“Look out the window and see the sunset,” a man called and said to his estranged wife. “Isn’t it beautiful! You’d better enjoy it, because it’s one of the last sunsets you’ll ever see.”

He wasn’t making a joke. Several nights later he broke into her home and murdered her and one of their teenage sons. Then he shot himself. Their surviving son witnessed the murder/suicide.

The call came in about 2 a.m. As I zipped my uniform jacket and grabbed my badge, I pleaded with God for wisdom to deal with the situation. I walked into the station and they brought me to see Zach, just in from the murder scene. He was a normal looking 15-year old, except that he wore pajama tops splashed red with fresh blood.

My first task was to tell him he couldn’t wash his hands, which were covered with the blood of his mother and brother.

“Why?” he demanded.

I didn’t want to tell him that since he was there when the shootings happened, the police had to consider the possibility that he had killed all three family members, then blamed his father—who wasn’t alive to defend himself. Their initial instincts were that Zach was telling the truth, but they needed forensic evidence beyond his testimony to clear him.

To avoid explaining all that, I simply told Zach that the police were trying to support him by doing everything they could to investigate the tragedy. They wanted to establish his innocence for the record by doing a gunshot residue test on his hands. Then he could wash them.

“They don’t think I did it, do they?”

“No, they don’t,” I assured him. “But they’ve got to run the test anyway in order to do their job. They have a list of things they always have to do, and this is one of them. It’s quick—just swabbing your skin. They’re ready to do it right now, and then you can wash your hands.”

“OK,” he agreed. After the detective came in and did the test, Zach headed to the rest room as I waited at the table, silently praying for grace to connect with this poor kid. He came back to me and we sat silently together, staring at the wall. Then he buried his head in his hands, overwhelmed with shock at the loss of his mother, father and younger brother in one dark night.

He obviously didn’t feel like talking. But the detectives had some important questions for him. One of the most important things chaplains do after a violent crime is to help traumatized witnesses calm down enough to be interrogated. They often have vital information for the investigation that they can’t communicate as long as they are hysterical—or too distraught to say anything. To get Zach to the point where he could talk to our detectives, I first had to get him to talk to me.

Some people talk about their feelings first, then the facts. With Zach, as with many men, it was the other way around. First come the facts, then maybe some of the feelings.

I put my hand on his forearm. He didn’t flinch so I kept it there.

“You were there when it happened, Zach?”

“Yeah.” After a few seconds of further silence, the details tumbled out. “My brother Josh and I woke up hearing Mom shouting downstairs. It must have been midnight. Then we heard Dad’s voice too, down in her bedroom. Josh and I ran downstairs. On the way I grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Josh was a few steps in front of me as we headed for the bedroom.

“As Josh ran into the bedroom, he got shot first. Then Mom. I saw Dad point the gun at his own head just as I got into the bedroom. He pulled the trigger on himself. Just three shots and that was it.”

With bloodshot eyes he turned to me and told me more.

“I ran to Mom. She was bleeding, but she was already dead. I tried to help Josh, but he was dead too. So was Dad. I was the only one alive when the cops came running in the door. They didn’t let me stay at the house. They put me in a police car and made me come here.”

Zach leaned his head on the interrogation table and quietly started sobbing. I leaned over next to him and put an arm around his shoulder, rubbing it slowly and firmly. After a while he settled down, like a baby being calmed. I motioned for the detective watching through the window to come in so he could get the information he needed.  He jotted down a few notes and then left me alone with Josh again.

The longest night of his young life ticked on, cruel and slow.

“What’s going to happen to me?” he wondered. “I’m all alone now.”

“You are going to get lots of love from everybody you know. Friends at school. Teachers too. And if you have a church…”

I paused and he didn’t respond to that. I continued:

“Do you have relatives in town?”

He did. I asked if he wanted me make some phone calls. It was arranged for him to stay with an aunt, who by then had heard what had happened.

First light outside was giving way to the dawn of a cold and cloudy day, the first day of the rest of Josh’s life.

Reporters waited outside the front door, eager for whatever we could tell them. “They’re just trying to do their job,” I told Zach. “You don’t have to talk to them if you’re not ready to. I’ll be glad to do that if you want me to. Right now I can take you out the back door to the parking lot. Your aunt will be waiting for you.”

Before we went outside I asked if he would want me to pray for him. He did. Then he headed outside to the arms of his aunt. I was dispatched to the crime scene to talk to the reporters there and make sure nobody got inside the yellow tape now ringing the property.

All I was cleared to say, initially, was that there had been multiple fatalities in the home that night. There would be a press conference later that morning. Neighbors and the community would scoop up every scrap of information. But information by itself wouldn’t solve anything.  Three people died in that house, and a young teenager had lost his whole family in death.

Death is the harshest fact of life. We all die sooner or later, but the way that Zach experienced the death of his family was a particular tragedy. Chaplains are trained for such a situation. It came to be something of a specialty for me. A sheriff’s office dispatcher started calling me “the Buzzard,” and the nickname spread among the various law enforcement agencies we served. (Police often use morbid humor among themselves as a survival tool amid the daily tragedies they confront.) At a holiday banquet, they presented me with a framed cartoon image of a large scavenger bird and the words: “It’s a coroner’s case. Call the Buzzard!”

This document may not have the professional look of my ordination certificate, but it’s even more meaningful in signifying ministry.

How was I able to survive and thrive in death situations? Because death is a defeated enemy! In almost taunting words, the New Testament declares: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57).

In the victorious name of Jesus, I could venture confidently into the domain of death and minister comfort to the living left behind. Later, if they were ready to hear it, I told them the story of how Christ conquered death on the cross, and through His resurrection introduced a new age of eternal life.

Let’s do an autopsy of death and how it met its demise through the victory of Jesus Christ.


Death is more than not breathing

We’re back to the Garden of Eden. Remember God had warned: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). They ate. Then how did they die, since their hearts didn’t stop beating?

Death is more than losing your pulse. Death is the demise of everything desirable, commendable, and valuable.  Since sin is the opposite of love, trust and justice, its selfishness and injustice is also an expression of death.  Death from sin includes:

Alienation and isolation—death of relationships

Selfishness—death of love

Aimlessness—death of purpose

Disease—death of physical health

Dysfunction—death of emotional health

Fear—death of hope

Guilt—death of peace

Shame—death of self-worth

Pain—death of comfort

Sorrow—death of joy

Pollution—death of planetary health

Bondage—death of freedom

All of this involved the death of Adam’s original creation in the image of God. Sin’s inherent dysfunction destroys and dehumanizes people and their communities–including the community of the saved, the church. We’ll talk about God’s solution to that from the sanctuary next chapter.

Picture Adam and Eve crouching in the bushes. Their relationship with God had died—otherwise they wouldn’t have been hiding. Their relationship with each other was ruined, since they were fighting, blaming each other. All the problems we suffer in relationships today have roots in our death in Adam.

So something terrible happened to us in Adam—sin leading to death. The good news is that something wonderful happened to us in Christ—He conquered death and brought us life.

Our victorious hero

For humanity’s various lifesaving agencies, from police to paramedics to firefighters, death is always a defeat. But the death of Jesus was a victory! “Only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying” (Hebrews 2:14-15, NLT).

Christ’s mission on earth was to defeat the devil, disable his kingdom and ultimately destroy him: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Christ’s death was the culmination of a lifelong series of victories over the devil, beginning with His birth. Jealous King Herod determined to murder the Christ child, but an angel’s warning saved the life of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The devil’s murderous plan was defeated.

As a boy, Jesus refused to be diverted from the purpose of His mission. He declared at age 12, “I must be about My Father’s business” (Luke 2:49, NKJ). We know nothing of His next two decades except that He spent his teens and twenties in Nazareth, a difficult and tumultuous place, even today. When Christ’s time had come to begin His mission as Messiah, He put away His carpenter tools and headed down to the Jordan River Valley to be baptized.

By this act of baptism Jesus officially identified Himself with the human race as the anointed Son of Man who would die and then rise again as the representative of a redeemed race. God from heaven publicly witnessed to His divine Sonship.

Immediately after Jesus emerged from the water, the Spirit led Him to the wilderness for 40 days of solitary preparation for His messianic mission. The devil confronted Him with three major temptations that covered the scope of human testing. Jesus came away victorious.

He launched His ministry in his hometown, proclaiming Himself as liberator of a race held in satanic bondage. His longtime neighbors weren’t impressed, and neither was the national religious establishment in Jerusalem. Jesus declared: “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). They scoffed. “We’ve never been enslaved to anyone”—forgetting their Exodus from bondage in Egypt and eventual captivity in Babylon.

Although Satan-inspired religious leaders refused to accept their Messiah, many of society’s outcasts welcomed Him. The poor and oppressed received Him gladly, thus defeating the devil’s attempt to shut down Christ’s ministry. By word and deed He confronted the evil powers, defeating them at every turn. He forgave tax cheaters and came to their parties. He reached out to prostitutes and restored their honor. He healed lepers, enlightened the blind, even raised the dead.

One amazing defeat of the devil took place outside the mountain town of Nain. With His entourage of the curious and the committed, Jesus encountered a funeral procession. A few seconds with the victorious liberator turned the death march into a parade of life.

Jesus never lost a battle with the devil. His own death on the cross, apparently a crushing defeat, was actually His strategic masterstroke of ultimate victory. With His dying breath He triumphantly proclaimed: “It is finished” (John 19:30). After resting on the Sabbath to memorialize His finished work, Christ burst forth from the grave, fulfilling His promise: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The earth quaked and His enemies quivered in the dust. Jesus soared through the skies to receive His Father’s welcome and acceptance on our behalf.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Christ declared (John 14:6, NKJ). “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). In our victorious new Adam comes the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) that sin through death had taken away after old Adam’s rebellion.

So it is that Jesus defeated the devil and “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).  He also conquered every aspect of death that shows up today in sinful and dysfunctional behavior.

Extracted from the Pacific Press book by Martin Weber, God Was There: true stories of a police chaplain.