"And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Surprise Ending
Gordon Smith turned his head and coughed as the doctor instructed him. He had never been comfortable with the process of getting naked with another man, even when that man was his doctor, but over the years he had developed a successful manner of distracting himself during these exams, a simple exercise in which he imagined himself at the beach, in the sun, away from the stresses of his busy workday. As he coughed again, he felt the sun's warmth upon his face, felt the hot sand between his toes, heard the soft lap of the waves as they washed up on the beach.
A few weeks later, Gordon sat in the same doctor's office, this time with his wife by his side. He had always discouraged his wife's attendance at his appointments, even after the kids had left the nest and she had more time available, more time to spend with him. But she insisted this time, having heard some of the conversation and seen his face when the office had called to schedule the appointment, and explain the reason behind its necessity. Blood test anomalies.
As Gordon sat and waited, his wife clutching his hand in her lap, he allowed himself to once more drift off to the beach, his safe place. But this time, he was less successful in blotting out his anxiety. It annoyed him that lately he had found himself revisiting in his mind, the highlights of his life. He had always thought himself different from most men, special, and he felt that this kind of reminiscing was the "normal" reaction to such news as he had received.
Still, today, he found himself oddly tranquil as he ticked off the business accomplishments of his life. The early days when he was just learning the ways of the financial world. His mentor, who would later become his partner, schooled him well. As he grew his circle of associates, the opportunities increased exponentially. No deal was out of reach, no shot for financial success too long. Whether he required a loan, a zoning change, or an inside track, he had a contact which would provide the funding or remove the obstacle. While he may not have been available for his children's activities, he provided more than enough money for them to attend good schools, and for his wife to remain at home to raise them herself.
Gordon was a success, everyone said so. Even his parish priest seemed to seek out his company; of course, his monetary donations didn't hurt, even if Gordon didn't attend mass as often as his wife desired. Gordon glanced at his wife, as she sat with a worried look on her face. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be OK, that men like him, with his resources, his contacts, were immune to the vagaries of life that doomed lesser men to unforeseen events. He has always made his own way, always took on any battle and emerged victorious, and this one would be no different. Gordon had always told her just that, hadn't he always prevailed? He wondered why she should even be worried at all, and instead of comforting her, he withdrew his hand from her grasp.
Six months later, Gordon Smith pulled himself up against his pillow, and pushed the lift button on his hospital bed. His family was to visit today, wife, son, daughter. They all had stopped by individually in the last few weeks, his wife almost daily, the kids when they could find the time, but this would be the first time all three came at once. Their visits, though pleasant, had often reminded him of his illness, more than reminding him of their love for him. He despised, no, that was too strong of a word, he preferred not to see the sadness in their eyes, didn't want to acknowledge that he was, in fact, dying. Denial was a strong feeling, and one which Gordon had mastered many years ago when the slight prickling of his conscience would try to distract him, try to remind him of what was really important.
It was if, were they not to visit, he could pretend that this time in the hospital was just the result of a simple procedure, a temporary blip in the path of his life, a minor stop in his continuous and successful rise to national importance and substantial wealth. When his now ex-business partner stopped by to express his condolences and support, Gordon remembered the day when he had outmaneuvered his partner, had learned the tricks of the trade even better than this man who had first been his teacher, wresting control of their company so that he was out, leaving Gordon in control. As the man left, Gordon couldn't help but wonder if there was more to the visit than discussed. Gordon couldn't shake the feeling that his former partner might have been seeking reinstatement, perhaps a public expression of support or a designation of succession. As if Gordon would consider such a thing just because he was sick.
When the day came that Gordon passed from this world, it was not unlike any of the previous 30 days. Gordon awoke, just a bit more tired than yesterday, a pattern that had started recently. He barely acknowledged the hospital staff person who delivered his morning meal, just as he had barely interacted with this young woman during most of the transactions when she would deliver his meals. In the background, the TV glowed with the same business information that was always displayed, numbers scrolling across the bottom, experts bemoaning the latest government regulation which placed undo obstacles on wealth accumulation, or extolling the virtues of the most recent corporate merger announcement, another mega company being born to monopolize another industry. Even his wife's visit seemed routine. He was no longer able to read the unspoken messages in her eyes, no longer able to accept a love that she gave unconditionally, despite the lack of such a love being returned to her.
It was the very nature of this routine, however, that startled Gordon when he was suddenly no longer in his hospital bed, no longer surrounded by the anti-septic smell of the room and the soft glow of Business Today on the TV. Instead, he was sitting across the desk from a middle aged man who was engrossed in a folder of papers which he had in front of him. While Gordon was uncertain of the circumstance, he was quite certain that he was on the side of the desk to which he was unfamiliar, the subordinate side. When a few more moments passed without recognition for his presence, Gordon cleared his throat in just the way which he had always done when he wanted someone of lower status to pay attention to him.
"Ah yes, Mr Smith. I was just reviewing your file. Do you know where you are?"
Gordon snickered. "Not in the hospital", he said. Gordon had always found that should he find himself in a situation in which he was unsure, a scornful declaration of what he knew was the best response.
"Yes, you are quite right. You are no longer in the hospital. Would it surprise you that you are no longer on Earth? Or to put it more bluntly, that you are no longer alive"?
Not one to show any sign that he could somehow be caught off guard or not be in control of any situation, Gordon sat up in his chair as straight as he could and with a half smile that said, there is nothing that you could know that I didn't already guess, he said "Not surprised at all. It is rather evident".
The man behind the desk did not flinch however. He was used to this kind of response, this kind of man, unfortunately so because that is the only type that he had faced, would face, for quite a long, long time.
"Mr Smith, your life has been reviewed. I have here a synopsis of your accomplishments, your business acumen, your wealth, the recognition you have received by men like your self". The man behind the desk looked up from the folder, and smiled. It was a smile that Gordon was familiar with, a smile that he shared often with other men of business, a knowing smile, a smile that disarms those less knowing in the ways of men who eviscerate, with a smile. And, although he hadn't admitted it to himself, Gordon relaxed for the fist time since he had "arrived" in this office. He had been a bit on edge, had felt a slight twinge from that part of his mind that he had long since disabled. But now he felt at home, with a kindred spirit.
"Gordon Smith, you have led a successful life, full of monetary gains, robust deals which brought fame and recognition, and relationships designed to create even more wealth. Congratulations, you are a wonderful example of a man who understands that earthly possessions, no matter how they are acquired, is the goal of men who do not seek anything beyond material success. You have earned a unique place in eternity."
Gordon rose from his chair. The wisdom of the path of his life, his unrelenting goal of more wealth and power was now confirmed. He felt a growing sensation in his mind, a tingling, pleasing sensation unlike anything he had ever experienced. As he reached out his hand to accept congratulations from the man behind the desk, the sensation in his mind burst from within him. Total consciousness, as Bill Murray's character in Caddyshack claims he will have upon his death in lieu of a tip from the Dalai Lama after 18 holes of golf.
Sadly though for Gordon, while total consciousness was the reward he earned, its details were not the reward he expected. For in that moment, that moment that would play over and over again for eternity. Gordon realized that his wife's love for him was never appreciated, his children had always longed for his time, not his money, his business associates only respected him as much as they could use him for their own gain, and, in the end, his former partner and mentor had visited, not too garner future favor, but to express his friendship despite Gordon's actions towards him, for he had had his own burst of conscious in the years since their partnership.
The man behind the desk released Gordon's hand, and pushed the small, red button on his desk. Two men of similar demeanor emerged from a nearby door, and escorted Gordon into a void that could not discerned.
Gordon was surprised by the judgement he received at death, yet should he be? It's not like he hadn't heard the warning message from his childhood as a Roman Catholic when the dangers of excess wealth had emanated from the pulpit of various priests, or even from his own dear wife and children who often reminded him that money was nice, as were the things that financial success could procure, but that without family and friends, it was all false. And that when someone put wealth accumulation above humanity, well, that lead far too easily to a life lived in antithesis of the message of Jesus.
I have had many discussions with family, friends, and work acquaintances, concerning the percentage of people who believe they will "go to heaven", or the equivalent of whatever belief system to which they proscribe. I tend to think that at least 95% of people believe they will attain a heavenly reward, while, strangely, many aren't as confident about other people, generally condemning a host of "types" of people to eternal damnation, whether those people hold different religious, political, sexual preference, or even national affinity. It reminds me of the staunch GOP politicians who are 100% sure of their recent victory in the 2020 election, and exhibit no doubt that election integrity is not an issue in their state, yet aren't quite so confident in those other states where the Democratic candidate was victorious.
I have a few, what may be called alarming, theories about who will spend eternity with God, or more precisely, who may not share eternity with Her.
The first is that all those born of a specific time frame, say all those born between 1945 and 1965, will be judged as a unit. Each life, as they end, will generate a positive and negative score, that score being the net accumulation of good deeds and bad deeds. Oddly, the designation of what is good and bad, is relative to the time. For instance, an act that was acceptable to the majority of people during the 19th century, yet became unacceptable during the 2nd half of the 20th century, would be valued appropriately, when it occurred, not in retrospect based on a shift in the morality of a new age. This theory might be labelled as the all-for-one-one-for-all theory of Judgement Day. The unfortunate aspect of it is that those who behave in a truly horrible way can be saved by the good works of their contemporaries. It allows for those who behave abominably to find eternal reward because, as it turns out, they are the exception that proves the rule, that most people are good and so that cumulative goodness saves everyone. This theory also gives reasons for goodness to those who might wonder why bother, there is so much evil in the world, what can a few good works by me accomplish in the face of such badness. Well, it is precisely those good deeds that counter the badness, making it the duty of those who understand the difference of good and bad, to be good.
The second is similar to the first, in that it results in a group Judgement Day, except this one is broken down by country and culture. After all, to be judged under the same standards when born in the United States as those born in South Sudan just doesn't seem fair. I am not sure how God is going to separate us within those varying cultures and countries, but I imagine it will be just, as I assume that fairness is a trait of the Creator. I do expect however, that the standards will be a bit higher for some cultures/countries. That the bar will be raised for those who were blessed with advantages at birth that others did not receive. Sort of like a sports team that has 4 or 5 superstars will be expected to win the championship, or at least come close, while a team with much less talent might be deemed successful just by making the playoffs. Unfortunately, this theory places a larger share of burden on those who won the "birth lottery", specifically most of us who reside in the developed world, especially us Americans. Should this be the case, all those who routinely espouse selfish philosophies, America first, party over country, take care of No 1, might be surprised when reminded that how we treat the least among us could be the bar against how we are measured.
Speaking of a bar, my third theory is reflected in The Surprise Ending. The bar, in this case, is wealth. Those who die with huge amounts of money and possessions are automatically rejected, condemned to hell as Gordon Smith seems to have been. Again, this amount would have to be relevant to the times. Perhaps as simple as, anyone with an amount of wealth that is 1000 times more than the poorest of the time, is... well you get the idea. I like this theory a bit more than the other two. In those two, there is some kind of good vs bad deed evaluation, The "too much money" theory that Gordon fell victim too, merely follows the advice that Jesus gave when asked about riches. It's actually simpler too, if you think about it. Sure, work hard to attain financial comfort, but never lose sight that the point of life is to reflect the love of the Creator who has demonstrated such love through the gift of life. Or more to the point, that money and power are false idols. Kind of like the Clint Eastwood character in Pale Rider, when the rich villain offers him a church and big collections on Sunday if he would move to town and stop defending the farmers he wants to drive from their land. Clint's response, a version of Matthew 6:24, reminds the man that one cannot serve mammon and God, mammon being money, so the offer just won't work out. Can you imagine the sheer volume of people who will find themselves on the wrong end of this yardstick? But what about those who inherit a lot of money, you might ask? I would expect that someone with the advantage of superior resources could figure out a way to disperse that money. Still, I can imagine that some consideration might be given to those who use their wealth to improve the lives of others. What concerns me with this caveat, is that many of those who accumulate large sums of money do so in nefarious ways, by harming or taking advantage of many others. Do they then get a pass when they use their ill-gotten gains to buy their way back to heaven? I would prefer that we evaluate the super rich on how they got that way, not what they did afterwards. And, since this is my theory, I believe God does as well, although being far more merciful than I, perhaps the Creator allows more wiggle room than I do.
So there you have it, a few simple theories about the next step after death. Thoughts on who might be rewarded, who might not. And, if I may be so bold, a bit of a warning to those of us who spend far too much time cheating and lying and fighting to gain more money to make their heaven on earth, not realizing that all that effort produces rewards that are not only fleeting, but could very well condemn you to a far longer time of despair and agony.
Oh yes, one more thing. Did you catch the attitude of the man behind the desk in the story? He seemed quite saddened, perhaps even depressed by the fact that assisting in the judgement of men like Gordon Smith had long been his only occupation, and would forever be so. You see, the man behind the desk was not sent to hell as Gordon was. He had been condemned to an even worse fate, that of informing men and women innumerable who had behaved exactly as he had in his life. His hell was to see a reflection of his own face across the desk each and every time he revealed their fate.