The unemployment rate had recently eased a bit, so things were looking up. But none of that ever really effected Bill. His skills as a mechanic had kept him gainfully employed for the past thirty some odd years. Anyone in town who wanted their pick-up truck fixed knew Bill on a first-named basis. On more than one occasion, Bill even got a truck running when he had no business doing so. Simply put: He was the best in town!
Bill was not, however, merely a good mechanic. He was also a devoted husband, patient father, and caring grandfather. He and his wife, Ethel, were madly in love. They had 4 children—all grown and married at the time of the “big event,” of course. Between them, they had provided their parents with 11 grandchildren. Bill and Ethel were blessed to say the least, but it had not always been easy. Even the closest of couples go through their rough patches and these two were no different.
Sometime back—’45 to be exact—while Bill and Ethel still attended their local Baptist church, Bill and the head pastor started to not see eye to eye about some fairly trivial church matters. As these things are too often wont to do, what began as petty bickering grew into a near knock-down-drag-out type event during one Wednesday night Bible study. From that point on, Bill vowed never to step foot inside a church building again. You see, beneath all the surface tension between he and the pastor, there had been a growing skepticism about what Bill claimed to believe. His former pastor was merely someone to blame for his walking away—an obvious scapegoat.
Before long, Bill’s growing skepticism morphed into downright agnosticism. This was difficult news for Ethel to hear. She knew what she had always been taught: “Accept Jesus as ‘Lord and Savior’ or face eternal torment, separated from God forever and ever.” But she also knew how wonderful of a husband and father Bill had always been. Moreover, he was beloved throughout town and in his now former congregation. When given a chance to help, Bill was always the first anyone could count on.
But God’s word was God’s word.
For roughly ten years after this event, Ethel wrestled both internally and externally with Bill’s lack of belief. Many nights were spent sleepless, some silent, some in heated debate. There would be a rift between the two lovers. Ethel even began to develop these recurrent nightmares where Bill could be seen hanging on a Roman cross, burning in white flames, while demons danced to the beat of the war drum off in the distance. Yet, Bill’s agnosticism persisted in light of all the Scripture Ethel could throw at him. Eventually, Ethel had to accept this new reality and simply tried to show Bill the same type of love she used to. Plus, “perhaps Bill would eventually come around on his own,” she thought. He was known for his healthy lifestyle so he had years to choose Jesus. Although it took longer than Ethel would have liked, this type of thinking helped her rid herself of the nightmares she suffered from. But, in the back of her mind was a subtle anxiety—a new normal as it would turn out to be.
Four years after things had calmed down for Bill and Ethel, the two received the most devastating of news. Bill had cancer—stage IV lung cancer to be exact. There was no treatment, no cure. Perhaps Bill would live another six months, the doctors told him, but that was about it.
Although Bill never smoked a cigarette in his life, both of his parents did. In fact, Bill’s mother Mary smoked upwards of two packs per day for over thirty years. It was obvious as to what the source of the tumor that would lead to Bill’s demise was. But Bill would never blame his parents. That just wasn’t his style. He was humble, but not in a false kind of way. When pondering the afterlife, Bill once uttered: “Should anyone deserve salvation, it’s not me—everyone before me!”
He was quite Kierkegaardian in his humility.
For Ethel, matters became pressing. The time she thought Bill had to choose Jesus was no longer there. Here he was, facing his imminent death and still, he held out . . . uncommitted. Ethel would plead and plead for a dying Bill to reconsider, but it never helped things. He just wanted to die in peace, in the arms of his lover, Ethel. Of course, when push came to shove, this too was what Ethel desired at that point. “If Bill was not going to survive, at least let there be love between us! At least let me hold him as if the embrace would never end,” she would often think. Surely, she did not want to believe that upon Bill’s death, all hope would be lost.
When the time came to say goodbyes, all of Bill’s family travelled back home to their sleepy Midwestern town. However, what they did not know was that Bill had denounced his faith years before. In their minds, he was still “saved.” Ethel never had the courage to tell the others about Bill’s unbelief. She simply could not bear having Bill’s entire family worry in the same way she was. And Bill was not the type to talk about these things with family. So, although the family was distraught, they had hope—hope that their God’s mercy would endure forever, that one day they would reunite with dear Bill.
As for Ethel, feelings were mixed. Moments of hope would flee in favor of moments of terror—fear often driving out love. At Bill’s bedside for the final time, Ethel prayed one last prayer that her beloved husband might find salvation. But he remained silent, a blank stare as evidence that he wasn’t really there. The morphine had been dripping for ten days and it had been two since Bill had even spoke. And even that was but a mutter. When Bill labored through his final breath, Ethel’s eyes welled up with tears as she knew her husband was in God’s hands now. His fate was sealed and now it was time for judgment.
For roughly the next half-century, Ethel lived in relative melancholy. She was not what one would call “depressed,” but there was a certain sadness within her. She never remarried, as the emotional roller coaster within her never truly subsided. Certainly, she had days where she remained hopeful that somehow, she and Bill would be together again and their fairy tale complete. But she also knew the possible dire consequences of Bill’s lack of a decision.
Ethel remained fairly healthy during her last fifty years of life, and it was not until the ripe old age of 105 until she began to deteriorate. But when she did, she went fast, and fairly alone. She had outlived all her friends and even 3 out of 4 of her own children. This solidarity gave Ethel time to think, to hope. You see, in spite of her deterioration, Ethel’s mind remained sharp. Until the end, she lucidly thought: “It is only a matter of time until I find out . . .”
On September 23, 2015, she did.
Ethel Johnson took her last breath at 2:34 pm. In the twinkling of an eye, she was in the very presence of the Creator. Surely, there was a certain comfort to that fact. But Ethel was trembling with anticipation. Anxious could not begin to describe what she felt at that moment. In a mutter not even audible to the human ear, Ethel asked: “Where’s Bill?”
But there was only silence . . . followed by more silence.
Without even a response, Ethel knew. She was right the entire time and that truth was the worst news she could ever imagine. In an instant, she fell upon the golden streets of New Jerusalem, weeping and gnashing her teeth. Nothing could console her. Her beloved Bill was lost forever—to the flames of hell to be tortured for all eternity. Ethel’s muscles began to tighten and she remained paralyzed in fear, unable to even move an inch. Her mind raced, thinking about how her children would never embrace their father again. She thought about her 11 grandchildren who loved their “papa” so dearly. How could they never again sit on his knee and listen to one of his old “wise tales?”
“How could this be?!” Ethel finally cried out, tears and snot exploding from her eyes and nose.
Scripture verses about God’s unending mercy continued to race through Ethel’s mind.
. . . His steadfast love endures forever . . .
. . . He may have mercy on them all . . .
Anger began to build and build, followed by sadness and despair. There was only one way to explain Ethel’s state: Hell. Only, instead of the physical torment her husband Bill was suffering, Ethel’s was purely psychological. In all reality, there was no heaven, only two types of hell, two forms of torture. The promise that God would wipe all tears was but a lie, a misinterpretation of God’s so-called unending love.
So, there Ethel lay in her eternal state—forever positioned at the city’s gates. Open they remained, but for reasons known by none. Inside the shiny city walls, with its sparkling streets of (fools) gold, those in “heaven” all lingered in a similar state. Hopeless they all remained, forever betrayed by what they once called Love.