As one who flies often, dying in an airplane crash has been one of my greatest fears. The horrifying descent of the Germanwings flight chronicled in the news recently, killing everyone including the one presumed responsible for the intentional downing of the plane, is a terror I cannot imagine. I cannot begin to fathom the sheer panic that must have reverberated as loudly in individual bodies as the pilot’s desperate pounding on the locked door of the cockpit during the last eight minutes of the passengers’ lives. This, to me, is a kind of terror that is unimaginable.
What were the terrors in the mind of the young co-pilot that would propel him to this hopeless end? What were the fears that haunted him? The deep depression that stalked him relentlessly throughout his young life must have pervaded and colored his view of himself, others, and the world. So marred was his view, that it would destroy his dream of being a pilot, and destroy all of the other dreamers he took down with him. What must he have thought as he turned the nose of the plane downward, or heard the screams of the passengers and crew just outside the cockpit door? No one will ever know, but in one way or another, an overwhelming terror subsumed him, as well.
I have as little understanding about the terrors involved in this tragedy as I do about my own compulsion to read article after article about this flight. Doing so only heightens my own fears and sorrow. Yet, I am compelled to do so—when any terrifying tragedy occurs—be it in the French Alps, at Garissa University, or in my own community. I cannot turn away from the stories of those who have experienced terror; those horrifying scenarios in our worst nightmares we hope will never see the light of day, until they do.
Even though we are bombarded with stories and images of terror every day, for most of us it is likely difficult to relate to terror of this magnitude. Yet, perhaps wanting to connect with these kinds of stories is a way in which we try to process our own terror. We can recall the terror of the dark at night. Some might remember the terror of a particular nightmare, or of being utterly lost in a strange place without a map or any sense of direction. Perhaps for some, terror is the experience of being alone, or the fear of a future without anyone in it. For others, terror is being with others who harm and abuse, ignore and neglect, or who berate and belittle. Whatever the experience that conjures our deepest fears, the commonality is the human experience of terror, as the Hebrew psalmist felt and gave voice to thousands of years ago:
My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest”(1).
While it would be a mistake to claim for the Bible the same impulse that lies behind modern horror stories, there are large portions of the Bible filled with terror. Whether the forces of nature, personal or national enemies, or God, stories of fear and terror are abundant. The story of Cain’s murder of Abel, the story of the flood, the offering of Isaac as a sacrifice, and Joseph’s being seized by his brothers are just a few examples all found within the very first book of the Bible.
Biblical scholars note that “the psalms are filled with vivid pictures of terror-sometimes recalled, sometimes averted, sometimes projected as coming in the future. The lament psalms often paint a heightened picture of the threat that surrounds the speaker-threats that lead the speaker to claim that his ‘bones are shaking with terror’ and that his ‘soul also is struck with terror.’”(2)
In the New Testament, Jesus paints a picture of the coming destruction of Jerusalem with people fleeing to the mountains in terror, anguished pregnant women, rumors of military invasion, famines and earthquakes. And of course, the whole passion of Jesus is an extended scene of terror. Not only do we witness the victimization of an innocent person condemned, but we are also led through a series of terrifying scenes of bodily mutilation and pain, accompanied by severe psychological suffering. Yet it is against this backdrop of terror—both recorded in the pages of Scripture and in our contemporary experience—that we sing in my church every Sunday:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts:
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
As if by means of protest, I sing these words against the terror that is too much with us. But more than protest, I sing them in the hope that God is there in the midst of terror. I admit that sometimes when I sing the whole world is full of God’s glory after reading about yet another tragedy, I am perplexed at the ways in which God’s glory shines. But the glory of Christ crucified is no less mysterious, no less difficult. Yet I affirm this beauty as both protest against the darkness of this world and as the very sustenance of hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
Christians, having just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, surely place their hope in the God who brings life from what was dead. The good news of the gospel proclaims that even in the most terrifying events, God is at work even there, even then, even now. And even in this most difficult world of sorrow, there is a King of Grief, one who came near enough to sorrow in kinship, and lead us to glory. And thus, we sing continually:
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna in the highest.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See Psalm 55:4-6.
(2) Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney,& D. G. Reid, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Electronic ed., pp. 854–855.