From prison and trial they led him away to his death. But who among the people realized that he was dying for their sins—that he was suffering their punishment?
—Isaiah’s prophecy about the death of Jesus Christ, written nearly 700 years before his birth (Isa. 53:8)

I have a memory about Easter from the fog of my childhood. I don’t know if it’s a real memory or not. Maybe it’s a dream. Here it is: I’m at a park pavilion on a rainy spring day. I’m watching the raindrops fall. My parents are there.

Nearby, a hefty black woman is singing. Everything is in slow motion. She closes her eyes and moves with the music, singing with her whole body. In between the raindrops I hear her words enveloping the park. She’s singing an old spiritual song:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, oh, oh . . . sometimes it causes me
To tremble . . . tremble . . . tremble . . .
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

She really cuts loose on the “Oh, oh, oh” part, and when she says the word tremble, I do. A chill grabs hold of me and a shiver snakes down my spine.

In my memory, I want to either close my ears to shut out her song or open them wide enough to take her all the way into my heart; I’m not sure which. Either way, she goes through the whole song, and I’m about to cry, and it all feels like a dream, and the rain won’t stop falling on the moist, green ground.

All the themes of the ancient story begin to merge now: creation, shadows, thorns, longing, blood, mystery, silence, venom, darkness. All the threads begin to weave together, all the notes form a single chord.

And the pattern that they weave and the chord that they play is this: pain.

Matthew remembers it clearly: “They made a crown of long, sharp thorns and put it on his head, and they placed a stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery, yelling, ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and beat him on the head with it” (Matt. 27:29–30).

His body is being beaten. His blood is being spilled. His heart is being broken.

For me.

And it causes me to tremble.

When I was a baby I was badly burned and almost died when a vat of boiling grease tipped off a countertop and splattered on top of me. I still have scars across my neck, chest, and left arm. As a kid, whenever I heard about hell, I’d picture those scars and imagine getting burned with hot grease over and over again but never dying. The scars would get deeper and thicker, but the pain would never go away.

I’m not sure anymore that’s what hell is really like. While I’m sure the suffering has a physical aspect to it, when Jesus talked about hell, he described a torment that was both physical and emotional. That’s because the deepest wounds, the gravest scars, don’t appear on skin but in souls. In hell the tracks of isolation, despair, and hopelessness play over and over again forever, while heaven remains just out of reach. Those who refuse to enter God’s story on his terms will regret it for an eternity.

I don’t think anyone dies expecting to go to hell. I think most people die expecting to go to heaven or at least hoping God will grade on the curve and promote them even if they didn’t quite finish at the top of the class.

we frantically dance
all around our demise.
as we put on a mask
and we wear our disguise.
we blink and we wink,
then we close both our eyes
and we think we’ve escaped,
but when death has her way,
we awaken—

and scream in surprise.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew he would be experiencing the worst punishment hell had to offer. That’s why his agony was so real and his grief was so deep.