Six months ago, at about 8:30 a.m., in the limpid skies of Sept. 11, as a Boeing 767 veered off course toward Manhattan, do not suppose that the usurper in the cockpit, his face set like flint, was not borne along by a powerful vision. Do not suppose that as steel and glass came rushing toward him in the final seconds, they looked more real to him than the tiers of a celestial pleasure dome, with "many concubines, the delight of the children of man" (Ecclesiastes 2:8).
The vision was a lie, of course, cruel hoax of the "angel of light," a phantom immediately dispersed upon impact, as Mohamed Atta entered the Stable where the god Tashlan was said to have his throne, only to meet there the Lord of Hosts instead-and judgment (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle). May the Lord have mercy in that Day on the many Calormenes who have been duped by the Rishda Tarkaans, the millions blinded by false visions who "do not know their right hand from their left" (Jonah 4:11).
In the early centuries of Christianity, from Nero through Dioclesian, when believers were whipped, disemboweled, and torn apart by wild beasts, do not suppose that they were not borne up by a powerful vision. It was not just Stephen, the first martyr, whose face looked like an angel as he "gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55).
Do not think for a moment that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, greeted his captors, ordered a meal prepared for them, asked for an hour alone to pray, and followed them meekly to his execution, without "seeing Him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27). Do not believe that Perpetua, resigning her infant to her father's arms, sang a hymn of triumph as she walked to the arena where death awaited, without envisioning the face of One "like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire" (Revelation 1:13-14).
In the beginning, before God gave us book distributor websites, He gave us the book of Revelation, a collage of visions. In the "foolishness of God" which is "wiser than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25), He left us a gallery of images -rather than names, dates, and zip codes- "to show His servants the things that must soon take place" (Revelation 1:1). Before Augustine or Calvin had ever writ a word, the churches of Asia Minor, poised on the brink of persecution, passed around letters with subversive images of troubling seven-headed beasts and locusts with the sting of a scorpion. And at the epicenter, at the control tower of history, the Lamb on His throne (Revelation 4 and 5) has already won the victory.
Were visions practical in tribulation? Were they enough? The proof is in the pudding: The Roman world was astonished as Christians walked serenely into the Colosseum, there to spill the blood that became the seed money of a heavenly revolution. They were enough.
On the night before He died, His face set like flint toward Golgotha, do not suppose that the Lord was not sustained to the last by a powerful vision. In a rare glimpse into the Savior's thought processes, we read: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside His outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around His waist" (John 13:3-4). Baffling non sequitur? Or deep psychological truth: that a nurtured vision of heavenly reality is the substance of courage.
For what makes me different from men who fly into buildings? Man is a profoundly visionary creature-which it is Revelation's genius to perceive. The question is, which vision? Do "the things of earth look strangely dim as I gaze at His wonderful face?" Or like Tolkien's little hobbit, do I have little vision? In this dragon-slaying adventure, does my weary mind keep wandering back to the cozy comforts of a warm, snug hobbit hole? For I am persuaded that, whatever a man claims to subscribe to, when push comes to shove, he will go with the vision most vivid to him-whether it's the mansion in the 'burbs or a mansion in heaven. Lord, open my eyes that, like Elisha, I might behold the horses and chariots of fire on the hills. And in the swirl of seductive images that abound, Lord, be Thou my vision.