Imagine walking along a quiet country lane on a starry but moonless light. It is quite dark. Your eyes trace a vague outline of the treetops nearby, but all else between you and the horizon lays hidden in shadow. Fortunately, you carry a lantern. Its burning mantle creates a yellow glow that extends about twenty feet with diminishing luminosity. The contours of your feet and the stones beneath them are brightly visible but just a few steps away the world remains completely hidden. The lamp permits only a couple careful steps at a time. You can walk, but with little sense of direction, orientation, or forewarning. You wouldn't see any pits or obstacles until you were almost upon them. You have a long and arduous journey before you. Without the lantern it would be impossible, but with it alone, the darkness of night remains a constant and insidious threat. Your journey though is urgent and important. It is unsafe to stay where you are. You dare not tarry. There is no choice but to carry on warily into the night. For hours you walk slowly and cautiously.
But at last, the black sky begins to lighten. A gray dawn is emerging. The trees regain their shape. The hills in the distance are hazy but visible. Within twenty minutes you realize can see the road many paces in front of you. There are potholes and debris as you encountered throughout the night, but you now hop easily over them. You don't need the lantern anymore. With another twenty minutes comes blueness. Then pink and orange and a million new shades of gray that all bleed together across the sky. Color returns to the landscape. The air is still cold but it seems to acquire a new texture. Being outside is no longer just a drab discomfort. There's a soft breeze on your skin that feels crisp and enlivening. Nearby birds break the night's long silence and celebrate the morning in song. Soon, the horizon line begins to glow and flame. You stand still to take the sunrise in, awaiting the countdown of moments before the sun breaks forth and fills the day with bright hot light. Then it happens. Sunlight arrives. It appears first as only a sliver of gold and yellow, simultaneously beautiful but painful to gaze upon directly. You draw in the vibrant oranges and reds that appear molten on the skyline, looking only indirectly at the golden center of it all. Soon, it is day. The world long held secret is exposed gloriously. You see the road run on before you with all its bumps and divots, turns and twists. The daylight reveals the true features of the path behind you, which an hour prior you guessed at blindly, and mercifully illumines the journey before you.
A sunrise makes all the difference in the world.
Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).
I lived much of my early adult life literally wandering away from Jesus. I wrestled often with severe depression and typically dealt with it by means of escape. At twenty, when I first blew out my back, I was so disappointed I left UCSB for a quarter to live out of my car while traversing the American Southwest. The next year I ran away to Montana to tramp around for five or six weeks. The year after that I attempted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. I loved the line, "Not all who wander are lost," though I was most certainly trying to lose myself. A week or two into the PCT, the trail crosses stretches of scorching desert in Southern California. To manage the heat, I sometimes rested during the day and hiked by headlamp for much of the night.
In more ways than one, I know what it's like to walk in darkness. I've done quite a bit of it.
But then I started to read the Bible and I discovered myself awakened with truth. Much of my struggle and restlessness began to make sense. I knew early on that I needed to make major and immediate changes to how I lived. Less whiskey and more reflection; less lust and more love. I tried to let the old words of Scripture guide me. I found myself echoing the once strange prayer of the Psalmist: "Your Word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path" (Ps 119:105). After years of wandering hopelessly in the dark and bumping into every possible obstacle, I at last found a lantern to direct my steps.
And now I've been following Jesus for several years, living in that yellow glow. But I think I'm just beginning to see how the light of Jesus illumines the whole world. And with it, or perhaps by it, I'm beginning to see darkness for what it really is. If this enlightenment of sorts is true, I give credit to two authors: Rene Girard and J.R.R. Tolkien. Below, I do my best to explain what they've shown me.
Light is a peculiar phenomenon. It exists in and of itself, but its essence is only revealed through contrast. Light is light, but we typically think of it in terms of darkness' opposing counterpart. Light dispels darkness and darkness is merely the absence of light. Darkness is a cold and eerie obstacle that confounds and confuses. Light illuminates and reveals, warms and radiates. It exposes what darkness hides. By itself, light doesn't actually change things. But by laying bare what is real, it can change everything. Its primary purpose is to reveal.
This is what's just now hitting me. Like a freight train. Jesus took on human flesh and rode it out all the way to its brutal end in order to show us something. He came to be our cosmic light bulb. But to show us what? What was so important for us to see that the Son of God would submit Himself to death in order to expose it? That which has been hidden in darkness (1 Cor 4:5); that which we could not see otherwise; that which enslaves all who are ignorant to its workings. Christ came to shine a light on darkness itself.
Darkness of course has a name, or names: Satan (Hebrew), or the devil (diabolos:Greek). As I've thought about evil and the subject of a satan lately, I've realized both how powerful yet corrupted metaphor can be. Metaphors, like all linguistic devices, are tools utilized to convey meaning. If I say "the man was a shrimp," I don't mean for you to think of him as a tiny invertebrate sea creature. I want you to picture him as quite small, and by imagining it, meaning conceiving it through an image, to remember better than if I merely told you, "the man was small." Metaphor is a mnemonic device. Satan is both a someone and a metaphor; a being and a force; a person and the personification something far beyond personhood. In Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright describes the devil as a "nonhuman and non divine quasi-personal force which seems bent on attacking and destroying creation in general and humankind in particular" (p.109). Satan is an evil enemy and a metaphor for the engine of evil itself. Satan is evil and evil is Satan.
For long now, this metaphor has failed many of us. We've forgotten. First we though Satan was just a scary person. From there he became a cute little red cartoon character with horns - the fun one, usually. Not long after that we stopped believing he ever existed. We let the metaphor personify away the horrors it intended to portray and then trivialized the remaining person into oblivion. As a result, we've nearly lost all practical grasp on evil.
For this reason, we urgently need to rediscover a metaphoric language for evil. We need to re-personify it, because so long as we cannot visualize our enemy, we are in grave danger. As Andrew DelBanco says in The Death of Satan, "If evil escapes the reach of our imagination it will have established dominion over us all." And he doesn't even believe in God. Our very lives depend on the reawakening of our imaginations. For whatever exactly it is, it seeks to enslave and destroy us. Evil needs a name and a face if we are to resist it.
This is where the imagery of darkness and The Lord of the Rings come in. If the devil has become a meaningless invention to modern minds, perhaps the imagery of darkness can help. It too is both a metaphor and a concrete reality, and one commonly referenced throughout the Bible. However, thanks to the genius of Tolkien I'm just beginning to see its revelatory significance. Never have I more clearly conceptualized the personal and impersonal paradox of evil than through Tolkien's depiction of Sauron, the Dark Lord. He is at once an awful and powerful enemy who is out to rule and destroy Middle Earth, and a vague impersonal force much like a shadow whose reach extends far beyond any one person. He is darkness, the person and the concept. What Tolkien does ingeniously is to activate your imagination by helping you feel this paradox.
At one point, the heroic ring-bearing Frodo looks into a sort of prophetic elven mirror.
"But suddenly the Mirror went altogether dark, as dark as if a hole had opened in the world of sight, and Frodo looked into emptiness. In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled nearly all the Mirror. So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or to withdraw his gaze. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one."
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Houghton Mifflin 50th Anniversary Hardcover Single Volume Ed. p.364)
Darkness is a metaphor and a reality that is utterly crucial for us to come to terms with. This is why we need fairy tales like The Lord of the Rings. Our imaginations have to be continually re-activated to remain alert to what we don't usually see. In the tale, darkness is sometimes seen as a passing shadow or a black and ominous figure. However, it's usually only felt or sensed, especially by the common folk like hobbits. Something just feels a bit off, or cold, or a bit too quiet. Only seldom do they know what lurks in the shadows, or perhaps where it is the shadows themselves lurk.
This is true for us too. Darkness hides itself. Satan conceals Satan. The darkness that seeks to destroy us is the same shadow in which it keeps itself hidden. This secrecy is the source of Satan's power. It's also why darkness is really the perfect metaphor. Evil is unseen and our lack of vision is itself the substance of evil. Satan is a lack of light. He is the character of concealment. So, here's the wake up call to which all metaphors aim: The darkness is really really dark, so dark that it can hide in its own shadow. And while Jesus' sane spirit detected every looming cloud and recognized every demon in disguise and even talked to satan face to face, we live under the spell of darkness itself. We're in a trance and dare to doubt whether Satan and demons even exist. As the enigmatic character Keyser Soze illustrates in The Usual Suspects, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
We exist daily in great danger, for we are gravely habituated to darkness and fatally unfamiliar with its ways. We have become a society of false prophets proclaiming all is well when it most certainly is not (Ezek 13:10). We are indeed pilgrims on a terribly important journey and there are traps and pitfalls everywhere. Some of us have lamps and some do not, but it's much more than a lantern that we need. We need a sunrise. We're all dying for daybreak.
Enter Jesus and the cross and the mind-blowing insights of Rene Girard.
In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard unpacks his paradigm-shifting anthropology of violent, imitative desire. In doing so he highlights another important but terribly misunderstood metaphor: The stumbling block. If you grew up in the church, you probably heard it said that the girls shouldn't wear a two-piece bathing suit because they would become a stumbling block to the boys. The term comes from the Greek word skandalon, where of course we derive the word scandal. It means an obstacle, or snare, or impediment set on a path to cause someone to trip and fall or to keep them from getting where they want to go. The youth group usage derives from Jesus' emphatic teachings, repeated by Paul and John, that skandalons, or stumbling blocks, are inevitable in life, but at all costs we must not become one of them (Mat 13:41, 16:43, 18:7, Rom 11:9, 14:13, 1 Jo 2:10). To Girard though, these obstacles are a much bigger deal than bikinis.
Scandal is the mechanism of darkness. Satan's scheme is to create, or become, an obstacle that we stumble over in the dark. Then we react to this "stone" in fear, anger, and self-protection, always in a destructive and unhealthy manner. Often, we even kill one another in order to "set things right" and "blow off steam". We don't realize it, but it's actually Satan who persuades us to respond this way. But because of the nature of darkness, we don't realize it was actually Satan who secretly both triggered our rage and then fanned it into flame. We blame our trouble instead on someone close by, whoever appears to be responsible, making them the scapegoat for our woes. Then we dehumanize and demonize them, allowing us to feel justified in our angry or violent response. Once we've let it all out and the blood (proverbial or literal) has been shed, we feel ready to continue walking the path. Eventually, we run into another obstacle, blame the pain on whoever it appears to be that is in our way, and then act out against them. This is the cycle of scandal and violence in which all of humanity is secretly enslaved. It is the engine of evil. It is the work of Satan, but also Satan himself.
If you're having a hard time understanding this, try to recall the last time you had a thought along the lines of, "If not for so-and-so or such-and-such, everything would be okay." This is the mindset of scapegoating and even of sacrifice. The psychology goes like this: Everything would be alright if not for obstacle X. Someone, person A, is to blame for obstacle X. Therefore, if Person A is removed, Obstacle X will be destroyed, and then all will be well again.
Of course, this all happens deep in our subconscious. And though it sounded new and merely mythological to me, I'm beginning to see it everywhere. The perceived ills and sins of a society get loaded onto a victim and cast out of the community. They become the "goat" whose sacrifice saves the society. Nearly every culture in history created myths telling of and even divining such social psychology. I'm now beginning to see this not as myth being stretched to fit reality, but the opposite. This reality inspired the myths, it seems, starkly similar though created in cultures thousands of years and miles apart. As Girard argues, this cycle of violence is Satan's ancient and universal scheme. It is Satan itself.
Therefore, anytime you point to something or someone as the obstacle between you and your desired goal, you have been got. You are Satan's decoy. He's caused you to stumble and then convinced you that it was your neighbor's fault. He's using you. In fact, for the moment he is you. Moreover, there are a million satans, because right this very moment, millions of people have been duped into believing that were it not for so-and-so, they would be on their way toward happiness. He's turned us all against ourselves by persuading us to see one another as obstacles and then demonizing those obstacles. We turn one another into devils. And then we become devils ourselves.
This terrible cycle goes on and on and on and we have absolutely no idea. We think we're going somewhere and various people keep getting in our way. In reality though, we're wandering in circles in the dark killing one another because Satan keeps using us as his scandalizing pawns. We're like rats in his maze. Day after day, he convinces you that your neighbor is the great obstacle between you and happiness, and convinces another neighbor the same thing about you. We're all battling one another obliviously in the dark and the only one who makes it out alive every time is the devil.
The major catastrophe of human life is that for thousands of years we've been repeatedly duped by an invisible third party into warring against one another. We're literally being toyed with and we're complicit in being the vessels used to deceive others. We're tricked and deceived moment after moment into throwing life away, and to what end? The pattern of scandal leads only to more blame, more restlessness, more death. We never achieve the happiness that we believed we would. There is no satisfaction. Instead, there is only more scandal. The rug is pulled out from under us every time, yet we don't notice it. We rage on clueless, fighting in the dark while unbeknownst to us Darkness himself laughs in the corner.
One time, some good orthodox Jews were arguing with Jesus. "We are descendants of Abraham," they said, "And God is our Father." Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:39-44).
Jesus said Satan is the father of lies and these men were his children. If you follow logically, that means they were the devil's precious little lies. They were deceived little minions of deceit. They thought they were in control and fought to retain it, but unbeknownst to them they were being bitterly ruled. The truth was shrouded in darkness. The same goes for us. We wonder if Satan even exists yet we think everything is okay and we've got things under control.
We have no idea.
But God sees everything. He's watched it all with horror. A long time ago, He reached down into the rat race and gave us rules and wisdom that would have put an end to all the violence if only we would just obey them. He handed us a lamp. And it saved many from destruction. But still we didn't get it. We couldn't see beyond our own two feet. We might temporarily avoid injuring ourselves but we could never put a finger on what was wrong or how to stop it. With life-saving guidelines such as the Ten Commandments, some small societies could flourish for awhile, but the world at large was one oblivious frenzy after another to no end.
So Jesus came. As it is said, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work" (1 Jo 3:8). He stepped down into the panic and taught us how and why evil works. He explained Satan's trickery. He healed the sick, spoke the truth, and sent demons scattering like cockroaches caught in the light. All the while He modeled a revolutionary life of peace, loving and imitating God's character rather than conforming to the false and parasitic ways of satanic violence. He gave us a model for true human life and beckoned us to save ourselves by imitating it. "I am the gate," He said. "Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:9-10).
But still we didn't get it. Our eyes had been adjusted too long to darkness. We were blind and couldn't see the light. Actually, we were eerily like the strange creatures that have lived deep in caves for so long that they no longer even have eyes. Sadly, Jesus declared, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed" (John 3:19-20). Not only were we blinded by the light and unable to see what it revealed, we were scared because we had become darkness. Satan had used us for too long and it, or he, was in us (Matt 6:23). More had to be done. The world was stuck in the dark of night. Only the dawn of a brand new day could save us.
And so Jesus did the unthinkable. None of his closest friends even saw it coming. He entered into every sacrificial myth ever told in a way that no myth ever imagined. The Son of God became the victim. Jesus knew exactly how the twisted cycle worked but knew that no matter what He said, we wouldn't get it. So He decided to show us. By dying. He allowed His body to be broken and his perfect blood to be shed to make a point - The great and final point. In other words, the story of Christ's death and resurrection is a true myth that uncovers the underlying evil inherent to all myths. As shocking as this notion sounds, the need for this display was proven once and for all when Jesus tried to warn his disciples that this was the plan.
'Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!"
Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns" (Matt 16:21-23).
Did you catch that? Jesus told his dear friend that he had literally become Satan, for in that moment he was a stumbling block to Christ. That's that word skandalon again. With a cosmic dose of irony, Satan used one of Jesus' best and closest disciples as an obstacle to try to prevent the Messiah from exposing this very cycle of trickery. In rebuking Christ's willingness to fall prey to Satan's cycle of violence, Peter participated in it, becoming a satan himself. This was Satan's sneaky attempt to stumble Jesus and keep his trickery under wraps. This isn't surprising, for Satan is a liar who is desperate to remain hidden. Jesus once again would be neither tempted nor tricked. But with clear mind and sober heart, He chose to become victim to Satan's treachery. He decided to allow the people He came to save to deem Him a satan and put him, therefore, to death.
The mob was forming and Jesus knew it. He had escaped many times before and had all the power in the world to fight back. But this time He would step right into it. After one final supper where Jesus clarified to his friends that his upcoming death was for their sake, He handed himself over to be arrested without a fight. The mechanism of blame and violence hit an all-time high and the world's only perfect man took it all upon himself. He was mocked, whipped, spit upon, denounced, beaten, and finally nailed gruesomely to a tree to be cursed while He bled out. The torture and murder wasn't rare. Every culture has its own form of societal lynching. Satan has long convinced us that this is what keeps the peace. But this time, it was the perfect Son of God who was crucified. This time it was a truly innocent victim who would be slain. The peace-making sacrifice was no other than the Prince of Peace himself. And this was Satan's fatal mistake.
It's also where my previous conception of Christianity gets blown to pieces. What if the power of the cross lay not primarily in what it accomplished for us, but what it revealed to us?
As Jesus hung from the cross and looked down upon his murderers, He saw what he had always seen looking on us from above: Pitiable pawns mistaking darkness for light and lies for truth. God sent his Son to love and save us and we walked him through town naked and bloody like a sick circus act before hanging him up to die. Yet He pitied our darkness even then, praying, "Forgive them Father, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). He was right. They didn't and neither do we. They were mere puppets on Satan's strings. Christ saw clearly even through tear-filled eyes, but they could see nothing through the self-protecting rage in theirs.
But that was it. Little did we know that's exactly what we needed. We had to see Him there in order to see anything at all. We had to kill Light in order to see it. And then once we saw it, it exposed everything.
Luke goes on to record that, 'It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last' (Luke 23:44-46).
Jesus is the light of the world so when He died the whole world went black. The Sun of God came to us healing our wounds and preaching good news to the poor, but we killed Him. We snuffed out Light itself. But as we say, the night is darkest just before the dawn. For only by our doing so was darkness truly exposed.
In that final moment, God flung open the door and turned the light on Satan. By subjecting his Son to the illusory mechanisms of evil, He exposed them forever. The crucifixion of Christ is the only event evil enough to reveal just how wickedly tricked we have been. For as long as there was some blemish in the victim of our violent scapegoating, we could always find a way to justify our evil and hatred and violence. We could somehow see it as normal or necessary or even good. But now a wholly holy man had been tortured to death and even unto his final breath no blemish could be seen. There wasn't a single flaw to be demonized. He didn't even resist. Instead, He surrendered entirely to the mechanism. Whatever happened, it was all their doing. By doing so, his death proved that He was indeed 100% good, and the crowds were 100% wrong.
So the next two verses in Luke continue: 'The centurion (read: executioner), seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away' (Luke 23:47-48).
Call this moment the onset of the harshest hangover after the worst whoops in the history of life itself. What those who stood by to watch Jesus die actually saw was almost too much to swallow. It was the ultimate wake-up call. The whole function of the scapegoat and sacrifice in this system of human violence is to convince yourself that the victim is somehow the great enemy, and therefore to feel relieved by their death and suffering. But no man or woman could call Christ enemy, so what they felt was the opposite of relief. It was the ultimate "holy ****!" moment. He had been the only true and pure friend even to the last. This revealed the cycle of blame and violence for the insane sham that it was. The execution then quickly appeared as the opposite of necessary; it was impossibly wrong and backward. There could be nothing justifiable about it. It was absolute insanity. We had made a horrible mistake! By subjecting himself to the insane mechanism, Jesus exposed it for what it was. I imagine the following thoughts flowing through their minds like lightning:
We couldn't possibly hate this man, so why did we do it? And there could be no possible charge brought against him, so who told us He should die? Wait, this isn't what we wanted. How have we been so deceived? Who put these thoughts into our heads? Who is powerful enough to manipulate an entire society? "Oh ****!" Only Satan, that's who. We were wrong! We've been used!
This was Christ's victory over the cycle of evil named Satan. It was as if those who truly saw what had happened suddenly woke up from a terrible dream. Their existence had been like a lifelong stint in the Matrix, but now that they were unplugged, they realized that everything they thought was real had been false. There was no stain to be found upon Jesus. Nothing could possibly warrant his punishment. As He said himself, He was "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). He was goodness, love, and light in perfect human form. There was no place for him in our cycle of vengeance. It clearly wasn't this righteous man who had gotten in our way and brought evil upon us. No, his death could only be the result of some horrid deception. Indeed our murder must surely have been the work of some gruesome deceiver. This was all wrong. He was The Way to freedom and our slavery destroyed him. He was Truth incarnate and Satan's lies convinced us to kill him. The Light of the world was smothered my the darkness within us. We had hated Perfect Love. He was True Life, which could only mean that we, his murderers, were death itself.
There really is little to compare the feeling of this moment to. Perhaps it's like realizing at once that the plane you've been flying in is actually upside down (Dallas Willard), or that you've really been standing upon your head all this time (G.K. Chesterton), or perhaps as Peter would have felt in that moment of rebuke, that you have actually been Satan, fighting with the enemy rather than against him.
This dreadful moment when the earth literally went dark and humanity found itself at its worst was actually our long-awaited sunrise. It was precisely then, during an afternoon of utter darkness, that the light bulb finally turned on. Christ's final breath upon the cross cast the first glimpse of golden sunshine splashing over the horizon of history. What naturally followed was the full and glorious light of day.
If this sounds like a different interpretation of the passion story than you're used to, you're not alone. It is quite true that Christ "shared in our humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil" (Heb 2:14). But have you ever asked yourself, how?
After all, Satan is still here manipulating human civilization and ruling the world. His engine rages on and he remains the Prince of the Air. Though the Book of Revelation promises that God will one day finally destroy him and his cronies in a cosmic battle, the cross didn't banish evil just yet. The cross doesn't leave us with a brand new world just yet, but it creates the opportunity to live differently in this still evil place. It gives us a choice and the option of freedom. It accomplishes this not through force, however, but exposure. It shows us the truth. Jesus' death on the cross is the brightest moment in history because it was the most revealing.
The cross cannot be merely a get-out-of-jail-free card as most Christian bumper stickers would have you think. It isn't just a ticket out of hell, but the beacon that once and for all shows this current reality to be the hellacious prison that it is. Hell, in the end, is the inability to see the walls and bars and hissing guard that form one's prison, as well as blindness to the light of day outside. In The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis depicts this sad ending with a group of dwarves huddled together in a vibrant, heaven-like place, who can see and enjoy none of it. They have become impervious to the light. Hell is the eventual but inevitable desire to turn the lights off to the truth. You'd rather keep everything hidden than discover your life an illusion, and you perhaps the enemy. You prefer imprisonment to exposure. This begins long before the day of final judgment. From our current hell existence, for those whom that is what it is, our tolerance for light dwindles into eternity until even the flicker of a candle, or perhaps a faint sign of joy, is too much to bear. Hell is the final state of total resistance to light, the place and point at which not a single lumen can permeate. It is, as Job called it, "the place of no return; the land of gloom and utter darkness; the land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder, where even the light is like darkness” (Job 10:21-22).
No, the cross is vastly more than atonement. It is the most tender and courageous act of love ever known without which the world would still be without sunlight. It is the greatest hero story ever told and yet that which is still least expected. Because of it, we realize that God is even better and the enemy even worse than we could have imagined. Life is not so grey as it seems. It's either very dark, or very light. The difference must be seen and the right choice must be made. As the proverb has long said, "The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble" (Prov 4:18-19) And as Girard warns, "If we don't see that the choice is inevitable between the two supreme models, God and the devil, then we have already chosen the devil and his mimetic (imitative) violence" (p.42).
Jesus is the illumination of the world and the cross is his sunrise. Truth has broken in. Satan has finally been exposed and his deception presented openly to be understood and avoided by all. "God took away the power of the leaders of this world and the powers of darkness. He showed them to the world. The battle was won over them through the cross" (Col 2:15). In other translations it says that through participation in crucifixion, Jesus put Satan to public shame. As Eugene Peterson's The Message says, "He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets." Perhaps this is actually the greatest part of the good news.
Indeed, as James says, if we resist the devil, he will flee from us (Jam 4:7). That means the onus is, as it goes, on us. It is surely by our newfound ability to see him for a miserable fraud that he's been defeated. If we wake, he goes. Nay, he disappears. For when our vision is restored and readjusted to the light of day we can once again see neighbor as neighbor and brother as brother. They are obstacles and rivals no longer. What we thought a demon is actually a friend, troubled perhaps, but nonetheless one of us. Our fellow humans are sacred kin, not mortal enemies. They are to be pitied always, and rescued if possible, but never again destroyed. This is why in The Lord of the Rings, they take pity on Gollum rather than executing him. Though he had been a treacherous foe, he wasn't the tyrant after all but only the saddest of victims.
But everything depends on how you see it, or perhaps, if you see it. Not all of Jerusalem beat their chests and woke up to the truth. Most went on as usual. Most of the Jews especially continued to see him as simply another stumbling block, an obstacle they were glad to remove (1 Pet 2:8). They continued to justify the murder by demonizing the victim, as is always done. But to those who saw, Christ became the so-called corner stone, the most precious of all. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). Indeed, it all depends on what it is we see.
"For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached (the cross) to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1:21-25).
Those who couldn't see their own darkness also couldn't see the light even when He walked in their midst. But those who see the light see everything else. We must first learn to see the cross for the beacon of light that it is. Then we must learn simply to see - to see everything else for what it truly is. Let the light of the cross fill in the contours of your hazy existence. No more stumbling along at night. We've all tread a dark path for far too long and we really do live in a sort of upside-down world. Health is rare here. Clarity is a phenomenon. True life is a miracle. Once we've begun to see the light, and to see with the light, we can begin to know darkness. We must then learn the terror and turmoil of concealment and sightlessness. We have to know what darkness feels like, who darkness is, and when darkness is upon us. When we see Satan naked and unmasked as Christ did when He "saw him fall like lightning," then we'll know we are awake and seeing truly. We will then be sane and safe, standing right-side up in "the light of life". Then joy, freedom, and rest is ours in abundance.
God promised long ago that He would be our bright morning star. "I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them." (Is 42:16) And truly now it can be said, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the deep darkness a light has dawned" (Is 9:2). The gospel of Jesus Christ is an old story in answer to very old promises, but its brightness hasn't dimmed one bit. Perhaps we need it now more than ever.
If it strikes you as wondrously fresh and new today, 2000 years later, as it does me, then press into it. As the Narnians say, "go further up and further in!" Look for light, learn to love it, and bathe long in its warmth. Then one day we shall look back and rejoice with the oldest of saints, saying, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)" (Eph 5:8-9). This final sentence isn't a command but an invitation. We've been liberated! You're free! In other words, good morning! Enjoy life in the light!