On February 25, 1649, three rabbis convened a trial against God Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth. Although the defendant’s problematic behavior was nothing new, the decision to bring him at last before the bar was sparked by a fresh atrocity—a pogrom in which every Jew in the town of Shamgorod, save two, had been slain.
The trial was a fantasy, imagined by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel for his 1979 play The Trial of God. But like Arthur Miller’s allegory on McCarthyism in The Crucible, Wiesel’s 17th-century pogrom was anchored in a more recent horror—the Holocaust, of which Wiesel was the sole survivor in his immediate family.
Wiesel was justified in feeling that a God who claimed to be both all-loving and all-powerful had a lot to answer for.
It wasn’t the first or last fictional depiction of God on trial. The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov interrogates and banishes Jesus; in two different films, an Australian fisherman and a Gujarati atheist sue God when their insurance companies refuse to pay for the loss of a boat/shop due to an act of God; and in the 14th-century tract Consolatio peccatorum, seu Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum, Lucifer sues Christ for trespassing in Hell after his crucifixion.
There have also been several real-world suits against God, with plaintiffs including a lawyer’s secretary whose house was struck by lightning, a Nebraska state senator and atheist who sought “a permanent injunction ordering God to cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats”; a convicted murderer in Romania who pursued a breach of contract suit against God for failing to protect him from the Devil despite his baptism (the contract); and an Indian lawyer who sued Rama for abusing his wife, Sita.
Although the fictional trials had varying outcomes, all of the real-world actions ended the same: it was judged impractical, or otherwise unthinkable, to hold the god in question to account for his actions or inactions.
But there’s another instructive difference between fact and fiction here. Fiction has the freedom to focus on the trial and the charges. The idea itself is allowed to play out for our consideration. But in actual cases, whenever an unimpeachable god is placed in the dock, the fury of his followers becomes the real story. Each of the actual plaintiffs above was the recipient of a torrent of abuse from the faithful for the very suggestion that their god might be criminally culpable for the mayhem in his wake. This is important: The charge itself doesn’t even enter into it. It’s the very idea of accountability that is unthinkable.
The current god in the dock
The criminal indictment of Donald Trump—the whole Trump saga, really—has less to do with him than with his followers, whose devotion not coincidentally mimics religious fervor. Like every other manmade god, he gave them something they yearned for. Whereas Jehovah conquered death, Trump conquered political correctness, “wokeness,” a world in which their dominance was under threat. It felt amazing to be liberated from that threat. They weren’t the crazy ones, he said—it was everyone else! And with their support, he (and he alone) would set things right again.
In return, like religious zealots, they’ve declared his culpability unthinkable. Putting him at risk puts that feeling at risk. No evidence, no matter how overwhelming, can dislodge their faith in him and in the vile wrongness of his persecutors.
Even if he is found guilty, nothing will change for the true believers because nothing can change. As Robert McAfee Brown said in his introduction to Wiesel’s Trial of God:
The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence”, the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers”, and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.
So it goes.
Special Counsel Jack Smith said, “We have one set of laws in this country, and they apply to everyone.” But in the compartmented heads of the faithful, that is simply unthinkable.