Eric Liddell

From the Pastor’s Study   (5/14/2023)

In 1981, a Hollywood motion picture made a Scottish missionary to China world famous.  However, Eric Liddell had been made famous before when he won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.  This athletic achievement and the drama surrounding it formed the plot for the film, Chariots of Fire.  The film was the surprise winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. 

In the movie, while in Paris for the Olympic Games, Liddell learns that the heats for his best event – the one-hundred-yard dash – are scheduled for Sunday.  Actually, Eric Liddell learned about the scheduling months prior.  Liddell believed strongly that Sunday was the Christian sabbath, to be observed reverently as a day of rest and worship.  He refused to run on that day.  Many pressured Liddell to make an exception for the sake of his country, but he did not vacillate.  This was a part of his commitment to Jesus Christ.  He would not run on Sunday. 

However, Liddell did run in another event on a different day in those Olympic Games.  In his preparation for the 400-meter race he never clocked a time indicating he would be a contender for a gold medal.  On the day of the final race, he was handed a message from a trainer, which he did not read until after the event.  Liddell set a world record, and won for his nation a gold medal.  After the race, Liddell unfolded the note which said, “He that honors me, I will honor.  Wishing you the best of success always.”

The film Chariots of Fire concludes with a brief statement that Eric Liddell became a missionary to China and died in a Japanese internment camp.   Such an end to the life of such a man might seem to indicate that Liddell did not enjoy what that note wished for him – “the best of success always.”  But perhaps he actually did. 

The son of missionaries, Eric Liddell determined from his youth to follow in his parent’s footsteps.  After his Olympic triumph, he spoke often at evangelistic gatherings throughout Great Britain.  His success as an evangelist in his homeland, and the other opportunities that presented themselves to him, did not deter him from leaving for China, where he labored as an educator and later as a pastor.  

As World War 2 broke out across the globe, Japan invaded China.  In 1943 Eric Liddell was sent by the occupying Japanese to an internment camp.  He remained a prisoner at the Weihsien camp for the next two years.

Eric Eisenger’s 2018 biography of Eric Liddell, entitled The Final Race, details the hardships that over 1500 people endured in the Weihsien camp.  His book also makes plain that life for these prisoners was far different than it would have been had not Eric Liddell been interred with them.  Liddell gave leadership, provided fair distribution of scarce food and medicine, organized schooling for the youth, led sports programs, and held Bible studies.  Liddell’s character and influence altered the very atmosphere of the prison camp.

Eric Liddell died of a brain tumor five months before the end of the war.  His last words were, “It’s complete surrender.”  Whether running – or not running – in the Olympics, living in China, or suffering in an internment camp, his life was completely surrendered to Christ.

In Acts 13:25, Paul said of John the Baptist, “John fulfilled his course.”  This can be translated, “John finished his race.”  How did the Baptist’s life end?  In prison, beheaded for his faith.  Paul himself wrote in his last letter, “I have finished my course.”  (II Tim. 4:7)  How did the apostle’s life end?  Exactly the same way as John the Baptist’s.  Yet they ran faithfully the race God appointed for them.  And the influence of their testimony has blessed saints throughout history. 

So, what of Eric Liddell?   I am quite certain that he also ran well the course God appointed for him.  And I also know that 1500 others imprisoned with him were grateful to God that Eric Liddell’s appointed course included the Weihsien internment camp.