The man stumbled and fell, the ground scorching his hands as he reached out to steady himself. The darkness was absolute – he felt the throbbing in his blistered fingers but saw nothing at all. A shriek pierced the eerie silence, followed by another, this time a woman’s tormented cry. Someone pushed violently past, a disembodied voice demanding, “Get out of my way!”
The man muttered, “Sorry.” He didn’t mean it; he just didn’t want to risk a beating. When he first arrived, he had tried reaching out to the others, hopeful of making friends. But his efforts were invariably greeted with ridicule and invective. There was no hope in this place, no kindness, no relief; only pain.
The man’s name was Richard. He was seventeen years of age. He had no memory of how he had got there, but he knew exactly where he was. His father’s sermons had often warned about the everlasting torment of this place. Richard was in Hell.
A geyser erupted somewhere to his left. He cupped his hands, hopeful of catching a few drops of descending water. But the taste was acrid; it did nothing whatsoever to soothe his desperate thirst. Richard pressed onward, one step after another, no destination in mind, only the obligation to keep moving. Despair reigned.
It was certainly not what he had imagined Hell would be like. Richard had only ever listened with half an ear to his father’s preaching. But he had expected a glorified barbecue with crimson devils poking and prodding the damned with blackened pitchforks. Not this unending, excruciating suffering. He had imagined some sort of camaraderie, a willingness among sinners to make the most of a difficult situation, maybe even a bit of laughing and joking. But Hell was nothing like that – rather it was a terrifying absence of anything that was good or precious or beautiful.
Curiously, Richard found that loneliness brought him more discomfort than the heat or the darkness. He missed his friends and - although they had never got on that well together - he grieved deeply for his family. Memories of that last fatal trip flashed before his eyes: his brother and sister singing along to a praise tape while he sat by himself listening on his iPod to some offensive rap artist; his father driving, one hand resting affectionately on his mother’s shoulders. Then the overwhelming horror as a lorry came round the bend on the wrong side of the road, tossing the car over the edge, to crash mercilessly on to the rocks below.
A tear rolled down his soot-stained cheek, sorrow for his family, unbearable sadness at his own stupidity. How many times had Richard listened to the Gospel? How many times had he fought with his father, debating inane arguments about the existence of God? How often had he sat with his friends, laughing and jeering during the altar call?
It was the sense of hopelessness that hurt most of all, the sure knowledge that there was no way out of this place. God had given him plenty of chances and he had squandered every one of them. He would spend the rest of eternity in this torment, riddled with regret, eaten up by sorrow, damned twice over.
Anguish of heart drove him to his knees, ignoring the pain and stench of charring flesh. “Lord Jesus,” he screamed, “I know I’m too late. I just want to say that you were right and I was wrong. And I hope that …”
The tears were flowing freely now: “… and I hope that my family are very happy in Heaven.”
The light was painful in its intensity.
He thought he could make out a voice. It sounded familiar, comforting.
“Praise God. I think he’s coming round.”
Richard opened one eye. The cracked, old face of his grandfather peered down at him.
“You’re going to be all right, son.”
Richard looked around. He seemed to be in a hospital bed. His arms and legs were encased in plaster. Everything hurt.
“My … my family?” he asked. “Mom and Dad?”
The old man shook his head. “They are with Jesus,” he said. “But that’s okay. They’ve gone to a much better place.”
“Gramps, I need you to do something for me, please.” Richard was desperate. “Can you find a pastor for me?” he begged. “I want to accept Jesus right now...”
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