Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Louis Zamperini. Two WWII prisoners of war. One imprisoned in Germany, the other in Japan. One survives, the other is killed. Two books published in 2010.
I’ve just finished reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (by Eric Metaxas, author of Amazing Grace) and Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit).
I didn’t say, “Hey, I feel like reading books about WWII prisoners of war.” It was rather random. My father recommended Bonhoeffer and my neighbor Steve recommended Unbroken. But as I was reflecting upon life and death on this Good Friday morning, I was struck by the similarities and differences between these two men, and wondered about their fates.
Why did Zamperini survive his multiple-year imprisonment and Bonhoeffer didn’t?
Zamperini was an Olympic athlete (5000 meters), who actually met Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. In 1942, he was part of a US Air Force crew that was forced to take out a damaged plane on a rescue mission and their plane crashed into a remote region of the South Pacific. For 47 days he and the pilot floated in a raft, until they were picked up by the Japanese. Unbroken tells his amazing story of survival in the midst of starvation and torture. He should have died multiple times, but miraculously survived. Not really a spiritual man, he prayed for deliverance along the way. (As they say, “No atheists in fox holes.”) God heard his prayer and he survived. Zamperini had a more dramatic conversion post-war involving Billy Graham. He’s still alive today at 96 years-old. There are some gruesome bits in the book, but overall it’s a great story. I highly recommend it. Hopefully, to be made into a film like Seabiscuit.
Bonhoeffer was a theologian (which doesn’t sound as exciting as a martyr, prophet or spy, but trust me, our lives are just as exciting as spies) who stood up to the Nazi’s during WWII. His books are classics: Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship (#1 Seed in Greatest Christian Books of All Time, March Madness edition). While at times I thought Metaxas’ book included too many quotations from letters, books and other documents, everything written by Bonhoeffer was gold. A great read. Personally, inspiring to me, as I humbling try to follow Bonhoeffer’s example (not getting killed by the Nazi’s though, hopefully). Bonhoeffer was captured in April 1943 and executed in April 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp. What a waste!
So, why did God allow Bonhoeffer to die at age 39 when he could have written so much more? What was God thinking? One might assume that God would be more interested in preserving the life of his devoted servant (Bonhoeffer) more than Zamperini, who was far from living a pious life.
Of course for that matter, I guess the same could be said for Jesus. What a waste! He could have done a lot more if God had allowed him to live to a ripe old age like Louis Zamperini. But then, our sins wouldn’t be atoned for. That would be a bad thing, particularly for those of us like me who have a lot of sins that require atonement. So, in a twisted way, I’m glad God didn’t spare Jesus’ life.
Thanks, God for sending your son to die for me, my family and my friends.
I know Bonhoeffer’s death wasn’t necessary to atone for the sins of the world, so why did God not allow him to survive?