Bonhoeffer 6: From Arrest to Martyrdom

Last week, the blog focused on the period between the closure of Finkenwalde and the initial participation of Bonhoeffer in the German resistance against Hitler. He became an agent of the Abwehr with the cover that he was going to use his ecumenical and other religious contacts to benefit the German foreign policy and German intelligence activities. In fact, he was used as a courier by the German opposition plotting to get rid of Hitler and the Nazi regime. He and his contacts were used to transmit messages to the allied governments in hopes that they would cooperate with any attempt to overthrow the regime, or at least not act in ways that would cause harm with public consequences for the German people. None of his diplomatic efforts were terribly successful, though Bishop Bell in England tried very hard to get the British government to take seriously the efforts being made in Germany to end the war.

Arrest and Charges

In March of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and four specific charges were brought against him:

  1. He facilitated the escape of German Jews to Switzerland, against current German law in the so-called “Operation Z.” (true).
  2. He avoided the military draft by means of a specious position with the Abwehr (true, but probably irrelevant, if he were in fact a German agent in his foreign travels).
  3. He assisted others in the Confessing Church Movement in avoiding military service (true, but explainable).
  4. His long stays in Berlin (contrary to an order against him) and travels abroad to Sweden and Switzerland had no military or diplomatic significance but were motivated by antagonism to the regime (true, but explainable).

Interestingly, the plot against Hitler, for which he was later executed, was not among the initial charges, nor did such charges emerge until after the failed assassination and coup attempt of July 1944, at which time he had been behind bars for over a year.

During the months following his arrest in March of 1943 and his death in early 1945, Bonhoeffer was engaged in a cat and mouse game with the authorities regarding his activities. Since he and others arrested (particularly Dohnanyi) had knowledge of more incriminating matters, matters which if brought to light would certainly result in execution, it was important to keep the focus of the investigations on the charges made in 1943. This was possible until mid-1944. After July 1944, and especially after the discovery of incriminating papers revealing details of the Abwehr plot against Hitler, it became impossible.

Theologically, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that the situation in Germany under Hitler required a different approach than that many of his colleagues adopted, and certainly different than the traditional Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which could be interpreted to grant the state autonomy in its sphere of influence. He even ceased to talk about his prior views of an “Order of Preservation,” though I do not think he failed to see the duty of governments to be the preservation. Bonhoeffer, who knew of the war crimes, corruption, and mistreatment of the Jews through his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi, understood that the situation in Germany had gone beyond what that kind of thinking and acting permitted. The question was not conforming the Nazi regime to Christian principles, but removing a regime that had become demonic.

Letters and Papers from Prison

While held prisoner by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters published after his death as “Letters and Papers from Prison.” [1] In these writings, Bonhoeffer spoke of “Humanity Come of Age” and the need for a “Religionless Christianity.” [2]

Humanity Come of Age. The “Humanity Come of Age” of which Bonhoeffer writes is the fruition of the Western Enlightenment and the end of the Modern World. In the Middle Ages, the church was a kind of “parent” or “tutor” of European society. The church spoke into the lives of people from a position of power and authority. Beginning with the Renaissance and increasing during the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, humanity entered a period of disengagement from religious authority. Science, technology, and contemporary social and economic ideas provided a non-religious foundation for the life of many people.

So far as Bonhoeffer could see writing from prison in the mid-1940s, the Enlightenment Project had succeeded and the changes in human society it created were irreversible. [3] Humanity had indeed come of age, and Christians needed to learn to live and witness in Western society as if there were no God, because the societies in which Christians live largely function as if there were no God. In particular, the church would have to learn to exist without the kind of secular power it wielded in the Middle Ages. [4]

In this view, for a long time, the perceived success of the modern world pushed God out of the consciousness of people. [5] This feeling was expressed by the mathematician Laplace when, speaking of God’s relationship with the universe, he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” This cultural attitude is more pronounced today than when Bonhoeffer wrote. Contemporary people feel no need to seek or have a relationship with God, much less consider God in making day-to-day decisions, including political decisions.

On the other hand, thinking today people are much less certain about the successes of the modern world. The societies most impacted by the Enlightenment are nearly all experiencing rapid cultural and institutional decay. It seems as if Western culture is in an irreparable moral, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and cultural decline. Modernity does not appear to have intellectual or practical answers to the decline our culture is experiencing. Remedies that previously seemed likely to succeed, such as social engineering, extensive bureaucracies, technological innovation, corporate power, increased affluence, and the like increasingly seem part of the problem, not part of the solution. The violence and alienation of many in Western societies indicate that the Modern World was perhaps not “Humanity Come of Age,” but instead, “Humanity in its Adolescence.” [6]

While no serious thinker recommends a retreat to the pre-modern world (nor did Bonhoeffer), there is ample evidence that the modern world needs to rediscover and reincorporate the pre-modern world’s wisdom into its worldview and cultural reality. Analytical thinking, scientific understanding, technological progress, and material affluence have proven inadequate to meet the human soul’s deepest needs, and there is little likelihood unaided human reason can halt the cultural decline we are experiencing. This is true in the political as well as in other areas of life.

In this situation, it is important to rediscover the kind of values and transcendental concerns that modernity denigrated or ignored. Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi describes the situation in the West as one on which analytical thinking has burned through the intellectual, spiritual, and moral capital of Christian civilization, ending in a kind of intellectual, spiritual, and moral nihilism. [7] The only way out of the situation is to rebuild the intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundations of society. In this effort, Christians need to be active participants. In my view, Bohoeffer anticipates this situation as he reflected on the destructive Will to Power of the Nazi regime. His critique was equally true of the Communist regimes of his era, a fact he well-understood.

Religionless Christianity. The concept of “Religionless Christianity” is even more challenging to understand than is the notion of “Humanity Come of Age.” It is certain that Bonhoeffer did not mean there was no God, that Christ was not the Son of God, that the Spirit of God was absent from the world, or that there would be no Church. Instead, Bonhoeffer tried to get others to see that our civilization is in a kind of intellectual and cultural “Dark Night of the Soul” as God purifies the world, Christians, and the church from false notions of God, of discipleship, and of the nature and role of the church. In other words, God is not absent, but cultural realities make it seem as if God is absent. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God, we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. [8]

Bonhoeffer ends by noting that the God of the Bible, who rules the creative universe, rules in weakness. In other words, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that there is a God of transcendent wisdom and self-giving love, that Christ is the revelation of that God, and that the Spirit is still at work in the world with the power of cruciform love. However, under modernity conditions with its fascination with human intelligence and power, most people cannot see these realities. In a world in which power is everything, the wisdom and love revealed on the Cross seems to many to be foolish or a mere illusion.


These and his other reflections contained in his last writings confirm the view that Bonhoeffer was struggling at the end of his life to find ways of communicating Christian faith in word and deed to a secular world in which such views are “foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23). Modern people, and particularly those in power, feel they have “come of age” and can handle the problems of our society with no reference to faith of any kind. This phenomena results in the need for “Religionless Christianity” that can speak into the lives of secular people in words and ways they understand. [9]

There is a facile application of Bonhoeffer’s ideas that was taken up in the 1970’s by the death of God movement. His best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge spent a good deal of time countering these interpretations. Bonhoeffer continued to be a Christian. He continued to worship, pray, give pastoral care to his fellow prisoners, and worship where possible. He continued to work intermittently on his final theological works. What he saw was that this alone was not enough. The forms of religion without the reality of the love of God speaking into the lives of ordinary people was not a sufficient form of Christianity to combat the darkness of Western culture, symbolized by the Nazi regime.

This final insight is no less important today in our culture than it was when Bonhoeffer wrote of a “World Come of Age” and “Religionless Christianity.” A clue to his most important legacy is given by his death. Those with him near the end were not impressed by his knowledge, by his academic credentials, or by his eloquence. They were impressed by his growing saintliness and the calm with which he faced the end.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[2] This section of the blog is reliant upon the views of Bonhoeffer expressed G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 116-118.

[3] In a letter dated 16 July 1944, Bonhoeffer traces the emergence of the modern world from the 13th century forward from Herbert of Canterbury through Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fitch, and Hegel as they directed their attention to the autonomy of man and the world. He concludes that “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion….” Id, at 360

[4] Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “religionless Christianity” is his attempt to articulate a way in which Christian can continue to minister to a society and people who are ideologically unable to respond to traditional Christian ideas as they were articulated prior to the Modern Era.

[5] See, Letters and Papers from Prison, at 341

[6] In many respects, the modern world was adolescent. The fascination with sex, power, strength, technique, disinterest in inherited wisdom, and the contemporary world’s environmental wastefulness all seem immature. In this analysis, what Western society is currently experiencing as “postmodernity” is a bit like “one last drunken hangover of modernity” before growing up

[7] Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

[8] Letters and Papers from Prison at 361

[9] A significant difference between Bonhoeffer’s day and our own is that we can see that the Enlightenment project has reached a dead end. It cannot provide an absolute position from which one could find Truth. It cannot provide a common morality based on reason alone. It cannot provide for the stability of social institutions. It cannot bring peace or social order or agreement upon faith or morals. While its technological achievements are impressive, its moral and spiritual accomplishments are not. At a later date, when dealing with Rawls’ writings, I will seek to deal with how Christians can speak on social issues from the perspective of a “religionless world” and still remain Christian.