“…He descended into hell.”
A few years ago I took my canoe and my somewhat hesitant son, Adam, on a Suwannee River canoe trip from the Okefenokee Swamp to White Springs, Florida. The water levels were high–we actually launched from the the parking lot because the boat ramp was submerged. The first day we paddled through the lower branches of blooming tupelo trees whose trunks were underwater. Although this would be a beautiful and unique trip, I knew from the beginning that on the third day we would come to that part of the Suwannee known as “Big Shoals,” and I wanted nothing to do with it. We were paddling my beloved cedar-strip hand-built canoe which is the best flat water canoe ever, but it is not built for rapids. And it is breakable.
The morning of the third day, I took care to lash all loose equipment to the gunwales or the scuppers, we both tightened up our PFDs, and paddled slowly looking for the signs that I had been told would warn us when we were near the shoals, and direct me to the portage site. Bluffs on either side of the river got steeper and I figured we must be getting close. I paddled slower and looked carefully on both banks for the portage. Then I heard a low-pitched growl coming from downstream. I stopped paddling and listened. The growl became a roar, and I knew we were about to be drawn into the rapids.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the water levels had gotten so high that the signs and docks and stairs that marked the approaches and the portage were submerged, and the rapids were running as high as they ever could. Maybe the portage itself was submerged; I never got to find out.
I had a moment where I could have turned the canoe and paddled upstream as fast as possible. We might have made it and found safe passage. But the moment was brief and I found myself also thinking things like How big could “Big Shoals” be in a state as flat as Florida? And I’ve run rapids before; how hard could it be?
So instead of turning around I said, To hell with it, and pointed the canoe downstream paddling briskly into the maelstrom.
Big Shoals can be really big. The bow dropped at a 45 degree angle as I steered around a coming boulder. All good, missed the boulder, but the bow (and Adam) went into a deep wave in the trough and never came back up. We were sunk. The canoe, packs, paddles and our hats were driven through the next two levels of rapids as we hung on for dear life. Finally we found ourselves floating in flat water again and I literally put the bowline in my teeth and swam for shore.
We survived along with the canoe and all our equipment. Even the water bottle that had floated off appeared twenty minutes after we got on the river again. Getting soaked was perhaps a pretty good trade-off for a good story.
This is usually what happens when I say To hell with it. I abandon a well-thought out plan for a risky alternative and bad things happen.
At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, in the wilderness, the devil tempted Him. Jesus could use His powers for self-fulfillment, He could use his powers for political success, or He could use His powers for self-preservation and celebrity. Jesus, as we know, turned these options down. He did not say, To hell with it. He followed His Father’s original plan.
But what did the devil do? “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Him until a more opportune time.” When was this more opportune time? I think in Gethsemane just before His arrest, trials and crucifixion. He appealed to the Father in Heaven: “Father,” He said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me…” The human Jesus knew what was coming unless divine intervention found another way. But He continued the prayer: “…yet not what I will, but what you will.”
And in that completion of His prayer, he reversed the decision that Adam and Eve made in the other garden, the Garden of Eden, when they decided to step back from God and eat of the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a decision influenced by the same devil. Adam and Eve decided to follow their own will; Jesus committed to follow the Father’s will, even though it meant torture, humiliation, death. And, yes, hell.
His last words on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then He dies and goes to hell, into chaos and destruction, alienated from His Father in heaven. To hell with it takes on a whole new meaning.
Sometimes I say, “I went through hell for that,” but I don’t really mean hell. I mean it was hard work with mental and physical suffering. The real hell will also include isolation and alienation from all good things, loved ones and the Father in heaven.
Our family still refers to 1991 as The Bad Year–not hell exactly, but close enough. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Before her last chemotherapy appointment, my oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor treated by biopsy, shunt, and radiation, subsequently also suffering with complications from a shunt infection. Then, certainly as life-threatening and terrifying, at a neighborhood mall my other son was robbed by a man wielding a shotgun.
I know some of your stories and I know many of you have gone through things much worse. I expect that most of you know what it is like to lose someone or lose a dream or both, and have experienced the darkness and silence that follows a loss. There are no right answers for how to cope. Everyone follows their own path.
Our family kept going to church, we kept praying, we kept believing. But we all felt forsaken. Like Job, like Jesus. For a long time, I felt nothing but silence from above. I knew He was there listening. But if He was talking, I couldn’t hear Him. A smart family would have gotten counseling, but we just muddled along. Sometimes you are in too deep to see alternatives. Each of us dealt with our own experiences of depression and that emotional realization that the world is not a safe place. The unthinkable not only might happen, it will happen, and the best we can hope for is to enjoy the moment before the recurrence of sickness or death.
Cancer recurrences did not come, however, and Mary and Adam recovered physically and emotionally. The process wasn’t easy and each of them has a story to tell and scars to show. I have no visible scars, but I found myself chronically depressed about the futility of existence and the ultimate death of everything and everyone.
One Good Friday several years after our Bad Year, I sat alone in our backyard, sad, and noting that this was the day even the Christians celebrated death. I mused about what certainties I knew beyond death, and found that they were all infinite: time, space, matter. Then I experienced what I can only describe as a vision of the incredibly complex mind of God, and these great infinities were but thoughts in that mind. Also included in that mind were places for Mary and Adam and all the people I loved. The mind of God encompasses the great and the infinite and the eternal, but it also includes the tiny and the finite and the mortal. It includes me.
It is hard to imagine the experience of Jesus between His death on Friday afternoon and His resurrection on Easter morning. The text tells us that He experienced being “forsaken” by God, helpless and hearing only silence from above. There is something endearing about this, that God takes human form in such depth that He is capable of feeling isolation from all the things that make Him God: love, power, strength–that He knows from first-hand experience what it is like be be in hell.
Easter Sunday morning came thirty-six hours after my Good Friday in the backyard. The long silence from above was over. I pray that each of you who now feels that silence will find your own Easter soon. Jesus feels what you feel. He sees you, He hears you. He will speak to you if you listen.