Tom was confused. He had expected to feel a massive impact along with the horrible screeching of twisted metal as the SUV plowed into the driver’s door of his smaller car. He had clenched his jaw and shut his eyes at the last second when he realized what was about to happen and it was as if he had squeezed the whole of reality out of existence in doing so. No lurching feeling as the car was shoved sideways by the truck. No pelting of his face and hands by small bits of safety glass from the side window. No blaring of horns.
Just an unnerving silence and darkness such as he had never known before. He tried to open his eyes, but the darkness remained. He strained to hear anything and the silence was absolute. He couldn’t smell anything like you might expect at an accident scene either. It was then that he realized he couldn’t determine his body’s orientation; whether he was sitting, standing, or laying down. So he tried to sit up and was unable to determine if he had or not. As though all of his senses had gone completely mute at once. Now he was starting to panic.
“What the hell is going on?” he wondered aloud to himself. Or at least he thought it was out loud because he couldn’t tell if he had actually heard his own voice or just his thoughts of speaking. That made the reply he received that much more alarming when a familiar voice right beside him said, “You’re dead, Tom.”
Tom was sure he jumped, even though he had no means of knowing it for certain, because it’s exactly the sort of thing that would make you startle given the situation he was currently in. Between the total lack of sensory input and this one declaration, which Tom wasn’t even sure he hadn’t said himself, he was almost fully in the grip of panic now. He tried to do anything. Sit up. Run. Roll over. Grasp for hand holds. Anything that might give him some form of orientation and quell the fear racing through his mind.
“Just relax, Tom. Stop panicking and relax for a moment,” the voice next to him said, “And I’ll help you sort this out.” The voice was very reassuring and it did have a surprisingly calming effect on Tom despite his continued inability to sense anything else. So he tried to do as we was told and relax.
“Good. Now, let’s see if we can’t get you into an environment that is a little less upsetting for you. I want you to spend a couple moments thinking about light. Nothing too harsh, just a nice diffuse sort of light that is easy to see by.”
Tom’s mind was still racing, but he managed to get part of it to do as he was told and think about light. At first nothing much happened, but then he thought he could sense that the absolute darkness wasn’t quite so absolute anymore. More of a darkish brown color that was visibly lightening with each passing moment. Yes, everything was more of a muddy gray color now and as Tom continued to think of light his sense of vision continued to grow less dark until the absolute darkness was finally replaced by a nicely diffused white light.
Not that there was much to see because there wasn’t anything at all. The initial happiness Tom felt at no longer being in the dark was short lived when he realized that all he could see was endless light. No walls, ground, things, people, or objects of any kind. Not even himself. He tried to hold his hands up in front of his face and wasn’t able to determine whether he was unable to move or there weren’t any hands to see. His voice shaking Tom managed to say, “This is only a slight improvement.”
“Well you can’t expect to walk before you learn how to crawl, you know,” said the voice, this time from behind him. Tom tried to turn around and, to his surprise, a figure came into view. Tom was stunned to see himself within arms reach as though he were looking into a mirror. He worked his jaw to try and say something as he took in the details. The other Tom looked back at him with an expression of bemusement on his face. He was dressed just like Tom would dress; in blue jeans and a green teeshirt with black high top sneakers. His sandy brown hair was cut short above the ears and his face was cleanly shaved. There was a slight twinkle in the gray eyes that looked back at him. Tom had been trying to say something for several moments now, but had only managed to garble unintelligently at the man who looked just like him.
“Who am I?” said the other Tom repeating what Tom himself had been trying to say, unsuccessfully, himself. “I’m God. And I look just like you because I made you in my image, remember?”
Tom’s mind boggled at the thought of this even though it was exactly the sort of clichéd thing you’d expect a man who looks just like you who’s standing in an expanse of nothing but white light to say. Hundreds of heart-string manipulating Hollywood movies had used that same corny line. There was even more reason for Tom to have a hard time accepting the idea, though, and that was the fact that Tom was a lifelong atheist. He had never bought into the idea of a God of any kind.
“Yeah, you’re right,” said the God-Tom with an amused smile. “It is a corny line and I don’t actually look like you at all. Truth is I don’t look like anyone in particular, but it’s always a fun gag to pull on folks who’ve just made the transition. You’d be amazed how many people absolutely fail to realize I’m joking with them.” God-Tom paused for a moment with a thoughtful expression on his face and then added, “Joking about having made them in my image, that is. Not about me being God. That’s true. I am God.”
“But I don’t believe in gods!” Tom finally managed to blurt out. He was feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Quite understandable given the situation.
“That’s OK. Your belief is not a requirement for my existence anymore than my belief in you is a requirement for yours.”
Now that was something Tom wouldn’t have expected God to say. In fact, he thought, it runs counter to just about every major religion he had ever heard of. It was enough of a surprise to get Tom to forget about being scared out of his wits. “Wait a minute, did you just say…”
“That my belief in you is not a requirement for your existence, yes.”
“But I thought…”
“You were wrong. As are most people when it comes to what I am and how things work.”
“Everybody. More or less. Though, at the same time, they did get some bits right. Come to think of it just about everyone who has ever pondered the idea of me got some aspects right and a whole lot of everything else about me wrong.”
“So who came the closest?”
“The Deists.” said God simply. It was then that Tom realized that his surroundings had changed.
They were now sitting on a very comfortable bench next to a burbling fountain in a garden of some sort. There were birds singing in the trees and the smells of flowers and trees in the air and a cool breeze meandering by as if it had no place in particular it had to be and was just out enjoying a stroll. Tom also realized that he could now see himself once more. He held up his hands in front of him and looked them over turning them this way and that.
God had changed as well, or at least his appearance had. He now looked like someone that Tom was sure he had never seen before, but somehow felt he had known for a long time. Tom found that he couldn’t determine with any certainty any of God’s details. What color his hair was, for instance. At first he thought it was red or maybe blond, definitely a lighter shade except that, no, it was brunette or perhaps brown. Definitely blue eyes, though, except they were green. No, brown. Definitely gray except… Tom decided to give up before even beginning to contemplate God’s gender. “I hope you don’t mind,” said God, “but I thought this would be a better environment for us to continue our conversation in.”
“I never even felt things change.” Tom said. “Did we move and I not notice? Or did everything just appear around us.”
“Which explanation is easier for you to deal with? Pick one and that’ll be the correct answer.” That didn’t help Tom understand what had happened at all. His mind was a cluttered mess of competing thoughts falling over each other and he was finding it hard to focus enough to ask all the questions pounding in his temples.
“Take your time. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of it now.” said God with a smile as he placed his hands behind his head and leaned back against the bench.
Tom took a deep breath, or what felt like a deep breath, and decided to give it another go starting with the basics. “So, you’re God.”
“Yes.” said God.
“And you created everything.”
“Pretty much. Though a lot of it is indirect in the sense that I started the whole shebang so I’m pretty much responsible for it. I created electrons and neutrons and the elemental forces and the rules on how they interact, for example, but I didn’t directly create things like houses and polyester and Buicks. I just came up with the stuff that made those things possible. The basic building blocks and tool sets if you like.”
Tom continued to the next logical question, “You know everything?”
“Kind of.” said God. “I know everything that has ever happened since the universe began and there isn’t a thing that happens that I’m not aware of anywhere within it. Contrary to popular belief, however, I don’t know the future. I couldn’t have told you, for example, that today is the day you would be killed in a car accident because it hadn’t happened yet.”
Tom scratched his head. “All that I’ve ever heard about God says you know absolutely everything including what has yet to happen.” Tom said, sounding more disappointed than he thought he should considering that until a short while ago he didn’t even believe such a being could possibly exist.
“Like I said, they were wrong. The problem is that people think of time as this thing you travel through going from a place called “the past” toward a place called “the future” when the truth is there’s just the here and now. I can’t know the future because it doesn’t literally exist to have knowledge of. Sometimes I can see patterns forming in reality and can make a pretty good guess as to what is about to transpire, but that’s all they are: guesses and predictions based on my knowledge of the nature of the reality I set in motion.” God leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees and stared off at nothing in particular for a moment as though he were gathering his thoughts. “Mind you,” he continued, “my guesses tend to be really good most of the time. But that has more to do with the amount of data I have to base them on than any innate power.”
Tom couldn’t help but voice the obvious implications of God’s statement, “But that means you can be wrong?”
God smiled happily at Tom, “You catch on quick. That’s quite true. More often than a lot of folks would be comfortable knowing, I’m sure. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things throughout the eons. I didn’t think you humans would have lasted as long as you have, for example. You guys got off to a rough start and despite all the progress you’ve made as a species there are still times that I think you’re going to bring about your own doom before the end of the day. You wouldn’t be the first beings to do so.”
“Wait, there have been others?”
“Of course. With a universe this big I would’ve thought that’d be obvious. There are countless planets teeming with life in all manner of forms and sentience is commonplace. The universe has been around a long time—even by my standards—and the number of worlds that have formed, supported life, and then died out either naturally or at the hands of its own occupants is huge. You guys aren’t the first and I’m guessing you won’t be the last either, though I could be wrong.” God smiled at Tom again. Tom laughed a little for the first time since this all started.
“I’ll probably want to talk more about that later,” said Tom, “but right now I’m going to continue with the basic questions. So what about being all-powerful then?”
God scratched his chin for a moment before replying, “Well if by all-powerful you mean could I end it all today if I wanted to then the answer is yes. I brought this universe into existence and I can take it back out again if I really wanted to. I also have the ability to reach down and interfere with the day to day happenings of the universe should I feel the need, but I generally don’t.”
“Because I can’t change the past and I don’t know what the future will bring…” God paused for a moment and Tom thought he could sense a certain sadness in his voice. “And because I’ve been wrong before. There is only the here and now so I need to be careful about intervening lest I cause unintended consequences.”
“I always thought that was a human problem. I mean, you’re perfect, right?”
God shrugged. “Compared to what? Humans? Sure, I’m more or less perfect compared to most humans. To other gods? I don’t know of any other gods to compare myself to. Do you?”
“That was going to be my next question: are there any other gods?”
God smiled again. “I don’t know. There could be. I’ve never met any, but simply because I haven’t doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m only all-knowing in regards to the universe I created. Outside of that realm it gets pretty surreal even for me so I suppose there could be other gods I’m not aware of, but not as far as this universe is concerned.”
“Fair enough,” said Tom. “Now for the big question: Why?”
“Why what?” said God quizzically.
“Why are we here? Why did you create the universe and all the life forms in it?”
“Oh, well, you’re not going to like the answer. Almost no one ever does. Are you sure you want to know?”
“Absolutely.” said Tom.
“I was bored.”
Tom just stared at God for a moment before asking, “You were bored?”
“Well, yeah. Before I created the universe there was only me. Can you imagine that? Nothing else for all of infinity. Just me. Nothing to do. No job, no hobbies, no purpose to speak of. No fellow gods to hang out and shoot the shit with…” Tom’s jaw dropped at God’s use of profanity. God looked momentarily confused. “What?”
“You swore! You used the word ‘shit’ just now!”
God shrugged again. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Well, isn’t it?” Tom asked.
“It’s a word. A colloquialism. One that I know you’re more than familiar with. I’m just trying to talk to you in a fashion that you’ll understand.”
“So it’s not a bad word?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“Well, no. Not particularly.” It was, in fact, one of Tom’s favorite swear words. “Anyway, you were saying.”
“Right. So, like I said, I was bored and looking for something to do that would be interesting and I’d never created a whole universe before so I thought I’d see what would happen if I did.”
“I take it that means there isn’t some sort of divine plan then.”
“And you’d be right,” said God. “No divine plan to speak of. Just a desire for something interesting to do for awhile. I didn’t create the universe and all the life found within it just so I could have someone around to tell me how wonderfully, amazingly, great I am nor did I have a list of rules I expected everyone to follow in order to get on my good side. The truth is, I just wanted to see what would happen.”
“Does that mean you don’t care? I mean, are we nothing more than an entertaining diversion for you?”
“I do care, just not in the fashion you’re thinking of. I want nothing more than for everyone to have the opportunity to live a fulfilling life, but that’s not something I can provide for you through direct intervention or long lists of rules and expectations. That’s something you have to do on your own.” Tom shifted in his seat as he tried to digest what he was being told.
“What about right and wrong? Where do those come from?”
“From yourselves. Look at your history. As time has passed things like slavery went from being OK to being intolerable, but even today there are places on Earth where slavery is still practiced because the people don’t see anything wrong with it. Killing is generally agreed as being wrong, but with a long list of exceptions to the rule.”
“The thing you people don’t seem to understand is that you have to deal with something that I never have: living with your equals. There are no other gods around for me to have to try and get along with. I can’t steal from them or murder them or sleep with their wives because there’s aren’t any other gods. Or at least, as I said, none that I’ve met so far. The idea that some actions are ‘right’ while others are ‘wrong’ is a result of having to try and get along with other people. Why would you expect me to have rules on how to get along with each other when I’ve never had to worry about getting along with anyone? Fairness, justice, right and wrong are all human concepts resulting from the reality of your situation and not something handed down from me. I just gave you the opportunity to exist and thrive, what you do with that opportunity is up to you folks.”
Tom thought about that for a moment. It certainly seemed like a reasonable explanation so he set it aside and looked around at the garden. “So is this Heaven then?”
“Not by traditional definitions of the word, no. Neither, before you ask, is it Hell. Technically there are no such places. Though there could be if you wanted them to exist and, oddly enough, some folks do.”
“I don’t get it,” Tom said with a puzzled look on his face, “how does what I want make a difference in whether there’s a Heaven or a Hell? Or, for that matter, whether or not ‘shit’ is a bad word?”
“It’s all a matter of perception. If you perceive that ‘shit’ is a bad word then, for you, it is a bad word. Some folks would perceive this garden as being Heaven because it’s everything they expect Heaven to be based on the belief system they adhere to. Others might see it as an ironic form of Hell because, as you’ve probably noticed, being in my presence doesn’t fill you with awe and a warm fuzzy feeling of overwhelming peace and love and for some people Hell is nothing more than being absent those feelings which they believe some folks will get to experience.”
That made sense, but it left Tom wondering just where the actually were if not in Heaven or Hell. “So,” he began, “where exactly are we then?”
God smiled again and said, “Nowhere in particular. I know that doesn’t help, but it’s the best answer I can give you. You no longer have a corporal form so you don’t necessarily have to ‘be’ anywhere at all.”
“So is any of this real?” Tom asked as he waved his hands around at the garden they were sitting in.
“In the sense of it being an actual, physical, place it is not part of reality, no. When you died you left behind the vehicle that provided your consciousness with information about the physical world. Your sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. A mind without those sensory inputs would experience exactly what you did. Absolute nothingness. This garden and the sensations it’s providing to you, including your perception of having a body, is artificial in the sense that it’s not the result of stimulus generated by the universe you are familiar with. How real it is, however, is again a matter of perception.”
“The wonderful thing about perceptions is that you can change yours whenever you want to. Here, in this state of existence, that means that what you perceive to be real is largely a matter of what you decide it to be. Because you expected nothing what you got was nothing. For other people it’s an entirely different experience.”
Tom’s brow furrowed as he tried to take this in. “If reality here is largely a matter of what we believe it to be then how come I could perceive you despite my lack of belief in your existence?”
“Because I’m God.” said God simply. Hard to argue with that one, thought Tom. Still, he had one more question left to ask.
“How is this even possible? How is it that consciousness survives death or that something as incredibly complex as you would have to be in order to fashion an entire universe out of nothingness is within the realm of possibility?”
“Honestly?” God said with a smile. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”