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Bonhoeffer on Death

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

My friend and I had both read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas* many years ago. It is a hard read - 1. because it is long (544 pages) and 2. because it has hundreds of German names that get very confusing. But what an incredible book! Well worth plowing through.

This book is about "a righteous gentile vs. the Third Reich." Dietrich Bonhoeffer was from a privileged cultured family. He became a pastor and became part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. The book journeys through his life. What would make a man of God decide the best option was to kill the leader of his country?

As we all know, the conspiracy to kill Hitler failed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was caught. Imprisoned. And hung on April 9, 1945 - just 14 days before Flossenburg Concentration Camp was liberated.

By the time it was all over, Dietrich's parents had paid a high price.

  • Two sons are executed by the Nazis.

  • Two son-in-laws are executed by the Nazis.

  • Dietrich's mother's brother was executed by the Nazis.

  • Their daughter and their granddaughter's husband were imprisoned by the Nazis, but survived.

Bonhoeffer is such a great book that my friend and I decided to re-read it slowly - just 2-3 chapters at a time and get together to discuss. We have been at this 31 chapter book for over a year and a half now. Nearing the end.

We just discussed something that had a profound impact on me. Let me set the scene.

Years earlier Bonhoeffer had set up a seminary where he trained men to become pastors. Later when the war starts, these pastors were targeted by the Nazis. Many of these men were faced with the decision to be drafted (often to the front lines) or to be a conscientious objector and be executed. Bonhoeffer stayed in contact with these men by correspondence.

In 1941 Bonhoeffer wrote to the about a hundred ordinands to inform them that four of their brothers had been killed on the eastern front. Bonhoeffer thought and articulated on a whole different level than most of us do. I'm just going to give you what Bonhoeffer wrote to his friends about the death of their brothers in Christ.

Who can comprehend how those whom God takes so early are chosen? Does not the early death of young Christians always appear to us as if God were plundering his own best instruments in a time in which they are most needed? Yet the Lord makes no mistakes. Might God need our brothers for some hidden service on our behalf in the heavenly world? We should put an end to our human thoughts, which always wish to know more than they can, and cling to that which is certain. Whomever God calls home is someone God has loved. "For their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness" (Wisdom of Solomon 4). (383)

[Wisdom of Solomon is a deuterocanonical book - part of the Apocrypha. Verse is Wisdom of Solomon 4:14.]

Let's stop right there. Who of us knows someone who has died way too young? My own mother died at the age of 51. It seemed horribly unfair to me. It seemed like God had made a mistake.

Might God need our brothers for some hidden service on our behalf in the heavenly world?

This sentence just blew me away. This is a completely new thought for me. Do I believe it? I do. The older I get and the more I learn, I am convinced this world isn't the world. I completely believe that there is a violent battle between good and evil going on and the vast majority of the time we aren't even aware of it. The concept that God might need our loved ones for something in the heavenly world is something that has never occurred to me. You might think it is hooey, but remember Isaiah 55:8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. Can you at least acknowledge we do not know the good God is doing although He has promised us in Romans 8:28 that He is doing it. I agree with Bonhoeffer that we must put an end to our human thoughts which cannot even begin to fathom how God is working in our lives.

We know, of course, that God and the devil are engaged in battle in the world and that the devil also has a say in death. In the face of death we cannot simply speak in some fatalistic way, "God wills it", but we must juxtapose it with the other reality, "God does not will it." Death reveals that the world is not as it should be but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death. Here the sharp antithesis between "God wills it" and "God does not will it" comes to a head and also finds its resolution. God accedes to that which God does not will, and from now on death itself must therefore serve God. From now on, the "God wills it" encompasses even the "God does not will it." God wills the conquering of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God's power, and it must now serve God's own aims. It is not some fatalistic surrender but rather a living faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us, that is able to cope profoundly with death. (383-384)

Now you are getting a glimpse of why Bonhoeffer is hard to read. It isn't just the length or the German names, but also the thought. Profound ideas are put forth. Concepts I've never really thought about before.

When people ask me if I believe in predestination (not that I get asked that too often), what Bonhoeffer wrote is in line with what I believe and how I try to answer them. God did not predestine who will be saved and who will not be. He lets that choice to accept His free gift up to us. What God predestines is the way we will be saved - through Jesus Christ. So that what "God does not will" still falls under the "what God wills."

Bonhoeffer goes on to tell the pastors that we are daily dying with Jesus Christ. Those who live with Christ die daily to their own will. ... our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into with the One who at his own death was able to say, "It is finished." (384)

Bonhoeffer was encouraging his friends who were witnessing death all around them that God is still God and He is in control. That physical death is not the end. That the hope we profess is certainty. I am to the place where I am no longer afraid to die because I know this world is not my home. And that knowledge is a joyous way to live.

*Metaxas, Eric; Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

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