I was walking to my next class, making way toward the Washington Avenue Bridge. It’s a long bridge, spanning the width of the Mississippi river to connect East and West bank campuses. The path is a wide berth, closed in by rails and lamp posts at even distances. If you stand on one end you can only just make out what lies on the other. Beneath the bridge, the river flows on, uncaring of the path above. You can sometimes hear the water rush; you can always hear the wind blowing. Once you start across this bridge, there is nothing to be done but continue on. No diverging paths. No distractions. You walk in a straight line until you reach the end. This bridge was my path.
It was on this bridge that I met Ben.
He approached me just before the start with a question. Something like, “Do you think you’re going to heaven?” One of those religious missionaries, I thought. Maybe one of the type that like to remind us that we’re all terrible beings and there is surely a fiery eternity to be spent in payment for our current behavior. I responded that I really wasn’t sure; I didn’t think that the judgement was mine to make. He started talking about Hell, about how there was this evil place awaiting us all if we don’t accept Jesus as our savior. Not only that, but now I was his captive for the duration of our walk across this bridge.
Now, I’m not entirely convinced of the idea that there is a cauldron of molten souls just under the Earth’s crust, and that surely is where we will go when we die. Although, Hell very well might exist, but the typical representation doesn’t quite make sense to me. Nor does the idea of a ledger-book in which every one of our deeds are recorded and weighed to determine the binary decision of our new eternal home.
The best description I’ve heard about Hell came from a book called What Dreams May Come, also adapted into a film. The idea goes something like this: when we die, we lose our bodies. Sure. We lose our connection to material reality and become more of a drifting conscious entity. As you become more familiar with your new mode of being, the world starts to make a little more sense again. You have complete control over your surroundings. You can do things like fly or make it so the environment around you has been painted. What ever can be imagined can be incarnated.
The new souls in this immaterial plane discover that even though they died, they haven’t met God. They haven’t received transcendent wisdom about the true nature of being. In fact, they’re as much on their own to create a sense of meaning and purpose as they were with bodies. On top of that, in this heaven, there are still problems! They have to figure out issues like how do we bloody reincarnate and is there a way to communicate to the material world again and how do we find God? And the most interesting of problems, how do we save those who have created Hell?
You see, those unworthy that die aren’t “sent” to Hell. Not precisely. Rather, they construct it of their own accord. Those that commit suicide, for instance, were in such a dark state of being when they died that their tortured mind constructs it’s own prison. It envisions a scenario which is even more dreary than their material life, and there is no convincing them that they have the power to change it. For in life, the only power they had at change was to prematurely end it, and so in death their powerlessness remains. Only, just as in life, perhaps there is a way to overcome their suffering, if they only believed it.
Likewise, those who lie and cheat and kill and steal construct worlds that reflect their own guilt or corrupted worldview. A malformed mind given absolute power over the universe constructs a malformed reality. And isn’t that just the way it is? Even in life, people are so capable of creating true Hell for themselves. They can make themselves miserable, and to a person not trapped in their Hell it seems so silly. Just decide to stop falling! we say. The law of gravity forbids that, they reply. It’s not clear who is correct.
I told Ben about this idea. He didn’t think much of it. No supreme judgement? That’s folly, he thought. What about Hitler? he asked me. Surely a person so evil as that deserves not to be in the same place as you or me….or at least as an innocent child. Maybe, I thought, but it’s really not up to me to give judgement, much less to a person I’ve never met. Maybe Hitler deserves to burn in Hell, I just don’t know.
Disgruntled by my refusal to take his baiting questions, he started reciting bible verses. He knew them by heart. He’d said them many times. In watching him, I saw that he’d had this same conversation before who knows how many times. He had this look in his eye. The look of a cashier who’s had the same sale interactions forty times a day for the last five years. A person who is reciting lines that may have once been exciting and new to say but have now lost meaning to them. They’ve become a habit. A well trodden path that one takes because it is familiar and comfortable. His eyes were not shining when he spoke the word of God. He was dead.
We weren’t yet half way across the bridge. It seemed this conversation would go on this way. He would recite verses at me. I would do my best to listen, but inevitably zone out. I’d block out his voice. I’d ignore his message. This same thing had happened to him dozens of times, it’s just how it goes. In this interaction, he gets to convince himself that he is a martyr spreading the Word to a lost people who perhaps cannot be saved, and I get to put up more walls to approaching strangers and religious types. He gets to think he’s tried his best to do good, and I get to cement my world views and give myself more reason not to talk to people. On top of that, I’m held captive by this impossibly long bridge, so it’s not like I have any choice in the matter. Then we both carry on our way.
It had happened dozens of times, why not one more?
I looked ahead across the bridge. I still could barely make out the other side. This would be a long walk, but if I just kept my head down and let him talk I could make it to the other side. I’d have done him a courtesy, not upset anyone, and then I could go to class. Only, the other side was still a long way away.
“Hey Ben,” I said, stopping. “Do you really believe any of what you’re telling me?” He cut off his speech, shocked. “I mean really. Because I don’t see it in your eyes. I don’t think that you mean any of what you tell me.” He stammered some, so I continued, trying to offer support. “The way I see it, what you’ve got in your hands is the best news that the world has ever received. There is an afterlife, and we have a chance at making it to paradise when we die. All we have to do is ask for forgiveness and we get an eternity of bliss? That’s wonderful! That’s a powerful thing for a person to know. A person that knew that must be so filled with joy and purpose and meaning. They must never fret about the daily struggles because they know that it is in heaven that they will find an eternity of love. I bet they would want to share that news with the whole world!
“Only, the way I see you, that’s not the case. I have a hard time believing what you are telling me because I can’t see that you believe it. Not truly.”
After a pause, he replied, “It’s true that I often pray that I had more zeal in my belief. I pray that I can be more effective in spreading the News.” I saw something flicker in his eyes, something that told me he meant this. He very likely struggled with his own doubts. Perhaps he was frustrated that he couldn’t convey to people his faith.
After considering his situation. I started to empathize with him. “I bet it’s really difficult. Here you’ve got this wonderful belief backing you, and so many people simply ignore your message.” He told me about how he wished that he just had a truckload of money so that people would pay attention and see the value of what he was talking about. Maybe then things would be easier. If you could just pay people to listen. “I don’t think you need money, Ben. Just engage with people openly and honestly, like we are doing now. Reciting verses at people won’t actually help you spread salvation as you see it. If you want people to listen, you’re going to have to genuinely engage with them, and maybe do some listening yourself.”
He looked me in the eye now, and I returned it. We had reached this sort of agreement that we would both be present. We would listen to the other and then speak honestly. We eradicated the rote barrier that defined our roles as preacher and victim. In its place were two boys at the end of a long bridge that didn’t know a thing about how the world worked or what we’re here for. We simply knew that we’d ask questions and give honest answers to shine a little more light onto the world.
We paused at the end of the Washington Avenue bridge, and he said to me “Thank you.”
“Take care, Ben,” I said and walked to class.
I saw Ben a couple weeks later. When I walked by him he approached me and said, “Do you think you’re going to heaven?”
“Long time no see, huh Ben?” It took a few seconds before a look of recognition to wash over him.
“Oh….uh, we’ve already spoken, haven’t we?….” He paused, unsure of what to say. “Well, have a good day.” And the martyr went in search of different sacrificial ear.