Chapter One: Waking Up
It began with a sense of hope. I felt as though I was waking up, the way you come out of a deep sleep when you are called, not yet able to move, yet slowing realizing where you are and feeling life return to cold limbs. Not comfortable, yet there was purpose and mission, if I couldn't tell yet what those were. As I came to realization, I found myself laying on the ground, which strangely was not as cold as my body. The ground was rough but even, no grass yet not dirty or muddy. Because it felt strange to lie down and be aware, I rose and stood. I found myself standing in a fog, between two places which faintly glowed as cities do from a distance. Somehow, I sensed that one of the two was a welcome place, bright and glad, and the other dark and foreboding, so I walked to the first, drawn by the hope which had revived me from my rest. As I walked, I tried to recall where I had been and what I had been doing. My clothes yielded no clue, just common pants and shirt, socks and shoes, and there was nothing in my pockets. Looking back where I had lain, it was as if I had simply appeared there; there were no signs of anything around me, except for light footprints in the dirt where I walked.
I saw a crowd of people ahead, and I joined them, as they waited expectantly at the high gates surrounding some place too far or too shrouded in mist to see. There was an air of expectation, a mix of happy hope and dread.
Behind me, I heard a distant noise, as of old rusty gates opening, followed by a distant but growing howling, a threat as yet unseen yet recognized by nearly all of us present. I became very anxious that the brighter gates before us should open, before that approaching terror should seize us from behind.
I suddenly recalled the darker warnings of the 25th Chapter of Matthew, as if a portent sent too late. Those who claimed to be Christians, but who had no love for others, especially those who would not do anything to help people in need, or to be gentle when their brother was in pain, or to be kind when explaining something, or otherwise to bear any sort of fruit in true imitation of Christ, are snatched away by the angels, and hurled into a lake of fire in the midst of the pits of Hell. At that moment, something plucked at me, and my heart jumped, but it was just Wohali, pulling my leg. Wohali was an old friend and in another place, I would have begun to catch up on old times and events passed since we last met. Here, I stood silent while Wohali snickered at his jest. I began to notice a few more details in our surroundings.The place where we were was vast. What had seemed to be a park or meadow outside the gates of Heaven, was revealed to be a great plain, with Heaven's gates near to us, and Hell's domain far from us, but faintly visible.At first, I had also thought the terrain was simply empty, but as my eyes adjusted ( to the light, actually), I began to realize that a mist was covering the ground, and was now beginning to recede in some places. I also realized we were not on the Earth. I could see our globe floating off to my left, and even at this great distance, it looked tired and spent. I wondered how it could be restored.
The terror passed in an instant, and when it was gone, so were many who had stood with us, and I realized that my fears were sound, yet I had been spared, if only for the moment. Also, as the mist began to recede, I began to notice other things about this place. First, I was able to recognize people at greater distances, and I was surpised to find some still in our group, whom from my experience I would have expected to be in the joyous company of our Lord Jesus Christ, and others whom I would have thought surely would be regretting their sins as they roasted. I rebuked myself for judging the second group, but all the same, it seemed strange.I also began to see little cracks in the ground, which I was certain had not been there when we arrived. Maybe the weight of 18 Billion people, give or take, was getting to be a problem. I wondered, if we were already dead, would this be something I should worry about? As time passed, further details emerged, some fascinating, others not very encouraging.I had thought, since the frightening angels who had seized the damned (were they through already?), were no longer around us, that the angels were no longer active, but I began to realize that the colorful streaks of light and thunder were not weather, but passing angels, impossibly fast. I confirmed this when one of those bolts of light suddenly appeared at my side, as a smiling man slowly walking, but then he approached Wohali, spoke quietly to him, and without anything more, they turned and left me, but not before Wohali stopped, smiled quirkily and assured me "it'll be alright - really". Then, in a flash, he and the man were gone, and it was only in that instant, that I somehow realized Wohali's angel was Comanche. I puzzled for another while, trying to recall how it was I could tell tribes by sight. I realized as I watched, that everybody seemed to have someone coming to see them, and not everybody was happy with that fact.Then I started suddenly, as I realized another angel was coming, this time to me. I started again, when I realized I knew her.Yes, I knew her. And suddenly, I was afraid, not of danger or some evil, but of how I must seem to her.Because the woman approaching me had been a girl with whom I was once deeply infatuated [note: no real names, just in case some of you are wondering later]. Beth Allison had looked like the perfect girl to me then, and frankly, she still did. It wasn't just the way she looked, but how she acted, always pleasant to everyone, always able to like everybody, to see the good when no one else could. Tall, willowy, always gentle, always kind, she had seemed unattainable when I knew her in school, and my heart did a skip every time I saw that face. I still trembled to see her, but somehow the reason was different now.And as she approached, I suddenly realized that she had been in that first group which had entered Heaven. If she was coming out to see me, I figured I was going to be a real disappointment, which I desperately did not want to be. "Hello Dan" she said, and smiled as if she had been looking forward to meeting me for a long time. In that moment, I wanted to rush up and hug her, but I didn't dare. For one thing, I suddenly realized she had changed from the girl I knew. It's not that Beth was old; somehow, we were all in pretty good condition, though some of the people were children, some adults, and some you just couldn't be sure. Beth had that Audrey-Hepburn purity to her, that added a dimension of charm to any age, but that wasn't it. I suddenly realized, for example, that if I was my normal height, Beth was now a good 6 and a half feet tall! I mean, she had been tall in High School, maybe 5 eleven, but never 6'6"! And she was proportional to her height, like a bigger-than-life scale model. I also realiuzed she was in all-white clothes, but a dazzling white like I couldn't imagine, but there she was. I felt dirty, like my clothes were too old, like I was too... too... too something, but less than acceptable, and it wasn't a good feeling. But Beth took my hand, and we started walking. When we stopped after a few steps, we were in a completely different place, still outside the gates of Heaven, but there were a lot less people.Maybe I'm not as pure as Wohali, because I still wasn't sure things were going to be all right.Beth smiled, grinned actually, and laughed "Oh, it's good to see you again, Dan. Isn't this great?"She must have caught my worries from my look, so she said "OK. I bet you have lots of questions. Go ahead""I'm not in Heaven." I observed. "Does that mean I'm going to Hell?"
"You mean the Lake of Fire? Probably not."I wasn't really comforted by 'probably', so Beth went on.
"Look, Dan. You know we are judged by God alone, and He judges us on one of two measures: Grace or Justice.
"As a Christian, you know that God has chosen to extend His Grace to whom it pleases Him to receive it; that's Pre-Destination, and for all the human arguments, that's always been up to God."
"But" I interrupted her, "If not everyone receives Grace, isn't that unfair?"
Beth shook her head."No, and you should know that, Dan. Nobody deserves Grace, so it's no unfair if you get Justice instead. It's not as if anyone will be punished or rewarded for something they didn't do if they receive Justice from the perfect Lord instead of Grace.
"But you have to think about why someone will not receive Grace." Back in Genesis and Exodus, we see two different Pharoahs, remember? The first Pharoah received God's favor, His Grace if you will, while in Exodus we read that God hardened Pharoah's heart against the Hebrews, so we can say that Pharoah did not receive God's Grace. [ Exodus 4:21 ]
"But notice how Pharoah was, before this happened. He held the Hebrews as slaves for no cause [ Exodus 1:8-11 ], he tried to kill all the male Hebrew infants [ Exodus 1:22 ], and his son was just like him. By the time Moses spoke with God through the Burning Bush, Pharoah had quite made up his mind. God did not harden Pharoah's heart unjustly; Pharoah chose the course, and God simply locked in the direction Pharoah had already decided.
"Compare that to the first Pharoah in Genesis. He cared enough about his people to dream about his responsibility [ Genesis 41:1-8 ], even though he would be fed and comfortable, no matter what happened. He sought an answer, not only to the mystery, but to finding a solution [ Genesis 41:33-40 ] which would take care of his people and reward honest men. So, it is hardly surprising that God looked with favor on Pharoah. On the one hand, yes, Pharoah did not deserve God's Grace to know ahead about the coming famine, or to have a capable, trustworthy man made available to him, but his acts showed his heart. Like the other Pharoah, this Pharoah chose his course, of duty and love, and God encouraged his choice.
"I can't promise you will go to Heaven, Daniel, because I cannot see your heart. You have made your choice by now, and God will have established the consequences according to His wisdom and mercy. I do not condemn you to Hell, for the same reason."I can remind you, however, that God is good, that His will is perfect and shall be done. If you hold to God's will, then everything will be alright."
All this I digested, and Beth sat with me while I tried to find consolation. I believe in Jesus Christ, of course, but when you are up against the matter, it becomes easy to doubt and worry. As I was trying to decide what to say next, a disturbance caught our attention.A group of men had surrounded a pair of young women, and their intent was unpleasantly obvious. Apparently, some people had quickly overcome their awe of angels, especially given the delay in deific presence.I rose to intervene, but Beth grabbed my hand and said, "No, it'll be OK. Wait and see."
I realized pretty soon after that, what she meant. When the men tried to grab the women, their hands passed through the women, as if the girls were only holograms. What's more, when one of them lowered his trousers, the equipment he apparently intended to show off or use, was not there!His resulting scream of fear and embarrassment was the first real comic relief I had enjoyed since arriving, and presently everyone but the attackers was laughing at their inability to do any harm.The men were angry now, and it seemed they hadn't quite caught on that this place had ways to prevent evil, and for a moment my worry returned.But Beth put her fingers to her lips, and blew what I thought was a silent whistle. After a few moments, however, the baying of hounds became clear, and everyone was immediately aware that a pack of dogs was on the way, and space cleared quickly around the men. For an instant, I was concerned about whether the approaching hounds would be able to tell the bad guys from the good ones. I became intently aware that there were no trees available to climb.
Suddenly, there were more than a hundred hounds, big powerful monsters, and they were somehow well aware of who their targets were. The men ran off at top speed, with the canines in pursuit. I glanced at Beth, half expecting a satisfied grin or relaxed relief, but now she seemed concerned, although she had not been worried when the girls seemed in danger. Beth looked over at me, and said,"When they can act like that here, I do wonder how they will give an account of their words and deeds?"
I shrugged. Then a question came to me.
"If we're outside both Heaven and Hell, where are we right now?" She smiled faintly.
"If you were Catholic, I might tell you this is Limbo."But to be serious, this is a sort of way-station.
"As you've noticed, the ground is not really stable here. That's because this place is going away, once everyone has had their judgment. But for now, it's a place for preparation, for waiting, for rest, and for decision."