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By Derek Elkins
At 10:13 AM on July 16th, Trans-Atlantic Flight 841 experienced severe turbulence.
At 10:15 AM, moments after the captain finished assuring the passengers that the worst of the storm had passed; pieces of the right wing broke loose, sending Flight 841 into a tailspin.
At approximately 10:16AM, on July 16th, Trans-Atlantic Flight 841 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
There were two survivors.
* * * * * *
A Christian and an atheist washed up on the shore of a deserted island.
Still reeking of smoke and covered with a dozen cuts and bruises, Jeffrey Narall crept from the seaweed and bracken and into the dryness of the sand. Exhausted beyond belief, he flipped himself over on his back and attempted to control his breathing. He had been floating and swimming in the salty water for just over an hour and a half.
How he had managed to find the hole in the side of the plane once it was submerged was beyond his understanding. But there it was. Amidst all the confusion, despite all the barriers of floating bodies and twisted luggage, he had located an exit and found his way to the surface. After scanning the horizon, his eyes had focused on this chunk of land and had steadfastly refused to let go until he reached the shore. That’s all he knew for sure, but that was enough.
A half cough, half retching noise brought his eyes open quickly. He turned his head slightly and noticed a human-sized lump fifty feet down the shore. It was on its hands and knees.
Thank God, thought Jeffrey. I’m not the only one who survived.
The figure on the beach continued its retching for several more moments, until it finally fell face forward onto the sandy ground and was still.
I know how you feel, thought Jeffrey.
Then darkness stole over him.
* * * * *
After what seemed like an eternity in black unconsciousness, Jeffrey swam lazily to the surface. The waves breaking on the shore made him think of a storm, which enabled him to sit up.
He looked down the shore, suddenly remembering the other survivor. And there he or she was, still lying facedown in the sand.
Other flotsam and jetsam, probably from the plane had washed up on the shore as well. There were several piles of what could only be clothes and several suitcases. And, peppered here and there like orange beacons, were some of the flotation devices. But no other bodies; no other people.
Jeffrey rose unsteadily to his feet.
Looking at the sky, he noted the sun was almost halfway dropped from the sky. But he had no idea of the time. Not that the time was important: not anymore. He could tell without even checking that all the contents of his pockets, including his cell phone, had been washed away. Of course, there was no way his cell phone would have survived the water anyway.
Jeffrey staggered on legs still weakened by being unaccustomed to strenuous exercise: at least, not accustomed to the punishment they were recently subjected to. He wasn’t entirely out of shape. But he was nowhere close to being in the top physical condition he had been back in college. He jokingly blamed his wife, Amber, and her amazing cooking: well, amazing compared to the mac and cheese he had survived on in college.
As he neared the human shape, he could tell already that this was a man and not a woman. He had a beard. But the face that peaked out through the massive facial hair was too pallid, too greenish-looking. He would have looked like a mountain man, if it hadn’t been for the dress shirt and slacks that were soaked thoroughly and glued to his body.
Jeffrey bent down in the sand next to the man.
Is he breathing, Jeffrey wondered.
Please God, let him still be alive.
Jeffrey grabbed the man’s wrist to check for a pulse. And there it was: weak, but steady. Okay, so he was alive. But, now what? Jeffrey had no idea. He was a salesman, not a doctor. The only experience with people in shock or emergency situations was what he’d seen on television. Well, basic essentials first: he needed a fire.
He pulled the unconscious man a bit further up on shore, away from the rising tide, and left him to scour through the washed up wreckage. Jeffrey didn’t harbor any illusions about finding a packet of matches in a waterproof container, but you never knew. God had got him this far, maybe He would help him out just a bit further.
And there, in the flowered, half-burnt carry-on was someone’s idea of a survival package. Wrapped in cellophane was a tin that contained matches, a fishing hook, some fishing line and some iodine tabs. Even on a deserted island, God was good.
An hour later and Jeffrey had a decent fire going from the discarded and dead sticks of a nearby grove. He half-pulled, half-carried the unconscious man up to the higher position and deposited him close to the fire in hopes of warming away the shock or at least to thaw him out partly. Then Jeffrey set out to find some food as night was fast approaching.
When Jeffrey returned, with a coconut he couldn’t open and several plants that looked edible, the man was sitting up and staring into the fire vacantly. As Jeffrey entered the fire’s light, the man’s eyes tracked him. Neither man spoke until the recently unconscious one split the silence.
“So, you were on the plane too?” The man said.
“Yes,” Jeffrey answered. “I don’t know how I made it out, but I had to swim quite a way to get to the surface.”
“I don’t remember much about getting out of the plane, but I definitely remember the swim. I had a ton of that salt water in my lungs and stomach. I felt like I was going to throw up forever. Then, I don’t know…” The man spread his hands in a universal expression of helplessness.
Jeffrey bit into one of the weeds, then immediately spit it out. “Oh! That’s awful.” He threw the rest into the fire. “You passed out on the beach. I pulled you up here because I thought the tide might sweep you right back out again.”
The man nodded to Jeffrey. “Thank you. I owe you one.”
Jeffrey smiled. “I’d like to think you would have done the same for me.”
“My name is Robert Landing.”
“Jeffrey Narall. Pleased to meet you. Wish it were under different circumstances.”
They shook hands and Jeffrey sat back down, not too far from the fire.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Robert asked.
Jeffrey shook his head. “I know we were about four hours into our flight. So, that would put us, what, in the direct middle of the Atlantic Ocean?”
“Yeah.” Robert said, with a frown. “That’s just great.” He looked out into the far depths of the horizon. “Wonder if anyone will come looking for us.”
“I don’t know. They’re bound to know we went down. Hopefully, they’ll know where to check. Thank God I found some matches. We can light a bonfire if we need to: alert any passing ships.”
A snarl pasted itself on Robert’s lips. “Thank God? Why would you thank Him for? Who do you think got us into this mess?"
Jeffrey looked at him thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t happen to be a religious man, would you?”
“Now don’t think that just because I mentioned God that I’m in any way religious. Actually, I’m at the complete opposite end.”
“Oh. An atheist, are you?”
“I’d have to be an idiot not to be.” Robert said, sitting up just a little bit straighter. “I mean, let’s leave God for the Middle Ages, when women were witches just because they knew some old folk remedies that worked and when we all thought the earth was flat. We’ve evolved since then. Our concept of religion should have evolved as well. But some people stick stubbornly to their fables because they can’t find any other explanations that allow them to sleep at night.”
“Wow,” said Jeffrey. “Sounds like you have a serious problem with religion.”
“Some religions,” said Robert. “Certain religions dismiss science and logic and for some unknown reason, people believe them anyway. It doesn’t make any sense. People just don’t want to think for themselves. Take Christianity for instance.
“So, not only do they believe that there was a god that created the earth and Adam and Eve, like this was all a fairy tale or something, but they also believe that God flooded the earth, had a son named Jesus that could do miracles, and they use their bible to propagate some of the biggest horrors that mankind has ever known. And all this despite the fact that evolution has pretty much put an end to our need to believe in such mythology. They still believe these stories even though we’ve progressed beyond the need for them.”
“You know,” said Jeffrey, “I’ve got to just stop you for a moment and let you know, up front, that I’m a Christian. Not that what you’ve said so far has offended me or anything. I believe everyone has a right to their own opinion. But I thought I’d just get that out into the open, so you knew where I stood.”
“Fair enough.” Robert said, his eyes narrowed just slightly. “I’m glad you’re honest with me.”
“Well, you’ve been more than honest with me so far and I didn’t want you to think I was keeping anything from you.”
And that killed the conversation the first night. Soon Robert yawned and Jeffrey agreed, noting that they needed to get up early anyway, so they could see what their food situation looked like. And before long, both men were snoring soundly under a cloudless sky.
A few hours after they had both fallen asleep, a lone crab scuttled up the beach, paused once to consider Jeffrey, then moved into the nearby foliage.
* * * * *
The following day found Jeffrey and Robert deep in what could not properly be defined as the island’s jungle, as it stretched for less than half a mile in any direction. Besides the numerous weeds and hazardous plants with great, spiky appendages, the chief export for this particular stretch of foliage seemed to be insects. The men were harassed almost endlessly by a vast parade of mosquitoes, gnats, and a dragonfly so vicious that it had to be beaten back with a palm frond.
For the most part, the flora was devoid of anything resembling edible food. Feeling exhausted and beaten, the men were approaching a stopping point when the hand of providence directed Jeffrey’s eyes heavenward.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, shielding his eyes from the sun, “bananas.”
And there they were, deposited beneath the top of a nearby tree, like a mother great with child: a bunch of nearly ripe bananas.
“See,” said Jeffrey, “God does provide.”
“Come off it,” retorted Robert. “Those bananas would have been there whether we were or not. You can thank God, but I’ll thank nature, or maybe even evolution. Now, how are going to get them down?”
While Robert’s eyes scavenged the surrounding brush for assistance, Jeffrey continued to stare at the slightly elevated bounty, until a nagging question entered his mind.
“Why would evolution produce a banana tree on an island with no apes or any other animal to help spread its seed?”
Robert dropped the branch he had just picked up and turned to the other castaway. “What?”
“Well, think about it,” said Jeffrey. “The strongest survive, right? Well, why would there be a lone banana tree way out here in the middle of nowhere, where it can’t do any good for anyone? What’s the point? How would this be an example of the banana tree evolving into its environment? How could this be anything but an evolutionary anomaly?”
“Well, see, that’s the problem.” Robert recovered nicely. “You can’t just look at one being, or, or a dang tree and explain or disprove a theory like evolution. You have to look at the whole.”
After a moment of searching, Robert managed to locate a reasonably sturdy vine on the foliage floor. Jeffrey tied the vine around himself and the banana tree to allow him to reach the swaying fruit. Of course, at the top Jeffrey was introduced to the problem of removing the bunch from the tree.
Robert grew bored while Jeffrey struggled with the bunch. “So,” he began, “you seem like a reasonable, logical kind of guy.”
“Thank you,” responded Jeffrey, between grunts. “I aspire to be.”
“So, how can you justify the miracles in the Bible? The stories that you read in the Bible are just myths. All the earliest societies have their creation stories. There’s the Ex Nihilo myth, like your biblical creation, where a supernatural being created the world out of nothing. Then there’s the creation from chaos, favored by the Greeks and Eastern religions. And finally there’s the Emergence Myth, where humanity finds itself emerging on earth from a different location.”
Jeffrey paused a moment to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “It sounds like I’m in the presence of an English professor.”
Robert puffed his chest out just the tiniest bit from the compliment. “No, just a hobby. But my point remains the same. All old societies have their myths. And, you’ve got to admit that most of the stories in that Bible of yours are a bit unbelievable. A guy gets swallowed by a whale and lives to tell about it? God floods the earth for forty days to get rid of all the bad people? Jesus walks on water? Are those really any different than Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to give to mankind?”
“Yes, I’d have to say they are very different.” Jeffrey dropped a few bananas down to the ground. “I’d say that first, mythology like your Greek example is more of an explanatory story. They attempt to explain natural events or use physical laws as a backdrop to their mythological soap operas. But the Bible’s main focus is revealing God to mankind. The flood, the story of Jonah, even the miracles of Christ are meant as a revelation from God, not an attempt by man to explain.
“Next, if I can believe that a supernatural being created the earth and the heavens out of nothing, I can certainly believe that the same being can bend or break the same laws He created. It’s just a natural thought progression. Why should a god who created the Law of gravity be restrained by that same law? It would mean that the god was not all-powerful, that He, in fact, had limitations.
“I believe the stories are true for two reasons mainly. First, the Bible is proven reliable morally and historically over and over again. When something has as good of a track record as the Bible, its statements need to be taken as truth. Wasn’t it Sherlock Holmes that said that when we take away the impossible, whatever’s left, no matter how improbable, has to be the truth?”
Robert jumped back into the fray. “And what about the impossible? Wouldn’t you say that walking on water is impossible?”
Jeffrey smiled. “For a God that created water, walking on top of it should be simple enough, don’t you think?”
Robert grunted, but didn’t respond.
“And, of course,” said Jeffrey, “on a more personal note, God has never steered me wrong, so if He says that He created the heavens and the earth in seven real days, then who am I to say otherwise.”
“Never steered you wrong?” Robert laughed openly. “Have you looked around? You’re stuck on a deserted island…with me. How can you go through almost being killed to being shipwrecked with no hope of being rescued and not think your precious God doesn’t have it out for you?
Jeffrey dropped a few more bananas to the ground by Robert’s feet and smiled. “This story’s not over yet, my friend.”
* * * * * *
Later, the two men set their hands at erecting shelter. They attempted to attach palm fronds to trees, but in the end had to abandon their efforts. There simply weren’t enough raw supplies available.
They had been trading pleasantries for most of the evening. Jeffrey Narall had been employed by Schuester and Sullivan, ingenious constructors of household utensils, for right around thirteen years. He had a wife, just one, and no children. Oh, and he attended church faithfully. Robert Landing was a bachelor by design and not circumstance. He was an Aquarist, which, it turns out, means he managed an aquarium at a zoo in Tennessee. Robert enjoyed reading and blogging on the Internet.
After a while, the conversation came back to religion: their common thread.
“You know,” said Robert, “Gandhi once said that Christianity would be a good religion if it weren’t for Christians. And that just proves what I’ve always believed: religion just isn’t feasible. It’s one thing for a swami on a mountain top to preach loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek, but in real life it never works out that way. Take a look at your Christianity. Your Jesus teaches what?”
“Um, love your neighbor as yourself?” Jeffrey asked.
“Right,” said Robert. “Well, all religions teach that in some form or another, but look at how Christianity has played it out. Christians have shown their great love…for witches, for Muslims, and for other Christians. All you have to do is look down through history to see the great love the Christian has for his neighbor. Open Christianity’s closet and out falls the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition and the Crusades. And the hits just keep right on coming. These days, if it’s not priests abusing children, it’s some nutcase out in Kansas protesting military funerals and shouting that ‘God hates fags’. Now, how is that love?”
Jeffrey sat back against a nearby log and remained silent for a moment.
“Do you know what the Hippocratic oath is?” He asked suddenly.
Robert’s eyebrows fell in concentration. “Sure. Isn’t it an oath that doctors take saying they vow not to hurt their patients, or something along those lines?”
“Pretty much,” agreed Jeffrey. “The Hippocratic Oath requires a physician to agree to a set standard of ethical practices, such as agreeing not to knowingly prescribe a deadly drug to a patient and to hold doctor and patient talks confidential.”
“Yeah,” said Robert, “and you’re point would be…”
“Simply that physicians throughout history have a medical standard, something they base their practice on. Let me ask you, do you trust your doctor?”
“Do you think he would ever knowingly cut off your arm when it was your leg that needed removal or tell all your medical history to another patient?”
“Well,” said Robert, “there’s privacy laws that stop him from doing that kind of thing.”
“But even if there weren’t any laws,” said Jeffrey, “do you believe that your doctor or most doctors would act deceitfully?”
“Not if they wanted to have any patients left.”
“Right,” said Jeffrey. “So what happened to those doctors and medical researchers that experimented on the Jewish prisoners during World War Two? Should we judge the entire medical community on the actions of the Nazi physicians?”
“Of course not.”
“And what about policemen?” Jeffrey asked. “They’re here to serve and protect, right? So, what happened with Rodney King? Or what about general police corruption? Should you expect to get shot the next time you’re pulled over for a speeding ticket?”
“I hope not.”
“My point is simple. It’s easy to generalize about a specific group of people. It’s easy to look at the acts of certain individuals and make biased assumptions of the entire group. But it’s hardly a fair and accurate portrayal either. Christianity has done a lot of good over the centuries. We wouldn’t have a lot of the social reforms that we do now if it wasn’t for active Christians. Slavery, at least in England, was stopped by a Christian named William Wilberforce. A good majority of the homeless shelters and food pantries are managed by Christians. So, there’s plenty of Christian love out there…if you know where to look.”
Robert scratched his stubbled chin. “But does that really excuse all the actions of Christians?”
“You want an excuse for the bad things that Christians have done and still do? Simple. It’s called sin. I may follow a sinless Savior, but it doesn’t mean I’m anywhere perfect, far from it. Nobody’s going to be perfect this side of Heaven. Ultimately, though, I didn’t become a Christian just so I could follow a Christian. I became a Christian so I could follow Christ. And I follow Him now because I trust Him. I have trust in something because it’s true, not because some goof told me to have trust in it.”
Robert shook his head slightly. “You know, that’s great for you. But I just can’t use religion as a crutch in life. It doesn’t make any sense to allow some decades-old book tell me how to live.”
“Everyone has a crutch,” said Jeffrey, smiling. “Some people trust in logic or their ability to produce. Some people trust in their addictions or their love of self. All of us lean on something. As the Bible says, you’re either a slave to sin or a slave to God. But in order to do anything really substantial in life, in order to do great things that change the world, you have to trust something outside of yourself. And the object of your trust will define the actions you take and the impact you leave.
“You know, Robert, you’ve given me a lot of excuses as to why you dislike Christianity. But they’re really just excuses. They don’t amount to a whole lot. And we can sit here, waiting for rescue, and volley excuses and answers around for the rest of our lives. But the question that’s the most critical for anyone who has a problem with Christianity is what’s your problem with Christ?
Robert was temporarily speechless. “I..uh…I don’t…”
The two men sat in silence for a moment as the sky darkened and the night sounds increased in volume. The waves falling on the shore lent a symphonic quality to their thoughts. And the gulls called to one another.
Robert, like a volcano about to spew, clenched his fists tightly, earning fingernail-shaped moons on his palms. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong with Christ. I was five years old and I thought I knew who Christ was. I thought I knew who God was. I thought He was this kind and compassionate God: a God who loved me and would do anything for me. But then I found the truth about God: He was nothing but a fairy tale, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. It was cruel and something that should never happen to any child.”
“What happened to you, Robert?” Jeffrey whispered.
“I was taught to pray to God when I needed help, in a bad situation. And what could be a worse situation than my mother dying of cancer?” Robert stared into the surf, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks. “My god, Jeffrey, I was only five years old! How could God take her away from me? I mean, I prayed and prayed. And what did I get? She died and all I had left was the knowledge that God was a big lie created to make us all feel better about dying. But it doesn’t make me feel better at all.”
“Do you feel like God took your mother?” Jeffrey asked softly.
“No,” replied Robert violently. “I feel like God could have done something about it and chose not to. I mean, really, if God could heal lepers and blind men and bring people back to life then He could heal a little cancer. Is that too big for Him or something? Is cancer the rock that God created that He wasn’t strong enough to move? Come on.”
Jeffrey nodded to himself. “So, obviously, if God was supposed to help those who ask Him and He didn’t help you, then He must not exist.”
“That’s right.” Robert said. “And nothing I’ve seen in this world has changed my mind on the matter.”
“What about this?” Jeffrey gestured around.
“What?” Robert answered, incredulously. “Are you nuts? Getting stranded on a desert island is God’s way of what: telling me He loves me? Is this His way of making up for not healing my mother? How could being in a plane crash and then being stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere be anything but a curse?”
“But, you’re alive. God gave you a second chance. Isn’t that worth anything?”
“Well, sure,” said Robert. “But, so what? He could have not crashed the plane and I’d still be alive.”
“Right,” Jeffrey said, “But would you have realized how precious your life really is unless you’d been that close to death? Now, I know that there’s other ways that God could have given you the message, but none of them would have hit this close to home. Think about it. God gave you the opportunity to look death in the face and walk away. Are you seriously not going to take a long look at your life, what you accomplished and what you didn’t? Are you really going to keep on the same path after what you’ve just been through?”
Robert picked up a rock that lay next to him and took a moment to examine it in silence. It was smooth and something, probably the fossil of a small insect, was sketched into one side. And where was that insect now: long dead ages ago? And where was he and where would he be years from now?
It wasn’t as if this was a new question to Robert. It had come up before and been summarily dismissed. But Jeffrey was right. He wasn’t the same man that had boarded the plane. Wrestling death one on one and walking away tended to mark a man for life.
Could he honestly say that the way he had lived his life was beneficial to anyone but himself up to this point? If had died in that crash, who would have attended his funeral? Would anyone have mourned his passing? And if that was really all there was: life and then people forgot you even existed, then what was the point?
Maybe this was his second chance. Maybe God was giving him another chance to do something other than just exist.
Dropping the rock back onto its bed of sand, Robert looked up at Jeffrey, who was smiling slightly. He returned the smile.
“You seem to have an answer to every doubt I have. It’s almost like you were put here on purpose. God must have saved me so I could meet you, huh?”
Jeffrey’s smile widened. “Maybe He did.”
* * * * * *
Later that week, a boat full of tourist fishermen, trolling off the coast of the island, stopped and rescued Robert and Jeffrey. The men were only slightly malnourished, but otherwise in good spirits. It took them another seven days before they reached their original destination.
And, although an atheist and a Christian washed up on the shore of that deserted island, two Christians left.
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