All the apple trees in the garden were blooming. They had hastened to cover themselves with blossoms before their green leaves were fully unfolded. All the ducklings were in the farmyard, and so was the cat; it basked in the sun and tried to lick the sunshine from its own paws.
And to look across the fields was a pleasing sight; there stood the corn, so beautifully green, while all the small birds chirped and twittered as happily as if they were having a great holiday.
And, indeed, people could rightly think of this as a holiday, for it was Sunday. The bells were chiming while people in their best clothes were walking to church and looking so cheerful. It was such a bright, warm day that one might well say: "How good God is to grant us so many blessings!"
But inside the church the preacher in the pulpit spoke in a loud and angry tone; he said that all humans were wicked and that God would certainly punish them by sending them to the eternal torments of hell when they died. He said that they would never find peace or rest in hell, for their consciences would never die nor would the fires ever be extinguished.
This was terrible to hear, but still he went on as if the subject he was explaining were really true. He described hell to them as a stagnant cave, where all the impure and sinful of the world would be; there would be no air, only the hot sulphur flames, and no bottom there, and the wicked would sink deeper and deeper into eternal silence forever!
It was horrible to hear this, but the preacher spoke from his heart, and all the people in the church were terrified.
But the birds outside the church sang joyously, and the sun was shining warmly; it was as if each little bird were saying, "Nothing is so great as the loving-kindness of the Almighty!"
Yes, outside the church, it was not at all like the preacher's sermon.
It was autumn, the trees scattering their leaves on the ground, and the severe but earnest preacher sat beside the bed of a dying person. A faithful soul closed her eyes forever; it was the preacher's wife.
"If anyone can find peace and rest in the grave, through God's mercy, it is you!" sighed the preacher, as he folded her hands and read a psalm over the dead woman.
She was laid in her grave. Two large tears rolled down the cheeks of the sincere man, and in the parsonage everything seemed so empty and still. The sunshine of his home had vanished, for she had gone.
It was night, and a cold wind blew over the head of the preacher. He opened his eyes and it seemed to him that the moon was shining into the room, but there was no moonlight. A figure stood beside his bed, and the spirit of his deceased wife shone upon him. Earnestly and sadly she looked at him, as if she had something on her mind that she wanted to say to him.
"Bring me a hair, just one single hair, from the head of just one sinner whom God will condemn to eternal torture in hell."
"Yes, you should be freed that easily, you pure, you pious woman!" he said.
"Then follow me," said the dead. It has been granted us that you can fly through the air by my side, wherever your thoughts are directed. To mortals we shall be invisible, and able to pass unseen through the closed and bolted doors of inner rooms. But you must be certain that the man you point out to me as eternally damned is really one whom God will condemn to the torments of hell-fire forever, and he must be found before the cock crows."
And quickly, as if carried by the wings of thoughts, they arrived at the great city. On the walls of the houses letters of living flame gave the names of the deadly sins: Arrogance, Greed, Drunkenness, Wantonness-in fact, the whole seven-colored bow of sin.
"Arrogance," said the dead wife. "Do you see him?"
"Him!" replied the preacher. "Yes, but this man is only a fool and a simpleton. He'll not be condemned to everlasting fire or eternal torment."
"The madman is raging again!" everyone cried. Then the other criminals threw themselves on him, wrestled with him, bent his body down until his head was forced between his legs, and then bound him so tightly that the blood seemed about to burst from his eyes and his pores.
"You're killing him!" cried the preacher, and stretched his protecting hand over the sinner who had already suffered severely.
Then the scene changed. Unseen they glided through rich homes, as well as through the huts of the poor. Wantonness and envy, and all the deadly sins, passed before them.
An angel from the judgment seat appeared, to read to each of them their sins and their excuses. These excuses meant little to God, for He reads the hearts; He knows every hidden sin that dwells there; He knows the temptations that are before us in the outer world as well as in our own hearts, and knows when to show mercy and pitying love.
The preacher's hand trembled, and now he dared not stretch it out to pluck a single hair from the head of any sinner. Tears streamed from his eyes as he thought of the fountain of mercy and love, which can quench even the everlasting fire of hell.
And then the cock crowed!
"All-merciful God, I pray Thee grant her that peace in the grave which I have not been able to produce for her!"
"I have it now," said the dead wife. "It was your hard words and your gloomy belief in God and His creatures that drove me to you. Learn to know mankind. Even the soul of the wicked is a part of God Himself, a part that will conquer and extinguish even hell-fire forever."
The preacher felt a kiss upon his lips, and a light streamed about him. God's bright sunshine shone into the room, and his living wife stood beside him, tender and loving. She had awakened him from a dream sent him by God.