that they had not wiped out that culture. A good example is Joshua, Joshua at the end says that he did all the Lord commanded him (wiping out “pagan cultures”) and the people then ask: who is going to defend us against the Canaanites? Looking at non-Biblical contextual sources there is evidence that this refers to wiping military cities and supporting infrastructure but that God’s plan was to drive out the citizen inhabitants slowly so Canaan would not turn to a wasteland.

    Anyway, both interpretations have pro’s and con’s but I would hesitate to assume that God directed Israel to wipe out “cultures” and that it may be okay for us to do the same.

    Finally, it is not good for us to play God. Only God knows the full context and so what He directed the Israelites to do He directed us differently so I think our current context is clear that we are to do good to them that despise us and evilly seek to do us harm and to pray for them but likely not while torturing them… 🙂

    In conclusion, I watched the video’s last night on Richard Wurmbrand (I’d never heard of him) and I think he had it right. It almost reduces me to tears that Richard could be praying for his torturer’s in that dark place and God used Richard to bring Himself glory even through suffering these awful torments. I should never participate in doing the same to others… that is where I think the most convincing Biblical evidence leads me.

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful discussion DSG, and I hope to hear your final thoughts.


  • Bill Neish says:

    By the way, I didn’t address your comments on other ways to subjugate evil like locking folks up (preventing further harm) or defending oneself, freedom or country. I don’t think that evil should go unpunished or unchecked and God will punish evil as well, but I never see a context where God tries to force someone’s “will” and that is the part I am uncomfortable with in the context of torture or coersion. That appears to only be in the context of the tools the devil uses… where he tries his best to force the minds or will of God’s people.

    I think God gives freedom of choice as a very basic principle, regardless of where the abuse of that gift has taken us. Coersion strikes me as trying to take away what God gave all people. In the end God will restore our status like a big reset button, but until then evil (rebellion against God) is playing out for all to see it’s evil effects.

    Sorry about another final word… 🙂

  • dsg727 says:

    Since you requested a follow up…

    [If I understand correctly your main point is that God wiped out close by pagan cultures in the past so it may be okay for us to consider using force to subjugate evil.]

    Only God has the authority to kill. He has provided us the rule for when it is proper. He has not given man authority on his own to kill, but He has given man instructions for when it is proper. Yes. I firmly believe that God ordered these killings for the same reason He did the Flood, which was to wipe out those that had gone completely reprobate, never to choose God’s offer of grace. Pardon the expression but He had to “stop the bleeding” of sin, if you will. These pagan peoples surrounding Israel were of such degree. They were lost totally to God’s offer of grace, having fully rejected it for generations, only to teach their successive generations to sin as greatly. No hope remained and they were to be “taken out of the way” for Israel. Not obeying God in doing so caused them to continually have struggles in staying true to their own God. Remember, they did not have the Holy Spirit in them like we do, so it should not be appalling to us that they kept having their problems. God righteously judged these nations with the edge of the Israelite sword, for there was no other way for them, and He was protecting His own. Man has a choice ALWAYS with God and God ALWAYS provides a means of reconciliation. Reject it to your own peril, as it were. God has given us the structure of law and authority, so yes, we have reason for subjugating evil as directed by God.

    [Looking at non-Biblical contextual sources there is evidence that this refers to wiping military cities and supporting infrastructure but that God’s plan was to drive out the citizen inhabitants slowly so Canaan would not turn to a wasteland.]

    I can’t speak to this as I don’t know the content of the sources. What I do know is that Israel did not always obey God in removing the nations He told them to do so. This is why, again, they had such problems. They left remnants where they should not have. Other cultures influenced them and they fell into idolatry.

    [I would hesitate to assume that God directed Israel to wipe out “cultures” and that it may be okay for us to do the same.]

    I’m not saying this at all. Only God gives authority and reason to kill.

    [our current context is clear that we are to do good to them that despise us and evilly seek to do us harm and to pray for them but likely not while torturing them… ]

    Only if the USA were comprised entirely of Born Again Christians. We are not, yet we must defend ourselves, even if we were all BAC’s. Ideally, Israel was to let God go before them in battles against evil, pagan nations, and that was only for the purposes of obtaining the promised land from those nations. I don’t recall any invasions of other lands that were not part of the promised land, so then battles would only be in defense of the promised land. This is where lots of people can’t stand the USA, as we are in nations all over the world, but again, because we are not a BAC country and we are operating like any other fearful nation. We have the power to be all over and do so, I hope, for the purpose of maintaining a presence of power there, which, in a way, is defensive. It’s just done so by trust and pride in our might and power. Faith in our protector God (as should have been the mindset of the Israelites) would keep us out of places He did not instruct us to go (if you think of us like Israel of old).

    This is all my opinion based on what understanding I have of Scriptures.


  • Bill Neish says:

    Well, it was a good discussion and I appreciate your opinions. Thank you DSG.

    • Thank you both for the lively discussion. I just want readers not to get distracted from the main point of the article. It was not intended to take a position on whether torture is ever justifiable. The main point is: “Ideas have consequences.”

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