The Fool’s Guide to Salvation
It was bizarre. I fell off the roof. What's great about that? If I had to die young, why couldn't I save some kid in a fire? I'd even accept being creamed by a drunk, or something equally tragic? All I get is a dining out story. “He did it again. A triple axel off the roof while putting up the Christmas lights. The Swedish judge gave him five point eight.”
I'm pleased to say it didn’t hurt. My head hit the sidewalk and that was that. The next I know I'm floating away, watching as Marion hovers over my body and screams. Then comes a woman with a cell phone, and following that the sirens and soon two paramedics are scooping me up.
That's when I panic. Aware that I need to stay with my body, I try to climb into the ambulance. Too late I guess. I'm already hearing the heavenly choir and with that, my presence is rocketing upwards, going towards the light.
At first I'm confused but as my head clears I find I'm in front of this massive arch, above it an ornate clock. The clock has only a minute hand, and it's stopped at sixteen past the hour. The choir sings a perfect last chord then utter peace.
The air is dry and still and warm, and it smells like sage behind the rain. Calming now, I'm starting to hear this silky voice. It's saying that roughly a hundred die every minute, and those are the people assembled here. From every corner of the world, our time had ended at sixteen past. I remember Newfoundland with its half hour standard time. Do people there get thirty extra minutes? I giggle but check myself. This place is too holy for stupid jokes.
That's when I notice we're moving forward, heading towards this solemn giant guarding two tunnel entrances. A few go left but most turn right, and since I'm in the majority, I'm thinking I'm part of the chosen. But then the shapes beside me start to morph and warp, their stretched out faces mouthing silent screams. The light fades to an ominous red and the tunnel turns sharply downhill. Now smelling rancid, the air's gone cold and it's filled with grit that stings my face. A wall of utter blackness is rushing towards me. I realize I'm going to hell. Horrified, I struggle to stop but it does no good. Faster and faster, now screaming with terror, my body slams into a net.
And suddenly I'm careening backwards, spinning end over end. At first it's an all consuming speed. but then the motion slows to stop. Everything is calm again and I'm standing in this all-white room beside a small but glowing presence. More silence follows while time slips by until, at last, the presence speaks, it seems from inside my head.
“Don’t be afraid,” it says. “You’re safe now, so try to relax.”
It waits some more then, “You can call me Halaliel, and you need to know I'm here to help. I'm sorry to say we've had a glitch. It seems we sent you on too soon. We should have waited an hour or two since, for the moment, you're only legally dead.”
At first I just gape but finally stammer, “Is this some kind of crazy dream?” My voice sounds like I'm shrieking, the terror of hell still on me.
“Try to stay calm and focus on me. Right now you’re confused as well as frightened. That will pass but I think you'll find this field trip will help. Now come with me.”
He takes my hand and we rise together, gliding out of the room. In moments, we're flying above a large but unfamiliar city. He guides me into a hospital. We float without effort through walls and structure, stopping inside a half-lit room. The room glows green with monitors and it's packed with racks and hoists and stands as well as cylinders, cables and tubes. A ventilator wheezes above the hum of the other equipment, and I catch the smell of urine and disinfectant. Everywhere is plastic and steel, but in among the clutter, I see my body on a bed. It's hooked to multiple wires and tubes. Calmer now but still confused I mumble, “What’s going on?”
“When you hit the concrete, you sustained a head injury. That’s what killed you. The rest of your body is mostly okay. You were late-thirties, a non-smoker, fairly healthy, no Olympic athlete but decent enough condition. It happens you've plenty of useful parts. You’d fetch a good price in some cultures.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re being harvested. They have a match for your heart and lungs, though since your death was so sudden, most of the recipients aren't fully ready. As I'm sure you know, organs depreciate rapidly once leaving the host, so in order to buy more time, they're keeping you on life support until the others are in surgery. Left to yourself you would have died, but given the need for your organs, the surgeons brought you back to life, then signed you off with irreparable brain damage. That explains the confusion. We had you as dead on arrival. That's why we started the process. It happens some times.”
“You mean they’re carving me up for parts, and I’m not yet dead?”
“That’s a fine point to argue. Most medical authorities are comfortable with your level of brain damage. You’ve been declared legally dead, ethical enough for what they want to do. Don’t complain. If you’d truly been dead, you’d already be in hell.”
“Who said they could carve me up?”
“Marion, of course. As your next of kin, she has full legal standing.”
“Marion said that. What's she being so eager about?”
“No problem there. No one will see the incisions. Given the damage to your head, there won't be an open casket.”
“What’s that got to do with them cutting me up?”
“How come you're surprised? Not only is this a well-intentioned medical decision but she’s also angry at you, and rightly so, given your history. You were always an accident waiting to happen. Remember when you broke your arm trying to jump your bicycle over the curb. And when you burned down the shed, soldering tubing over exposed paint thinner, You still have the scars from that. And then there's the time you crashed the car by using cruise control in freezing rain. You were often careless, but this time it cost you your life. That's why she's angry at you.”
“So she's reacted by giving away my body?”
“Her actual words were ’take whatever parts you want. He was mostly useless when he lived. Let's see if he's any better now he's dead.'”
“That’s a bit rough, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps she over-reacted, though anger has its place in the grief cycle. Let's be honest. Yours was a foolish way to die. Let her express her feelings. I'm sure she’ll come around in time.”
Furious, I don't agree. I'm thinking her actions disrespectful, and as for the doctors, they should be working to save me, not carving me up for parts. I'm starting to say this but get shut up by Halaliel sharply telling me, “Now you know what happened, we must be getting back. Right now, your descent into hell is on hold, but as soon as your body is harvested, you'll die and resume your descent. That's unless there's a reason to change. You have some time to save your soul but you must act now.”
We quickly go back to the all-white room then find we're just hanging around. At first, I'm only staring at him, utterly clueless. I know he's expecting me to respond, but I've no idea what he wants. After a while, he gives up waiting and asks, “Are you surprised to find you were going to hell? More than merely afraid of hell, did you always believe you'd be going to heaven?”
“To be honest, I'd never given it much thought.”
“Don’t you think it's time you did? You know you're facing the ultimate crisis.”
I freeze on hearing him say that, my mind already in free fall. Put it this way, if I have a million brain cells, only ten are exploring my situation. All the rest are drowning in fear. I think he knows since next he says, “I can see you’re struggling, so may I guide you through the process, if that’s okay?”
It is okay. I'm desperate for guidance. I’d never before considered such things, believing them a waste of my time. Boy was I wrong, and now I need to acquire new skills in a hurry. If this is going anywhere, he'll have to take the lead.
Halaliel speaks again. “I’m guessing whatever you thought about heaven, you always believed you'd be going there.”
I have to say he has me with that. I'd not thought much of the afterlife, but I'd always assumed I'd be okay. Apparently not, so what do I need to do now? I wasn't sure, but it had to involve being good. Nothing else made any sense but if that's what it was, why wasn't I safe? I’d never done anything really bad, not like some other people I know. Surely I had to be good enough, or so I tell Halaliel.
“So you think you’re not a bad person, not perhaps as good as Gandhi or Mother Teresa but surely better than Stalin or Charles Manson. Morally, you’re in the middle so your safety depends on where God draws the line.”
“What do you mean?”
“You're saying that entry to heaven must be based on a grading system,and you think you’ve done enough to earn a passing grade. It seems you haven't since you and most of your intake were bound for hell, and that itself raises an interesting point. Do you think God should be sending most people to hell?”
“Now you mention it, no I don’t.”
“Well, isn’t God supposed to be loving? If hell’s this awful place, why would a loving God be sending so many people there?”
“So in your view, being a loving God means having no standards. God should be this nice old guy who just wants everyone happy.”
“I never said that.”
“Actually, you did. You implied He should let almost everyone in regardless of how they behaved in life. Why would He do that? Heaven is His home. Can't He choose who He wants for company? In a way, you share His view.”
“How do you mean?”
“You loved your kids, didn’t you, but you wouldn’t let them do whatever they wanted. Part of parental love involves discipline and standards. You certainly believed that, though mostly you let Marion be the bad guy.”
“Now you’re just winding me up.” I find this crack especially annoying.
Expecting me to get over myself, Halaliel merely continues with, “What is it you truly believe about God? Let’s start with the basics, shall we? In your opinion, how does a person get into heaven?”
“Well,I don’t believe you do it by hanging around in churches and all that nonsense. They’re just a bunch of hypocrites, acting so holy. They’re no better than anyone else.”
“So you never actively worshipped God in the company of other believers.”
“You don’t need to go to church to connect with God.”
“So you do believe in God?”
“Yeah, I guess. I think there’s more to this world than what we see.” I find myself feeling strangely righteous, as if I'd just confirmed the existence of God.
“Without putting words in your mouth, would you perhaps describe yourself as being spiritual but not religious?”
Liking the thought, I answer, “Yes. I’d go with that.”
Halaliel sighs as if he hears that phrase too often. I'm thinking he might want an attitude change but before I can tell him he's back with, “Can we start by ruling out certain options? For the sake of argument, I'm guessing you regularly eat pork, you're not circumcised, and you’ve never been to Mecca. Yes?”
Not waiting for me to answer, he says,”Now we've ruled out both Islam and Judaism, let's take a closer look at your accident.”
“What you going on about?”
“I should backtrack. Your claim to being spiritual implies at least some sympathy with Eastern beliefs?” No answer from me so next he says, “Being spiritual in the Eastern tradition is intimately involved with developing higher consciousness, transcending its multiple levels until you comprehend the divine plan. Such development requires a regimen of spiritual practices so I need to ask, did you do much meditation?”
“I was always too busy making a living.”
“Hmm,” he says and waits for me to speak. Nothing so he continues. “I have a second problem. Many in the West mistakenly assume reincarnation is always onward and upward. In reality, the path to enlightenment is a constant struggle involving many hardships and setbacks. The nature of your demise, dying while young in a careless freak accident, has the flavour of bad Karma so if you did reincarnate, it could be as a lower life form, perhaps a rodent.”
One crack too many and now I'm really angry. Then comes the strained silence before he says, “I can see I’ve hurt your feelings, which frankly, is an odd position for you to take. Standing as you are on the brink of hell, why such focus on your bruised ego? Get over yourself. My work is complete. Time for you to meet Gamaliel.”
Fine by me, I'm ready for change. At least this new guy looks angelic. He's tall and stately with an air of mystery, not like the pudgy undersized Halaliel with his non-stop smart mouth. Maybe this one can move the process along.
“Okay,” I ask him. “What happens now?”
“You’d be surprised at the progress we've made. Most of the clutter is gone. First, I can tell you that Christianity is your only hope. The other religions expected some effort during your earthly life and as you said, you weren’t much into that. Salvation through Christ is still possible as long as you remain alive but we have to hurry. It happens my expertise is in grace and forgiveness. That's now your best hope, though your ego remains a problem.”
“Where is this going?” I ask, thinking he's as bad as the other. Maybe all angels are trained in arrogance.
“Let me explain. You concede you were irritated by Halaliel. That reaction implies a felt need to defend self-concept. Being defensive does not go well with humility, and in your situation, humility is essential.”
“Why pick on me for being defensive when I was being attacked. Halaliel started it. I'm the victim here. He wouldn't stop talking down to me.”
“You understand you'll soon be wanting a favour from the maker of the universe.”
“Well, that’s different, isn't it? Halaliel was only some angel with a bad attitude. I know how to be respectful to God. I can behave myself.”
“So you say but I would remind you that personal honesty is also a precursor to humility. That being so, might there be a factual basis for Halaliel's comments? You need to rise above your feelings. We're trying to save your immortal soul.”
That stings but I take the point. If I'm being honest, I never gave much thought to religion while I was alive. Now I have to get serious. Apologizing, I say I'll try harder in future. I start to remember I've said those words too often before.
“Okay,” says Gamaliel. “Imagine a ladder, one that leads to heaven from earth. By doing good works in this life, you hope to climb the ladder. And I should point out you’re right about not needing a church. If you can do good by your own efforts, churches add little to the process.” He pauses then, “Does that make sense?”
It does make sense. It seems I was right after all. If souls can nod, then I nod.
“So the issue becomes – how high up this ladder do you have to climb to reach heaven? Now since it’s God's heaven, He gets to say how high, but since a God of love wouldn't keep that a secret, you ought to find it specified in His holy book. Remember we said that faith in Christ is your only route. That makes the Bible your book of record, so what are your thoughts on the Bible?”
“I don't know. I never really got into it. I always found it weird, all about smiting and odd sounding names, and things you can't do.”
“Could you perhaps see the Bible as being divinely inspired, that its role is to speak the word of God?”
“Again, I don’t know. I never really thought about it.”
“I know I'm not supposed to prompt you but do you remember going to the light and being in the company of souls and angels?”
“Yeah, sure. What you getting at?”
“Does that perhaps suggest something supernatural?”
“I guess so, for what it's worth.”
“So there is a supernatural?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“And about the Bible, could that also be supernatural, maybe divinely inspired?”
“Okay, I see what you mean. Yeah, sure. Why not.”
“Is that your final answer, or do you want to call a lifeline?”
Again with the crack. “Don’t be snarky,” I say and feel better for saying it.
“Fair enough,” he answers, “but let me wrap up. Can I assume you've accepted the Bible as the word of God?”
“I guess so. Where we going with this?”
“Would you care to know what the Bible says about climbing ladders to heaven?”
“If that gets the process to move.”
“You won’t like it.”
“Just get on with it.”
“Remember the Commandment that says no to adultery? How does that precept sit with you? Would you agree with it?”
I do agree with it, and I also feel good about agreeing. I've earned a gold star. I haven’t committed adultery.
“However,” he says. “Here comes the bad part. The Lord doesn't see adultery the same way as you. In the Sermon on the Mount He explains that if someone even looks at a woman lustfully, that's considered adultery in the eyes of God. I'm sorry to say His expectations are very much higher than yours.”
“Now that’s just being stupid. No one can meet that standard. What’s the harm in checking out a good looking woman as long as you don't act on it?”
“Now listen carefully and please understand. Nothing here is your call. It's God who runs heaven, not you. What's in the Bible expresses His standards, not yours, and more to the point, that also means you already know you've failed His test,. Now it gets worse. He says elsewhere that if you fail in any part of any Commandment, even in the smallest detail, you've also failed the whole exam and are barred from entering heaven. Now do you see why you were going to hell?”
“I can't accept that.” Angry, I find I'm shouting.
He gives me a moment then, “What is it you don’t accept?”
“That test is simply ridiculous,and so is the marking system. Nobody's got a chance of passing. It’s just set up for everybody to fail.”
“But it's not the whole story I'm pleased to say. Remember back at the arch. You saw a few souls turn left at the guardian. Clearly those souls were heaven-bound, meaning there must be a pathway to God.”
Calming down, I get he's right but I'm wondering how that would work? Since nobody ever passes this test, God must somehow play favourites. And since I need a way to get in, how would I get a piece of that?
I say to him, “I get that you're right but what's so special about these people?”
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
“And just what's that supposed to mean?”
“Watch and learn. We’re going on a journey.”
The scene changes and now we're hovering over a schoolyard. I recognize my old middle school and as I look on, Brian Rutledge, one of the bullies, goes towards Kevin Alcott, a harmless nerd. He next says, “I never hit a guy with glasses,” pulls off Kevin's glasses, and punches him in the face for no good reason except that he can. I'm standing beside them convulsed with laughter. I find the insult hilarious. I tell it to everybody I meet. I even repeat the incident back to poor Kevin.
“That was tacky,” says Gamaliel.
Embarrassed, I start to bluster. “Come on, man. I was just a kid. That’s the sort of thing teens do before they begin growing up, and anyway, it happened years ago. Long forgotten, no harm done, who cares about it anymore?” I know inside I've done a bad thing. I'm hoping I haven't scarred Kevin for life.
“Not a good answer,” says Gamaliel who reads my thoughts. “Are you ashamed because what you did was morally wrong, or merely concerned you might be held accountable for causing Kevin long term harm? If I was to tell you that Kevin survived unharmed, would you promptly forgive yourself?”
Irritated by his fancy logic, I swear at him.
He seems unfazed as he moves me to another scene. I'm older now and I'm in the back of a car. I'm with some girl I can’t remember, trying to talk her into sex. She isn't in any way interested but I keep on yakking. I never grab at her or force her to stay. There's nothing remotely physical, just non-stop nagging and pressure. It's not so much abusive as pathetic.
“What do you think?” says Gamaliel.
“I guess I could be a jerk at times.”
“I know you don't see these as massive sins. You were never a rapist or murderer, but disrespect is an ongoing theme with you. Take a look at this.”
We're flying over a parking lot. Some woman below is struggling, pushing groceries into her car while keeping control of three kids. I'm fully adult on this occasion, and driving my car with Marion sitting beside me. The woman is blocking my exit, holding me up. I give her two seconds then lean on the horn.
Gamaliel freezes the frame then asks, “Do you remember these incidents?”
“Sort of, now you’ve brought them to mind.”
“Do you ever get flashbacks perhaps, recalling events that embarrass you?”
“Sometimes, I guess. Not every day.”
“And when they come, are you inclined to dismiss them?”
“Mostly yes. Why not. They can't be changed, can they? Life goes on.”
“So you tend to live in the present?”
“I guess so. What’s wrong with that?”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“What does he know?”
A sigh, a pause then Gamaliel speaks again. “I think we’ve reached ground zero,” he says.
The next I know we're floating above a village, looking down on some crude low houses with whitewashed walls and flat mud roofs. As we get lower, I feel the blast of rising hot air. By now the dust is in my eyes, and a merciless sun is beating down on a landscape drained of colour. Donkeys circle a water trough, and can I also see camels? People are crowding the village streets,but Gamaliel picks out a group of bearded men in coarse brown robes. As we're watching, this woman approaches wearing a long black robe. She's also walking too fast in the heat, her body stiff, her head erect.
She points towards their leader and says, “Teacher, where were you? We sent for you days ago? Why have you taken so long to get here? You knew my brother was dying. You could have helped but you acted like you didn’t care.” He meets her fierce gaze but gives no answer.
I've got to admit I'm impressed. In what must be a traditional culture, she’s beating up on the alpha male. I've always respected people with guts. Still pointing at him she tells the world, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Good for you, I'm thinking. She’s holding this man responsible for letting her down, but then for some reason she adds, “I know that, even now, God will give you whatever you ask.”
That's disappointing me. I'm guessing this guy's some sort of a faith healer, and while it's clear her brother's now dead, she's still thinking this creep can do magic. Let it go girl. Dead is dead. Don't humiliate yourself.
And now comes the pitch. This guy's still hanging around with his groupies, looking all solemn and dignified. Soon enough he's telling her, “Your brother will rise again,” like that's gonna happen.
Desperate of course, she falls for it saying, “I know my brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” whatever that's supposed to mean.
And he comes back at her with, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” I'm just shaking my head.
“Yes, Lord,” she answers him. “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Watching this woman I can't help thinking, this is just nonsense, What are they going on about?
She goes away but then some other woman appears, this one sobbing, but saying the same. By now there's a crowd and the teacher is crying, and some are saying that shows he cares, but others then say if he'd cares so much he'd have got there sooner. My thoughts exactly but next I know we're over the grave site and low and behold, this guru person is telling the people to open the tomb. At first disdainful, my mouth drops open when just like that, the brother comes stumbling out of the tomb like he's Christopher Lee in The Mummy.
In moments we're back in the all-white room. Puzzled I ask, “What happened? I don’t get it.”
“I didn’t expect you would, not yet anyway.” A pause then he adds, “You know that was Jesus, don’t you?”
Now I feel stupid. I should have figured that out for myself. Of course it was Jesus. I’ve been watching a miracle, bringing that woman’s brother back from the dead. Maybe He is for real after all.
“Okay,” said Gamaliel, “this is the way those people got saved at the arch. They like you are riddled with sin, completely unable to save themselves, but unlike you, they confessed and threw themselves on God's mercy. They'd come to believe that by Christ's sinless life and innocent death, he'd earned for them a place in heaven. The same holds true for you, you know. If you repent and call on the Lord, even this late, you will be saved. Do you believe that?”
“I still don’t get it.”
“You just saw it happen but okay, let me explain again. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became fully human and lived on earth a perfect sinless life, one that was good enough to climb the ladder to heaven. Then He exchanged His reward with us. He died in our place the cruel death we deserved so we in turn would get a free pass up the ladder. That's all there is to it. Repent and believe and you'll be saved.”
“What do you mean?”
“You keep with the questions. Just give it a rest. You know you're stalling. You don’t need more information. Admit to your sins, ask Christ for forgiveness, lean not on yourself but trust Him to save you and you will be saved.”
“That’s all there is to it?”
“Yes.” He sounds exasperated.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Why keep on doubting? Being here, going through the arch, you’ve seen more proof than anyone has a right to see. Just believe. Why insist on making God follow your own expectations?”
“So if Adolf Hitler did what you said, he’d also be saved.”
“I can't accept that. It’s just too easy. Hitler has to be punished for what he did. He can’t just step away at the very last moment. That isn't right.”
“It’s not your place to say who God will choose to save.”
“And nothing I did in life ever counts? I wasted my time by being nice to people?”
“It wasn’t wrong to bring kindness into the world, but as I keep saying, you can’t earn your way into heaven. Your sins will bar you from being with God. Faith in Christ is your only hope.”
“I don’t know. It all seems too loose to me. I’m not sure I buy any of this.”
I'm back at the arch, this time alone. The voice is saying it's over. They've pulled the plug and my heart has stopped. I'm fully dead, and since I've rejected God's offer, He's going to respect my decision. I'm getting to do as I choose. The black wall instantly swallows me.
It's cold and clammy and smells rancid. Except for not choking, it's like I'm submerged in motor oil. It's totally black, like in a cave, and there's nothing outside me to trigger my senses. I can just move around if I try, but it takes so much effort I know not to bother. I also wonder if anyone's here? This place's is so deeply silent it almost hurts.
If this is hell then why am I here? I'm not a bad guy, not really. There's plenty of people worse than me. What about Brian Rutledge? He was the one who was doing the punching. I'm only guilty of watching him. How bad is that? It's like all I've done is not meet some impossible standard. I think I'm being misjudged. In my view the standard is wrong.
Sure I'm not perfect but whoever sent me is over-reaching. The punishment ought to fit the crime. This response is way over the top, and anyway, if God is really so loving, He could stand to do better. These challenges are ridiculous. They're only set up for failure. They're just a trap for decent people.
But now I'm here, I know I have to change my situation. Worse yet, I find I've started obsessing, becoming stressed out. I guess that's because I'm forced to live entirely inside my head. I know the panicking has to stop. I need to calm down. I need to think. There must be a way to get out of here. This can’t last forever, can it….