El Toro: On Death and Rollercoasters


Last weekend I rode El Toro, a behemoth wooden rollercoaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in NJ. Lauded as the “world’s best wooden coaster” it looms above the park like a Goya painting, with a wooden scaffolded hill rising much higher than it should, turning a small corner, and then dropping nearly vertically all the way to ground level. I saw it from a distance and knew I had to ride it.

The first thing I felt when I clicked down the metal restraint was regret. I suddenly realized I hadn’t ridden a rollercoaster since getting married or having children, and visions of my gruesome death and a tormented widow and son danced around in my head. Then the ride lurched into motion and it was too late for going back.

The second thing I felt (and the reason for this post) was the way that initial dread slowly built as we climbed the very steep hill. When the car is first pulled into that acute angle, your stomach drops. But as each click of the cable pulls you skyward, and as the surrounding countryside opens out around you, and the sounds of the park slowly die down and you are progressively aware of the stillness and the quiet of the height, you are given time to steep in the fear, to let it soak way past your rational mind, past the fears of what may happen, and right into your skin, your muscles, your bones, and then further, to that inner part of yourself that is reading and comprehending this right now. The fear saturates you as you become acquainted with the feeling of a great height in all its power and beauty and wonder and dread.

Then we turned the corner, and with a gentle tip of the front car, we fell. This part, you can probably imagine on your own. You’ve fallen, and you’ve probably ridden many roller coasters with steep drops. This was one such drop, only it was particularly steep and particularly high. But what I realized the moment we began the drop was that all I really wanted out of that ride I had already gotten.

For weeks now, something has been gnawing at the back of my mind. Tonight, my El Toro experience brought it into clarity. I turned 35 this year. Many of the landmarks I was looking forward to in life have happened or are happening now. And as each one comes (marriage, children, home ownership, career) there is a final landmark that draws near, looming ever larger above my life. That’s because when you make a commitment ’till death do us part,’ you must come to terms with that terminating condition. And when you help give birth to someone that will hopefully outlive you, that very hope for their life is predicated on a dreadful truth about your own. And when you look back over nearly ten years that you have given to some important work, you can by the length of your tenure more easily imagine the wonder of a what a spent life must feel like.

In short, I’m getting older, death is getting closer, and I’m afraid.

But I am encouraged tonight by my ride because of this: the climb was the only scary part. And it was only scary because I didn’t know what could happen. You see, I wasn’t really afraid of going down the hill. I was afraid of falling over the side, or tumbling over the rails, or the whole thing collapsing beneath us. That kind of fall would kill me; the hill would only be an exhilaration. So it is in life. What makes death frightening? It is the possibility of judgment. If we knew for certain there was a God, and that He would certainly catch us from this life and bring us safely to the next, and there was no doubt inside or out, who would fear death? Wouldn’t we rather look forward to it, just as I looked forward to the drop?

“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the One who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Rom. 8:34,35

Are you a believer, a Christian, a follower of Jesus? I offer this passage to you as the wooden scaffolding under the hill of death. Christ Jesus, the ultimate judge of your sins and failures, is the very one that died for those sins. Who is left to condemn you when you come to die? He has drunk down the cup of God’s wrath and left not one drop for you or for me. If your trust is in Him, and in His sacrifice, stay there! Whatever you do, don’t get out of the car. Or as Jesus said “Abide in me, and I in you.” For, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” John 15:4,6

Are you not a believer, a follower of another faith, or lord of your own life? I offer this simple story as a question. Do you feel death looming near? Have you started to feel and see and hear the realities of your mortality like I did the height of the roller coaster? Do you feel you are in the car or out on the ledge, clinging for dear life? I offer this verse to you as well. There is hope in Jesus. He really did die, and it was really in payment for our sins. He really did rise again and He is really interceding for us at God’s right hand this very minute. Go to him. Don’t waste another minute of the climb.

Without Jesus, death’s certainty is judgment. No one will stand before God and live. But in Jesus, death’s certainty is love. “For I am sure that neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8:38