Exactly how the idea for this story occurred to me, I can't say. But I know the origin of the title. It is from a sermon I heard on the radio years ago; the subject was teen-age suicide. It described someone who visited a big-city morgue whose drawers were filling up with teens whose names were unknown. They were runaways, throwaways, cast adrift into a society that neither knew nor cared that they existed. Some had drunk themselves to death, some died of drug overdoses, some fell to gang violence, and some had chosen to end their own lives. As the speaker glanced at drawer after drawer, each marked "Unknown," each containing the mortal remains of what had once been a vibrant living soul, he thought he heard a voice saying, "Welcome to Satan's trophy case."
Once the idea hit me, it was one of those creative urges that have to be followed through on. It took me about two days to write 21 pages, after which I fussed some more over individual words. This probably is not the best thing I have ever written, but I believe it has enough merit to post on my web site, to be read by "him who has ears to hear."
This story is meant to land somewhere between Pilgrim's Progress and The Screwtape Letters in terms of style. My portrayal of the chief antagonist is not meant to be a literally accurate picture, although many of his traits are rooted in what the Bible says about him. Also, I do not presume to be certain that every historical figure named has actually received the eternal reward I've described. Jesus said, "By their fruits you shall know them," and I base my conclusions on the historical record. But God is the final judge, not me.
Keep in mind that the father of lies cannot be relied upon to tell the truth under any circumstances. Much of what he says is his own propaganda, which he wants us all to believe. He uses truth and lies interchangeably to accomplish his goals. If he says something that sounds as though it cannot possibly be true, it is quite possible that it really isn't true. Check it in the Book to be sure.
My portrayal of that character is something of a hybrid. On one hand is the classic literary vision of the devil as a polished gentleman who keeps the promises he makes, and can be manipulated and even defeated by clever use of "the rules of the game," whatever they may be. On the other hand is the Biblical version, a fallen angel of superhuman might who exists only "to steal, kill, and destroy," and who is called "the father of lies." The Bible also states that he can transform into an angel of light, and he is portrayed in several places as a dragon. Thus, I have written him as one who changes his appearance as it suits him; he can make himself out to be the gentleman, but the ravening monster remains just below the surface.
My unnamed protagonist is a sort of Everyman, whose cultural knowledge and beliefs are fairly current for a citizen of the early 21st century. He is what most people would consider a good man, but while he knows something about the Bible, he has not embraced its foundational message. His thoughts and speech in his own "time" are normal, but he shifts to an outdated style of speaking when he enters the old-fashioned building. This willingness to mold himself to his surroundings shows that he has no firm foundation within himself.
What you get out of this story depends on whether you're currently headed for that trophy case or not. If you are, I urgently hope you'll consider your condition as God sees you, and take the way out that's described at the end of this story. If, on the other hand, your soul is already a trophy of God's mercy, then I hope this story will stir you to greater action on behalf of the many people you know who have not joined you on the path that leads to life.
Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, ©1978 by New York International Bible Society.
I wish to thank my close friend Ed Christiansen for pointing out the weakness of my original ending, and for his suggestions that inspired the current ending.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the fictional characters to actual persons, living or deceased, is purely unintentional. (Except for a friend named Daniel and his poor hunting luck). Any and all mistakes in this story are mine. Any and all glory belongs to Jesus Christ.
I went to a party last Friday. It was a small get-together at the home of a friend named Daniel, whom I had come to know after meeting him at church. He had many hobbies and interests, one of which was hunting. Sad to say, his luck did not match his enthusiasm (although the animals were probably not sad about it). In five years of trying, this was the first year he had managed to take a deer, and he had invited some friends over to celebrate.
The venison was tasty, if a bit undercooked. I could hardly fault Daniel's wife for that, since she had never had the chance to cook it before. When the meal was done, the wives retired to the kitchen to clean up and chat, while we men gathered in the living room. The talk soon turned to the subject of hunting.
"So where's the deer head on the wall?" asked Peter, Daniel's neighbor. "Don't tell me your wife won't let you keep it!"
"No, it's not that," Daniel replied, a bit sheepishly. "It's just that... well, do you know what a taxidermist charges for mounting a deer head? And it wasn't that big a deer, either. I figure I'll keep saving, and in five years, when I get my next deer, I'll be able to afford the head on the wall. Speaking of which, Sam, did you get your deer this year?"
"No, I didn't," he said emphatically, "and I'm almost glad. After that gorgeous buck I took last year, I think anything else would be a disappointment. It was nice just to get out in the fresh air and walk through the woods for a few hours. I even found some edible mushrooms while I was out — now that was a treat!"
"They say 'vegetarian' is an Indian word that means 'lousy hunter,' Peter muttered. Everyone laughed, even though we'd heard that one a hundred times or more. "Say, Tony, tell us how you got that eight-point buck on your own wall."
Tony's story was different every time he told it, and it never had anything to do with the truth. The reality was that he'd hit the deer on the highway, and kept the trophy as partial compensation for the damage to his car. But he was such a superb storyteller that we were almost willing to suspend our disbelief in his tales of snap shots and amazing marksmanship. When he was done, the rest of them began talking (boasting, actually) about the deer, bear, and other creatures they had taken down with their shooting skills.
As the only non-hunter in the group, I had little to say. I listened for a while, but then my mind began wandering, as it often does. These stories of hunting big game, with each hunter trying to top the others, caused me to wonder, "Who was the greatest hunter of all time?" In grade school, I'd read about Teddy Roosevelt and his prowess with a rifle, but was he the best ever? How would you make such a decision? The most kills? (That would favor a passenger-pigeon hunter of the 1800's over a deer hunter of today.) The heaviest weight of kills? (A couple of African elephants would put the passenger-pigeon hunter to shame.) The question remained unanswered as the party wound down and I drove home.
That night, I had trouble sleeping. Perhaps it was the spices in the venison. I tried the usual tricks, but sleep evaded me until around 3:30 in the morning. I finally fell into a restless sleep, and soon began dreaming.
I found myself standing in front of an odd-looking building. The construction and style were very much Victorian, but the lines were all wrong. The house was not square or rectangular; it appeared to be six-sided. The windows on both floors were all covered by heavy shutters. A brick path led up to the one door, and in front of it stood a man.
He was of average height and build, apparently in his fifties, well dressed in gentleman's clothing from the 1800's, including a silver walking cane. His Van Dyke beard and thin moustache were neatly trimmed. He walked up to me and extended a gloved hand, which I shook hesitantly.
"So you wish to meet the greatest hunter of all time?" he asked. His voice was cultured and smooth, with a trace of an accent I couldn't recognize. I nodded.
"Very well and very good, then," he nodded in return. "It would please me to show my trophy case to one who shares my greatest interest. Would you care for a tour?"
"A tour?" I exclaimed. "I had no idea a trophy case might be that large. May I inquire as to your name, sir?"
He smiled. "I go by many names, but you may call me Sir Beesil Lightbearer."
"Beesil?" I questioned. Perhaps it was rude of me, but it seemed an unusual name.
"It's a shortened form of another name of mine, which... I don't much care for," Lightbearer answered. "Shall we go in? I do not wish to be inhospitable." He gestured toward the door of his home, which swung open by itself. I assumed that some unseen servant had opened it for us.
We stepped into a long hallway lit by antique gas lights. The walls were paneled in dark wood that looked very expensive; the floor was marble, and there were no other decorations. The hall seemed far too long to fit inside the walls I'd seen outside. Strangest of all, our footsteps raised no echoes. I was about to comment on this when Lightbearer spoke again.
"I do not get many visitors. Those who do come, seldom stay long. May I trust that your manners will be better than theirs?"
"Certainly, sir, I am a well-bred man. No matter how out of the ordinary your collection may be, I give you my word, I will stay until you have shown me all that you wish me to see." He smiled in a way that was not perfectly pleasant. Behind us, the door silently swung shut and latched itself with an audible click. I was beginning to have misgivings, but my curiosity drove me on. If this man was claiming to be the greatest hunter of all time, surely he must have something interesting with which to prove his claim.
"We are entering the great room, and the beginning of my exhibits," he announced, gesturing grandly with one arm. "I am quite anxious to see your reaction." We entered a large six-sided room with three other hallways leading out of it at ground level. A grand staircase directly opposite us led up to a balcony running all the way around the room; three more hallways branched out from there. In the center of the room was a free-standing fireplace, also of six sides, in which fires were burning brightly. The stone chimney led straight up through the roof.
Mounted on the wall just above my right shoulder was a human head.
I cried out in surprise and terror, flinching away and covering my eyes. I would have run, but where could I go? Lightbearer laughed, a cold and joyless laugh which only frightened me more. He seemed to sense this, because he suddenly stopped.
"Is this not what you wanted? Did you not want to see the trophy case of the greatest hunter ever? You scarcely even looked at it, and that is but one of a great many."
I turned so that Lightbearer was in front of me and the head out of sight behind me. "Sir, do you mean to say that you... I mean, that you have killed..."
"Oh, I see your confusion," my host replied, his voice now calm and easy. "No, I did not personally kill that man. I very rarely kill directly, although it is in my power to do so. But is there any sport in that? Would you call yourself a great hunter for killing a mouse with a shotgun, or for stepping on an ant? No, no, it's the thrill of the hunt, and the strategies I use. That's the thing."
"Are you telling me, sir, that you arranged for this man to die, and you claimed his head as some kind of macabre trophy?"
"As for arranging his death," replied Lightbearer lightly, "all men must die eventually. I try to arrange circumstances so that each man's death comes in a way that amuses me. As for the trophy, it is not the man's physical head that I claim, but rather, a representation of that head at the moment of realizing his destiny."
"You are a monster, sir!" I exclaimed, anger rising up inside and overcoming the fear I had just felt. "How could any rational being find amusement in the death of another? And as for arranging circumstances, you claim powers that only God possesses. Who do you think you are?"
"I know who I am," he answered, his voice level and dry. "The question is, who do you think I am? Would you find me more familiar in this appearance?" And in the blink of an eye, he changed. His fine clothes vanished; his skin turned a deep red; horns sprang out of his head; a pointed tail appeared behind him; and his walking cane suddenly became a three-tined pitchfork. Half a moment later, he returned to his previous appearance. I jumped nervously.
"Or would you prefer me in this form?" Again he changed his appearance, this time into a being with blond hair clothed in a white robe, with white feathered wings on his back. Light shone from all around him. He looked so very different from his previous forms that I stared in spite of myself. But when I made eye contact... suddenly he changed again, into a huge red dragon that nearly filled the room. It flapped its wings, shook its tail, and breathed out a puff of fire that barely passed over my head.
Then it became... I lack words to describe it. My eyes were not equipped to perceive such a thing, or my mind to comprehend it. It transcended three dimensions, and it radiated unspeakable horror, the likes of which I hope never to experience again. I cried out and shrank away until I backed into the wall, covering my eyes with my hands. When I finally dared to look up, there stood Lightbearer the gentleman, as though nothing unusual had happened. I noticed for the first time that the walls of this room were dotted with other heads much like the first one I'd seen.
"I know who... I know what you are," I whispered; my voice failed me.
"Good. Then no further introductions are required," said Lightbearer, as matter-of-factly as if he'd been talking about the weather. "Now, you wanted to see my trophies. Look at this one, then. Look at him!" It was clearly an order.
I forced myself to focus on the nearest head. It was of an older man, perhaps in his sixties. There was nothing unusual about his appearance, except that his face bore a dreadful mix of astonishment and terror. The fear I had just felt was obviously nothing compared to whatever this man had experienced.
"What you are seeing," commented my host, "is that man's reaction on realizing that his life on this earth is over, and his eternity has begun. An eternity without joy or hope, an eternity without pleasure or an end to pain. An eternity just like all my other trophies. Lost!" He raised his voice and shouted that last word, clearly relishing the word and its meaning.
"And am I to understand," I forced myself to say out loud, "that this house is filled with... trophies like this poor man?"
" 'Poor man,' indeed!" Lightbearer scoffed. "He had every opportunity to escape his fate. My enemy's book was in his house, free for him to read any time he wanted. But I kept him distracted, and he never read it. He had friends and co-workers who invited him to church. But I gave him excuses and he did not go. He sometimes saw my enemy's servants speaking about him while he was channel surfing. But I reminded him about hypocrites and greedy television preachers, and he quickly changed the channel. He had more opportunities to turn away from me than most people alive today, and he rejected them all. 'Poor man,' you say? Poor fool!"
He began pacing back and forth, pointing at me with his cane from time to time. "Don't you see, that's the thrill of the hunt! My enemy makes it so easy to avoid becoming one of my trophies; he gives these simpletons so many opportunities, so many chances. And it's up to me to keep their eyes off of those chances. If I can keep them away from him for just the few decades of life that they're allotted, then they are mine to enjoy forever. The ones in this room are just the most recent arrivals. I haven't sorted them out yet. But let me show you some of the better-organized parts of my collection. This way, if you please." He pointed with his cane, and I realized I had no choice but to go where he directed me.
We were now in a hallway very much like the entryway, except that this hall's walls were lined with my host's grotesque "trophies." Each was mounted on a walnut plaque, with a small brass name plate underneath. As with the heads in the great hall, their faces were so distorted with shock and horror that it was hard to recognize them. Nevertheless, as I glanced at the name plates, there were some familiar names.
"Welcome to my Hall of Leaders!" announced Lightbearer self-importantly. "Behold the final fruits of power and ambition! Is there one king, president, or dictator in the past hundred years who won't wind up on these walls? Can you name one?"
I could not answer him. Arrayed in row upon row were statesmen I admired, mixed with many I had never heard of, and a few who were universally despised. I paused in front of an English Member of Parliament who was known for trying to help the poor. His face showed the same terror as the petty African generalissimo right above him. "Is this all that's left of his dreams?" I asked out loud.
"You mortals love your little dreams," Lightbearer scoffed. "You waste your lives, squandering time and energy, trying to create something that will outlive you, never knowing that your precious dreams are just as mortal as you are. You die, they die, and all that's left is another head on my wall."
"That's not true!" I protested. "There are many whose dreams outlived them, and even grew after their passing! What about Gandhi? Theodor Herzl? Thomas Jefferson?"
Lightbearer shrugged. "What of them? The famous and the successful are just as dead as the forgotten and the obscure. Honored or cursed, here they are and here they will stay. It makes little difference to me how much difference they made in life, as long as I can claim them in the end." He reached up and snapped his fingers under the nose of a long-dead French queen. "How's that cake, Marie?"
"She never really said that," I retorted. It was a small victory, which I desperately needed, surrounded as I was with all this human defeat.
"Again, what does it matter? You call it a detail, compared to the 'great works' that some of these poor fools accomplished. I call them all details. Only one thing matters in the end, and every one of these high and mighty leaders overlooked it, in their zeal to do things that seemed more important at the time." He began pointing at various heads with his walking cane. "This one was known for the wise laws he created; that one was known for drunkenness and taking bribes. He was a useless bureaucrat who ruled through an accident of heredity; she could have been a kind and just queen if her nation had allowed women to rule. That one surrounded himself with clever advisors, and historians call him a good king. His son, over there, surrounded himself with yes men, and his reign is despised, even though he was not one bit better or worse than his father. And what does it matter in the long run? They all belong to me now."
I looked away from him, trying to find someplace to look that would not horrify me all the more. Finally, my eyes found a blank space on the wall. He noticed where I was looking. "Ahh, you found Adolf Hitler's space. He is presently "on loan," as you say, to another wing of my trophy hall. You will encounter him soon enough."
Next to that empty space was a face I thought I recognized, and his name plaque confirmed it. "Pol Pot. The atheist butcher met God at last. Well, I can't say I'm sorry to see him here."
Lightbearer smiled indulgently. "And now your curious sense of justice appears. Why do you think he deserves eternal torment more than him" — he pointed at a random head on the wall nearby — "or him, or her, or them?"
"Sir, you can't be serious! That man almost single-handedly destroyed a nation! Do you have any idea how many millions of innocent people died at his orders? Have you no idea of the suffering he inflicted on Cambodia? That nation still has not recovered!"
My host looked thoughtful. "Do I have any idea how many innocent people died? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. The number is zero." Before I could utter a word, he quickly continued, "Your idea of innocence is as quaint as your idea of justice, and just as mistaken. You think Pol Pot deserves the fires of hell for what he did? You are correct. But every one of his helpers, and every one of his victims, deserves that same fire. They have all done something to offend my enemy, and the instant they do that, they belong to me."
It took me a few seconds to digest that. "Sir, do you suggest that anyone who falls short of utter perfection is destined for...?" I ended my question by waving my hand at the wall of heads.
Lightbearer laughed out loud at my confusion. Then he turned and poked me in the chest with a perfectly manicured finger. He spoke earnestly. "Do you have any idea, any idea at all, how bare my walls would be if my enemy had not set the bar so high? How few trophies I would take if the standard was less than perfection? He told his own chosen people, 'Be holy, for I am holy,' and they all said, 'Whatever you command, we will do.' Ha!" His laugh was totally unpleasant. "They didn't last forty days before they were bowing down to me instead! Do you know, I have one entire wing of the Hall of the Religious set aside for them? They saw miracle after miracle, they saw his presence right among them, but still they doubted and complained. Only a tiny handful of that entire multitude escaped me! 'Holy,' indeed!"
"And when he came to earth, he told them, 'Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.' Perfect, he ordered them! Did one of his followers say, 'That's impossible'? 'We can't do that'? 'Have mercy on us'? No, they were too busy arguing over which one would be the greatest! For a while, I was sure I'd catch every last one of them." Lightbearer sighed; it was the first sign of weakness I'd seen in him. "Twelve dim-witted losers! Twelve cowardly nobodies! They didn't understand a thing he said. It should have been so easy. And in the end, I got only one of them. One! Now that, sir, is true injustice!"
"You speak of Judas Iscariot, of course," I responded, "and he certainly deserved his fate —"
Lightbearer cut me off. "Yes, he did, and so did every soul on this wall! Don't you understand, it is not the evil men do by their own standards that condemns them? There is a higher law that every last one of you breaks, and it is that standard that brings souls to the pit, and heads to my trophy cases! By that standard, Gandhi was no better than Judas!" He poked me in the chest again. "You are no better than Judas!"
I was speechless, taken totally aback. I was unwilling to accept such an accusation, but I could think of no reply. He went on:
"It is because you fail to think in eternal terms that you fail to understand. It is a common failing in humanity, and I am glad for that, I truly am. You judge by what you see and hear, colored by what you think, and you never consider that the standard of judgment has been clearly laid out for you. 'The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake.' "
"You quote the Bible!" I was so astonished that I finally found my voice again.
"I will use my enemy's words when it suits my purpose," he answered loftily. "I have done so before, sometimes with great effect, and I will do so again when it pleases me to do so. My enemy's standard of justice is very much to my liking, for it keeps my walls filled with trophies, with more coming in every day."
"But... but who does that leave?" I asked, finally finding my voice.
"Not many," grinned my host. "Not many at all. That is why my trophy house needs multiple wings to hold them all. Come, let us look at another selection of my prizes." He led me through a side passage into another long hallway.
"No!" I gasped. "Not them! Not here!"
The heads on these walls wore the battle helmets they had worn in life. From each neck dangled a decoration, their own nation's highest honors for valor. Victoria Cross, Hero of the Soviet Union, Congressional Medal of Honor, Knight's Cross with Swords and Diamonds. Their faces were just as horrified as the others. Lightbearer passed his hand under a row of them as he walked, setting the medals swinging like cheap Christmas-tree ornaments.
I nearly swatted his hand aside as anger rose up in me again. "Have you no respect, sir? These men deserve better than this!"
"These men deserve exactly what they got!" thundered my host, who calmed quickly. "They did brave deeds in life, and they got these trinkets to wear. But they paid no heed to their own souls, and they got these places of honor in my Hall of Heroes. Either way, justice has been served."
I could hardly see the heads on the wall; my eyes were filling with tears. Most of their names were unknown to me, but I knew a few and had read their stories. These were men I had idolized as a young man. True heroes, every one of them. Some had fought for the wrong side, but no one could call them cowardly or incompetent.
"Haven't they been through enough?" I nearly sobbed.
"Oh, their sufferings have hardly begun," gloated Lightbearer. "Everything they endured in wartime was nothing compared to their eternal pain. It doesn't matter if they died in battle or lived to a ripe old age. Can you believe," and he tried to restrain a giggle, "some of them actually stood before my enemy and said, 'Another Marine reporting, Sir, I've done my time in hell'? They knew nothing of hell! But they're learning. Oh, yes, they're learning."
"Not all of them!" I angrily protested. "There were many war heroes like Sergeant York who put their faith in Jesus —" I never finished. At the mention of the name of Jesus, Lightbearer suddenly transformed into the unspeakable horror I had seen in the great room, now mingled with rage that threatened to tear me apart. Again I cringed helplessly, eyes tightly closed, until the sense of dread passed.
"It would be better for both of us if you did not speak that name again," Lightbearer quietly intoned. "As for the sergeant you spoke of, it is true that some of your 'heroes' have eluded me. Some had faith in my enemy before they ever heard a cannon shot, and some turned to him in fear for their lives in the middle of battle. Unlike me, my enemy has no pride; he will accept anyone at any time or place, as long as they come to him on his terms."
"You boast of your pride?" I gasped, astonished at his effrontery.
"And why not?" he replied, pulling himself up to his full height, which somehow was several inches taller now than he had been before. "It was my first invention, and one of my greatest. There are many who credit me with no creativity at all, and I concede that my enemy has an advantage in this area — he started first. But pride? Lust? Selfish ambition? And my favorite, the lie... ahhh, these are all mine, mine alone. In fact, though it might sound ludicrous, I am proud of my pride, for it has been the downfall of many. Without pride, how bare my walls would be!"
"But not this hall," I interjected. "Most of these heroes acted out of patriotism or a desire to save their friends, not out of selfish ambition. Ambition will never lead a man to jump on a live hand grenade, or stay belowdecks on a burning ship to try and keep it from sinking."
Lightbearer waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Again, you say truth, and again, what do I care? Let them have their moment of heroics. Let them have their medals, and their parades, and their speeches, and the town square named after them. They will still adorn my walls when all is done. Even before their lives have ended, it all comes to nothing. Tell me, hero-worshiper, how many of these heroes do you recognize?" I was forced to admit that most of their names were unknown to me.
"You accuse me of disrespect, and yet you show even greater disrespect, by forgetting that the men who fought for your little freedoms ever existed. 'What have you done for me lately?' would be a fine motto for your race. And I am glad for that as well, for you also forget him who fought the hardest fight for the greatest prize, your eternal souls! Oh, how I wish I could claim credit for inventing forgetfulness, one of my greatest hunting companions! But I fear that your race deserves the credit for that one. Now take a moment and refresh your own memory, since you seem to regard these lost souls so highly." He turned away and strolled casually down the hall, sometimes poking at a dangling medal with his cane. I did as he said, trying to focus on the name plates and not the heads.
I glanced down the rows, and was drawn to several young Asian men who wore flying helmets. Their name tags identified them as fliers who died near Okinawa in 1945.
"Kamikaze pilots! You rank them among these heroes?"
Lightbearer turned back to face me. "They were patriotic heroes, as their own culture defined patriotism and heroism. If their nation had won that little conflict, it would be their names on the streets and the town squares, and not your vaunted Marines. But your judgmental attitude pleases me. Perhaps I can bring out a little pride in you, too?"
I looked at some of the other heads on the wall. There were soldiers from every era in history. From the Roman centurion who stood up to a charging war elephant, to the medic who ran through machine-gun fire to help a wounded soldier, all had gone far above and beyond the call of duty. "Compared to men like these," I said quietly, "I have nothing to be proud of."
"Then this hall is not the place for you," my host decided. "Anything that causes humility is working against my grand plan. But I think I know a much better place to show you. Step this way, please."
I had no difficulty recognizing the heads I saw now. They were some of the familiar faces I'd known and listened to for years. Jimi Hendrix. Freddie Mercury. Michael Jackson. Tupac Shakur. All the singers and musicians whose music had defined their times, whose lives had ended too soon. Lightbearer was strutting jauntily down this hallway, singing something about "If you believe in forever, then life is just a one-night stand..."
"But why did you bring me here?" I asked him. "I can see that this is the musicians' wing, but -"
Lightbearer's mocking laughter drowned out the end of my thought. "The musicians' wing? Do you think I would limit myself to such a narrow group? Look around you! Look closer!"
I did as he ordered. In another row were Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, and other comedians. Nearby were Len Bias, Anna Nicole Smith, Jack Kerouac, and Joseph McCarthy. "I don't get it. What do they have in common?"
For an answer, Lightbearer opened his mouth, and without moving his lips, another voice came out. The voice from the old TV show, "Mission: Impossible," that always said, "This tape will self-destruct in five seconds." A puff of smoke issued from his mouth, and he snapped his jaws shut with a grin.
"They all self-destructed!" I exclaimed.
"Bravo, well done, you figured it out." His voice dripped with mockery. "Every human has a life span of roughly eighty years, give or take a few decades, after which you will face eternity. But some of you just can't wait that long! These are the ones who handed their heads to me on a silver platter. All I had to do was offer them the means to get out early, and they leaped at the chance. Violence and fast cars and drugs have their uses, but alcohol will always be my favorite bait for my traps. It's socially acceptable to drink, and you actually think drunks are funny, until they die of it. When they fall to me that easily, they aren't worthy trophies for a hunter of my caliber, but I will take them any way I can."
"That doesn't sound very proud," I observed.
"Oh, ho ho, aren't you the witty one? And aren't you... ahem... proud of yourself for that observation? But I have a motive for taking prizes like these. For every one that falls, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, whose lives are ruined because of their co-dependence on their favorite celebrity." He patted the cheek of a shaggy head. "How about it, Jerry? Did you accept your fans' praises when they shouted, 'Jerry Garcia is God?' Are you still singing, 'A friend of the devil is a friend of mine?' You could do a duet with Bon Scott over there, singing, 'I'm on the highway to hell, don't stop me!' He got his wish, all right."
He turned to another head. "And how about you, Kurt? Weren't your family and your fans crushed when you checked out early? No Nirvana for you, I'm afraid. But I've got a place for you here. Just come as you are."
"Do you have any right to judge him?" I demanded. "You have no idea what pressure he was under!"
"Oh, yes, those 'pressures of stardom!' " Again he mocked me. "Doing what you love for a living, and making huge amounts of money, and having a beautiful wife and a healthy child... it must be crushing to endure all that! How do you mortals survive in the face of prosperity? Perhaps my enemy does you a favor by keeping most of you poor and obscure. Otherwise, the pressures of success would overcome you, and the suicide rate would triple overnight!" He rubbed his hands together in glee at the thought. "And what a treat that would be!"
"Again I say, you can't possibly know what these people were going through," I repeated. He replied by sticking his face directly into mine. When he spoke, I caught a whiff of sulfur.
"I have vicariously lived through more suicides than you are capable of imagining," he growled like thunder. "My personal servants have possessed people just like you, and driven them to such despair that the great unknown of death looked better. And I have been there and watched as they cut their wrists, or swallowed the pills, or jumped off the bridge. Do you doubt me? Then come and see." He spun on his heel and marched into a side hallway. Numbly, I followed.
The heads in this hall were different from the others I'd seen so far. A much higher number were young adults; many were still in their teens. I had to look at the floor for a moment.
"The Hall of Suicides?" I asked. I already knew the answer.
"These are some of my most prized trophies," he gloated, "because they were the hardest to catch. You've managed to cure a lot of my favorite diseases, so I don't get such a big harvest from that source any more. Accidents, war, terror attacks, violent crime... they'll always bring in a bumper crop for me, because there's nothing an individual can do to stop them. If you aren't ready for eternity already..." He clapped his hands. "Game over. But do you know how hard it is to entice someone to end their own life?" He paused dramatically, as if he expected me to answer, which I did not. He continued.
"First, I have to make their lives utterly miserable. The young are vulnerable to this, because they haven't experienced what misery really is. To them, a fight with a girlfriend or a power struggle with a parent really seems like the end of the world. But then comes the hard part for me. They have to plan their own end, and they have to think it over. It doesn't come as an unavoidable surprise. They have the chance to turn back.
"Death is unknown, and frightening. You would think anything would be preferable. I have to persuade them that the end will be better than trying to live and work it out. That is a hard thing, I assure you. But I have had thousands of years to practice. I know how it's done. I know all the tricks. Look at them!" He swept an arm out enthusiastically. "Every single one of them, a victim of the finest and most delicate lies I can produce! Every one, a trophy to my patience and skill! This is why I am the greatest hunter who has ever existed!" He bowed gracefully, as though taking a curtain call on stage. I felt like I might be sick.
"What? No response? Is this not what you wanted to see? Why so silent?"
I realized that I was taking my life in my hands, but I could not hold back. "Must you persecute the young, the weak, the struggling? Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
"What a novel idea!" he grinned. "Pick on another god? But, do you know what? I have been doing that very thing for centuries! Come, let us visit the fourth main hall of my trophy house, and you will see if I am as good at picking on other gods as I am with the weak." He spat out the last word in disgust as he led me back down the main hall, up the grand stairway, and down another hall.
This hallway quickly divided into multiple side halls. Each one had its own character. One was filled with turban-wearing Sikhs, another with Hindus, another with Buddhists. This must be the Hall of the Religious, I realized. All of the heads on these walls wore similar expressions to the others, but with more surprise showing.
"Collecting a trophy like this is one of my favorite ways to start the day," bubbled Lightbearer. "I love the look on their faces when they realize they've spent their entire lives following the wrong god, and that their chosen deity not only can't save them, he isn't even real!" He altered his voice to a high, reedy tone. " 'Judgment? I thought I'd be reincarnated as a Brahmin! Don't I get another chance?' " He patted the cheek of a Hindu whose name I could not pronounce. "No second chances, little man. 'Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,' as a certain enemy of mine has to keep reminding them. And let me add, in the name of fairness, that I approve of that rule of his. How would I ever collect any trophies if my victims got to keep going back to Start and trying again?"
He crossed to another side hall and waved his hand in front of the nearest head. "I guess Allah isn't so 'akbar' after all, is he, Achmed? Too bad you didn't learn that before you pushed the button on that suicide vest of yours." He turned back to face me. "Very fashionable, those bulky vests. I hope everyone will be wearing them soon."
Finally, I found my voice. "Do you mean to say that you actually compare yourself to other gods?"
"No, of course not," he replied patronizingly. "I would never compare myself to other gods. I am those other gods! Every last one, from the squabbling pagan deities of the Greeks and the Norse, to the sprawling Hindu pantheon, to that most wonderful figment they call Allah... they are me, and I am them. Those who worship them worship me, and those who serve them serve me."
I looked at another row of astonished heads. "But that's how these people were raised! That's all the religion they ever knew! Don't they get credit for good intentions?"
"Good inten—" Lightbearer broke out in laughter so hard, he could not speak for nearly a minute. When he was able to talk again, his voice took on a sharp edge. "Good intentions, sir? The bricks in my front walkway are made out of good intentions! Of what use is sincerity if you are sincerely wrong?
"And as for them not knowing anything else, whose fault is that? My enemy has repeatedly said he wants everyone in the world to know him. So why is it that they do not know him? Why, my good sir, the fault is yours!"
"What?" I squawked. "Mine?" I was preparing a defense when he continued.
"What was the purpose of the nation of Israel? To make my enemy known among the nations. But I sidetracked them with infighting, paganism, and my old faithful friend 'forgetfulness,' and they failed. What was the purpose of the church? To take my enemy's message to the world. But I tried the old 'divide and conquer,' and it worked so well, they're making up new excuses to divide from each other, with almost no input from me. Has the world heard his message? It's not because he hasn't sent it out. It's because his delivery boys stay home! Or they corrupt the message before it gets delivered. Or they take it to people who have already heard it sixty-six times, instead of to people who have never heard it once."
"I know there are faithful missionaries who are taking the gospel of Chr — of your enemy to those who have never heard it," I stammered.
"Yes, and a pox on them all!" Lightbearer snapped. "Fortunately, they are coming from so many different denominations and mission boards that they duplicate each other's efforts. If the church were efficient, they could multiply their effectiveness many times over. That is why I devote so much effort to keeping the church divided and the message watered down. And speaking of that, I think you'll really enjoy this little hallway down here." He pointed to a well-lit hall near the end of the main hallway.
The heads in this hall, both men and women, all had immaculate hair styles. A quick glance at their name tags showed that many of them were well-known on radio and television. Lightbearer followed me in.
"If my house is a trophy case, then this is the Case for Christians," he gloated. "The Home for Hypocrites, the Barony of Unchosen. Aren't they cute?"
"You will never convince me that these were real Christians," I answered.
"Of course they were not! But they convinced a great many others that they were," nodded my host. "These are the ones who give my enemy's reputation a beautiful, wonderful black eye. These are the ones who unknowingly convince others to stay away from the church, and to pay no attention when his genuine followers try to spread his message. Very few have served me better than these, who spent their lives seeming to serve him instead.
"Tell me, Reverend," he addressed an older man on the wall, "if you could make one more broadcast, knowing what you know now, would you change your message? Would you tell your listeners something other than moneymoneymoney? What message would you bring them, Reverend? Operators are standing by!" He laughed uproariously at his own joke, then stepped down to the next head in the row.
"And you! You've been gone for years, and your sheep are still sending in their tax-deductible contributions. Your son is in charge now, is he not? Are you proud of how he carries on in your footsteps? You spent all that money on cars and houses. He spends it on... well, we will not speak of what he's spending it on. Or, should I say, who he spends it on? No, it is rude to speak of such things in refined company. And it would break his wife's heart if she found out. Or perhaps I should say when she finds out. The poor girl is so fragile, after all. Perhaps I can coax a suicide out of your family...?"
I tried to ignore him, for the sake of my sanity. This hall was a veritable rogue's gallery of lying prophets, false teachers, and wealthy preachers. How could there be so many? What would become of the ones who are still alive? Then I saw, at the end of the hall, a blood-stained wooden cross. Somehow I knew it was not just a replica.
"Why do you display this?" I asked, genuinely puzzled. "Do you wish to commemorate..."
"That implement of execution is there," Lightbearer began, "to remind me to never again take my enemy for granted. To remind me that, no matter how close a victory might seem, I must never take my eye off the situation until it is done. Look at it! Was there ever a more barbaric way to kill a man? Your race has come up with some exquisite methods for ending each other's lives, yet nothing has surpassed crucifixion in terms of agony and hopelessness. And I had him nailed, right there! I had him where I wanted him! How was I to know he was playing by a different set of rules?"
Suddenly Lightbearer siezed me by the lapels, staring straight into my eyes, more intense than I had ever seen him. "If only I had known! Looking back, the clues were there, but I did not see them! I could have had him strangled! Poisoned! Drowned in the Sea of Galilee — he gave me plenty of chances for that! Anything that didn't involve him shedding his blood as a sacrifice for sin! I could have stopped his entire plan in its tracks!"
He released me, but his passionate speech went on. "Can you imagine the consequences if I had just kept him off that cross? No forgiveness for sins! No church! Prophecies going unfulfilled! My enemy would never have recovered from that. I would have beaten him!" His voice took on a rapturous tone. "And if I could beat him, that would mean I was greater than him. All heaven and earth would have to admit it! All heaven and earth would bow down to me! If only... if only..."
I slipped away while he was distracted. In spite of myself, I wanted to see some of the other side hallways. All the major religions were represented, as were the larger cults; the smaller ones were lumped together in a hall marked "Other." One long, narrow corridor was set aside for atheists; I saw many famous scientists and philosophers there, looking stunned and in agony. He even had a short hallway for the Satanists.
"Yes, they also get their heads on my wall," Lightbearer intoned from behind me. "I play no favorites. They think they can earn my favor by serving me openly. They think I'll show them kindness in return for services rendered. Can you see the shock on their faces when they saw how wrong they were?" He actually giggled.
"That is plain," I replied, "but it is even more plain that you are incapable of kindness to anyone." I meant for my words to wound and sting, but they had the opposite effect.
"Of course not! They fell for that lovely lie that hell will be one big party. They gave themselves over to the father of lies, and they thought I would tell them the truth! Well, I did tell them the truth in that old party song — 'There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!' So, my fine fellows, as you often said, party hearty! Enjoy the company, enjoy the warmth. But I regret to say that there will be no drinks served, and you cannot bring your own."
"Do you gain anything by making converts to your own religion, instead of all those other faiths?" I asked.
"Wrong again, sir! As I said, all those other faiths are my religions. But, to answer your question, these deluded fools do serve me a purpose. They form a very small group, but they distract the church's attention from my real work. No matter what I do to corrupt their society, or defile their youth, or undermine the truths they believe in, there will always be some who ignore the spreading rot and focus on my tiny but obvious decoy. They yield a benefit far in excess of their small numbers. And in the end, they will decorate my walls, just as surely as if they had converted to Islam or Catholicism."
"Catholicism!" I exclaimed. "But I saw no Catholics in that Hall of Christians."
"If you understood what Rome teaches, then that omission would not surprise you," my host answered coldly. "I have a special hallway for my Roman disciples, right over here."
Many of the heads in this hall wore necklaces, and at first I thought they were more heroes wearing medals. But these were not military decorations; they were rosary beads. As he did in the Hall of Heroes, Lightbearer swept his hand along the rows of heads to set the crucifixes swinging. It seemed to amuse him.
"There is no religion like the religion of Rome," he was saying. "Its followers will often live in open violation of its commands, or in total ignorance of them. And yet, when life fades, they expect their Church to save them." He held his hand up next to a terrified older woman, and opened and closed the hand like a mouth as he mimicked, "My trust is in Mary! Mary will be merciful! Intercede for me, Mary!" His hand dropped next to a middle-aged man and he repeated the performance — "But I was baptized when I was a baby! The priest sprinkled the water and said the words; my mother told me so! Didn't that save me?" He mocked an older man; "I did every good work the Church requires! I even gave my money! I lit candles! I went to confession! Twice a week!"
Then his voice took on a new tone,and his hand flapped in mid-air. "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" I realized that he was mocking the voice of Christ Himself, even as he quoted Him. What blasphemy, to make fun of the very God whose word he was taking advantage of! The reality of who I was dealing with hit me forcefully as he went on.
"And then he has to remind them about the 'one mediator between God and men' thing, just like it says in their own Bibles. And the part about 'saved by grace through faith, not by works,' which is also in their own Bibles. And the part about... it actually gets monotonous, hearing him judge them for the same tired errors over and over, when they easily could have known about them if they'd wanted to find out. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that I taught them all those errors! As boring as the repetition is, it's a sure-fire tactic for netting souls by the score. I love it when a plan comes together!"
He slapped another old man's face, hard. "What's your excuse, Father? A life of celibacy didn't suit you? But how can you be a father without children? And so you found some children, didn't you? You scarred them for the rest of their lives, even embittered them against my enemy, just for a moment's pleasure. Was it worth it, Father? Does the memory comfort you where you are? Perhaps I should mount those children's heads right next to you when they get here. Wouldn't that be fun? For them, an endless reminder; for you, so near and yet..."
"Are you saying Catholics aren't Christians?" I asked, still somewhat incredulous.
"What is a Christian?" he asked me. It was a simple enough question, yet I had never really sat down and considered it.
"I would say a Christian is a follower of — of your enemy's son," I answered after thinking for a moment.
"A fair starting point," my host nodded, every inch the scholarly gentleman. "But have you considered what a Christian is not?" He paused for effect, then went on. "A Christian is not someone who goes into a church from time to time. A Christian is not someone who had water poured on them while still a baby and unable to make decisions. A Christian is not someone who tries to get to heaven by doing good things. A Christian is not someone who is a follower of Mary, or the Pope, or any so-called saint. My enemy never commanded any of these things in his book. In fact, Catholics are warned not to read their own Bibles without consulting an agent of Rome to tell them what it is supposed to mean. So you tell me — are Catholics Christians?"
I could not bring myself to speak the obvious answer. So many of my friends were trusting in the Church to save them! Were they destined to become nothing but heads on these dreadful walls?
"What? No answer?" he mocked. "Are you unable to puzzle it out? Then perhaps your tiny mind needs a bit more stimulation. Come, come, there are yet two more hallways that you have not explored! Let us consider the next hallway, which, I have no doubt, will give you much pleasure!"
The fifth hallway, like the fourth, branched out into many smaller halls. This time, I was able to count ten of them.
"Ten hallways, indeed, one for each of my enemy's main commands," Lightbearer said flippantly. "Ten simple rules, and yet most of you cannot reach the end of your lives without breaking all of them! Indeed, most of you cannot even name them all. But what should I expect from a race that once had only one command, and you still broke it?" He looked away, seemingly lost in a pleasant memory. " 'Did God really say...?' "
The heads on these walls were not of the powerful and famous, but of ordinary people, an uncountable number of them. No matter which side hallway I chose, it stretched away far beyond my ability to see, with "trophies" filling every available space.
The "no gods before me" hall seemed to hold more of my host's souvenirs, because its ceiling was taller. I commented on this, and Lightbearer nodded. "I need the extra room because this is such a popular command to break. I used to have to make up gods for people to worship, but now, they make up their own. They don't call them gods, of course, so they think their misplaced devotion is no sin. But my enemy holds them to a higher standard than they hold themselves, and here they are!" He took in the entire endless corridor with a gesture. "Sports fans! Fans of popular singers! Fans of celebrities — did no one notice when I arranged for that show to be called 'American Idol?' "
"And they do not limit themselves to entertainment. This little nook is for investors who single-mindedly pursued their favorite corporations. I've actually lost count of the men who worshiped their own careers, and the women who made their children the focal point of their existence. Any time someone considers something, anything, more important than my enemy..." he slammed his fist into his palm. "He is mine! And most of them never escape, because they do not even think they are doing wrong. What a delicious way to do evil!" I cringed and shrank away, which brought me to the next hallway.
"Graven images. Idols. This one isn't so full, is it?" I commented.
"It is not for a lack of idolatry," answered Lightbearer, "but simply how I choose to sort my collection. My best idolaters wind up in the Hall of the Religious. But I pick up a few here and there from other sources. Like these fine specimens." He pointed at some heads on the bottom row wearing Harley-Davidson head rags. "Who would choose a Hindu eight-armed god when he can worship a two-wheeled god, hmmm? You gave it your full devotion, and you made offerings of money and time to it. Vroom vroom, go fast! No time for religion, let's get to Sturgis! No time for religion, let's get to Laconia! No time for religion, let's get to Lightbearer's house! You cursed all the rice burners, but tell me, who's burning now?"
His utter delight in ultimate human loss was frightening me even more than the disembodied heads. The next hall, like the first, was long, tall, and overly full.
"This is my Hall of Misusing the Enemy's Name, and to be honest, this collection is beginning to bore me. That name was once a mark of reverence, and to use it irreverently would mark you as an uncultured beast. But now, a comedian is not considered funny if he does not blaspheme at least once every two minutes. Children invoke divine curses on their teachers, their homework, and anything else that displeases them, with no awareness of what they are saying. Businessmen, entertainers, housewives, students, even cartoon characters use the enemy's name in place of other obscene words, and they think nothing of it. Capturing souls like these is no longer a challenge. Let us move on."
"Sabbath-breakers?" I asked as I entered the next hall. "Is that still considered wrong?"
Lightbearer broke out in convulsive laughter. It took him some time to regain his composure. At last he stood straight and said, "My fine friend, you have finally solved my riddle! You have guessed your way to the heart of my plans."
What did he mean by that? He waited for me as I considered this, until I thought I knew the answer. "Are you taking the sin out of sinning?"
Again he laughed. "Am I doing it? I have already done it! The battle is nearly over; all that remains is details. Ten commands, my enemy gave. Ten great principles to live by. And, by patience and skill, I have made the breaking of them first tolerable, then acceptable, then praiseworthy, then mandatory! Look at the culture you inhabit, and tell me it is not so!"
"I do not take your meaning, sir," I said hesitantly.
"You most certainly do," retorted Lightbearer. "You said yourself that to ignore the sabbath is no longer considered wrong, even though it remains on my enemy's list of great commands. Can a powerful business executive rise through his company's ranks without working seven days a week on occasion? Sports figures violate the sabbath every week, and not only are they held guiltless, they draw supporters by the tens of thousands to watch them, and in so doing, those supporters neglect the sabbath themselves."
"Do you make trophies of those who place the sabbath on a Saturday and not on Sunday?" I asked.
"I will happily display the head of anyone who breaks the command," he answered proudly. "Some hold that the sabbath should be one day, and some hold that it should be another. I say, let it be Sunday, or let it be Saturday, or let it be Wednesday if you wish, and by all means, fight over the day with others! Just so long as, having established the day, you then ignore it, I am content. Removing the stigma of breaking that command is a work that I have pretty well finished. Indeed, those who stand up in favor of the sabbath are called Pharisees. You have already seen that the first three commands are in a similar state. And so it is with the others as well.
"Honor your father and mother? When you are young, your parents are an embarrassment; when you grow older, they are a burden. You will gladly choose your parents' nursing home, and spend their money so others will care for them, but actually care for them yourself? Perish the thought!
"Do not kill? You watch entertainment in which killing is praised, and play video games in which killing is necessary to win. Your children join gangs in which killing has become a mark of status, or a rite of passage. And I need not even mention the millions of unborn who are slain on the altar of their mother's convenience. Oh, and thank you, son of my enemy, for closing that loophole about anger being as bad as murder. I made some wall niches for people who called other people fools, and I may have to make more soon.
"Do not commit adultery? Only a tiny minority even attempt to obey that one any more. The rest have been told that 'everybody does it' (a lovely lie!), and so you do it as well. You do it in the flesh with neighbors and prostitutes; men do it vicariously, by watching films and pictures of others doing it; women do it in their hearts with their soap operas and romance novels, longing for a better man than their own husbands; and then you are stunned and mystified when your children go and do likewise.
"Do not steal? You steal your employer's time and money by being idle, and then you steal his office supplies. You steal music and movies with illegal downloads. You steal from the government by cheating on your taxes. And which of these is considered wrong any more? You make jokes about it — 'It's legal until you get caught.' Jokes!
"Do not bear false witness? This has fallen so far out of favor that no one expects honesty any more. Your national leaders, who should set the example for others to follow, are so notorious for lying that when they are honest, no one believes them. Corporations lie. Celebrities lie. Athletes lie. Everyone lies. And you make up new names to justify it — 'It's just a little white lie.' Who among you has ever committed a little white murder, or had a little white extramarital affair?
"Do not covet? Your society is founded on covetousness! Your advertising is designed to make you covet things that others have. You are expected to covet the appearance of celebrities, and the money of businessmen, and the skill of athletes, and if you lack those things, you must covet the consumer goods that offer those things to you. Nations covet other nations, governments covet their citizens' goods... and I covet your heads. The difference is that I get what I desire."
"Behold all these trophies!" he exclaimed. "Just try to count them! If I had no reason for claiming anyone except for the ten commands, if this hall was the only trophy case I was permitted to keep, it would still be full to overflowing. I am gentleman enough to admit this: I am grateful to my enemy for creating a law so high and lofty that none of you can obey it."
"But where is His mercy?" I nearly begged. "Surely there is love and forgiveness to be found in Him?"
"Those things will never be found here," Lightbearer stated in a dead-flat voice. "My house is for those who had no use for those things in life, or who searched for them in places or in ways that my enemy never spoke of. Those places and those ways are the inventions and tactics of a master hunter."
"You mean, a master murderer."
"That too," he agreed. "But even a murderer is not counted such a great sinner any more, unless his crime is unusually notorious. Making mortals into great sinners is entertaining, but the little sinners also have their uses. Come, I have one more hall to show you."
This last hall was noticeably darker than the others. Lightbearer paused at the entrance to the hall and turned several knobs. At once, the gas lights on the walls lit up, and the hall brightened considerably.
"I waste little light or heat on this hall," he explained, "because I spend little time here. This is the Hall of the Little Sinners. If you had seen the same foolish failings cause the downfall of souls, over and over again for as long as I have, you might understand when I say I find the entire business rather tedious."
"Tedious!" I exploded. "You speak of eternal souls, lost in fire forever, as though it were some kind of household chore!"
"A fine analogy," nodded Lightbearer. "When I add a trophy to my walls here, I remove some dirt from creation. Unfortunately for my enemy, there are always volunteers to create more dirt, and so this hall is the most crowded of all."
In spite of all the shocking things I had seen, my curiosity was still active. "What brings a soul here and not to the other halls? What divides a big sin from a little sin?"
"You do," Lightbearer chuckled. "The idea of big sins and little sins is man-made, although I admit I taught you the idea. You do wrong, and justify your actions by saying, 'It's not such a big sin,' and SNAP! My trap claims another victim. My enemy never made any such distinction. To him, sin is sin, and any transgression separates you from him, and entitles you to a place on my walls. The torments of eternal death are the same for the man who once lost his temper at his wife as for the mass murderer."
"Mass murderer!" I had spotted a familiar face about fifty feet away. "Do you place that fiend among the little sinners? Why?"
Lightbearer answered as we walked toward that familiar face. "As I said earlier, I have placed Herr Hitler outside his usual exhibit. He resides here for a time as a sort of torment to the others here."
"Can you actually add to their torment?"
"You have no idea what I am capable of," grinned my host. "How many people do you know who justify their spiritual condition by saying, 'I'm not as bad as Hitler'? If I had a head for every soul who said that... oh, but I forget! I do have those heads!" He chuckled. "I put him here for the benefit of all who forget that their judgment will not consist of being compared to Adolf Hitler.
"Tell me, Adolf," he asked, "how many Jews did you kill with your own two hands?" He waited. "What? None? Not a single one? Perhaps you are a little sinner after all! Were the ones who looked their victims in the eye and sent them to the gas chambers, the ones who opened the gas valves, the ones who shot the escapees in the back — were they the real 'big sinners?' Or would they not have acted so evil if they didn't have your orders to fall back on?"
Lightbearer turned to me. "It seems that your entire race takes to wickedness like a duck to water. All you need is a strong example to lead you. And I am preparing the ultimate example, yes, I am. The time is almost right, and when it comes, I will give you what you always wanted — a world without my enemy. And then you will see what I can really do! Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot... they were just warming-up exercises! You humans like to compare yourselves against them, because you think you excel in such a comparison. You have no idea what real wickedness is, or what real righteousness is. 'Better than Hitler,' you say? Fortunately for my collection, you will be judged by my enemy's standard, which is somewhat higher than Hitler's."
"But that standard is too high! He demands perfection! No one can ever achieve that!"
"Do you complain to me about my enemy's justice?" Lightbearer demanded, his voice suddenly cold. "Would you have me change his standard if I could? The only change I would make would be to rule out salvation altogether! Then I would collect and display every last one of you."
"Why this insane hatred of all humanity?" I begged. "How have we harmed you? Are we even capable of harming you?"
For an answer, Lightbearer gestured with his hand. A scene appeared in the middle of the hall, something like a hologram but more solid. I watched as an unbearbly bright Light was worshiped by mighty angels too numerous to count, one more glorious than the others. I watched that angel realize that he, too, was mighty and beautiful. I watched the angel lead many of the others in a war against the Light. I watched as the Light overcame that angel, as the angel's glory turned into darkness, as he was cast out of the Light's presence forever.
Then I saw the act of creation. I watched as the world came into being, as the waters formed seas and left land in their wake. I watched the land become covered with plant life, and the seas fill up with fish and other living things, and the skies fill up with birds and insects. I watched animals come into being on the land, and finally the first man and the first woman. All this happened in silence, and then a voice spoke:
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
The vision vanished, and Lightbearer looked intently at me, his eyes glowing faintly. His voice was hollow, devoid of human emotion. "The worst sinner of all humanity still bears the image of my enemy. Though I have worked tirelessly for thousands of years to corrupt that image, stain it, obliterate it, yet it still remains. When I look at the best of you, or the worst of you, it is my enemy that I see."
He was growing slowly larger as he spoke; soon he towered over me. His voice rose to a roar, even though he was not shouting. I tried to shrink back, but I backed into the wall of heads and flinched away, back toward him.
"I hate my enemy with a hatred that you cannot imagine. Oh, that my hatred were limitless! But I am not infinite, and so my hatred has limits. One limit is that I cannot harm him.
"But I can harm those who bear his image. And I do. And I will, for as long as he permits me the freedom to do so. I hate him, and therefore, I... hate... YOU!"
Suddenly he resumed his former size. "This is the Hall of the Little Sinners," he said, as though starting this part of his tour over again. "This is where I keep those heads whose transgressions did not alter the grand course of events, or cause despair among thousands, or gain notice in your history books. They were insignificant little people who did insignificant little things, and some of those things offended my enemy, and here they are. You could not count them in a year of trying, and more are flooding in with each passing day. I care nothing for them as individuals, but by sheer numbers they form an important part of my trophy case."
"And what of that empty space near the entry?" I asked. "Do you save that space for someone important?"
"Little sinners are never important," snapped Lightbearer impatiently. "You have not been listening."
"Then for whom do you reserve that space?"
Wordlessly, Lightbearer looked me in the eye. His own eyes were filled with an unending, unbending hatred that paralyzed me. Suddenly his breath smelled like undercooked venison. He grinned that hateful grin, and extended one firm, inviting hand to me...
Choose to receive Christ as Savior and Lord, and place all your faith in Him alone to forgive every sin you have ever committed. If you do, He will welcome you into Heaven when your life ends. If you do not, He will not.
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