Never Ever is Hell Forever?

An Unfortunate Meeting and the Absurdity of Eternal Damnation

Chapter I — The Accusation

Benjamin, and also Theodore, disliked making shoes very much. They were men who, against their own wishes, diffused the stench of leather from their skin regularly and, much to their chagrin, dreamed in their sleep of the wooden clanking of shoe lasts piling into a pit they might never escape. They complained of this coincidentally shared nightmare over coffee one morning and took refuge in the other’s delighted abhorrence for what in their minds was an especially demeaning vocation.

Benjamin, despite being in his late thirties, was still grasping after that youthful impatience one has when the prospect of opportunity is still present in the mind. Theodore, owning twenty years Benjamin’s senior, had no such delusions.

The men sat in an office room opposite a very tall, very gaunt man they had never met before. The office room was several floors above the factory floor, on a level of the building they had not known existed. Curiously, the journey through the elevator had felt like a passageway into the haunted realm of a sleepwalker’s asylum. Or perhaps a ghost vessel into a spectre’s lair. The memory of being called forth by their floor supervisor, the trudging through the elevator doors, the feeling of sickening vertigo as the cables pulled them upward; all of it was suspiciously fading. Neither Benjamin nor Theodore could recall exiting the elevator cab or walking down a hallway to find themselves in this strangely suffocating room with loaded bookshelves towering overhead, practically toppling over the ledges, and the bright, unwavering eyes of the Inquisitor on the other side of the empty, black oceanic desk. Even the stifling silence of this room sitting above what was believed to be only a few stories atop the constant drum, clatter, and shouting of the noisy manufacturing warehouse below was a perplexity. And it was after a few short, mysteriously quiet minutes that Benjamin and Theodore began to wonder if they were still in the factory at all.

“It is my duty to see that you are accused of the foul deeds you have committed against this company,” the Inquisitor of Jacob’s Sole began. He spoke with oppressive judiciousness, but also not without a sense of undeniable reason. As if every word was more logical than the last. Benjamin, and also Theodore, couldn’t place his age from the darkened features and tight skin. He seemed elderly, but then again perhaps not too elderly. Who could say?

“You will undoubtedly be terminated from this establishment by the end of this meeting,” he continued, “but to what degree you will also be subject to conviction and imprisonment depends largely on what is confessed from this point onward. Gentlemen, do you understand what I have told you just now?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Theodore with his usual gruff performance. “And who might you be?”

“I am the Inquisitor of Jacob’s Sole,” the man replied. “As I was saying, your termination from your positions will be finalized by the end of this conversation, you will be required to exit the premises with all of your belongings immediately without pay, and we will be alerting the authorities of your departure.”

“Why would you be needing to alert the authorities?” Benjamin asked timidly.

“Why indeed, Benjamin. Most certainly this is the primary concern of yours, and it rightfully should be. I only hope for your father-in-law’s sake that the impetuous and heinous nature of the situation is also shared. You’re both in a great deal of trouble. Trouble instantiated through the illegal dealings with respect to both of your employers.

“Here I see upon my mentioning of ‘both of your employers’ that your eyes have widened in astonishment. But as to why this is the case I cannot yet say lest I play my hand. For now I must only fulfill my role as inquisitor and extract the information from your minds as suitably required of my position. This will be accomplished in dissimilar methods of inquiry but nonetheless successful modes of dialectic investigation.

“To my own amusement, I should say at this moment of suspension, Mr. Jacob, your faithful employer of this shoe production establishment, has requested that before I am to fulfill my task in alleviating all mysteries regarding both of your criminal behaviors I am to report back any and all grievances you may possess against the faithful Mr. Jacob and his honorable company. Therefore, please, proceed forth with said grievances . . .”

Benjamin, and also Theodore, sat dumbfounded by not only the Inquisitor’s exposition, but also by the sudden problematic situation they at the time had found themselves supposedly defenseless against. Therefore to combat the unexpected reality of being retained on criminal charges, they persistently questioned the Inquisitor again and again as to who exactly he was and why they were sitting in this room, subconsciously thinking that not understanding the reasoning for this uncomfortable situation would somehow vindicate their current standing. The Inquisitor repeatedly and patiently answered these questions with the same response that he had already given along with his continued urging for the men to express their grievances against Jacob’s Sole. Eventually, as if unaware to which other direction there was an option for, they began to exercise a certain freedom of unfettered speech against their corporate master.

To this end Benjamin first exclaimed that he was completely unaware of any wrongdoing he may have done on his part. It was not his fault, he claimed, that any inadvertent misjudgments should be attributed to his past conscious actions, whatever they may have been, because he must have been ignorant of the violation he was committing at that present moment. ‘How can a blind man be called guilty for not recognizing a no trespassing sign?’ he argued as an analogous example. Thereafter, and in compliance with the requested grievances against the company, Benjamin showed no qualms in expressing his disapproval for Jacob’s Sole’s unfair benefits packages, his lack of promotion, the hot working conditions, the disparate bonuses paid to him when he in fact knew the lazy Andrew and Stephen received higher bonuses last Christmas, not to mention the inegalitarian effects of his floor supervisor being allowed considerably more “time off” (at pay mind you) for what henceforth shall be called “feminine reasons.” All the while following each and every grievance Theodore echoed behind his son-in-law’s increasingly venomous accusations with his own lowly grumblings of the same injustices, but said in a slightly more bourgeois way.

The Inquisitor of Jacob’s Sole listened intently to all of their proclamations of dissatisfaction with vigorous attentiveness and quiet, intensely palpable discernment. But what he did not express, which both men could clearly perceive, was any indication of even the tiniest minutia of sympathy whatsoever. And once the appropriate time of grievances had passed he lifted his hand and silenced the men with monarchical precision. It was because of this gesture that Benjamin considered the high likelihood that his and Theodore’s potential leverage through any sort of verbal transaction may prove to be far more impotent than otherwise initially presumed.

“Now that the grievances have been said we shall proceed forward with the sentencing,” the Inquisitor remarked with unnerving candor. “Upon this statement I interpret that you are both, understandably so, filled with indignation at our next item of agenda, which I observe in the protrusion of your jaws as one might protrude their jaw when a man is so filled with rage he must at the current moment speak his mind. But you will not speak at this moment, at least not quite yet, until I explain what was meant by ‘the sentencing’ for which those words have enraged you so.

“You see, gentlemen, the authorities have granted me permission to participate in an experimental procedure for extracting confessions by first delivering sentences contingent on what actions the indicted take. Consequently the rules are as follows:

“I am placing before you two copies of a roughly 300 page document, which is a compilation of all stipulations and exceptions to what we will now refer to as ‘the deal.’ I will also remove from my desk drawer a tape recorder that will play a significant role in the deal. Make no mistake gentlemen, the authorities have gathered sufficient evidence to declare with confidence that it is impossible for either of you to be found completely innocent in this matter. Both of you will receive punishment according to the corroborating evidence, at the very least for being an Accomplice by Knowledge, although as we’ll see your involvement may prove to be far worse than that. Therefore the sentencing will be applied according to the subsequent arrangements:

“First, it should be specially noted that what is contained within this tape recorder is audio of one of your voices being recorded unbeknownst to his awareness and is especially damning evidence of his full involvement in the crime. But, as I said, the audio recording only contains one of your voices, meaning the other cannot be sufficiently linked to this degree of contemptible dealings.

“Now rather than make a confession for yourself, you are instead encouraged to accuse the other of the crime you know he has committed. If you do not accuse, the authorities will use what evidence is available to ensure you are charged at the maximum sentence for an Accomplice by Knowledge of 10 years imprisonment, no further questions asked or investigation required. If you do not accuse and I play the tape and you are found to be the one captured in the audio recording then you will receive maximum sentencing for the crime, which is life in prison, no further questions or investigations. These are the consequences for lack of cooperation.

“Conversely, if you do accuse the other of his illegal involvement and are not to be found on the tape then you will receive minimum sentencing for Accomplice by Knowledge of 1 year imprisonment, no questions asked, no further investigation required. And likewise if you do accuse and are found to be within the tape then, again, minimum sentencing for perpetration, which is 10 years, no further queries, none. Each of these ultimatums applies to the both of you simultaneously. There are, of course, an extensive set of stipulations and exceptions to these rules depending on certain circumstances, which can be found in the rather large, convoluted 300 page volumes set before you. I highly encourage you to read and meditate on these variances before proceeding into the agreement of the deal.”

Benjamin was again speechless and upon hearing all of this clever nonsense assumed he must simply be dreaming. But then again if he was not asleep, or dead, then it mattered very much what action he was to take next. So in similar fashion to the outpouring of grievances pronounced earlier, he found himself compelled to first ask clarifying questions which the Inquisitor had already answered in his initial explanations. Also similar to the previous effort, his desire to cooperate with this new request was ironically driven by defiance. Benjamin felt the need to adhere to the rules of the game for the sake of competition, believing that triumphing over his employer may still be an option by passage through the eye of the storm.

And yet, he was still in a rather lost and confused state when he began turning the first few pages of the massive binder. His vision blurred over the advanced scientific vocabulary of very small print, typed in a language that he recognized as his own and yet could barely comprehend. And it was because of this interpretative difficulty that Benjamin began to feel relieved. How can he be faulted, he thought, when his own cognitive capacity to understand such a precocious arrangement should render his ability to cooperate vacant? It was no matter, though, because after five excruciating minutes Theodore, who had been steaming in front of his unopened binder, announced his accusation:

“Benjamin has been selling drugs to the Yamata no Orochi. He is a kingpin of sorts. A very bad man,” Theodore said. “It’s cocaine.”

The Inquisitor replied, “In this country, the selling of narcotics is a third-degree felony. A serious crime.

“Benjamin, it appears that Theodore has taken the offer to make an accusation. Therefore, if you also make an accusation against him and it is your voice on this tape then Theodore will spend 1 year in prison and you 10 years. If it is Theodore on the tape, the sentence will be 10 years for him, and 1 year for you.

“Of course, If you do not make an accusation and it is Theodore’s voice on the tape, we will use what evidence we have to convict you for the maximum sentence for Accomplice by Knowledge of 10 years. Moreover, if you say nothing and it is found to be your voice on the tape, then you will remain in prison for the rest of your life. Before you decide on which option you would like to take, you are still permitted to read the guidelines for this agreement in order to ascertain any exceptions that may apply.”

Benjamin’s eyes resembled that of a night owl. Coincidentally, so did his neck as he turned to face his father-in-law. Theodore held his obstinate grimace, absorbed Benjamin’s glare with the side of his face, and maintained his committed nostril-breathing as if every inhalation was a different flavor of manure. It was at this moment that the carefully sequestered rage Benjamin had been suppressing through all of the Inquisitor’s grandstanding had reached its culminating fracture line on a snowy mountain personifying his self control. His mind of reason became buried in the avalanche and almost as if being puppeted by the blizzarding rage-master rumbling within the mountain’s core he became compelled to accuse his friend as well. “Theodore is smuggling the cocaine into Jacob’s Sole shoes so that it can be secretly sold to the Yamata no Orochi.”

At this the Inquisitor calmly replied, “Theodore, concealing contraband within the property of a private corporation for sale to a known criminal amounts to a second-degree felony. A very, very serious crime indeed.

“Alas,” he declared louder, “accusations have been made so now we must discover who has inadvertently confessed to their own crime by way of being recorded in the act of committing one of the accused crimes already revealed.”

With a skeletal finger the man selected the play button but what emitted from the dusty electronic device was unexpectedly a slow, methodical set of ordinary words in the voice of the Inquisitor. First eggs. Then milk. Then 8 ounces vinegar. And so on like that for several more words until he again reached over the desk and ended the confounding, mundane series with the stop button.

“My apologies gentlemen for it appears that this tape is my grocery list. I must have left the tape revealing the damning evidence against one of you at my current place of stay. No matter. You will both hereby be sentenced to the maximum punishment, which is life in prison, for what you have now confessed in this room only moments ago.

“Now there is no need to stir about in frustration or shock about this unexpected pronouncement, which assuredly you both interpret as not in compliance with the initial conditions of the deal. However I may now assure you that my proclamation of your current punishments was not a result of a misspoken opinion. For if you were to turn to Section 44, Article XII, Lines 1 through 8 on page 189 of your agreement manuals you will find that in the case that an accusation reveals that the indicted has been an Accomplice by Knowledge to a crime involving a notable syndicate leader responsible for at least seven first-degree felonies, three of which are human trafficking, genocide, and espionage within our current country then the indicted will thereby be considered guilty of being an accomplice to a national security risk, or in other words guilty of Treason, which is a first-degree felony and should be charged with maximum punishment for said crime. And since Yamata no Orochi has met the criteria of this syndicate figure and you have both confessed your knowledge of illegal dealings with him you shall be convicted according to the rules of the deal for which we have been bound since the moment of your submissions to the accusation proceedings.

“It is interesting to note, Benjamin, that if you had said nothing, and since I had misplaced the tape of the damning evidence, then you would have only received 1 year imprisonment. Section 12, Article III, Line 18 clearly states that if an audio recording evidence cannot be presented before the conclusion of the deal’s meeting then the evidence cannot be considered legitimate and only minimum sentencing for Accomplice by Knowledge may be fulfilled, regardless of whether or not the indicted makes an accusation against his partner. Very interesting — and also very unfortunate — considering the outcome of actual events thus far.”

“Now, now,” the Inquisitor continued. “Rather than allow your uneasy souls to succumb to panic I must also bring to your attention another stimulating detail, which can be found in Section 56. To briefly summarize, as acting arbiter of the deal, and in the case of compliance with any of the criteria met from Sections 42–55, I have been granted authority to lessen the indicted’s sentencing contingent on my own personal judgment subsequent a series of questioning. To be inappropriately forthright, this is a particularly juicy detail I am particularly kindled by.

“But rather than interrogate the two of you with a series of legal questions, instead I shall insist on a discussion of an existential nature. To this end, if you converse with me about your God and His destiny for the likes of men such as yourselves, I will perhaps consider an alternative fate for your bodies.

“Indeed such a proposal must sound curious to your ears, I understand. A sudden discussion about life after death here under these serious legal circumstances? A valid question. But let it be known that for as long as I have been active in my authoritative position I have found that discussions of such philosophical and ideological natures reveal more about a man than any interrogation could ever do. It is through these existential dialogues that your true morality presents itself. Therefore my judgment shall rest on how you respond to this initial questioning and my subsequent rebuttals.” At this, an almost imperceptible sly smile cracked at the corner of the enigmatic man’s mouth. “What say you?” he finished. “What happens to the unrighteous upon passing this life? Where do they go?”

A long moment of silence passed but only because it was necessary given the intellectual inferiority of the two men sitting in their hard, unforgiving wooden chairs as they attempted to process the Inquisitor’s unforgiving, duplicitous discursions. But the miserable silence did not last as long as Benjamin had expected it to. Theodore grumbled, or perhaps chuckled, at the Inquisitor’s propositions. “This is all so very absurd,” he laughed. “Your misgiven authority, this aberration of justice, the damned tape recorder, all of it so laughably absurd. But it is because of this accumulated madness that again I feel inclined, no, impelled to participate in the absurdity. I am a shipmate lost at sea, in a storm with my fellow sailor, only I have acquiesced the truth of the dire situation. That the degree to which are fates are sealed is so dreadful that it must instead be humorous. So instead of cry out to God I sing songs of old men, belting with the fullness of my last breaths, and I hearken death upon us. And as to your question, of course the unrighteous unbelieving sinners burn in hell for all eternity. For the Scriptures tell me so, ‘Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.’ From the Christ himself, transcribed by Matthew, the 25th chapter, the last verse.”

“As predicted, Theodore, you have opted for arguing the everlasting destiny of sinners to that of the fiery embrace in hell’s oven by piously appealing to Scriptural Revelation. Also somewhat predictable was your, whether conscious or unconscious, decision to leave out the last part of the final verse in the 25th chapter. No matter. I shall now rectify your misinterpretation by appealing to the 46th verse in the actual Greek language for which Matthew’s Gospel was written: ‘καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.’

“‘And these will be sent to the castigation of eonion reproof, but those virtuous to the age of eonion life.’ Certainly, I presume, as I spoke my translated rendition of the verse you must be pondering what is meant by the word eonion, which is the adjectival form of your uncommon word eon, but nonetheless a word I am sure you have some familiarity with. It is my translation of the Greek adjective αἰώνιον for which you so effortlessly call ‘eternal.’ But it seems as though your rendering of ‘eternal’ in this modern age does not genuinely reflect what these ancient men meant by ‘aiōnios.’ For to say that your God is to punish you eternally would be in the same breath to say that the fires consuming Sodom and Gomorrah burn eternally. Except you and I both know that no such fires continue to this day. Rather it seems that ‘eternal’ for these ancient men was to signify something related to an eon bearing the weight of your God’s eternal nature. For instance when He sets ablaze two sinful sister cities it is forever in the sense that His judgment is everlasting; the resulting effect enduring for eternity.

“Or perhaps, as another possibility, we could say, ‘And these will go away to irreversible punishment (of the final age), but the righteous into permanent life (of that age).’ Now true I import words like ‘final age’ into the verse because I believe one cannot divorce αἰώνιον from its association with the eschatological age present in the original Jewish context; the judgment day yet to come where all will end and a new age will begin. Final punishment, or new life, was yet to come in the Second Age. It could not be fully accomplished in this life of course. This is simply assumed. But even without the context and even if the Jews did affirm that the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah were burning to this present day it would still have more to do with the permanence of your God’s actions. The irreversibility, that is. Duration was either only a secondary consideration, or a concept not considered at all. What mattered, ultimately, is that what is done is done. And so I will say again, eternity belongs to your God and your God alone.

“For if eternity is only truly found within Him who you worship then perhaps statements describing an age to come for new life or for horrible punishment as ‘eternal’ is merely to qualify those ages as that which will receive your God’s complete redemption and/or complete judgment. Have you forgotten that these ancient men had not yet been polluted by your Platonic-minded infections? For the men your Christ was speaking to, there would not have existed your arrogant conception of everlasting temporality, stretching the arrow of time abstractly in both directions ad infinitum. No, Theodore, no. What your Christ was claiming was the dawning of a new Kingdom for which his Father would be indwelling in a new, unprecedented way.

“Therefore I submit to you that any such speech of the coming Kingdom Age or conversely an age of fiery judgment described in terms of that word ‘eternal’ was for these ancient men a way to express the divine finality of these ages. They are periods of time linked to the eternal cause of such times, namely your God who is himself eternity.”

Theodore smugly pursed his lips at all of these preachings, yet he did not take long to offer a rebuttal, for which he was proud to offer as a self-ascribed intellectual equal to the Inquisitor’s cross-examinatory skills. “Ah but your mistake sir,” he sneered, “is that now you diminish the ‘eternal life’ to one that is no longer truly eternal, but only a finite age of righteousness instituted by God.”

As if excited that his anticipation had been perfectly met, the Inquisitor hastily replied, “Except this is not so, Theodore,” he grinned. “Have you forgotten that the life, granted to you through the knowledge of his glory, by which he granted as a great promise, is to become a partaker in the divine nature? Or that when you see him you will be like him, because you will see him as he is, thus being purified in him? Or that when your God descends from the heavens, if you are still alive and leftover, then you will be brought up into the clouds to meet him, so that you will always be with him? Did you forget, Theodore, that the body you have sown is perishable, but the raised body will be imperishable? That your mortal body will put on immortality through resurrection, being made in the image of the man of heaven. And then it will come to pass: Death is swallowed up in victory.

“Like a raindrop you are falling down, down toward the never-ending sea. And when you have met the eonion life your existence as the raindrop will end. Now you are not merely a drop of rain, but rather a drop that has become the sea itself: one with the ever-lasting expanse. The resurrected life, unlike the permanent, eternal-by-effect punishment, is in fact truly eternal because it unites you with Him who is eternal, that which is your so-called loving God.

“All of this, of course, is silly, nonsensical fantasy. But have you not seen Theodore, that by your undying faith in him you will be made like him, existing in his nature, which is eternity? It’s all right there in the same Scriptures for which you shout of eonion punishment. Your Christ even said it himself: ‘I in them and them in me, so that they may become completely one with me as I am with you Father.’

“And besides, what is this chastisement even for anyway old man? Is it not for your sin? And you and I both know the wages of this; that is Death. The culminating state brought on by the evils of this world and from below. Can the judgment against evil, that thing that is not a thing because of how other it is to the Ultimate Creator, go on forever unless it is also a part of the divine nature? This makes no sense old man. Evil cannot subsist into eternity because only your God can subsist into eternity. So let it be with punishment, an age to end. For Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Upon all of the Inquisitor’s rhetoric Benjamin was bewildered and also, much to his aggravation, amazed. He also could perceive, much to his satisfaction, that his father-in-law’s sense of intellectual equality to that of the Inquisitor’s was rapidly fading. While this filled him with vengeful delight after being given up by Catherine’s father so readily, he also couldn’t shake questioning the troubling indoctrination being peddled by the tall, thin frightening figure on the other side of the desk. “But if the damned are not punished forever according to the Scriptures,” Benjamin began in sincere curiosity, “then why have so many interpreted the Scriptures so wrongly for so long?”

“Benjamin, dear boy, it is good that you are also participating in this discussion so as to garner the possibility of a lesser sentence, as you have seen your partner in crime attempting. The answer to your question is that the rapidly changing currents and swirling undertows and the ever-branching bifurcations of those rivers that are language and culture eventually mutate into a swamp that must be waded through to ascertain ancient histories and other stories of old. It is fascinating, is it not Benjamin, that without the full picture of context, communicative intent, and proper elocution, that language can somehow be so correct in word and yet so incorrect in interpretation?

“Fascinating, yes indeed, that words — especially those spoken — can be so technically true, and yet also so straightforwardly false at the same time, is it not Benjamin?”

The question, to Benjamin’s ear, seemed in one sense rhetorical, but in another also strangely accusatory. The silent pause, effectually added to the frustration. Was he supposed to respond in some way? Fortunately, at least at first it seemed fortunate, it appeared as though the Inquisitor expected he would be required to break the silence himself.

“Perhaps Theodore should know that the Holy Scriptures are not the only message he has recently misinterpreted. For was not another message misunderstood directly from your mouth to his ears, Benjamin?

“As you may recall, you had informed Theodore that upon your deliveries to the Yamata no Orochi the work load divisible between the two of you would be split 50/50, with half of the agreed upon 5% of the cocaine load’s payout going to the each of you equally. However, as you know, in reality this is not quite accurate to the literal words which you had spoken to him. Rather what you did say to Theodore was that Orochi would be remitting 5% per kilogram of the wholesale cost of the narcotic delivery and that you would distribute these profits ‘according to what is equal.’

“It is those last five words that are of especial interest in this matter. Just as Theodore had not quite understood what your Christ intended by ‘eonion punishment’ so also did he not quite understand what you had intended by ‘according to what is equal.’ For it is of your particular, shall we say, worldview that your particular actions in transporting contraband shoes housing cocaine inside leather heels into the jurisdiction of a known, especially dangerous syndicate order, is considerably greater in degree of risk and effort than Theodore’s actions of smuggling cocaine packets onto company property and injecting them into small rectangular cutouts of leather material. And, therefore, according to this worldview ‘what is undeniably equal’ is a cut of 3% for your labor, and 2% for Theodore’s, which at this level of commerce amounts to a sizable difference in income provision.”

It was at this exposed juncture that it became Theodore’s turn to assume the eyes and neck of a night owl. “Damn you!” he shouted. “Damn you, you sniveling scum! I knew my money was too little. I knew it! And here I was caught thinking that only Orochi had been playing you for a fool, knowing your bargaining power is weak, assuring you his price was fair for this model of smuggling and transport we have assisted him in. And I had blindly convinced myself this was the reason for such little in return. But now this oppressor against us has revealed the truth. That you, you sniveling scum, had been playing me for the fool all along. Scum! You’re scum that I will crush beneath my boots!”

“Calm yourself Theodore,” the Inquisitor said gently. “My assumption is that you will not wish to aggress your daughter’s husband in excess once you have acquired knowledge of Section 63, Article XII, line 15 of your manual, which states that if the indicted partakes in gratuitous or violent behavior during this meeting then any length of incarceration time that may have been lessened shall be reversed by the arbiter of the deal.

“Besides, it is of Benjamin’s belief, is it not, that this new version of equality was suggested to him by the Yamata no Orochi himself. He planted this seed within your mind during one brief conversation, did he not Benjamin?” Benjamin nodded rapidly in distressed excitement. “And because it was Orochi’s idea then responsibility for the mathematically unequal payout division should fall solely on his shoulders, not Benjamin’s. For according to you Benjamin, you interpreted this mischievous proposal as an order rather than a suggestion. Is this correct?”

Again Benjamin’s head resembled a jackhammer. In response Theodore mumbled a long sentence under his breath so populated with coarse obscenities that the only possible clean translation might be rendered as: “Liar will answer to my boots.”

“So then,” the Inquisitor went on, “now that you have both restrained yourselves I am of the opinion that this latest disclosure is fortuitous in that it presents an opportunity for our discussion of your God and his destiny for all of mankind to continue in another direction. And if I were a man interested in wagers, which perhaps I am after all, then I would wager that Theodore’s burning fury in your direction, Benjamin, requires some essence of retribution to be enacted in order for his spirit of vengeance to be placated. Level scales are what the human cosmos must be ethically weighed upon after all. This is universal. But how much weight must be placed on the other side to undo the damage; to restore the balance? Benjamin practically snatched 1% of your allocated profits all for himself, leaving you in a substantial deficit not just in the current moment, but over considerable time past. Must he repay you the half percent owed for each delivery so as to compensate for your loss? No, no. That certainly will not do. What with the laws of economics and all, with principles such as inflation and interest, most certainly more than the half percent stolen is owed. However, while we could determine the repayment with included interest, that would still seem insufficient as well now wouldn’t it? Where’s the punishment you ask? This was theft after all.

“Well then, what sort of punishment should we impose on untrustworthy Benjamin? Additional conditions to his incarceration for this fraud? Lashings according to the law? While this may alleviate some of the burden on your betrayed heart consider that this sort of treachery came from family. Here your own daughter’s husband has done such a treasonous crime that even Catherine’s integrity has been compromised. Thus more than just money should be paid, I presume you will agree.

“But again, how much is enough? Should Benjamin be guaranteed life in prison now, no further questions asked? Or perhaps we still have not done the due diligence of inspecting how serious of a crime this actually was. After all, are you, Theodore, not made in the image of your God? What sort of depravity is this that Benjamin, the closest thing you’ve ever had to a son, has not simply stolen food from the dog’s bowl, but from you, a fellow man, a spiritual, holy being who is a microcosm in himself? What sort of blasphemy has really been committed here? Perhaps even death is not sufficient a penalty in response to a deed that does not just poison you, but infects all of us like a flooding virus.

“Now imagine if you were a being of even greater importance and authority such as myself. Surely the weight of Benjamin’s sin would be amplified and, therefore, so should his punishment. Indeed the crime must always be contextualized for determination of how great an offense it really was. For to steal from the greedy and corrupt is one thing, but to seize unrightful ownership from the innocent or the benevolent or even the kingly is another.

“But now, Theodore, imagine that you were Benjamin’s biological father and along with your late wife birthed Benjamin yourselves, cared for him and protected him all of your life, and lived an upright, morally perfect life yourself throughout all of your sacrifice for him. How unforgivable is this sin against you now?”

As if elevated by the excitement of his own inventive conceptualizations, the Inquisitor’s voice progressed in felicitous tone and volume. “Imagine, Theodore, that you now are an infinite being, infinitely good and holy, worthy of worship, who holds everything in the palm of your hand, including small Benjamin who you love dearly, and you have given even your life for him, enduring unimaginable suffering for his sake. Here his petty thievery is not simply about repayment of money, no, that would be a profane perspective. In this realm of majesty even the tiniest sin against such infinite goodness is an evil so odious that we must reason hereafter that the only acceptable service to justice, devoid of some proper atonement of course, would be the prescription of eternal separation. Do you agree? Is this not fair? What say you?!”

“Yes!” Theodore cried. “Yes, of course. If I were the most Holy God and Benjamin a reprobate, unrepentant sinner then, yes, he must burn! He must burn for all eternity.”

“As I suspected. You are indeed a seeker of justice Theodore. As agreed upon by your great patron saint, the late Mr. Jonathan Edwards — bless his tender soul — the seriousness of any betrayal against your God who is infinitely good and of the highest status for which any crime against would be infinitely heinous requires that the punishment and separation be infinite as well. However, is there not a defect to be found in this reasoning Benjamin? Perhaps something not quite right in our summation of true heavenly justice.

“For if what we mean by infinite punishment is eternal damnation in the fires of hell then we have relegated our punishment to that which is dependent on some order of time. And if this is so, then how can the punishment be truly infinite if the sinner is always in a state of suffering somewhere along the line of eternity, but never found at the end? He is always and forever in a state of incomplete punishment is he not?

“Now you may rebut at this objection and assert that while the so-called incomplete punishment I am posturing at is not an actually infinite judgment, it still is satisfactory as a potentially infinite one. After all, the disgusting sinner will spend all eternity in hell. So even if the duration of his stay may appear finite to him, the everlasting sentence is final from the perspective of your God.” The Inquisitor, once again enjoying such fruitful back-and-forth dialogue, raised his pointer finger and squinted at this latest rebuttal. “Except,” he smirked, “if the punishment cannot ever be truly actually infinite, regardless of perspective, which if a sinner is still burning in hell then this would imply by definition that the payment for his infinitely heinous sin is not yet finished, then your God, who is actually infinite, cannot truly be satiated in his magistracy. Unless the judgment can truly be infinite in not just sentence, but effect, then the seriousness for which the sin has been committed against that most Holy God can never be truly recompensed.

“You see Benjamin, your God’s holiness is like an infinite garden. And your supposedly trivial fib to Theodore is like a single drop of poison, which has spread and infected the entire endless foliage, sickening all of it down to the root. As retribution, you must suffer the toil of replanting each and every flower until the garden is whole again. But given that you are nothing more than a finite spider in this oasis of death, even after eons and eons you will not have completed replanting the infinite garden. You will dig and dig and dig but another flower is never enough for the requirement of infinity. Your eternal torment will never suffice because it cannot suffice because of what and who you are Benjamin. Therefore, your God’s garden will never fully be restored as just again, and this is indeed a sorrowful, deficient denouement.”

Theodore squirmed uneasily in his claustrophobic chair. “But sir,” he argued, “you have not enough faith that God in his infinite wisdom has assured that the eternal torment of the damned is, in fact, just. If he says that retribution must be spent eternally in hell, then it is as he says.”

“If this is so, Theodore, as you so piously avow, then are we not declaring the punitive measurement of eternal torment, in actuality, as purely arbitrary and leaving the rest of the logic to this mystery of your God? Why not posit that the sinner must generate an infinite number of fingers within the pits of hell for which he is to receive an infinite number of papercuts on every digit all within a single instance of time and simply assume that this affliction is sufficient for your God? And as for other tasks your Almighty is to be burdened with, let him awe us with his craftsmanship in carving cube-shaped globes or administering the divorce proceedings for married bachelors. How does he accomplish such nonsense? Through the mystery of his infinite wisdom and power.

“Please, gentlemen, especially you Benjamin, think these matters through before speaking so childishly.

“But I shall digress by appending, moreover, that we are also to consider what the likes of unreconciled evil is — by its very nature — according to your great Saint Augustine of old. The shadow that only shows itself when an object is blocking the light. A great privation of the Good, the Good that is your Mighty God. The ancient fathers of your tradition have said all that has being has in some essence a goodness that was gifted to it by your God. For to be is a good, and to not be is a tragedy. As such, evil must be something completely other than him and if devoid of goodness, therefore, has no being in itself. In this shadow, this empty darkness, is the only possibility of those negatives to life: rebellion, pain, anguish, death. So if the gnashing of teeth and suffering in everlasting torment is this privation of Good, then it would seem that the neverending sustenance of this void is an anathema to your God’s justice. For how can he truly be ‘All in all’ if the evil for which his mighty fist must squelch in divine authority persists throughout eternity as a continuation of that which he hates most? This makes no sense at all gentlemen.

“Moreover! Have we not assumed a grave misassumption from the very start in this matter? That the only true divine justice provided in the restoration of his balance is through the retribution of his pitiful subjects. How dare we! Theodore no matter how many lashings we unleash upon cunning Benjamin’s hide, you know full well that it will never be enough to indemnify his betrayal. Therefore true justice must be accomplished another way, whether it somehow be the eradication of the betrayal completely or through some sort of radical forgiveness between you, Benjamin, and your God.

“All of it impossible nonsense of course. Mere fairytale you are both fools to believe. But eternal torment sufficient for your God’s justice? Even more I laugh, and you should laugh along with me. It is a preposterous misconstrual, handed down to you by fallible men of prominent influence and convincing erudite sensibilities.”

Benjamin glanced at Theodore sheepishly. He pushed power into his legs to prevent them from continuing their nervous wobble but it was of no use. “What will happen to me?” he asked the Inquisitor.

“Does your question imply that you agree with the argument, Benjamin? Oh how very dull.”

“No sir. That’s not what I meant. It’s only . . .” Here Benjamin appeared very confused by even his own racing thoughts. “Sire?” He shook his head as if waking from a nightmarish daydream. “No. I mean, sir. If I may pardon myself. No, I mean yourself. Ugh, I apologize sir.

“But sir,” finally he found some composure, “Please forgive any informalities that I may be absentminded of or unaware of in addressing you, but I am puzzled but your conception of God and his punishment over man. You see sir, the unrepentant sinner does not receive punishment from God based on the seriousness of his sin. Rather he has chosen this divorce. Something I would never do sir. The damned freely persist in their sin by gnashing their teeth at God in hatred of his divine love. The punishment is the eternal separation they themselves desire most. God in his mercy simply allows them to be. As the great novelist and historian once said, ‘The gates of hell are locked from the inside.’”

“Benjamin!” the Inquisitor cried with glee. “You clever sport. Never ever did I imagine such wit might arise from you. Yes you raise a quite fascinating turn in our conversation, oh yes indeed. Perhaps we have taken an incorrect approach. Perhaps the damned are self-enslaved as your great children’s novelist has said.

“Although, Benjamin, I cannot help but wonder if by this logic you are defining such freedom to commit unforgivable sins of blasphemy improperly. For even the mortal sins, can we assume that these are chosen so freely and so indiscriminately? Take your beloved Catherine’s father, for example. Is this disgruntled old man’s self-enslavement to his own pleasures and lust for monetary gain as self-imposed as we might outwardly perceive? Or is his freely chosen sickness, while yes chosen, something more akin to the manic, shakily snorting of narcotics for which you have been aiding fellow addicts to obtain?

“You see, once desire, in opposition to your God, makes its bed in the man’s heart, the grip, as you see in my hand clenching the sterile air before you, becomes a strangle on his soul. Despite knowing his actions are wrong and wishing to end them, the grip does not let. This poor sap, Theodore, knows full well what I am explaining.

“For he does not wish to continue photographing his daughter Catherine, your wife Benjamin, while she is indecent, often fully nude, and completely unaware of his voyeurism. In fact, he often hates himself for partaking in these incestuous behaviors, and especially so when he finds himself sexually gratified by prolonged study of these photographs.”

The Inquisitor halted in his speech so abruptly that it vacuumed all breath out of the room. The ticking of the clock hanging on the wall behind the two men became the sound of a bowling ball slowly rolling down the steps of a neverending staircase one excruciatingly long concrete slab at a time. However, the countdown to the bomb’s explosion, as expected, triggered not long after said intermission.

“You sick bastard!” Benjamin erupted. He catapulted out of his chair. “You old deviant! Debauchee! Troll of sewage! I have every right to take your life right now!” His hands were creeping toward Theodore’s neck.

“SIT!” the Inquisitor shouted in a suddenly deeper, dominating voice that the men could not possibly have suspected contained the capacity of emitting from the slender giant’s throat. Benjamin fell back into his seat at once, being the most surprised by his own sudden conversion from rage to fear. “Outbreaks such as that will not be tolerated again during the remainder of this meeting,” he said with sudden discordant calm. “Besides, your restraint, Benjamin, will be especially necessary for the additional report of what your father-in-law has been doing with these explicit photographs. It appears, most evidently, that he has also been selling these productions to a certain purveyor of a particular strand of pornography market for widespread distribution. After all, your wife is very attractive to a great many wealthy men, Benjamin. And Theodore’s profits are a testament to this truth.”

Benjamin moaned, and then began sobbing into his hands. He rocked back and forth in his chair as if he had suddenly contracted a certain type of mental disorder that has left one’s mind permanently deficient. Meanwhile, Theodore sat unaffected, refusing to relinquish his stained-on, hateful grimace fixated on the Inquisitor, or his hunched-up shoulders concealing the mystery of his undiscovered neck.

“Yes it seems father Theodore has committed himself to a practice he cannot abandon according to his own will, but experiences deep shame for. Theodore has tried to stop his own practice on many occasions, even going so far as to shred a perfectly good batch of very lucrative Catherine-covered photographs right before the commercial pornography vendor’s very eyes. But the whole process has an accumulating high Theodore cannot seem to resist. Despite the shame and self-hatred, it keeps pulling him back in.

“While he should seek aid for this self-enslavement, he does not, and therefore is entirely culpable for the crime. Even if he were to turn a cold shoulder to this bondage tomorrow and free himself from the deviancy, he would still require punishment, no one is denying this Benjamin. Your God’s wrath is mighty and if Theodore were to witness even a sliver of its force he would be horrified by the terror it righteously should pour over him. But the question for you is, given the power of your God’s so-called shining love, that which is brighter than the brightest star’s radiance, could Theodore resist the help — that mercyoffered to him for forever and ever?

“It is your very notion of the freedom granted to the damned that I challenge Benjamin. What is it we even mean when we say that these unrepentant sinners have freely locked themselves within their chambers of self-torment from the inside? For one, how is this ensured? Who guarantees that the damned will hate their divine Lover for all eternity according to their (ill-defined) free will?

“Ah yes. Freedom. How your repugnant souls desire it so. You covet it. You worship it. You make your God beholden to it. Nothing, not even Existence itself, should diminish your precious freedom to choose. You require the option to choose between donating money to an old war veteran for some warm soup or spending it on the local prostitute on the other side of the building. Options, options, options. This choice — this freedom — is what is most sacred to you; not your God. Perhaps even you, Benjamin, would rather Theodore had the freedom to peep photographs of your vulnerable wife than be prevented against his will from purchasing the camera in the first place. You all recoil at such oppression. And in retaliation you value your modern liberalism like an infant after its mother’s teet.

“The irony, really. To desire the option for that which makes you most unfree. It is most amusing. You’ve all tricked yourselves into thinking that your God humbly values your capacity to have this choice more than your capacity to follow the roads of life he has paved for you. But have you not considered that perhaps true freedom does not lie in your capacity to choose wrongly but rather it reveals itself in your will to do what you were made to do, or to be what you were made to be? Does a tree complain that she does not possess the ability to hold an ax and slice off her own limbs? Does she request from her God the autonomy to cast a net over her head to restrain her branches from growing into the sky? Does she stir and pout over this ‘lack of freedom?’ This is all nonsense gentlemen and it is quite ironic.

“And what is even more ironic, dear Benjamin, is how you yourself have participated in this pattern of self-enslavement Theodore has cultivated. For it is through your purchases of several volumes of dirty magazines that you have contributed to your wife’s pornographic popularity. And on even a few occasions you have turned the page to witness her violated body completely bare for your viewing pleasure right in front of your face. But because your hunting eyes were prioritizing figures of, shall we say, a more exaggerated nature, you appear to have glanced right past the woman you have committed your life to in holy matrimony, completely missing her appearance on the page in search for a more titillating image of another woman. Due to these occurrences you have subconsciously been aware that something of this sort has been amiss all along, but because you did not register the evidence consciously you have claimed ignorance and thus innocence in allowing this defilement to continue. Regardless, the consumption of this lewd material was not your fault in the first place because you never truly desired it but were required to fall prey to its allure since Catherine had not been delivering the sexual relations you consider functionally necessary. So yes you partook, but never because you wanted to. Or so you say. Is any of this incorrect Benjamin?”

However the Inquisitor did not pause after his last question to allow the quietly sobbing man to answer. “The point being,” he continued, “is that what your God truly desires for you is the true freedom that you should desire, but do not desire. You know the desires I speak of. Silly aspirations of self-sacrifice and love and empathy. Boring qualities but qualities of true freedom for all men nonetheless. Worship. Eck. A bad taste that word leaves in my mouth. But nonetheless this is what your God sees as your true freedom. The freedom to worship him as you were made to. And it is supposedly in this relational synergism of the created loving the Creator through worship, and the Creator loving the created through sacrifice, that his creatures are found most free and in a state of undivided bliss.

“More fantasies of course but is it not what your tradition has always believed? And here you are Benjamin assuming your God values the ‘freedom’ for those like that of depraved old Theodore here so much so that he should allow them to persist in their depraved will for all eternity. But as we have already seen these desires to make such depraved choices are not desires or choices for the sake of freedom at all. Quite the opposite as you know. Your rebellion against your God’s morality are the chains every man seeks to be broken from. It may not occur so intuitively to some or even at all to many, but it is the truth nonetheless. All men, according to your tradition, willing themselves in opposition to your God are in complete and utter bondage, bumbling blindly in the darkness. And all men who have forsaken their illusions for that tantalizing false freedom, ingrained in them by the seductive desires that will never truly be fulfilled, are given the exuberant clarity of true freedom in your God’s light. What once seemed attractive in the debaucherous activities of lust and pleasure is now a silly afterthought. What once appeared impossibly disciplinary now reveals itself as freeing, peaceful ecstasy.

“Knowing this, does it cohere with common sense to say that your God, in his infinite mercy, should desire that the damned remain in this bondage for all eternity? If self-enslavement, as we have seen with Theodore, is not actually true freedom but the result of evil’s grip on the man’s heart, blinding him from the light, keeping him sick like a leper — content in his disease and unaware of the cure, then your God would somehow need to ensure that this blindfold is kept on all sinners forever and ever and that the cure is always withheld so that they are always in a state of perpetual sin.

“And if this is so, then your God is guaranteeing that evil in its full darkened shadow to his light is sustained for all eternity. Does this sound right to your ears? You have said, Benjamin, that God in his mercy simply allows the sinner to be, which to be, as we all agree, is indeed a great good, and it is only by virtue of the sinner’s mind being made up that he will not serve his God. But you see, having a mind made up in defiance to your God’s goodness, according to your tradition, is merely a result of incomplete knowledge. If only Theodore could know that he can be free of desiring indecent photographs of his own daughter. If only he knew the bliss of treating her, and you, with respect. If only you knew that you could still love him. But you do not have this knowledge and so you seek justice, which yes is a very good thing, but you seek it by incomplete knowledge, not allowing your God’s complete knowledge to handle the justice required in his own mysterious ways. So your mind being made up in this regard is only but a symptom of not possessing the full truth. For if you saw the full truth, which only your God possesses, then the truth would set you free, would it not? Allowance to be is merciful, but allowance to be without truth, thus wallowing in a privation — that essence of evil — is unthinkable to your God’s justice. In the final days, he will not tolerate it’s existence. Again, he must be made (or so he says), ‘All in all.’

“Now you may argue here that his majesty needn’t impart his full knowledge to the reprobate should he not wish to. A fair response, I concede. However, again what this implies is that your God is content in fortifying the constancy of disease-ridden, addictive, mind-paralyzing bondage to the sin he wishes to eradicate.

“Therefore as I see it you have but two options. Either the unrepentant sinner must be shown, in some mysterious way, the complete truth, and if he rejects it still, illogical as that sounds, then he must be destroyed. Or if upon gazing at such indescribable beauty he finally repents, then he shall be saved. But to be throughout eternity containing this hidden truth and nonetheless gnashing one’s teeth would be a nonsensical notion because of what perfect knowledge entails: the end of misunderstanding one’s movement toward the Good. For all movement is always toward some form of the Good, but is more often than not done blindly. Your hatred for Theodore is because you desire the goodness of justice, but your desire for revenge is the ignorance for how this goodness might be fulfilled. On the final day, your ignorance will not restore his ignorance and his certainly will not alleviate yours. And your God’s justice cannot be obtained if any ignorance is allowed to persist. There will always remain retribution not yet expiated so as any one mind persists in being made up on his own ignorance.

“The logic, gentlemen, I have set before you. Now what say you? Would your God sustain his creation’s ignorance for all eternity? Would he allow injustice to persist through this ignorance’s existence into infinity? If your God is who he says he is, can he allow his creatures to persevere in their ignorant bondage forever and ever? Please, make an effort to change a skeptic’s mind.”

“How could he do this to her?” Benjamin groaned nearly incoherently into his lap. He was visibly trembling as he spoke to himself. “How could he do this to us?”

“Again I call out irony, Benjamin,” the Inquisitor replied, “but this time for a very different reason. For the two questions you have just now asked, we of course interpret them as being about your father-in-law, but I also predict that you will soon ask those very same questions of your Heavenly Father. You may not be emotionally prepared for the final report I must deliver at the closure of this meeting, but it is a duty I must execute. Even you Theodore, must still yourself in anticipation for my final memorandum, as it is also true that, despite your licentious posturing toward Catherine in its sharply corrupted nature, you do indeed love your daughter deeply as a father should love his daughter.

“And so here it is. Your beloved Catherine has recently confirmed through multiple medical professionals utilizing the most advanced diagnosis equipment the field has to offer that her body currently has been carrying, for quite some time now, Stage IV lung cancer and she has perhaps a few more weeks left to live. She has withheld this information from the both of you through numerous secretive unfaithful methods in similar manner to the concealment of her undercover decades-long smoking habit, which you both were actually quite aware of but never cared enough to properly address.

“Nevertheless, her life on this earth will come to an end quite soon and there is nothing two men such as yourselves can do about it.”

It was at this revelation that both men’s demeanor took a sudden shift. No longer did they retain their grief or ire or despair, except perhaps housed in some hidden compartment of their souls they themselves had not yet discovered. Rather their faces turned to stone. They become emotionless, as if they had been in a possessed state of stupor for the entire duration of the meeting since its very onset. Perhaps it was from the inability to handle the shock or perhaps it was because of utter disbelief. No matter the reason, Benjamin, and also Theodore, could do nothing more than stare into the Inquisitor’s shining, unforgiving eyes like men waiting to learn from their new master what it is they shall from this point onward be called by name.

“It is by this knowledge gentlemen that I pose my final criticism of your rendition of this eschatological doctrine, for which much disagreement in your tradition has been had throughout the ages. For you must know also that your beloved Catherine has not simply obtained confirmation of her impending doom, but has also responded spiritually in preparation for this inevitability. It seems as though in recent weeks she has entered your local parish spouting heresies and on one momentous occasion confronted your minister and announced to him that she herself ‘curses God and dies,’ as another infamous woman of antiquity once urged. As you know gentlemen, a blasphemy of such ultimate nature is the unforgivable sin, one that ensures a soul’s (so-called) eternal damnation if not repented of.

“If dear Catherine is to spend an eternity in hell as your particular strand of dogma obliges you to believe, then what are we to make of your conscious state as you spend an eternity in the Resurrected Life knowing full well that the love of your earthly lives is wrenching about in agony in a cauldron of her own suffering forever and ever? Is it possible to experience bliss with this knowledge? As I see it you have but two options:

“Option one is that in some mysterious way your God will reveal to you the clarity of Catherine’s suffering in such a manner as to wholeheartedly convince you that her fate is not only deserved, but ultimately a good. Option two is that your God must either seal away any and all memories of your beloved Catherine or simply lie to you regarding her unfortunate everlasting state.

“Option two should be immediately inconceivable for reasons most convincing. In both variations of this option your God has removed knowledge from your conscious being, which while on the one hand results in your God becoming a liar, it also establishes a general privation of truth from creation, which as we have seen is a privation of the Good, thus consummating a final state where your God has assured evil’s continuation. To clarify, if you Benjamin, and also you Theodore, are not made capable of loving your dearest Catherine, even in the age to come, then your ignorance for that which is an act of great goodness — for loving the sinner is a great goodness after all — has been made null. Suppose all you knew in this earthly life were wives and daughters and coworkers and friends and family all of whom become apostate transgressors. Upon each one’s deaths, including your own, your God would be required to implement some sort of divine amnesia so as to remove them all from your mind’s eye either at the moment of ascension or at some point within eternity lest you always have knowledge of their continual suffering. But through the deception of a so-called noble lie or the annihilation of memories, you are left incapable of fully loving as you were made to and, as I have said, any privation of a good such as that is an evil. You would become men of no history; no soul-making past for which you had the opportunity to witness the sin in your loved ones and still love them anyways. It would all be gone and in this ignorance your capacity to love would be removed because you could not comprehend your God’s sacrificial love for you without your analogous sacrifice in loving them. The sacrifice required of love would be absent and is not love meaningless without sacrifice? Your fondness for your God would only subsist due to his unconditional love for you. And in that attention would be your pride. Oh no, this certainly will not do for your God.

“So what this really comes down to, gentlemen, is identity. If it is against your God’s character to actively deceive you from the truth and your only hope would be to forget any and all persons who are currently burning in hell for eternity, then is it possible to remain yourselves to any degree at all? For who are you, O man, other than the men who have made you? All of your conscious thoughts are an amalgamation of your father and mother, your wives, every person you have ever come into contact with that has influenced your personhood to one degree or another. Your entire identity is wrapped up in the people of your past. To truly lose your memory of those people, and I mean to truly lose everything that they have contributed to your lives, would be to lose yourself entirely. Your historical experiences are what define you as an ever-growing person and other people are the most defining experiences that have made you, you. If your God removed your memory of your dearest Catherine so as to silence your suffering in the knowledge of her everlasting suffering then you would suffice to be the persons you are. You would exist, but not as yourselves, and what reasons can you give for thinking your God would be the kind of god to erase a man’s very sense of self? This is a loss most unfathomable.

“It cannot be. Therefore, you are forced to concede option one, that you will not lose your memory of the damned but come to the acceptance of their fate … somehow. Of course, in my estimation, here is an even more substantial problem.

“It is fascinating to consider the unreasonable leap of faith taken under this assumption, not to mention the lack of acknowledgement for the idea’s fallaciousness. The assumption being, of course, that you will come to see the satisfying justice behind the infinite suffering Miss Apostatizing Catherine must endure. Once you see how despicable her rejection of your God truly is, you will, like him, be pleased with the eternal punishment due for her insidious everlasting rebellion.

“And yet, as you may already be sensing through emotion, clearly this does not follow. For what kind of husband, or father, can take ultimate solace in his wife’s (or daughter’s) due justice for a crime, even if that crime is unspeakable? Who is it that finds bliss in such knowledge? Or rather, does the grief remain despite fulfillment of punishment that she rightfully deserves? To speak hypothetically, would you not still grieve, at least for a time, should lovely Catherine be executed for a murder she had committed against an innocent child? Yes, you understand that she deserved this capital punishment and in the end you see this outcome as the only sufficient answer to her offense, but do you find bliss in her descent to the chair? Reasonable men such as yourself, I presume, would lament that your dearest Catherine succumbed to such violent, sinister behavior. You would find no joy in the judgment or the punishment because there would remain sorrow over the entire affair, including the realization that your Catherine had found herself in such a criminal state in the first place. Now imagine that the crime has been elevated to the infinite sin of cursing your God and the infinite punishment of eternal torment is now due. How much more would this grief thicken? In the former case of execution at least you may, and I emphasize may, find the ability to move on from the bitter justice; to let go despite its loss in the comfort of closure. But if no execution is to be found you will always be reminded of Catherine’s eternal torment through your memory of her reality. To suggest that you shall find bliss in an understanding of how this torment is not only just, but in the end an eternal good, it to suggest that your God will miraculously transform you into sadists, forever relishing the torment of your lost loved ones because they are forever receiving what is deserved for their continual unrepentance.

“There is no other way for you to exist in heavenly bliss without the full unbridled joy in the remembrance that Catherine is being held in neverending anguish to the flame she is responsible for. Suspicious is this not? For I thought your Lord does not cast off for ever. While yes he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”

“Lamentations,” Theodore mumbled still in a statuesque state of stupor.

“You know your Scriptures,” the Inquisitor replied. “Is it not interesting, then, to notice a common theme from these same Scriptures? The theme that your God often values testing or trial or even punishment, but only ever for a time. Forty days in the wilderness. 70 years in exile. Occasionally generations handed over to Death, yes indeed. But to hand his people over to their reprobation and walk for good? Tsk, tsk. Please enlighten me where or when this God of Israel has done such a thing.

“Make note, gentlemen, that what I am advocating for is not a rejection of your Father’s mysteries. While certain enigmas of reality may prove mortally inconceivable they nonetheless can be accepted through humility. I do not understand the mysterious duality of the sun’s rays. How they can be singular particles tumbling through space at impossible speed on the one hand, and at the same time a blurry, unpredictable wave on the other. And yet, I accept this truth, as do you. What you should not accept however, is inconsistency. Consider once again the brimstone and fire that your Lord rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Is it consistent to call this act of judgment mercy? No dear ones, no. Judgment is judgment. And mercy is mercy. Let us call a spade a spade when we see one. Therefore your fantasy that in heaven you will somehow come to relish your beloved Catherine’s eternal suffering is not merely a mystery, but an inconsistency to the integrity of your God. If there is a basis for such ideas to compare to I have not seen it. You may say, ‘My God will make me see why it is good that the damned suffer’ but neither is this a revelation from your Scriptures nor can anyone think of how this might be so. It is only put forward as a defense, after the thought, because you need those who you hate to burn forever.

“Perhaps you will go on blindly believing that your God will give you the clarity to see why Catherine must spin in torment for eternity, but only because you Benjamin must see to it that Theodore likewise spins in his own torment, and you Theodore must see to it that Benjamin does as well.”

Upon the Inquisitor’s last statement the slender man paused and reclined in his throne. His breath became heavy through his nostrils as if a disappointed father contemplating where he had gone wrong with his two subordinate sons. Then the giant laid a heavy grip on the chair’s arms with his tendril-like fingers and used their support to leverage his menacing frame from the seat. He turned and stood behind his throne to face the packed bookshelf. He bowed his head. With his shining eyes removed from the men’s view he became nearly a shadow in their sight. He became a creature somehow even more frightening than the man whose tongue over the past hour had unleashed misery into Benjamin and Theodore’s innocent lives.

“Salvation,” he said almost with lament. His voice remained clear and precise despite projecting into the literature on the wall. “It is what you seek is it not? Not merely for yourselves but for dear Catherine also. Understandable given your predilection toward that spiritual force called love. Sinners you are, yes. Despicable men you are, indeed. But men incapable of love? I have never seen such a thing.

“And as I have delivered this most unfortunate news to you Benjamin, I sensed something unique arising in your self-inhibited heart. A realization, possibly, that Catherine’s ailment may not have been something you were completely naive of after all. A fleeting thought that if you had not positioned yourself toward obliviousness in order to maintain immunity from any sort of contribution to her demise then perhaps you could have confronted her recent lack of sexual activity, dishonest behavior, depressive outlook on faith, constant breathing issues, coughing, and so on to uncover the reality of the situation. I sensed that perhaps for the first time in your life you had begun to admit some responsibility owed due to the acknowledgment of your own power of control, which under normal circumstances you typically deny possession of. Maybe . . .”

He sighed and straightened his back, becoming a monolith of punishment connecting floor to ceiling. “There is a way, gentlemen. To save your wife. To save your daughter. But first I must come clean regarding my actual intentions for this meeting. For I have deceived you from the moment we first spoke.” He turned and leaned over the desk and somehow each man simultaneously felt his singular narrow shadow casting over them a befogged darkness. The only objects remaining clear were those luminous, starry eyes. “I am not the Inquisitor of Jacob’s Sole. You have been tested, and you have failed. In truth, I am the Inquisitor of the Yamata no Orochi. I was hired by your secondary employer to measure your loyalty. The purpose of this farcical arraignment was to determine if or when you would confess to your mutual dealings with Orochi should they be suspected. And as I have already stated once, you failed this trial, and quite spectacularly did you fail. For it was but a mere five minutes after my proposal of the deal that you Theodore played the Judas against Mr. Orochi through your betrayal of Benjamin. And you Benjamin, in typical childish manner retaliated in quite the same way not long after, also disloyally giving up Mr. Orochi’s illegal involvement. And since the both of you have betrayed such a powerful, uncompromising man so readily, you will hereby be subject to the corresponding torture followed by death in similar likeness to the many who have found themselves in such a position before you.”

The Inquisitor eased back into his seat with the grace of a ballerina, but his towering Pharaoh-esque status remained ever present within the sacred triangular space connecting the three men. “I think you will both agree that a matter of perspective may alter your interaction with the world in substantive ways,” he began again. “Your involvement with Orochi was sparked because of your disillusionment with Mr. Jacob’s supposedly inferior management. As time went on and your spoiled ideas of ‘what is fair’ twisted your desires for self-preservation, you began to see the many advantages of your place of work as instead hindrances within a crumbling home. Rather than perceiving yourselves as adopted children in Mr. Jacob’s orphanage and the chores he had given you as character-building opportunities, you saw anything that conflicted with your own personal comfort as oppressive political moves against the proletariat. These were the grievances I requested from you at the beginning of this meeting before our initiation of the deal.

“As a matter of instance, what you view as an ‘unfair benefits package,’ Benjamin, is due merely to your misunderstanding of why a higher cost is required to have Catherine added to the Jacob’s Sole medical plan, which by the way is below the national average cost. And in fact, if you had not neglected Catherine’s condition and discovered the cancer early on and convinced her to accept treatment, the medical costs would have been completely covered thanks to Mr. Jacob’s generous negotiations with the insurance companies.

“Now the lack of promotion you expressed grievance for should be explanatorily transparent. Obviously your commitment to the Yamata no Orochi’s business has impeded your ability to work with even half the capacity of normal productiveness under basic working hours for a man of your stature and this has not gone unnoticed by your floor supervisor. The hot working conditions you have been annoyed with are a result of one of your floor partners, Mrs. Gurwitz, and her affliction from a particularly severe case of Raynaud’s disease. This change, by the way, was only implemented at the pleading of Stephen, Andrew, and many others in the warehouse who practically begged Mr. Jacob to raise the building heat for Mrs. Gurwitz, despite the gentle old woman’s constant denial of her obvious discomfort because she did not want to become a burden to anyone on the factory floor. ‘Really boys,’ she is on record saying, ‘I’m doing just fine and I might as well be bathing in my own sweat already,’ she assured them while discreetly removing her mittens for work and as her hands slowly turned from a snowy white to a bruised violet.

“And speaking of lazy Andrew and Stephen, by the way, perhaps you were unaware that their seeming lack of productivity was due simply to the fact that both men had entered into the company’s ‘Shoes from the Homeless’ initiative announced last year, which required Jacob’s Sole employees to spend several additional hours per week making shoes from scratch with the homeless folk south of West Ave. In return, the homeless folk who participated in the project were paid for their labor at the typical hourly rate. Mr. Jacob felt that providing these impoverished men and women with a sense of purpose through labor would serve them better than simply handing out free shoes or food or money. And in fact, Mr. Jacob decided to hire one of the standout participants two weeks after the program’s conclusion. You know her as Sandra, the floorworker in section D who’s pockets are often rattling from the clanging of a multitude of AA coins intermingling with one another beneath her trouser fabric. It is also noteworthy that Mr. Jacob had posted very clearly for all to understand that those employees who register for the ‘Shoes from the Homeless’ initiative will receive additional Christmas bonuses for their participation and the amount to be received was made very public in order to dispel any ideas that favoritism would be in play for anyone who decided to take on the project. Lazy Andrew and Stephen sacrificed much time with their families to carry responsibility in this initiative, something their Christmas bonuses could not account for, and Jacob’s Sole lost considerable revenue in undergoing the charity event, which Mr. Jacob balanced by significantly reducing his own personal annual income for the year.

“Last I shall address your grumblings against Mrs. Baker, your floor supervisor, and the supposedly unfair concessions granted to her in paid time off privileges for what you have hypothesized are nothing more than ‘feminine reasons.’ Again if you had only paid the slightest bit of attention to the company social climate, Benjamin, you would have come to know, as many others discovered through petty gossip, that Mrs. Baker was pregnant for one and a half trimesters before miscarrying the child. Her miscarriage was quite traumatic and involved a great deal of subsequent medical treatment both physically and psychologically. Perhaps you will still not agree that Mrs. Baker should have been exclusively allotted additional paid medical leave even upon encountering such a dramatic trauma, but admit you must that your initial outrage should at least be apportioned accordingly to this new information.

“So now what am I to do with you Benjamin, and also you Theodore, amidst these latest disclosures? On the one hand I am committed to abiding by the rule of the Yamata no Orochi and hand you over to his team of torturers and executioners. And yet here I have also alluded to a possible salvation for Catherine, something I have offered at my own discretion.

“Alas perhaps I have grown bored, gentlemen, with this surplus of power. You see, I have attained for myself a certain principality, so to speak, over a span of time that would most certainly frighten you. Interestingly, I also have in my possession an exceptional employee whom I have retained within one of my own businesses in my own country. A surgeon, and a spectacular surgeon he is. I have presented him with all of the scans of Catherine’s lung cancer and he has spent an obsessive number of hours reviewing the damage. In the past week he has devised a creative plan of attack which he has assured me will offer Catherine a 64% chance of survival, including full recovery. These are odds that are nothing short of a miracle, I assume you will agree.

“I can tell you with confidence that you will not find another surgeon on the planet like this man. Simply put, he is the best. As such, considering that his current contract places his permission to practice within my absolute jurisdiction, this has provided me with a tantalizing opportunity.”

The Inquisitor of the Yamata no Orochi paused and for the second time a nearly imperceptible cunning smile flickered from his sparkling eyes. He stood again and opened his palms before them.

“Gentlemen,” he announced. “It was within our last argument concerning your necessitated memories for your beloved Catherine that the idea sparked within me. A sudden inspiration for mischief. For you alone are not the only ones capable of rebellion against your employer. The assistance I am providing the Yamata no Orochi is but a mere diversion anyway. It is a favor not owed, but volunteered out of the aforementioned boredom.

“But bored I no longer am. Because now I offer two alternatives to your current situation. And here they are:

“In option one I will see to it that one of my many brilliant hired assassins eliminates Orochi so that you are freed from the bounty on your heads. You will then come with me back to my country and you will work in my shoe factory; a sister company to one of my many others. You will be paid much more than you are currently being paid here at Jacob’s Sole and you will be free from all of this cumbersome pressure to work with dignity and respect. In my factory, there is no dress etiquette, no responsibility to arrive on time … or sober, no stringent regulations against crude behavior or quotas to account for productivity. You will be treated as you want to be treated, as deliverers of your own destiny. Because I actually trust you Benjamin, and you also Theodore.

“Of course, the cynics have said that both my place of business and my country are places of lawlessness, where crime runs rampant and betrayal is the norm. And, yes, it is true that you will not be granted any special provision of protection against the multitude of criminals walking the streets, or even my factory floors. For I love my men and my country too much to impose on them a dogma to diminish their will for what they desire most.

“Oh, and obviously with this option Catherine will not receive access to my surgeon and she will succumb to the cancer on schedule. You will never see her again. This, of course, is necessary to ensure that these circumstances are especially interesting.

“The case of the second alternative will play out quite differently than the first. Clearly, in this reality Catherine’s life-saving surgery awaits. I have never seen my surgeon fail on any project he has estimated to be over 60% probable of success. Here, the odds that you will be given substantial additional time to persuade Catherine from her apostasy is in your favor. Moreover, I will buy off the Yamata no Orochi’s bounty on your heads. While he will most certainly speak boisterously in his conviction that no amount of the dollar can indemnify the dishonor of a rat, I also know with confidence that even he can be persuaded by a price tag. Hence he will agree to allow your release unscathed but he will also undoubtedly require a contract of annulment should certain conditions in the future be met. I will undoubtedly agree to this request with the following suggestions:

“You will remain employed to Jacob’s Sole and all evidence of your foul play will be expunged. However you will from hence point forward be required to work as upstanding employees, gracious for Mr. Jacob’s oppressive code of conduct, responsive to the self-giving culture of the company, and disallowed from participating in any more illegal activities. Now I know that you’re not perfect men so the occasional misdemeanor will be pardoned within reason, but if either of you are to revisit your current mode of behavior, whether on the job or off the job, your immunity from the Yamata no Orochi will be cancelled and this time he will be very aware of your dear Catherine’s relationship to the both of you.

“Oh and one more small detail. In this scenario you will be forced to work with one another each and every day, shoulder to shoulder, project to project. And what’s more? You will be required to live with one another in the same house. You will spend the rest of your days unable to avoid eye contact with the other man because cooperation both in home life and work life will be necessary. Therefore as it stands, I suggest that your newfound hatred for the other man will either need to be circumvented in some mysterious manner or challenged head on. To that end I wish you both very good luck.

“So there it is. The conditions I am offering have been declared. On the one hand you have at your fingertips the possibility of a lifestyle you have always dreamed of. To be the primary authors of your own lives without some wealthy authoritarian hypocritically pressuring you to live with his ascribed values or virtue. True it may be that Catherine will perish, but if I have convinced you that her fate will not be one of eternal torment then perhaps you can take some solace in the knowledge that her suffering will eventually terminate. She will be in hell, mind you, do not misunderstand my position. But what does that matter to you if it is not forever? Although, I do wonder to what extent you are comfortable with allowing your beloved to strain in anguish in the fiery afterlife, even if only for a time. How many epochs of teeth-gnashing would it take for you to consider that maybe immediate concern for her fate in the here and now is more preferable than the leisurely cognitive fallback acknowledgement that ‘it will end in the end anyway?’

“Or, as I have offered, save Catherine in the hopes of re-conversion and suffer yourselves in the submission to higher powers and the coercion to treat the man you have come to hate most in life as one should treat his spouse. The choice is yours. Now what say you? I will provide for you ten short minutes to finalize this decision amongst yourselves. If you cannot decide between yourselves, then I will make the decision for you. It must be unanimous. Therefore I suggest each of you come to terms with which option will benefit the both of you the most as a pair rather than yourself as an individual. Not an easy task, I recognize, but deliciously interesting is it not? So there, now what say you? Begin as you will.”

Upon the Inquisitor’s conclusion of this final proposal a not-so-unexpected silence hung in the claustrophobic room. Theodore’s grimace had long ago burrowed into hibernation. He now sat more or less empty. The snarling continued but only internally and only as background noise because it was the static Theodore had always been tuned to. But on the outside he was a starved dog laid down in the cold rain waiting to die.

Benjamin, conversely, was internally suppressing a building typhoon. His pulse had begun to race and he became unappreciative of the sudden disconcerting physical panic. What was especially uncomfortable was the sickening queasiness boiling in the pit of his stomach. He could not decide if it was a result of dehydration, being famished for food, or an overfill of substance, perhaps some sort of poison, brought on by his morning breakfast. The indecision only added to the illness. In fact, it became so overwhelming that Benjamin began to wonder if he had forgotten what not being ill even felt like. Was there even ever a time he hadn’t felt this way, he began to ponder. Perhaps the malady could have been alleviated, or at least avoided, by the availability of some cool, clean water, but the Inquisitor rudely had never offered him any. What sort of upper management conducts a meeting and doesn’t offer any of his invitees a single refreshment? Surely someone is bound to be sick over such intensive prolonged conversation without a refreshment. It is almost certainly imminent.

Benjamin widened his eyes at the next thought. An inspiration had sparked. He even almost grinned at the sudden epiphany. At last it all made sense. The illness did not subside but his awareness of it shifted. His heart continued to race but now for an entirely different reason. And then Benjamin spoke as if he had solved a most difficult puzzle.

“Sire, I have understood now why my presence at this meeting is unreasonable. At first the sensations were puzzling but now the reason is recognizable. For I am sick, sir. Not only have I just now detected my illness, but in hindsight it is obvious that I have been under its influence since your introduction. Because there had been no medicinal refreshment as a possible defense against its accumulation, the illness compounded over time and now I am in a state of absolute confoundment. Plainly speaking sir, I am unfit to participate in your proposal. I was unfit since the beginning of the deal’s proposal, and I am especially unfit to make any proper discernment regarding this latest ultimatum. And seeing as how I am not in the correct state of mind and cannot be expected of amenability concerning these most important matters, I request that I be excused from your presence so that I may seek medical attention.”

For the first time since the Inquisitor’s introduction to Benjamin, and quite frankly for the first time in a great many years generally speaking, the slender giant experienced a profound sense of surprise. “You wish to be exempt?” he asked, revealing his astonishment.

“Please sir. Not by my own desires but for the sake of prudence.”

“Benjamin,” he said. And for a brief passing moment the Inquisitor seemed unable to restrain the beginnings of a scowl, as if in pain. Or perhaps it was the beginnings of a sadistic grin possessing all the burden of intense gratification. Who could know? “You understand that if you are made exempt from this meeting at precisely this moment then you will have no say in the final decision, which under these exceptional circumstances will be left solely to Theodore. Theodore will choose your fate, and your beloved Catherine’s. You are certain that this binding power should be left to his intuition without any of your influence?”

“I am sick sir,” Benjamin repeated. “It is unfortunate. My exemption is due to a stroke of bad luck, but a stroke I have no ability to subvert. God’s will is not my own.”

The Inquisitor swallowed at the last statement in additional surprise and perhaps also through ironic amusement. He smiled amicably. “Very well,” he said, “you are excused Benjamin.”

Benjamin caught himself from nearly turning to Theodore to acknowledge his father-in-law’s position as a person with his own opinion on the whole matter, but quickly thought different of it and rotated in the other direction. He paused for a moment with mouth partly open as if to say another word, maybe an expression of gratitude for being permitted the exemption.

But Benjamin did not speak again. He stood, clutched his shirt over his belly, and left the room.

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