Speculation: Christ Uncrucified

guest Mormon 11 Comments

Today’s post is by Orchard.  The following narrative is purely speculative in nature, but I think the thought experiment has merit.  I am a fan of alternate history, and wrote this some time back.  I have strongly debated whether or not to post it, as I recognize that the concept hinges on a single moment in time–but it really puts to question: DID Pilate have free will? Could he have avoided putting the Savior to death via crucifixion?  It’s impossible to know what could have been, but I present this as a possibility.

The narrative in the New Testament, and in the scriptures both before and after typically assume that Christ was to be crucified.  Taken as a lamb to the slaughter, so to speak.  The undeniable nature of this act, and the seeming inevitability of it seems to have been prophesied from nearly the beginning of God’s relationship with man.  However, modern day prophets have declared that the majority of Christ’s atonement was worked out not on the Cross, but rather in the Garden [insert references here–Talmage will help!].  If this is truly the case, that Christ suffered for our sins in Gethsemane, not on Calvary, then the true significance of Calvary refers to the ressurrection.  So, based on the lessons that Jonah learned in Ninevah, let us presume that Pontius Pilate found Christ to be more compelling, that he repented of his sins upon meeting the Savior in person and risked the rebellion of the Sanhedrin, and thus the Jews.

In this scenario, he refuses to crucify Christ, and instead nails Barrabas to a cross, and on that Passover weekend it is three thieves that are killed in the cruel Roman method.  Christ is whipped to appease the Sanhedrin a bit, but Pontius then brings him into his house, and questions him more.  After some further learning, he decides that the Kingdom that this odd Jew is teaching of is one that he wishes to understand, and he asks to become a disciple, no matter the cost.  He is not asked to forsake his position, for unlike the young man who had much worldly wealth, Pilate has already (by not crucifying Christ) shown that his faith is sincere and that he is willing to sacrifice much (see Talmage’s treatment of Pilate’s position with the Sanhedrin and with the higher Roman government–I won’t rehash that here).

With Christ having worked out the atonement in Gethsemane, and now UnCrucified, prophesies about his death and the resurrection are now going to be postponed.  He begins a new phase in his ministry, and the Twelve, both shamed by their actions that night, and jubilant at his survival, renew their efforts at teaching.  The Sanhedrin begins plotting anew at taking his life, but now with the protection of the Roman Government, they are somewhat less powerful.  Christ, sensing their willingness to do him harm, takes the advice of Pilate and travels to Rome, thus beginning his first Roman Ministry.  There other sheep are found, and he is able to establish a branch of the church.

Upon His return to Jerusalem, some of the Sanhedrin have died, but the biggest change is that Gamaliel (remember him–he’s the one who taught Paul) is now at a point where he can accept the message of Christ as Savior.  Although Christ remains in Jerusalem for some time, he then feels compelled to travel again.  While his original ministry had been to the Jews only, after working out the Atonement,  it is now time to share the gospel with the world at large.  Instead of Peter’s vision of eating unclean animals, we have records of Christ going before Jerusalem and slaughtering a pig and serving this to his disciples.  Such an act enrages those who do not follow him (and even some who do), but drives home the message that the gospel is to go to all.

After this act, He again travels to Rome, for his second Roman Ministry, leaving Peter, James & John to lead the church in his absence, but taking the other Twelve.  The church is now growing rapidly in Jerusalem and Rome.  While in Rome, Christ also begins talking more seriously about more advanced doctrines, and instructs the Twelve to keep extensive records.  Leaving three of the Twelve there to head the Church for a while and continue teaching for a while, he takes the remaining six on an extensive wandering ministry to gather in even more lost sheep, eventually ending his journey in Jerusalem.

While in Jerusalem Christ teaches that because so many have begun to repent many once-prophesied disasters have been averted and that the work will be advanced greatly.  He sends Peter, James, & John on an extended mission with several seventies to organize more remote branches of the church, having further instructed them in the organization of the church.  In Jerusalem he openly teaches that he is the Living Son of God while more and more Jews are converted each day.   Word reaches Pilate that Caesar wishes to speak with Christ as he has become concerned about this new movement among the Jews and in Rome.  The Twelve, remembering how close Christ came to death before urge him not to go, but Christ tells them that having averted that death, this is not the time.  He goes, and meets with Caesar, who wishes to know if he has political ambitions.  Christ answers as he did to Pilate–that his kingdom is not of this world.  Caesar, though impressed with the man, is unconvinced.  He doesn’t want to create a martyr, however, and so he imprisons Christ, hoping that seeing their leader humiliated will give his followers pause.  Christ accepts his imprisonment, and simply teaches those in prison around him.

As the prisoners are converted and there are fewer problems in the prisons, and the prisoners never return to prison, slowly the prison keeper begins to wonder what is happening.  He investigates and discovers Christ’s teachings–and is converted.  He allows other Christians access to Christ, as he knows that he cannot let Christ free without an order from Caesar.  Eventually an opportunity arises, and he presents the case to Caesar.  Caesar listens and is angry, but thinks about it later.  Eventually he interviews Christ again, and demands to know more of his teachings.  He is converted but does nothing official in regard to the religion.

Christ, now much older, returns to Jerusalem.  He gathers the Twelve and confers on them the keys of the kingdom and establishes the order of the Church.  He tells them that the time has come for him to visit other sheep and establish the church among them.  He takes 3 of the Twelve and journeys to the east (presumably) to find some of the lost tribes where he establishes the church for the first time.  On this trip he also restores Samaria to the House of Israel, along with several other tribes.  In time he returns, now in his early sixties but still very healthy.  He establishes an order of temple-building among the Saints much like we have now, and the endowment ritual is codified for these Saints.  He then tells them that he must go on a journey, but that he will return shortly.

He walks to the center of the temple in Jerusalem and publicly surrenders his life by looking up to heaven and simply saying, “Father into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”  The temple veil is rent, the skies are darkened and all know that he has died.  Mourners come, and he is buried.  This is, of course, just before passover.  Then three days later, the rock is rolled away, just as our current narrative tells it, and he is found missing.  Mary, his long-time friend, is there and just as before she is the first to greet the risen Lord.

He speaks to her, and then to the disciples as the current narrative states.  Thomas the Doubter is not dubious, for he has had many long years to become familiar with the power of the Savior and is joyful.  Christ again tells them that he must journey a bit, but that because the church is so well established, he will return shortly.  He then visits the Nephites (and presumably other tribes…who knows?).

Among the Nephites the narrative is not so happy.  When the time appointed by the unbelievers that all those who believed would be put to death, in the current narrative this deadline is twice averted [check references]–once by Christ’s birth, and again by his death.  In this new narrative, his death was delayed, and the unbelievers hunted down most of those who were faithful and put them to the sword.  (What?  You think I would save them in this narrative?  Why?  I don’t think that’s how it would work!  The unbelievers CLEARLY had the power at the time.  I’m pretty certain that the only thing that saved those that were faithful was divine intervention–massive quakes and the sort!).  Perhaps those quakes happened all the same, devastating all equally, but without the healing power and appearance of Christ afterward, the land is in turmoil.  When Christ dies, the land is plunged into darkness, and then he appears at the temple.  Very few show up to witness this event, but the dutifully inform their neighbors, and the word gets out.  Christ, along with those who are converted work hard and the church is restored to its glory, and the Nephites & Lamanites accept the risen Lord as their Savior–but the Book of Mormon narrative of a couple generations of peace is not to happen–the twelve disciples (including those Three Nephites) had almost all been killed.  Those who stepped into that role simply didn’t have the ability to make the narrative stand.

Christ, now a resurrected being, returns to Jerusalem.  Having never been crucified but having died publicly, his return is also public, and miraculous.  By this time there are few nay-sayers.  The church is established, and Christ begins to reign as their leader.  Caesar, now aging, is among the faithful, and as he dies, cites Christ as Emperor of the Roman Empire.  In this narrative, the Holy Roman Empire is in fact, Holy.  A true theocracy.  This is the beginning of the Millennium, and there are no dark ages.  Technological inventions come much faster in this narrative, and in just a few short years the gospel is spread to the Americas, Africa, Australia, China and the rest of the world.

In this narrative, there is no book of Revelations, no John on the island of Patmos, no vision of the Apocalypse.  There is no Apostasy, nor even a prophecy thereof.  Because of this, there is no Restoration, and there is no Joseph Smith, no Book of Mormon.  There are very few writings of the prophets, as Christ’s words are readily available to all.  General conferences of the church are broadcast from Jerusalem or Rome.

Now obviously the above is all speculation, but the point is this: Christ Uncrucified would have changed much, but it would not have unhinged the gospel.  I can see a world in which Pilate repents, refuses to have him killed and things turn out differently.  Is the narrative I present perfect?  Not likely…but I can see it as a possibility.  I’m simply presenting what I see as a narrative.  Others are possible.  What I’m interested in is what others see as the likely results if Christ’s death had not immediately followed the agony of Gethsemane.  What if somehow that had been averted?  He worked out the Atonement, but having done that, the rest of his mission is somehow delayed?  Does this ruin in your mind the plan of salvation?  Or is what I propose a possibility–that he could live his life then lay it down voluntarily to effect the ressurection?

Comments 11

  1. I like it, personally. I remember talking about this with my companions and also reading a similar (though by no means anywhere as well-thought-out) counterfactual in “What If? 2”. Most of my comps didn’t like the idea of such a counterfactual even being possible, though one of them had an interesting approach to the idea: Christ seemed to bring much of the legal issues upon Himself by his actions in the Temple. At times we can almost read the text as though Christ is trying, almost desperately, to push at both the outward political systems and even His inner social circle in attempts to push so hard that the reaction is deadly. So my one comp who actually entertained the possibility of a counterfactual in this case simply said, “Well, in that case Jesus would just start teaching the same doctrines that led to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and He’d just be crucified the next week.” Years later after reading the NT much more I actually seem inclined to agree with him. If freed by Pilate, my Christ would simply start preaching more strongly about His kingship and would eventually be executed as a revolutionary. The Book of Acts would run a little differently but on the whole I think history would still continue much as it had.

  2. Orchard, this is actually a useful discussion in my opinion. The issue comes down to what you believe “working out the atonement” means (I kept hearing Randy Jackson’s voice in my mind, “You worked it out, dog!”).

  3. This is fascinating.

    One ramification is that the gulf between paradise and spirit prison would have remained for a few decades, though that’s not long compared to the time already passed since the majority had died.

    Another is that the first resurrection would have been put off, so none would have seen the dead arise around the time of the atonement.

    Interesting speculation…

  4. I loved “The Last Temptation of Christ” because of its “what if” scenarios. It also posed the question “what if Jesus chose to just be a normal man?” It’s answer to that seemed to be that God the Father would give someone else the opportunity to be the Christ. The book implied that this had already happened several times, that there were other potential Christs who didn’t accept the role.

    Inside a religious tradition with no premortal existence, this was likely the only way Kazantzakis could picture Jesus having a real choice. The whole book brought out Jesus’ human side in a way nothing I had read to that point did. Despite some Christian’s hatred of that book (I hope no Mormons), I found that it had the effect of returning me to Christianity from the Buddhism that I was wandering into at that time in high school. It did this by showing Christ as a real human, and not just a divine blessed being different from us, like everything I’d read to that point.

    I think that in order for free agency to be real, there has to be a version of history that works for every possible choice anyone can make. Some of them are far bleaker than this one, but others are far more beauteous. For instance, if people had grown up without rebelling from God’s authority, I think it still would have worked. We’d have become free agents eventually, but our will would never have had to go so far away from the Father’s will, and perhaps Christ would have become the most blessed among many who were blessed. The world then would never have been separated from God. I think for some of God’s children, that’s likely true.

    Us being who we were and are, though, we weren’t able to love and trust that much. We had to rebel and find out the truth for ourselves. The longer we linger in wickedness, the more anguish and sorrow we cause. We could bring the kingdom hither if only we would choose to embrace it truly.

  5. If Christ were saved as you mention, I wonder how much credence would have been given to the Garden of Gethsemane. While Latter-Day Saints believe the Garden was where he suffered, this is by no means a universal Christian belief. Most other Christians believe his suffering on the cross paid for our sins. So, if there was no suffering on the cross, then there may not have been an emphasis on his paying for our sins. The Garden story might have been spun differently–Peter would have been hailed as a hero trying to defend Jesus, and wouldn’t have been noted for denying Christ.

    Jews in Jesus’ day believed he was to usher in a political revolution–a new David. In your scenario, this is exactly what happened. So, I tend to think the atonement would have been greatly discounted under your narrative. Certainly the 4 gospels would have been radically different (perhaps just 1 gospel.) I tend to believe there would be much less emphasis on Christ’s redemptive powers, and much more emphasis on his resurrection and revolution.

  6. I want to say so much more about this whole idea, particularly to the point Tatiana makes about the necessity for multiple outcomes for free will, but that requires discussion of theories of time and free will too long for a comment.

    Let me just say that I think God, anticipating the future course your alternative history would take, would have acted in the past however necessary to bring to pass His ultimate purpose. There might have been no Nephites or Lamanites, for example, because there would be no need for a remnant of their seed to reconvert the Jews.

  7. I don’t like having a minute or two here and there, since I can’t comment about my own reaction to an important discussion like this, but one thing:

    MH, you said:

    “While Latter-Day Saints believe the Garden was where he suffered, this is by no means a universal Christian belief.”

    That is a little misleading. The LDS belief is that Jesus suffered for our sins to overcome spiritual death in the GofG, then he suffered on the cross to overcome physical death, extend universal resurrection and, I believe, effectuate salvation from the full result of the Fall – to free us from the effects of Adam’s transgression.

    So, within Mormon theology, the suffering no other could endure but God included BOTH the Garden AND the cross in order to offer salvation AND exaltation. I think we do disservice to the cross way too much, even as I have no problem not using it as a symbol on our buildings.

    Faithful Dissident wrote an excellent post about this entitled, “Are We Cross at the Cross”.

  8. Orchard:

    This is a fascinating exercise. Thinking about what did NOT happen lends greater understanding to what DID happen. I find your analysis to be cogent and provocative.

  9. Ray, point well taken, but I think LDS people place much more emphasis of the atonement in the Garden, while other Christians place their emphasis of the atonement on the cross. And I’m not cross at the cross either… 😉

  10. I think this counterfactual narrative illustrates some problems with free will and prophecies. Couldn’t Judas argue he knew the prophecies and acted in a way to simply fulfill what prophets before him had taught? Couldn’t he argue that if he did not betray Christ the prophecies would have been proved to be false? Similarly, I find no fault with what Pilate did. He tried to explain that he had no problem with what Christ did and if Christ would have said anything to the effect of, “I agree, I’ve done nothing wrong, please set me free,” Pilate may have obliged him. Instead, Christ seemed resigned to being crucified and said, “to this end was I born.” Pilate could argue he was fulfilling prophecy and/or simply following Christ’s lead. Obviously, many would argue that this is a ridiculous position and that Pilate did not know the prophecies but was simply a coward who was afraid to stand up to the mob. Even if that is true, I still think the point remains. How do people truly have free will if these things HAD to happen?

    To me, the counterfactual narrative would not simply work out as simply as the author portrays it. How many times have the prophets taught that they spoke for God by citing to the past, and saying that the prophecies of Christ all came true? If as many of those turned out to be dead wrong, as in this narrative, then why should anyone believe any modern day prophets? And if Christ is goinng to begin his reign so much sooner, doesn’t that imply that the original plan was a poor one, because this one avoids an apostacy and has Christ as a much more obvious leader, like the millenium Christ, instead of the subtle carpenter Christ?

    Personally, I appreciate the author’s efforts to put this narrative together but in my opinion it only reveals flaws and shows the whole idea of the plan of salvation combined with free will of all to be a contradictory and a bit too far out there. This type of narrative to me is like a movie with time travel. It’s kind of cool but when you really examine it, it becomes pointless because one could always go back one hour before to fix whatever wrong is created. Pandora’s box indeed.

  11. Dexter:

    I think you are correct in pointing out some of the internal contradictions of our thinking about prophecy and free will.

    A great many scientists don’t believe in free will for a variety of reasons unrelated to any aspect of theology at all.

    The cutting edge of discovery — whether we call it secular science or “personal” revelation — really lies in probing these kind of internal contradictions until we find better models.

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