On March 24, 2015, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz took his place in the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 9525, originating in Barcelona, Spain. The destination was Düsseldorf, Germany.
Lubitz had done his research. He was ready. He just had to wait for the right opportunity.
That opportunity came when the pilot on the flight, Patrick Sondenheimer, asked Lubitz to take the controls and left the cockpit, presumably to use the restroom. The plane had reached its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet just a few minutes before.
Once he was alone in the cockpit, Lubitz locked the reinforced cockpit door, taking advantage of improvements to airline security made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Then he put the plane on a rapid descent path.
The pilot returned, and tried to re-enter the cockpit. When he couldn’t get in, he asked Lubitz on the intercom to open the door. There was no response. The pilot pounded on the door, and tried repeatedly to break it down, but the door held. Lubitz ignored both the pilot and questions from air traffic control over the radio. He did not transmit a distress call. Just before impact, the passengers began screaming. Through it all, Lubitz’s breathing remained steady, as recorded on the cockpit voice recorder.
Lubitz knew exactly what he was doing. The inescapable conclusion is that he intentionally flew the plane into the mountains in a remote part of France. Initial investigations revealed that he suffered from severe depression, and had been contemplating suicide. His weapon of choice for his suicide was airplane filled with 150 people, all of whom died instantly on impact. Among the dead were sixteen schoolchildren returning home from a student exchange trip.
This tragedy happened less than two weeks before the Sunday on which Western Christians celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How can we make sense of this senseless loss of 149 innocent lives at the hands of one man committing suicide under the stress of severe depression? Where is God in terrible disasters like this?
We do not know the day of our death
Easter is our celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. But let’s not forget that without death, there is no resurrection—and no Easter to celebrate.
The Germanwings airliner crash reminds us of that reality.
Jesus died young. He was in his early thirties. Many of us here on this earth are already past that age. Many more are fast approaching it.
On Germanwings Flight 9525, there were 150 people of all ages. 149 of them got up that morning with no inkling that this would be the day that they died.
Those of us who live in relatively peaceful and technologically advanced societies can easily get used to the idea that we have seventy or eighty years to live on this earth. Based on this, we figure we have ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or more years left to live. So when we hear of people dying “before their time,” we find it shocking and unexpected.
But the reality is that we do not know the day of our death.
We could die next week.
We could die tomorrow.
We could die tonight.
And if we can believe the teachings of Christianity, the day of our death marks the end of our preparation for eternal life. On that day, our eternal course will be set. On that day, we will have finished laying the foundation for the life that we will live forever in the spiritual world.
How would we live differently if we were continually aware of the reality that we do not know the day of our death?
- What broken and hurting relationships would we make an extra effort to heal?
- What irreparably broken relationships would we finally let go of and leave behind?
- What things that we keep putting off until tomorrow would we finally prioritize for today?
- What feared but necessary steps in our life that we’ve been avoiding would we steel ourselves for, and finally push ourselves through?
Of course, it would not help to go to the opposite extreme and frantically rush to check as many items as we can, as fast as we possibly can, off of our bucket list. The most likely result of such a stressful scheme would be to hasten the day when we do kick the bucket.
Instead, terrible events such as the Germanwings airliner crash periodically remind us that our time is short. They prod us to make the best use of these precious few days and years that we have here on earth. They prompt us to use those precious days to build our character and our life into the kind of person that we want to be forever.
We do not know the day of our death.
But we can make good use of each day that God gives us, until the day comes when it is our turn to enter eternity.
Self-absorption leads to disaster
I find it highly symbolic, and psychologically telling, that Andreas Lubitz locked himself into the cockpit. In order to carry out his plan to end his life, he had to cut himself off from everyone else on the plane.
On the other side of that door were 149 people who wanted to live. On his side of the door was one person who wanted to die.
Others were frantically reaching out to him, trying to engage with him, trying to change the course he was taking.
He ignored them all. He shut himself off from the pleading, the pounding, the screaming not only with a physical door, but with a psychological wall that kept everyone else out. His focus was on his own desperation, his own depression, his own desire to die.
As he took 149 innocent lives along with his own, his breathing remained steady.
Was he an especially evil man?
Some people think so.
Social media has erupted with people wishing him a hot time in hell.
Yes, his self-absorbed actions had devastating consequences for an airplane full of people, and for thousands of family members and friends of those who died. The effects of his actions have rippled out to hundreds of millions of people who are horrified at his deliberate destruction of a plane full of passengers.
And yet, what he did is only a magnified version of what hundreds of millions, yes, even billions of us have done many times, and do each day.
How often do we focus so much on our own struggles and our own pain that we unthinkingly an uncaringly give the people around us physical, emotional, or spiritual pain?
- Every day people are killed in accidents caused by someone driving while texting, drinking, or falling asleep.
- Every day people are hurt or killed by products that someone along the line didn’t assemble properly, or didn’t inspect properly, or didn’t test properly.
- Every day people are rude and insulting to other people, not caring that their cutting remarks and callous disregard are causing pain and suffering for other human beings.
What things do we unthinkingly do, or not do, each day that cause pain and suffering for our fellow human beings?
It’s easy to vent our anger and frustration at someone like Andreas Lubitz who got so spectacularly self-absorbed that he killed 149 innocent people.
However, we can’t do anything about the self-absorption of Andreas Lubitz. We can only do something about our own self-absorption.
The Germanwings airliner crash has another reminder for us, then:
Don’t lock yourself away from the people who care about you. Don’t lock yourself away from the people you see each day. Don’t get so absorbed in your own struggles, pain, frustration, and anguish that you forget that there are other people flying with you—people who depend on you. People who care about you. People who can help you through.
Death is not the end
Though the Germanwings airliner crash may seem to be worlds apart from the celebration of Easter, really, the Easter message speaks directly to everyone affected by the crash.
Here is the short version: Death is not the end.
Physically, 150 people died on that steep, boulder-strewn mountainside in rural France. And with them, thousands of their loved ones suffered a terrible emotional death.
And yet, life goes on.
For those who died that day, life goes on.
It was only their physical bodies that died. Their spirits are still alive and well. They have entered into a new life in the spiritual world—a life that will have no end. For them, there will be no more death.
If we take the message of Easter and resurrection to heart, we know that no one truly died on that mountainside. Instead, they simply made the transition from their temporary life here on earth to their permanent life in the spiritual world.
Death is not the end. It is a new beginning.
Those left behind face a much more difficult emotional death.
They have empty arms, empty hearts, where their loved ones once were. They have broken dreams for their children’s lives, broken hearts for their absent husbands and wives, broken spirits in their loss and longing for their friends, co-workers, and loved ones.
And yet, their lives also go on.
For some, bitterness will enter their hearts. They will be angry at God, or will deny that there could be any God in the face of such horrible and senseless tragedy.
For others, sorrow and grieving, together with hope in God’s mercy and comfort, will fill their hearts. In their sorrow they will turn to God for comfort—and in time, for answers. They will turn to other people for comfort and solace, building a community among those who have suffered loss.
Perhaps for some who lost loved ones this tragedy will prompt them to refocus their lives on things that truly matter—on human and spiritual realities rather than on seeking after money and position in this world. Perhaps it will prompt some of them to pay less attention to money, and more attention to people. Perhaps it will prompt them to pay less attention to their position in this world, and more attention to their relationship with God.
Our response to tragedies such as these, and our attitude toward God and spirit in the wake of them, says more about the direction of our own soul than it does about God or spirit itself. We will interpret and respond to our personal tragedies in line with what our heart tells us is the truth about the meaning, or lack of meaning, of our life here on earth.
Easter and Germanwings
We think of Easter as one of the grand celebrations of Christianity. But let’s not forget that on that original Easter morning, the mood was not exactly celebratory. If we read the Gospel accounts, we find disciples and women alike approaching the tomb in sorrow, and then reacting with surprise, fear, confusion, and even weeping at what they found there. It took several days for them even to begin to grasp what had just happened.
Similarly, when we are faced with major events in our own lives, it may take us some time to fully grasp, accept, and understand what has happened. The Easter story as we find it in the Gospels parallels our own conflicted responses and reactions to major life events, both joyous and sorrowful.
The Easter story—the story of Jesus Christ rising from death—calls us to look at both life and death from a higher perspective. It calls us to lift our mind beyond physical things and the things of this earth. It calls us to look beyond death to a Divine Being and a spiritual reality that are greater than death.
The Germanwings airliner crash is precisely what Easter and resurrection are all about. It is a story of death, yes. But if we look at it with our spiritual eyes open, it can also be a story of resurrection and new life.
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