The City: A Short Story

The other night I got a picture in my head of a man, staring at a shining city in disgust.

There it stood, gleaming in its wickedness and immorality. That unholy city had a kind of sick beauty to it; aglow, day and night with its vile promiscuity.

Of course it was gold – gilded with the sins of those who lived there. They talked a good game about “love, love, love,” but holiness? No. Righteousness? No.

Out here in the twilight, I leaned on my shovel and stared at the ungodly abomination.

Inside, it was called by another name, but I preferred the name the Bible gave it: Babylon.

The kings would be coming soon. Bringing tribute, no doubt. Tribute and trading goods.

For almost as long as I had lived here, in the shadow of the city that never goes dark, I had lived with righteous anger against it.

I scarcely remember a time when I have not been waiting for God’s righteous judgment on that foul city.

Maybe it was the beginning of the first day I found myself here. I thought it was heaven. I thought I had finally made it. A city filled with brilliant light. They welcomed me in, gave me a place to stay. They told me how glad they were that I had come.

It was almost too perfect. For a day or so, I enjoyed it. I worshiped God and gave thanks that Christ’s blood had saved me.

Then I began to notice things. Little things. Things that worried me.

For example, my neighbor. He never worked. He never went to church. He didn’t obey the command “If a man does not work, neither shall he eat.” I had been trying to earn my keep and looking for a job, but he wasn’t working at all. Yet every day at the feast, he was given food.

If it had just been that I might’ve let it pass. But then I realized there wasn’t a church in this city. No church, no temple, nothing.

Then one day I saw a gay couple. Two men, walking down the street, holding hands. One said something to the other, and the other laughed and kissed him. On the mouth.

I was stunned. Here? In heaven? It couldn’t be. That’s when I remembered Revelation 21:8 – the verse that says fornicators will have their part in the lake of fire. I tried to shout to warn them, but my voice refused to work.

Then it started to come together. The sea of glass that burned with fire? That was actually the lake of fire.

That also explained the heat. As I began to notice more and more that all the wrong kinds of people were in this godforsaken city, I could almost feel the heat increasing. When a woman told me about how she had “had to” get an abortion, I felt the temperature go up ten degrees in just that one moment.

When I saw a man wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, the heat increased even more.

I never felt safe in the city, of course. Outside there were all kinds of dangers, but the gates were never closed. They could come in at any time – as if they might be worse than the constant evil I lived with in the city itself.

Then I knew the truth: This wasn’t heaven.

It was hell.

As soon as I realized where I was, I tried to flee the city. I worried I might not succeed because if I really was in hell, I couldn’t get out.

But the gates were never shut, so I slipped out. No one tried to stop me.

I walked for ages, but after a point the city stopped getting smaller, no matter how much farther away I tried to go.

Finally I set up camp, as far away from the city as I could get. The camp turned into a hut.

There’s nothing really out here. It’s hot, but it’s better than the city. The ground is hard and nothing grows in it, so every few weeks I sneak into the city for supplies. Every time, it’s worse than I remember.

I keep praying that God will forgive me for whatever I did to end up in this hellhole, but so far, nothing. I guess I was right when I was alive – you only get one chance. No backsies after death.

Did I not pray enough? Did I at some point in my life deny Jesus? Maybe I was trusting in my good works?

I don’t know how this happened, but all I know is that the yellow on those streets isn’t gold. It’s fool’s gold. I don’t even need to look; I already know.

So here I stay, alone, outside the city. Maybe some day I will be redeemed, but I have begun to doubt it.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. -Revelation 21:22-26

Afterword:

I don’t know why, but I was thinking about my dad dying last night. (He’s still very much alive). Maybe we were talking about funerals or something, but I thought about what it would be like if he died and found himself in the eschaton, or the end times, that I believe in. How would he react? What would he do? What would he think of the place?

I realized right away he would think he was in hell, and just then I got a picture in my head of someone standing in outer darkness staring at the New Jerusalem, disgusted by its offensive inclusivity and abhorring everything I love about that picture in Revelation 21.

The first two people I shared this story with both observed that it seems to leave the narrator alone in the outer darkness, with no hope of redemption.

The theologian George MacDonald, who influenced better-known theologians like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, envisioned a sort of burning away of wickedness. If I recall correctly, it was a burning away of everything that is not us, by the fiery love of God upon our death. I do not know whether MacDonald is right, but I hope that he is.

Maybe I’ll write a chapter two, but for now I want to leave our narrator right where he is, and right where he was when I quickly jotted down this image:

It’s a story about heaven – her gates will never be shut – told from the perspective of a sympathetic narrator who is outside the city and sees it as the center of hell, where all manner of wickedness takes place.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

Author: David M Schell

I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

One thought on “The City: A Short Story”

  1. This reminds me of the Eastern Orthodox perception of hell: the pain of experiencing God’s love as someone who hates the idea of said love, and by extension oneself. It’s the only one I feel right believing in, since it may be relinquished once we truly understand the magnitude and universality of God’s love for us.

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.