“But what about the non-Christians?” I pressed. “How can a Muslim or a Sikh, or a Pagan or a Hindu properly choose after a lifetime of the world they knew?”
“Look, Dan.” he said. “All the people you saw so far, have you seen any who was Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Pagan, or Sikh?
“Everyone will be judged properly. Do you think God is a trickster, that He would allow Satan to take away His loved ones? I mean, even the animals will be judged according to the plan He has for them.”
“So every road leads to God, after all?” I asked. “Or are you saying that we will all be segregated? Hey, I have friends who aren’t Christian, you know!”
“No, Dan, not every road leads to God, and they all have to go through Jesus Christ.
“But when you see them again, and you will, understanding will also be there for you to find.”
Robert smiled and waved me to follow. I muttered to myself as we set out, “Suuuure, real plain and straight!”
But I watched the Earth as we walked, and I began to notice a shiny lump on it, and I added it to my long list of things to ask about.But for now, we were getting closer to Hell, or Milwaukee. I could tell by the smell.
I wanted to know more about what Robert meant about being judged “properly”, so I asked
“Robert, you still haven’t explained how it’s just for people who never knew Christ, to be judged by Him”
“Well, Dan” answered Robert, ”What do you think Judgment is for?
“God doesn’t need anything to be holy and pure, right? And He is not hurt or diminished by even all the evils ever done by any one and everyone everywhere, for all time. So, the consequences, the rewards, the wages, if you will, all happen because He chooses to make them so.
“And since God is good and loving, He does all this for our benefit. He made us because He loves us, we live our first life on earth, so we can learn before we commit to eternity, He sent His own Son to live among us, to teach us, even to die on our behalf, and then to rise again for our hope and solace.
“So each of us lives in the life granted by God, and we grow as we will, choosing this or that for our values and works. Even the Hindu meets and acts in relation to someone who was Christian or like Christ. Even the Muslim who is taught the Bible is twisted away from Allah, learns right and wrong, and decides what pleases his heart. Even the name is varied. You know, Jesus never said a word of English, nor Latin, so much we attribute to Him, even where it is true, is not true insofar as we have changed the language, and sometimes meaning is lost in that translation.
“So it is, that people who do not believe in the Christ pronounced by a denomination, or the Annoying Screaming Preacher Network, yet have the opportunity to know Him, and to have Him in their lives, as they choose.
“Everything we do, say, and think counts, you know. And the good all counts to reward and growth. None of it is lost. A lot of people do good all the time, and never think twice about all the treasure they could be storing up.”
“That all sounds great” I said, “but if it was that wonderful, why did Jesus say that some have received their reward in full, and why is anyone in Hell?”
Robert stopped and shook his head.
“Dan, you know how 401k’s worked? You put your money in, and as you saved it built up. But if someone takes out the money they put in, it’s gone, OK? The principal is gone because you used it, and you can’t grow interest where there is nothing to build from.“It’s the same thing here, but much more important. If someone does a good deed, then brags about it, he’s getting his good right back so he can enjoy it, right? So, he good he did is consumed by his desire to please himself, and so he has already received his reward.
“As for Hell, that’s a sad thing, but we can’t make people choose well or against their heart.”
“That sounds awfully pat for eternal damnation” I retorted.
“Aha.” Said Robert “The light dawns.“You think everybody sent to Hell is there forever, huh?”
I answered him with Scripture:“Matthew 25:46 – ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”
Robert smiled“Are you worried, Dan?
“OK, how about this: Isaiah 25:8 “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces”
“Sound like God’s confused, or maybe we can talk about it?”
I shrugged, and we plodded on.
I looked over at Robert in some annoyance.
“What, now you’re a psychologist? I’m sure you don’t mean God got confused!” I said.
“OK, Dan” answered Robert, ”You know the Bible pretty well. Let’s review about punishment, since we’re headed that way.“You’re right about that line saying ‘eternal punishment’, but that doesn’t mean ‘torture’, necessarily. If your daughter acted up when she was little, what did you do?”
“Usually, she got a ‘time-out’ or no dessert” I answered.
“Right. And that was punishment for misbehaving, and intended to teach her a lesson, right?”
“OK” I interrupted, “but I didn’t give her ‘time-out’ for forever. What’s the lesson in “eternal” punishment? You know, that was a real problem for a lot of people I knew, the idea that a limited sin, even a mistake, could result in being punished forever.”
“Ixnay” said Robert.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I mean think about it, and don’t forget we have to take some things on faith, Dan” answered Robert.
”In the first place, God is good and just, and He’s not going to send anybody to eternal punishment just for an honest error. But there’s more. I can’t tell you why a thing may merit a permanent punishment, although I would guess it’s because some folks just can’t bring themselves to let go of their sin. Remember those guys you and Beth saw, chasing those women?”
Startled, I just nodded.
“Think about their problems, now. They lusted so much and so deeply, they can’t stop, even when the physical tools are gone, even when there is no satisfaction for them, no matter what they try.” said Robert.
“These poor souls are just like the rich people who can’t get over the fact that no one uses money here, or the politicians who are just now beginning to see that they have no power over any other person. If you can’t make yourself let go of the old wicked ways, you can’t begin to get ready for the greater life.”
I nodded and laughed.
“And it gets you chased by a pack of big, angry hounds, too” I said.
We paused, and I pointed out the shiny bump on Earth. “By the way, Robert” I asked, “What is that?”
Robert smiled and said ”New digs, my friend. The shiny part is New Jerusalem, about 1400 miles across if I remember, with walls and streets of gold”
“So who’s building it?” I asked.
”Angels” replied Robert.
”did you see all the blurry traffic? Gabriel is waaaaay busy, these days.”
“Huh” I replied, a snappier answer refusing to present itself.
“OK, I think I understand more about punishment, Robert” I said after some time. “We get what we deserve, huh?”“Maybe” answered Robert. ”Remember Mercy, always remember Mercy. If we don’t get Mercy, we get Justice, but God said ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.’
“And to answer your earlier question about non-Christians, it’s kind of like pulling over a car and finding a child at the wheel. You don’t ignore what he did, but you don’t forget it’s a kid, not an adult who has taken the test and knows the law.
“Christians enjoy a special relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. But the Christian can’t keep sinning, or they haven’t really accepted Christ at all.
“And as you may have noticed, we have work to do here as well. If you accept the place with Christ, you accept his will and command as well.”
“So anyone who isn’t Christian is like a little child?” I asked.Robert smiled.“We all are, if we’re going to enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
“I’m confused again” I admitted. “It sounds like there’s no difference in being a Christian or not, after all.”
“Oh, there is!” Robert assured me.
We reached a place where rocks were arranged, almost like a sofa, so we sat.“You see, Dan” said Robert, ”we were all made for a purpose, and God knew early on how we would respond to His will. So He knew the choices we would make, and he planned His work around them, so that everything would work out to accomplish good.
“That has several effects. One is, even if we succeed brilliantly in what we do, it’s only because it suited God to favor us; we have no business getting a big head, because we didn’t deserve the success. On the other hand, if we fail, it was never going to work anyway, since it lacked His approval.”
I frowned and asked “So, why even try?”
“Exactly!” cried Robert. ”What matters is we try. We cannot change God’s will, and we cannot hope to control the course of His work, but we do decide our own course, and how we try, and what we do within our own hearts, is allowed us by God. “God judges us by our choices in such conditions, whether we enjoy good times or suffer bad, whether we have advantage of position or are dispossessed.
“Ultimately, there is a range of choices and decisions we make, and the end result of them determines our reconciliation with God. He is Sovereign, yet we enjoy free will.”
“So how” I asked “does all this work into the Christian/non-Christian thing? There are some people who say you must accept Jesus Christ, or you go to hell. Others say we all go to Heaven, there is no hell. Still others… well, you get the idea. What’s the story?”
“Christ came to save the whole world” said Robert. ”He brought forgiveness for all sins, save one, by His death in our place on the cross. Heaven is real, and so is Hell. Frankly, what gets lost in all of this, is that the Gospel is “Good News”, precisely because it not only saves us from Hell if we will have it, it gives us the “abundant life” of living in love and freedom from the old hard ways of laws and penalties. Most of all, it makes any good thing possible for us, if we willl have it.
“Now, you know that after His resurrection, Jesus ascended into Heaven to stand by God the Father. The reason He didn’t start His kingdom right away, is the same reason He sent disciples out to preach the Gospel while He was still among us:
“We are meant to be involved in God’s work. And the role for Christians is, we lead the way for others to follow. If we do it right, we receive all manner of reward, not the kind men know, like money or rank, but we are given authority by God according to the fruit we bear.“Everyone gets that choice, no matter where they come from. And anyone who thinks, for example, that more Christians will come from “Christian” nations, well, they don’t see how it balances out. America, for instance, allows freer worship by Christians than, say, Iran, but you also have a lot more distractions, like churches which call themselves “Christian”, but love money, or all sorts of sinful temptations. In the end, the decision is made against similar, if not exactly the same, difficulties and obstacles.”
I thought about that.
“So, are you saying the Christians get better rewards than the non-Christians?” I asked.
Robert chuckled.“Depends on what you call ‘better’ “ he answered. ”Christians are part of the family of God, and like the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, some aren’t real happy to see who will be forgiven, after all their deeds are known.
“And like the Centurion, some people will be surprises to everyone but Christ.”
“By the way, Robert” I asked, having thought of a question nagging at me, “Beth told me I would see Mikki later, but not now. How come?”
“Don’t worry, Dan” he said, ”You’ll see her when it’s time, but this is not the place.“Don’t you see how barren it is here?” Robert said, waving his arm around so I would notice the dirt and rocks, the utter absence of plants or people around us.
“After all, you don’t see Bruce with me right now, do you?”
“I meant to ask you” I said, “He “made it” too, huh?”
“Yep” answered Robert, ”and his assignment now is tougher than mine.
“He’s talking things over with our old boss, Mr. Willden.”
“The guy who wanted me to fire you for wearing a pink suit?” I laughed.
“The same” laughed Robert. “I know now, though, that he was under a lot of pressure from the Head Office.”
“Still…” I said.
“Yeah, he did yell a lot” admitted Robert.
”Later, I’ll see how that went, and maybe I can fill you in later.”
We must have been getting closer. I could now make out the distinct smells of sweat, urine, beer, and sulfur as we proceeded through the renewed mist.
As we got closer, and the stench of Hell was joined by the ugly apparition of the place, as if a city had been made of a landfill, then drenched with sewage and defecation, with all semblance of artiface and beauty stripped from it, so that one could look anywhere and see the same dismal view. Every sense recoiled from the place. As we grew near to the great city of filth, I saw movement amongst the debris, and realized the place was teeming with vermin and insects.We stopped and gaped. Well, I gaped. Robert produced a sack from somewhere, and removed two sets of rubber-like overalls, and bandanna-like masks to cover our mouths and noses.“Whew! Yeah, we’ll need waders!”A funny think happened, then. Both sets of ‘waders’ and their masks, were a nondescript grey, but when Robert stepped into his and pulled them up, they became the same crisp, clean white that his suit was, although his waders also sported a silver trim along the seams. I checked my waders. Still drab and grey. I shrugged and followed Robert into the mire.As we entered the ring of mud and trash which surrounded Hell, I noticed a sudden increase in the volume of shouts, cries, a funny grinding noise, and shrieks of pain. I looked around for little guys with pitchforks, or big guys with cloven hooves, but so far it was just me and Robert. While I could smell sulfur, it didn’t seem to be connected with anything like burning. In fact, so far the place seemed cold, dank, sullen.
“This, uh, doesn’t seem like the stories make it out” I commented.
“No” answered Robert, ”but it’s as depressing and ugly as I expected.”The ground sloped downward as we walked further, and the sky seemed to darken.Up ahead, we saw our first denizen of Hell, a small (very small, actually) man covered in mud and filth. He seemed to be stuck up to his shins in the muck, and we was waving frantically at us.
“Hello! Hello! Come here!” he cried.
“How can we help you, friend?” asked Robert, as we stepped carefully through the mire.“Help me get to where I belong” replied the man. As we came closer, I could see that his clothes, before they had become so soiled, had been of fine quality and high price. His glasses, still stuck in a chest pocket of his suit jacket, were gold-rimmed and obviously custom-made. His high forehead suggested an intellectual lean, and suddenly I recognized him.
“Bishop Dake!” I cried
“Ah. It’s good to be recognized” responded the Bishop, as Robert and I reached down to pull him up form his muddy hole. Then I remembered something else about Bishop Dake: Despite a large, urban, progressive ministry, Bishop Dakes had no tolerance for gays. I remembered an old newspaper photo, which showed Dakes yelling at the partner of a murdered gay man, during the funeral, no less. I looked over at Robert, but his quick nod told me he knew who this was, but was going to help anyway. But pulling Dakes out of his hole was harder than we thought
“Sir, you seem to be stuck on something” observed Robert. ”Are there any branches or obstructions below the surface?”
Dakes shook his head. “No, I don’t know of any”
So we pulled harder, and very slowly, Dakes began to come up.As he did, I suddenly realized that one of Dakes’ arms had been down in the mud. Robert had been pulling on his shoulder, while I had his other arm. As we raised Dakes further, we saw why.Very slowly, as we raised the minister, we saw a small reptile, like a gecko, clinging to Dakes’ arm. Another, still below the mud, also held his hand. As the first one’s head cleared the mud, it peered at us with bright red eyes (OK, now it didn’t look like a gecko anymore!), and it scurried up Dakes’ arm, and quickly whispered something into his ear. Dakes looked at me, then Robert, and went pale, then red with anger
"Unhand me!” he demanded, and he shook his arm loose from me. I heard a chuckle from one of the lizards still under the mud.
“I thought you wanted out” I said.
“Not to be with men like you two” retorted Dakes. Robert rolled his eyes behind Dakes, and grinned at me, like ‘I’ve-heard-this-before’, but he didn’t let go, as Dakes wrestled from below.
“But you’re stuck in a mudhole in Hell” I replied. “Don’t you want to get out?”
“Monsters!” boomed Dakes, “I know what you are. You think you can take me where you want, so you two can do what you want, make me just like you. Well, I’m a man, not a freak!
“Let me go!”
“OK, sir” said Robert, and he let Dakes go – - plop –back into the mud. The little lizards or whatever chucked as the man sank back into his hole. There sure sounded like Dakes had a lot of them in there with him.
“You do know where you are, right?” I asked Dakes.
“You go to hell” rebutted the minister, which told me enough.Robert and I trudged on, down, and further into the dark.
We stomped along in the dismal pallor of Hell, and I watched with fascination, as the muck from the mudhole simply began to disappear from Robert. I glanced down, and saw that my muck was still there. Well, at least the mask was good for keeping out the smell.
“Is everybody we meet down here going to be that much fun?” I asked Robert.“Oh yeah, remember how some people say all the really interesting people are all down here.”Robert stopped suddenly, and laughed loudly for a few seconds.
“Private joke?” I asked.
”I’m sorry.” said Robert. ”But I just remembered how my first girlfriend told me she just knew, that on Judgment Day I’d go to Hell. I bet she didn’t mean it this way, is all.”
I laughed at that, too.
Ahead in the distance, we saw three men arguing. They appeared to be quite agitated about something. Given the difficulty we’d had with a man pinned by mud, I wondered how we would handle these fellows, if we couldn’t reason with them.As we came closer, I realized that the three men were each being assailed by tiny insects. But somehow, the men couldn’t see the insects, and were blaming each other for the bites and cuts they suffered, adding blows and insults to the damage. I also realized, as we came closer, that the men were so beaten and injured by their blows, that they could not hurt us much, though they could suffer. In any case, like Dakes, they also were smaller than I expected, as if they had shrunk when they arrived in Hell. Robert stepped forward, swatting away insects and calling for the men to
”Stop! You don’t need to do this.”The first man, bleeding from a hundred cuts and bites, turned to Robert and yelled
“As if you knew anything!“This one” – he pointed at the man to his left, who obligingly tried to bite his finger and snarled at us when he missed – “has tormented me for years, and now I finally have forced him to stand and take it, he brings his friend here-”
“Friend!” interrupted the second man, who appeared to have broken or bruised most, if not all, of his bones, “I don’t even know this guy. You two set on me like a pair of muggers-“
“Muggers!” yelled the third, whose body seemed to have been burned by a thousand tiny hot needles in every place, “First old wheezer here stalks me like his whole world revolves on doin’ me in. Now you think that just because you show up, you’re the show?!?”
“Gentlemen” began Robert, ”I think my friend and I can help you resolve all this, and-“
The three men interrupted Robert with cackling laughs. “Oh yeah, biiiiiiig guys gonna help us out, huh?”
“What if we tell you to go beat it, huh? Think we can’t take you two?”
“Hey, nobody asked you, alright”
“I don’t think you understand, guys.” I said. “You don’t see everything that’s going-“
The men started in on their cackling laugh and taunts again, as Robert and I realized that they were enjoying their feuds, and didn’t want our help.“Is this whole place going to be like this?” I asked Robert, as we moved on. Robert shrugged.“I hope not, but I don’t know.”
As we walked along, the light got dimmer, the ground more slippery, and the smell even stronger. Robert seemed to be having about as much fun as I was, although his immaculate appearance kept him easy to follow.
“Tell me again why we’re here?” I asked Robert.
“Well, you wanted to know how a person could end up in Hell.” replied Robert, “Getting any good lessons?”“I guess” I said. “Hey, I just realized everyone I’ve met so far has been American, whether saint, or, uh, these guys. Why is that?”
Robert shrugged.“I’m not controlling it, so I don’t know. But I guess it’s a communication thing; you see what you can recognize, you meet people you can talk with.
“We’re here to help you, you know.”
I stopped, looked at Robert for a few seconds, then started again towards a group of boys I saw sitting in the mud.
As we approached the boys, a few foul-smelling drops of warm liquid fell on my shoulders, and I pulled my hood up just before a shower of vile something began to fall, making the ground even slicker, and the smell worse than before. For some reason, the five boys just sat in the mire, getting wet with what I now realized was a rain of something like vomit and urine mixed together. I was careful not to look up; I wasn’t sure what was delivering the ‘rain’.The boys, as we reached them, turned out to be much older, full-grown men, but they were so small in size and build, that I had taken them for boys. They sat in a small pond of slimy muck, surrounded by things which swam just below the surface. I remembered the red-eyed reptiles and shuddered.
“Hello, do you need help?” I asked the men. But they just sat there, although one slowly turned his head towards me. As he did I saw an insect of some kind, like a scorpion with teeth, which was chewing on his face just below his eye. I tried not to stare.Robert looked pale.
“Does that hurt?” he asked the man.
“Yeah” responded the man.
“Would you like me to remove the thing?” asked Robert.
”Naah. S’Okay.” Replied the man. “It just comes back anyway.”
I was amazed at the apathy of these men.“Do you need help?” I asked one of them.“No” he said, without moving a muscle.
“Don’t you want to get up?” I asked. “You could leave her for a better place”
“Naah” two others replied. “Why bother?”
Robert and I looked at the men, then each other, and we left them to their inanimate rest.We walked for a while with nothing to say. Then Robert stopped, and said“I think I know what that was all about. But let’s wait until we see the next group.”
Puzzled, smeared with mire and stench, we pressed on.