Five Insights on Death and Dying From Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, returned to Germany from study in America in 1931, where his experience of the black churches helped him turn his faith “from phraseology to reality.” He quickly became a leader of the Christian resistance to the Nazis, while the German Protestant churches came to support the regime. In 1933, at 27, he was one of the first to condemn the Nazi’s oppression of the Jews, saying Christians should not just “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” Though safe in England after taking a pastorate there in 1933, in 1935 he returned to Germany. He led the strongest Christian resistance to the regime, eventually joining a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943. He was executed with the other conspirators on Hitler’s direct order on April 9th, 1945. 

 

God Does Not Will It

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.

Death Transformed

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 not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. 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.

How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish, we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death. Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon the time which we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavor, enjoyment, and suffering. Time lost is time not filled, time left empty.

The Loss of Someone Dear to Us

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

Homesick for Heaven

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. Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up.

The Death of the Young

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.”

 

The first and last quotes come from one of his circular letters (the letter of 15 August 1941) to his seminarians after their illegal seminary was shut down. The middle three come from his Letters and Papers From Prison. The quote in the last is a paraphrase of the Book of Wisdom 4:14.

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