DURING MY BRIEF SOJOURN AT SWISS L'ABRI IN 1973, a truck one day came careening down the scenic mountainside. When it reached Huemos-sur-Ollon, the driver lost control and plunged with his vehicle into the backyard of the chalet on the tier below. A guy named "Red," who ran the main student house of Schaeffer's commune, pronounced in my hearing the laconic epitaph, as a cluster of us stood considering the truck where it lay in silent finality: "Ultimate reality," he said under his breath.
I thought of the incident again several weeks ago when a pyrotechnic display gone bad in West Warwick, R.I., (25 minutes from where I grew up) claimed the lives of almost a hundred Thursday-night revelers. As providence-and Providence-would have it, the whole thing was caught on camera, WPRI-TV having chosen that entertainment spot on that evening to do a piece on nightclub safety, in the aftermath of a fatal south Chicago club fire of four days earlier. The carefree raised glasses and inebriate bravado, the obtuse bewilderment at the spark's first igniting of soundproofing behind '80s band Great White, the herd panic and piling of trampled patrons in the last minutes-all preserved on video.
One morning in 1973, a man wakes up and pulls on his trousers one leg at a time as usual, downs his coffee, snarls a leave-taking in the direction of his wife, settles himself into the cab of his truck and drives off to a destination appointed for him from of old. One evening in 2003, 97 people, all with a rendezvous with God (but under the impression of moving under their own volition) make their way to The Station club for what they expect to be a night of merriment; it is in truth the day of reckoning. The jar of beads that has spilled out, one with every turning of the earth upon its axis, has reached the last bead in the jar today. You envisioned, in your folly, an endless supply, and found instead a finite number.
What is "ultimate reality"? Every man behaves according to how he answers that question in himself. If we could have focus groups of the dead, say, as they do for blue jeans and toothpaste, what would the Station patrons tell us now? And would we listen? Would their unique perspective puncture the modernist miasma of "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream"?
It seems not. "Almost every natural man that hears of hell flatters himself that he shall escape it.... They trust to nothing but a shadow.... If we could come to speak with them ... one by one, whether they expected, when alive ... ever to be subjects of that misery, we, doubtless, should hear one another and reply, 'No, I never intended to come here: I had arranged matters otherwise in my mind.... It came as a thief; death outwitted me" (Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).
The wrath of God is a furnace stoked to the seventh degree; a pent-up storehouse of fire, with here and there one lashing tongue that breaks out and licks a spot clean. Fools mock the fear of God. Or they debate it in convivial conversation. I have seen men mill around open caskets and discuss the weekend's ball game, unmoved by their own mortality. What scales have you put on our eyes, Lord, that the ordinariness of sensory experience oft seems more real than questions of eternal destiny, with millions lulled to death by their complacency?
"Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen.... The unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable" (Edwards).
Were the patrons of The Station any worse than you or me, that they should be cut down so early? "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?" (Luke 13:2-3). Jesus replies, "No," lest we take false comfort to ourselves, and then essays the part that bites: "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
"O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in.... Let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men or women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favor to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others."