Jorge Luis Borges: A Theologian in Death

Jorge Luis BorgesThe angels told me that when Melancthon died he was provided with a house deceptively like the one in which he lived in this world. (This happens to most newcomers in eternity upon their first arrival-it is why they are ignorant of their death, and think they are still in the natural world.) All the things in his room were similar to those he had had before the table, the desk with its drawers, the shelves of books. As soon as Melancthon awoke in this new abode, he sat at his table, took up his literary work, and spent several days writing-as usual-on justification by faith alone, without so much as a single word on charity. This omission being remarked by the angels, they sent messengers to question him. “I have proved beyond refutation,” Melancthon replied to them, “that there is nothing in charity essential to the soul, and that toga in salvation faith is enough.” He spoke with great assurance, unsuspecting that he was dead and that his lot lay outside Heaven. When the angels heard him say these things, they departed.

After a few weeks, the furnishings in his room began to fade away and disappear, until at last there was nothing left but the armchair, the table, the paper, and his inkstand. What is more, the walls of the room became encrusted with lime, and the floor with a yellow glaze. Melancthon’ s own clothes were now much coarser. He wondered at these changes, but he went on writing about faith while denying charity, and was so persistent in this exclusion that he was suddenly transported underground to a kind of workhouse, where there were other theologians like him. Locked up for a few days, Melancthon fell to doubting his doctrine, and was allowed to return to his former room. He was now clad in a hairy skin, but he tried hard to convince himself that what had just happened to him was no more than a hallucination, and he went back to extolling faith and belittling charity.

One evening, Melancthon felt cold. He began examining the house, and soon discovered that the other rooms no longer matched those of his old house in the natural world. One was cluttered with instruments whose use he did not understand; another had shrunk so small that entrance was impossible; a third had not changed, but its doors and windows opened onto vast sandbanks. One of the rooms at the back of the house was full of people who worshiped him and who kept telling him that no theologian was ever as wise as he. These praises pleased him, but since some of the visitors were faceless and others seemed dead he ended up hating and distrusting them. It was at this point that he decided to write something concerning charity. The only difficulty was that what he wrote one day he could not see the next. This was because the pages had been written without conviction.

Melancthon received many visits from persons newly dead, but he felt shame at being found in so run-down a lodging. In order to have them believe he was in Heaven, he hired a neighboring magician, who tricked the company with appearances of peace and splendor. The moment his visitors had gone-and sometimes a little before-these adornments vanished, leaving the former plaster and draftiness.

The last I heard of Melancthon was that the magician and one of the faceless men had taken him away into the sand hills, where he is now a kind of servant of demons.

From the Arcana Crelestia (1749-1756) by Emanuel Swedenborg


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