Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Visions of Judgment

With the end of the Church year upon us, HG Wells' short story "A Vision of Judgment" seemed appropriate--both to the liturgy and the general malaise settling over the political candidates and their constituents alike.

Wells is not (disclaimer!) attempting to communicate facts about the End Times, nor is he attempting to formulate new and heretical doctrine about the nature of God and the new heavens and new earth.

The point of the story is that evil is banal. Sin is boring. The narrator arrives at the Day of Judgment and sees everyone: Darwin and Henry VIII make an appearance, as does his publisher. The first man to be judged is lifted up onto God's palm and ordered to tell all of creation his sins. He does so:

I was a king," said the little figure, "a great king, and I was lustful
and proud and cruel. I made wars, I devastated countries, I built palaces,
and the mortar was the blood of men. Hear, O God, the witnesses against
me, calling to you for vengeance. Hundreds and thousands of witnesses." He
waved his hands towards us. "And worse! I took a prophet--one of your

"One of my prophets," said the Lord God.

"And because he would not bow to me, I tortured him for four days and
nights, and in the end he died. I did more, O God, I blasphemed. I robbed
you of your honours----"

"Robbed me of my honours," said the Lord God.

"I caused myself to be worshipped in your stead. No evil was there but I
practised it; no cruelty wherewith I did not stain my soul. And at last
you smote me, O God!"

God raised his eyebrows slightly.

"And I was slain in battle. And so I stand before you, meet for your
nethermost Hell! Out of your greatness daring no lies, daring no pleas,
but telling the truth of my iniquities before all mankind."

He ceased. His face I saw distinctly, and it seemed to me white and
terrible and proud and strangely noble. I thought of Milton's Satan.

God asks whether all this is true. The Angel Gabriel answers that, well, yes. In a manner of speaking, all this is true. But then he goes on to tell the true story: The king had a bad stomach, he ate too much... the Angel reads out all the little, stupid sins and weaknesses that destroy "the dignity of defiance."

The king who imagined himself a great individual, unmatched in his accomplishments (evil though they were), was in fact not unlike the hairy prophet he tortured and killed. An upset stomach tempts us to rage. An embarrassing belch tempts us to imagine our importance offended. And on and on.

By the end of the litany, shame overcomes the little king.

The Wicked Man on God's hand began to dance and weep. Suddenly shame overcame him. He made a wild rush to jump off the ball of God's little finger, but God stopped him by a dexterous turn of the wrist. Then he made a rush for the gap between hand and thumb, but the thumb closed. And all the while the angel went on reading--reading. The Wicked Man rushed to and fro across God's palm, and then suddenly turned about and fled up the sleeve of God.

The whole story is really a treat. I should like to read it to my children--once they have reached the rhetorical stage. It is good to laugh at sin, especially when the evils of the world seem to weigh us down and the hours are long and dark in the night.

We are all as infants before God, before judgment. We can't even distinguish our selves from others by rebellion. There is nothing new under the sun.

There is only home. We only need the sense to run toward it.

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