He descended into hell.
Over a lifetime of faith, each of us, as believers, recites those words from the Creed thousands of
times. We may not understand them, but they’re familiar. They’re routine. And then something
happens to show us what they really mean.
Watching a disaster unfold for your community in the glare of the international mass media is
terrible and unreal at the same time. Terrible in its bloody cost; unreal in its brutal disconnection
from daily life. The impact of what happened this past week in Littleton, however, didn’t fully
strike home in my heart until the morning after the murders, when I visited a large prayer
gathering of students from Columbine High School, and spent time with the families of two of the
students who died.
They taught me something.
The students who gathered to pray and comfort each other showed me again the importance of
sharing not just our sorrow, but our hope. God created us to witness His love to each other, and
we draw our life from the friendship, the mercy and the kindness we offer to others in pain. The
young Columbine students I listened to, spoke individually -- one by one -- of the need to be
strong, to keep alive hope in the future, and to turn away from violence. Despite all their
confusion and all their hurt, they would not despair. I think I understand why. We’re creatures
of life. This is the way God made us: to assert life in the face of death.
Even more moving was my time with the families of two students who had been murdered. In
the midst of their great suffering – a loss I can’t imagine – the parents radiated a dignity which I
will always remember, and a confidence that God would somehow care for them and the children
they had lost, no matter how fierce their pain. This is where words break down. This is where
you see, up close, that faith – real, living faith -- is rooted finally not in how smart, or affluent, or
successful, or sensitive persons are, but in how well they love. Scripture says that "love is as
strong as death." I know it is stronger. I saw it.
As time passes, we need to make sense of the Columbine killings. The media are already filled
with "sound bites" of shock and disbelief; psychologists, sociologists, grief counselors and law
enforcement officers -- all with their theories and plans. God bless them for it. We certainly
need help. Violence is now pervasive in American society – in our homes, our schools, on our
streets, in our cars as we drive home from work, in the news media, in the rhythms and lyrics of
our music, in our novels, films and video games. It is so prevalent that we have become largely
unconscious of it. But, as we discover in places like the hallways of Columbine High, it is
bitterly, urgently real.
The causes of this violence are many and complicated: racism, fear, selfishness. But in another,
deeper sense, the cause is very simple: We’re losing God, and in losing Him, we’re losing
ourselves. The complete contempt for human life shown by the young killers at Columbine is
not an accident, or an anomaly, or a freak flaw in our social fabric. It’s what we create when we
live a contradiction. We can’t systematically kill the unborn, the infirm and the condemned
prisoners among us; we can’t glorify brutality in our entertainment; we can’t market avarice and
greed . . . and then hope that somehow our children will help build a culture of life.
We need to change. But societies only change when families change, and families only change
when individuals change. Without a conversion to humility, non-violence and selflessness in our
own hearts, all our talk about "ending the violence" may end as pious generalities. It is not
enough to speak about reforming our society and community. We need to reform ourselves.
Two questions linger in the aftermath of the Littleton tragedy. How could a good God allow
such savagery? And why did this happen to us?
In regard to the first: God gave us the gift of freedom, and if we are free, we are free to do terrible,
as well as marvelous, things . . . And we must also live with the results of others’ freedom. But
God does not abandon us in our freedom, or in our suffering. This is the meaning of the cross,
the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, the meaning of He descended into hell. God spared His only
Son no suffering and no sorrow -- so that He would know and understand and share everything
about the human heart. This is how fiercely He loves us.
In regard to the second: Why not us? Why should evil be at home in faraway places like Kosovo
and Sudan, and not find its way to Colorado? The human heart is the same everywhere – and so
is the One for whom we yearn.
He descended into hell. The Son of God descended into hell . . . and so have we all, over the past
few days. But that isn’t the end of the story. On the third day, He rose again from the dead.
Jesus Christ is Lord, "the resurrection and the life," and we – His brothers and sisters – are
children of life. When we claim that inheritance, seed it in our hearts, and conform our lives to it,
then and only then will the violence in our culture begin to be healed.
In this Easter season and throughout the coming months, I ask you to join me in praying in a
special way for the families who have been affected by the Columbine tragedy. But I also ask
you to pray that each of us – including myself – will experience a deep conversion of heart
toward love and non-violence in all our relationships with others.