The Odd Glimpse of God
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
--Julia Ward Howe, "Battle Hymn of the Republic
God's glory, as depicted in George Lucas' 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, has an effect roughly equivalent to standing too close to a small nuclear device when it detonates. Near the end of the movie, Nazi agents pry open the Ark of the Covenant, an ancient chest in which Moses had kept the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Nazis have been plotting to capture the Ark and smuggle it back to Germany, where they believe it will make Hitler's war machine invincible. However, the Ark comes equipped with built-in protection that prevents it from falling into the hands of evil men. The Ark is opened, and there is a blinding flash that instantly annihilates all the bad guys. The intrepid archeologist Indiana Jones and his sidekick Marion, who have been tied up nearby, survive only by shielding their eyes from the full glare of God's glory.
As it happens, the Hollywood special effects wizards were more or less true to the spirit of the original story. When Moses climbed up Mt. Sinai to fetch the stone tablets, he asked to see God's glory but was warned he could not look upon the face of God and live. The Lord tucked him away in the cleft of a rock and allowed him to catch a peek from behind as he passed by. According to the biblical narrative, the glory of the Lord "was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel." When Moses came back down, his face still shone from the encounter, and no one dared come near him until he veiled his face. The Israelites believed the Ark of the Covenant was so powerful that they carried it with them into battle as a talisman against their enemies. They marched with it around Jericho until the wall of the city came down with a blast of trumpets and a mighty shout. At one point, the Philistines captured the Ark in battle but gave it back after their people were afflicted with tumors.
Saints and mystics in every age have reported direct encounters with God and have lived to tell the tale. However, Sigmund Freud set the tone for much of modern psychology, at least until very recently, by classifying religious experience as neurotic, if not downright delusional. Transcendent states are not considered to be the sorts of things that happen to sensible people, even if they troop to church on Sunday to hear sermons about people long ago who had visions and talked to God. Yet polls since the 1960s have consistently shown between 30% and 40% of the population have reported having a religious experience that changed the direction of their lives.
A lot of people, it seems, have had some sort of direct experience of God beyond mere faith or religious conviction. Although Jesus praised "those who have not seen and yet believe," the fact is that the founders of the Christian faith were all people who had first-hand experience of miraculous events that they claimed had altered the course of history. Even when hauled before the authorities and ordered to stop talking about such things, the Apostle Peter refused, saying "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
Years before, a devout man at the temple in Jerusalem had held the infant Jesus in his arms and had recognized that a promise had been fulfilled. It had been revealed to him that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. This moment was more precious to him than life itself. "Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace," he cried, "for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." The apostles who were now prepared to throw their own lives away for the sake of all they had seen and heard would certainly have understood this. Even the Nazi agents in Raiders of the Lost Ark may have had an inkling in the final moment before they received a lethal dose of God's glory. In a draft of the movie's screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, the chief henchman Belloq dies with something resembling a smile of satisfaction on his "incandescent" face: "Belloq, in the instant of his destruction, has experienced some kind of sublime, transcendental knowledge."
Raiders of the Lost Ark, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan