In the 15th century, the southern tip of Africa was called “The Cape of Storms.” Throughout the 1400s, dozens of attempts to round the cape had been dashed on those forbidding rocks. Thousands of lives had been lost, all of them trying to reach the “promised land” of India by sea. With the spices of the Orient beckoning, many expeditions were launched, but all were swallowed by the storms. The cape seemed an impossible barrier that no one could cross.
That is, until Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, made the attempt.
In July 1497, de Gama led a fleet of four ships from Lisbon; by Christmas he had sailed through the storms and out the other side. He pioneered the trade route to India and came back with spices to make himself and his whole kingdom rich. From Portugal to India and back again was a distance much farther than a circumnavigation of the globe. It was, up until that time, the longest sea voyage ever attempted without sight of land. The journey was thought to be impossible. Yet as soon as it was accomplished, de Gama renamed the peninsula that had formerly thwarted all explorers. He called it “The Cape of Good Hope.”
Easter is like a cosmic version of de Gama’s exploits. It’s about one man who endured the storms to open up hope for us all.
Not Simply a Substitute
Christians cling to the precious truth that Jesus died for us. He was our substitute, taking the punishment for our sins that we deserve. But we misunderstand this truth if we imagine that Jesus died over there so that I can be blessed over here. The Bible says, over and over again, that we died “in him.” Jesus took us to himself and carried us through death and judgment into his resurrection. He is our Pioneer.
That’s the phrase Hebrews 2 uses: Jesus is the “pioneer” of our salvation. He “brings [us] to glory” by entering into the storms of judgment that would otherwise swallow us whole. “He suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).
Jesus took us to himself and voyaged through the storms as the one person able to survive them. He then emerged into a “promised land”—glory, resurrection life. Easter is Jesus carrying us through the deadly peril and into good hope.
Our Pioneer took us to himself and carried us through death and judgment into his resurrection. . . . Easter is Jesus carrying us through the deadly peril and into good hope.
Sometimes people speak disparagingly about Jesus’s sacrifice, wondering how his death amounted to anything more than a “lousy weekend” for the Son of God. How can his death be considered a substitution for those who would otherwise endure hell? Surely, they say, Jesus merely dipped his toe into death and judgment.
But this is to misunderstand both death and Jesus.
Death is a realm. It’s the pit we’ve been consigned to in our rebellion against God. We have all turned our backs on the God of life, light, and love. Therefore we are justly and understandably consigned to death, darkness, and disconnection. This disconnection is what the Bible describes as hell—an outer darkness of estrangement from God and all his goodness. In a sense there is a hell—a disconnection—to be felt now, at least in part. But the real tragedy is that this disconnection, if left unhealed, will continue and deteriorate beyond our physical death. The true horror of death isn’t the ceasing of our heart beats. Death is our ultimate “Cape of Storms,” a hell of a trap from which no one emerges.
And Then Easter
At Easter our great Pioneer steps forward to sail through the storms. He did not merely visit the realm of death. On the cross, he entered death more fully than anyone ever has or could. Everyone else has been like those shipwrecked sailors, swallowed by the storms. Those explorers had, in fact, never experienced the fullness of the storms. They had perished at the first onslaught of the elements. None of them knew the force of what de Gama and his fleet would endure. Only the pioneer could truly be said to know the fury of the Cape of Storms.
So it is with Jesus. Far from “dipping his toe” into death, Jesus plunged into hell on Good Friday. He experienced the judgment of God more than anyone else ever could. Not even Satan himself will know the depths of hell the way Jesus did on that cross.
Not even Satan himself will know the depths of hell the way Jesus did on that cross.
Winston Churchill once said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Churchill was speaking metaphorically; Christ did it for real. He was the only one who could blast a hole through hell and emerge on the far side. But when he did this on Easter Sunday, he was revealing to us the glory of the new world, the land of spices, the distant country for which we long.
Every scene from the end of the Gospels whets our appetite for the future Jesus pioneered. Each is meant to. Jesus is, after all, the “firstfruits,” the pledge of a bumper crop of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). So as we watch Jesus take long country walks with friends, speak long into the night about life’s deepest mysteries, go fishing with friends, enjoy barbecues on the beach, bring peace, joy, redemption, healing, and tear-filled reunions, we are seeing our own destiny.
This is the future, and he brings us to this glory as our Pioneer.