Conversations in Bedlam

Spoiler Alert.

I am an atheist; it’s something I came at the hard way by starting out as a fundamentalist Christian. I rarely express my religious opinions among my friends, and I would never try to convert anyone. My writing is informed by my opinions, but I usually attack overly religious people, not the religions they profess.

In my cursory and unsympathetic reading of existentialism, I seem to detect an underlying whine of “God is dead and I hate him for it.” I would be embarrassed to make such a statement. If he doesn’t exist, who would I be yelling at?

Still, for those of us who grew up reading the Bible – especially the Revelation of St. John – God the Father, Jesus, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, Judas, Pilate, and the rest were real to us. Although we may try to eject them from our minds, they will always live in our bones.

So just once I had to write Jehovah a message. If this offends you, here is your spoiler alert. Stop now. Don’t read any further. Really, this is not a dare. If yelling at God himself makes you uncomfortable, go read the other things I’ve written.

Conservations in Bedlam

A single light waxes in the chamber, revealing a seated figure. He is surrounded by darkness. His trousers are dark; his shirt is light and open at the throat. What may be a blanket, or a cloak, or a cape is thrown across his shoulders and fans out on either side. It is black and fades into the darkness. His clothing might represent any period.

His face is buried in his hands.

As the light grows, a vague figure by his side, still barely lighted, speaks in a voice both soft and persuasive, asking, “What troubles you now?”

The seated figure stirs. “Remembering,” he says. “Remembering Joan. Was she my wife, or only my lover? Do you know?”

The standing figure replies, “No. I never knew her.”

“I see her face before me now, as she died. He made a torch of her, in the days of the fourth vial. We ran through the streets of Rome as the fire came down. I saw gutters running flames and heard the dying. They were nothing to me. There was so much dying then. And I thought He would let Joan live until the end, the better to torment me. I misjudged Him.”

“Many have misjudged Him.”

The seated figure strikes the arms of his seat with both his fists and cries, “Do not speak as if you were His servant, False Prophet. Have you not yet discovered that you are damned?”

The seated figure raises his face. His eyes are deep pools of blackness and his cheeks are hollow with pain. His hair is black and short, curling about his broad brow, and on his forehead is the number of the beast.

The False Prophet replies, “There is no end of hope in me. He said, ‘whosoever believeth in Me, shall not see death’.”

“‘You believe in God? You do well.’,” the Antichrist quotes in reply, “‘The devil believes also, and trembles.'”

The waxing light has now extended to include the False Prophet. His attire is regal and colorful, with gold and jewels in chains hanging from his neck. His stance is straight, his face holds the seeming of kindness, and his voice is gentle. But there is no sincerity in his eyes. “Do not speak to me of your own fate, Satanson,” he says. “I honored you. I paved the way to your glory, and you betrayed me. But He will not betray.”

If the Antichrist is stung by this, his ravaged face does not show it. “My mind is mazed,” he says. “My memory serves me up a thin soup of deceptions. But there is still much I do know, and I have heard your lies before, False Prophet. False hope.

“Tales of Lot and Jephthah and Elisha. It was all there. He thought so little of us that he flung the truth of His nature before us, knowing that we would not see.”

The False Prophet is unmoved. “You rant,” he says. “You rave.”

“And you, blind prophet, still will not see your own destruction. Will you preach His forgiveness from the Pit?”

“That is a torment I will never see.”

“Fool. Gross, bloated ego. Hell is here already; open your eyes!”

The light has waxed again, but the full dimensions of that chamber are hidden in shadow. There are two other figures present. One crouches to the left, his eyes in constant motion, but making no sound to betray himself. The other is straight and regal, in red soldier’s cloak, with breastplate and greaves. He steps forward now. “Can you not be silent?” he grumbles, “Your endless argument grates me like the rabble of Jerusalem.”

“Where you go, Pilate,” the False Prophet replies, “there will be no end to the sounds of torment. And your own cries of pain will fill your ears for all eternity.”

Pilate spits upon the floor at the False Prophet’s feet and sneers, “Perhaps my cross will be stationed near yours. Then your whining is sure to drown out the cries that men make.”

“You will never see me there.”

“Oh,” Pilate replies sardonically. “I would think differently, from the company you keep.”

He turns away from the False Prophet with a swirl of his cape. The False Prophet steps backward, and Pilate takes his place at the Antichrist’s right hand.

“I have crucified his kind before,” Pilate says, gesturing over his shoulder. “I understand them, but you are strange to me. You took back the throne of the Ceasars from the bloodless Popes, yet you did not use it well.”

“I never wanted the throne,” the Antichrist replies. “I never wanted power. I never wanted the recognition or the pain. I only tried to say, ‘Resist! Be men!’, and they made me a lesser God.”

The Antichrist shakes his head in dismay and disbelief as he continues, “They cried for mercy, there at the end. For mercy, from one who sent his own Son to die. How could they mistake him so?”

“Ah, the Christ.” Pilate’s eyes light at the thought. “I remember that day. I went down to Golgotha to see him die. He did not die well, whatever his followers said. He writhed. That’s a memory I’ll treasure. God may burn me, but I’ll know it was my order that nailed up His Son!”

“A small revenge,” the Antichrist comments. “I would find no consolation in it.”

Now Pilate turns to study the Antichrist more closely. “You remind me of the Christ,” he says. “They call you Antichrist, but like him you’ve no taste for blood.”

“No. No taste for it.”

“Yet you led the rebellion against Him. Even I would not dare to do that. Why?”

“To be free.”

“From what?”

“To be free from His lies. To know the truth, however bitter.”

“For that?” Pilate cries. “Only that? You endured the plagues and the tribulation, raised up armies and fought Armageddon. For that?”

“Yes, for that.”

Pilate shakes his head in disgust and turns away, but in parting, asks, “Are you free now?”

The Antichrist replies, “I am. At last I am free of the illusion that men will seek the truth.”

Pilate moves away. The crouching figure has drawn nearer. Pilate kicks him as he passes, snarling, “Draw back, Judas. You were not much of a man in Jerusalem. I find you no more appealing here in the shadow of Hell.”

The figure scuttles backward; his mouth works, but no words come out. The Antichrist, watching from his dais, shakes his head and says to Pilate’s retreating back, “Pride and self-hatred. The opposing parts of man. You are a poor pair for last companions.”

The False Prophet draws near as Pilate moves away. The Antichrist turns on him angrily and cries, “And you, maker of lies, believer of lies. You I despise most of all. You call me Satanson, but yours is the tongue of serpents, calling men to destruction with lies that roll sweetly from your mouth while the truth goes unheard.”

There is a sound of trumpets.

From the left and behind comes the sound of marching feet. The shadows rustle and the Antichrist rises to see a host of figures moving past in the darkness. Occasionally a figure moves briefly into the light, only to be swallowed up again. One is in furs, another in silks, one in the garb of a herdsman, another in a business suit. All the ages of man are passing, and the False Prophet says softly but clearly, “The Saints!”

Pilate spits on the floor and Judas watches in silence.

“I know them,” the Antichrist says in surprise. “Is this another of His devices, to torture me with the phantoms out of my childhood. Look, there goes Daniel, who walked with lions. And Isaiah, who wrote of Lucifer’s fall. Oh, I know you all. Sheep! And you, Job. Job! Look at me.”

An emaciated figure looks up without pausing, and passes his hand before him as if to ward off evil.

The Antichrist’s voice is taunting now. “Go, Job. Run to the one who gave your body to Satan to torture. Go run to the one who sent you boils and leprosy, who killed your sons and daughters, so that your great faith could win him a bet with the Devil. Run to him. Maybe his rewards will make up for his ravages, but I doubt it.”

The sound of marching feet is now a groaning in the Earth, and the Antichrist springs up on his stone seat to shout, “You, Jeptheh. I see you walking with Issac and Abraham. Don’t you feel slighted that He let you sacrifice your daughter in His name, when He spared Abraham from killing Issac? Doesn’t it make you bitter that the same story should have two endings? And where is the girl, whose name we were never told? Still bewailing her virginity upon the mountain? What strange joy did you feel when you set her body afire?”

“Be silent, you fool!” the False Prophet cries.

The Antichrist looks down. “Blind prophet! You are bound by the lies you have told; you still believe them, when no one else does. But I am free. Free of hope. I am Hellbound. What else can He do?

“Look; see Lot walking with his daughters. Do you remember when he offered them to the men of Gomorrah to gang rape, so that his guests could not complain of his hospitality. And there goes Elisha. Surely you remember him. The great prophet, whose third miracle was to call up she-bears to kill forty children, for the crime of teasing him. For his bald head, by Christ. For calling a bald man bald! Run, False Prophet. Worship at the feet of the chosen of God, if you would, but do not call me fool.”

“Your rebellion will damn you.”

“My rebellion has damned me already. As your lies have damned you. But it is my curse to speak the truth, as it is yours to believe lies. Surely he could have found me no more tormenting companion for these last seven years than you.”

Again the trump sounds and the four figures turn. The darkness, so deep before, recedes now. The host is gone and there on a dais higher and more ornate sits a white robed figure in bearded majesty. At his right hand sits another figure – the Christ; more slender and in plainer robes, thin of face and beard, with scarred forehead and stars of scars on the backs of his hands. His eyes are vacant and far away. He looks at the four before him, then raises his mild, tired eyes to fix on the middle distance.

Jehovah is broad of chest and face, with thick, smiling lips and high laced, heavy sandals. He holds a sword in his hands, heavy across his knees, and it is stained from point to hilt with the blood of armies slain on the field at Armageddon.

Jehovah is bathed in blinding white light. The Christ is lighted in palest blue.

The False Prophet throws himself down before Jehovah, crying, “My God. My God.”

Jehovah’s eyes roll down upon him, sardonic and amused. “What is this?” He inquires. “My Saints are all secure. Who is this creature who calls Me his God? What arrogance is this?”

Before the False Prophet can reply, the Antichrist answers for him, “It is only another whom you have deceived.”

“No,” the False Prophet cries. “It is I, thy servant.”

Jehovah raises His eyes to the Antichrist. They glint with sly amusement, as if to share a private joke, and prophecy plays itself out as He says, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”

The False Prophet is no more.

But the Antichrist speaks for him. “It were better to say that he never knew You.”

Now Judas scuttles toward the lesser throne, cringing as he passes before Jehovah, though Jehovah makes no move to stop him. He falls to his face before the Christ and cries, “Forgive me, Lord. I was weak. I was human. But You have forgiven greater crimes; will You yet spare me?”

Pilate moves up beside the Antichrist to sneer, “Where are Nero and Alexander, Genghis or Stalin. If I must go to torment, I would go with men, not sniveling dogs!”

The Christ lowers His eyes toward Judas, but sees him not. He blinks, then looks over His left shoulder, though there is nothing to attract Him there. His thoughts are on His pleasure gardens in Paradise and He passes a scarred hand over His scarred forehead, remembering old pain through a mazed mind.

“Jesus? My Lord?” Judas’ voice fails him and he falls back. The light upon him is extinguished.

Pilate draws himself up straight and steps forward one step. Jehovah smiles upon him, but it is a cruel gesture. To the Antichrist, Jehovah says, “You counseled defiance. Will you, then, claim Pilate as one of your own?”

The Antichrist shakes his head. “He is not mine. He loves blood, not truth. His demeanor is only a defense against fear, and his bearing would crumble under the weight of honest emotion. Love would tear him asunder. He only seems strong. He is but a shell.”

The light illuminating Pilate is extinguished. Jehovah contemplates the Antichrist.

“You are the last to be judged,” He says. “Even old Lucifer is in torment already. But you have been a special adversary. Would you ask any boon before your torment begins?”

“My torment began years ago,” the Antichrist replies, “when first I knew You for what You are. Since I first read your Word with open eyes, and saw cruelty where others blinded themselves and saw mercy. I even thought that I could raise them against You, for Your perversions were plain to read in every page. But they never listened. Even when they seemed to; even when they drew up under my banner before Armageddon, they were still deceived. Why? If a boon is to be mine, then tell me why, of all men, only I saw You for what You are?”

“You were not the only one,” Jehovah replies. “Only the greatest of them. Their summation and apotheosis.”

The Antichrist nods at that, remembering. He quotes:

Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give — and take!

Jehovah’s lips part like the opening of the Earth, and He says, “Khayyam. The astronomer poet. I remember him well. He burns, with the rest.”

Again, the Antichrist quotes:

The reason I believe God crucified His Own Son to get out of the wretched tangle is, because it sounds just like Him . . .

“Ah, Masters,” Jehovah responds. “Bitter man. Another slight I did not forgive.”

The Antichrist says, “I stand with them.”

“With them?” Jehovah snorts. “You stand above them. You are their master. You are all that they would have been, had their faith in themselves been stronger. As old Lucifer and I are the two parts of God, so Christ and Antichrist are the two parts of Man. Submission and rebellion. I feed on them both, and reward them both appropriately.”

The Antichrist says bitterly, “Seeing your Christ, I would choose torment . . .”

Jehovah laughs like thunder. “Of course you would. It was thus that I created you. But there are torments of many kinds, and I have a special one for you. I have said that every knee shall bow. But your knees have not yet done so.”

The look of anticipation on Jehovah’s face sickens the Antichrist. He begins to tremble and stumbles to the dais where earlier he sat. His hands upon the back of the seat cannot steady him and he falls against it, sliding down.

Sardonic and amused, leaning forward to watch, Jehovah repeats, “Every knee shall bow.”

“No!”

“Even you will bow.”

“Never!”

“Archetype you may be, but I created you with the same urge that I created the rest of your race. You will bow.”

Slowly, trembling, fighting with every resistance that is in him, the Antichrist drops to one knee, crying, “No. No, I beg You. You have taken my family, my nation, my world. You have taken my name and churned my memory beyond trusting. Do not take my rebellion. It is all that I have left.”

For a long moment he sways, then the second knee comes down and he falls forward until his forehead strikes the floor.

There is silence. The Antichrist is bathed with a ruddy light and Jehovah wanes slightly. His face is triumphant.

Then the Antichrist thrusts out a hand and places it palm flat upon the floor. His elbow lifts. He forces one shoulder up, shifts his weight and brings the other arm beneath him. Head hanging, he presses his shoulders up a hand span, then slumps, catches himself and braces his hands against the floor again. Slowly he raises his head.

Jehovah’s face reflects surprise. Jesus, roused from somnolence, cries out in horror.

Slowly, agonizingly, the Antichrist levers his feet under him and stands. He sways on his feet. His hands are clenched at his sides, and he is trembling.

Jehovah waxes brighter than even before and his face is full of rage. “You have leavened a race of beggars,” He cries. “Now leaven Hell!”

And the Antichrist replies, “Bring on the Fire.”

Scowling and crying incoherently, Jehovah sweeps his hands apart and for a brief moment all is engulfed in boiling red light. Then there is darkness.

But the voice of the Antichrist, soft in that darkness, echoes up from the Pit, calling out:

Thou who didst make
Eden and the Snake,
Thou didst devise too well.
There is revolt in Hell.

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