Article Mar 26, 2015

I lost my dad in a plane crash, too

UPDATE (May 19, 2016): Another mysterious airline tragedy is in the news today. EgyptAir flight 804 vanished from radar with 66 people aboard while making its way from Paris to Cairo. Incidents like this can fill us with fear and cause us to question the safety we perceive around us. This article was written last year to remind us of truth and point us to the solid Rock on which we stand. 

I served four years in the Marine Corps as an air traffic control officer. I often heard from more experienced air traffic controllers that aviation incidents seem to “come in waves of three.” The month of March has been no exception. On March 10, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crashed near Eglin, Florida killing all 11 service members on board, including seven Marines and four members of the Army National Guard. A couple days later, on March 12, another Marine was killed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma when his vehicle was struck by a T-59 Hawk that had veered off the runway. Now, this Tuesday, March 24 a Germanwings Airbus A320 has mysteriously and horrifically crashed in the French Alps killing all 150 souls on board, including sixteen young students and two babies.

One of the reasons I wanted to become an air traffic control officer in the Marine Corps is because I had faced my own aviation tragedy. When I was two years old in 1986, my father was killed when the F-4 Phantom he was piloting collided with another F-4 off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean during a training maneuver. His body was never recovered.  That event will forever shape my life.

Coping with the loss of a loved one in an aviation tragedy

As you can probably imagine, one of the most difficult things the family members or loved ones of a victim of an airplane crash face is not having a body to mourn. Sometimes bodies are recoverable, but in many cases, as in the recent Airbus tragedy, they are not.

An airplane crash makes death even more dramatic, too, since the loved one is seen by friends and family one moment only to take off on a plane the next and never be seen again.

Then there are the questions that follow in the wake of the tragedy. Did my loved one suffer? Was it traumatic? Did they have time for any last thoughts? Did they survive the crash only to later?

Now in the case of the recent Airbus tragedy, where it now appears the accident was caused purposely by the co-pilot, there are even more sickening questions. I personally can not imagine what those mothers with babies were thinking as they were holding this little life in their hands, knowing it was about to end.

Unspeakable horror.

Then there are the deeper questions. Why did this happen to them? What if they'd taken an earlier or later flight? If only. The “what if” scenarios can play out in your mind forever.

This Could Have Been Any of Us

Then there's the question some may be thinking but probably not voicing: Why did these people die in a crash and not me on the myriad of plane trips I have taken? 

One idea prevalent in many world religions, including much of the modern West, is karma—good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If we obey God and help others, in other words, God is obligated to give us longevity of life, nice possessions, healthy relationships, and good health. But if we're selfish and harm others, we're doomed to a terrible existence and possibly tragic death.

The reality according to the Bible, however, is that “good people” don't exist. We are all sinners deserving death (Rom. 3:236:23).

Paul puts it like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:11-12). Even Christians, he later says, are still subject to pain and even tragic death: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23).

So the answer to the question is that these people who perished in the recent aviation tragedies were no worse than you and me. They were all sinners in need of grace. Perhaps some were even Christians. The reality is that because of sin, and unless Christ does not come back in our lifetimes, we will all die in some way.

Tragic Death Reminds Us to Flee to Christ

When I was a boy, God used my father's tragic death (he was a Christian) to open my eyes to the sudden reality and finality of death and judgment. He used it as a beacon to lead me to Jesus.

Some people once asked Jesus about a devastating tragedy in which some Jews, who'd been worshiping in Galilee, had been slaughtered by Pontius Pilate. Jesus replied to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3).

Jesus' point is that every one of us is a sinner deserving death and that death often comes unexpectedly, bringing us before the judgment of God. People who experience tragedy are no more deserving than we are. The suddenness of death reminds us to repent of sin and flee to Christ Jesus, so that we can escape eternal death in hell. That's what Jesus is talking about. He continues: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). (For a helpful theological explanation of this passage, see R. C. Sproul's article “When Towers Fall.”)

What does Jesus mean by using the word repent? He's talking about more than a guilty conscience or convicted feeling regarding something we've done wrong. He's referring to a change of heart about who we are as people (sinners before God) and who Christ is (our righteous sin-bearer). As John MacArthur explains, “[Repentance] is a spiritual turning, a total about-face. In the context of the new birth [it] means turning from sin to the Savior.”

How should we respond in the wake of tragedy?

So how do we respond in the wake of such tragedy?

  • We must first and foremost, seek God. Nahum the prophet wrote, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nah 1:7). Ultimately only God can provide peace and stability in the “day of trouble.”
  • We should pray for those grieving that they'll find out as much as possible about the last moments of their loved ones' lives, and perhaps even find their loved one's body.
  • We should remind ourselves that we too are still subject to death, and in fact will all die, unless Christ returns. We must continually look to our Savior, then, who has conquered death for us.
  • We should look for opportunities to share the hope of Christ Jesus, since everyone we know will also face death and ultimately stand before God in judgment.
  • We should thank God that those in Christ will experience a resurrection of life. Paul declares: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (1 Cor. 15:52-55). And this resurrection unto life includes the bodies of saints that have been lost at sea.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how God has used tragedy in your life to bring you or others to deeper (or perhaps saving) faith in Christ.