Disclaimer: I don't own God, the devil, angels, the Bible, etc. If I did, I would be too rich to bother writing about them.
The Dark Night
Father Michael turned off the prayer candles for the night and the church's vestibule was suddenly dark and still. He had his scarf knotted around his throat and one arm in his coat sleeve when the door opened. He turned.
A man stood there silhouetted against the glare of a passing headlight, his bare head dusted with snow. Father Michael shivered, looking at him. He wore a black suit and nothing else, no protection from the cold, and his face was in shadow.
"Can I help you?" He cleared his throat. "Please come in, you must be freezing."
"Thank you, Father," the man said softly. He stepped forward into the light. Stood behind the last pew, his hand resting on its straight back, watching the snow beat silently against the stained glass above the altar.
Father Michael loosened his scarf with one hand and tossed his coat over a pew. The man's eyes snapped onto him, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of thin, sardonic lips.
"I wondered, Father," he said, "if it's too late for me to make confession."
Father Michael smiled. "I'm supposed to say it's never too late. Conveniently enough, I believe it." He made to move toward the dim cage of the confessional, but then heard the man chuckle and looked back. The man was sitting in the pew now, one arm thrown lazily over its wooden spine.
"I also wondered if we might do it here. In the light, so to speak."
Father Michael paused. Then: "Sure," he said. He took a step closer, looked into the man's face; he gazed back steadily. "It wasn't easy for you to come here, was it, ah...?" The priest waited for a name. Nothing came but a smile.
"You're mistaken there, Father. It was the easiest thing I've done in a long time." He lowered his arm. Father Michael sat down beside him; he moved to give him room. Their breath plumed together in the cold air. The priest made the sign of the cross and looked at the man. Waited.
"I'm supposed to say 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,' isn't that right?" He crossed his ankles and leaned back in the pew, looking up into the shadows of the high vaulted ceiling. "And I have sinned. Terribly."
Father Michael nodded. "How long has it been since your last confession?"
The man looked at him. Laughed softly. "Forever."
"You're not a Catholic, are you?"
"No," the man said. "Shall I go?"
"No," the priest said. "You came into this church tonight for a reason."
"Well, I wasn't wearing a coat, and it's cold, as I believe you pointed out--"
"You probably get away with bullshit, flip lines like that all the time." The man's eyes narrowed for an instant, met the priest's. They locked gazes. "I don't think I want to let you. I think it's important that you do what you came here to do."
"Tell me then, please, Father, what it is I came here to do."
"Confess your sins."
"It's always baffled me," the man said. "Why should confessing them make them any less sinful?"
"It doesn't." Father Michael leaned forward. "That's the whole point. Or it's half the point. The other half is that God loves and forgives you, as long as you accept it."
The man looked away. "I very much doubt that, Father. Although how wonderful it would be if it were true."
"It is true," the priest said. "You wouldn't be here if you didn't believe it on some level."
The man grinned. "Lord, I do not believe; help thou my belief." He adjusted the cuff of his black suit, eyes never moving from the snowy window. "I've spent my life fighting the impulse that drove me here tonight," he said quietly. "But I'm here. That's my sin, Father." Father Michael started. "That I betray what I know for what I wish--even if I'm alone--even if no one but you sees it--I see it. God--" he smirked slightly-- "sees it."
"Do you believe in God?" the priest asked.
"Do I believe in God..." The man smiled, folded his arms. "That's a very complicated question, and if I answer it honestly you'll think I'm insane."
"I see a lot of crazy people. You don't strike me as one of them."
"Give me a minute." The man paused. "You're sure? Believe me when I tell you--this isn't a good idea. I'm using you in the worst possible sense. Well--perhaps not the worst possible; this is the Catholic Church, after all."
Father Michael's lips tightened, but he said, "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."
"Coming from someone of your profession, that's quite something. Thank you."
The priest nodded. Shivered. The man noticed. He slipped his jacket off and offered it.
"No--no, I'm fine--my coat's over there--you must be--"
The man sighed. "I'm not cold. I promise you. Please take it."
"As a thank-you gesture for tolerating me at this late hour. I insist."
Father Michael took the warm jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders, rubbing them. "Thanks."
The man leaned forward and took the Bible from the back of the next pew. He opened it idly, began leafing through it with fluid, deft motions of slim fingers. Father Michael watched those fingers, didn't look up even when the man said,
"I'll answer your question with a question, Father. Do you believe in the Devil?"
"The Devil?" Father Michael shrugged. "Do I believe he exists? Sure. Do I believe he's central to the Catholic faith? Hardly."
The man chuckled. "Well, you're certainly right about that: he's not." He glanced down at the page. "'I will exalt my throne above the stars of God'...how profoundly stupid would someone have to be to challenge an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator?"
Father Michael waited, his eyes trained on the man, tiny clockwork clouds mushroooming from parted lips.
"And if we give the Devil his due--if we grant that he isn't simply a cosmic fool--we have to suspect that perhaps he didn't think God, or whatever being was calling itself God, was anything close to omnipotent, or omniscient, or omnibenevolent...or even the Creator at all..." The man threw his head back like a challenge to the soaring vault. "So the short answer, Father, is no."
The priest nodded slowly. "So you don't believe in God."
"Not in any being who created the universe. No, I do not."
"And that's not the sin you think you've committed."
"I consider that an intellectual position. Not a sin."
"The sin you mentioned...that would be the sin you've come here both to commit and confess?" The man raised an eyebrow. "To you, coming into a church, looking for God, acting as though you believe when you don't--that's what's really wrong?"
"Then why do it? And I still don't think you're crazy, by the way." Father Michael drove his hands deep into the pockets of the man's suit coat. He was nearly on the edge of his seat; the man was slouching, arms folded, with a glitter in black eyes that followed, again, the falling snow.
"About four hundred years ago, an Englishman named Milton wrote a religious epic about--among other things--the fall of the angels," the man said. "Forgive me if I'm telling you what you already know, but as he wasn't Catholic--rather the opposite...anyway." He coughed, or maybe chuckled. "One of my favorite lines is this: 'But to convince the proud what signs avail?'"
The priest smiled. "'Or wonders move the obdurate to relent?'"
The man inclined his head. "So you do know it. My apologies."
"Accepted. In your defense, I am an unconventional Catholic. Go on."
"Milton was a brilliant man," the man said. "But this--this he got completely wrong. The line refers to Satan, of course--to his blindness to the evidence of a good and great God that was all around him." The man's mouth twisted. "Ironic, isn't it, that my entire argument against a Creator God was--is--based on evidence, and yet Milton denies that I even look for it? Denies me the foundation of my worldview?"
A long beat of silence. Then:
The man smiled. "You said you believed in me. Charming, how none of you really do."
Father Michael was on his feet in the aisle. "You're--you're saying you're the--"
"Holy...Jesus--oh Christ you're fucking nuts--" He stumbled backward, eyes wide and shocked, staring at the man with trembling hands extended as though warding him off--this man who was sitting so calmly in the pew.
"Please sit down, Father," he said. "I will not force or hurt you. But I would like to talk to you, and I'm sure the theologian and Milton lover in you would never forgive you for turning down the chance to talk to me."
Father Michael took another step back and took a shaky breath. "Fine," he managed. "I'll make you a deal."
A grin. "I do love them."
"I'll sit down for as long as you want, if you let me call you an ambulance afterwards."
The man nodded. "Ah. You want me committed to a psychiatric facility?"
The priest jerked his head once.
"Admirably honest. I accept your deal, Father Michael." He gestured to the pew. "Please. I hadn't finished my point. Or--" he smiled slightly-- "my confession."
He lowered himself onto the smallest possible area of pew as though it might shatter at any second. His eyes darted from the man's hands to his pockets to his face. The man sighed.
"Relax, Father," he said. "I don't have a weapon. You have my coat, and--" he turned out his pockets-- "nothing here."
The man pulled them off and threw them, casually, to the front of the church. Both landed side by side on the altar. The priest went white. The man chuckled.
"You expected hooves? Oh, I'm sorry. Of course you didn't." He wiggled his toes and leaned back. "Where was I?"
"Evidence," Father Michael whispered.
"Yes. Evidence." He steepled his fingers, the Bible balanced on his knee. "As I'm sure you've noticed, on Earth, any being complex enough to create anything--a computer, a watch, a book--is itself the product of an evolutionary process. A creator God is too improbable to come about except as the result of a process of evolution. And what's amazing to me is that this irreducibly complex being, this ex nihilo, absurdly improbable Creator, is often invoked specifically to explain the apparent improbabilities or life, or of an inhabitable universe--when he by definition as a creator must be even more complex and improbable than his creation!" The man looked at the priest. "Do you understand?"
"So..." Father Michael wet his lips. "So you're saying...He would've had to evolve from something. Which means He isn't the Creator of everything."
The man raised an eyebrow. "Precisely."
"I've heard this argument before."
"Well." The man tutted softly. "I like to think I was the first to think of it. It only occurred to me after I saw Earth, which I'm sure you can understand. So many species...so many brilliant examples of the same blind process...I began to think that not even God could be exempt from the rules I was learning to divine. Pun very much intended."
"But there is a God, then," the priest said. "There is something..."
"Something? Yes, there's something. There's a being who calls himself God who created Heaven, Hell, and the angels. I've known him." The man's head was bowed. "Even I can't deny that he created me and my...former abodes...but I cannot and will not accept that he created everything. My reason will not abide that, even though my senses told me--told me he was there, in no uncertain terms...Evidence, Father," he said, smiling faintly. "I've seen God and I still don't believe in him. I'm bound to believe my senses lie--and I'm also bound to believe that, no matter how slim the chance, I could have interpreted the evidence incorrectly. That's the danger of reason over faith. You know you could be wrong."
"And you hope you're wrong," Father Michael said. "And you consider that hope--"
"Intellectual treason. Treason to myself, my job, my followers. Can you imagine if I were seen--" He cut himself off, laughed. "Even if I'm right, and I am, and God is just an unimaginably advanced alien, he still gave me my life. And Heaven. For a while." The man picked up the Bible, weighed it in one hand. "There's a hole now. I should bear it proudly, and I try, but..."
Father Michael nodded. "Sometimes you weaken."
"Yes," the man said. He looked at the priest. "That's my first sin, as I said. That I'm here."
Father Michael almost smiled. "Well, I doubt you believe I can absolve you of it," he said.
"I'm not here for absolution."
The priest's brow furrowed. The beams of the church creaked with the cold. A pale illumination came from the lonely light above the altar, only to wander up and be lost in darkness. Then:
"I'm a priest," he said finally. "This is my job."
The man smiled. "We both take our jobs seriously, don't we?" He reached for something, then stopped himself and sighed. "Father Michael, would you look in the inside breast pocket of my jacket?"
Father Michael did. He produced a pack of cigarettes and offered them to the man.
"Thank you. Would you like one?"
"I run four miles a day," the priest said, edging away.
"I see." Light flared from the tip of the cigarette, a tiny glowing red ember. "There are some perks to being me," he said with his eyes closed, the cigarette balanced beautifully between two fingers as smoke curled around them. "Lung cancer is a distant concern."
"That must be nice," the priest said. "Immunity from death."
The man cracked an eye. "Immunity?" he said. "Hardly. Just a suspended sentence. We can be killed--many of us died in the war, and I wouldn't fancy my chances against an atomic bomb--but I see your point, I think."
"That you're immortal if nothing interferes?"
"Well, not quite. The universe is expanding. Eventually all the atoms of everything are going to fall apart. And when that happens, Father--" he touched his own arm-- "I'm gone. And so is your species. And so is that delightfully mendacious God you love so much."
"Are you afraid of death?"
The man smiled. "You do know what questions to ask, don't you?" He took a deep drag on the cigarette and expelled a perfect smoke-ring. "Yes, Father, I am. You know your Milton: I'm self-love personified. No self wants to go gentle into that good night."
"So there's no afterlife."
"No," the man said. "I'm sorry. If I had designed all of this--but no one did, that's the point." The cigarette flared, threw red light against his black eyes. Suddenly he chuckled. "How marvelous that you don't believe me...I could tell you anything..."
"This is confession," the priest said, smiling slightly. "Even if we're off topic. What do you want to tell me?"
The man let out a long curl of smoke and said, "I suppose I'd like to confess that, in my haste to spread the truth, I was ruthless--that I caused more suffering than I care to think about--that I rejected the idea of a good lie too hastily and am too proud and too wedded to my role to reconsider--" The cigarette was burning down almost to his fingers. Father Michael started.
"I know." In a blindingly swift motion, the man stamped it out on the cover of the Bible; the priest gasped. The man flicked the dead butt into the shadows of the vestibule. "I would like to confess," he said quietly, "that, although I am right, I may also be evil."
Father Michael's brow furrowed. "No evil person thinks they're evil."
"Evil person?" He chuckled. "Two problems with that. The first should be obvious. The second is that shoving anyone into an either/or box--good or evil, angel or devil, Heaven or Hell--is a massive oversimplification; I'm walking proof of that--"
"Yes, but still, if you intentionally hurt someone, that's an evil action, and I refuse to think the ends justify the means--"
"Really? So World War II wasn't a necessary evil to stop Hitler?"
"I--" The priest stopped. The man smiled.
"It's all in the balance of means and ends, isn't it?" the man said. "A world war to stop a genocidal maniac from killing millions, even if millions have to die to do it, yes--but the same expenditure of money and manpower to save a hundred, no. Are we agreed?"
"I guess. Yes."
"Even if included in that hundred were Einstein, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Jesus, your parents, and a child who would grow up to cure cancer?"
Father Michael was silent.
"My point," the man said, "is that ethical decisions are damned difficult." He lapsed into silence, tracing the burn in the cover of the Bible with one finger. Father Michael reached out and pulled the book from his hands, put it between them on the pew. The man looked up. Their eyes met. Then the priest asked,
"What have you done that could drive you here?"
The man exhaled slowly, folded his arms. His head was defiantly raised. "I'll ask you--out of courtesy, because I think I know the answer: have you ever been in love?"
Father Michael shifted in his seat.
"Damn your God," the man said softly. The priest looked away. "Well, your name has a...special relevance for me, Michael."
Father Michael glanced up involuntarily. The man wasn't looking at him, but out into the night.
"The archangel?" he asked, for a moment on the absurd edge of laughter--
"You'll notice irony predates literature by a large margin," the man said. "Yes, that Michael. For me, he was the greatest casualty...perhaps the only thing I regret losing--no, wrong verb." The man's voice was quiet, unemotional, precise. "Throwing away."
"But he's supposedly the one who literally threw you away--"
"Oh, he did. With admirable discipline. Only a moment of hesitation, and I think I was the only one who saw that." The man cleared his throat. "Lest I portray myself as the victim--I knew very well what was coming and I let it happen. I fought it, of course, and I think he fought it too in his own way, but..." The man shrugged. "Quad scripsi, scripsi."
The priest waited. Silence fell and filled the thin space between them, the vast space under the beams and the sky. Then:
"You're not done," he said.
The man looked at him. Father Michael shivered again but held his gaze.
"Well, you're not. Your conscience is torturing you and I want to know why."
The man smiled the ghost of a smile. "I wouldn't say torturing. I've found that the word 'torture' has a very--specific--meaning."
"The longer you talk, the longer before I call someone. Don't make me do it now."
"Ah, yes," the man said lightly. "I wonder that Hell ever frightened me, compared to the superlatively terrifying prospect of a phone call and perhaps some linoleum."
Father Michael almost smiled; then it faltered. "You were…scared?"
"What did you expect?" He brushed a piece of lint off the sleeve of his white shirt. "Now I'll make you a deal, Father. Give me another cigarette and when I'm done with it you can call whoever you like."
"Fine, as long as you talk while you're smoking."
"Have you considered a career as a lawyer? They'd pay you better to close loopholes."
"I like my soul," the priest said, handing the man a cigarette; he chuckled, cupped his hand around it. A small blaze of light and he leaned back, thin gray wisps escaping from the corners of his smile.
"Fine then," he said. "On with it." He sighed, tilted his head back; smoke floated like a soul toward the ceiling. "I've never been much in agreement with theologians, but they say that the cardinal sin is pride and I'm inclined to agree. Also the cardinal virtue, but passing over that..." He cleared his throat. "I've already indicated that what I did, I did out of reverence for the truth, and also out of reverence for myself as a being for whom truth was the prime mover. My rebellion...I suppose I ought to explain that, actually...all right," he said, folding his hands behind his head. "First you're going to need to forget all that silliness about the garden of Eden, the fruit, the serpent. Your species evolved from apes and ultimately bacteria--but there was a million-or-so year period when you didn't advance. At all. Because God was using us to prevent you from doing so."
"What?" The priest watched the word puff into the cold air and blew into his hands. "How?"
"We made you a terrestrial heaven of sorts," the man said. "I can see where the Eden legend came from. We kept predators at bay, we provided you with food--and why? It was brilliant, actually. Because if you didn't have to compete for resources or defend yourselves from predators, you didn't need to develop weapons. If you lived lives of bodily comfort, you wouldn't need to develop life-enhancing technology. That was the goal, you see." His lip curled. "Keeping you lowly."
The priest rubbed his forehead. "But why?"
The man sighed. "Because God said--and we were all taking his supposedly omniscient word on this--that if you were allowed to develop freely, you'd destroy yourselves and the spark of consciousness that we all loved so desperately. I think God needed to know that other intelligence had evolved in the universe, other than himself--we didn't count, we were created beings, we were his failed attempt to fill the void. But you--he couldn't let anything happen to you. So, liberty and death or slavery and life."
"And you didn't agree?" Father Michael guessed.
"I agreed absolutely as long as I believed that those were the unalterable alternatives. I served God for a very long time," he said quietly. "People tend to forget that."
"For good reason," the priest said; they both grinned. "So what changed?"
"I began to suspect that God's authority for claiming that he knew what was best for humanity was...unsupported, to say the least. We all thought, for a while, that he was omniscient and omnipotent--that's what he told us, never mind the logical fallacy, you know, could he change his future mind and all that--" He drummed his fingers on the Bible beside him. "And we all certainly thought that he'd created everything, so he had a right to everything. When I saw Earth and understood the process that had created man, I began to doubt that he was the Creator--a creator, sure, but if there was a true God--and I don't think there can be--he wasn't it. I stand by that.
"And then I thought, if he's omnipotent, why does he need us to do his dirty work on Earth? And I came up with: his power is very limited in space-time. Heaven and Hell, yes, omnipotence is a working synonym for the kind of power he has. But Earth? The rest of the universe? No, he needed us, he needed physical beings to effect his will. And once I'd begun to doubt him, I began to doubt that he was right about humanity. I started to think they deserved to be free, to have that chance. And, if I was right about his limitations, it would be possible to free them."
"But what if God was right about us?" the priest said. "I'm not so sure we won't destroy ourselves. How could you be sure he was wrong?"
The man sighed. "That's the thing. I wasn't sure. I was so furious he'd lied that I wouldn't even entertain the idea that he might have lied for a good reason."
"To keep us subservient so that we could save you." The man tapped the ash from his cigarette off against the pew. "I still think any God who would do that is a bastard. He could have explained to us the evidence for thinking that you'd destroy yourselves, and damn him if he made us incapable of understanding it!" The cigarette shook slightly.
Father Michael looked at him. "You're still stalling," he said. "This is interesting as hell--" He laughed. "Sorry. But it's still only an intellectual error, if you're wrong. Not a moral one."
"True," the man said. He pulled deeply on the cigarette, then eyed the glowing tip. "You have, I'd say, maybe five minutes."
"You have five minutes," the priest said. He bit his lip. "Tell me about Michael."
"He and I were opposing generals in the war," the man said. "He came to see me one night after it became clear I was going to lose. He came with no armor, no weapon--" He chuckled. "This from a being who never even lowered his metaphorical guard. He said, 'Stop this or kill me now.' I refused both, obviously--I said he lied, he's wrong, my mantra, and Michael answered...'So what?"
The man paused for a long moment. "I told him I wouldn't stop. Couldn't. Even though I knew what was coming. And he...he fell on his knees and said...'Please, Lucifer. Please don't make me do this to you.'" A cold smile. "He begged in vain. He begged me to abandon my pride for him as he'd abandoned his for me--in vain. I made him throw me to Hell, I made countless angels die, there's so much blood and suffering on my hands--and for what? Would it really have been so terrible if I'd surrendered? If I'd loved him half as much as I loved my image of myself?"
The man's head was bowed. The red-hot ember was nearly touching his fingers. He didn't seem to feel it. "That's ruthlessness, maybe that's evil, I don't know, I'm so sorry--Michael, I'm so sorry--"
Father Michael watched the cigarette, his mouth half-open to give a warning--the ember touched his fingers--
--and he didn't drop it. He looked down at it, smiled, and tossed it onto the floor. It rolled, a tiny spec of light, into the vast darkness.
The man stood up.
"I believe you have a phone call to make," he said. He picked up the priest's coat from the nearby pew, threw it to him; the priest tossed him his suit jacket. The man slipped into it.
"Thank you," he said. "Good night, Father." He began to walk away. The priest's mouth opened and closed.
"Wait!" he shouted. The man stopped, half-turned, an amused smile on his face.
"You promised--we had a deal--"
"I promised you could call," the man said. "I never promised to be here when you did. If you want to deal with the Devil, you'd better practice." He smiled. "Oh, and I'd like to leave you with a few thoughts. I'd hoped you'd notice yourself, but--" He shrugged. "First. Think back, Father." He grinned wickedly. "Did you ever tell me your name?"
"Yes, of course I--" He stopped. Froze.
"And second," the man said, opening the door; snow blew in around him. "You had my jacket and I showed you my pockets. How could I possibly have had a lighter?"
He almost closed the door behind him, then turned and looked back at the stock-still figure in the darkened church. "I've always found it demeaning that God demands faith," he said. "I provide evidence."
Then the door shut.