WO STRANGERS knocked on Sam’s door, handing him a flyer. “It’s a free movie,” they said.
The film, to be shown at a nearby church, was titled “The Burning Hell.” The single sheet, printed in black and white, had a drawing of people surrounded by flames, under a devil-like face resembling that of Vincent Price. “20,000 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT and not a drop of water— Tortured Lost Souls Burning Forever. SEE HUNDREDS OF BIBLICAL WONDERS filmed in the Holyland.”
At the appointed time Sam stood in the parking lot of the church, deciding whether to go in. It was a low metal building, adorned only by a simple cross over the double-doored entrance.
Inside, rather than pews, rows of folding chairs faced a raised platform with a lectern; instead of a theatrical visual and sound system, a single 16mm projector was aimed toward a portable screen, reminding him of educational films he saw in elementary school.
The auditorium quickly filled, and the pastor took the lectern to welcome everyone, especially all the visitors who were present. Since the movie was close to an hour long he went ahead and introduced it. He then invited the children to move to the front rows, which they excitedly did. Sam thought back to Saturday afternoon matinees, when the children sat up front.
The first thing that appeared on the screen was a depiction of a futuristic spacecraft headed toward a bright light, accompanied by a ethereal choir singing Lord I’m Coming Home. The light, as well as the music, was more suggestive of heaven than hell. Did this mean we were to go to the afterlife aboard a spaceship?
“Are you 100% to go in HEAVEN if you died today? The HEAVEN is true and the HELL is very true...” boomed a preacher’s voice, with large matching text scrolling over the image of the starship as he spoke.
Ministers preaching from various pulpits formed the underlying structure of the film, each referencing passages of scripture to prove the existence of a literal hell. Once a story was indicated it was dramatized using actors on various sets, some in the Holy Land and at least a few in contemporary America.
The acting was amateurish and the special effects school of Ed Wood— hell especially had more silliness than fury. There were a few horrific scenes— a severed human head in a motorcycle accident, maggots eating a person’s face, and an entire body getting consumed by worms.
As to the basic message, Sam cringed a bit with guilt at the story of the beggar Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, remembering a time when he himself once angrily gave a man a couple dimes and told him to get a job. All of us, he thought, could do better against what hells we make for ourselves here in this life.
The film ended with a final plea to accept Jesus and join him in heaven, rather than face the alternative.
As the credits rolled, realistic flames surrounded the scrolling list of names. After the special effects he’d seen Sam was amazed at how lifelike these decorative fires looked. Then he realized with a shock, as did others in the audience, that the flames were real— the screen itself had somehow caught fire up along its edges.
Almost on reflex an elder had a fire extinguisher in hand and was spraying out the flames, in time to at least save the central two-thirds of the screen. No one was hurt, although a few of the children in the front row appeared a bit distraught. That could just as well have been from the effects of the movie itself though.
As everyone was calming down and the credits finishing, a few people noticed that the projector too was on fire. The mechanism itself was mostly metal and there was little smoke, but small tongues of flame were licking out of oily crevices in search of ready fuel. The projectionist quickly unplugged it and motioned for the elder with the extinguisher, who was already on the way.
He arrived seconds later, however the projector was now red with heat. He sprayed it, but the glowing only subsided a little. The fire seemed to be after the movie itself— a pencil of flame shot up the celluloid toward the take-up reel holding the movie, which quickly became a tight, intense fireball. The last blast of the extinguisher again seemed to have little effect— after perhaps a minute the fire burned itself out and died, leaving a small molten glob on the reel where the movie had been.
The pastor took the lectern, describing a reason for this turn of events. Because the fire occurred at two separate places, there was no way it was accident, nor was there any other possible naturalistic explanation. Since the movie was destroyed, it had to have been the work of Satan, who did not want the movie disseminated or viewed, with subsequent loss of souls that otherwise would have been his.
But, the pastor assured the people, there were many other copies of the movie, and its showing in as many places as possible would continue in spite of the challenge from the forces of evil, with that much added vigor.
At the close of the meeting some twenty or thirty people went forward to accept Jesus into their lives, which the pastor hailed as a triumph.
The pastor tried to at least say hi to and shake hands with everyone who was present, during which Sam asked, “Can you spare a few minutes sometime to talk to me in private?”
“Of course. Any special reason?”
“I would like assurance regarding my faith.”
“Definitely, but can’t tonight. Would tomorrow afternoon work?”
“How ’bout we meet around three then? In the park, at the benches by the lake.”
The following was a nearly perfect late-summer day. Sam arrived early, so didn’t expect to see the pastor yet. Most of the benches were occupied, but Sam found an empty one and sat down.
Despite the small crowd it was a quiet and peaceful setting, the pebbles of the lakefront disturbed only by ripples. The sun warmed him. To his left, a ways up along the bank, a father and son were fishing, almost motionless.
As he relaxed Sam felt his cares leaving him, his mind emptying. Even the faint sound of voices and gentle washing of the water seemed to dissipate. He was between wakefulness and sleep.
Sam then experienced what were probably not what you could call visions, but rather those unexpected flash-dreams some have immediately before drifting off, more like random thoughts than the longer, nocturnal epics of slumber.
In the first of these he found himself in the woods near Peshtigo, Wisconsin during the great fire of 1871. He could sense heat, and a darkening sky, not from storm clouds but massive smoke, and that in the ensuing fire many hundreds would die.
Fear was foremost in the minds of many thousands more, as he could also not see but somehow sense that at that moment not only Peshtigo but towns and cities all over were also burning— Holland, Manistee, White Rock, and Port Huron in Michigan, as well as the entire city of Chicago, Illinois.
Then the year was 1944. He was just outside the gates of a concentration camp in Poland. The heavy iron gates were ajar, with a good ten feet of space between them, as though they were inviting him in. But he stood fast, frozen in fear.
Beyond the gates he had a view of a large open space, with long, wooden barrack-like buildings on the opposite side. But it was quiet. Not a person could be seen or heard, neither guard nor prisoner. Behind the barrack-like buildings, in the distance, he could just see the top of a brick building, with a high, square chimney from which a faint wisp of smoke was the only sign of movement. Perhaps that’s where everyone was.
Finally he was in downtown Baghdad in 2003, during the first night of Shock and Awe. The streets were deserted. Cruise missiles crashed into large buildings. The ground shook as massive structures of stone and concrete exploded into blazing rubble.
Magically he was lifted into the air, such that he could see most of the central part of the city below him. The incoming missiles now appeared as though they were the size of matchsticks, and the large buildings plastic toys. The now-tiny structures burst into bits as though each was filled with a cherry bomb, a child’s amusement for the day.
He came alert with a start and lifted his head. All seemed quiet in the park around him, as before. The father and son were still fishing from the bank, perhaps yet waiting for their first nibble.
At that moment the pastor arrived, sitting down on the bench beside him. There were a few pleasantries about the weather, the baseball season, and then—
“Do you accept Jesus, Sam?”
“I accept all of reality, past and present. Jesus was real, wasn’t he?”
“He was and is most real.”
“In that case he’s part of reality, so I accept him. If he’s not real then it doesn’t matter whether I accept him, does it?”
“I guess not, but I can assure you he’s real.”
“Course it means I also accept Buddha.” Sam smiled.
“And bees too, right?” the pastor asked.
“Yes, but why bees?”
“Cause you’re the bee’s knees.”