I do not know who Annie Dillard is, but by her impressive CV and the list of honors she has received for her writing, I feel like I should. From her self-description, I suppose there are many things I would disagree with her about, but her singular quote is so striking that I would love to talk to her about her experience with Christianity, Christians, and Christ. One more qualification: Since I have never read her work (Teaching a Stone to Talk), I am completely in the dark as to the context of this quotation, still it is worth citing and thinking about.
On the whole I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs [Annie, might you include Chinese believers who suffer under Communist rule or Middle Eastern Christians who willingly accept beheading rather than forsake Jesus?], sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have even the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no-one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church, we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to a place from which we can never return (Quoted by Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell, 32).
Do we Christians really have a clue as to what we are talking about, when we speak of heaven and hell? Why do we live with such urgency in this life, and so little care about the next? Do we really know the God of the Bible? These are penetrating questions. If we take the Bible seriously, we learn quickly: God is the One who created you and me and everything else; who consumes mountains with raging fire, who causes the earth to swallow men and the sea to drown the world’s strongest army, who disembowels dictators with worms, who demands perfect holiness from all men, such that without it, no man shall enter his presence. This is the One, True, and Living God. He is the God who is full of wrath against man’s sin. Your sin! My sin! And thus Annie Dillard is right, we should wear helmets when we come to church. Too often Christians make church a social club, a fellowship of the moral, instead banqueting hall for beggars, addicts, pimps and whores.
Still, God is patient! That doesn’t mean that he has changed from the days of the Old Testament. The most powerful images of judgment are found in the New Testament, after all. It simply means that in this age of evangelism, God is patient with his world, in order to redeem his sons and daughters.
And yet, he is the God who also poured out his wrath on his Son, so that men and women who pay too little attention to him, might still find grace in order to stand in his judgment. Indeed, the kingdom is not entered by religious zealots–liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican–it is entered by those who are born again. Those who have been born from above trust not in their religious works nor fear their spiritual lethargy; they trust in the Son and exalt in his work alone.
Heaven and hell are realities that those in church and out of church take too lightly. But Christ has a message for both groups. If you have the Son, you have eternal life in heaven; if you don’t have the Son; then hell awaits. Annie Dillard is right that such a God demands that we wear crash helmets when we come to church or go anywhere, but indeed a crash helmet will do nothing to protect us from the blast of God’s nostrils. We need a Christ helmet, and indeed that is exactly what God offers us in Jesus. Ephesians 6 says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God . . . the helmet of salvation.”
Today, may Annie Dillard’s words make us think soberly about heaven and hell, but instead of putting on a crash helmet, may we put our trust in Christ, the one whose sacrifice protects us from the wrath of God, and whose resurrection promises his imminent return.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss