Precisely at 9 o’clock in the evening, the prison guard unlocked a cell door. The Chief Magistrate and I, the prison chaplain, stepped into the narrow cell. The handcuffed prisoner, a sergeant, briefly acknowledged our presence as the Magistrate barked out the message with a few scant words, that the “petition for pardon was denied” and that his death sentence was confirmed. The sentenced prisoner was to be shot at 9 o’clock the next morning.
I, as chaplain was now alone with the death candidate. Only twelve hours separated us from the moment when shots would be fired and the prisoner in this cell would enter eternity. What might possibly transpire this night?
It took some time for the announcement to register in him whose fate had just been determined. Not only the physical shock rocked him to the core, but also the thoughts that stormed through his brain. There was no more hope of a pardoning. Unavoidably the time approached; hour after hour, until the moment in which the first shots would fly. It was undeniably clear to him: “at 9:00 o’clock next morning your time on earth is over and you will stand before God, the eternal Judge.”
A turbulent conglomeration of feelings and emotions had to be dealt with this night. The bewildering and unexpected verdict sent terror pulsating through his body. The despairing attempt at self-defense, of delving into his past and the agonizing hours writing letters to his wife and child generated secretive tears in the eyes of this hardened soldier. His last reserve of “gun powder” was depleted in an attempt to defend his own perspective on life to this member of the clergy.
He came from a Christian home. His father was a city missionary; his mother, also a missionary, died shedding tears over her lost son. As a young boy, he heard a lot about Jesus, and as a thirteen-year-old made a conscious decision to follow Christ. As a young adult, Bible reading and prayer were a part of his innermost expression of a solid faith.
But then the time came in which a rush of demonic enchantment took hold of him, and eventually everything happened as it had to happen: step by step he climbed the ladder in the political scene and public life; and step by step his Christian and moral life declined.
It was well past midnight. As the seconds crept closer to the moment in which he would depart from this life and be called to stand before God, he became more willing to shed the masquerade and speak, as well as listen, to sheer and simple truths.
As I asked him if we should read out of God’s Word, he answered out of his own volition: “Yes, please read the passage; you know, where the son comes back to his father.” I opened Luke 15, handed a Bible to him and read along in my own. He read quietly, word for word after me – as I slowly read word for word aloud.
When we got to the part where it says: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son,'” this strong man broke down in tears and for many minutes sobbed like a child. His whole body shook with tremors. The Word of God had pierced the depths of his soul.
Both of us remained silent for the next fifteen minutes or so; as human words become so futile when the Lord has spoken.
After this solemn point in time, the man who had now attained complete peace with God, said: “So, now let us pray together.” Without any summons or prompting he knelt down at his stool. I knelt before my stool and before I could start to pray, he loudly poured out his heart before God. What we experienced in this hour belongs to those miracles of God that cannot be explained nor fathomed, only praised God for. There was without a doubt, “joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
In the early morning hours we sat together as friends do, as if one of us was paying the other a visit. We spoke of several things; some big and some small, simple, and joyful, almost in relaxed cheerfulness. It wasn’t as if at 9:00 o’clock he was headed to his execution; rather as if at 9:00 o’clock he was embarking on a continuous vacation, a place where something especially beautiful and priceless awaited him. Death was behind us. In Gethsemane, it was finished. Calvary was the ‘outward’ process of what ‘inwardly’ had already been conquered.
Bright sunlight filled the prison yard, as our prisoner, with hands shackled behind his back, was required to climb into the rear of a covered vehicle. I sat down beside him on the prisoner’s bench of the vehicle. We were tossed to and fro for about a quarter hour, in which we remained relatively silent. There was only one more exchange of thought.
He suddenly looked at me with wide eyes: “Pastor, you have a fantastic career!” I comfortingly laid my hand on his knee, since I couldn’t reach his hand. It remained shackled behind his back. I remarked: “Be of good cheer, you are heading into eternity!” After a time of further reflection he murmured: “It’s true, peace surpasses all understanding.” “My friend,” I asked, “this must have been the most difficult night of your life?” With shining eyes he answered, “However, the greatest!”
As predetermined, I accompanied him to the pillar he was tied to, target to the barrels of rifles directed at him. His eyes bored into mine, solemnly and soulful. He had not wanted to face the rifle barrels, nor the people behind them, nor anything other than the messenger of the Gospel, who in the last night of his life was able to guide him to full salvation in Jesus Christ. And so it happened. Gunfire exploded.
The last glimpse of this man contained no fear, hopelessness, nor reproach; rather a peace that conveyed a last thought… “and yet, pardoned!”