THREE HOURS IN HELL
By Pastor Glenn Pease
People die all the time just to advance our knowledge. Have you ever wondered how doctors knew the precise steps in the development of the fetus before there was any means of seeing inside the mother? It came from a team of Harvard doctors who asked a group of women who were scheduled for hysterectomies to stop practicing birth control before their surgery. This was long before all of the present controversy concerning when life begins, and the abortion issue. They did not see it as abortion, but simply as a removing of the female organs. But in doing so they were able to study 30 embryos and see the actual development of the fetus. Thirty babies had to die to give man this knowledge.
Doctor Lawrence Altman in his book Who Goes First tells numerous stories of doctors who have died in trying to get information on various diseases. I will share just one. In Lima, Peru there stands what may be the only statue in the world of a medical student. It memorializes Daniel Carrion who in 1885 decided to solve the mystery of a strange disease that was killing many of his people. He took some of the blood of an infected person and tried to inject it into his own arm. He failed at first, and so a fellow medical student helped him. He got the disease as expected, but his case was far more severe than expected. Thirty-nine days later he died. Some called it a horrible act and a disgrace to his profession. They young man who helped him was charged with murder. It was quite a scandal, but three professors came forward and sighted the many doctors in history who risked their lives in self-experimenting. The charge was dropped and Carrion became a hero. The medical students sing a balled to his memory, and enough was learned about the disease to bring it under control. Others live because he died.
This is not an isolated incident. Every new medicine, every new test, and every new therapy has to be performed on a human being before it can be approved. If a doctor had not first put a tube into his own heart, which could have killed him, we would not have many of the heart surgeries we have today. Somebody has to go first, and that somebody often has to die to enable others to follow and not die, but be saved by the procedure. We are looking at Jesus as our Great Physician who was also the Pioneer of our faith. He went first into the hell of God forsakenness that you and I, and all who trust in Him, might never have to endure it.
Those few hours of history in which Jesus laid down His life for the world of sinners were the most unusual hours in all of history. Nothing was normal. It was the Creator Himself putting Himself through the greatest self-experimentation of all time. As the author of life He would experience death, and in so doing all of reality is being altered, for He was turning the world of both nature and super nature upside down. The hours of His death were hours of complex confusion. Let's look at these strange phenomena.
I. THE CONFUSION OF NATURE.
Verse 45 says that from the 6th hour until the 9th hour darkness came over all the land. Mark and Luke record this same thing. Dr. Luke gives us one other word, and he says that the sun stopped shining. We are not talking about a cloudy day or an eclipse. We are talking about an event in creation that has never happened but this one time in all of history. The sun took a break, and for the only time in its existence it ceased to shine for 3 hours. This is one of the greatest miracles of all time, and Herbert Lockyer in his All The Miracles Of The Bible includes this one, which most of us would miss as a miracle.
Jesus was born in the darkness of night, but it was a natural night. He died in the darkness, which was a supernatural night because it came just when the day was brightest. It was from noon to 3 in the afternoon. That is the least likely time to have darkness, and so the whole thing is being timed by God to give the world a message. God never turned the sun off before, and He has never done it again. From God's perspective this was an event without parallel. It was a once in a history, and a once in a universe, time and space event. When you add the most unusual earthquake of all time to this darkness, it is no wonder the Centurion and the others were terrified and exclaimed, "Surely this was the Son of God!"
They were observing what was very frightening in nature. Nobody had ever seen anything like this before, and they knew they were in the presence of the supernatural. It makes sense why God the Father would turn off the sun for 3 hours while His Son died. What greater statement could God make concerning the significance of this event. Isaac Watts wrote,
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut His glories in,
When Christ the mighty Maker, died,
For man the creature's sin.
It was God's way of wearing black for His Son's death, and thereby symbolizing the sadness of heaven at the price that had to be paid for man's salvation. It was a dark and heavy load He had to bear to see His Son endure separation from Him that man might be reconciled. There is no symbol great enough to convey how dark and heavy it was other than the sun. It is the source of light and life for all the world. For 3 hours it ceased to function as a symbol of the 3 days in which the light of life would cease to function, because Jesus entered the realm of death.
This confusion of nature created confusion in the minds of men as well. When Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me," the people misunderstood the words of Jesus, and they thought He was calling for Elijah. The Aramaic word eloi, eloi sounds like Elijah, and so they are confused and hear a message Jesus did not give. In their confusion they say let's see if Elijah comes to rescue Him. There is total chaos around the cross as both nature and man are confused, and they are not functioning with the capacity they normally have. Disharmony reigns, and in all this confusion as the earth shakes that everything is backwards. People are coming out of the tombs instead of staying dead like dead people always do. The whole world is wired wrong, and nothing seems to be working right. The veil in the temple is ripped from top to bottom, and everything is out of whack from what is normal.
You get the unmistakable feeling that God is trying to say something that has never been said before. One of the things He is saying is that the cross and the death of His Son is the most awesome event of human history. It is in a class by itself. It is not one of the many martyr stories of great men dying for a cross. It is not a Socrates laying down his life for a principle, or a soldier laying down his life for his country. These are noble and praiseworthy sacrifices, but they do not qualify to be in the same category as Calvary. Here is an event that covers heaven and earth, all of creation, and all of mankind. The sun shuts off for no man but the God-Man, and even then only in the hours of His dying for all men. More miracles happen at the cross than anywhere else in the Bible. The veil is rent, the earthquake shakes dead people into life, people are converted, the trinity is separated only this once in all eternity, and the sun goes off for 3 hours.
Some see the darkness as the Father's mourning and sympathy for His Son. Jesus was stripped naked when he was nailed to the cross, and God in mercy lessened his shame by the cover of darkness. We know that from 9 in the morning until noon the leaders of the people mocked Jesus unmercifully, but when the darkness the mocking ceased, and then there was three hours of silence. The darkness veiled Jesus and halted the cruel mocking.
The darkness marked a turning point in the atmosphere around the cross. Nature's expression of sympathy led even cruel men to follow and begin to feel sympathy for Jesus. The compassion of people was born in the darkness and silence of those hours. One man ran to fill a sponge and give Jesus a drink. Others watch to see if Elijah will come and rescue him. Many felt with the Centurion that this was no ordinary man, and the Centurion said he was the Son of God. Dr. Luke tells us that the crowds of people who were so cruel began to doubt their dogmatic stand, and they began to smite their breasts as if to say, "What fools we have been." The darkness revealed to them that Jesus was no mere criminal, but someone uniquely different from anyone else.
In His dying hours nature shocked man into seeing the cross for what it really was. It was the greatest act of folly and sin the world has ever seen. Man in his sinful blindness and rebellion was actually killing the light of the world, which was God's greatest gift ever given to man. The darkness made men see what they never saw in the light, and there were people converted in those dark hours. The Centurion was the most prominent. Matthew Mark and Luke all end this strange period of darkness with a focus on the gentle women who stood afar off. There were many women Mark says who followed and ministered to Jesus. They beheld this awesome scene at the cross. The male disciples were all hiding but the females were there watching through the dark to see what would happen. It was a violent death in the midst of violent acts of nature, but in the presence of it all were the women disciples who added a touch of gentleness to a terribly confusing scene. Even the presence of the women is part of the confusion, for everything around the cross is not normal. This is where the men should be strong, and the women off crying in despair, but it is the opposite.
There is nothing about the cross that is normal. Not only did God withdraw His power from the sun in the sky so that it ceased to shine, but He withdrew His presence from His Son on the cross, and for the first time in His eternal existence He felt forsaken by His Father. This is what Jesus most dreaded about the price He had to pay to save man. He dreaded the darkness of being deprived of His Father's light. Not only was the external world thrust into darkness, but His internal world was darkened and Jesus cried out with the feeling of one forsaken. There was a power shortage in the solar system, and it was symbolic of what man cannot see, and that was the power shortage in the very triune nature of God as the Father and the Son were cut off from communication. Jesus had to experience hell, which is the darkness of being cut off from God's light and presence. Those three hours of darkness were literally hell for Jesus.
Jesus died what is called the second death, which is the death, not just of the body, but of the body and soul in hell. Many have died for our bodies, and we have Memorial Day to remember them and honor them. Many have died that we might have freedom and the right to health and a host of other blessings, but nobody ever died that we might escape hell and spiritual death of separation from God. Nobody ever did this, but Jesus, for he alone could do so as the perfect Lamb of God worthy of being the sacrifice for all sin. We need never die this death for Jesus died it for us. No wonder the cross is the central symbol of our faith. What happened there is a once for all unrepeatable event. That is why the whole creation was involved. It was a time of un-paralleled confusion.
Even God the Son was asking why on the cross, and this gives us a hint as to the cost of saving man from sin. If the sun in the sky could feel what it is like to be turned off and not shine it would feel what it is like to be forsaken by God. The sun could not feel it, but Jesus the Son of God could, and He felt the inner darkness of being cut off from the power source of the universe. It had to be the most painful experience ever endured in this universe. It was not the nails, the crown of thorns, nor the whip lashes on His back, for these physical pains have been endured by millions, but it was the eclipse of His very being, and the abandonment of His relationship to the Father, which was the greatest pain every endured. That is the price Jesus paid for our salvation. He was abandoned by God and man, and He was in hell for 3 hours.
Three hours did not seem long, but try laying your hand on a red hot stove for 3 hours and you will get an idea of just how seemingly eternal 3 hours can be. We just cannot imagine what 3 hours of separation from the Father means. It is in the realm of the infinite where we cannot even think or imagine. We do not know what Jesus experienced in the 3 days and 3 nights in the tomb, but these 3 hours of God forsakenness were the 3 most painful hours ever experienced in this universe. And Jesus did it for you and me. Spurgeon saw in this the greatest crisis in history, and the greatest comfort for sinners. He wrote, "As to my sin, I hear its harsh accusing no more when I hear Jesus say, Why hast thou forsaken me? I know I deserve the deepest hell and the hand of God's vengence, but I am not afraid. He will never forsake me, for He forsook His Son on my behalf."
To grasp even a fraction of what the cross means is to be filled with gratitude to the Father and to the Son, who together paid such a price for our salvation. And out of the gratitude of heart comes the cross carrying life. The life that is willing to sacrifice to advance the kingdom of God. Paul said that he dies daily. He died to self and gave up a self-centered life every day for Christ. Someone asked a missionary to Africa if he liked his work and he said, "No! We do not like dirt and crowding into vile huts through goat refuse. We do not like association with ignorant, brutish people. But is a man to do nothing for Christ which he does not like?"
We reveal just how much we grasp the message of the cross, the 3 hours of darkness, and the cry of forsakenness by how much we are willing to do what we do not like for the sake of our Savior. I am sure Jesus did not like His 3 hours in hell. It was the worst experience of His existence, but He did it for us so that we might never need to experience hell. May God help us to be always filled with thankfulness because Jesus took our place in those 3 hours in hell.