The last thing I remembered was the gunshot. The intruder killed me, shot me dead. The very next instant I was there, standing in an endless line of human beings. Up ahead was a magnificent throne. Some indescribable being was seated on it, more an effect than a form. I knew he was there, but I couldn’t really see him. He was incapable of being seen. He sees, but he is never seen. I don’t know how I knew that. I just did.
Before the throne stood two men. One directly before the throne; the other off to its right-hand side.
I was frightened, disoriented, confused, dazed, overwhelmed by the whole scene. Desperate to understand my situation, I turned to the man standing behind me in line. “Where am I?” As I looked at him, I noticed the line of humanity stretching all the way to the horizon.
“You are at the last judgment,” he said. “We are in line to stand before our creator and be judged for the lives that we lived during our time on the earth.”
Just then, a tall, confident man came strolling along the line from his place much closer to the front. “Do you know what day today would be if we were still alive upon the earth?” he asked me, stopping and looking directly at me.
“The day of my funeral?” I asked tentatively.
“Easter,” he said loudly. “It is rather appropriate that we should come before God to be judged on Easter day, don’t you think?”
“Why is that?” I asked, terribly afraid that the very question might get me in some sort of trouble. I had heard of Easter, of course, but I didn’t really know much about it. My background had been as non-Christian as was possible in twentieth-century America. “Why is it appropriate that we should be judged on Easter?”
“Very simple,” he said. “Those of us who will be granted eternal life today will be granted it for one and only one reason—Easter!”
“So, what happened on Easter?” I asked sheepishly. I saw no need to hide the fact that I was a totally ignorant non-Christian.
“You don’t know?” the man asked. “I am Dr. Knoworthy, Dr. John Knoworthy. I studied the Bible for fifty-five years before I died. I can probably answer any questions you might have about what is going on here today. Feel free to ask away. I can see that you are a fellow American from the twenty-first century.” He reached out his hand to shake mine. “What is your name?”
“Jack,” I said.
He reached out his hand to the man just behind me in the line, “And what is your name?”
The man answered him, but I couldn’t make out what name he gave. He added, “I am afraid I am from a very different time and place in history from the two of you.”
Dr. Knoworthy turned back to me, “So, you want to know what happened on Easter and why that is so significant? Easter is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” He turned and pointed to the man standing just to the side of the throne up ahead. “That’s Jesus right up there.”
I had seen a couple of pictures of Jesus during my life. The man by the throne didn’t look anything like his pictures.
“Not a single person in this line deserves to be granted eternal life. The only way any one of us is going to get it is if Jesus intercedes for us. If Jesus wants us in his kingdom, then we will be there. If he doesn’t, we won’t. God is the one up there on the throne deciding our fate. But he has delegated the right to determine what our destiny will be to Jesus. So, if Jesus wants us to have life, we’ll be granted life. If he doesn’t want us to have life, we won’t be granted life. It’s as simple as that.”
Something was transpiring at the foot of the throne. I focused my attention on the proceeding. They were quite a distance away, but I could hear them like they were right in front of me.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the unseen being spoke from the throne.
“Sir, I don’t see why you think you have the right to judge me. I think it is for me, for us, to judge you. You have caused so much suffering over the course of human history—it is you who should be held to account. If you condemn me, that is just one more act of cruelty. From my perspective, you are the evil one, not me. So I don’t care what you do with me. I don’t think you have the right to judge at all.”
The unseen judge addressed the man on his right, “Jesus, what do you have to say?”
“Father, I do not choose this man for the eternal kingdom.”
“So be it,” said the judge, addressing the man before him. “By your own words I judge you. Since you do not care what I do with you, I will give you the condemnation you deserve. Go to your condemnation.”
Two beings that I took to be angels led the man away toward a door on the left-hand of the throne.
“I am really in deep…” I stopped. I felt a very heavy sense of disappointment come over me. If only I had got my stuff together earlier. I had reached a turning point in my life just before I died. I had lived a messy and immoral life. Murder, violence, women, drugs. You name it, my life was filled with it. My life was full of crap. I saw that so clearly just before I was murdered. I was in the motel room that night, flopped out on the bed. In my desperation, I cried out to God, “God, I am a mess. I have completely wasted my life. I don’t know what to do. I just want to be different. Please, God, let me be different, make me good. Make me a different kind of man.” The very moment I had said that, the motel room door burst open and the intruder shot me dead. I don’t know which of my enemies got me, but God knows I deserved it. If only I had had more time. I groaned.
Dr. Knoworthy attempted to comfort me, “No, my friend. You are not beyond hope, as you seem to think. That is the good news of the Christian faith. No matter how evil a person is, he can be met with mercy if Jesus wants him to receive it. Jesus will request mercy from God for every one who belongs to him.”
“But I didn’t have enough time to belong to him,” I suggested.
“Nevertheless, Jesus can still speak for you. He can still ask God to grant mercy,” Dr. Knoworthy assured me.
“But what’s to say God will grant mercy just because Jesus asks for it?” I asked.
“Well, like I said, that is the good news part of the Good News. And that is why Easter is such a big deal. The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead is proof positive that God is, as he himself put it, “well pleased” with his Son. The Bible goes on to explain that because God is “well-pleased” with the Son, God will grant mercy to any person whom the Son chooses to have in his kingdom. If Jesus has your back, you cannot lose! Precisely that is the good news for everyone who believes in and follows Jesus. And precisely that is the joy of Easter.”
Just, then, the next man in line approached the throne for judgment.
“I doubt if this next man is going to be granted Life,” Dr. Knoworthy confided. “I did, however, counsel him what he ought to say. I told him to simply acknowledge his unworthiness and look to Jesus for mercy. Who knows? Maybe it is not too late for him.”
I focused again on the proceedings before the throne.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the unseen judge said from the throne.
“Sir, I agree with the last guy. I don’t see why you think you have the right to judge me. You have caused inexcusable suffering among us over the course of human history. It is you who should be judged, not I. I don’t think you have the right to judge me at all. So, I don’t care what you do with me. It is unfair in any case.”
A very strange look came over the man’s face. He looked like someone who had just made a very serious mistake and knew it. Dr. Knoworthy looked surprised as well. “Why didn’t he do as I told him?” he asked, mostly to himself.
But the man behind us answered his query, “God will not allow himself to be bullshitted. When you stand before God in judgment, only your sincere attitudes and beliefs can be expressed. You can resolve ahead of time that you will say what you think God wants to hear, but that isn’t what will come out of your mouth. What will come out is what you truly think and believe in your core.”
The judge invited Jesus to weigh in, “Jesus, what do you have to say?”
“Father, I do not choose this man for my kingdom.”
“So be it,” God said. “I give you the condemnation you deserve. Go to your condemnation.”
Once again, two angels led the man away toward the door on God’s left.
Yet another man was led before the throne.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” God said from the throne.
“Sir, I think I probably am not acceptable to you. I think you probably find me unworthy of everlasting life in your kingdom. I would like to say something in my own defense, though. I am caught off guard here a little. You see, I have never given a whole lot of thought to theology or religion or anything of that sort. I have just been more interested in other things. So, I come before you rather ill-prepared. I don’t really know what you want or expect. I mean, I tried to be good my whole life. I tried to help people and make their lives better. Now I did some bad things, mind you. I’m not saying I’m perfect or anything like that. But if you wanted more from me than I gave, I just don’t know what that would have been or how I would have done it. Really, I don’t actually care to think about the stuff that concerns you; it kinda bores me, really. I had many other things I was interested in during my life. So, I just kinda didn’t have a lot of time to get to know you and what you wanted from me.”
“Jesus, what do you have to say?” the judge asked.
“Father, you have taught me that the kingdom is for those who long to know and serve you. I cannot accept this man into the eternal kingdom.”
“So be it, since you have shown no interest in knowing and serving me, I deny you access to the kingdom where all will know me and serve me forever. I give you the condemnation you deserve. Go to your condemnation.”
Next a woman was led to the judge.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” God said from the throne.
“Your Majesty, I know that I deserve condemnation. I am a broken and flawed person. I am not worthy of life in your kingdom. And I can now see how important Jesus is to your decision with regard to me. I have not been a follower of Jesus, your Majesty, but I was always open to believing in him. The only reason I did not commit to following him is that there were so many problems, so many unanswered questions, so many reasons to be uncertain. I read books about how the accounts concerning Jesus were all fiction and legend. And since I didn’t see his life and death and resurrection for myself, I just didn’t know for sure. I was so afraid of making a mistake that it just seemed better to not make a rash commitment. I didn’t think it would be responsible to commit to something I was not sure was true. So, in my own defense, I was a very open-minded person my whole life. I never disrespected Jesus or those who followed him. I just think that a person should always remain open to different points of view.”
“Jesus, what is your pleasure?” the judge asked.
“Father, you taught me that the kingdom is for those who are so committed to being in your kingdom that they would give up all else to lay hold of it. This woman does not belong in your eternal kingdom. She does not want it with all her heart.”
“So be it. Since you lacked any desire for the kingdom that would compel you to search out the truth and commit to it, your declared openness to it is of no account. I deny you access to the eternal kingdom, where all will know me and serve me without reservation forever. I give you the condemnation you deserve. Go to your condemnation.”
I was shocked at the scene I had just witnessed. She seemed like such a nice lady. Condemnation? How was there any hope for me? I turned to my two newfound friends, “Why is she being blamed for not being able to sort out the truth from the lies? That seems harsh to me. If she honestly couldn’t be sure what was actually true, why was she expected to commit to it?”
The man from behind me answered, “There are two things that lead to uncertainty. One is not having enough of the right kind of information. God would never blame someone for not committing to what they could never know. The other thing is lack of real desire. Sometimes we lack the information we need because we aren’t interested enough to search it out. If the reason a person does not come to have enough of the right kind of information is because he never even attempted to acquire it, then that is damnable. That must be the case with that woman. She called it openness to what is true. But in actuality it must have been an unwillingness to seek for it and discover what is true. Open-mindedness can be the mask worn by a very foolish person. It can be the badge of one who, in reality, does not actually care enough to come to a conviction about what is true. Such a fool is damnable, however much he may be praised by all his friends.”
As the next person approached the judgment throne, Dr. Knoworthy leaned toward me and spoke softly, “We will see how well this next woman was listening to my teaching. She sat under my Bible teaching for decades.”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” God said from the throne.
The woman responded, “Sir, I know that I deserve condemnation. I am weak, flawed, disobedient, double-minded—you name it—I have failed in every way. I do not deserve life in your kingdom. But, your Majesty, I believe that I will have an advocate. Sir, I have been a follower of your Son, Jesus, for several decades now. I have hardly missed a week of Dr. Knoworthy’s teaching of the Bible. They tell me that Dr. Knoworthy understands the Bible and the gospel better than anyone around. I have eagerly listened to what he has to say for many years. I am sure that what he has taught is true. So, I believe I have done what one must do to receive mercy. I know that it is the faithful student of your revealed word who will receive mercy. I believe I am such a student.”
“Jesus, what do you have to say?” God inquired.
“Father, the fact is that I have not chosen this woman for my kingdom. She has, in truth, embraced the truth about me with her mind; but she has not lived the truth.”
The woman immediately broke in to object, “But, Jesus, I went to church regularly. I served you in every way I knew how to serve you. I have always presumed that I belonged to you, that I was your disciple. How can it be that you will not speak on my behalf?”
“I never chose you. You were never mine.”
“But how can that be? How have I not lived the truth?”
Jesus looked up and gazed into her eyes. It was a look of love, but it was a stern look at the same time. She became very quiet and a look of horror came over her.
God spoke, “Very well, I deny you access to the kingdom. Go to your condemnation.”
“What just happened there?” I asked.
Dr. Knoworthy responded, “It is always possible for a human being to grasp the theory of the gospel intellectually without making a personal, inward commitment to actually live his or her life in the light of its truth. One can articulate the gospel with the utmost precision and yet not really own it and embrace it with his whole being. The one who authentically embraces it will actually live his life as one who believes it and as one who has invested his existence in its truth. It is easy to deceive oneself and others into thinking he believes the truth of the gospel because he can so easily and readily talk about it and reason from it accurately. But, alas, that is not enough. One must live like one who believes the gospel, not merely philosophize like one who understands gospel theory.
The man behind me interjected politely, “Well said, Dr. Knoworthy.”
“God knows things about that woman that we would have no way of knowing,” added Dr. Knoworthy. “Like Jesus said, the woman did not actually live the truth. She seemed to realize this truth the minute she looked into Jesus’ eyes.”
It finally hit me. How could there be an ounce of hope for me if all of these people stood condemned? I sunk into a deep sense of hopelessness. Dr. Knoworthy excused himself and went back to take his place in line. I remained silent, sensing my doom was approaching. There followed a long string of individuals standing before God to be judged. Every one of them received condemnation; and, with each new sentence of condemnation, my hopelessness grew deeper and deeper. I groaned. The man behind me reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder, “You’ll be alright,” he said.
I became immediately aware that it was now Dr. Knoworthy’s turn before the throne.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” God said from the throne once again.
“O! Eternal Triune Majesty, I am the greatest of sinners. I am worthy of nothing but condemnation. Almighty God, I have no other hope than the advocacy of my lord, the eternal Son, Jesus, the Christ. I stand here presuming that Jesus will ask you to show me mercy. That is the truth upon which I rest.”
The minute the words came out of Dr. Knoworthy’s mouth, he knew that he had damned himself. “I stand here presuming?” he muttered under his breath. “How could you possibly say, ‘I stand here presuming’? You know better than that, you fool.”
God ignored his muttering and turned to Jesus, “Jesus, what do you have to say?”
“Father, I have not chosen this man for my kingdom. While his intellectual comprehension is exceedingly great, he does not really understand. You have taught me that it is the unassuming who will inherit the eternal kingdom. You intend to give it to those who presume that nothing is owed to them. This man is not unassuming. He presumes that the kingdom belongs to him. Such presumption is contrary to the spirit you want from those who belong to you.”
Dr. Knoworthy erupted, “How dare you deny me the kingdom? I have spent my whole life preparing for this day. Damn you, Jesus. I deserve better than this.”
God pronounced judgment, “Since you have never understood the depth of your own unworthiness and the profundity of the mercy that Jesus has offered you, you clearly do not belong to him. Go to your condemnation.”
“Whoa! What just went down there?” I asked the man behind me with urgency. “Did you see that coming?”
“Actually, I sort of did,” he responded sadly.
“Sooner or later, our words will betray our real beliefs and attitudes. Do you remember one of the first things he said to you? He said, ‘Those of us who will be granted eternal life today will be granted it for one and only one reason. Easter.’ I thought at the time that the way he phrased it was rather revealing. He was full of presumption. He was presuming from the get-go that God would grant him Life. His confidence seems to have been based on his years of Bible study. He thought he deserved mercy. If anyone was going to get mercy, it was going to be him. That kind of presumption is contrary to the spirit of the true heir of Life. I fear I suspected what was coming.”
Now I was more hopeless than ever. “Everyone is being condemned. No one is getting mercy,” I complained.
The man responded, “Jesus himself taught us that the way to destruction is wide. The way to eternal Life is exceedingly narrow; and very few pass that way. He told us. He said it out loud. But no one takes it very seriously. I know from personal experience. I was a teacher too. In my experience, it was easy enough to intrigue people with the truth. But very few of them stayed with it over the long haul.”
I silently awaited my fate for several agonizingly long minutes until it was finally my turn to be judged. The man behind me tried to comfort me, “I think you’ll be fine. What you say will reveal the true beliefs and desires of your heart.” Two angels led me before the throne.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the unseen being said from the throne. I still could not see any form. But I felt keenly that he could see me; he could see right through me. I dared not look up. I just gazed at the ground in front of me.
“My creator,” I said, “I have nothing to say really. I know that you can grant me mercy if you choose. But I know that if you do not choose to do so, you will be right and good not to do so. I more than fully deserve any condemnation that you might give me. So, I fully accept whatever you decide. I know that your judgment will be wise and just.”
God turned to Jesus. My heart was beating hard and fast. “Jesus, what do you have to say?”
“Father, I want this man in my kingdom. I ask that you might grant him mercy. Please don’t give him destruction, though he deserves it. Please grant him everlasting life in my kingdom.”
“So be it, my friend,” God said to me. “Please enter into the eternal kingdom of my beloved Son.”
I was stunned. I was overjoyed. I was dizzy with delight.
As I was being escorted toward the door on the right-hand side of the throne, I heard the angel call to the man who had been behind me in line, “Saul of Tarsus, the one also known as Paul, please take your place before the judge.”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” God said to Paul.
Paul answered, “Father, I have nothing to say in my defense. I would be delighted to receive your mercy. I long to know you, to serve you, and to serve your Son in the eternal kingdom. But your judgment is wise and just. I know that if you do not grant me mercy, I only get what I truly deserve. I fully accept whatever you decide. You are not answerable to me or to any man.”
“Jesus, what is your pleasure?” God asked.
“Father, I want this man in my kingdom. I ask that you grant him mercy.”
“So be it, my friend,” God said to Paul. “Please enter into the everlasting kingdom of my Son.”
I lagged behind, waiting for Paul to catch up with me. I turned to speak to him, but he read my mind. “I am here on the same basis as you, Jack. God could make a camel his apostle. Being an apostle is not something I did for God. Being an apostle is something God gave to me.”
“Wow,” I thought. “There was so much I didn’t know. So much I didn’t understand. But even though I knew nothing, God gave me everything. And with just a simple word from Jesus. No wonder we are supposed to think of Jesus as a heroic rescuer.”
Just then I smelt a cup of coffee under my nose. “Wake up, Jack! It’s Easter. We have to hide the jelly beans for the grandchildren.”