By Bishop Dr Robert Solomon
A GROUP of eminent historians got together to share what they imagined would have happened if certain well-established historical events had turned out differently. In their book What If and its sequel More What If they use their imagination and expertise in history to entertain history buffs.
What if Socrates had died in a battle he fought in 424 BC, before he met his student Plato? What if Napolean had invaded North America? What if Martin Luther was burned at the stake in 1521? Such were the questions asked by the historians. One of them, Yale University Christian historian Carlos Eire, explores how history would have turned out if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus and not sent Him to the cross.
In his imaginary narrative, Eire moves to various successive scenes, the trial of Jesus, one year, 30 years and 60 years after the trial, and another 230 years later to the time when Constantine was Roman Emperor. He paints the image of an aging Jesus and the emergence of a form of Judaism, a "Christianity without the crucifixion". But we all know that history did not turn out that way. Thank God!
This month the Church will observe the historical events that occurred 2,000 years ago when Jesus was crucified on the cross and rose victoriously from the dead three days later.
It is possible, however, that the season of celebrating Good Friday and Easter every year might degenerate into mere empty ritual observance. Or superficial experience when every year we, with preoccupied minds and distracted hearts, walk past the cross and empty tomb with practised habit, with little or no awe and wonder. The annual observance of Good Friday and Easter is not meant to lull us to such distracted and false familiarity with the greatest mystery in human history. Rather, it should jolt us back to reality, to the most important facts about God and ourselves.
One way we can help prevent the wonder and depth of this holy season from fading is to ourselves ask the "What If …" questions. In fact, Scripture does the same thing.
What if Christ had not died on the cross?
The writers of the New Testament answer this question by stating clearly why Jesus had to die on the cross. Yes, it is true that Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to the cross to be crucified. But that is only part of the answer. Scripture says that all of us sent Him to the cross. He died because of us.
The apostle Peter declared that "Christ died for sins, once for all". (1 Pet. 3:18). The fact that Jesus died for our sins is further reiterated by Paul when he observed that "Christ died for our sins, according to Scriptures". (1 Cor. 15:3). But what do Peter and Paul mean? Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Here again, Scripture is clear. We all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The consequence of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). There are no exceptions and we were all headed for judgement, condemnation, and eternal death, unless God Himself intervened. And God did intervene -- that is how we are to understand the coming of Jesus into this world and His death on the cross.
The writer of Hebrews explained to his Jewish readers that Jesus made a "sacrifice of himself" (Heb. 9:26,28). The Jewish readers, with their Jewish background, would have understood the author's point. Centuries of animal sacrifices in the Jewish tabernacles and temples, performed to atone for the sins of the people, all pointed to the one sacrifice that really matters, the once for all sacrifice of Jesus when He died on the cross to atone for our sins. No wonder that John Wesley testified that the blood of Christ is the remedy for the sickness in our souls. Or as P. T. Forsyth summarised, the death of Christ is "the one final treatment of sin, the one compendious work of grace, and the one hinge of human destiny".
The crucifixion of Jesus was not a historical accident. It was a carefully planned event, as indicated by Paul when he pointed out that Christ's death was "according to Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3). God had already revealed to His prophets how and why the Son of God would die. Before the thought of Jesus dying on a cross occurred in Pilate's mind, it had already occurred in God's. God was not surprised by the turn of events.
Neither was Jesus the unwilling victim of Pilate's command. Scripture makes it clear that in the surreal scene when Jesus was judged by Pilate and sentenced to death, it was Pilate who was, like all of us, the condemned prisoner. He thought he was the judge and had no idea that Jesus whom he thought was the condemned prisoner was in fact the One who is coming to judge the living and the dead. In the trial, Jesus was the one in control for He declared that He was voluntarily going to the cross (Jn. 19:10-11). John says as much when he wrote that "Jesus laid down his life for us." (1 Jn 3:16). Jesus died willingly because He loved us, even while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).
What if Christ had not died on the cross? Then there would be no atonement for our sins. We would still be headed for eternal damnation. All the little pleasures on earth would only be a momentary distraction from certain and ultimate doom for every member of the human race.
Christ died on the cross for our sins. But what if He had not risen from the dead? Paul answers this question well when he writes, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). While the cross provides atonement for sins, the resurrection points to the divine power that gives new life and to our future in eternity. Without Easter, Good Friday would neither be "good" nor complete. Our hope would be "only for this life" (1 Cor. 15:19).
If Christ had not risen from the dead, we have nothing much to look forward to beyond this life, beyond our deaths, beyond the injustices of this world, and beyond our present comforts and discomforts.
You have probably experienced waking up from a nightmare, terribly disturbed, sweating profusely, with racing pulse and terror. The events and emotions in the nightmare had seemed so real. Perhaps it was a nightmare of a loved one dying or dead. Then you wake up. For a brief moment you are in a confused and disturbed state. Then it dawns on you. It was only a nightmare. The events you dreamed about did not happen. All is well. Your mind eases up and you smile, your heart filled with relief and gratitude that it was only a bad dream.
What if Jesus did not die on the cross? What if He had not risen from the dead? An imagined narrative like that of Eire's (referred to earlier) is only a bad dream. Thank God it did not happen that way! Christ did die on the cross. He did rise from the dead. And He is coming again.
Sometimes, nightmares help us to appreciate what we have and have been given. May we learn to be filled with gratitude and awe as once again we walk by the cross and empty tomb.
'It is possible that the season of celebrating Good Friday and Easter every year might degenerate into mere empty ritual observance. Or superficial experience when every year we, with preoccupied minds and distracted hearts, walk past the cross and empty tomb with practised habit, with little or no awe and wonder. The annual observance of Good Friday and Easter is not meant to lull us to such distracted and false familiarity with the greatest mystery in human history. Rather, it should jolt us back to reality, to the most important facts about God and ourselves.'