Bonhoeffer on Christian Death
April 27, 2011
[Before you inform me of how flawed Eric Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer is, I know; I’ve been so informed in the past when I first quoted something from his book. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to finally finish this book, since I started it, and it was a Christmas gift from my mom; I’m reading it with a critical eye, but I’m going to finish it!]
As I am closing in on the last bit of the Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer I’ve come across another quote of Bonhoeffer that I wanted to share. This quote is a circular letter that he sent to the ordinands of the Confessing church, of which he served as one of its central leaders. This letter was circulated in August 1941, just when Hitler started his gruesome march on the Soviet Union; in it, he reflects upon what Christian death means, and how each of us (as Christians must face it, some, for no apparent reason to us, earlier than others):
Today I must inform you that our brothers Konrad Bojack, F.A. Preuß, Ulrich Nitack, and Gerhard Schulze have been killed on the eastern front. . . . They have gone before us on the path that we shall all have to take at some point. In a particularly gracious way, God reminds those of you who are out on the front to remain prepared. . . . To be sure, God shall call you, and us, only at the hour that God has chosen. Until that hour, which lies in God’s hand alone, we shall all be protected even in greatest danger, and from our gratitude for such protection ever new readiness surely arises for the final call.
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 Solom 4).
We know of course, that God and the devil are enraged 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. Fron 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.
In life with Jesus Christ, death as a general fate approaching us from without is confronted by death from within, one’s own death, the free death of daily dying with Jesus Christ. Those who live with Christ die daily to their own will. Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without. Christians receive their own death in this way, and in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into community with the One who at his own death was able to say, “It is finished.” (Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Circular Letter to the Confessing Churches August 1941,” cited by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 383-84)