Good Friday and Two WWII Prisoners (Bonhoeffer and Zamperini

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?

louis zamperini

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?

I’d rather go to the dentist

I don’t like grading papers.  I’d rather go to the dentist (and my dentist’s name is Dr Au–pronounced “Owww”, as in the sound one makes while grimacing in pain).

Unfortunately, my life is dominated by grading right now (I’m procrastinating by writing this blog post).  So, it’s nice to know that my savior, Jesus, who was incarnational in almost every way imaginable, was also involved in grading (sort of).  He understands my pain.

Last week in one of my classes we studied the Parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37).  A lawyer comes to test Jesus, asking him a question, ironically addressing Jesus as “Teacher” (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”).  Typically teachers give the tests, not students.

But Jesus usurps the lawyer’s role as teacher and responds to the question in his typical manner–with a question (2 actually: “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”)

The lawyer’s answer combines Deuteronomy 6:5 (“Love God…”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“Love neighbor…”).  It doesn’t take Jesus long to mark the lawyer’s oral examination (much quicker turnaround time than me): “You have answered correctly.”  Basically, an “A-plus.”

But the lawyer apparently wants extra credit, so he asks a follow-up question: “Who is my neighbor?” which prompts Jesus to tell the parable.  Afterwards, Jesus asks a follow-up question, “Who proved to be a neighbor?”  Tough question.  Probably not the priest or the Levite who both ignore the half-dead guy.  “The other guy?”  Apparently, this was the right answer, although Jesus doesn’t grade his answer.  (Jesus must not give extra credit either.  Or perhaps he’s just tired of grading?)

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t seem to be offended by the lawyer’s test, perhaps he sensed that the lawyer was genuinely curious about the question.

If you have a tough questions, ask Jesus, either in prayer or in the context in his body here on earth, the church.  In return, don’t be surprised if you get another question (the lawyer got 3), a story or a command (“Go and do likewise”).  Your response will be graded.

For a longer discussion of the parable, check out God Behaving Badly, pages 87-90.

What do you think–did Jesus like the lawyer’s question, or was he offended? 

The King Jesus Gospel 2

In chapter 2 of The King Jesus Gospel (2011), Scot McKnight focuses on the distinction between the gospel and salvation.  The problem in the evangelical church is that we’ve equated the two when that’s not what Scripture teaches.  Instead of calling ourselves “evangelicals” based on the Greek word euangelion (= gospel), Scot thinks it would be more accurate to call ourselves “soterians” based on the Greek word soteria (= salvation).  Although, he really wants us to have a more biblically informed view of the gospel, so we could accurately call ourselves evangelicals.

There’s part of me that wants to say, “Duh”.  Isn’t what Scot is saying obvious?  Apparently not, at least for many Christians in the US.  I was at a meeting recently where the leader spoke about “sharing the gospel”, but in reality he meant telling people how to make an expression of faith in Jesus in order to be saved.  That’s certainly important, but isn’t the gospel bigger than that?

At the end of the chapter, McKnight introduces us to the mysterious character “Pastor Eric.” (I wasn’t sure who Eric was so I had to double-check to see if he’d mentioned Eric previously, but I couldn’t find any.)  Pastor Eric exemplifies the problem since he is essentially a soterian.  For Eric, the gospel doesn’t involve a call to imitate Jesus, it isn’t an announcement that Jesus is Lord and King, it isn’t an invitation to the church.  That’s a problem.

In the rest of the book, Scot is going to help us understand what Jesus and the New Testament authors meant by the term “gospel”.  Sounds like an important discussion.

How is the gospel more than just telling people about how to be “saved”?