Why Jesus Went to Hell and Back (on Existential Loneliness)


In my previous post, I described seven types of loneliness, and said that cosmic, or existential loneliness is unique in that it has a built-in cure. Think about it. If existential loneliness is not knowing one’s purpose, or the meaning of life, or not having a reason to go on living, wouldn’t it logically follow that the cure for such loneliness would be getting to know someone who knows those things about you personally? He would have to be someone who not only knows why you’re here (as in, knows your future), but loves that you’re here. As in, someone outside of yourself who loves you in spite of yourself, who loves you one hundred percent without condition. What if such a person existed? I’m talking about a human who can talk back in human language. Obviously that person is not your dog, unconditional as his love may be. Neither is it your “significant other.” I am married to one of the best human beings on the face of this earth, and I can tell you that marriage, wonderful as it is, does not complete, fulfill or satisfy the longing of the human soul. Some believe we are each our own best lovers, but, really, how’s that working for us, this fixation on self? I could read self-help books and recite fifty affirmations every morning and at the end of the day not love myself an ounce more. Because I know too much about myself. Self-love is the most conditional love there is. Here’s the thing: I believe the only person capable of loving me 100% without condition is not–cannot be– my dog, husband, or that mercurial person staring back at me in the mirror. It must be someone else, someone both divine and human–someone with a God-like love who can express it in human language. Someone who’s love is constant and eternal, and who has demonstrated that love for me in no uncertain terms. I figure the most powerful kind of love would be proven by someone giving His life for me. Know anyone? Of course, I’m talking about the God-Man, Jesus Christ. “But Faith,” you say, “I’m a Christian and I feel ‘existentially lonely’!” I believe if you profess Christianity yet have fallen prey to self-loathing, hopelessness or despair, you possibly have never had a revelation of God’s grace. You have never fully appreciated (“appropriated” in theological terms) the finished work of the Cross. You have never come to fully understand and internalize the precise way in which God loves you. I used to be that person. I was the most miserable Christian I knew. Then one day the quarter dropped. The knowledge of God’s love for me traveled from my head to my heart, and I have never been the same. Life is challenging at times, but also rich in meaning. I know why I’m here and where I’m going next. Mostly, I know I am loved in a way that I never fully understood before. Sure, I’ve been lonely in almost all of the ways listed in the previous post. I’ve spent many days of my life in tears for want of someone to either be present, or to understand me. But I can tell you that one does not have to be existentially lonely. Other kinds of loneliness are pretty much guaranteed for all of us at some point in our lives, and even serve to drive us to God so that we can discover Him as the intimate friend He so desperately wants to be to each of us. Or so that we can know Him on an even deeper level than we already do. But existential loneliness is optional. Oh, I know this is subject to a particular worldview, but those who get desperate enough to find out if it’s true, who realize they don’t have much to lose by giving God a try, discover He is there for every kind of loneliness. God Himself experienced loneliness “in all points”*–in all the ways on that list in the previous post. Or, at least, He experienced the precursors to each type of loneliness. It’s safe to say that Jesus felt acute interpersonal, social, cultural and intellectual loneliness. He was a huge disappointment to those who’d been expecting Him to be an earthly Messiah. His siblings didn’t believe His claims of deity (until they saw Him resurrected). His closest friends ultimately abandoned Him in His greatest hour of need. Before that, He’d born with their shocking immaturity and lack of understanding about the ways of God and how to do relationships. At age twelve, He was already teaching Rabbis and religious leaders. Jesus was the ultimate misfit and reject. He was abused, shamed, violated and humiliated beyond description. That is psychological loneliness. He was a visionary loner; no one else except His Father saw what kept Him going, all the way to the Cross. He saw us–you and me–and our need for a cure for cosmic loneliness. Even though Jesus felt lonely in all the other ways we feel lonely, His relationship with The Father kept Him from the ultimate loneliness for the thirty-three years He walked this earth. However, during those three dark days while His body lay in a tomb, Jesus went to a place called Hell and experienced a type of loneliness no tongue can describe. Take the worst suicidal depression and magnify that feeling times a billion and you might come close to understanding why Jesus dreaded the cross so much that He sweat drops of blood beforehand (it wasn’t the physical suffering He dreaded; His followers gladly and confidently faced brutal deaths as martyrs–they certainly weren’t stronger than Jesus). The death of the Cross meant Jesus felt something like the actual, total absence of God, with no possibility of accessing His presence. That is a good definition of Hell. A leap into a lake of fire would have been a relief from the type of pain Jesus suffered. To describe the purpose of the Cross, you could say that Jesus literally “went to Hell and back” out of love for you and me. That hardly describes a God who loves to send people to Hell; rather, it describes a grief-stricken lover saying, “If you don’t choose to spend the rest of your eternal life with me, it will kill me.” And it did. Jesus died the death that sufferers of existential loneliness often wish for, without knowing what they wish for. And here’s the truth of the matter: He did it in our place, and that is why cosmic loneliness is optional. You and I can choose to take what Jesus did personally, and thereby rise to a new life in Him–a life not without pain, but with purpose and meaning in the pain. One in which God goes through the pain with us, Whose presence transcends what we don’t yet understand. Christ came to save you and me, both now and forever, from that unfathomable, ultimate, eternal loneliness. * “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted (tested) as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15, parentheses mine.