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NEW ORLEANS (BP)--"What If?" is a series of best-selling books put together by Robert Cowley in which historians look at some key event in history and try to imagine what if it had not happened that way.
Such as: What if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus?
That is the title of the chapter by Carlos M.N. Eire, chairman of Yale University's department of religious studies. The subtitle reads, "Christianity without the Crucifixion."
Eire imagines Pontius Pilate heeding the warning of his wife whose sleep had been disturbed that night by thoughts of "that righteous man." Her message to the governor said, "Have nothing to do with him."
So, he asks, what if Pilate had resisted the religious leaders and the rabble who were crying for Jesus to be executed? What if he had released Him?
On one page of the book, underneath a 13th-century painting of Pilate with the Jewish leaders, is the caption: "The Decision That Made a Religion."
Eire asks, "What if Jesus hadn't been nailed to a cross at Pilate's orders? What if he had lived a long, long life? Or even just ten more years? Or one? What if his person and message had been interpreted differently, as they surely would have been?"
The answers could easily go all over the map, as Eire acknowledges. He says, "To speculate on what might have happened if anything at all had been different in the story of Jesus and his followers is to sail in an infinite ocean of possibilities."
In other words, your guess is as good as his.
One thing is sure: If no crucifixion, no resurrection. And without either a cross or an empty tomb, we have nothing but an inspiring story of a wonderful man who lived an exemplary life. In other words, we're in big trouble.
Asking "what if Jesus did not go to the cross" is tantamount to wondering: "What if God were wrong?"
And when you open up that Pandora's Box, chaos erupts in every direction.
This being Easter season, it's the "in" thing for preachers and Bible teachers to go to seed on the pivotal event of the resurrection. Without it, nothing. With it, everything.
The crucifixion is the first half of that story. Separating the death of Jesus from His resurrection and trying to make one more important than the other is like running a ripsaw through your torso and trying to decide which half was more essential to your existence.
I find myself wondering why Robert Cowley didn't assign someone to write a far more intriguing chapter on a different topic: "What if Jesus had not risen from the grave?"
I think we know why no such chapter can be found. It would be tantamount to admitting that Jesus really did rise from the dead. And if one admits that, he has to deal with a world of implications and consequences. So, it becomes easier for these (ahem) objective historians to ignore the resurrection, which many of them have ruled out as an impossibility for the simple reason that "people don't come back from the dead," and to deal only with the crucifixion which poses no problem for historians.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul wrote his own abbreviated version of "what if Jesus had not risen from the grave?" in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. He identifies seven consequences for us if Jesus' body were decomposing in a grave somewhere:
-- our preaching is without foundation.
-- and so is your faith.
-- we are false witnesses about God, claiming that He did what He did not.
-- your faith is worthless.
-- you are still in your sins.
-- all who have "died in Christ" are really dead.
-- we are to be pitied.
What Paul did not do, however, was speculate on what would have been the consequences if Jesus had been released by Pilate and lived out the rest of His life in the kind of preaching/healing ministry that characterized the first three years.
However, let's engage in just a little of this kind of foolish speculation. Let's ask: What would we have if Jesus had not died on the cross for our sins?
1. No sin offering. After all, what could we offer? That's the question the prophet Micah posed: "What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? ... Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the child of my body for my own sin?" (Micah 6:6-7).
2. No forgiveness. Everyone would be on his own before God. Forgiveness for all your sins against the Holy God? In your dreams.
3. No Gospel. Since "Gospel" means "good news," we would have none. Our preaching would consist of: "You're sinners and you're going to hell." Period.
4. No Christianity. No church. No salvation. Nothing. Instead of a "Christian movement," we would have a Jesus Memorial Society at best. A few persons with a love for history might meet occasionally to repeat Jesus' messages and study the lore that grew up about Him. Nothing more.
Historian Eire thinks there would have been a religious movement to develop around the teachings and life of Jesus, but more along the line of those honoring Buddha and Confucius. However, he says the members of this religion would still be looking for a Messiah to come.
I think he's right about that.
Without the cross, Jesus is not the Messiah.
After all, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 point to the death of the Messiah for the sins of the people. And without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)
However, Jesus did go to the cross, and the news is all good.
God knew what He was doing. Pilate caved in to the crowd and sent Jesus to His death. Jesus died on the cross as He expected. He bore our sins. They buried Him in a borrowed grave. And on the next Lord's Day morning, disciples found the tomb empty and the Savior alive and active.
Not only do we acknowledge His death, we celebrate it. We call that day "Good" Friday.
"Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." (Isaiah 53:4)
Thank God for the cross of Jesus.
Joe McKeever served five years as director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association (formerly the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans), retiring in April 2009. The previous 14 years, he was pastor of the New Orleans-area First Baptist Church in Kenner. He also is a cartoonist for Baptist Press (http://www.bpnews.net/bpfun.asp?ID=JM).