The Joy of Dread
There are many words now forbidden in polite society. “Adultery” comes to mind. It’s either an unmentionable or has been replaced with the phrase “divorced and remarried.” “Promiscuity” and “lewd and lascivious conduct” have been placed—along with the Ten Commandments—on the modern list of forbidden “judgmental” words and thoughts. Meanwhile public school curricula now teach our children “the joy of safe sex” at a very early age. We’ve grown.
Here is another word that has fallen into disuse: dread.
Dread—or the description of the experience—is readily found in the Scriptures. The agony of Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in the Garden is profound and unexpected. The gods of antiquity are not supposed to suffer; and gods have no need of courage. The Psalmist dreads the experience of personal disgrace (Psalm 119:39). The just man Job dreaded the sufferings he endured despite his innocence. Dread is promised by the Lord as a consequence of disobedience (Dt. 28). The prophet Jeremiah warns the remnant of Israel of the dread that will come upon them if they return to Egypt, insulting the Lord Who had delivered them from Pharaoh.
We dread many things: economic calamity or war, coming home to an abusive household, failing health, and preparing income tax returns before the deadline. Curiously though, we do not often use the word. “Dread” is embarrassing to admit, suggesting we are not in control, paralyzed with fear. So we prefer to acknowledge emotions with more respectability using euphemistic terms such as annoyance, sadness, fear, or depression. Anger is unpleasant, but it has an active “in control” or “I’ll bite you back” connotation and so is easier to acknowledge.
At times we’re just plain insensitive to the horror that causes dread. I’m persuaded that television and the entertainment industry are the culprits. The more Hollywood tries to be “realistic,” the more the “realism” is received as “unrealistic.” I asked a youngster how it was possible to watch those bloody teenage exploitation movies (horror flicks) without being sickened. He responded that he knew everything was phony and was fascinated by the special effects. No horror; no dread.
Adults are not immune to desensitization. In that infamous day when two airline jets crashed into the World Trade towers, many (including me) were struck by a sense of unreality, as if the attack was an elaborate movie production. During a recent nursing home visit, I came across a group of the elderly in wheel chairs—many of whom would not likely see another change in the seasons—absorbed watching television in the common area. They were all being entertained (sic) watching the brain-eating zombies of an episode of “The Walking Dead.” (I moved past them to anoint someone in his room, actively dying, feeling I had entered into an Evelyn Waugh or Flannery O’Connor novel.)
But we’ve been successful in suppressing a sense of dread for years in our churches. We often hear devout Catholics boast of the “beautiful cross” that hangs in the sanctuary of their beloved churches. Artistic quality aside, there is something odd about calling an instrument of torture and a mangled body “beautiful.” Indeed, however ornate, the Cross is dreadful. Through the eyes of faith it is “beautiful” and “glorious,” of course—but only when we have learned what it means to be saved from final damnation. Without Christ’s suffering and dying for us, we all would have been on that Cross for all eternity, and that is a prospect worth thinking about with dread.
In the traditional act of contrition, we rattle off, “I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” It’s worth pausing to reflect upon whether we really do dread the prospect of eternal damnation. Although Jesus warns, “fear is useless, what is needed is trust,” there is nothing but dread without Him. Failing to recognize dread as a reality—or a possible reality—is emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. Without the capacity to dread the loss of eternal life during our earthly sojourn, the mercy of God loses its meaning, and friendship with Christ becomes a superficial Hallmark greeting card cliché.
Notwithstanding the soothing pronouncements of some theologians and churchmen speculating on the prospect of an “empty hell” (just wondering, weren’t the fallen angels condemned for eternity?) the warnings of Christ are far more troubling: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Mt. 5:22).
The choice to cultivate a dread of the punishment of hell has a truly therapeutic and sobering effect. Samuel Johnson’s now tired cliché comes to mind, "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Representing the prospect of eternal punishment holds our attention, extinguishes any presumption of God’s mercy, and helps us to keep our spiritual house in order.
The great martyrs of the Faith dreaded offending an all-loving and merciful God more than they feared dungeon, fire, and sword. Most of us do not have their exalted—and near perfect—motives, rooted in love, for avoiding sin. But a thoughtful and reasoned sense of dread provides a healthy, if imperfect, motive to follow Christ unreservedly.
One of the paradoxes of Christianity is this: For us to overcome dread we need to cultivate, with God’s grace, a healthy sense of dread. If the dread of just punishment has the effect of taking the appeal out of “promiscuity” and “lewd and lascivious conduct” and every other violation of the Decalogue—and consequently delighting in the certainty of God’s mercy—mission accomplished.
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