Penance

Who’s there?

I heard you. I think I can see you. Who’s there? I have a gun. Come into the light. Let me have a look at you.

Are you serious? Beard, sandals, and robes? Red robes, no less! Been treading the winepress, have we? Do you really expect me to believe this rubbish?

Nothing to say? You come into my bedroom in the middle of the night and wake me up and you have nothing to say? How long have you been standing there and watching me? Who are you?

Do you really expect me to believe? I never believed before. Oh, I know I said that I did. Maybe I even believed myself when I said it – for a moment – but I have been getting out of bed and facing the world every morning with the knowledge that there is no God. Yes, I said it: there is no God! And even if there were, He would have to be either corrupt or powerless.

Do you think that makes me a hypocrite? A charlatan? Well, even if it does, I’m no worse than you are. Savior of the world? Whom did you ever save? Certainly not me, and I am your biggest supporter. You’ve fooled billions.

I know you are no Savior. And yet, here you are in my bedroom in the middle of the night. Did you come to apologize? I would like to think so. But no, any apology would acknowledge imperfection, so a perfect being cannot apologize. Very well. But don’t try to condemn me for using the same argument as you.

Have you come to condemn me? Then get to the condemning already! Why do you stand there? Your silence was always insufferable, and it’s even more so now with you staring me down like that.

Very well then. If you aren’t going to do it, I’ll do it for you. Let’s see here. Perhaps you would condemn me for adultery, but that would be unconscionable. I have tens of thousands of women hanging on my every word twice a week. Do you expect me not to indulge? Do you expect me to think that you didn’t? I only tell my people that I’m God’s servant, but you told yours that you were God in the flesh! Do you expect me to assume that the women you “saved” never wanted to show you gratitude?

Anyway, I don’t see why you should condemn me when my wife doesn’t. And there’s always sola fide, right?

Yes, sola fide. And sola gratia too, of course. The two most wonderful gifts that Latin has ever bestowed upon the English language. My entire career has been built on those two terms. Your grace absolves all men everywhere of all sin, just as long as they profess their faith in you. Such a lovely idea. The unwashed masses eat it right up. It’s amazing what people are willing to give you once you’ve declared them free of all accountability. The price they are willing to pay for such salvation goes far beyond monetary measurement.

And what if I don’t teach your message? Who does, anyway? If you hadn’t filled the Bible with so many contradictions and ambiguities, we wouldn’t have so many people teaching so many different things, now, would we? Most people in this world would be willing to do what you want if you would just tell them. But no, you prefer to leave us to our own devices. Oh, we do have scripture, but you and I both know how useless that is. It’s not exactly a standard message on belief if everything can be interpreted twenty different ways. The only way to fix that would be to send prophets again to straighten everything out, but we both know those times are gone.

I thought about becoming a prophet instead of just a minister. I considered it for a long time, as you may know. But it just isn’t worth it: making that claim gets you increased adulation from a small number of people and increased scrutiny from everyone else. It’s better to just be a minister. Everyone knows ministers aren’t called by God like prophets, but they suspend their disbelief and generally follow us as if we were prophets anyway. I’ve met a few apostles in my day as well. I thought about adopting that title, but doing so implies that you are part of a quorum or a group, and I’ve always been a one-man show.

Still nothing to say? Did you not expect this? I thought you were supposed to be a lion now, and not a lamb anymore. Where is your fire? Where is your condemnation? You aren’t on trial now: I am no Pharisee bent on crucifying you. So speak.

Speak! Why was that always so hard for you? I did believe at one point, you know. When I was young. Your image was everywhere in our house, and my mother always made sure that I prayed at least five times a day. I talked to you, but you never talked back. And now that I don’t believe in you anymore, you appear! But you still won’t talk, so hardly anything has changed, I guess.

What do you want from me? If you didn’t come to preach to me, why did you come?

Ah, that’s it then. My time is out. I’m moving on, am I?

Well, I refuse. If ever you wanted to prove you were not a tyrant, now would be the time. I refuse to die. I’m healthy and young, and I’m at the top of the world. Don’t make me leave now, not after everything I’ve built.

And if I don’t really believe, what’s that to you? If this message really saves, look at how many people I’ve saved! I have one of the largest congregations in the world! Doesn’t that please you at all?

Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s just because you are impossible to please. Even if the message I preach isn’t really your message, you should take into account the fact that your standards are too high. No one could ever live up to your expectations: that’s why you need people like me to make the message more realistic. If the purpose of your message is to make people happy, I’ve done that. Anyone attending one of my services can see that those people are truly happy – at least for a little while. I let them forget the grim reality that constantly surrounds them. Unlike you, I give them acceptance, love, and peace. You give them judgment, guilt, and conflict. You even said that you would bring a sword into the world and turn family members against each other. And you certainly did that. No wonder the atheists hate us.

I suppose I am an atheist. But then again, maybe not. After all, here you are. So I suppose I do believe in you: I just don’t like you very much.

Still nothing to say? Well, what if I were to put this gun in your face? Would you talk then?

I just told you that I didn’t want to die. Well, do you? I guess you already did it once. Did you like it so much that you wanted to do it again? I can help you with that. One bullet right between the eyes.

What am I saying? This isn’t real. You aren’t real. I must be dreaming. And yet, there you are, as real as anything. And what I feel is as real as anything. So let’s perform an experiment. I’m going to pull this trigger, and we’re going to see what happens. If I’m just dreaming, then everything will go back to being exactly as it was. If you’re really there…well, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Certainly more interesting than all of your silence. Are you ready? Here goes nothing.

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