Several years ago, the downfall of the young NFL player Aaron Hernandez shocked the sports world. On April 15, 2015, the New England Patriots’ star tight end was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player and friend, who was dating his fiancée’s sister. When Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison, it evoked the drama of O.J. Simpson and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman two decades earlier. There was a lot of national media attention. There was even a car chase. In the end, Hernandez took his own life in prison.
There are a million “whys” in stories like Aaron Hernandez’s. The new Netflix miniseries, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, indulges our obsession with celebrity scandals, and it tries to explain the unexplainable. Killer Inside reminds us of the obvious: murder is horrifying. Who would “claim for himself the right . . . to destroy an innocent human being?” (CCC 2258). Murder is also fascinating. The true crime genre continues to expand, especially in the podcast format. Quiet television offerings like Masterpiece Mystery and more gruesome cinema thrillers are popular too. We may discover a motive for a murder, but the deeper “why” always remains elusive. Christians know this.
The biblical story of Cain and Abel paves the way for all of it. Before Cain slays his brother, the Lord says, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you can master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). When Cain carries out his crime, God does not ask “why” again. Plenty of envious brothers after Cain were able to overcome the sin that he couldn’t resist. Unthinkable temptation seeks to attack us too; but God saves. You can master it, with his help.
Killer Inside reminds us that when you scratch someone’s surface, you will often find more than you imagined underneath, and plenty of need for redeeming grace. In Aaron Hernandez’s case, it’s a whole lot more, starting at home. Hernandez’s father was a man’s man, and a hard man. He drank and he was violent; and his superstar athlete son secretly experimented with homosexual behavior with his best friend throughout adolescence.
Another thread woven into his story is Hernandez’s immaturity and loneliness when far from home. He was an all-American athlete from Connecticut who went away as a prized recruit to the University of Florida. At age 17, he learned that normal rules never apply to the biggest man on campus in a college town. No one held him accountable when he repeatedly erupted in irrational rage.
Yet another factor examined is the physical punishment endured by professional athletes and Hernandez’s constant use of marijuana and painkillers. After his death, an expert in chronic traumatic encephalopathy said that Hernandez’s twenty-seven-year-old brain had “very advanced disease” in the frontal lobe, the decision-making center.
Over all of that lay a constant pressure to succeed, beginning with Hernandez’s father and carrying right on through his famous coaches—Urban Meyer in college and Bill Belichick in the NFL—with no redeeming outlet to get past failure. “Football is a religion,” says one of Hernandez’s former friends. If it is, it is not a religion that can love one back.
In so many ways, sin desired Aaron Hernandez, and he never mastered it. Who knows if he even recognized it?
In the third and final episode we hear Hernandez lamenting over the phone from prison: “I tried as hard as I could to live a dream life, but it didn’t end up. . . . I lived for my dream life, but it just didn’t work out.” Instead, he executed a defenseless man for no discernible reason, and he was allegedly involved in several other violent crimes, including murders. At one point in the series, veteran NFL coach and commentator Herm Edwards describes the mess of Hernandez’s life and concludes matter-of-factly: “He chose to go down the wrong road.”
In the context of a second murder trial that Hernandez faced in 2017 (a crime for which he was acquitted just before his death), we hear: “This is not just the Aaron Hernandez story. There’s a lot of lives affected by this guy.” Considered in this light, even the most extraordinary reasons for Hernandez’s behavior just seem like excuses. Odin Lloyd’s blood, and possibly others’, cries to God from the ground.
Killer Inside proposes to take us inside the mind of a murderer, and it is a circular trip. Any examination of sin leads back to the beginning. One of Hernandez’s childhood friends declares, “We all want to say, ‘This is why’ or ‘This is why.’ But at the end of the day, he made these decisions. We can paint the picture of the things he was going through, but he made these decisions.”
After so much success and so much failure, Hernandez’s final decision was to hang himself in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He had written John 3:16 in red ink on his forehead—perhaps an homage to his old teammate Tim Tebow, or maybe a last-ditch effort for eternal protection with a self-inflicted mark of Cain. Somewhere in the mind of this killer was a desire for the love of God. Everyone has it.
Killer Inside contains highly disturbing content and is not suitable for many people. It is certainly unsuitable for anyone looking for answers about the problem of evil in its particular manifestation in murder because that goes unaddressed. But fans of sports, current events, or true crime may find the lure of the series irresistible.
The life of Aaron Hernandez is not boring, but it is sad. Christians know sin can be very interesting, but it makes no sense beyond cautionary warnings of what not to do, and the abiding darkness and loneliness that is inevitable when it is embraced. The remedy is Good News that leaves no room for misunderstanding, as described by St. Paul, himself a murderer. He tells us, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). But then, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Aaron Hernandez’s sin was never going to make sense; but even as he sat in his cell, it wasn’t too late for it to be wiped away.
If you watch Killer Inside, seek truth in the mind of Christ, and don’t expect any answers in the mind of Aaron Hernandez.