Mack comes to a rock face, but finds that, miraculously, he is able to walk through the wall. He finds himself in a tunnel leading to a large, dark cavern illuminated only with a faint light that seems to be emanating from Mack himself. In the center of the cavern is a chair. Mack takes a seat and sees in front of him a regal olive-skinned woman standing behind a huge ebony desk. Mack is overwhelmed by her beauty. She asks if Mack understands why he is there, and although he does not, he finds himself entranced just by the sound of her voice.
Because of what he has already experienced over the course of the weekend, Mack accepts that interacting with God seems to require him to trust various strangers who appear as personas of God and to try to relax in unfamiliar situations. He is more trusting now than when he first arrived at the cabin, as exemplified by his comfort with the unfamiliar olive-skinned woman.
The olive-skinned woman says she is there to help Mack on this serious day and that Mack is there because of his children, which confuses him. She says Mack has done a commendable job of loving his children, despite the fact that not all parents are able to care for their children well—Mack’s own father, she points out, did not love him well. Then, she asks him which of his children he loves the most. He smiles, saying that he loves them all in unique ways. Each of his children seemed to bring with them the capacity for him to give more love. He likens it to how Papa is “especially fond” of each of her children. The woman smiles, saying Mack is wise to realize that love expands to contain the knowing of each child.
Mack’s affection for his children helps him to recognize wider truths about love generally, and the love that God has for humans: rather than being predicated on specific actions or attributes, Mack’s love for his children, simply, is, and is based on knowing them as they are. In this way, there is not a sense of hierarchy or power between either Mack and his children, or between his love for each of them. God’s love for humans works in the same way.
When the olive-skinned woman says that Mack loves his children the way the Father loves his, Mack bristles, saying that if Missy is one of God’s children, God doesn’t love his children very well. The woman grows serious and tells Mack that he is there for judgment—not for him to be judged, but for him to judge others. Mack says he has no ability to judge, but she points out that he judges the actions and motivations of others, judges based on appearance and history, and more. Such judgment makes him feel superior to others. Mack knows his judgments have been superficial, designed simply to make him feel safe or reinforce his beliefs. She tells Mack to take her seat behind the large desk, and he does, reluctantly.
However, Mack is uncomfortable with the parallel that the woman draws between God’s love, and Mack’s love for his own children. Mack’s perception of God still hinges on the expectation that God can mete out or withhold harm, which does not seem compatible with love. In response, the woman points out that Mack has taken on one of God’s central roles by constantly judging those around him.
The olive-skinned woman tells Mack he is there to judge God and the human race. She says he must feel that many people need judgment, like the greedy or those who beat their wives or children, or the man who killed Missy.
By listing examples of those Mack would surely see as guilty, the olive-skinned woman points out that Mack has already taken on the role of judge even though he claims to be unqualified. Even deeming those who seem most guilty as evil, people like Mack are still taking on God’s role, and, by extension, are judging God and all humans.
At that, Mack’s anger breaks through, and he says Missy’s killer should be damned to hell. The olive-skinned woman asks about that man’s father, who raised a monster; Mack agrees that he should be damned, as well. The woman says that by that logic it is then necessary to follow a legacy of brokenness going all the way back to Adam and then God. She says that this is what fuels The Great Sadness—Mack’s distrust of God. Mack says that yes, God is to blame for allowing a twisted soul to take Missy when he could have stopped it.
By taking Mack’s judgment of Missy’s killer to its logical extreme, the olive-skinned woman demonstrates that judgments of other people are, in actuality, judgments of God. In this way, condemning others is a way of breaking away from God and claiming to have superior knowledge and power. This practice has disastrous large-scale consequences, but the woman also points out that on a personal level, taking on God’s responsibilities has led Mack to live in a state of constant fear and depression.
The olive-skinned woman tells Mack that if he thinks he has the ability to judge God, he certainly has the ability to judge all of humanity. She says he must choose only two of his children to join God in heaven, while the rest will go to hell. Panicking, Mack says he doesn’t want to be the judge. He refuses to choose, even when the woman says he must. Crying and begging, he pleads to be taken to hell in the place of his children. Smiling, she says he sounds like Jesus and she is proud of him. She says that he has judged his children worthy of love, even at cost to himself, and now he knows Papa’s heart.
Again, the olive-skinned woman points out the slippery slope of judgment: if Mack thinks he is fit to deem one person evil, he is tacitly judging God and all of creation—including his own children. However, the unique and strong love that Mack feels for his children, as he described earlier, keeps him from singling out any of them for retribution, in much the same way that God loves all humans equally simply by knowing them.
Relieved, Mack sits back in the chair. But Mack says he still doesn’t understand how Papa could love Missy and let her murder happen. The olive-skinned woman says that the world is severely broken because humans demanded independence. Horrible things happen to those Papa loves because of this. Missy dying was not part of Papa’s plan. The woman says the way out of this pain is to give up independence, stop trying to be the judge, and instead know and embrace Papa. Mack says he wants to stop being a judge and trust Papa, but he still needs time.
The olive-skinned woman has shown Mack that attempting to judge others is one way of asserting dangerous independence from God. But now she also explains another horrible side effect of humans straying from God: tragedies like Missy’s death, rather than being willed by God as punishment, are simply the act of reckless humans choosing to stray from God’s design. The idea that evil exists not because God is vengeful but because humans choose to do wrong is a huge shift in both how Mack views God’s will and how he thinks about the source of suffering.
Suddenly, Mack hears children’s laughter. One wall of the cavern becomes transparent, though still impassable. Through it, he sees his children playing near where a stream flows into the lake—all of his children, including Missy. Missy runs over to the rock face. The olive-skinned woman says Missy knows Mack is there, but cannot see or hear him, even though he calls out to her. Mack tries to memorize every detail of her face and hair. She mouths and signs, “I love you.” The woman tells Mack this is a glimpse into the beautiful afterlife. The other children will experience this moment as a dream.
Even though he has struggled to build a strong relationship with God, Mack’s love for his children—and their love for each other and him—serves as a strong foundation for their family. Mack draws strength from these bonds, an attribute he has clearly passed on to his children.
Mack says he still feels like it’s his fault that Missy was taken, but the olive-skinned woman says that no one else believes that, and even if they did, he would be forgiven. Someone calls Missy’s name, and she mimes giving Mack a final hug and kiss. He sees Jesus give Missy a hug as a waterfall crashes down in front of him, obscuring his view. The cave has become a grotto behind the waterfall. Mack says he feels less stuck. The woman points him towards the grotto entrance, and he sees Jesus waiting for him by the shore. As he heads in that direction, Mack focuses on his memory of Missy, and misses Nan very much.
Mack begins to face some of the difficult emotions at the heart of his grief: part of his depression derives from the fact that he sees himself as responsible for Missy’s death. Hearing that he would be forgiven even if the death was his fault allows him to start processing his grief, rather than keeping it locked away, demonstrating the power of talking about grief as well as the importance of forgivenss. Leaving the cave, Mack realizes how much he is sustained by the relationships and love in his life, from the memory of the love he had for his daughter, to his strong bond with Nan.