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Archive for January, 2011

I’m working on Christ’s “descent into Hell” and more specifically on the way the varied, expansive forms of OT horror and judgment fill out the content of that atonement idea. Recently I gave Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” another read and noticed a number of descent-atonement motifs throughout. Notice, as examples, the following passages describing Ivan’s lonely suffering:

1. “And with the consciousness of this, and with the physical pain in addition, and the terror in addition to that, he must lie in his bed, often not able to sleep for pain the greater part of the night; and in the morning he must get up again, dress, go to the law-court, speak, write, or, if he does not go out, stay at home for all the four-and-twenty hours of the day and night, of which each one is a torture. And he had to live thus on the edge of the precipice alone, without one man who would understand and feel for him.”

2. “He took his legs down, lay sideways on his arm, and he felt very sorry for himself. He only waited till Gerasim had gone away into the next room; he could restrain himself no longer, and cried like a child. He cried at his own helplessness, at his awful loneliness, at the cruelty of people, at the cruelty of God, at the absence of God. ‘Why hast Thou done all this? What brought me to this? Why, why torture me so horribly?’ He did not expect an answer, and wept indeed that there was and could be no answer. The pain grew more acute again, but he did not stir, did not call.”

3: “Of late, in the loneliness in which he found himself, lying with his face to the back of the sofa, a loneliness in the middle of a populous town and of his numerous acquaintances and his family, a loneliness than which none more complete could be found anywhere – not at the bottom of the sea, not deep down in the earth; – of late in this fearful loneliness Ivan Ilyich had lived only in imagination in the past.”

So we find the motifs of greater pain in the darkness (cf. Abraham’s night vision, Jonah’s descent, the high noon darkness of Golgotha), of the uniquely profound loneliness of (apparent) God-forsakenness, of the realms of horror (depths of the sea, depths of the earth, yet in the context of friends and family), and finally a twisted, horror-atoning form of Anselm’s ontological argument – a loneliness “than which none more complete could be found anywhere.” Quite the Messianic complex of descent and atonement at the cross, I suggest. And finally, not to be overlooked is Tolstoy’s reference to a final scream and three days of horror, a suggestive symbol of Christ’s descent and the three days between his death and resurrection:

4: “From that moment there began the scream that never ceased for three days, and was so awful that through two closed doors one could not hear it without horror.”

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