In his book River Out of a Eden, Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins explains, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”(1) In a similar vein, Dawkins praises the humorous rejoinder of Douglas Adams to arguments that claim an apparent order and purpose in the universe. Writes Dawkins, “To illustrate the vain conceit that the universe must be somehow preordained for us because we are so well suited to live in it, [Adams] mimed a wonderfully funny imitation of a puddle of water, fitting itself snugly into a depression in the ground, the depression uncannily being exactly the same shape as the puddle.”(2) Their claim is clear: Humanity has adapted to a blind and indifferent universe like water to the shape of its container. It is perhaps a claim that at times lingers suggestively in desolate places of life and mind.
Ernest Gordon may, too, have at one time agreed. An officer of the British army during the Second World War, he was captured by the Japanese while at sea. At the age of 24, he was sent to work in the prison camp that would be constructing the Burma-Siam railroad.
For every mile of track, 393 men are said to have died. Wearing nothing but loincloths, they worked for hours in scorching temperatures, chopping their way through tangled jungles. Those who paused out of exhaustion were beaten to death by guards. Treated like animals, the prisoners became themselves like beasts trying to survive. Adapting to their harsh captivity, theft was as rampant as disease among them. Gordon himself eventually became so weak from illness that he was removed from the common camp and placed in the Death House. He describes his purposeless existence in that cruel and indifferent setting: “I was a prisoner of war, lying among the dead, waiting for the bodies to be carried away so that I might have more room.”(3)
Each night the Japanese guards would count the work tools before anyone was permitted to return to camp. One evening, when a shovel was found to be missing, a guard shouted relentlessly that the guilty man must present himself. When no one responded, he ordered callously, “All die! All die!” At this, a young man stepped forward, confessing to the theft, and was immediately killed before them.
The railroad prison camp by the River Kwai was a place where many could have observed in horror that “the universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no God watching over those in dire need of hope.” Like water conforming to the shape of its container, the captured men became like men fighting to survive, void of right and wrong, void of reverence for life, void of all meaning. Yet, amidst the stagnant waters of hatred and bitterness, something was astir.
After the incident with the shovel, upon returning to the camp, one of the guards discovered a mistake in their counting. There had never been a missing shovel. The young man that stepped forward was innocent; he had sacrificed his life to preserve the lives of his fellow inmates. After this incident, attitudes among the camp began to change dramatically. Instead of men in a detached game of survival of the fittest, they began to look out for each other. One of the men remembered the words of Scripture: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Gordon, who once lay forgotten for dead, was slowly nursed back to health by fellow prisoners. Fully recovered, he eventually became a makeshift chaplain of the camp. When the prison was liberated in 1945–three years after his capture–Gordon entered seminary to become a minister of the message of Jesus Christ. “Faith thrives where there is no hope but God,” he later testified. How contrary to the words of Richard Dawkins.
The transformation in the men of the prison was so thoroughly unlike the world they were forced to live in that one could argue it was more like a waterfall defying gravity and moving upstream than a puddle naturally fitting into the crevice that holds it. The sacrifice of one innocent man can reverse the flow of history. Perhaps the kingdom of God is indeed among us, a spring of living water in a dry and weary land.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.
(2) As printed in The Guardian, May 14, 2001.
(3) Ernest Gordon, To End All Wars (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963).