Five seconds. That's all the warning I got. Five seconds to notice the eighteen-wheeler rapidly growing in my rearview mirror. Five seconds to look again and realize that it wasn't going to stop. Five seconds to understand that with vehicles all around me on the traffic-jammed freeway there was nowhere to go, no way to escape.
Five seconds to acknowledge that I was about to die.
At least it will be quick, was my last thought before forty tons of loaded truck slammed into the back of my vintage coupé. Built in an era before crumple zones and safety cages, the little car simply disintegrated as it was crushed between the big rig behind me and the unyielding SUV in front. For a single terrifying moment I was conscious of the cloud of shattered glass, the crunch and squeal of rending, ripping steel, and then my world vanished in an overwhelming explosion of pain.
My death was so quick that I didn't really lose consciousness. I justtransitioned from being in my car to being in... this other place. In the space between one breath and the next, I was suddenly somewhere else. I looked around, trying to find a point of reference, but all I could see was white nothingness. At first I wondered if this was just some trick of my mind, the last spark of brain activity as my broken body gave up its hold on life. I waited for it to end, for my existence to cease. When it didn't, I tried to move, but there was nothing I could head towards, no destination to reach. I just was.
It was unsettling, to say the least, for I had never believed in an afterlife, never believed even in the existence of the soul. I was polite to those who felt differently to me, but in the privacy of my own mind I thought it was just a way for fragile humans to give themselves something to hope for, some way to deny the finality of death. I didn't hold it against them for thinking that way. Many of them were wonderful people whom I counted among my best friends.
To me, we were just biological machines that lived, passed on our genetic code if we were lucky, died, and that was it. There was no "immaterial component" that remained after death. Thoughts were just electrical impulses, emotions just the complex interaction of various neurotransmitters with the brain. Everything could be explained by science.
It was evident, however, that my cheerful confidence in the correctness of my viewpoint was misplaced. The fact of my continued existence outside of a body I knew could not possibly have survived that traffic accident stood defiant in the face of my vaunted naturalism, and it nagged at me, eating away at the worldview I had built and lived by almost all my life. At first I tried to deny it, tried to work out a reasonable explanation for what was happening to me. I went back to my initial theory that I was experiencing the last remnant of brain activity before death, but it was hard to reconcile that with the ongoing crystal clarity of the thoughts that snapped through my mind, exactly as if unhindered by the natural processes of a physical body.
Hard, but not impossible. I remembered an article I had read about how doctors had measured a sudden spike in brain activity just before death, which they believed occurred as loss of blood pressure in the last few moments of life caused the brain's neurons to suddenly discharge. Perhaps in that last surge of mental energy, my dying brain had entered a hyper-cognitive state, giving me the ability to process a lot of thoughts incredibly rapidly in a very short space of time. Although I felt like I was experiencing a continued, unending existence, in reality I had just seconds or less to live before my body shut down for good. I smiled happily to myself, pleased to have a scientific explanation for what I was experiencing. It was a whole lot more appealing than the alternative that my soul had passed on into another, immaterial existence. Because if that was actually true, then it opened the door to the possibility that I was wrong about a great number of other things as well, things that didn't bear consideration.
God, for example.
Too late, I realized that my thoughts had turned unwittingly to the very subject I didn't want to think about; God, the purported Creator of the entire Universe. A non-physical being who ruled over everything and everyone. It was an idea I had dismissed as ludicrous, a fanciful superstition made up by our primitive ancestors to try to explain things they weren't intelligent enough to understand. But here amid all this white nothingness, not knowing for sure what was happening to me, it didn't seem quite so implausible. What if God really does exist? What if I'm about to meet Him? The questions, once asked, couldn't be un-asked. They echoed in my mind, demanding answers that I couldn't give, and I felt the uneasiness return. I had enough friends of faith to know something about the major religions' views of the afterlife, and none of those views were particularly favourable to a God-denier like me. Words like judgement and hell and eternity rolled across my mind.
I grimaced, trying to shake off the fear that had begun to settle like a heavy weight upon my shoulders. What was I worried about? God was supposed to be good. If He did indeed exist, surely He would accept me. Why wouldn't He? I wasn't a bad person. I obeyed the law of the land. I was polite. I studied hard at school, did well for myself after getting my degree. I hadn't done anything seriously wrong like murder, had simply lived my life as best I knew how. Wasn't that enough?
It aggravated me that I didn't know the answer to that, didn't know how I could know. I was used to having the answers, to being in control of my life, but now... now I was in an impossible non-place, unable to even move around, my only company the troubling, unanswerable questions that rattled around my mind. There was absolutely nothing I could do to affect even the slightest change in my circumstances. I could only wait and see; wait and see if God existed, wait and see if He would appear to me, wait and see if He even cared who I was or what I did.
Wait, wait, wait. I was fed up of waiting for something to happen, fed up of not knowing what was going on. Above all I was fed up of the fear that gnawed at me like a dog worrying a bone.
"Enough already!" I yelled in frustration. "If you're there, show yourself!"
I glared at the whiteness, hearing and sensing nothing, and in that moment something snapped inside me. I swore viciously, anger flaring white-hot in my chest. If God existed, if He was the one who had brought me here, had left me to pine away in this cosmic waiting room, then He was a fraud. He didn't love me. He didn't love anyone but Himself.
"Hey!" I screamed. "Hey, you! Is this what a good God does? A loving, caring God who says He loves everyone in the world?! Is this just a joke to you? Ooh, look at the puny human, so powerless! Oh, how funny, ha ha ha!"
I swore again in a torrent of profanity, daring God to respond.
"Answer me, you worthless piece of-"
The words died in my throat as my surroundings suddenly exploded in brilliant, blazing light. The presence that followed seemed to fill all of existence as it swept over me in a crushing wave, hammering at my senses with endless power and driving me first to my knees, then flat on my face. Raw terror clawed at my soul, snuffing out my anger and leaching my strength as my very being instinctively, unwillingly recognized the One who stood before me.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Creator of heaven and earth. Mighty Ruler over all. King, Saviour, and Redeemer. Judge.
Though spoken with quiet dignity, the command from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ thundered through me like a raging river, its authority unshakeable and absolute. With the word came the power to obey, and I forced myself to stand, my fear and horror rising as the truth pushed its way into my consciousness. Here was the God I had denied all my life. Here was the One who was truly worthy of worship. He was everything, and I was nothing, but instead of acknowledging that fact, instead of giving Him the honour He was due, I had deceived myself into believing He didn't exist. I had determined, on little more than my own desire to believe it was so, that there was no God and therefore no rules. Morality was whatever I wanted it to be. My life was my own to do with as I wished. I had put myself in the place of God, in effect worshipping myself and my own ideas, my own knowledge. Every day of my life I had flaunted my self-will before the all-knowing, all-seeing Creator of the entire universe.
I looked up into eyes that glittered with fire, quailing inside as I felt, for the first time in my life, my complete and total guilt before a holy, righteous God. I had broken His divine Law, and now I was being brought to justice for my crimes. And yet, as I continued to look into the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, I saw that He would have accepted me. A dim memory of the one time I had allowed my believing friend to explain his faith flashed into instant comprehension, and I suddenly understood that this all-powerful God-man standing before me had chosen to die in my place, to take upon Himself the penalty for my wrongdoing. My sinfulness was covered by His sacrifice, if I had only put my trust in Him.
But I hadn't, and now it was too late. There was no escaping that conclusion, for I could see that alongside His bottomless love and compassion was a granite-like hardness, a determined resolve for justice to be done. The two were in perfect balance, strong and resolute. I had made my decision, and now I faced the consequences. I had rejected God's mercy over and over during my life on Earth. It would not be extended again.
What a fool I was! My conscience had warned me that there would have to be a reckoning for doing what I knew deep inside was wrong, but I had ignored it, had pushed and argued it away until I couldn't hear it anymore. I could hear it perfectly well now, though. It yelled and screamed at me, condemning me with vivid memories of my self-ruled life. I tried to ignore it like I always had, but it stayed there in the back of my mind, taunting me with thoughts of the terrible retribution that surely awaited me.
He spoke again. "This is your condemnation, that the light came into the world, and you loved darkness rather than light, because your deeds were evil. Because you do not believe in Me, the wrath of God abides on you, and you shall not see life."
I stared at Him, my ears ringing with the terrible finality of His words. My first desperate instinct was to protest the unfairness of His sentence upon me, to find some way out from this predicament in which I found myself. Didn't the punishment have to fit the crime? How could a loving God send me to an endless eternity of suffering? He held my eyes calmly, and I felt the weight of His gaze penetrating to the very depths of my being, stripping away any pretense. I lowered my head, suddenly ashamed. I already knew the answer to my question. My life of self-rule had offended and dishonoured an infinitely holy God, and no temporary punishment could possibly be enough to overcome that. My only way of salvation was the Lord Jesus Christ, and I had rejected Him. It was not He who sent me away. It was I who sent myself.
Fear gripped me in a vice, turning my insides to water as the stark reality of my situation settled upon me like a heavy blanket. I'm going to Hell. Whatever that meant, I knew it would be infinitely worse than anything I could possibly imagine, and it terrified me. I wanted to beg and plead for a second chance, to argue that if He sent me back to my life on Earth I would believe in Him, would follow Him, anything for a way to escape from my looming fate. But I didn't, because I knew that it wasn't true. He could give me another million years, and I would still never willingly submit myself to Him.
All these thoughts and more flowed through me with that uncanny clarity of a mind unhindered by the physical body, and with them my anger returned with full force. I hated Him. I hated the purity of His presence, which lashed at my sinful soul like the flame of a welding torch, burning white-hot. It ate away at me, a constant reminder of my shame and unworthiness before Him.
A wave of fury flooded me, and I snapped my head up, glaring at Him. "I despise You," I ground out.
He met my eyes once again, deepest sorrow etched on His face. "I know," He said, His voice echoing with the weight of an infinite grief. "Now depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness."
An enormous angel materialized behind me, his powerful hands closing around both my arms in an unbreakable grip. Before I could even think to resist, I felt myself hurled outward with incredible force. The whiteness vanished and I suddenly found myself in darkness so deep it could be felt. A crushing loneliness, a terrible sense of abandonment, weighed heavily upon my soul.
"Hello?" I called out, hearing myself speak, but the sound seemed to die without going anywhere. "Hey!" I yelled. No answer, not even an echo. That wasn't right. I couldn't be the only person here! Sudden panic drove a knife between my ribs, and I called out again and again, the pitch of my voice rising with every attempt until I was screaming. The only presence I felt was the blazing purity of the omnipresent Spirit of God, but it brought no comfort, only the unending desire to get away from Him without being able to do so. I was repelled by His presence, and yet stuck fast. It was a constant force pushing upon my soul, like being seared and frozen at the same time. It was agony.
I don't know how long I tried to get a response. Time wasn't something I could consciously track anymore. Eventually I wearied of it, and turned my attention instead to the God who had banished me. In fury I cursed Him, cursed my believing friends, cursed the truck driver whose carelessness had brought my life on Earth to such an abrupt and ignoble end. But I could only do that for so long, for even my rantings against God didn't give me any pleasure. They just brought shame, because although I rebelled against the notion with all my being, I knew that this fate was deserved. I hadn't wanted anything to do with God - I still didn't - and so He had given me what I wanted, an eternity outside of relationship with Him. The inevitable result of such a separation was this darkness, devoid of any light, any comfort, anything that might bring the slightest bit of relief.
I found myself longing for the oblivion of non-existence. Just to stop being would be a relief. But I was refused even that. Annihilation was not sufficient to pay back the debt of honour I owed my Maker. I had dishonoured Him by my rejection of His sovereignty over my life, and now I must myself be dishonoured in return, an object of eternal shame and disgrace.
Anger and sorrow warred within me. One moment I seethed with rage against God and all He stood for, the next I grieved bitterly for the eternal ruin of my existence. It was unbearable misery, a continual, unceasing tide that surged from one terrible emotion to another. There was no hope for me here, no possibility of reprieve, only the enduring despair of a soul suffering under the wrath of Almighty God.
And it would never end.