“O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?”
– 1 Corinthians 15:55
If you’ve bothered to click through and read this, I will honor your time by getting to the point.
Ladies and gentlemen: Hell is real.
Hell is any one person having power over all the others; hell is Sauron and the Orcs conquering Middle Earth; hell is the outer darkness; hell is being alive enough so that you can suffer maximally.
Think child abuse. Think rape. Think torture in a foreign land with no home of coming home. Think of sex slavery. Think of your children being kidnapped. Think of being tried, sentenced, and executed – and you are innocent. Think betrayal, think of losing everything. Think of powers that be, who seem never to suffer, while you live and die at their whim.
Hell is immense, relentless, insurmountable suffering with no end in sight. God damn, indeed.
Whatever you think of the doctrine, you already recognize the abstraction – Hell is real. And it seems never to be defeated.
We have not even touched on death.
Think how death looks to the first humans – it is absolute, terrifying and mysterious. A person is up, walking around and alive; then his body is utterly still. Cold and stiff. After a few days, it is grotesque, and eventually it withers away and is gone.
It goes without saying, doesn’t it?
Death is brutal. Death is devastating. Death is a force of nature, a scorched earth, inescapable, to be joked about nervously if we wish not to cry about it.
It is the destroyer of souls, and of families. It is merciless, not at all subject to our feelings or wishes. Death does not give a single f*ck. (But that is its role).
Death and Hell assume victory. They assume the final word on human existence. What can anyone do in the face of such misery, such abject vulnerability?
But if a man were to rise from the dead…
Along comes St. Paul, who gives us the absurd words above. Listen to him!
He is taunting death. He is taunting Hell!
Imagine yourself, just as you are, standing before the army of thousands of Orcs – millions of Orcs, if you like! –
No. I mean, really imagine it. Put yourself on the muddy earth, as night creeps across the sky, and the ground trembles with the marching of a whole army wishing for nothing less than your absolute suffering and death.
If you have ever been terrified of anything…imagine that.
Then, dare it to come get you. And know that it will (St. Paul still died a brutal death).
That all makes for a charming story, and it is elevating and pleasant to hear from 20 centuries away. Anyone speaking truth to power, any unlikely hero standing up to a villain, often has that effect, even if the story is badly written.
The Christian is set apart – is holy – when she completely trusts it. When she puts no wager on this life, but bets everything on the next. Then she is truly on another level.
Now that is terrifying. If you are a Christian, that’s what you signed up for. If you are a Catholic, that’s what you profess every time you sign the Cross. If you are wrong, you lose everything you have.
We do well to lose our stomachs over this. Because if you are right, then you gain impossibly more than you ever could earn. It is the greatest gamble we all make.
Having wagered, there can scarcely be anything more invigorating than witnessing a man taunting all powers and principalities in our world. There can be nothing more encouraging – that is, bestowing courage. Even the unbelievers understand this. Just listen to Matt Maher lead into the final refrain…
I know there’s some people here tonight
You’ve been struggling in your faith
You’ve had doubts and anxieties, you’ve had fears about your life
And those things occupy your heart and your mind more than your faith does
I want to remind you, that the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead
It can resurrect your heart tonight
It can give you courage instead of fear and doubt
It can give you confidence in God
If that’s you tonight, put your hand on your heart with me
Sing these words over our lives and believe in the truth God has for them…
This is not a man afraid, even if by every account he should be. Neither is St. Paul.
O, Death, where is your sting?
O, Hell, where is your victory?
O, Church, come stand in the light! Our God is not dead – He’s alive! He’s alive!
Whom, then, shall you fear?