April 7, 2017 -- Convicted killer and former New England Patriots star Aaron J. Hernandez was found hanged inside his cell at the state’s maximum security prison in Shirley, Mass., early Wednesday, dead of an apparent suicide five days after he was acquitted of two additional murders.
He was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to a window in his cell in Unit G-2 of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center at about 3:05 a.m. Hernandez had tried to block the door to prevent officers from entering. The corrections officers who eventually found him said he had “John 3:16” written in red ink across his forehead, along with a Bible open to the same passage near him in the cell.
He’s been gone several months now, already a distant memory for the majority of people who pay attention to sports news but don’t count themselves as fans of the New England Patriots.
But for some reason the April announcement of Aaron Hernandez’s death continues to bother me even months later.
Why We Wanted the Story to Go Away
The Hernandez saga was comprised of everything that makes the TMZ brand work.
A celebrity athlete falls dramatically through a conviction of murder and suspicions of two others.
The murder itself is laced with acts of betrayal among friends.
A popular religious inscription written on his forehead preceding a lonely, self-inflicted hanging, serendipitously—or not?—occurring on the day his former team visits the White House to celebrate their most recent Super Bowl win.
The remaining family members then questioning whether perhaps their relative didn’t commit suicide but was instead himself murdered.
Though they find themselves increasingly comfortable with tabloid-like headlines, at the end even ESPN producers seemed ashamed of the story and all its cringe-worthy details, allowing it to disappear as quickly as possible.
Disturbing, But an End We Can Understand
Ironically, five days before hanging himself Hernandez was acquitted of a 2012 double murder charge that, instead of relieving an additional burden of guilt, somehow triggered a heavier weight he decided he could no longer bear in this life.
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Like someone trapped in the top floors of a burning high rise who must choose between the fear of fire or the fear of falling, Hernandez was pushed toward the edge by the searing heat of choices he could never take back. Perhaps he was still plagued by the flames of his own father dying when he was 16, an event those close to Hernandez suggest he never recovered from. Perhaps it was simply that he’d taken the life of others and seeing the pain left behind. Regardless of the specific details of the flames, we know they were hot enough to push him out the window to the pavement below. As Albert Camus once suggested, “in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself,” especially when one’s conscious becomes plagued by the burden of irrevocable evil choices.
Lacking that courage, Hernandez hung himself.
The Gospel of Scandalous Grace On Display
So it’s easy enough for people to conclude, “Good. Eye for an eye. He brought it on himself and got what he deserved.”
But the presence of “John 3:16” on his body and in his cell causes me to wonder if maybe he didn’t.
And that’s why I haven’t been able to fully shake his otherwise can’t-forget-about-this-fast-enough story.
In his death, Hernandez perhaps unwittingly became another sordid yet perfect example of both the scandal and beauty of the gospel, regardless of his actual final relationship to the passage he pointed us toward.
Hernandez’ application of John 3:16 and subsequent suicide recalls two other deaths that occurred within hours of Jesus’ own disturbing death on a cross, both of which were confronted with God’s love and the offer of John 3:16. As such, he reminds us of two possible paths to take when confronted with the Person the verse us points toward.
Are You Aligned with Judas or the Thief?
Judas hung himself after turning his back on both his friends and Jesus, essentially helping kill a man he knew to be innocent. After internalizing his own wretchedness in the plot, he went to a remote section outside the city where no one could inadvertently rescue him.
Then he unceremoniously hung himself from a tree, the 30 silver coins he received sprawled somewhere beneath his dangling, lifeless feet.
Guilt? Despair? Overwhelming shame? Hopelessness? As in the case of Hernandez, we can only guess, but it’s easy enough to imagine the dark emotions he carried to that tree, choosing death over living with a burden of guilt too heavy to bear, turning away from the one who could actually rescue him.
Though it hadn’t been written yet, he knew John 3:16—he had been walking with the central figure of the verse for three years and ultimately offered him up to be killed. He rejected the promise of the verse and remained unsurrendered to the end.
The same weekend that Judas died, two other guilty men hung dying next to Jesus. While one hurled insults at him—essentially also rejecting John 3:16—the other man confessed his own guilt and shame while acknowledging that Jesus had none.
He very simply asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, and Jesus promised him he would.
John 3:16 promises that God’s love for us transcends our worst sins. That belief—not virtuous behavior or human attempts to appease God—leads to life. A staggering promise of everlasting life that not only allows us to transcend future death, but gives us motivation and power to live differently now.
What Really Happened in Hernandez’s Cell?
In the face of John 3:16, was Hernandez Judas? Or was he the thief crying out for mercy?
No one can know for sure whether Hernandez found God’s grace in that cell even as he was taking the place of God by ending his physical life. No one can know whether in his distorted mind, he was simply another example of a demon possessed Charles Manson-type, exploiting the strange mixture of evil and religious symbolism that Satan and his followers seem to prefer.
Or if, in his last moments, having just been acquitted of murders he may have actually committed, he surrendered himself—again?—to the only one who could absorb the evil of his worst choices. Maybe he stepped beyond the verdict of human courts and requested mercy from the only Judge truly worth fearing.
Choose God’s Judgement—and His Acquittal
In a strange twist, after the suicide a Massachusetts judge threw out Hernandez’s murder conviction because he died before he could exhaust his appeals. In spite of prosecutors efforts to leave the conviction in place, the Superior Court law prevailed.
So he is essentially declared innocent by the human courts even though he was found guilty. Strange rules.
Months later, may he, even at this very moment, be experiencing the same in the presence of God. Not based on human law, but on the promise and edict of John 3:16, his last words to us.