As I followed that beguiling critter to who-knows-where, my mind lazily crept back to my ejection from whatever that place was. Within seconds, a new concern ripped my peace to shreds. What if there are different levels of heaven? (I knew the Bible spoke of a third heaven. I had also heard of a seventh heaven but could not recall whether that is in the Bible.) What if I had been found unworthy of a higher level of heaven and was now banished forever to a lower level?|
I was about to console myself with the thought that surely this endearing place could not be hell, when an alarming possibility shattered any complacency. If I had somehow failed one test and been evicted, could I now face another test with the possibility of being catapulted from here as well? What if I were being subjected to a series of tests that starts at the top and keeps taking me lower and lower until I eventually find the level at which I will remain for all eternity? How far could I fall? Could part of the consequences of failing be that I will have to spend forever remembering the glories of the places of which I was deemed unworthy?
Is this heresy? I asked myself. The details are certainly extra-biblical. That was a little comforting. I could not evade the fact, however, that the Bible seems to indicate varying degrees of reward in the next life.
I have a confession to make: Iím odd. I had been taught from an early age that nothing is nearly as important as oneís spiritual destiny and that no book is as spiritually valuable as the Christian Bible. With this as the driving force in my life, guess what I kept studying as if my life depended on it, year after year.
Prior to things going haywire, I had been convinced that although it is too late after death to change oneís eternal destiny, those who are still on earth can always repent and receive divine forgiveness, no matter how far gone they seem. But everything kept screaming I was no longer on earth!
I began these experiences with a strong set of beliefs. Now my life-long confidence (arrogance?) was beginning to erode. Can you imagine anyone being wrong about absolutely everything? I canít. None of us have all truth but all of us have some truth. So even at this stage there were things I was right about. Nevertheless, I was yet to discover how misguided some of my beliefs were. Nor did I realize that each time I find an error in my beliefs is like finding a new foothold when scaling a cliff face.
Despite often finding Bible reading a hard slog, numberless things about it have captured me throughout my life. High on the list is that it stresses that, to an extent that puts countless Christians to shame, the terrifyingly holy Lord is far more compassionate toward those we all denounce as despicably evil, and is far less impressed than us by those of us who think ourselves good. The God of the Bible is eager to forgive those who anger him, and quick to accept those we imagine he would have given up on. Self-righteous goodie-goodies turn his stomach but the very people they despise have a special place in his heart.
The Bible brims with people who had seemed utterly damned by God and yet God relented when they repented. Not only was Rahab a prostitute, she belonged to a tribe that was so corrupt that the Lord insisted that every member of it must be eradicated. She was not just spared but, like Mary, was divinely chosen for the honor of being an ancestress of the Messiah. Appendix 1 confirms that the Messiahís ancestry is filled with still greater scandals. Not only is the Bible so honest that it refuses to cover them up, it highlights them.
As my eyes kept flitting from one wonder to the next, I became increasingly aware of the light. There was something peculiar about it that I couldnít quite figure. Even underneath the dense foliage of those ancient trees, exquisite flowers grew. A thought hit me. I looked on the ground behind me, then turned full circle, scanning the ground. I even looked under my feet. Thatís strange.
In a flash of panic I touched my stomach, chest and face. ďSeems solid enough,Ē I said aloud in relief. But what if even my hand isnít solid? What if thatís just the feel of two non-solid objects touching? Surely not!
I hunted for a rock and lifted it just a little. It was comforting to be able to lift something solid but that was not my purpose. I looked underneath it, relieved. It was not just my body that was not casting shadows. But this raised more questions. The light is bright and yet there are no shadows! Not multiple shadows, not vague shadows Ė nothing! I looked at all the open sky I could find. I glanced under bushes and in trees. Where is the light coming from? I pondered the problem for a couple of seconds. Is the light in the air? Is everything its own light source? What is this place?
Just then a breeze sprang up, but what a breeze! It swirled and twirled and almost seemed alive. It seemed almost to be playing, or maybe dancing, and the leaves of the trees seemed to respond as if they were enjoying it Ė as if they were being massaged or lightly tickled. I nearly expected them to giggle in delight.
I reprimanded myself. Pull yourself together! Whoíd have thought youíd be guilty of anthropomorphism! Ah, anthropomorphism Ė attributing human characteristics to nonhumans. My mind flashed through the years to the Behavioral Science lecture in which I was first introduced to that word and to the silliness that unscientific people fall into. Now the very word seemed comforting. Of course! Thatís it! Iím in an alien environment. Things are different here. I had momentarily lost my objectivity but now Iím back on track! Hey . . . Ďtrack . . !í I finally remembered how I had arrived at this part of the forest. I looked along the trail, and sure enough, the little animal was still there. Its head cocked to one side, it stared at me through its big eyes. It appeared to be waiting for me.
Is it my imagination, or are animals more intelligent here? I wasnít silly enough to expect one to talk to me, or solve a mathematical problem. They just seemed somehow more perceptive. Was I fooling myself or did they actually have a greater awareness of my emotions than I would ever expect of an animal? Is it merely something about their features that gives an illusion of intelligence? I asked myself.
I was coming up with few answers, but stretching my mind in this way was reassuring. I seemed to be acting a little saner than when I first began to worry about the possible hallucinogenic effects of spider venom.
I was about to follow the creature, when I noticed the rock I had moved. Everything around seemed so perfectly ordered that a single rock moved a fraction from its original position seemed oddly out of place. I felt compelled to go to that rock and almost guiltily return it to the exact place where it had originally been before I had lifted it. The surprising thing is that I am the most untidy person I know. You should see my house!
(Just as an aside to those who accuse me of being obsessive: my housekeeping is proof that Iím not. Others might obsess about keeping things in order. Not me. Iíll never waste precious time by trying to be tidy. In fact, Iím obsessive about it. Letís move on before I think too much about that.)
Having completed my out-of-character act, I left the rock and headed for the creature. That cute little animal was certainly acting as if it wanted me to follow. Even putting aside that foolish interpretation of animal behavior, what wild creature would know what would interest a human anyway? Nevertheless, not having a better plan, I continued to follow him, her or it (to assume these creatures reproduced sexually would have been presumptuous). For simplicity I intend referring to each of the animals I saw as Ďití. I have surprised myself, however, as to how hard I have found it to maintain this convention as if they were mere Ďthingsí.
I found myself rapt in joyous wonder. Almost every step revealed still more flora, fauna and vistas captivatingly different from anything on earth. Despite this continual distraction, however, my mind slid back to the endless Palace. As unforgettable and astounding as the sensory pleasures had been, my thoughts kept returning, like flies to stench, to my inglorious expulsion from what had almost felt like a sacred place. Even in the pristine world I was now privileged to be enjoying, the gloom of failure hung over me, soiling what should have been perfection. Still more disturbing was not knowing what I had done that was apparently so offensive.
I thought of the G-forces and motion sickness that astronauts endure. There is simply no alternative if they are to leave earth. Maybe I have done nothing wrong. Perhaps that abrupt end and scary ride out of there was the only way to be transported to this exquisite place. I longed to convince myself but no matter how much I tried, it still felt disconcertingly like failure.
As I groped for comfort, I thought of Jonah. A Bible obsession might make me peculiar but there are even normal people who have heard of him. That sourpuss was down in the mouth (and into the stomach of a monster from the deep) over his initial refusal to honor God by preaching to his nationís ferocious enemies, whom Jonah regarded as exceptionally wicked. Scripture calls him not an evangelist (someone used of God to rescue people from damnation) but a prophet (2 Kings 14:25; Matthew 12:39). His entire God-given prophesy was, ďIn forty days Nineveh will be destroyedĒ. What happened to Godís prophecy? The Lord let his own prophesy be ruined. As Jonah had feared, simply because they repented, the Almighty refused to execute justice on the enemy of Godís people. It infuriated the prophet. But it delighted God.
I could go on and on, as well as explaining how even the unpardonable sin remains unforgiveable only until the offender changes his assessment of Jesus. (How could anyone be saved while believing his Savior is of the devil?)
Consider Paul doing his darnedest to exterminate the entire church in its vulnerable infancy and forever eradicate Christianity from the entire planet. Christians would have voted him the person they least liked and least likely to be acclaimed as the greatest-ever apostle. God thought differently. Could this possibly illustrate the gulf separating Godís heart from how millions of Christians see things? Of particular note, is that when persecuting Christians, this divinely chosen apostle must surely have accepted the standard pharisaical line about Jesus being of the devil. Many would have written him off as eternally damned. But not God.
The quadruped began slowly walking in the direction we had been going, with its rider seeming to thoroughly enjoy it. The little one looked around and, as if trying to communicate with me, chattered in the most endearing, though incomprehensible, manner.
Then the beast stopped. As I tentatively drew a little nearer, it crouched so low that its back was now little higher than my waist. The critter, that on this hulk looked smaller than ever, kept chattering and gesturing as if it had something important to tell me. I guess it is ridiculous but the little one seemed to want me to join it on the beastís back.
Anyone acquainted with grizzly and polar bear ferocity might be shocked that at this point I had hardly noticed that this oversized quadruped bore certain similarities to a monstrous bear. Iím from the corner of the planet where attacks by killer sharks and crocodiles grab headlines and impact the readerís psyche. It seems, however, I grew up without enough scary tales about bears reaching me to inject appropriate fear into me.
No matter how non-aggressive I assessed this colossal lifeform to be, however, I at least had the sense to realize it could still unintentionally injure me if startled. Standing as far away as I could, I stretched out my arm and gingerly placed my hand on its side.
What happened next I can neither describe nor explain. As much as that first touch flooded me with a longing to savor its astonishingly silky hair, that sensation was eclipsed by a far more profound and unexpected experience. I was overwhelmed by a mysterious connection with a creature that was obviously many times my strength. It was as if its strength became my strength and its confidence became mine. My fears melted so utterly that, as gently as I could, I slipped onto its back. While wondering how this would end, an inexplicable feeling of warm confidence in this beast continued. It was obviously strong enough to carry me. Whether it could heave itself into a standing position with my extra weight was another matter.
Once I was settled on its back, it began to lift itself. I felt the slightest apprehension at first but its movement was so gradual that all concern evaporated and the sublime connection I felt with this gentle giant kept building. I marveled at how it kept its back perfectly horizontal as it raised itself.
Upon reaching its full height, it remained motionless, as if giving me the chance to settle my nerves. Then, in a peculiar gait, it began creeping forward, placing each oversized padded paw in a way that eliminated the slightest noise or jolt. The motion was beautifully soothing, even as it slowly picked up pace until moving at least twice my normal walking pace. More than ever, it felt as if its powerful muscles and sure-footedness were mine and that this sensitive creature would respond to my every wish.
From this living lookout, the views seemed even more stunning. Was it, as I initially presumed, the increased height, or was it the exhilaration of an utterly unexpected bond with the massive creature so gently carrying me?
To say more is to stray so far from science that you have every right to dismiss it as a delusion. Nevertheless, it affected me so deeply that it would be remiss of me to omit it. The inexplicable connection I felt with this exotic animal combined with its gentleness to give the impression that I was being treated reverently. Delusion or not, it felt as if this creature regarded me as so important that it was a priceless privilege to serve me. This, in turn, filled me with awe and further magnified the unique tenderness I felt toward this creature.
Forgiveness comes at a humongous cost, not only to God but to sinís victims. An offender might be relieved about getting away with inflicting pain and suffering on others by lying, cheating, gossiping, slandering, robbing, or whatever, until finally seeing the error of his ways. We have all been offenders and benefitted from this. But what about the victims? It would hardly be paradise if tolerance of ungodly acts continued forever. Who would want to share an eternity with people who can inflict evil on each other, with all of its inescapable suffering? Since forgiveness means being able to get away with sin, the time for forgiveness must end, for heaven to begin.
Sin is selfishness and it inevitably ends up hurting people. We would all like to excuse our version of selfishness and label the hurt we inflict as minor, while condemning someone elseís version. A holy judge, no matter how loving, can be partner to no such hypocrisy.
Once death hits, no one will ever again rail at God for tolerating evil and not executing justice. Then, evil and all of its associated suffering will be eliminated. Our quandary is that, relative to divine perfection, all of us are evil.
We shrug our shoulders, mumble, ďNo oneís perfect,Ē and try to shift the spotlight off our guilty conscience by pointing an accusing finger at other peopleís sins; trying to tell ourselves that they are worse than our own. We might fool ourselves, but never the all-knowing Holy One.
All who think themselves a cut above the rest either detest the Bible or live in denial of its insistence that it takes just one slip from perfection to render us spiritually dead. No one can get any deader than dead. Once dead, no one Ė no matter how much you look down on him Ė can be in a worse predicament than you. It is a soberingly level playing field if, as the Bible insists, ďAll have sinned and fallen short . . .Ē (Romans 3:23).
Since ďno oneís perfect,Ē we all stand equally in need of Godís pardon but if we die having refused it and wanting to go it alone then our choice will last for all eternity.
All of us teeter little more than a heartbeat from Judgment Day. Then all evil will indeed be eradicated, including everyone who has not sought Godís pardon before that cataclysmic day. If we miss the last rescue plane, the result is the same whether or not we see ourselves as respectable, and whether we miss by milliseconds or by years.
I was also perplexed as to whether my wild theory about tests had the slightest merit. Instead of prayerfully puzzling over it or, better still, seeking to spiritually prepare for any possible test, I recklessly tried to thrust it from my mind and let myself be distracted by my fascinatingly gorgeous surroundings. I now shudder to realize that I took that course while having no idea if doing so was safe or whether this was the most critical moment in my existence and if my entire eternity hinged on my preparation.
Not only donít I know why I let myself do it, I donít even know how it was possible to push that worry out of my head. I donít like to boast but worrying is usually something I excel at. You might even call me an over-achiever.
It was as if I were lulled into complacency by the wonder and beauty of this place. Despite me having no certainty that it was not deceptive, this otherworldly forest seemed to radiate a warm coziness and security that I had never imagined any wilderness could have. Even harder to explain Ė and avoid confinement in a psychiatric ward Ė is that I seemed to detect something peculiar about this forest. What I sensed was so far beyond the purely rational that I can only try my pathetic but best attempt to put it into words and hide in shame. Here it is: the entire place seemed to have an aura of innocence about it. You might understand a little about how the friendliness and cuteness of all the animals might be slightly suggestive of this but somehow even the rocks and vegetation seemed to add to it.
Ahead, apparently unaware of our approach, was a man, looking rather like an Arabian in traditional dress, sitting on the ground under a tree. That was about as expected as a penguin in the Sahara. Whatís he doing here? I asked myself, as if my own presence in this place were perfectly understandable.
The stranger seemed deep in thought. ďI donít know . . .Ē he sighed dejectedly.
I was still engaged in an animated internal debate about making myself known when I spotted in the distance a nonhuman biped walking toward him. I slid off the now fully crouched animal. The instant I separated from the creature, I felt different. Thankfully, it was not debilitating but more like the momentary heaviness and loss felt when heaving oneself out of a deep, warm bath.
I suspect the furry little one who had enticed me here remained with me but my attention was riveted elsewhere. I ducked behind the mercifully thick vegetation and sneaked a glance at the still distant alien. Depth perception is challenging in an environment so exotic that not only the lifeforms but even the light is different. Nevertheless, the biped seemed huge. I was glad to be hidden but would the presence of a crouching animal right on the trail close by draw attention to me? And what about the man, who seemed oblivious to everything around him? Should I warn him?