They’re a strange thing consciences. Trouble is, what feels best isn’t necessarily what works best.
-Richard Rampton, “Denial”
Did the Holocaust happen? How do you know? What does it matter? This is the story that unfolds in the 2016 movie Denial. It stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish history professor at Emory University. In the mid-1990s she was accused of libel by British “historian” David Irving, portrayed by Timothy Spall, for her comments about his argument that the Holocaust never happened and no Jews were ever systematically murdered by Nazi Germany. What follows is the story of their court case that set out to determine primarily the reliability of Irving’s claims, but ultimately if the idea of denying the existence of the Holocaust is a credible way to live.
Midway through the film, one of Lipstadt’s lawyers, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), finally has a chance to question Irving about his views. In Rampton’s opening speech he discusses Irving’s adoption of a Holocaust view held by Fred Leuchter, even going so far as to writing the introduction to Leuchter’s book. Rampton comments on this, saying:
Unfortunately for Mr. Irving, the Leuchter report is bunk and he knows it. So why did Mr. Irving embrace the Leuchter report with such enthusiasm? Why did he choose to publish it himself and even write the introduction? Well, the answer must be that he wanted it to be true.
If you think about it, our lives at the core are a search and pursuit of truth. To find it, trust it, and live by it. Or, so we think. Sometimes, we can honestly say we are searching for what is true. Other times, if we were honest, we are searching for what we want to be true.
Why is this? We know deep down that truth, no matter what it is, can bring a certain measure of security, even if it’s bad news. Yet often, we tend to seek out our own truth, what we want to be true, and we scratch and claw for any supporting evidence. There are several different ways that we do this.
The most common and visual way we deny truth is intellectually. In a way, this makes sense (if denying truth can make sense). You cannot fault a person for not being able to make sense of intellectual details and logical thought at times. Sometimes there are just things that don’t make sense to our minds.
Not only is this the most common form of denial, it is also usually the easiest to cure. If it’s true that we simply do not have enough evidence or lack the understanding to grasp the evidence we do have, we can usually come to understand it over time. This is not always the case, but there are times in our life where, if we put forth the effort, we discover that our minds can stretch farther and deeper than we ever thought possible.
Denial of the Heart
But often, denial of the truth can be evidence of a deeper issue. Many times, we are like David Irving. We deny a truth because we don’t want it to be true.
Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, is a great example of denying a truth that he didn’t want to be true. As he was searching for what he believed was the obvious truth that the resurrection of Jesus was a hoax, he quickly discovered that the evidence was mounting against that belief. And yet, because he didn’t want to believe it, he continued to press into his denial.
If you haven’t noticed the news media are professionals at this. If they like a person, they absolutely turn a blind eye to anything they do wrong. If they don’t like a person, they will go so far as to completely make up stories to try and ruin their reputation.
Why do we do this? Could it be fear of the truth? It’s interesting to note that the part of our brain that triggers fear works faster than the part that triggers reason. That means that when we are afraid our ability to make sense of our surroundings and experiences can become hindered.
This is certainly a reason people deny the truth. Look at Lee Strobel again. The evidence he discovered went completely against everything he believed; and this frightened him. Why was he afraid of Jesus’ resurrection? Because if that is true, it requires something of us. If that is true, then everything Jesus said is true. And Jesus said many things that people do not want to believe.
The truth of the existence of God is a terrifying truth for many people. Thomas Nagel, an atheist, has a quote that is one of the most honest responses to God I have ever read. It is also one of the most heartbreaking. Nagel says:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind …. This is a somewhat ridiculous situation …. [I]t is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist.
Do you see what Nagel is saying? He is saying that not only does he think it is foolish to let your life be driven by wanting God to exist, but it also foolish to be controlled by the desire of not wanting God to exist. It is foolish to not believe in something simply because you don’t want to; just as it is foolish to believe in something that isn’t true just because you want it to be.
Maybe it’s not fear of the truth itself that drives our denial. Maybe it is the fear of not being in control. This can be a struggle for many people, especially when it comes to belief in God. If it is true that an all-powerful God exists, it must also be true that He is ultimately in control. That means I am not. And we don’t want that to be true. If God exists, He is in control, and we don’t want that; not because we don’t believe God can handle it, but because it means we are no longer in control. Our lives are no longer our own if God is real. And we want to rule our lives.
If we are honest we all do this at some point in our lives. Maybe it’s about God. Maybe it’s about something or someone else. But we all do it. We get something set in our mind that we want to be true, and no amount of reality will shake that belief as long as we desire to see the truth that we have created for ourselves.
Unfortunately, our sinful desires cloud our minds and senses so that the truth is not always clear. Many times, it is hidden in plain sight; and it is hidden because we ourselves have hidden it. We have removed it from view and replaced it with our own sense of what is true. This can be with someting as big as God or as small as the experiences of our everyday lives.
So, in those moments we must ask ourselves, “What do I see?” Do I see the truth, supported by evidence that makes sense of my experiences? Or do I see something else? Do I see what I want to see? Am I myself piecing together an experience that satisfies my desires, whether they be selfish or fearful or, as Nagel put it, because I “don’t want the universe to be like that”? Or am I truly seeing reality for what it is, even if I don’t like it?
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.