Years ago, I heard a sermon about the afterlife – preached by a minister who typically took a dim view of speculation over what happens after we die. That minister was Bruce Van Blair – our Darkwood Brew Skype Guest on Easter Sunday. It blew me away! Over the years, I’ve modified Bruce’s original sermon so that I might present it as a monologue by the central character. I’ve presented “Ralph and the Lake of Fire” three times in the past 15 years, modifying it slightly each time. I’ll be presenting it again this Sunday at the morning services of Countryside Community Church in Omaha. Each time I’ve performed this monologue, it has been met with intense response (most of it favorable, thank goodness!), which is why I keep re-tooling it, and presenting more than once in the same church. It speaks to me as powerfully today as it did when I originally heard a version of it in high school.
Since I won’t be presenting it at Darkwood Brew this Sunday, I thought I’d reprint it below. I’ll tell you up front: It has a surprise ending! And if you’re a Countrysider, I’d advise you NOT to read it, but to come see it live on Sunday morning, at our 9 and 11 am services.
Ralph and the Lake of Fire: A Parable
by Bruce Van Blair and Eric Elnes
This parable explores the concepts of heaven, hell, judgment, and universal salvation. It is split into five sections to accommodate musical and/or media interludes. Feel free to use it yourself!
I. The Big Mistake
Hi. My name is Ralph. I was 47 years old when I died. They said it was a real shame: “He was so young.” …” “God only takes the best …” my church friends said. “He had such a wonderful career ahead of him – and his wife and his beautiful kids …”
For the first few days I was in a state of shock myself! I’d been so stupid! Stupid and careless.
You see, there was this palm tree in my backyard behind my pool, next to the fence separating the yard from the alley. I was grousing about it being overgrown to Jim, my 85-yr-old neighbor, one day. I didn’t want to call a professional just to trim one tree. Jim said he’d trimmed his own palm trees up to age 65 – and he had six out back. He offered to give me his old equipment if I wanted to do it myself. “I’d just be glad to see my old stuff put to good use,” he said.
The next weekend, I stopped by to pick up the equipment. I was anxious and distracted. My “honey do” list included not only the palm tree but spreading a few tons of rock that had been delivered out front that I hadn’t gotten around to last weekend. Working on Sunday was out of the question. We’re a church-going family, so we try to avoid work on the Sabbath. Besides, our Bible Church was holding it’s annual potluck and congregational meeting after worship. The church Evangelism Board was meeting later that afternoon, too, and since I’m the chair, I kind of had to be there. With Sunday so packed, it was “Get-the-honey-do’s-done-Saturday” or “Live-in the-doghouse” until next weekend.
I’ll confess that part of the reason for my distraction when I picked Jim’s equipment was due to an argument I’d had with my wife, Daliah, the night before. We’d fought over whether or not we could afford to send our son Jake on the church’s Youth Mission trip to Peru. Money’s been kind of tight and Daliah couldn’t see the reasoning behind spending fifteen hundred dollars per child to send the youth group down to Peru to build a couple of houses. She said if we’d all just send five hundred down there, they could build their own darned houses with money to spare!
That’s where I put my foot down. She knew perfectly well that building houses was a way to get into the hearts of the Peruvians. The kids were going to be witnessing to them about Jesus Christ. “What’s the price of just one saved soul?” I eventually yelled at Daliah, appalled at her lack of compassion.
So, with our argument still swirling in my head and the pressure to get started on the day, I got out of Jim’s garage as quickly as possible even though I could tell he was lonely and wanted to chat. Without paying too much attention, I put on the spiky shoes used scramble up palm trees, looped the leather belt around my waist and the tree, and before I knew it I had made my way up to the top and was ready to trim.
It wasn’t a particularly tall palm, but it was high enough to see into my neighbors’ yards. It’s amazing how people keep their yards when they don’t think people can see over their walls! Anyway, my amusement only added to my distraction as I reached for the machete and took my first whack at the palm fronds.
As soon as the machete hit the first frond I discovered my mistake. I hadn’t really considered the strength of that leather around my waist – the well-worn leather belt that had been sitting in Jim’s garage for the last twenty years. The pressure against it snapped the leather and I fell back. “Jesus Christ!” was the last two words I uttered – not exactly in praise or supplication!
I didn’t have far to fall. I suppose that if I’d have fallen on the ground, I might have gotten away with a couple of broken bones. But there was that pesky wall separating the backyard from the alley … The middle of my back landed squarely on the top of that wall, snapping it instantly, like a twig. A few breaths later, I was dead.
II. My Journey Begins
For the first several weeks after my death, my interest and attention was pretty much focused on the people and events on earth. I found that if I focused on a person I knew and loved, I could get into their minds, their hearts, and their feelings, almost as if I was them. I couldn’t control people, but I could feel and perceive and understand what they were going through, and what they were thinking.
What I found surprised me. I hadn’t realized just how much I was loved. It was amazing the way people were grieving for me. Naturally, my wife and children took it hardest, but others were pretty shaken up, too.
My neighbor, Jim, was really having a tough time of it. He felt responsible for my death. He hardly slept for a week. I’d always thought of Jim a gruff, old guy that needed to be “saved” one day (After all, he attended a United Church of Christ church). But I discovered that Jim was more shy than gruff, and he had deep feelings, which he expressed through painting and poetry. And even though he approved of my conservative beliefs about as much as I approved of his liberal ones, he admired me. He saw me as a devoted husband and loving father. Turns out, I reminded Jim of his son who had been killed in Viet Nam. And just as he had urged me to use the equipment that sent me to my death, he’d urged his son not to burn his draft card, which sent him to his death. I wanted somehow to reach out and tell Jim, “It’s okay. I’m really not doing badly! I’m fine. My family will be fine, too. You’re not a bad person …”
I was both heartened and surprised when I connected with my friends. What surprised me was that all those flaws that I thought were just kind of … well … hidden … were actually quite transparent to those who knew me well. All the self-righteousness, envy, pride, and self-centeredness that I thought was just between me and God was actually quite evident to my friends. But they still loved me. They still respected and admired me. They still cared about me
If only I had known about all this when I was alive. I would have been less superficial with people, knowing they loved me despite my faults. And I think I would have been more graceful about dealing with other people’s shortcomings, knowing they were doing the same thing for me.
Of course, not everything I found in people was as touching. For instance, my wife thought I still resented the fact that she had decided to go back to school for her MBA. Yes, I had put up a fuss at first. I was intimidated because I didn’t have an advanced degree. I quoted the “wife must be subordinate to her husband” line from the Bible one too many times in an effort to swing the argument my way. But eventually I saw how she yearned to grow intellectually and in her career. Going back to school was a perfect opportunity for her. I not only gave in, but my heart actually changed on the matter. I guess I never really let my support show as much as I thought.
Worse, my son Jake had little concept of how much I loved him. He felt like a failure in my eyes – like I never felt he was good enough. That mission trip I had him going on? The only reason he was going was to please me. He’d already made up his mind that he’d come home with some victory stories about converting Peruvians to Christ so I’d be proud of him.
My son harbored secrets, as well. He’d done some things – nothing that I hadn’t done at his age – that convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I ever found out about them, I wouldn’t love him anymore. He suspected that God already didn’t. Part of him wondered if God had used my death as a way of punishing him for his sins! I could hardly bear the shame and torment he was experiencing. I wished I had shown him clearly that nothing could separate him from my love – and God’s.
There were other people who surprised me – people I thought were my friends. Two of my co-workers’ biggest concerns were which one would get my corner office. A couple of my Evangelism Committee “friends” were more concerned about whether the family would continue to pay our tithe than anything else. I quickly learned to tune out those people. It was really only the people whom I loved and cared about most that I could tune in to easily anyway. Others came in like a radio station that’s not quite set on the right frequency.
As time passed (not that I experienced time in the usual sense) I found myself gradually becoming less interested in what was happening on earth. It wasn’t that I loved my family or friends any less, mind you. I just kind of began to understand where they and others were at, and through them, where all of humanity was at on this particular spiritual level. After awhile, it just wasn’t very interesting anymore. I wondered if maybe this was part of God’s plan to gradually wean me off of life on earth in a gentle way.
As I began to lose interest in the earthly realm, my focus began to shift to the realm in which I found myself. I discovered that there were other people around me – plenty of them. My perception was a bit fuzzy, at first. I guess I was perceiving things like a newborn baby might look out and see the world. Nothing appeared too clear. I could make out people around me, but at first I couldn’t see details.
We communicated without speaking, through our thoughts and feelings. At first, I found it harder to tune into these people than it was to tune in people on Earth. I could focus on their thoughts and feelings only for a few minutes before having to retreat into myself from the sheer exhaustion of concentration. I figured this was probably part of God’s plan, too. As our perception of our new realm becomes clearer, we’re able to put our former lives into greater perspective. So God wants us to take time, at first, to reflect on our lives on Earth, assessing what kind of people we were, and what we gained from the experience before immersing ourselves in the new context.
Certainly, this is what was happening to me. I began to look over my life, and I must confess that my assessment was not a particularly flattering one. I had never committed any “great” sins. I had never killed anybody. I was impeccably honest. I was a hard worker and devoted husband. But I grew increasingly disappointed with what I found within myself beyond these superficialities.
I saw clearly that my son’s perception that I was judgmental was true. I loved him dearly, and because I loved him, I wanted to make sure he had his eternal salvation in Jesus. I was terrified that he’d fall in with the wrong crowd and hit that “slippery slope” that leads to moral relativism and renunciation of faith. More often than I’d like to admit, I let fear guide my actions, not love.
In fact, I saw clearly how most of my actions – even the most apparently loving and generous-spirited ones – were based in fear instead of love. So-called “generous” acts toward many were really attempts to show them how generous-spirited and fun Christians could be so they’d eventually be converted and saved from hell. Either that, or they were attempts to shore up my own faith so I could hang on to my salvation.
I think what I found most condemning was my own hypocrisy with respect to sin. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t one of those sleazy Christians who appear to live squeaky clean life only to be caught in No Tell Motels, or embezzling funds, or snorting cocaine by the bag full. I really did lead a squeaky clean lifestyle for the most part. But I resented it! It really steamed me when I heard of someone who’d lived an outrageous lifestyle and then had a “coming to Jesus” moment late in life and were saved. How I wished at times that I could lose my faith and have some fun, then come to Christ in my last moments to cover all my sins.
As I made these assessments of myself, I began to wonder about where all this was leading. I was beginning to realize that, if God had judgment in store for me, I deserved it … I deserved it!
That’s when disappointment gave way to blood-curdling fear. I started wondering if maybe this process of self-assessment was something that God set up so that I would eventually agree with whatever terrible judgment – and punishment – God might have in store for me. I’d tell myself, “Hey, I’m not really that bad. And besides, I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior. That got me in, didn’t it? Isn’t that what my church taught me?
What if they were wrong? What if my thoughts and actions proved that I only confessed Christ with my lips and not with my heart? Was I going to hell?
I sought out other souls for answers. There were millions upon millions of souls in this realm. I approached some of them asking, “What’s going on? Am I going to come to some terrible judgment?” Each one would simply laugh and say, “No, no! You have nothing to worry about. We’re all in heaven. God has already made a judgment and you have been found worthy. God is quite pleased with you. So don’t worry!”
Some said they had seen Jesus. Most believed Jesus would come again someday to live with them forever. They seemed so perfectly content with themselves; so self-assured. I couldn’t relate.
Something bothered me about my communications with these souls, though. Slowly, I began to realize that while we could communicate more clearly and effectively than we ever could on Earth (once we got used to it), we also had the ability to shield certain thoughts and emotions from others. We weren’t as transparent to each other as I’d originally imagined. We could simply perceive what the other person wanted us to perceive. And as I conversed with more and more souls, I frequently encountered little snippets of a picture that was lingering in the back of their minds. It was of something they had seen and stuck far back in their consciousness so as not to cause disturbance. The image was of a Lake of Fire into which souls were being tossed!
IV. The Lake of Fire
This unsettling image contrasted sharply with the happiness and self-assurance exuded by those I encountered. But as I encountered more and more souls who told me how wonderful it was to be in Heaven, I kept encountering these little glimpses of the lake – so many that I could piece together a pretty good picture of it without ever having seen it myself.
Then one day I did see it. Off in the distance. (In this realm distance is governed more by perception than space.) I saw that lake … and I heard the screams of souls who were being tossed into it … I was terrified. With great urgency, I sought out the happy souls, saying “Listen. You know this Lake of Fire. What is it? Why are people being thrown into it?” They all said, “Don’t worry. That is where God puts sinners. It’s not for you. You are in Heaven!”
Well, I didn’t know what to do. These souls seemed so confident of their salvation, and so happy with themselves and each other … but what I had seen stuck in my mind. It stuck there because I realized how utterly I had failed the test of life on Earth. How could God have possibly weighed me in the balance and declared, “Yes, you are worthy. You deserve Heaven”? I spent most my life acting more out of fear than love. I accepted Jesus as my Savior more because I was afraid not to than anything else.
Some time later I found myself suddenly quite close to that terrible, fiery lake. The screams of those people put a chill in my spine. They would scream this scream full of pain and regret, then disappear beneath the flames. Although I couldn’t communicate with them, I could tap into their thoughts and feelings. Much to my horror, I found that they had made assessments of their lives like mine. They had reached the same sobering conclusion – that they were not worthy of Heaven. Granted, some of them were grieving over having committed terrible acts of violence and betrayal, but not all of them. In fact, most were like me – giving God lip service but never having fallen in love.
It was then that I realized that I absolutely did NOT belong where I was. I belonged out there, in the fiery lake. My heart turned cold toward God. I resented the fact that God would put people in such anguish just for having failed a test they never fully understood. I felt a strange peace in turning my back on God.
But I have to confess that a haunting question arose shortly thereafter: Did that Lake of Fire utterly destroy a person, or did it keep burning and torturing a person for a very long time – for eternity, as people believed on earth? Well, I asked some of those other beings about this and they didn’t exactly appreciate the question. They angrily struck back, ” God is just and righteous. We don’t make up the rules here. God does. If God has determined that they must suffer for eternity, how could we resent their suffering, or resent our own salvation? Jesus died for you and me.” Just then I got this incredibly clear vision of Jesus on the Cross. It was so bright, like a thousand suns lit him up. That image set my heart ablaze for a fraction of a second, then disappeared as quickly as came.
V. The Lake of Love
Well, it was …I don’t know … maybe moments, maybe years later, and I found myself once again at the shore of that lake. I watched the souls plunge into the fire, heard their screams, felt their pain. And I noticed that just a few yards up the shore from me, was a Being unlike any human. He looked at me and asked, “What are you doing on the shores of these waters? Why are you not with the rest?”
I stood there silently for what seemed like an eternity. I wanted to be absolutely clear about how I felt before responding. Then I said, “I am for the lake. I am not like these happy ones. I find that I care more and more about those who are out there and I want nothing to do with a God who would put them there. I do not know what punishment lies in store, but I want to be where they are, for they are my people. I am one of them.”
The Being didn’t move, but I saw a glimmer in his eye, and suddenly I found myself thrown out into the middle of the lake! The searing pain caused me to scream out, and then I started falling … I was surrounded by flame on all sides of me … falling … falling. The flames seemed to burn on the outside and the inside … burning … burning … I found that they hurt, but didn’t hurt as much as I would have imagined. They kept burning … I kept falling … like time was standing still.
As those flames licked against and through me, I found myself strangely getting happier, not sadder. I found that, after awhile, my face broke out into this brilliant smile! I couldn’t make it go away. The weight was lifting. The pain … the frustration … the despair … the shame I felt was burning away, like so much chaff, and I was discovering what it was like to be pure … truly pure.
That’s when I heard the voice. It said, “Ralph, didn’t you know that I would baptize you with fire?” And then, the fire was gone. Appearing below me – far below – I saw an incredible Kingdom stretching out seemingly forever! And the intensity of the colors, and the smells – even the tastes, which somehow I could perceive – was incredible! Beholding this Kingdom was the most marvelous experience I had ever had. That’s when I realized that I was being carried down in the arms of an angel. The angel looked at me, smiled, and said, “It ain’t much but we call it home!”
A few weeks later, as I found myself embraced within this incredible realm, my heart was drawn back to those souls up above. I asked someone, “What about them?” A big grin appeared on her face and she said, “You know, they all get here eventually. All of us here started out up there. Some of us were there for quite a long time. It’s hard, you know, when you feel like you know everything there is to know. It’s hard to allow new truth into your heart, and to let it change you. But eventually they get sick and tired of pretending. They get tired of their own arrogance and they find themselves on the shore of the Lake of Love.”
“Lake of Love?!” I said. “I’ve experienced it, but I still can’t believe it.”
“Watch your lip,” she told me, “or we may have to send you back up to Hell!”
I said, “You can do that, but I will jump back into that lake so fast you’ll have to be quicker than lightening to catch me.”
She just chuckled and said, “You know, that’s the problem with you ingrates. Once you’ve experienced the love, there is no kind of Hell anywhere that scares you ever again!”
And Jesus said, “Amen.”