Over the last few months I’ve been on a bit of a World War I history binge. Less than a year ago the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day was celebrated. With that milestone a great deal of new content is being produced on the subject, reigniting interest in this worldwide conflict. With all that in mind, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the war that I think can both help us better understand our world today, and how to navigate it as Christians. It’s been 100 years, but what can World War I show Christians today?
WWI Shows Senseless Death of Innocents
They say war never changes, but I think many might have disagreed with that in 1914. It’s true, there had always been wars for what seems to us a rather silly cause. But suddenly the means of carrying out those wars changed dramatically. With the introduction of machine guns, heavy artillery, toxic gas, tanks, airplanes, submarines, and so much more, the death toll rose higher than anyone could have possibly imagined. Individual battles, such as Verdun or Ypres, had death tolls surpassing entire wars in history up to that point. No longer could you see the valiant cavalry charges or Spartan last stands of old. Instead there was simply a grueling, drawn out stalemates of sticking men into dirty trenches, as they try not to get killed in the meat grinder of machine gun fire and artillery shells.
We like to look back on that and say, “Never Again.” We want to believe that we won’t sacrifice so many lives for such a meaningless cause again. And yet you don’t even have to leave the United States border to find senseless death. Maybe we don’t draft our young men to go die in a pointless war of politics, but we do sit back as thousands of innocent unborn children are killed every day. Back then it was justified with reasons like patriotism, land ownership, or making sure their deaths were not in vain. Nowadays we defend it in the name of liberation, gender equality, and population control. In both cases we might call those good causes, but how much are they worth? What can World War I show Christians? That we’re just as stubborn as we were 100 years ago. How many innocents must be killed before they realize the war is not worth it? How many before we decide that abortion is wrong?
WWI Shows A Worldview of Meaninglessness
I think there is another reason that we are seeing the rising interest in this particular war. In many ways it perfectly illustrates the nihilism many are coming to see in their own lives. WWI often gets overshadowed by its sequel, in part because WWII was a much more black and white conflict. There were clear heroes and villains that make it a much more dramatic story. But as the world steps further away from black and white, and into a godless grey relativism, it makes sense that a fascination with one of the grayest wars of all time would grow. Imagine the frustration of all those soldiers on the western front. You go in, realize you can’t survive the gunfire, so you dig a trench. You can’t leave the trench, and neither can they, so we both just sit here in misery until one of us dies. But even if one side kills the other and wins war, so what? Maybe they get some land, or perhaps some kind of moral victory, but ultimately their only real victory was survival.
This is eerily similar to the world we are left with if there is no God. We fight to survive, and if we do especially well to not get killed first, we might get to live a little longer. Sure, maybe we find some personal meaning in it all that makes us happy, but that doesn’t change that we are living in a universe with no ultimate purpose.
Richard Dawkins aptly summarized his own view of the world, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” That really ought to fill atheists with a great deal of hope and inspiration, I guess.
Show Them the Hope WWI Lacked
The good news is nihilism is not the only view of the world. “The Great War” can be used to introduce and show the problems with an atheistic worldview and how hopeless they are without God. But if the story ends there, all it leaves them with is depression or delusion. Instead, we need to take the next step to showing why there is hope. There is a point to all the suffering we endure. There is a God who went in with a plan for our salvation. It’s because of him, and what he did for us, that we can see that there is more to this world than pitiless indifference. It’s the reason why we can say that these senseless deaths were a tragedy. If we’re all going to die anyway, and none of it matters, so what if a few million men die for king and country? What can World War I show Christians today? It shows us a pointless and hopeless life, but gives us great opportunities to point people to hope.
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