By now everyone in the civilized world knows what happened last week when the copilot of a German airline locked the pilot out of the cockpit and put the plane on a suicide dive into a mountain in the French Alps. The media and the authorities are seeking the “why” behind the story. Why would a man hired to protect the lives of his passengers decide not only to end his own life but to take 149 others with him?
As one who has been a passenger a number of times, I have thought more about the passengers. What was happening in the cabin? The passengers saw the pilot desperately banging on the cockpit door and shouting. And they felt the unexplainable rapid descent after just getting to cruising altitude. They knew that—barring a miracle—they were going to die. The only thing they didn’t know was how long they had to live. From the moment the pilot began shouting through the locked door, they had eight minutes.
A retired flight attendant friend pointed out the sadism of the copilot. Apparently he wanted all the passengers to know they were going to die. Otherwise, he could have turned off the oxygen to the cabin. Then they would have been unconscious (or dead) when they hit the mountain. The recorded screams on the flight recorder prove they were all conscious.
But maybe the copilot’s cruelty actually gave them their only chance—not to live physically but to live eternally. If there were passengers in that plane who knew about Jesus dying on the cross for mankind but had never accepted Him as Savior, for a few brief minutes they still had that chance. Of the two thieves hanging on crosses next to Jesus, the repentant thief proves “deathbed conversions” do happen. Dying, he expressed his faith in Jesus who assured him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Someone has said that one thief was lost so that none would presume, and one thief was saved so that none would despair.
There’s a problem with the “I’ll get right with God just before I die” plan that some people have—you don’t know when that will be. It might not happen in old age with children and grandchildren gathered around your bed. It could be on a plane or car hurtling toward an immovable object. And maybe you won’t have eight minutes. Or even one minute.
I’m grateful for a frightening experience years ago when our car was spinning out of control on a slippery mountain road. I was sure we would hurtle over the unguarded edge to our deaths. In those brief moments I felt calm as I told the Lord if that was the end, I was ready to go. Suddenly the car came to a stop and was held by a gulley in the shoulder of the road. Of course I was grateful to be alive. But I also understood what Joseph Addison wrote, “See in what peace a Christian can die.”
So imagine that you’re a passenger on ill-fated Flight 9525 with its nose pointed toward a mountain. You know you have only a few minutes to live. What are you doing? Are you asking the God you’ve known and loved for years to calm your fears and dull the pain as you go into His arms? Or are you mindlessly screaming because you have no hope of escaping death and no idea where you will be going?
After a high-speed car crash that would prove fatal, the last words of Princess Diana to paramedics on the scene were, “Oh, my God!” That same enigmatic statement was heard in several languages in the cabin of Flight 9525. Were the people saying it using it as an expletive of shock and dismay as people sometimes do? Were they crying out to their Lord? Or were they begging Someone they’d never shown any interest in for a reprieve?
Maybe the better question is: What would you do if you had only eight minutes to live?
Because one day you will.