Christian apologists have long used theological fantasy to engage the reader in speculating on points of the faith that can be difficult to discuss in didactic form. When I first published the narrative below, a reader told me it reminded him of The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. Although I have created an homage to Lewis's work in the past, I did not consciously set out to do so this time.
While reading, please keep in mind that this is fiction, and characters in fiction can at times behave in ways that an author doesn't plan. When I created Dolores and Nick, I had certain ends in mind for them, which you may be able to guess by the names I gave them. But by the time I got to the end of their story, they had surprised me—and they may have ended up surprised themselves. . . .
The line forms
I opened my eyes to a line. A line that snaked back and forth, seemingly endlessly. Longer than the ones for Space Mountain or LAX, certainly. But it was moving well, so I relaxed and decided to make friends with the people around me. After all, we were going to be together for a long time.
"What brings you?" I asked a man in early middle-age. He didn't look the part of someone who would be here.
He shrugged. "Just one of those things. You go to sleep one night and you wake up here."
Yeah, I knew how that was. I turned to an elderly woman on my other side. "And you?"
"Oh, I was ready. Prepared all my life, you could say," she said with a laugh.
My own reason for being here was not much different from either of theirs. It was sudden, but I was ready to be here. I'd gone to Mass every Sunday, confession once a month. And now all three of us were awaiting our turn to be processed into eternity.
I took a look at the line around us. There were a lot of old people, some middle-aged. I was surprised that there were only a few young people and no small children. Of course, who knew what the line had looked like before I entered into it? That the line was filled with those who had lived their lives already was to be expected, I guessed.
Over the loudspeaker
Suddenly, a speaker hidden somewhere overhead snapped on. "Is there anyone here willing to give up their place in line for some new arrivals? If so, raise your hand and an attendant will show you the exit."
Huh? Give up my place in line? Was this some kind of trick? I glanced around. A number of people held up their hands, waving frantically. Some of them were covered in blood, as if their last moments were as sudden as mine but they had not been prepared. There were other volunteers, some raising their hands hesitantly. Attendants seemed to appear from nowhere, guiding each and every one of them to exits. As they left, new arrivals took their places.
I glanced at my new friends. The woman looked vaguely uncomfortable, but resolute. The man spoke up first.
"Maybe St. Peter has ways of cutting down his workload," he suggested with a smile.
The woman nodded, then added, "If you don't care about your place in line, then I guess you don't belong here."
How late is too late?
Nearby a young woman sobbed quietly. I thought about asking her about her story, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. We'd all be here forever; I'd learn her story soon enough, I imagined. Probably without any prodding on my part.
Before I could think more about it, an elderly man approached her. "You look like my granddaughter," he said. "I wasn't kind to her when she told me she was homosexual, and I'd like to make up for that before I face St. Peter. Are you all right, sweetheart?"
Before either could say more, attendants materialized next to them and said sternly, "Come with us, both of you. You don't belong here." The young woman's sobbing increased, but the elderly man grabbed her hand. "Don't worry, honey, I'll hold onto you and we'll face this together." He paused, then said quietly, "I should have said this to my granddaughter before it was too late."
With that, the attendants disappeared with their charges. The woman next to me, who had been looking hesitant, firmed her lips and sniffed. "When it's too late, it's too late."
Make a hole!
Just then I was shoved from behind. "Make a hole!" someone behind me yelled. "I'm escorting some very important people straight to the gate."
At this announcement, a protest went up. Many people in the line did fall back, but others stood their ground. "No one's getting in ahead of me!" my male friend yelled. But those who fell back had created the hole and the VIP party swept in. Attendants started pulling out of line those who had given right of way.
"That'll teach 'em!" my female friend crowed as she watched those who had fallen back disappear. "We just can't step aside because some people with delusions of grandeur think they're more important and need to be processed before everyone else."
I was puzzled though. Why would Peter allow VIPs to displace people who had been standing in line and waiting their turn? What kind of fairness was that?
The suspicions begin
"There are not as many people left in line now," I said, waving my hand toward those who were left. "Perhaps we should introduce ourselves before we get processed so we can find each other later."
"I'm Nick," the man said. "Had a wife and two kids. We were living the American Dream, I guess you could say. Kate sometimes nagged about having more kids, but we couldn't afford more kids. And, hey, now I'm no longer there, so I guess I was right about that after all."
"Dolores," the woman said. "Church was my life. Made that sanctuary shine with Lemon Pledge and elbow grease. I also mentored younger women, making certain they dressed modestly and knew their place. My husband and I had nine kids before he passed on a few years back."
Suddenly my two new friends started looking at each other suspiciously. Where they had once been friendly and open, they now turned away from each other. Dolores glanced at me, muttered a quick "Excuse me," and moved off—probably in search of people she had more in common with.
"Old bat," Nick muttered. I looked over at him. "Just like my mother; always judging people who don't make the same choices she did." Without another word, he moved off too. I could still see Dolores and Nick from my place in line—hell, there was a lot of room now where once it had been crowded—but I didn't think we'd be friendly again.
The pearly gates
What was left of the line moved closer to the gates. I looked around, curiously, and everything was just as I expected. White wisps filled the air around us, nearly shrouding me so I couldn't see far ahead. As the line moved though, the gates came into view. Yes, just as advertised, golden and pearly. At the entrance was a huge, ornate desk; a book lay open upon its surface and an imposing man behind the desk scowled out at the newcomers.
"Stand back," he snarled. "Don't you see the sign?" I looked down at the front of his desk. Indeed, there was a large signboard, covered in gold script:
For the privacy of our patients, stay behind the designated line until your name is called.
An attendant popped up again and gestured to a waiting area far enough back from the desk so that we could hear nothing. "There," the attendant said curtly. "Your turn will come soon enough."
"Dolores!" barked the man at the desk, and Dolores stepped up. They talked for a while, and Dolores began to look more and more apprehensive. Suddenly the gatekeeper spoke loud enough for all of us to hear.
"Do you think you belong here?" he asked.
Dolores nodded without hesitation. "Yes!"
He handed her an envelope and sent her through the gates.
Nick moved forward and took his place in front of the gatekeeper. Nick gulped visibly, then said, "I have nothing to hide. Ask your questions so I can answer them in front of everyone."
The gatekeeper eyed him speculatively. "Just one question then. Do you have any regrets?"
Nick's bravado disappeared. He hung his head. "I was selfish. All I cared about was getting ahead. If Kate and I had more kids, maybe she'd have more family in the future to help her through the decades ahead."
"I see," the gatekeeper replied, scowling again. "Damn it, you should have shut up. You don't belong here." He bellowed for attendants.
Nick paled. "Wh— what?" he stuttered. "What did I say wrong?"
"Never mind that! I don't have more time for you. Get him out of here, and take him somewhere where he can 'make peace' with his failures," the gatekeeper ordered, snidely emphasizing the words make peace with air quotes and a sing-song voice.
"You!" the gatekeeper roared, pointing at me. "Your turn. Get up here."
This was really Peter? His attitude didn't seem all that saintly. I cleared my throat and asked what was on my mind. "You're Peter?" I didn't ask it too loudly though, remembering Nick's imprudence.
The gatekeeper softened his voice. "No. Peter doesn't want this gig. You've read too many fairy tales. Now, here are your questions.
"One: Why didn't you give up your place in line when we asked for volunteers?"
I shrugged. "I didn't see why I should have to wait any longer than I had to."
The gatekeeper nodded. "Fair enough. Moving on, question two. Was there anyone in line who needed your help?"
The sobbing young woman crossed my mind, but someone else had stepped up, right? "No. What difference would it make if we're already dead?"
"Uh huh. Question three: What about the VIPs?"
"Yeah, what about them?" I snarled. "Why did you allow them to push their way through instead of sending them back to the end of the line? What kind of justice was that?"
"Mmm, hmm. We'll make a note of that," the gatekeeper replied, marking something in his book. "So, what was your life like?"
"Is this an official question or conversation?" Man, was I getting bold or what? "Oh, fine. My life was fine. I did everything I was supposed to and didn't make trouble."
"Okay, final question." Just as he had done for Dolores, the gatekeeper raised his voice, "Do you think you belong here?"
I smiled. A yes here had gotten Dolores through the pearly gates. "Yes!" I bellowed back.
The gatekeeper smiled and lowered his voice again. "Congratulations. You're exactly the kind of person we enjoy having here." He handed me an envelope, just as he had done for Dolores, and said, "Open this after you get through the gates. It will tell you everything you need to know about this place."
The other side of the gates
I snapped the envelope to my brow in a mock salute and then strode through the gates. On the other side, I looked around. Unlike where I'd been, this place didn't look like anything. Or, perhaps, it looked like nothing. No one around to ask either. Well, I'd have eternity to get used to it, and the envelope would give me answers. I ripped it open and pulled out the single page that was inside. Eagerly, I unfolded the paper.
There was one sentence:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here (Dante).
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (7/28/14). It is republished here with permission.