JESUS: Descent Into Hell, by Garry Wills

From What Jesus Meant


Jesus embraced his own death when he gave life to Lazarus.  When he answered the call from Lazarus’s sisters, he was going back into the killing zone, as his followers protested: “Rabbi, just now the Jews were trying to stone you, and you are returning there?” (John 11:8).  When he says he is going anyway, Thomas voices the feelings of the others: “Go we along, then, we too shall die with him.” (John 11:16).  But Jesus did not respond instantly to the request of Lazarus’s sisters.  John’s gospel shows that Jesus waits to act on the Father’s timeline for movement toward his “hour.”  Here at the end of his ministry he acts as he did at its beginning, not responding to his mother’s request at the marriage in Cana.  He does not work miracles from humanitarian motives.  At Cana he worked a disproportionate sign to convince his followers that they were moving toward the fulfillment of history. (John 2:11).  As he begins his last journey to Jerusalem, he tells them the climax to his story is almost at hand:

Jesus told them, “Daylight lasts only twelve hours, does it not?  If a man walks by daylight, he does not stumble, since he sees by the light of this present order.  But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, since there is no light in his eye.” (John 11:9-10)

The light is about to go out, when Jesus will say to the priests and elders, “This is your hour, your authority of darkness.” (Luke 22:53).

Jesus tells the followers that he goes to “wake” Lazarus.  But his is not simply a matter of resuscitating a person on his or her deathbed – as he had done with Jairus’s daughter, (Mark 5:22-43), or the Nain widow’s son. (Luke 7:11-17).  Lazarus has been dead for four days and is already buried.  As his sister says, “Lord, by now, after four days, he must stink.” (John 11:39).  But that is why Jesus did not come at once.  He does not come to do a human favor, but to declare his authority over life and death.  Before acting, he makes clear to Martha what this event will mean:

Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha tells him, “I realize that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.”

Then Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever trusts in me, though he die, will live, and everyone who lives with trust in me will not ever die.  Do you have this trust?”

She says to him, “Yes, I have reached the trust that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:23-27)

Jesus, when he proves that he can raise Lazarus, is telling his followers that his own death will be voluntary: “This is why the Father loves me, that I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it away from me.  No, I lay it down on my own.  I have the authority to lay down my life and the authority to take it up again.  I do this on the direction of my Father.” (John 10:17-18).

Though Jesus makes this masterly claim, the gospel shows him emotionally wrought as never before as he approaches Lazarus’s tomb.  The language is strong:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the other Jews with her likewise weeping, he was convulsed within, and loosed his passion.  And he said, “Where have you buried him?”  They answer him, Lord, come and see.”  Jesus broke into tears, which made the Jews say, “Look at how he loved him.”  But some said, “Since he opened the blind man’s eyes, could he not have kept this man from dying?”  But Jesus was once more convulsed within himself as he approached the tomb.(John 11:33-38)

Why, if Jesus knows he can and will raise Lazarus, is he so distraught and tearful?  Because his agony has begun.  He knows that this conquest of death is part of his own personal struggle with death, with his fear and human dread.  He was truly human as well as divine.  He knew hunger and thirst, loneliness and pain.  He foresaw that he would suffer all these things and more in one hideous tortured end to his life.  Those standing around did not understand the implications of his act.  John does not report the agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  This is his equivalent of it.

The other gospels make the interruption of the Temple service the immediate cause of Jesus’s arrest.  John put that episode at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, just as Luke put the temptation in the desert at the beginning, as a symbol of the issues that lay behind the entire public ministry of Jesus.  For John, the cause of Jesus’s arrest is the raising of Lazarus.  Just as Jesus had explained to Martha, this was a Messianic act.  It proclaimed Jesus as the Lord of life – therefore he must die.  He advanced a claim that the Temple priests could not abide.  When they heard of crowds flocking to Bethany to talk with the risen Lazarus, they plotted to kill Lazarus. (John 12:10)

Martin Scorsese, in his film, The Last Temptation of Christ, presents what the stakes are in the raising of Lazarus.  To show Jesus taking on the power of death, he has him reach into the tomb and pull at the hand of Lazarus.  But then Jesus is almost pulled into the tomb.  Only with great difficulty does he extract the revivifying body.  It is, indeed, a symbolic entry into his own tomb that Jesus is undergoing, a struggle at the boundaries of life.  In giving life to others, he gives his own life to and for them.  This is shown in the gospel by his hesitation to go back to Bethany, his talk with the followers of the darkness approaching, his spiritual convulsion, his tears.  It is significant that the only other time Jesus weeps in the gospels is on the same last journey to Jerusalem, when he grieves over the city, when he sees the destruction of its Temple foreshadowed in the obliteration of his own body:

As he neared the city, he cried tears at sight of it, saying, “If only you could know the things that would give you peace on this day.  But it is sealed off now from your sight.  The days will come when your foes direct siege works at you, encircling and hemming you in from all sides, leveling you along with your children inside the walls, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, since you knew not the critical moment of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)

The last clause refers to Jeremiah’s prophecy (in the Septuagint) that “they will perish in the time of their visitation.” (Jeremiah 6:15).  The Messiah has come to reclaim his city, but its rulers (as distinct from the body of its people) will not be reclaimed:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone the emissaries sent you, often I wished to shelter your children to me, as a hen shelters her chicks under her wings, but you would not consent, So, see, your house if forsaken.  And I tell you this, that never again will you see me until you say, ‘Acclaim for him who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39)


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