It had been a really long time since I’d seen Jesus Christ, but he hadn’t much changed.  The robe, the hair, the beard, those eyes, sure;  though it was the presence, the glow, that made him unmistakable.  Light seemed to burst out from inside of him, and all the light that was already outside of him seemed to rush right back at him in the same instant, and then it just sort of struck you: this guy -- this guy is the light.

“Judas!” he said, giving me a big hug, “Just the man I’ve been looking for!”

“Forget it, I am not going to betray you and go through that whole nightmare again, no matter how many times you ask,” I said.

“Now, in fairness, I didn’t exactly ask you to get me crucified, did I?” said Jesus Christ.

“You knew, you expected, you wanted it.  How else were you going to make your point?  And my point is that you could have stopped me.  A hint, a sermon, a word to the wise.  Or, you could have just ducked out in time, for God’s sake.  Instead, I sell my soul for a few silver coins and have one hell of a time buying it back.” 

“I know it was particularly difficult for you, but I heard your prayers... and your redemption came true.” said Jesus.

“Glory be,” said I, waving my arms absently at the heaven that surrounded us as far as eyes could see and then beyond.

“You’re not liking it here?” asked Jesus.

“You know how I feel about it. You know exactly how I feel about it. You know exactly how I feel about everything. Because, you already know everything about everything. You and God, your Father. You know and we don’t, so we’ve got to be the ones to ask the questions, and there’s no point in us answering yours. Am I right?” I said.

And Jesus Christ smiled that beatific smile of his. “I understand you’ve been a little bored of late,” he said.

“Let’s say I’m insufficiently challenged,” I suggested, “No temptation, no moral cross-roads, that sort of thing.”

“You are not the first to complain,” said Jesus, “so we’ve come up with a plan.  It’s something Lucifer suggested before the fall.  Prescient angel, that Lucifer.  Maybe if we’d listened...”  For a moment, Jesus was wistful, and then:  “But, change the past and you change the present, and we certainly can’t want that, can we?  I mean, we are in heaven.”

“What’s the plan?” I asked.

“Over there -- see Peter at the gates?”  Jesus pointed, and my gaze followed.  And down there, at the entrance to heaven, stood Peter in front of not one but two gates.  Snaking away and out into the blue twilight around the gates was a queue of people waiting their turns for an audience with Peter and a pass into the Kingdom of God.

“Two gates now?  To handle the overflow, is that it?”

“No, something even better,” said Jesus, glee crinkling his eyes, “but I want to know what you think.”

“Like I’m going to disagree with Jesus Christ Almighty,” I said under my breath.

“I heard that,” said Jesus. “Just observe, please.”

I nodded. It wasn’t like my old friend was asking for anything out of line, so why was I feeling so annoyed?  Maybe because I remembered all too well how he could suck you in with a simple request like let’s promote peace on Earth and good will to men, and, faster than you could turn water to wine, the next thing you knew a Roman Legion and an entire population of chosen people were chasing you across the desert. 

“I’m observing,” I said. 

Down below, Peter signaled the Man at the head of the queue to come forward.

“I am honored.  Honored and humbled,” said the Man, bowing to Peter.

“Didn’t think you’d ever really make it here, did you?” suggested Peter.

“No, I suppose not,” said the Man.

“And now you’re surprised and perhaps more than a little worried to find that there are two gates rather than one?” asked Peter.

“I trust in God,” said the Man.

“Good answer,” said Peter, “Now here’s the thing:  through one gate you will find absolutely everything you could ever want;  and, through the other, absolutely everything you so richly deserve. Your pick.”

The Man seemed stunned, unsure of the meaning of any of this. “Wants ... and desserts?  But which is behind which?  Through which gate do I choose to pass?”  The Man was beginning to stammer when Peter broke in:

“I fear you may be missing the point, perhaps.  Think now. Take your time. We have all eternity of course, but the queue is getting longer as we speak.”

The Man’s eyes were wide with a terror heretofore unknown in heaven.  He was momentarily incapable of both speech and thought.  And I turned to Jesus:

“This is a bit cruel, don’t you think?” I suggested.  But Jesus was actually laughing:

“Oh, come on, it’s not like we’ve asked him to run the equations for relativistic mechanics or explain the balk rule.  He just needs to remember why he’s here, and he’s in.  Look -- ” Jesus pointed as the Man was regaining his wits.

“Alright, Peter, alright, I appreciate this is some sort of a test -- ” said the Man.

“No test,” said Peter, “it’s just that heaven ought not to be what I perceive as the best available accommodation for you, it really ought to be what you want or deserve.  My staff and I shouldn’t really be a part of the determination at all.  Don’t you think?”

“And yet you know what I would want or deserve, and you’ve already placed it behind the gates?” said the Man in an accusatory tone.

“Did I say that?” asked Peter. “No, I think not. In fact, I am certain not. You are entirely and directly responsible for each and every thing that will await you behind either gate.”

“Ah,” said the Man, “so the benefits of my fate are not yet set? Whatever I decide now, right now -- what I want and what I deserve -- that will determine what I shall find behind the gates?”

“Indeed. Much can happen in the transit from salvation on Earth to arrival at the gates of heaven. Your wants and desserts may be very different  from what you intended or expected. So now you appreciate the fluid beauty of our new two gate system, yes?” said Peter.

“Humbled and honored as I was before, I am even more so now,” said the Man, “This is really more incredible and fabulous than I could have imagined.  You are quite right that, at the moment I was blessed with redemption, I gave myself over to God but nonetheless had not yet seen myself in His eyes, had not yet defined my wants and desserts in His terms.”

“And now?” asked Peter.

“I have a glimmer. Maybe more. But as yet I do not know which gate is which, and through but one should I pass. You must give me a glimpse behind the gates -- if redemption means anything, it means I have the right to make the right choice.” The Man eyed Peter.

“So much for your terrific new plan,” I said to Jesus.

“Ye of little faith,” he scolded me.

And now Peter looked up to us and shrugged.  He was staring right at Jesus.  “Now what?” asked Peter.

Jesus nodded acquiescence and blinked his eyes, just once but quite hard.  And heaven went dark with the blink, and light surged behind the gates, backlighting and revealing what lay in wait there.

It was but an instant, but the length of the blink of an eye, and the images will be forever seared in my mind.

Behind one gate, faces, dozens of faces, human faces, silent screaming faces in hideous torment, suffering from a pain and an anguish that derives from the excoriation of the soul, from incurable damage and fetid scarring by the talons of darkness itself.  If there were a single photo of the meaning of “unholy”, these horrified, beseeching, shrill, wailing faces were that snapshot, a picture that made you instinctively cover not your eyes but your ears so you could not hear the inexorable beating throb of evil.

And, behind the second gate, the exact same image.

And then it was all gone and blue heaven returned and I realized that my mouth was agape and gurgling.

“Shh,” said Jesus, indicating for me to watch the scene below.

The Man cast his eyes downward, sighed long, and then spoke slowly:  “It is as I expected, Peter.  For I am not proud of how I lived, no matter that I was pleased with how I left.” And now the Man looked purposefully into Peter’s eyes: “At the moment of truth, what we want will always be what we deserve, isn’t that so? I see that now. I therefore choose neither gate. My wants and desserts are of no consequence. I am compelled to return to the time before my redemption, to find a way to stop myself from inflicting pain, or, failing that, to find a way to ease the suffering caused by others.  Do I have this option, Peter?”

“Technically, you have not yet passed through the gate unto heaven.  You may go back to face what you were, if that is your choice,” said Peter matter-of-factly. “But, there is no promise you will ever return here. Understand that.”

“Send me back,” said the Man. “It is what I want and what I deserve, not that I am yet entitled to either.”

“Good luck, my friend,” said Peter.

“I will wash the blood from my hands, and find my way to these gates again,” said the Man, “I swear it!”

Peter made the sign of the cross in the wide air in front of the man:  “Your personal road to hell was always masked by good intentions.  Off you go now.”

And the Man simply disappeared like he’d never been there.

Now Peter looked to the person at the head of the queue -- a Woman:  “Next!” said Peter.

“Wow!” I said to Jesus Christ, “Well, you’ve addressed one of my big complaints, that’s for sure.”

“Meaning what exactly?” asked Jesus.

“Too many monsters in heaven.  Sure they were redeemed, but they always give me the willies.  All kinds of creeps and criminals.  At least now there’s one less serial killer amongst us.” I said.

“Serial killer?  The Man who just went back down?” asked Jesus.

“Yeah.  Didn’t you see all the faces of his victims.  It was awful.  And his comment about the blood on his hands?  Ugh.  The Man knew that all he wanted and all he deserved was to face his victims again, to atone to them rather than for them, like he can really make up for the slaughter -- please!  So, better there than here, I say.  Let’s keep the thankless tasks back down on Earth.  Good riddance, Mr. Serial Killer.” I smiled but nonetheless could not avoid an involuntary and rather disconcerting shudder.

“I’ll have to check with Peter, of course, but I didn’t think that Man was a serial killer at all,” said Jesus quietly.  “And while everything you noted comports almost exactly with what I observed, I am concerned that you did not see that the Man in question was in fact a priest.  Yes, definitely.  A priest.  Not a serial killer.  Judas, really!”

Now I was speechless, and I’m never speechless.  I wanted to argue with Jesus, but if I didn’t argue then I could pretend he wasn’t right, and I really needed him not to be right just then, not about this.  So I changed the subject:

“Regardless,” I said, “I will concede that this new ‘do-over’ business is nothing short of brilliant, Jesus.  What a great idea!  Forget about you ever going back, we’ll send all them back instead!”

But, instead of smiling with the expected gratitude, Jesus grew somber, and he averted my eyes.  The pit of my stomach did a loop-de-loop.  I knew what had to be coming.

“I do have to go back, Judas. And you, too. You guessed it when I sought you out today.”

“Christ, when? When do we go back?” I asked, another question to which I knew I knew the answer. “Why now?”

“It’s just the right time. Time to try another old notion of Lucifer’s.  Reverse psychology.  Instead of preaching what should be, I will indulge mankind in what they think they want, and then they will learn how horribly wrong it is.” said Jesus.

“What in hell are you talking about?” I asked.

With that, Jesus Christ blinked long and hard, as he had done previously, and all the light went away, and when it came back on, he looked different.  His hair was shorn and straight, oiled dark, his beard trimmed down to a silly little square moustache that seemed to be tickling his nostrils into a sneeze, his robe become a crisp brown shirt with sash, a pistol on his hip, grand boots on his feet, and swastika bands on his arms.

Incredibly, I was dressed much the same.

“Mankind is not wise,” said Jesus, “They have no vision, only the hard lessons of sour experience.  I misunderstood this on my first visit.  This time I will not preach love, rather I will deliver hate.  Then they will learn.  The time is ripe.”

“Reverse psychology?” I said, running the perplexing terminology over my tongue.

“I am to be a failed painter named Adolf Hitler. And this time I will take the entire world by storm, by thunder and lightning, by sturm und drang, by blitzkrieg!  I will be a God, a God with a gun.”

“Jesus, you’re sure this will work?” I asked.

“It’s the next step, yes.” he said.

“And I am?”

“Hess. Rudolf Hess. And, as you must, you will betray me,” said Jesus Christ.

And I had to laugh. “But this time when I do so, I’ll become the good guy!  Lead on, my Lord, I can’t wait for this one!”

I patted Jesus on the back, and I was still laughing as we dropped from heaven. 


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