You've probably heard of it.
Even if you haven't heard of it, you've probably witnessed it manifested all around you in nearly every smash Hollywood hit movie from Star Wars to Rocky to Frozen; numerous literary works of popular fiction from The Hobbit to Chronicles of Narnia to the Sorcerer's Stone; and even in Cinderella stories in sports such as the underdog NCAA basketball team who claims the crown or the come-from-behind Ironman triathlete who battles injury to take the victory.
In his seminal 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell coined the term “monomyth” to describe what is now more widely known as “The Hero's Journey.” Campbell notes, after studying a vast array of mythological stories across different cultures and time periods, the fascinating fact that each of these inspirational tales all follow the same basic story pattern and share eerily similar overarching structures, types of characters, and universal themes.
In other words, human beings spanning the planet across eons of time have been using the same basic story elements to communicate with each other for what appears to be the entirety of our human existence.
What Is The Hero's Journey?
The basic 12 steps of this so-called Hero's Journey are:
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call of Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
10. The Road Back
12. Return with the Elixir
Surely, for better or worse, you're familiar with at least a few popular Hollywood hits, right? For the sake of a helpful visual example, here is how the Hero's Journey plays out in 6 popular movies (infographic originally from here).
Hopefully, that helps you wrap your head around the general idea of what the Hero's Journey actually is. This entire path is best summarized by Joseph Campbell himself when he explains in one single, succinct sentence:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
I first became familiar with the Hero's Journey while I was writing my first fiction book “The Forest.” To develop the plot sequence for that book, I relied heavily on a book called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which teaches authors how to weave the Hero's Journey into their books, stories, and screenplays. So I've become quite familiar with the Hero's Journey over the past several years and, as mentioned above, have seen it played out in books and movies, but also in my own life and the lives of those around me…
…the overweight office worker who dares to step outside the ordinary world of the cubicle and sign up for an Ironman triathlon…
…the parents and children who make a decision to venture outside traditional education and begin the journey of homeschooling or unschooling…
…the CEO who pivots and reinvents their business's product offering and mission statement to transform into an entirely different entity…
Ultimately, these are all fantastic examples of people living out what seems to be programmed into our very DNA—the feeling that, as a Disney princess might say, “There must be more to life than this,” or “I'm meant for something greater,” and the subsequent decision to venture forth into the unknown to cross a threshold, go to battle, find the elixir, and save ourselves or save others. Some live this craving for the experience of the Hero's Journey by witnessing it in others, such as by being content watching their favorite sports team engage in a season of competition, or by engaging with epic movies and works of fiction, or by following a politician, celebrity, or other pop culture icon achieving their dreams. Others—those who often taste a much greater degree of success, fulfillment, and purpose—take a giant step forward and live out the Hero's Journey in their own life.
And while there's nothing inherently bad with living out the Hero's Journey, there can be a dark side to the Hero's Journey.
The Dark Side Of The Hero's Journey
Now don't get me wrong: I no way desire to disparage the inspiration, story value and honorable tradition woven into the Hero's Journey. But here's where the Hero's Journey can become dangerous:
- When we decide that our own version of the Hero's Journey will manifest in some kind of grand salvation of humankind, and we place a lofty and unnecessary burden upon ourselves to live our entire life as a hero, often to the detriment of personal development, family life, sleep, and health as we get caught up in a perpetual cycle of achieving and doing rather than learning to be satisfied with the experience of being a human being. I call this “White Knight Syndrome” or “The Hero's Burden,” and have certainly found myself caught in a state of excess stress, a mild guilt complex, and neglect of pressing personal and familial duties because I feel burdened to “help all the hurting people.” But the fact is, sometimes it's just as meaningful and glorious to save or be the hero for one person. You can create just as much meaning and impact helping your neighbor weed their garden, calling your mother on the phone or volunteering at a local church or homeless shelter as you can stepping on stage in front of thousands of people to deliver your message of hope or buying a plane ticket to Africa to volunteer in a needy village.
- When we view ourselves as the Hero of our own story, it can sometimes lead to excess shame or judgment towards others because we, after all, are the champion, the lead star, the primary protagonist, and the principal character of the story of our life. If everyone else is simply there playing a supportive role, it's very tempting and oh-so-easy to fall into a selfish and hubristic pattern of placing yourself on a tall, shiny pedestal while looking down upon others as less of a Hero. This shaming and judgment, which based on David Hawkins' book Healing & Recovery is really the lowest vibrational state of human energy in which one can exist, and can be quite a prideful state of existence that ultimately makes those who are around us feel inferior or excessively judged.
Now I'm not saying that there isn't an enormous amount of value in living your life in a sort of Hero's Journey pattern, but you must be highly cognizant of the temptation to place unrealistic expectations upon yourself and/or to judge or shame others who you may not perceive to be as much of a Hero as you. Make sense?
I personally have had to deal quite a bit in my own life with my own personal baggage of being brought up in a home where I was given the impression I was different, I was superior, and I was meant for great things, which, when combined with my natural tendency towards egotism and arrogance, has resulted in me spending many years charging through life with a focus on fame, power, achievement, and “hero status,” while looking down upon others who might be thinking smaller or satisfied with less than my own perfectionist, achiever personality thought sufficient. While I have no regrets in life and only gratefulness for the steps that have brought me to where I am now, I certainly feel as though I've spent years of my life stressing myself out with attempts to be enormously impactful, while alienating others because I've viewed myself as the ultimate hero.
Geez. What a burden. And what a chore for others to have to put up with that kind of holier-than-thou mentality.
But being the ultimate Hero who will save the world is not a burden you and I need to carry.
See, we don't need to carry that big of a Hero's burden. Sure, taking dares, making an impact in our careers and personal lives, stepping outside the comfort zone of our ordinary world, and inspiring others with a fantastical tale of slaying the dragons of life can all be noble pursuits; but our identity need not be wrapped up in them. Frankly, it's not our calling to be the Hero who will save the world. As I told you in last week's article on how to find your purpose in life, our true calling, no matter how big or small our calling and career, is to simply…
…love God (by waking up each day and doing the very best, most excellent job we can with whatever God has placed upon our plate for the day) and love others (selflessly and in full presence do unto others as we would have them do unto us).
At that point, you are enough of a Hero. You can then hand everything off to who I consider to be the true and ultimate Hero. We can, as John Bunyan writes in The Pilgrim's Progress, remove our heavy burdens and simply pass them off to that Hero…
“Just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, fell from off his back, and began to tumble down the hill, and so it continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre. There it fell in, and I saw it no more!”
So who is that ultimate Hero?
The Ultimate Example Of The Hero's Journey
The ultimate Hero is Jesus Christ.
Consider this God-man.
From the beginning of time, Jesus existed in the “Ordinary World” of heaven, a supernatural realm in which he was no doubt comfortable, honored, worshiped daily by angels, principalities and powers, and sitting at the right hand of the throne of God.
He then, based on God's desire to save his precious humankind and to fulfill prophecies of old, heeded his calling and crossed a threshold into our comparatively far more dangerous and broken world, taking on the form of flawed and frail human flesh and being transformed into all the messiness that goes along with that: being a helpless baby dependent on a mother to swaddle him and change his diaper; no doubt fighting sniffles, colds, and flus as he aged; going through the pain and awkwardness of puberty; enduring muscle soreness, aches, pains, cuts, bruises, bee stings, thorns, sunburns; and experiencing every other difficulty of living life on a sinful and imperfect planet.
But that wasn't the only threshold he was to cross, for he not only was called out of his ordinary world and into ours, and did indeed cross that threshold, but the greater threshold for him to cross had yet to come.
While “Refusal Of The Call” might be a mildly inaccurate description of Jesus' response to his calling, there is a scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of Jesus' crucifixion, during which he prayed for hours, sweating not tears but blood and calling out to God because of the resistance of his flesh and the internal struggles within him based on the extreme suffering he knew he was about to encounter. He did not refuse per se, but he certainly prayed and begged that he not have to go to battle as the Hero: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me…”
But Jesus then goes on to trust God's will and plan for his life, and finally accepts his Hero's quest based on God's will and plan for his life: “…yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Does he then encounter a “Mentor or Ally”? Absolutely: in the form of the supernatural aid of angel. After Jesus prays for God’s will to be done, God sends an angel to strengthen him for the unfair trial and extreme agony that awaited him. Luke 22:42-44 reads: “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done. Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him. And in His anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground…”
Then, after this prayer, came the “Enemies”: a throng of Roman soldiers and officials, armed with swords, clubs, and torches and led by Judas Iscariot, seized Jesus, who gave himself up without any resistance (even when Peter attacks one of the enemy, Jesus rebukes Peter and commands him to put down his weapon). More enemies then arise as Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin and is spat upon and brutally beaten. He is then, bloodied and broken, sent before governor Pontius Pilate, who found no guilty cause against Jesus, and sends him then to king Herod, who has Jesus beaten and mocked again before sending him back to Pilate (bear in mind that Jesus was forced to walk to Herod, approximately two and a half miles, and he had not slept and already been beaten—then forced to walk back in the same state).
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”
But the whole mob of unruly protesters who had gathered to witness this trial shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas was a murderer who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city – and the mob wanted this murderer to have Pontius's mercy, rather than Jesus)
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
For the third time, Pilate spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”
But with loud shouts, they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released Barrabas and surrendered Jesus to their will.
Then comes the “Approach to the Inmost Cave,” which was an ordeal in and of itself for Jesus that came before the even more intense and painful ordeal even began (and is visually detailed in all it's disturbing gore in the film “The Passion Of The Christ“). Pilate commanded for Jesus to be flogged, which was required by Roman law before a crucifixion. For the flogging, Jesus was ordered to stand naked, and the flogging was administered from the shoulders down to the upper legs with a leathered whip. Sheep bones were attached to each end of the strip to dig into the flesh more deeply. In the middle of the strips were metal balls positioned to cause deep bruising to the underlying musculature. These whips were designed to tear out chunks of flesh and expose the bone beneath, leaving the skin torn away in long ribbons.
Roman soldiers then placed a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and a robe on his back. The robe helped the blood from the flogging to clot and to prevent so much blood loss that could risk Jesus dying or going into acute shock before the actual crucifixion. They then repeatedly struck Jesus on the head to push the thorns from the crown more deeply into his skull and to cause damage to the facial nerves, which would cause intense pain down the face and neck.
After this brutal torture, Jesus was unable to carry the cross to the site of the crucifixion, a hill about a half-mile away called Golgotha, so a man named Simon of Cyrene executed this task in his stead. A whole cross weighed over 300 pounds, while the crossbeam was about 100 pounds, a hefty weight indeed that anyone accustomed to farmer's walks or loaded carries knows would be difficult for a half-mile uphill carry.
Then came the crucifixion. A crucifixion was a bloody, tortuous spectacle and involved a slow painful death, usually performed in public to dissuade any witnesses from committing similar crimes. It was gruesome and humiliating and typically involved being impaled on a stake, or affixed to a tree or upright pole and crossbeam. Crucifixion was invented by the Persians between 300-400 B.C. and is one of the most painful means of punishment ever invented by humankind, usually reserved for slaves, revolutionaries, and the most vile of criminals.
The Roman statesman, lawyer and philosopher Cicero described a crucifixion as:
“a most cruel and disgusting punishment”…
…and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
He also said: “It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it.”
The person being crucified was usually stripped naked. Their legs were broken or shattered with an iron club. Jesus was nailed to the cross while lying down, with the nails driven into his wrists, not his hands (if they nailed his hands, the weight of his arms would have caused the nails to rip through the soft flesh and his body to crash back down to the dirt). The huge nails were seven to nine inches long and would have caused agonizing pain up both arms due to their severing of the incredibly sensitive median nerve that travels up the arm and into the shoulders.
As the cross was lifted to an upright position, Jesus’ full weight would pull down on his bleeding wrists, causing his shoulders and elbows to dislocate. His feet were also nailed to the cross, through the top of the feet above the ankle, with the knees flexed at about 90 degrees, which caused the weight of his body to push down on the nails and cause severe nerve damage to the dorsal arteries of the foot, causing searing pain up both legs.
In this position, a slow and painful suffocation also occurs. This is because normally, to breathe in, the diaphragm must move down, then rise up upon exhale. But in a crucified position, the weight of the body pulls down on the diaphragm, so exhalation becomes nearly impossible, and Jesus would have had to push up against his nailed feet (causing excruciating pain) to even exhale—yet he still manages to speak at least seven times from the cross, most notably to say in Luke 23:34…
As the difficulty of exhalation continues on a cross, carbon dioxide would have built up in Jesus' blood, causing respiratory acidosis and an intense triggering of a need to breathe along with an elevated heart rate due to decreased oxygen supply, which would then have caused further damage to tissues and a hypoxic state that causes capillaries to begin leaking fluid from the blood into the tissues. This would have resulted in an accumulation of fluid around the heart (a condition known as “pericardial effusion”) and lungs (“pleural effusion”). Eventually, the lungs collapse, the heart fails from tissue damage (myocardial infarction) and cardiac arrest or even a bursting of the heart (cardiac rupture) occurs.
In this manner, Jesus hung on the cross for six hours, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon on a Friday. After he uttered—or more likely moaned or screamed in a loud voice—his final words “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” the Roman soldiers plunged a spear into his side to bleed him out like a pig and ensure he was fully dead. In his message “The Horror Of The Crucifixion,” John Piper notes that you probably would have vomited had you witnessed this entire horrific scene.
After he died, Jesus' body was then taken down and buried in a large tomb carved into a rock. An enormous stone was rolled over the opening of the tomb.
And that was only the beginning.
See, the ordeal for Jesus had only just begun.
As noted above, Jesus hung on the cross until Friday afternoon. He was resurrected early Sunday morning (Easter Sunday). So what happened during those forty hours after Jesus was buried? I believe this was when the true “Ordeal” occurred, which, in religious literature, is often referred to as “The Harrowing Of Hell.”
In classical mythology, Hades is an underworld inhabited by departed souls. In Greek the word “Hades” and in Hebrew the word “Sheol” refer to this as the abode or dwelling of the dead—a place of darkness and gloom and the same place described in Virgil's Underworld and Homer's Odyssey. In some ancient Greek and Hebrew literature, it sometimes seems to represent a neutral place where the dead awaited for the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, sometimes refers to a grave and a place where the dead reside, and also to a place where the wicked suffer after death, or as a place of torment for the unrighteous.
In Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell (translated from Latin as “the descent of Christ into Hell”) is considered as the descent of Christ into Hades that occurs between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection, during which he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world. So many consider Hades to indeed by synonymous with Hell, and I suspect this is the case.
But what exactly happened “down there” in Hell during those forty hours?
In Dante’s Inferno, the poet’s guide Virgil tells him of how he had personally seen “a powerful one” come to retrieve the Hebrew patriarchs. In the 14th-century poem “Piers Plowman” by John Langland, Christ’s arrival to Satan's evil underground kingdom is depicted as a sudden explosion of light in a place that had known light only once before, when Lazarus had been summoned back to life by Jesus. The poem reads:
“Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, “Who is this? What lord are you?” Swiftly the light replied: “The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven’s Son!”
And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial’s bars; in spite of any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John’s song: ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan:
“Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them… I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming.”
In the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus, it is described how Jesus, after his crucifixion, descended into Hell and brought salvation to the souls of the dead who were prisoners there. When Jesus arrives, the lord of the underworld Hades bids his servants to bolt and lock the doors, but Jesus shatters the gates, enters, seizes Satan and binds him in iron chains, then raises up Adam, along with all the prophets and the saints, and together, they all depart up out of Hades, and ascend into Paradise.
But do you know what I think?
I think the Harrowing of Hell was an Ordeal even more painfully intense for Jesus than the Cross.
The demons, evil spirits, rulers of the underworld, and Satan himself certainly would not have given up their precious prisoners easily. They would not have simply extended their hands and wrists in meek submission to be bound by Jesus when he arrived and blew open the gates of Hell. They would have fought tooth, nail, and claw against this righteous invader who suddenly appeared. I believe Jesus battled for hours against these Spirits, suffering mightily in a fire more hot and intense than you could ever imagine and in a place of such severe and extreme loneliness and disconnection from God the Father that would have been an even more harsh tribulation than any that could be experienced on Earth. I believe that Jesus witnessed, felt deep in his bones, and experienced every last shred of human wickedness, suffering, and shame that had ever been experienced by any living soul and that any living soul would experience for all time.
I believe that he relived the horrors of the Genghis Khan massacres, the Holocaust, the Crusades, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rwandan genocides, the Soviet Gulags, every terrorist attack, every World War, every famine, every murder, every beating, every torture, every rape of a man, woman, or child, mountains upon mountains of whitewashed bones, skulls, bloodied shreds of flesh and horror-stricken faces, and every last atrocity, massacre, mass murder, butchery, ethnic cleansing, horrific sin, and last bloody shred of wickedness that humankind has ever committed. Ever. I believe that he screamed, he suffered, he writhed in pain and agony, and relived every immoral act of past, present and future in the deepest and painful way beyond anything any of us could ever imagine.
As Isaiah 53:4-6 says:
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
Indeed, the entire underworld of our existence must have shaken and trembled with the deep, guttural, bone-chilling screams of Jesus as he battled in a such a way that the bravest, mightiest warrior among us mere humans could never imagine.
And then, standing with bloodied sweat, ash-covered skin, and deep battle wounds, surrounded by the bloody carnage and aftermath of humbled and defeated demons, with the backdrop of the black smoke of the decimation of evil, and immersed amongst the echoes of the cries of the thousands of confused and bewildered dark spirits of the underworld…
…Jesus turned to a frustrated, enraged, and shocked Satan, who was now bound in chains and shackles—smiled and said…
With that, Jesus stepped back out through the gates of hell with “the Reward” and returned to his human body of flesh in the tomb.
What was that reward, exactly?
Colossians 2:14–15 makes it clear what happened to the powers of evil through Jesus' death on the cross, defeat of Satan and subsequent resurrection: “He canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Hebrews 2:14 says that “…through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil…”
Romans 3:24-26 says that: “…by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free. God offered him, so that by his blood he should become the means by which people's sins are forgiven through their faith in him. God did this in order to demonstrate that he is righteous. In the past he was patient and overlooked people's sins; but in the present time he deals with their sins, in order to demonstrate his righteousness. In this way God shows that he himself is righteous and that he puts right everyone who believes in Jesus.”
In other words, Jesus liberated humanity from slavery to sin. He paid our sins in full. He gifted us with the Reward of free salvation.
He defeated death to guarantee eternal life and immortality in forever bliss in heaven to anyone who simply believes that it happened and goes forth to live their life's purpose to the excellence of God equipped with that belief.
This means that all the scars that cover you, all the wounds that you may have inflicted upon others, all the pain that you carry, any shame you have experienced, any sin you committed or will ever commit—all of that was completely washed away by the massive, heroic sacrifice of Jesus.
It's that simple. That's the Reward that Jesus claimed for you and I.
In most versions of the Hero's Journey, the Resurrection comes after The Road Back. Joseph Campbell describes the Resurrection as:
“The Hero faces the Resurrection, his most dangerous meeting with death. This final life-or-death Ordeal shows that the Hero has maintained and can apply all that he has brought back to the Ordinary World. This Ordeal and Resurrection can represent a “cleansing” or purification that must occur now that the Hero has emerged from the land of the dead. The Hero is reborn or transformed with the attributes of the Ordinary self in addition to the lessons and insights from the characters he has met along the road. The Resurrection may be a physical Ordeal, or final showdown between the Hero and the Shadow.”
The Road Back is described as:
“The Hero must finally recommit to completing the Journey and accept the Road Back to the Ordinary World. A Hero's success in the Special World may make it difficult to return. Like Crossing the Threshold, The Road Back needs an event that will push the Hero through the Threshold, back into the Ordinary World.”
Here is where I tend to think the story of Jesus' Hero's Journey strays a bit from Campbell's model. Sure, the final showdown between Jesus and Satan/the forces of darkness could be categorized as a sort of Resurrection based on Campbell's definition, and The Road Back could be classified as some kind of a journey that happens before then, but that just doesn't seem to make sense. Instead, I think this journey works best as the Resurrection coming first, and the Road Back coming after.
Instead, in Jesus' Hero's Journey, after he defeats death and claims the final Reward, he is Resurrected in a mighty, triumphant return from the underworld. The Resurrection is less of an Ordeal than it is an astonishing victory. What happened between the harrowing of hell and how Jesus came back into flesh inside the tomb? We don't really know what that looked like. It's a deep mystery. At least I'm personally unaware of any record in the Bible or any other non-canonical Scripture of what actually went on “in there” in the tomb or elsewhere or how Jesus traveled back from the underworld and into our world. We do know that the stone covering his tomb—which, based on the size of stones used in Jewish tombs in those days, would have weighed 2000-4000 pounds—is somehow rolled away from the opening of the tomb by a supernatural force. We know there was a violent earthquake that likely signified an extreme disruption of the spiritual forces in our world. We also know that the Roman soldiers, who had been guarding the tomb were found shaking with fear and appeared like “dead men.”
There are multiple accounts of this Resurrection in Scripture, including:
Mark 16:1-8: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don't be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Matthew 28:1-10: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you.
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Luke 24:1-8: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' ”
John 20:1-13: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don't know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.”
After this victorious Resurrection, Jesus then embarks upon “The Road Back” to his “ordinary world.”
According to the New Testament, the “road to Emmaus” appearance of Jesus is one of the early resurrection appearances of Jesus after his crucifixion and the discovery of the empty tomb, and perhaps it's quite fitting for the purposes of the Hero's Journey description that it's a road. Here is how that is described in Luke 24:13-35:
“Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.”
To me, this road to Emmaus story is a quite fitting example of the road back, and reminds me a bit of Tolkien's “The Hobbit”, in which Bilbo Baggins erupts into song as he arrives back to the shir Coming to the top of a rise he sees his home in the distance, and stops and says the following:
“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.”
Jesus' eyes had certainly seen fire and sword and horrors in the halls of stone. He had battled the forces of evil. He had fought and defeated the dragon. Having secured the Reward—the salvation of all humankind—he returned triumphant to a feast. And who knows? Perhaps he hummed his own pleasant tune as he walked down the road away from the tomb, smiling satisfactorily at the scars on his wrists.
Of course, the final step of the Hero's Journey is the “Return with the Elixir.”
We've already established what “the Reward” is: salvation for you and salvation for me: all our sins and shame washed away so that our souls are as pure white as snow.
But what is “the Elixir”?
The Bible also gives us plenty of revelations about that.
John 16:5-7 says:
“…but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
The word Advocate here is translated from the Greek word “Paraclete,” which is also often translated as Comforter. It is universally considered in Christianity to refer to the Holy Spirit. The pronoun “he” is used because the Holy Spirit is a person. So Jesus said that when He went to be with His heavenly Father, He would send God’s Holy Spirit to live in every Christian.
Acts 1:3-11 backs this up as it describes Jesus' ascension into heaven:
“After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The book of Matthew doesn’t describe Jesus’ ascension, but does contain this definitive final charge to his followers in Matthew 28:16-20:
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
So as Jesus returns to his “ordinary world” in heaven, he not only leaves behind the Elixir of the Holy Spirit, but perhaps just as magnificent is that now his ordinary world has now become our world—just as it might have been had Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins brought the pleasant, pastoral setting of the Shire to all of Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis' Aslan's Country of blue sky, lush green grass, colorful birds, and beautiful trees had saturated all of Narnia and even passed through the wardrobe into our own world. Satan is defeated. Salvation is here. Jesus created heaven on earth. Any of us who believe upon his name are now helping to spread that heaven throughout the Earth while anointed with the comfort, peace, love, and joy of the Elixir for all time.
You Don't Need To Suffer Or Shame Anymore
God has weaved this entire Hero's Journey of the gospel story into our very DNA.
We all crave to live, experience, and witness a version of this story. Whether we are intimately familiar with the story of Jesus or not, we certainly sense that we live in a messed up world (albeit one offered the free gift of salvation to anyone who would take it), that we are broken individuals living in a broken culture, and that we are desperately in need of some kind of greater hope and meaning beyond our ordinary lives: a hero, a resurrection, a reward, and an elixir.
From the beginning of time, Jesus has known of our suffering and our crippling pain, and experienced it himself in an intimate way when he took on flesh and lived the Hero's Journey you've just read about. His response to that pain of our world manifested as an intense act of selfless love: to enter into our oppressive reality, to die a brutal and unjust death, to take the burden of all our sins and shame upon himself, and ultimately to save sinners like you and me with the free gift of salvation.
Because Jesus lived the greatest Hero's Journey that could ever be lived, we also do not need to bear the burden to be a savior of our own lives or of others' lives. He is the Savior already and we need to bear that responsibility.
Neither do we need to cast shame or judgment upon others who we deem to be less of a Hero than ourselves.
Instead, as Jesus so clearly stated before his triumphant return to heaven, our greatest calling in this life is to simply magnify God's excellence and Jesus' Hero's Journey by doing the very best job we can each day with whatever tasks God has placed upon our plate, then to go and tell the story of this great Hero's Journey—through daily action, word, or deed in full acceptance and selfless love for every fellow human being. If you really want to “help all the hurting people,” simply live your life's purpose as I taught you to here, then shout this greatest Hero's Journey story of all time from the rooftops with every last breath that you have.
Does this mean that you can't live the Hero's Journey in your own life? After all: it is built into your DNA and a very meaningful part of the experience of the adventure of being a human being.
No! You can certainly live your own Hero's Journey, and be inspired by the Hero's Journey of others. You can enjoy inspirational epic Hero's Journey films and books like Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia. You can witness the inspiring Cinderella rise of sports teams and athletes who defy the odds and become the champions. You can challenge yourself to new levels in your own personal life by stepping outside your ordinary world and starting a new business, learning a new instrument, or defying fear and signing up for a triathlon or a Spartan race or a gym challenge or anything else that scares the hell out of you and rips you outside your comfort zone.
But remember: the dark side of the Hero's Journey threatens to set in when you place undue stress on yourself trying to be the ultimate White Knight or savior of all humankind. As one comment after I published this article so astutely noted: “it can also be called ‘the Hero’s Complex’ or ‘Don Quixote Complex’ , in which someone believes they need to do ‘brave stuff’ to prove to others they are important, but when you have some experience of this journey, it is not so straightforward, there is a certain darkness involved which can lead to nervous breakdown, isolation, speculation and so on…” Trust me: I lived with that burden for years before I finally realized that I could put my trust in Jesus to save people, and my greatest responsibility was to simply tell the great story of Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against missionary work, or helping starving kids in Africa, or volunteering in your local community, or any other activity in which you're helping all the hurting people, but it must always be done in the context of and with the realization that the ultimate hero is Jesus; and if you’re helping those people then the very best thing that you can do while helping them is to share with them the hope that is within you and to tell them the story of the greatest Hero that ever lived.
In addition, as you learned earlier, the dark side of the Hero's Journey also arises when you judge or shame others who you don't perceive to be living their own Hero's Journey as fully or completely or at as epic a level as we think they could be.
So yes, live your Hero's journey, but with no self-shame or others-shame.
When you structure and live your life in full excellence and love, and people know you are doing that because you love Jesus, love others and have a deep hope within you for eternal bliss and rest in heaven, others will come to know who the true Hero really is, and find the deep hope and peace this bestows upon their own lives; and that's the very greatest gift you can give.
Jesus saved all the hurting people.
All you need to do is tell them, and live your own Hero's Journey in full excellence and selfless love.
So cast your burdens on Christ. Then go forth and love others with no judgment.
I pray that you are encouraged by these words, that you unleash any burden of self-judgemental heroism that you may have been carrying upon your back for so many years, you release any feelings of shame towards anyone—because Jesus died for every last one of us—and that you go forth to tell as many people as possible of the hope that now lies within you while living your life's purpose to full excellence and the glory of God in selfless love towards all.
And of course, feel free to share your own comments and thoughts below. I'll read them all.