In which Ted goes to heaven and discovers that Jesus is good ...
While death had not, technically, been kind to him it had not really been unkind, either. The car accident, at least, had been mercifully swift. He remembered nothing--brief flashes of light and vignettes of suffering he didn't really feel. His body, thrown through the windshield of the car; in the next vignette paramedics bending over him though it was already too late. He could feel his death, but it didn't hurt.

In the next flash he was standing on a dusty road. In the distance, a gleaming city rose, tall, alabaster with gilt spires; around him was weeds and scrub. He walked in a brief circle, taking in the world around him and each step kicked up puffs of dirt, so that his feet looked afire. With the exception of the city there was nothing--no, that was not quite true. There was a sign, a little ways off; so far that he couldn't read it. He walked forwards.

"HEAVEN 3." White lettering on green; it might have come off any highway in America. Indeed the afterlife looked strikingly like a road he had once driven in Indiana. He looked behind him, towards the emptiness, and then turned towards the Pearly Gates and began walking.

Ten minutes later he heard an engine, growing loud quickly behind him. He stepped off the road to let the vehicle--an old truck, as dusty as the worn path on which he walked, raising an immense cloud behind it--pass, but it braked next to him. The dust swirled forwards, choking him, but as it started to clear he could see the driver was leaning towards him.

He was a pleasant man but, like everything in the afterlife, he looked worn. If Ted had been asked to think of a single word to describe him, he would've settled on 'gritty'; and he wore heavy denim clothes, the uniform of one who tills the soil--such as it was in the godforsaken plains--so to speak, he corrected his mental blasphemy.

"Need a lift, stranger?" His voice was so friendly that Ted could not possibly turn down the offer.

"That'd be awesome." The gritty man leaned further over and opened the door; Ted climbed in and shut it behind him. "Where are you headed?"

The man laughed heartily. "Where else? Say... you aren't from around here, are ya?"

Ted felt suddenly conspicuous in his business attire--the clothes he had died in, he thought, but it didn't really bother him. He laughed too--it was contagious. "No, I'm new."

The man extended a rough, calloused hand and shook Ted's warmly. "Welcome, then. My name's Peter."

Ted blinked and swallowed. "Like... the Peter?"

"The Peter?" the man asked with a sly smile.

"The..." he gestured vaguely towards the city with his hand. "The, you know, the saint."

Peter cackled. "Oh, him. Nah. Never believed in him anyway." He started the truck to moving again and it ambled down the dusty track.

"You--wait," Ted asked, befuddled. "Where am I?"

"Oh, you know," Peter told him amiably. "Here."

"Heaven," he prompted.

Peter bobbed his head. "That's what a lot of folks call it. Say, you have your badge?"


"To get in?"

Ted shook his head. "I don't think so, no." He wriggled about and checked his pockets--they were empty. He wasn't really worried, though. Ted was virtuous; had always been virtuous. He went to church every Sunday and--more important--he believed. Perhaps even Believed, had Faith. These sorts of capital letters he lived. Nobody doubted that Ted was heaven-bound. He heard Peter tell him distantly where to go when they reached the city, but he was thinking.

He was thinking that in fact while the accident was not his fault he had been looking forward to heaven since he was old enough to feel Jesus in his heart, caressing his soul gently, leading him along the proper paths, helping him to make the right choices. He hoped his wife would not mourn too much his passing, knowing where he had gone. He was not proud of his virtuousness, properly--but aware of it. He needed no badge.

And indeed he did not. Peter let him off at the gates and he told the woman who stopped him of his situation. She grinned and opened the gates for him--not all the way, just enough to get through--directing him to a small office down the street.

His first impression of Heaven was that it looked normal, if inexplicably clean. People walked to and fro without hurry; they looked happy. There were no harps, no many-headed angels, no glowing throne--he had always imagined that it would glow. Just the city.

The sign above the awning said, "CHECK-IN/OUT WESTERN OFFICE" and he entered. He had not realised until stepping inside how warm it had been outside; the office was air conditioned and the temperature pleasant. The secretary looked him over. "You're new?"

"I am," he said.

"You know there is a hearing, don't you? To determine your worthiness." He nodded--hadn't know exactly that, but close enough. The secretary stared at him, into him--he felt her invading his body and stood stock-still. She blinked a few times and the feeling passed. "Do you think the hearing is necessary?" He thought. "You must be absolutely sincere."

There was a lengthy pause during which she looked at him but did not go inside again. "No." He said the word decisively. The secretary shrugged and passed a form to him. It was blank except for a line along the bottom. She handed him a pen; he signed it. She took the form and put it into a slot, then handed him a thick plastic card--like an index-card but more weighty. It had his name on it, in English; and a picture; and many little dots and gashes through the plastic.

She smiled sweetly. "Have a good day, then."

And that was it.

There was a Thai restaurant up the street from Heaven's check-in and he went there for dinner after spending the rest of the day exploring. He ordered the chicken and found it quite good; even excellent--though not what he might have called divine. The meal was filling; he had told them that he had no money before he entered but they had looked at his card, congratulated him, and waved him inside.

He could not decide how he felt. This was Heaven, he was sure; but it did notfeel like he thought Heaven would. He had no idea what to expect, but this, it seemed to him, was not it. Were there Thai restaurants at the right hand of God the father? And root beer? The Bible mentioned neither that he could remember, and his recall was excellent. Besides, he said quietly to himself, he had yet to meet Jesus.

A constable sent him towards a hotel for his first night and again the card was the only currency he needed. The room was on the eighth floor, had a beautiful view. The bed was comfortable, soft--he slept almost instantly and when he awoke sunlight was streaming through the City of God, and specifically his Pearly Venetian Blinds, left open. No matter; he was not tired.

After breakfast he walked up a heavily-forested boulevard to a city park and spent the day there, watching passers-by. Had it not been for the knowledge that he was dead he might easily have been in any city park; there were ducks in the pond and children gambolled beneath trees that sheltered the area from the hot sun--it only really got to him if he concentrated on the heat, but the sun was definitely quite warm. He tried talking to people and they were all as pleasant as Peter, but he could find no real information--no news on Mary, no thrones.

He was nursing a mug of beer--good beer, he reflected--in a bar along one of the main thoroughfares, when a man in a polo shirt and shorts sat down next to him. He carried a duffel bag in which Ted could discern the rough shape of a tennis racquet and he looked as though he had been exerting himself. He caught Ted looking at him and nodded, favoured him with a smile.

"You play tennis?" Ted asked. The man nodded enthusiastically--he was quite handsome, Ted decided. And athletic; no doubt he was quite good at the game.

"How about you?"

Ted shrugged and made a self-deprecating gesture. "Little. I'm no good."

"You should come play at the city courts... there's room for all levels, you know."

"Sure!" He glanced down. "Though I should get some new clothes. And a racquet."

"Yeah," the man said with a laugh. "You already got the balls, I take it?"

Ted grinned a little at the lowbrow humour. "Yeah. Hey, I'm Ted," Ted said.

"Jesus," the tennis player answered, and extended a hand. Ted shook it, trying to blink the liquor from his eyes.

"Jesus? Like--"

"--the one and only," Jesus said. "I don't wear the robes when I'm playing of course."

"Oh," Ted said, reassured. "Of course. You know I was... I was looking forward to meeting you."

"I know," Jesus said. "Everyone is."

"Do you mind?"

The Lord--He was a man so ordinary and yet so respectable one had no idea what to call him, exactly, but knew that whatever it was would be capitalised--shook his head. "No, that's to be expected. I have to keep up my end of the bargain, anyway."

Ted nodded. "So what's it like here?"

Jesus shrugged his shoulders and drained his glass. "It's not bad. The rest of the gods are nice people."

"Rest of the gods?"

"Oh, yes. Oh!" A thought occurred to Jesus. "You should come with me to our house. Odin's going to have a little war in the Sudan and he invited me." The way Jesus spoke he did not capitalise any pronouns. Ted got the idea. "You ought to come!"

Ted agreed and half an hour later was standing in front of a gated community. Jesus' card opened the gate and they walked through. A figure with many arms waved a few hands at the pair; Jesus waved back. "Shiva! This is Ted!"

Shiva jogged over and shook Ted's hand with one of his. "Good to see you. You'll be staying for Odin's show?"

"That's why he's here," Jesus explained. Shiva nodded, then bowed politely and jogged off again. Jesus shook his head, laughed. "That Shiva, what a cad. Always complaining about shirts. Here..." Jesus held the door for Ted and, increasingly confused, he entered the building.

A man in a suit, down on all fours, barked at them. Jesus wagged his finger at the person, who looked familiar to Ted. "You be quiet!"

"Sorry, sir," the man said.

Ted blinked--his mouth was open, he suddenly noticed, and he closed it. "That's US Grant there, he's our pet."


"Oh yes," Jesus said with a nod. "I liked Ghandi better, but Thor accidentally broke him last year. Can I get you something? Water, maybe?"

"Water would be nice. Does he... you know..."

"Mind? Of course not, do you Grant?"

The Eighteenth President of the United States shook his head vigorously. "No, master!"

"See, there you go." Jesus patted the man and they walked into the living room; the Lord handed Ted a glass of water. He sipped. Presently another man entered, tall and ruggedly handsome. "Oh, this is Odin. Odin, Ted."

Odin nodded the upper half of his body. "Pleased to meet you," he said with a rumble.

"How's the Sudan coming?" Jesus asked.

"Oh, very nice," Odin said with a terrible chuckle. "I imagine the fireworks will be amazing. One of the generals has dug in quite well."

Jesus laughed too. "Enough?"

"Maybe. It... depends." The man seemed to be considering something.

Jesus grew solemn. "Now, Odie, you know the rules. If you expect people to put money down, it has to be fair."

The Norse god sighed. "I know, I know. Don't worry. Ted? You alright there?" Ted felt somewhat ill. This was not what Heaven was supposed to be like, not in any way. Jesus was not supposed to bet on the outcomes of manufactured wars. Jesus was good, Jesus was not like this. He felt...

"He's disappointed," Jesus said, and was right.

"I... was just expecting something a little different," Ted explained.

"They all are," Odin sympathised. "That's the J-man's fault. I told him wasn't no way to run a religion."

Jesus waved his hands in protest. "I'd like to see you do better. Or Ted, for that matter."

Odin chuckled his awful laugh again. "I wouldn't lose a bet to Coyote."

"He cheated!"

"You lost!"

"Bet?" Ted asked.

Jesus rolled his eyes. "So, picture this. That bastard half-dog and I are playing pool a few weeks ago and he makes some crack about my dad's business. I tell him, you know, take that back, and he just laughs at me. Says it's beyond repair; I tell him it ain't and he bets me I couldn't fix it. I say he couldn't either. Coyote says, alright, whoever wins this game fixes your dad's company." Jesus took a long drink. "He rigged the blasted balls, I tell you. Sank 'em all in two shots.

"So I'm, like, 'well, shit.' 'Cause you know pop's gig isn't so hot. And I figure, well, let's revive it a little bit. And to my credit, Odie, I did."

Odin laughed. "Yeah. I like the idea of you fighting Satan, that was a nice touch. He'd so kick your ass." Ted stifled a cry and said nothing.

"Oh, right. So, Satan's this guy I play tennis with; he lives right down the hall. Great guy, really." Jesus took another sip of water, savouring it. "He and I were talking and he thought there should be a tennis match to mark the end of the world. I, obviously, thought that was incredibly ridiculous but what can you do? I changed it around a little."

"So all the commandments, all the New Testament..." Ted stammered. "That's... that's all..."

"Oh, whipped that up in a couple days from nothing."

"I helped," Odin volunteered. "So did Baal. Baal was the one who thought up the crucifixion; that was a nice one." Ted shivered.

"It's all a lie, then?" he asked. "Jesus doesn't love humanity? He doesn't... there's no God, there's no virgin Mary, there's--"

"--Oh there's a Virgin Mary, alright," Odin said, and roared with laughter; a window cracked. "The J-man's just pissed 'cause she won't give him the time of day. Figured if he wrapped her up in his religion, she might take a fancy to him."

"No dice," Jesus said with a rueful smile. "She even gave Loki a discount. Loki!"

"Mary runs a bicycle shop," Odin explained.

Ted was now lost--he had lived his life for Jesus, for this moment and it was all wrong, all hideously, horribly wrong. At the right hand of God the Father sat Ulysses Grant, with a collar around his neck. They didn't care; nobody cared. Jesus kibitzed with false gods and thought up religions on bets. His religion, his religion was a bet, a mistake, a lost game of billiards. The gods continued on their way merrily, ignorant of his quandary. Odin said the Sudan was ready and Ted stood, numb, and followed him outside.

Outside in the courtyard spun a great orb that he realised was Earth. A crowd was gathered around it; a man wandered through them, taking bets. He bet nothing; but saw that the pool was fairly evenly divided. Odin got the crowd's attention, and then fired a starter pistol into the air. With a wave of his hand he magnified the battlefield. People began to cheer. Jesus had laid down some number of small chips on the defending army.

Odin cheered the offence; though this fact alone didn't seem to affect the outcome of the battle. It was close; the defenders had artillery that they rained down upon the attackers, causing horrible casualties. The battle looked old, Ted thought--the nineteenth century perhaps; no tanks or airplanes. He wondered how Odin had done it; but then he grasped that there was no real time in Heaven, per se; so that made sense, and he felt himself drawn with sick fascination to the events that unfolded on a plain slowly reddening as the battle dragged on.

Suddenly! A daring cavalry charge broke the defender's southern flank; they wheeled behind their opponent's lines and dealt them a crushing blow! The defenders fell back in retreat; but it was no use, they were slaughtered. "Lookit!" he heard someone shout, laughing. "Did you see that? That horse just kicked the other poor bastard into his buddy's cann--oh that must'a hurt!" He realised with a sickening sensation that it was Jesus.

The battle ended. Horus distributed the money to those who had won; the crowd lingered, gossiping over the fight. Ted felt himself growing increasingly nauseous as he looked at the results of the battle--he could hear, faintly, the cries of the wounded; could sense the grief of the widowed and their suffering; could smell cordite and sweat and excrement. Finally he could take it no more.

"Stop it!" he cried. "All of you stop it!" They did--he was surprised; but his voiced carried so perhaps it was no great shock. "What's wrong with you?" They looked at each other somewhat nervously. "Can't you see what you're doing? Those people down there--they're dying for you! They... why do you let them do that? What are you?" He paused, took a deep breath. Nobody interrupted. "What gives you the right to do that? To... to make them dance for your amusement?"

They were silent. Somebody jostled Vishnu and knocked the god into the earth; he had to put a hand through it to catch his balance. Tidal waves swept the Persian Gulf, and Vishnu apologised to nobody in particular. Jesus patted him on the back. Ted almost cried now. "Why did I believe?"

"Why did you?" Jesus asked, still steadying Vishnu.

"Because..." Ted began. "Because it's natural to believe. That's why people do it, because it makes sense to them. Even through the caprice, even through it all they believe. Everyone knows that there's something more out there, some greater power, someone who steers the car so that it doesn't get into an accident, who finds the lost children."

There were some murmurs. "Finding lost children is kind of fun," Freya admitted. "It's amusing to watch the reactions of the people around them."

"War is better," Aries countered. There was a chorus of agreement.

"Why?" Ted asked, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. "Isn't good just as compelling? Aren't the reactions just as amusing?"

"Not really," Jesus said. "Suffering is more compelling. Definitely more emotion comes out of that."

"No!" Ted protested. "What about... what about music, and painting, and laughter, and... and love?"

Jesus rolled his eyes. "Come on." He made a dismissive gesture. "You really think people would have remembered a concert instead of my crucifixion? Calvarystock?" Laughter. "Of course not."

"That was a jolly show," Aries told Jesus, and Jesus nodded humbly. "I especially liked the crown of thorns."

"Very tactful," a man covered in gay feathers agreed. "Powerful image, yet quite simple."

And it was hopeless, Ted saw. Neither good nor evil guided the paths of the gods but caprice; and didn't he know this? Didn't he know that for every orphan rescued from a flood Anubis broke a child's arm at the playground--because it amused him? Humanity suffered no directive but its own interest--how foolish, he thought suddenly, to imagine that humanity's gods would differ! How na´ve!

But there was part of him that could not believe these were his gods, were his idols, were his life. He did not pray to a tennis player--refused to! He had played his life with nothing but love; and ended it with nothing more than that. Set, game, match. He began to speak once more but a tall black man was telling a story now; a religion he had started where--get this!--the adherents believed eternal life came from a perfectly ordinary spring; he had made them believe their mortality was their fault. The crowd laughed; and they traded stories about their exploits. Ted could get no word in edgewise.

Buddha noticed him and separated from the throng, patted him on the shoulder. "You know they are not bad people," he told Ted.

Tears were now flowing down his face. "Why, though? Why believe in this, in this--these are not gods, they are... they're nothing but..." he could not finish.

"Who says?" asked Buddha, his rail-thin figure swaying as they walked towards the gate, back to the city. "You had faith in them, did you not?"

"Misplaced," he managed. "I lived for Jesus as a teacher, not a chess-master. Not to watch my deities gamble over the suffering of a field of Jobs. Not... what... what are you?"

"We are," Buddha said.

"Are you aliens?"

"Alien to what?" Buddha said, a strange look on his face. "We are not alien. We are like you."

He shuddered at the thought. Would he have believed, had he known? The endless parade of Sunday-school lectures, taking his first communion, listening to the sermons of dozens of impassioned priests--would they have called him with the same power had he known that Jesus was not good, was not evil--simply was? Of course not. They cared not for him--nor would he them had he but known. He was at the gates of the community now. Buddha had left him some time before; he couldn't remember. But now he understood, and all too well.

There were gods, he now knew; and that was the most horrifying thing he might possibly have concieved of, for they felt emotion but no pity, amusement but no remorse. They treated man not as a teacher to a child, nor a man to a dog but rather a child to an ant; and what of the ant's emotions? If ants were human--full of anger and love, reason and caprice, giving and selfishness--would they have been surprised to find us like them? Would they have wanted more? Would they have been disturbed to find no greater purpose, neither benevolence nor hatred in the child above the hill, who could not fathom his power?

And did it matter, in the end, to be betrayed at the glittering gates of the city? Had his life of virtue been negated? He willed himself to say no but could not, felt brittle inside. Should it have mattered? He had reached Heaven--what, if his Jesus had never been more than myth? No, that was not sufficient. He had lived his life for an afterwards that did not and could never measure up; he had lived not in the present but in a future he had believed in--and Buddha was right: why? Ted did not know.

Aimlessly he returned to his hotel room, feeling somewhat hopeless, and stood on the balcony, looking out over Heaven, a failure through no fault but his own. How dull her spires, now! He looked below him, at the tiny people--were they ants, or were they like him? Did they know? Did they care that their faith meant nothing in the one place where it should have been everything? That their gods--regardless of creed, of nationality, ethnicity, age--had abandoned them?

No--no, it wasn't even that. They had not been abandoned; they had never been had. They were alone. Alone, despite the very corporeality of the beings they worshipped! "Our father," he said, to himself, "who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name." He repeated the line as a chant, a source of strength; but it felt empty, hollow, drained of its value. The old rush of joy when he thought of Jesus was nearly gone--but he would not let it go. He said it again--louder! And again. He stood atop the balcony and shouted it! There was no answer. Ted felt his centre of gravity shift forward, toppled away and did not care. He screamed it one last time as he fell--"hallowed be Thy name!"--and his voice echoed; but the only response was just that, his own; and then He struck the cement and His body crumpled, lifeless; and Ted delivered Himself from evil.

20.06.2012 - 5h19

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