I have just completed reading Death and Life by Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian who witnessed to the truth of the Gospel through the nightmare of Hitler and the Nazi regime. It was written during the early years of the Second World War in response to the needs of his students who were forced to serve in the armed forces. It includes a letter to a soldier about death who was killed shortly thereafter when his plane was shot down. He writes to his former student:
“In death I am really and irretrievably and in actual fact at my end. But at the same time I am one whose history with God cannot stop, since I am called by my name and I am the friend of Jesus. The Resurrected One is victorious and I stand within his sphere of power. Once more it is his ‘alien’ life with which I am in fellowship and which brings me through everything and receives me on the other side of the gloomy grave. It is not the intrinsic quality of my soul nor something supposedly immortal within me that brings me through. No, it is this Wanderer who marches at my side as Lord and Brother and who can no more abandon me on the other side than he could let me out of his hand here on this side of the grave.
You know, of course, Paul Gerhardt’s resurrection hymn:
‘Now, I will cling forever, Christ’s member, to my head; My Lord will leave me never, But leads me through the dread. He rends death’s iron chain, He breaks through sin and pain, He shatters death’s dark thrall, I stay his friend through all.’
Should we then not make bold to interpret God’s march through the travail of history and through the carnage of war in just this way? Indeed, are we not in fact compelled thus to interpret and explain it? May God give us the grace not to withhold from our neighbor the message we owe to him about that march!”
Thielicke reviews all the secular and religious theories of death that were popular in his lifetime, e.g. that death is part of the natural rhythm of life, and that we achieve immortality through dying for a greater cause and for the tribe or nation to which we belong. He argues that it is in our relationship by faith with Christ that we are given dignity and eternal value because of what the Savior has accomplished for us in the Cross and the Resurrection. He concludes with this exposition of being in the kingdom of God.
“To stand in the realm of the Resurrected One’s power means to stand at the breakthrough point where Jesus has ruptured death’s front line. It means to be enveloped by his life, wherein what we normally call our life is but a small segment. It is the pasture of the pilgrim wherein my life in enveloped in his life. His life is precisely my time line during which I must believe and view the glory of God as in a glass darkly, yet someday I shall see him face to face and know him even as I now am known.
To stand in the realm of the Resurrected One’s power means to be surrounded by his life, which gives enough comfort that for his sake we can die daily. If we live, we live unto the Lord, if we die, we die unto the Lord. Unto the Lord! We are in his living hand and only his hand is alive! Thus the only way we can die is to die into his hand. We can only fall into the hands of the living one. And in addition the disciple has the promise that he will actually gain his life if he loses it for his Lord’s sake. For this Lord is alive and has indeed shattered the fetters of the prince of death. This world’s time dies, but the Lord remains.
To stand in the realm of the Resurrected One’s power means to have fellowship with God in Jesus therefore to possess no fellowship with death. It means that I have one Lord and therefore am incapable of being dominated by death, or by the gods and goods of this life.
I am, after all, a friend of Jesus. And where he is, there I too am to be. Is he not alive? Then I too am to live, and death shall not separate me from the love of God.”
In this month’s issue of Christianity Today there is a reflection by John Ortberg on Dallas Willard. When Dallas was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late summer 2012, he said, “I think that when I die, it might be some time until I know it.” He said that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. Jesus said that the one who trust in him will not taste death. Ortberg relates that he once called him when he was depressed and Dallas said, “This will a test of your joyful confidence in God.” When asked what is death, Dallas replied, “Jesus made a special point of saying those who rely on him and have received the kind of life that flows in him and in God will never experience death. Jesus shows his apprentices how to live in the light of the fact that they will never stop living.”
Thank God for the faithful witness of these two men to the truth of the Gospel.