The Death of Death and the Faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Each year during Holy Week, we join together on Good Friday to remember Jesus
Christ’s death on the cross. We often think that the term, “Good Friday”, is a misnomer.
How can this day be “good” when Roman soldiers mocked Jesus and then crucified Him
on a stake that was shaped like a cross? How can this day be “good” when our Savior
and Lord Christ cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”? How can it
be “good” when the heavens shrouded the world in mystifying darkness for three hours
in the middle of the day?
We know now, after God raised Jesus from the dead, that this terrible, frightening,
confusing “good” Friday became known in scripture as the day of Jesus’ glorification!
When Jesus died on the cross, according to scripture, He was glorified. He became the
true Lamb of God, as John the Baptist had prophesied, who took away the sin of the
world (John 1:29). Thus, Good Friday was the day, for Christians, that spiritual DEATH
DIED—and that IS good. During this Easter season, let us find hope that physical death
is really just one breath away from sliding spiritually across an invisible veil into God’s
eternal presence where all pain, tears, fear, anxiety and depression have disappeared,
and we are filled with the indescribable peace of God—that peace that “passes all
understanding”. Psalm 116:15 aptly expresses this truth, “Precious in the sight of the
Lord is the death of His saints”!
During Holy Week, I was reminded of the moving life and death of one of our modern
day martyrs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer wrote two excellent books, among others,
The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. One night I turned to his biography entitled,
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer was not a
perfect person, and some even question his and others’ motives during World War II to
remove Adolf Hitler from power. I respect that. But I was greatly moved near the
conclusion of Metaxas’ book by the exceptional faith and courage that Bonhoeffer
experienced in the hours just before his own “crucifixion”.
After Bonhoeffer and a few other prisoners were taken by the German Reich to a camp
in a small Bavarian village, the hungry men settled in for the night in a common cell in a
school. The next day, Sunday April 8th, one Sunday after Easter, one of the group
asked Dietrich to hold a service for them. I urge you to read with the eyes of your heart
as Metaxas describes this anointed moment with the other prisoners in the cell:
“So less than twenty-four hours before he left this world, Bonhoeffer performed the
offices of a pastor. In the bright schoolroom that was their cell, he held a small service.
He prayed and read the verses for that day: Isaiah 53:5 (“With his stripes, we are
healed”) and I Peter 1:3 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus! By his
great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus
Christ from the dead” RSV). He then explained these verses to everyone. Best [one of
the prisoners] recalled that Bonhoeffer ‘spoke to us in a manner which reached the
hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment . . .'"
Best described what happened next: “He had hardly finished his last prayer when the
door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said, ‘Prisoner
Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.’ Those words, ‘Come with us’—for all prisoners
they had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold. We bade him good-bye—he drew
me aside—‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life’” (Metaxas, p. 528).
Later the next day, April 9,1945, Dietrich was taken to the scaffolds in a town called
Flossenburg and hanged.
The doctor at the camp in Flossenburg was a Dr. H. Fischer-Hullstrung. Metaxas quotes
the doctor who saw Bonhoeffer just moments before his death, “On the morning of that
day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells, and the
verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of
the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor
praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man
prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution,
he again said a short prayer and then climbed [up] to the gallows, brave and composed.
His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a
doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Metaxas,
Metaxas quotes a sermon that Bonhoeffer had formerly preached when he served as a
pastor in London: “‘No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has
yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour,
waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence . . . Why are
we so afraid when we think about death? . . . Death is only dreadful for those who live in
dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to
God’s Word. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly
power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy,
the everlasting kingdom of peace’” (Metaxas, p. 531).
Metaxas writes further, “Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of the Christian—and the
privilege and honor—to suffer with those who suffered. He knew that it was a privilege
to be allowed by God to partake of the sufferings of the Jews who had died in this place
before him” (p. 532). Later, on July 27, a memorial service at Holy Trinity Brompton was
held for Dietrich and his brother Klaus who had also been killed. Incidentally, this is the
same church where the well-known Alpha Course was first presented.
Let us celebrate this Easter season, praising our Lord Christ that, in the words of the
Apostle Paul, “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we
might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Like our Lord Christ and
our brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer, may we live a life that rejoices in the death of death
through our Lord Christ, and likewise be emboldened to live in such a way that Christ is
proclaimed, whether through life or death.