A man died and found himself before an archangel. Wreathed in glowing robes of white light, with impossibly huge wings of the most ethereal feathers, and brandishing a flaming sword, the heavenly being beckoned for the man to draw near. The newly arrived soul looked at his surroundings as he stepped closer with trepidation. He saw only a sky high, filthy, dirt covered mountain, crowded with hunched souls that moaned as they trudged up the steep, circular slope. There were no pearly gates, no choirs of angels, no heavenly spheres.
“This isn’t heaven,” the man exclaimed.
The winged host replied, “No, but you will be admitted to Paradise after you climb Mount Purgatory to reflect on and atone for your sins.”
The new arrival was indignant. “Wait a minute. What sins? I’ve been good and decent. Sure, I made the occasional misstep, but nothing terrible.”
The archangel pulled a tablet from its robes and tapped the surface a few times.
“I see here that you rebuffed the lessons and aid from the messengers sent to guide, protect, and save you.”
The man became very excited because he knew exactly who his angels were and he had treated those people with great respect and love. He went out of his way to show them that he was worthy of their divine touch.
“I am sure you are mistaken. I know who my guardian angels were and I listened to their good counsel throughout my life. I can tell you about them. There has certainly been some kind of mistake.”
The angelic gatekeeper looked skeptical, then nodded, “Go on.”
“There was a time when I was poor and destitute, then I met John and he offered me a job as a janitor in his company. A few years later he helped me to move into sales and eventually made me manager of an entire division. He was a great boss and friend who gave me the ability to feed my family and mentored me to a very satisfying career and life of success. He was the first of my angels.”
The divine being tapped its tablet.
Encouraged, the man continued. “My minister supported me through some of the hardest trials of my life. She counseled and consoled me and restored my faith in God. She was always there to listen and to give me advice. She was my second angel.”
The winged gatekeeper typed something on the display and looked back up again.
The soul expounded with enthusiasm. “And there’s my best friend, Geoff. He stood by me through thick and thin. He saved me from myself and was always there to give me a hand. Geoff would always answer my calls and email, even after years of silence on the my part. He never gave up on me. He was certainly the third of my better angels.”
He smiled and nodded with excitement at how easily he had refuted the archangel’s assertion.
The glowing figure consulted his screen, swiped a few times, and shook his head. “You are wrong on all accounts. Those people were a blessing to you and are truly good, but they were not messengers from Heaven.”
“That’s just not possible. Who else could there be?”
The archangel swiveled the tablet to face his latest charge. The surface transformed and displayed a video of the man driving behind an ancient station wagon piloted by a decrepit old woman. Her car belched choking smoke and lurched violently. He watched his living self swear and honk at the elderly driver. When the lady’s car came to a shuddering stop, blocking the lane, he stepped on the gas and swerved around the stalled junker. Now, he looked on, a little embarrassed, as his likeness shouted at the distraught, blue haired woman when he blew past her.
The archangel said, “That angel was there to teach you about patience and give you a chance to help a stranded fellow human.”
The man was shocked and then exasperated, “How was I supposed to know?”
The be-robed host shook his head of golden hair, reached over the top of the tablet, and pressed a button to bring up another video.
The man watched himself walk past the same homeless woman day after day. Again and again he averted his eyes and pretended not to hear her pleas. Sometimes she would reach out and rattle the change in a cracked plastic cup at him and he would wave it away.
“This heavenly messenger was placed in your path to give you a chance to care for the destitute, an opportunity to lift up another person who had hit rock bottom, much like you before your boss, John, came to your aid,” the archangel explained.
“How was I supposed to know? That’s ridiculous.”
The gatekeeper shook its head and looked with sadness at the soul.
The man became incensed. “So God sent those people only to test me, to trick and manipulate me. They were never there to help me, to save me?”
The archangel tapped the screen a few times and the surface showed the man walking out of a restaurant with a small group of people. Suddenly, from out of no where, a drunk singing a silly song stumbled near and hugged him, leaning sloppily on him. The man watched himself push the guy away roughly and then continue with his friends, laughing as the lush staggered to a wall and slid to the ground in a heap.
“So what? Are you going to tell me that he gave me the chance the help another person?”
The archangel shook his head and swiped the screen again. The video rewound and played from the beginning. However, this time the soul saw his human form as slightly transparent and covered with red dots.
“Your body was filled with cancer. In that state you had only a few months to live.”
The man stared as his see-through likeness continued through the same motions as before. At the instant that the drunk flung his arms around him, all the red dots vanished.
He looked on in disbelief and then horror. Tears formed in his eyes and he turned to his glowing host.
“How was I supposed to know? There was no way for me to know!”
The archangel said, “That’s the point. Anyone you encounter can be a messenger sent from heaven.”
“What are we supposed to do? Treat every person we meet as if they are an angel?”