I grew up in a Christian tradition that took heaven and hell seriously. They were real places, full of glorious wonder and fiery punishment.
One night as a young child, I lay awake praying desperately. I was afraid that, in the night, Christ would return, and I would be found unworthy and thrown into hell. I was five years old. Maybe six or seven. Over and over I prayed, “Jesus, come into my heart.” But he didn’t. Finally exhausted, I fell asleep, the terrors of hell still burning within me.
A few years later, my Sunday school teacher spoke with real affection to our young class. She encouraged each of us to find and memorize the date of our baptism. She said when Satan terrorized her with similar fears, she would gather her courage and say, “You get away from here, Satan! I was baptized on such-and-so day.” That’s what worked for her.
What do you make of experiences like these? Many Christians find them strange, even flat-out wrong or dangerous. But I try to avoid theological snobbery. In vivid language, Martin Luther himself described his own terrors and encounters with the devil.
Tim Wengert would know. He is a scholar of Reformation history, as well as a teacher and theologian. In an essay on Luther’s “theology of the cross,” in Theology Today, he called these experiences “the heavy weight of hell crossing the thin line of my soul.” He knows them personally and considers them universal in human experience. Suffering and terror are unavoidable in life. Wengert doesn’t cast blame on Christianity or on bad Christian theology. He simply points to Jesus and his cross.
“…the cross of Jesus Christ forges the inescapable link between my suffering and God. Luther's soul experienced being stretched out with Christ on the cross, bones exposed, reduced to naked cries and groaning. There can be no voyeurism here—we view Christ's cross from the experience of our own God-forsaken lives.”
Don’t take offense at his choice of “God-forsaken” to describe our lives. Wengert isn’t condemning, only describing. We all feel the heavy weight of hell crossing the thin line of our souls, even though we may hide it from each other and even from our own selves. In life, and ultimately on the cross, Christ himself experienced the God-forsaken weight of hell.
So here is our salvation. You are not alone. From the cross, Christ sees and hears you when, burdened and suffering, you cry out. The Easter victory is yours. Christ crucified lives! You live with him.
During Lent, St. Paul people will study Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. In an interview, Beck said:
“I like to think of the language of hell as God’s…emotional involvement in what happens. And that the language of blessing and grace and hell and damnation are the terms and the language of the prophets to communicate God’s deep investment with what’s happening right now in this world.”
“And God’s deep investment with what’s happening with you personally,” I would add.
Beck went onto say, without the language of hell, all we have is politics or psychology. “Something is either illegal or mentally ill”—which simply trivializes many experiences. We need more powerful language, he said. And thankfully, hell expresses “the deep, deep sense that creation has gone awry and things are not right and God in heaven cries out against these things.”
With stories of exorcisms and temptation by the devil, the gospels describe a cosmic struggle against evil. Born human, God plunged headlong into this struggle, for love for you and for the world. By his cross, Jesus stormed the gates of hell and set us free from the devil and all his empty promises, from even the worst terrors the devil can muster.
So maybe my Sunday school teacher was on to something. Remember your baptism. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
Saint Paul Lutheran Church
715 South Third Street
Clinton, IA 52732
(at the foot of the south bridge)