“Depend upon it,sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
I should perhaps begin this article by quickly reassuring my readers that I have done absolutely nothing whatsoever to warrant my imminent attendance at anything quite so alarming (and so terminal) as an execution by hanging. Given that we in the UK in our wisdom have abolished capital punishment it would appear therefore unlikely that there is any danger of my subsequently qualifying for this signal entry in the Guinness Book of Records during the short time remaining to me. I can almost hear your sigh of relief at this news.
No, my object in selecting the above admirable quote from Samuel Johnson is simply to introduce the subject of justice in the form of that meted out to the soul of the dear departed – a topic that is increasingly causing me great concern for two distinctly different reasons. The first is obvious. To my amazement I find myself now in my 83rd year with my 84th birthday no more than 6 months hence. In common with most other people in this category I have had a few ‘blips’ along the way but thanks to the NHS and the care of loved ones, I have survived, and for this I am eternally grateful. However, it clearly cannot go on for ever and realistically it is possible that before too long the charade will come to an end.
The second reason stems from the alarming situation that the world finds itself in the year 2024. You do not need me to list all the threats and areas of concern assailing us today – suffice it to say anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge about the state of the world just prior to 1914 and/or 1939 cannot fail to be unaware of the parallels that exist today, with all the terrors that that scenario holds for us. Never mind my growing old – will I be allowed to see my grandchildren grow up and prosper?
The concept of the souls of the dead being judged is not a new one, having been around since the Dawn of Time. The Ancient Egyptians’ Book of the Dead describes in detail the ritual whereby the heart of the deceased is weighed in the scales against a feather in the presence of the god Osiris. If the heart equals the weight of the feather (is it a big ostrich feather, or the smallest tail feather of a common sparrow?) then the dead may pass on to the afterlife. If not, the heart is eaten by a crocodile-like monster sitting to one side of the ritual (and no doubt licking his chops if my son’s Labrador is anything to go by!).
By the time we move on to the Middle Ages the Christian Church has softened its approach to this ordeal and replaced it with a simple belief that the souls of the dead will be judged at the time of the 2nd coming of Jesus, with the options now simplified into Heaven (for those winning the Lottery) and Hell (for all the rest).
You pays your money and you takes your pick. Personally I prefer the statue of Lady Justice which adorns the Old Bailey in London, featuring a blindfolded woman sporting a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right.. There can be no confusion as to what is on offer here, and at least it has the modern merit of being blindfolded (and therefore – one presumes – free from prejudice).
Nevertheless, it still leaves us wondering just how this judgement is to be carried out (assuming crocodiles and swords are now passe and so no longer cool) Will we find ourselves being interrogated by St Peter at the very Gates of Heaven, with entry permitted only when the correct number of boxes have been ticked? Or perhaps we will be invited to a formal interview in the Heavenly Conference Room where we are confronted by a diverse panel made up of men, women, trans, handicapped, etc, etc who will begin by asking us why we wish to come in? Will witnesses be called to confirm or refute our earnest protestations of having led “a good life” (whatever that might mean?) Perhaps there should be lawyers representing both the Prosecution and the Defence in order to satisfy the legal requirement for a fair trial. I could go on, but I suspect you have heard enough.
Now, without wishing to be drawn into a long and acrimonious debate as to the existence of Heaven and the afterlife, I must confess that whilst the current representation of Heaven strikes me as unutterly boring – hanging around on clouds and strumming on lyres – I nevertheless find it preferable to the alternative. The issue therefore is simply whether my life to date has accrued enough Brownie points to outweigh the darker side of human existence. ie Good versus Bad.
I have wracked my brains to try and discern any commendable behaviour on my part in the early years of my life that might put me in credit. Sadly the mists of time have largely obscured those halycon days. On the other hand, it is just possible that God (or his servants) have passed a Heavenly Statute of Limitations which precludes any judgement of good vs bad prior to the age of, say, 21 or even 30, which would effectively shield us from the effects of those youthful indiscretions. One can but hope.
Given this possibility I now find myself trying a little harder than usual to gain personal credit through the application of a number of daily ‘good deeds’ (for the want of a better phrase). Surely I have not been so utterly beyond the pale to date as to fail the Heavenly Entrance Exam? I recall years ago telling a squadron leader in Hong Kong that I had never had the opportunity to behave so wickedly as to automatically qualify for Hell. He remained noncommital. Of course, since then I have acquired 6 points on my driver’s licence and have been guilty of telling the odd white lie in the hope of avoiding domestic discourse, so perhaps my record has slipped into terminal discredit.
It may not be too late. For instance, only yesterday while out in the car I paused at a road junction to wave a young woman across who had obviously been waiting for a break in the traffic. A good deed undoubtedly, although its effect may have been tarnished somewhat since my action also gave me an opportunity to admire her as she did so!
A dilemma confronts me. I am not wholly convinced that the decision at the Pearly Gates will go my way, but I have drawn up a two-part contingency if membership is denied. Firstly, if confronted with awkward searching questions I will take a leaf out of our MPs’ playbook and simply reply, “I cannot remember. I do not recall.” Secondly, if confronted with damming evidence that precludes my entry into Heaven I shall copy our current crop of criminals and plead extenuating circumstances arising from unspecified ‘mental issues’.
Wish me luck.