...it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment...
– Hebrews 9:27, KJV
The pain of cancer was gone. The hospital room, the beeps of the machines, the voices of his wife and children; they were all gone, and in their place was silence so complete that he wondered if noise had ever existed at all.
He opened his eyes. He stood in an empty room that bore a striking similarity to the interior of a cathedral, with a vaulted ceiling supported by stone pillars. There was no furniture, no decorations on the wall, no sign that anyone had been in this room since its construction.
Of all the things he had expected to find after death, this wasn't it.
A thunderous crash rent the silence of the room. The man nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn't noticed it before, but at the far end of the room there was a throne. Sitting on the throne was a figure shrouded in a hooded black cloak, and in Its hand was a scythe. It had banged the scythe's handle against the floor; this was the source of the noise.
The figure spoke. It said his name in a voice as cold and devoid of emotion as the stone the hall was built from. It spoke quietly, yet the room trembled with every word.
"Yes?" the man said nervously.
The figure got up from the throne and stood silently – for a moment or an age, he couldn't tell. Time had no meaning here. He couldn't see Its face, but he got the feeling It was staring at him, weighing him and finding him wanting. Then the figure reached up and pushed back Its hood.
He no longer needed to breath, but he still felt as if all the wind had been knocked out of him. Half of Its face was his daughter's, just as she had been when he last saw her: young, healthy, alive. The other half was a skeleton. Even the living side of Its face had no eyes; merely empty sockets.
Horrified, he fixed his gaze on the stone floor beneath him.
"Who are you?" he asked, not looking up.
"I am the Life-giver, the Life-taker. I am the Start and the End of all things. I am Spring; I am Winter. I am the Judge, and you are here to be Judged." It said every word as calmly and dispassionately as if judging him was merely a necessary inconvenience that had to be got out of the way before It could move on to more important matters.
All his deeds in life sprang up before his eyes. There were the little things he had quite forgotten: doing the shopping when his wife was too busy, cooking dinner for her on her birthday, making a kite for the children. Then there were the things he had once considered heroic and admirable: gunning down soldiers, placing bombs under police cars, spending time in prison and thinking himself a martyr. Standing here, in this empty hall before this impassive Judge, he saw the evil he had done, and trembled for his fate.
"Before I judge you," said Death in Its emotionless voice, "I would ask your advice."
The man blinked, taken thoroughly off-guard. He had expected many things. This was not one of them. "You... need my advice?"
"I need no one's advice. But I wish to hear your opinion on the story I will tell you.
"There was once a man who committed many crimes. They ranged from the minor, like stealing from a neighbour's garden, to those worthy of execution, like rape and murder.
"This man lived in a peaceful, prosperous country. But he decided he did not like the country's government. He and those like him wanted to rule it themselves, and when they realised the country's people had more sense than to give them power, they started a campaign of terror. They bombed people's homes. They murdered those who disagreed with them. The souls of their victims came before me and begged me to destroy the man and his comrades.
"I told their victims that it is not my place to mete out judgement to the living, but that I would deal with their murderers as soon as they died. Everyone dies, from the honest beggar to the corrupt millionaire, from the binman who can think but not read to the politician who can read but not think, from the priest's bastard who never knew his parents to the king who can trace his ancestry back to Ancient Rome. Everyone comes before me, and their own actions condemn or vindicate them.
"However, on occasion I ask a soul what they think a punishment should be. And so I put it to you: how should I punish this man?"
As the man listened, he had become convinced that the story was about his enemies. His fears for his own soul melted away, and he congratulated himself once more on trying to overthrow them. And so, he said confidently, "I think he should burn in hell, but wouldn't it be fairer to let his victims decide?"
A smile crossed the living side of Death's face. "Indeed it would. And here they are."
It pointed with one long, bony finger. The man turned to see what It pointed at. Gathered behind him was a host of people, some of them very old and some mere children. And he recognised all of them. They were all his victims.
The young woman in a flowery dress – he and a friend had raped and murdered her because she spoke out against his organisation. The soldiers and policemen – they were the ones he had killed. The children clinging to their mother's hand – they and she had burnt to death in a building he firebombed.
The truth hit him like a thunderbolt. In his arrogance he had believed the story was about the people he had made his enemies. He had failed to realise that bombing homes and murdering opposition was his hallmark; his enemies had never stooped to it.
Death spoke his name again. He tore his eyes away from the crowd to gaze at It in terror.
"You are the man. Do you understand now?"
He did. Death had handed him a shovel, and he had happily dug his own grave.
"My children," Death said, addressing the crowd. "This is the man."
A terrible hissing, shrieking noise arose from the crowd. It was a sound that would strike fear into the heart of the bravest, and the man had never been brave. His knees knocked together. In despair he looked from one face to another; from the old man who had been working in his garden when he shot him, to the little children whose lives he had cut short. There was no mercy to be seen in any of their faces; only hatred and unholy glee.
"What shall I do to him?" Death asked.
"Send him to Hell!" cried one of the soldiers.
"Yes, to Hell!" the younger child agreed. "Let's see him sizzle and fry!"
"Watch his skin melt!" The child's sibling sounded delighted at the prospect.
"Send him to Hell, and let the worms eat him," the young woman said.
"To Hell! To Hell! Send him to Hell!" Other voices took up the chant until everyone was repeating it.
The man tried to speak, to plead for mercy, but his tongue had turned to a lead weight in his mouth.
Death crashed Its scythe against the floor again. Silence fell.
"I hereby condemn this man to the fires of Hell for all eternity. Away with him."
A gaping hole appeared in the floor beneath him. He fell, down, down, down. Searing heat tore at his flesh. Smoke filled his lungs. The wails of damned men and women echoed in his ears. The hole closed above him, and there was no one to hear his pleas.