A short story
By LaJoie Ward
Based on Luke 23
I remember it like it was yesterday, though sometimes I wish I couldn't.
The screams of agony. The rivers of blood. The putrid smell of death coiling around me, making my own torturous gasps for breath only a reminder of how little time I had left.
So this, this was the end-all of my life. This was where adventure and insurrection, being careless, carefree, and independent—living my own way, with my rules—had brought me. Early on, my own screams blended with those of the haggard, torn men to my side. They were hardly recognizable as humans—especially the one in the middle. Now, we all fought to suppress our screams, fighting to save air, taking as few breaths as possible. The simple act of filling my lungs with air now brought me more excruciating pain than I had ever experienced. Tears and blood mingled as I pulled myself up, shooting lightning strikes of unspeakable pain through my body as the tension on my dislocated shoulders increased. A quick gasp, then back to hanging, languishing, waiting to die.
Death seemed a sweet release—freedom, just out of reach. Crucifixions had been known to last for days. How often I had scoffed at the wretched souls who hung outside the city; I never imagined that this would one day be my own fate. I longed for one of the Romans standing guard to drive his sword into my heart and end my misery. The robber—or I should say “the other robber,” for that is my rightful title too—shouted curses and insults at the soldiers who stood guard, taunting, provoking, even begging them to strike him dead. But it was no use. I saved my breath. The guards were preoccupied casting lots over the robe of the one who hung next to me.
He was different. He had been beaten more severely and seemed to be in an even greater state of agony than I was, though I could not imagine it. They had mockingly called him "The King of the Jews” and thrust a crown of thorns onto his head. This man was like no king I had seen. He wasn't even like a governor. Those leaders were all the same: proud, arrogant, cruel. And I . . . I started to black out. Freedom from the pain for just an instant. Yes! I resisted the urge to gasp for breath. Fading...my limbs began to go numb, and I started to fall . . .
But there was no peace in the blackness. Instead, one by one, thoughts and images that began to fill my head. Things I had stolen, lives I had destroyed, people I had murdered in cold blood. Everything I had done to try to fill the aching void in my soul. Yet nothing had lasted. Nothing had satisfied. Each attempt left me with an even worse feeling of loneliness, emptiness, and despair. Now those feelings flooded my soul all at once, and it was more than I could bear.
I screamed and gasped for breath, expecting to wake up. Opening my eyes, I could no longer see the dismal day. Instead, fury and flames surged toward me from a gaping black hole. I shuddered with fear as I felt the heat. Grotesque flaming creatures slithered toward me from the shadows. I shrieked in horror as they coiled around my bare skin, burning and biting, and whispering doom.Hell? I had never believed it was real. But it became all too clear to me as I inhaled the nauseating smell of my own burning flesh--or maybe my soul--that it was more real than anything in the other world had been. And now, the fires were almost upon me. Millions of tortured voices screamed for mercy. "Help us!" they cried in broken, desperate voices. "If only for a moment, give us respite from the fire!" I was about to become one of them.
"OH GOD!" I cried. “I know I've never had use for you before. My life was a waste. This is what I deserve, but PLEASE! Give me a second chance!" My words drifted off with the smoke. I screamed in utter despair. "NO!!!!!"
In an instant, the flames faded and I snapped back to the land of the living. Back to the nails, the blood, and the torture. But somehow, this torture was better than where I had just been. The splintered wood rubbing my raw, bleeding back was a strange relief, an assurance that I was out of that horrifying pit of fire and damnation, the eternal living death. I struggled for a breath. Through the agony, I was determined that, as impossible as it seemed, I had to survive. I couldn't die, knowing what awaited me. There had to be something I could do.
But what? and how? No one would help me, even if they could. I fully deserved the flames. My guilt was evident. The debt for my wicked, sinful life would be repaid by eternal death. I couldn't do anything to fix it; my life had reached its end. A severe chill ran through my body, causing blood to gush from my wounds. I cried out in agony as I surrendered myself to my inevitable fate. My only choice now was to keep myself alive in this, the lesser of the two horrific existences, as long as I could.
"Savior! Messiah!" a voice called out. Savior? Who was he talking to? If anyone needed a Savior at that moment, I did. I raised my head to see where the voice had come from. A young man, little more than a boy, ran past the guards and flung himself, weeping, at the foot of the center cross. One of the Romans ran after him, took hold of his arm, and dragged him back, still crying out, to where the rest of the crowd stood.
Savior? What had the child meant? Surely he did not still believe that this dying "king of the Jews" would deliver him from Rome!
Then I remembered what they had said about him. His only crime was claiming to be God's Son. Even Pilate had thought he was innocent. Yet what was it he had said, when they nailed his broken body to the cross and raised it? "Father, forgive them, for they . . . do not know . . . what they are doing."
The other criminal and I just screamed and cursed as we were crucified. But he—he forgave them. He was like no human I had ever seen. What man would forgive his own murderer? Could he really ask God to forgive someone's sins? Could he wipe away the misdeeds of a wasted, miserable life?
Could he even save a sinner's soul from hell?
I didn't dare to believe it. And even so, I wasn't worth saving. No one would help me. Not if they knew what I had done. I deserved to burn.
"Savior? Messiah! Hah!" the other criminal mocked. "If you are...the Son of God—save yourself!" He gasped for air. "And save us, too!"
From somewhere inside of me, rage built up at this mockery. "Stop it!" I yelled in as loud a voice as I could muster. "You and I deserve this--and much more! But he . . ." I strained my neck, despite the pain it sent shooting through my arms and back, and looked over at his grief-filled face. Tears of anguish flowed down his lacerated cheeks. "He has done nothing wrong!"
For what seemed like the first time in my life, I felt compassion for someone else. My stony, cold heart melted as I looked over once more, and he met my gaze with his sorrowful—but somehow loving—eyes. I began to weep uncontrollably, almost forgetting my own pain. Somehow, I knew:
This man was the Son of God.
I had to say something to him. I didn’t know what. What does one say to a Son of God? "Jesus," I whispered hoarsely. "When you come into your kingdom . . ." I paused, ridiculing myself for even thinking of making such a request. It was too much to ask, yet, I felt I had to say it. Maybe the last moment of my life could count for something, however insignificant. "Please . . . remember me."
His reply to me, though the weight of the world hung on his torn body, was gentle and sincere: "You . . . will be with me in paradise today."
Paradise? I vaguely dared to hope. As the sky turned black, and the earth quaked, I became weaker and weaker. But though the pain increased, with each passing minute I felt something that was entirely new to me: peace. Bodily affliction meshed with spiritual exultation. I didn't know exactly what "paradise" meant, but for some reason, I knew I could trust him. His words to me were the only words in my lifetime that ever had significance.
As I watched him die in agony of body and spirit, I looked up to heaven, to a Father I had never known until I saw his Son die. With the last vapors of my breath, I whispered,