By Steven Dexheimer
What will Heaven be like? Will there be pearly gates, mansions and streets of gold? Winged angels strumming on their harps? An endless banquet mingled with eternal singing of God’s praise? For the multitude of tongues, tribes, and nations, will Heaven be a “one size fits all” place? Or will each of the redeemed find Heaven uniquely suited to them? Will the people, places, and things cherished by us find their way into Paradise as well?
I died at 6:27 on the evening of the 8th. From my vantage point, the transition from life to afterlife was instantaneous. I didn’t see a bright light or hear departed loved ones calling me onward. One moment I was in my car, the next moment, I found myself standing in a grassy plain under a cloudless blue sky. The occasional tree dotted the landscape, and in the absolute stillness, I could hear a gentle breeze blowing through the leaves and tall grass.
I knew I was dead. I couldn’t remember exactly how my life on Earth came to an end, but I knew, I felt, I sensed the change. I checked my body, and found nothing noticeably different about it. Even my clothing was the same as it had been when I dressed that morning. Morning. Was it just this morning? I felt as though I had been standing amidst this sea of grass for an eternity, and yet I had only become conscious mere moments ago.
So, was this Heaven? The scene around me was peaceful, but hardly what I had expected the afterlife to be. Feeling an unexplainable urge to move, I began to walk forward, wading through the idyllic fields of green. It wasn’t long (or maybe it was) before I found myself traveling up a small hill. Upon reaching the top, I spotted a dirt road in the near distance. Partially hidden by the grass, the road swept around the hill, gradually turned, and began following a straight course. It then climbed up a larger hill where it became lost to view. Instinctively, I looked up at the sky to determine by the sun’s position which direction the road went. It was then I noticed that there was no sun to be seen. Everything around me was bathed in daylight, yet there seemed to be no source for this light.
I descended the small hill and came to the road. Unsure of what to do, I started following the path as it guided me to the large hill. Coming to the crest, I was able to look down and saw that the road continued through a gently sloping valley and onward toward the horizon. At the bottom of the hill, I saw that there was a figure standing by the side of the road. Although, I was still too far to pick up details, I could tell that it was a man, bearded and robed in white. As I came down the hill, I saw that the man was looking at me expectantly, waiting. As I approached, I saw that the man was near to my height with broad shoulders. His beard and hair were long and gray, yet his appearance seemed almost youthful. Not knowing how to address the stranger, I gave a slight bow and offered greetings. Through his tangle of a beard, he produced a smile and a nod.
“Have you been waiting for me?” I asked.
“I have,” came his reply. His voice was deep, and though he spoke in a normal tone, his voice seemed to carry across the endless miles.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Yes…and no. There is no sense of time here as there is on Earth. I could have been waiting for only a minute or for a thousand years. It’s all the same in this place.”
“Is this Heaven?” I asked.
“No,” the man smiled, “merely the final journey. I am to guide you to your place of rest.” With a gesture, the man and I began to follow the road.
“Do you accompany everyone who dies?” I inquired. The man nodded.
“Everyone. You see, no one can enter Heaven without first passing the Gatekeeper.”
“And who is this Gatekeeper?” I asked with some apprehension. Perhaps Heaven wouldn’t be quite so easy to enter. Again, the man smiled, and reaching inside his robes, he withdrew a large ring full of keys.
I stared at the man, then at the keys, and then back at the man.
“Those are the keys to the Gates of Heaven?” I asked, amazed. They looked like something a janitor might wear on his belt.
“These? No,” he chuckled, returning the keys to within his robes. “These are merely symbolic. “However, I have been entrusted with the keys to the Kingdom by Christ himself.” Comprehension suddenly dawned on me and I stopped in my tracks.
“Then…you are Peter?”He nodded, gestured toward the path, and we began to walk. We traveled in silence for a time before I spoke again.
“I didn’t expect the afterlife to be like this,” I said, waving an arm to indicate the current scenery.
“What did you expect?” Peter replied. “Clouds? Pearly gates? Angels with harps?”
“I…uh, well, ahh…” I stammered uncomfortably. It was exactly what I had expected. Peter smiled.
“Most people who pass through have similar ideas of what heaven is like,” Peter said. “And they are not entirely wrong.”
“So, what is heaven like?” I asked.
“You will see soon enough.”
After an indeterminate amount of time, I noticed that we were slowly approaching a large, long building set off to the left of the path. It had an impressive glass facade with a sprawling concrete plaza in front of the building’s many doors. If I hadn’t known any better, I could have sworn that it looked a lot like…
“Is that a…movie theater?” Peter nodded but didn’t speak or slow his pace.
“What’s a movie theater doing here?”
“You will soon find out. This is where I am to take you.”
“You’re taking me to the movies?” I looked to see if Peter was joking, but his face was set and serious. “I don’t understand,” I continued. “Why do you need to take me to a movie theater?”
“You must view the film before you can continue on your journey.”
“Film? What film?” I said as we made our way to the theater’s entrance. “Is this some sort of an orientation film?”
“Something like that,” said Peter with an air of solemnity. “It is required of all people that they watch this film.” He opened one of the doors and motioned for me to enter. Confused, I cautiously stepped into the theater. Instead of seeing a lobby, ticket counter or concessions, I was in a large theater, filled with empty seats and facing the largest screen I had even seen. I looked back at Peter who was still standing outside holding open the door.
“Aren’t…aren’t you coming in with me?” A flash of sadness crossed his face as he shook his head.
“Everyone must see this film alone. Believe me, you will prefer it that way.” A queasy feeling began to churn my stomach. What was going on here?
“You’ve seen this film too?” Peter grimaced and nodded.
“I have.” He began to close the door.
“Wait!” I cried. “What is this film?” The queasy feeling was now radiating throughout my body, and I felt a cold sweat beginning to bead on my forehead. What was I in for?
“Life,” Peter said simply. “Your life.” And with that he closed the door, leaving me in the gloom of the dimly lit theater.
With a sense of dread, I slipped into one of the back row seats, and waited. I still wasn’t sure of what was coming. Was I going to be watching old home movies of myself? Why was this film a requirement? What could be so bad that Peter wouldn’t enter the theater with me? I was soon to find out. Images began to flicker on the large screen. Without any introduction, the film immediately seemed to focus on a small boy at a long ago birthday party being held in a back yard. Around the boy, other children wearing party hats were frolicking around the yard. Adults were sitting around on lawn chairs, munching on pieces of cake and talking. The little boy, however, seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he seemed to zero in on another boy who looked to be a few years younger. The older boy strode up to the younger and, unprovoked, began to taunt him. The words of the tormentor echoed throughout the theater in surround-sound quality. I cringed as the teasing continued, and as the younger boy starting crying, I put my face into my hands, ashamed. I heard a thump and I looked up to see the crying boy sprawled on the ground with the older boy standing over him, laughing. This was an early memory of mine, vague at best. The events had never really pricked my conscience in the past. But watching it unfold on screen brought all the sights, sounds, and feelings back vividly and horribly. Once again, I was the mean boy, picking on his little brother.
Things went downhill from there.
The film of my life continued to roll on relentlessly, highlighting every wrong I had ever committed. Nothing was left out; every white lie, every curse word, every impure thought was mixed in with larger transgressions. I saw and felt the hurt that I caused to people around me. Each painful episode caused me to sink lower and lower in my seat, the tears streaming unchecked down my face. I wanted to look away, to get up and leave, to run screaming from the theater, but my muscles didn’t seem to be working. Frozen in shock, I continued to sit and watch.
Before I entered the theater, I considered myself to be a good Christian. Not perfect, obviously, but someone who tried to live a righteous life. Now, as I was being confronted with the results of my sin nature, I felt…filthy. Even with the gift of salvation, I wondered how I could ever be let into heaven. What must God think of me? I couldn’t help but think.
After what seemed like hours or days or years, the film came mercifully to an end. Almost as if I was released from an invisible grip, I slipped completely out of my chair, and crumpled to the floor; exhausted, mortified, crushed. I laid there for some time, curled up in a ball and weeping uncontrollably. Peter was right. Viewing the film was best done alone. But I wasn’t alone.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” said a male voice from the front of the theater. My head shot up to see who had spoken. Eyes blurry from the tears, I could make out a white-robed figure walking up the dimly-lit aisle towards me. At first, I thought it was Peter, but the voice was different. It was calm and soothing. Like a healing balm, it worked its way to my twisted soul, easing the unbearable ache that I felt. Reaching me, the man held out a hand. “Here, take this,” he said as he placed a white cloth in my hand. “Wipe your face with it.” I did as instructed. I thought the cloth was a handkerchief or something similar, but when I touched my face with it, it gave off sensations of both coolness and warmth that soothed my face and erased the tears. It also seemed to fill me with enough strength to sit up. When I had finished with the cloth, I was able to see the man clearly. His hair and beard were both dark brown in color, almost black. His complexion was olive-skinned, his features distinctly Middle Eastern. I guessed that the man was about my age, somewhere in his 30s. His face was the epitome of tenderness. Wordless, I handed back the cloth. The man reached out to take it, and as he did, I caught sight of his wrist, which bore an ugly circular scar.
“It’s…it’s You,” was all I could get out. He smiled at me and nodded.
“I AM,” he replied. I stared at him with a mixture of awe and utter humiliation Yet, I couldn’t meet His eyes. Throughout my mortal life, I had always anticipated my first face-to-face meeting with the Savior. However, I had never expected this. To encounter Him right after being pulverized by a lifetime of wrongdoings; at this point, He was the last person I wanted to see.
“You…saw all that,” I said, gesturing feebly to the screen. It was a stupid question. Of course He had seen it. What’s more, He had been there when it all happened originally. I felt sick. I rested my elbows on my knees and buried my face in my hands. A verse from the Book of Isaiah floated into my mind at that moment: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” How appropriate, I thought wryly.
“Why, Lord?” I mumbled through my hands. “Why did I have to relive all that? I thought You forgave me of my sins.”
“I did,” the Lord replied, “which is why you are here.” I looked up as his swept an arm around, indicated not just the theater, but all of heaven itself. “However, all people, no matter how righteous, must face judgment before going on. After all, there were times in your life when you willingly chose to disobey the will of My Father. But because you believed in Me, you do not have to face punishment. This,” He pointed to the screen, “what you saw here, is the final reminder that you did not earn Heaven. It is through My Grace, that I give Heaven to you.”
Despite these words of affirmation, I still felt so…ashamed.
“Lord,” I blurted, “my whole life…I could have done more. I could have given more. I wasted so much time…I blew so many opportunities to…”
“Perhaps,” the Lord cut in. “But consider what you have done for Me. Consider those you helped in My Name. Consider the time and effort and money you did devote.” The Savior got to His feet. “No, you didn’t live a perfect life. But I saw how you strove for righteousness throughout your lifetime. I knew that you were devoted to serving the Father.” He then reached for my hands and helped me to my feet, and for the first time, I looked into the loving eyes of Jesus Christ. “And because of that,” he continued, putting an arm around me and leading me toward the theater’s exit, “I say to you: Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share in your Master’s happiness!”