Short Story: “I Am”

An atheist wakes up in Heaven.

Stairway Leading Up To Sky At Sunrise – Resurrection And Entrance Of Heaven © Romolo Tavani /

May 12, 2024 01:11 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: What happens after you die? What if you’re wrong? 

He wasn’t anything like Poppy had been expecting. Not that she’d ever been expecting to meet him. But, if she were to do so, she’d always imagined he’d have had, well, a bit more about him. 

She didn’t know what exactly. She did, after all, expect the humbleness and sense of ease. She expected him to be kind.

But she also thought he’d have some sort of indescribable star quality. She thought he’d be unlike anyone she’d ever met before and the truth is he wasn’t. He reminded her quite a bit of a bloke she’d met once at a banking conference. Fairly tall, nice smile, kind eyes. He was patient. A good talker. It’s not that she was disappointed. In fact, she liked him much more than she ever expected to, not that she ever expected she’d get the chance to form an opinion. 

Most of all, though, far, far exceeding her surprise at his lack of star quality, or even her surprise at meeting him in the first place, was the fact that he’d chosen her to be his assistant. This was something Poppy couldn’t get her head round at all. 

When she was still alive, Poppy used to be an atheist. And not one of the ones who kept it to themselves either. She thought religion was the root of all the world’s evils and she wasn’t afraid to make this known.

So, when the shock of dying and waking up in Heaven had subsided, you can only imagine how stunned Poppy was to find that she was being appointed as the personal assistant to Jesus Christ himself. 

Of course at this point, she thought the whole thing was a big wind-up. She thought the big red bus that ran her over, the crushing of her lungs, the white light, she thought all of it was some sort of prank expertly arranged by her colleague Mike who was always doing that sort of thing, albeit on a slightly lower budget.

But Jesus showed her his wounds and he called Doubting Thomas over to lend him some support. And Poppy had to admit she did feel very different- lighter, fresher, far less tense- than she’d ever felt before. 

She asked Jesus all the classic questions. “Why didn’t you send us a few more signs?” “Why do you let bad things happen to good people?” “Why are green peppers so much worse than red and yellow ones?” And Jesus replied in the aloof, paradoxical style that, to Poppy’s mind, was responsible for so much of the confusion back on Earth. 

But she was a rationalist to her core. And, presented with compelling new evidence, she had no option but to change her mind. Besides, there isn’t much use being an atheist in Heaven, is there? 

Heaven wasn’t what Poppy had been expecting either, not that she’d been expecting to find herself there in the first place. But there were no floating angels, no harp music, no permanent rainbows. Nor was there an option to conjure up whatever source of entertainment you required. 

All Heaven was an endless field lined with endless tents. You could walk as far as you wanted and your own tent would only ever be a few paces behind you. And it was just a tent. Three twelve-foot wooden poles, tied together with string supporting a thick cotton canvas. Every tent was the same, with two people in each. And Poppy shared hers with Jesus.

You could talk to other people of course, though Poppy was yet to encounter any long-lost relatives and had no idea how she would go about doing so (Jesus was characteristically vague on the subject), and you could walk. And you could sit down in silence. And that was about it. She’d heard that it was possible to look down on Earth, drop in and see what people were up to, but she, nor anyone she’d encountered so far, had ever felt the desire to pursue such a line of inquiry. Whatever became of loved ones on Earth, they would eventually find themselves here and live in prefect, abiding peace. 

You felt fine, that was the heavenly aspect. You didn’t feel wild or ecstatic, you just felt fine. And you had no desire to feel anything else. There was no hunger. Not for food, nor for material or spiritual comforts. There was no hunger for anything. It might sound boring but you were never bored. It might sound repetitive but it always felt fresh. 

It wasn’t a trick or a drug that made you feel this way. The feeling was sustained by understanding. By the deep and certain knowledge that there was no need for desire. 

And whenever Poppy had a negative thought, which did happen from time to time, where she questioned what the point of any of this was, or wondered how she could bear to go on like this for eternity, or berated herself for ever doubting Jesus’s existence, or if she felt a huge pang of imposter syndrome for being asked to sit at his right-hand side, if she thought any of these things, she was able to look on these thoughts with complete indifference. They floated past her, causing no more anguish than a passing butterfly. 

Back on Earth, she’s always reasoned, and this was a line of argument she’d particularly enjoyed throwing at the religiously inclined, that there was no form of Heaven that wouldn’t eventually be hell. Even if you could eat and drink and party and experience all the possible experiences, even if you could fulfill every desire, and master every skill, again and again and again, at some point the dead weight of eternity would drag you down and you would long for the abyss. 

But as it happens, she was just as wrong about that as she had been about Jesus. All the big boss had to do to take care of Poppy’s relatively basic objection, was to remove the sense of desire. Nobody here would ever desire the abyss because they never desire anything. They are perfectly content with endless walking, talking and sitting just as they’d be perfectly content with anything else. 

And they love each other too. This was something that took Poppy a little while to grasp but everyone up here loves everyone else. Not in a weird way. But a real, lasting, effortless kind of love. Unconditional and never-ending. And they carry this love with them at all times. It extends beyond each other and into every blade of grass and every heavenly insect, which are, by the way, physically identical to the insects found on Earth but transformed by the undying love you can’t help but feel for them. 

This bit did make sense to Poppy, once she’d recovered from the initial shock. The idea that the kingdom of Heaven is inside you. This was how happiness was created. She didn’t have more up here than she had down there. If anything it was the other way round. But she wanted for nothing. She loved everyone else and, for the first time, she loved herself. 

And this, she reasoned, was why she’d been chosen to be Jesus’s assistant. Heaven’s most deserving was placed alongside its least, but these concepts of most and least, they no longer applied. 

In truth, being Jesus’s assistant was the easiest job Poppy had ever had. He didn’t ask her to run errands. He didn’t set her targets. He didn’t observe her in action. He didn’t ask her to write a self-evaluation. In fact, he hadn’t asked her to do anything other than, on occasion, to sit alongside him in meditation. 

And although she lived with him, meditated with him, spoke with him on a regular basis, and believed, in spite of her earthly skepticism, that he was the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, she was no more in love with him than she was with everyone else. And there was no queue around their tent as you might imagine. No one, not even the most devout of earthly believers, made a beeline to see Jesus. If they crossed his path they’d say hello with no more or less wonder and appreciation than they would when passing anyone else. There were no celebrities in Heaven and no possibility of becoming one. There was no ambition nor apathy. You just felt fine. And that was it.

But one day, having spent the morning wandering aimlessly and contentedly in the field, Poppy returned to her tent to find Jesus looking quite unlike himself. He was curled up in a ball in the far corner, his head in his hands, his back stooping beneath the slanted wooden post. 

Poppy rushed over.

“What’s the matter, my lord?” she said.

For a while, he didn’t speak. He closed his eyes as though deep in prayer. Then he opened them, took Poppy’s hand and said, “My child, I find myself filled with concern…” 

“Concern?” she said. “But when concern arises all you need do is watch it on its way. Let it pass like a stray strip of straw, it’s no more yours than the haystack’s.”

He nodded. He nodded and nodded but he was not convinced. “I looked down on Earth,” he said, “for the first time in years…”

“And what did you see?” said Poppy. “Plague? Pestilence? War? But you know these things are only temporary. You know that the deceased will join us here and live in everlasting peace. So why bother yourself with earthly distractions?”

“No,” he said. “It’s not plague or pestilence or war. No, my child, no. My consternation comes not from these things but from a podcast.”

Poppy sat up. She’d not heard that word for a while. “A podcast?” she said.

“It’s called Meaningless Problems,” said Jesus. “It’s by Doe Wilmann.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Jesus. “He’s an obscure, unremarkable writer. But one of his episodes, child, it’s properly freaked me out.”

“What do you mean?” she said. “How could this be so?”

“Is any of this real, Poppy?”


“How do I know this isn’t a simulation?”

“What in Heaven are you talking about?”

“All of this. The tents, the fields, the abiding peace. What if it’s all a simulation? What if everything around me is made of code? I know that humans will one day unlock the power to create such worlds, so why would they restrict themselves to the earthly domain? Why would they not create a simulated Heaven too?”

“But my lord,” said Poppy, “you are all-knowing.”

“Yes,” he said, “my father’s knowledge is my knowledge. I know he created the Heavens and the Earth, I know he sent me down in human form to die for the sins of humanity, I know that I am seated now among the righteous. I know that it is as it is written. I know this world. But what if there is another world beyond? About which I have no knowledge? And what if our world, the world in which I am Jesus Christ, what if this is just a simulation?”

“But if you’re all-knowing, you must know that this isn’t a simulation.”

“Yes, I do.” He said. “I know it as surely as I know my own name. But what if the simulation was designed that way? What if it was designed to trick me?”

“You remember dying on the cross?” she said. “Rising from the dead? Ascending into Heaven?”

“Yes, yes, yes.” He said. “But, my child, none of this proves anything. All it would take is a sufficiently powerful computer and a sufficiently religious computer programmer. Maybe this person lived in a world not unlike the one we both know, and maybe in this world there is no god. But what there is is a book, a book with a prophecy and a story where god sends down his son, and where the righteous are rewarded with abiding peace and happiness in Heaven. Maybe this programmer lives in a world where all of this is just fiction. And so, repelled by the absence of meaning, he created a new world where the Christian truths prevail. Maybe I am that programmer, with my true memories purposefully obscured, experiencing the life and the world he always wanted to live. And my child, before you raise an objection, please know I have considered them all. And I tell you that even though I know everything, there is no way of knowing this.”

“So what are you saying?”

He shuffled away from the corner and stood up. He looked down on her, seated beside where he was just sitting. 

“My whole life,” he said. “I have known the truths of the universe. They have been my truths, my universe. But now this new possibility has occurred to me and I have no means of disproving it. What I’m saying, Poppy, is that given this uncertainty, there’s no way I can continue to believe.”

“Continue to believe what?”

“In god,” he said. “In me. In any of it. My faith is irretrievably lost.”

Poppy felt a raft of emotions rising to the surface and now, for the first time since she’d arrived here, she found she was unable simply to observe them. Anxiety’s fingernails were digging into her stomach. She sought to take control of her breath but it too had turned against her. 

Poppy had spent much of her adult life trying to convince people there is no god and that the religion into which she was born was a lie. On dying, it had surprised her enormously not only to find she was entirely wrong but that she had been chosen to ascend to Heaven and then be seated at the right-hand side of the boss himself. 

The whole thing had seemed bizarre, preposterous, unfathomable. But now, sitting there as she was, a firm and unwavering believer, while Jesus Christ professed his atheism, it all suddenly made perfect sense. 

Poppy was, of course, in hell. 

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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