Can death be beautiful? It’s an odd thought. If some good can come from death greater than its consequences it could be considered beneficial. But beautiful? I was unexpectedly faced with this question after reading two recently published books detailing the lives of two men who suffered through horrendous evils of WWII. I learned that to approach this question requires us to know what death really means. We’ll look at four ways.
Definition #1: Physical death is the end of suffering in this world
The deadliest man-caused event in the history of the world occurred on August 4th 1945 when the first atomic bomb deployed in combat ignited the sky over Hiroshima, a Japanese city of over 300,000 souls. The ensuing chaos makes the actual death count unclear, but it’s quite likely up to half the city perished from the blast. It's hard to rationalize this horror, especially when we fail to place it in the context of the incredible evil happening in Japan those years.
Useful insight of events leading up to the bomb can be found in the eye-opening book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the story of Olympic runner and WWII veteran Louie Zamperini. As an upcoming world-class track star, he was expected to be first to break the 4 minute mile and was even personally congratulated by Adolf Hilter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Soon after war erupted and he never broke that record.
Louie entered the Army as a B-24 bombardier in the Pacific Theater. Tragically, after a couple near-misses, Louie’s plane and entire crew finally went down at sea as many of them did. Surviving the crash, he endured 47 days at sea making him and his raft-mate the longest known survivors at sea. He spent his ordeal on a damaged raft with almost no food, water, shelter, or supplies. He was under constant threat from man-eating sharks, sun blisters, lice, infection, hallucination, starvation, dehydration, mental fatigue, and enemy aircraft. When Louie eventually found land it was in hostile territory and he was quickly captured by the Japanese. That’s when things really got bad.
Of all the horrors facing downed men, the one outcome that they feared the most was capture by the Japanese. The roots of the men’s fear lay in an event that occurred in 1937, in the early months of Japan’s invasion of China. The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED [an order common enough to be known as the “kill-all” policy]. What followed was a six-week frenzie of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking. [i]
As a result of this fear, many would rather have died in combat than be captured alive. As the example of Nanking illustrates, military POWs weren’t the only targets of such cruelty. About a half-million foreign slave laborers populated the camps too. The Japanese terror campaign first raged upon the inhabitants of their newly occupied lands. Then as American and Allied forces entered the fray, thousands of them were either killed or imprisoned in hundreds of prison camps throughout Japanese controlled lands. In addition to routine executions and the “kill-all” policy, these camps hosted suffering of all kinds. At times, death came as a welcome relief to those lingering for months of forced labor, malnourishment, physical abuse, dehydration, disease, exposure to the elements, mental fatigue, medical experiments, sadistic games, and cannibalist rituals. In the context of this suffering, death may have seemed sweet. Zamperini was subjected to these things daily for 3 and a half years.
As Allied forces advanced and the war’s end neared, the situation for camp residents worsened. Hillenbrand recounts that for Louie, torment in the camps intensified as the fear of defeat grew in the minds of his captors. Although POWs were kept from hearing how much ground the Allies were gaining, this reality became evident by the actions of those around them. Louie recalled the agitation and fear of the guards translated into increased aggression upon the prisoners. He also noticed something different about the civilians in the nearby community as Japan’s defeat drew closer.
It was clear to them that Japan had long ago lost this war. But Japan was a long way from giving in. If a massively destructive air war would not win surrender, invasion seemed the only possibility. POW’s all over the country were noticing worrisome signs. They saw women holding sharpened sticks, practicing lunges at stacks of rice straw, and small children being lined up in front of schools, handed wooden mock guns, and drilled. Japan, whose people deemed surrender shameful, appeared to be preparing to fight to the last man, woman, or child. [ii]
The Japanese weren’t willing to lose. National pride was closely linked to individual identity and personal honor was valued higher than life itself. If Japan couldn’t win, her people would all die trying.
Now with an understanding of the greater context, let’s return to the atomic bombing at Hiroshima. Most of us learned the bombs were necessary to end the war, but many people don’t fully appreciate just how significant an end to this war really was. Calculating the decision must not have been just a math equation balancing numbers of human lives that could be saved versus those that may be lost. There was also the lesser known factor of evil at work behind the scenes. Here's the candid reaction of one recently liberated POW as he came upon Hiroshima’s ashes still smoldering:
A few trains slipped past Hiroshima. Virtually every POW believed that the destruction of this city had saved them from execution. John Falconer, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, looked out as Hiroshima neared. ‘First there were trees,’ he told historian Donald Knox. ‘Then the leaves were missing. As you got closer, branches were missing. Closer still, the trunks were gone and then, as you got in the middle, there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn't have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive to anyone else's human needs and suffering. I know it's not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn't. But I believed the end probably justified the means.’ [iii]
The prisoners saw for themselves the ashes of a city with half of its people destroyed and its buildings in ruin. Hearing one of them describe it as beautiful may be difficult to hear, but is understandable from the perspective of those on the receiving end of Japanese oppression.
Definition #2: Physical death as just punishment
America was thrust into war against Japan after their attack on Pearl Harbor. Who was at fault for this massive campaign of death? If Japan started it, should they pay the ultimate price? It’s easy to blame the loser. Besides, a nation launching itself into war may be morally justified under the right circumstances. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for Japan considering what motivated them to attack in the first place.
Hillenbrand touches on four different factors in Japan leading up to the war. First, Pearl Harbor illustrated the Japanese offensive spirit that launched their imperialist empire. Second, nationalism and personal honor created a will of the Japanese people to die fighting. Third, the racial elitism espoused by their government officials and news media of the time shows bigoted motives behind Japan’s conquest. And fourth, Japan’s nihilistic philosophy led naturally to widespread disregard for human welfare.
This wicked rationalization sounds strikingly similar to the Nazis. Both Germans and Japanese launched unprovoked offensives into peaceful territory. In both cases, the military’s drive was pushed by the people’s nationalistic pride and endured for shame of defeat. Both nations were driven by the perspective of racial superiority over their conquered people. Both knew they had to spread this vision by controlling information in the media and in schools. Underlying it all, key decisions in both regimes were made by people operating under an ultimately atheistic worldview. [iv]
Nazi war criminals grotesquely earned the despised legacy that will forever be attached to their name, but they weren’t the only bad guys. While people were suffering in Germany, human evil was alive and well on the other side of the world. Germany far exceeds them in total victim count, but Japan beat the Nazi’s in at least one regard: their POW mortality rate was 50% greater. Of the 132,000 Allied prisoners of war held in Japan (that we know of), nearly 36,000 died. Of Americans, only 6 of every 10 came home. Compare this to Nazi and Italian camps were 9 of 10 prisoners returned alive. [v]
Racism is a serious charge against the Japanese which may surprise some readers. So before moving on, perhaps more should be said. It’s not comfortable to think about people being racist on a grand scale, but it apparently wasn’t limited to Germany:
Central to the Japanese identity was the belief that it was Japan’s divinely mandated right to rule its fellow Asians, whom it saw as inherently inferior. “There are superior and inferior races in the world,” said the Japanese politician Nakajima Chikuhei in 1940, “and it is the sacred duty of the leading race to lead and enlighten the inferior ones.” The Japanese, he continued, are “the sole superior race of the world.” Moved by necessity and destiny, Japan’s leaders planned to ‘plant the blood of the Yamato [Japanese] race” on their neighboring nations’ soil. They were going to subjugate all of the Far East. Japan’s military-dominated government had long been preparing for its quest. Over decades, it had crafted a muscular, technologically sophisticated army and navy, and through a military-run school system that relentlessly and violently drilled children on the nation’s imperial destiny, it had shaped its people for war. Finally, through intense indoctrination, beatings, and desensitization, its army cultivated and celebrated extreme brutality in its soldiers.[vi]
Lest we think we’ve evolved beyond senseless violence in modern times, we can remind ourselves that the 20th century contains more human carnage than in the rest of history combined. Surely, violence runs throughout human history, but after 1900 something changed. With deaths suddenly counted in the tens of millions, no other century comes close even after accounting for population growth. So what led to this and how could anyone let it happen let alone the majority population of free nations?
The atrocities at the hands of willing human beings in both Japan and Germany happened simultaneously in cultures far removed and virtually independent of each other. Could the only common thread be their humanity? To answer this question requires a deep look into the nature of the human soul. Alexander Solzenitzyn reflected on this question during eight tumultuous years in the Soviet Gulag. In his book Gulag Archipelago Solzenitzyn acknowledges that innate evil rests not only in his fellow Russian tormentors:
Where did this wolf-tribe [officials who torture and kill] appear from among our people?
Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?
It is our own.
And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let
everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have
become just such an executioner?”
It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly[vii].
In other words, it’s not only Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Europeans, Japanese, Germans, Russians, Chinese, Cambodians, Ugandans, Haitians, Serbs, or Afghans who do these things. Humans do. And unless we’re not human, we’re not excused as somehow innately superior. Ordinary humans are capable of incredible evil. For those who agree, the guilt is enormous. For the rest, denial is just as big. In either case, we need a solution. Since man is the problem, the solution can’t be found in man alone.
It’s sobering news to realize we can each be just as evil as history’s worst villains. To fully appreciate that we’re all capable of horrendous evil certainly isn’t pleasant. Human morality can be so badly corrupted that even massive death in nuclear war is beautiful. It’s that bad. And that’s why we need a savior. If we weren’t capable of such evil, we wouldn’t need saving. But that we have evil in us means we can’t be reconciled with a God who won’t allow even a molecule of evil to go unnoticed. The only right thing for a morally perfect Being to do is bring justice, not mercy. Perhaps the reason God designed us for natural death is to limit the extent of our damage here on earth. It’s the world’s greatest mystery that God took it upon himself to allow us eternal life by offering us his son Jesus to take the penalties we deserve.
Definition #3: Death as the end of living only for ourselves
There’s more to the story of Louie Zamperini. After the war, Louie returned to California but couldn’t quite resume the life he dreamed of. Instead, the dream became a recurring nightmare of a prison guard he called “The Bird.” His wartime experiences left him emotionally unstable, overly dependent on alcohol, and unable to control his emotions. Louie started fights with strangers and his wife left him. But something happened to him that changed him more than anything else ever could.
Eventually, Louie found the God he prayed to on the raft while floating in the Pacific. It was the God he always knew was there, but it wasn’t the God he was expecting. It was the same God he prayed to from the raft but a God much different than he knew before. Rather than just someone to pray to in tough times, it was the God who is part of every aspect of life and reality. Through steadfast efforts by his wife and a Billy Graham crusade, he found God to be someone worth following and he’s done so ever since.
As the years passed, Louie’s hatred for The Bird miraculously diffused. Rage gave way to forgiveness. Despite his resistance, it was a grace that Louie could only find in the person of Jesus. Louie found that forgiveness released him from the bounds of anger, fear, and pain that gripped him since the war. If anyone deserved to be angry, Louie did. The “Bird” robbed him of his pride as a human being. But what Louie didn’t realize is that his pride was part of the problem.
Louie’s change was more than an internal feeling or religious expression. Before God came into Louie’s life, he hunted for the Bird in hopes of killing him with his own hands. After finding God, Louie still sought after the Bird. But instead of desiring vengeance, Louie only wanted to forgive him in person. Louie took his beliefs into action by visibly changing his life. He made several trips to Japan. In addition to searching for the Bird, Louie preached to POW prison guards incarcerated in Japan for war crimes. After embracing a new life seeking after Christ, he never had a nightmare of The Bird again. His wife returned to him and he’s lived a wonderful life ever since. Today he’s outlived them all and proudly tells his story.
Louie survived an amazing ordeal spanning 400 pages of single-spaced text. The book ends with an ironic truth found as a parallel in the gospel. To follow Christ, we must first die to ourselves (Luke 9:23-36). Louie survived only so that he could die. It was only when he was able to die to himself and live to follow Jesus that he was able to truly live in the sense that God designed him to. May we do likewise and discover how beautiful death really is.
Definition #4: Physical death is how we enter paradise
Maybe death can have beauty in another way - in a sense that transcends this world. After all, death exists only in this world before it’s no longer death. Once we die, we’re no longer in this world. If we’re right about this, then we’re worried about something that isn’t even in this world. As followers of Jesus, the end of this world is the beginning of paradise. So in fearing death, perhaps we’re afraid of something wonderful. What a waste!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and scholar in Germany prior to and during the Nazi regime. Not only was he a pastor but a well-schooled theologian who studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York and earned his doctorate from Berlin University. He also was well connected by relation or close friendship with Europe’s cultural elite. He was an outspoken critic of the Third Reich and involved with the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler for which he was eventually imprisoned and executed. After years of defending the traditional German church and seeking support from Christian leaders abroad, Bonhoeffer’s country degraded into unimaginable evil his resistance notwithstanding. Bonhoeffer considered death in this way:
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 – that is for young and old alike to think about. 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? [viii]
Beauty isn’t the first word we normally use to describe death. But maybe we need to understand what death means before we dismiss this seemingly odd proposition. First we’ve heard a POW survivor describe the beauty of nuclear holocaust as a means to end utmost suffering. Then we saw how death can bring about justice. Next, death was looked at as the end of living for oneself for the follower of Christ. Finally, Bonhoeffer describes death as being beautiful in the actual event itself. He considers that death may be the beginning of the most glorious moment we’ll ever experience if we trust in the Lord Jesus. This isn’t something we’re accustomed to hearing in our comfortable living room couches or even in our churches. For many in this world, anything not immediately satisfying our senses isn’t worth doing. Yet, as these stories of these brave Christian men and the gospel itself make clear, Christians aren’t always called to be comfortable. Sometimes truth is only found by those who live in real suffering and face evil directly. How shameful it would be if we were to ignore their lessons of those like Zamperini and Bonhoeffer. Once we understand what death really means, we too can see that it can be beautiful. More than that, it’s a gift from God.
[i] Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House. 2010. Kindle. P88.
[ii] Ibid. p291
[iii] Ibid. p315
[iv] Atrocities in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao, and in Cambodia under Khmer Rouge could be added to this list as well.
[v] Ibid. p315
[vi] Ibid. p43
[vii] Thanks to my friend and mentor Dr. Clay Jones for this reference on page 10 of his paper “We Don’t Take Human Evil Seriously So We Don’t Understand Why We Suffer” found here http://www.clayjones.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Human-Evil-and-Suffering.pdf in reference to a quote found in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago p160.
[viii] Metaxes, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Thomas Nelson: Nashville. Kindle. p531-532.