Be sure to visit Bob’s main site, Reflections of a Catholic Scientist. Note: this article originally during Lent, 2015.
…when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds…There is nothing better than imagining other worlds…to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.—Umberto Eco, Baudolino.
For the past weeks we Catholics have been celebrating the central tenet of our faith as Christians, the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. While I was meditating about this my thoughts strayed, and I recalled some of the science-fiction stories I had read before my conversion. It then struck me that there are different ways of contesting the reality of the Passion and Resurrection. One way is to deny the historical reality of these events; another, taken by non-believing science-fiction authors, is to transform these events into an alternative, what-if, type of reality.
I propose to explore (not in depth) how Jesus, the Passion and the Resurrection have been transformed by science-fiction to conform to a theology of non-belief. In subsequent posts I’ll discuss how science-fiction regards the intelligent non-human and its (his/hers?) possible relation to The Church, and what science-fiction has to say in general about a deity, the afterlife and the Eschaton. My survey will not be exhaustive, but references are given below to fill in gaps. (See for example the Wikipedia article about religious science-fiction.)
What if Jesus existed, but had not been crucified?
From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.—Matthew: 16:21
A favorite mode of science-fiction is the alternative history, “what-if?” This should really be called “speculative fiction” (SF) since the science component is usually negligible—only a different possible world is envisioned. Such are the SF stories in which Jesus is not crucified and therefore is NOT resurrected. So much for Christianity, the Son of God, etc.
Some of these stories invoke time travel as a way to get around Christ’s Passion. The time traveler either takes the place of Christ or attempts to prevent it by other means. I don’t regard time travel as a worthy device in SF because of paradoxes of the “you can’t kill your own grandfather before he sired your parent” sort. That is to say, if you alter the past, the present in which you were born no longer exists and then where are you? The only SF story I know of that successfully deals with such paradoxes is Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” (warning: SPOILER!) in which a soldier of the future is his own mother and father.
Avoiding theodicy—the easy way out
There are more plausible alternative history approaches that still do no more than tickle the imagination (as is the case with most alternative history SF). In a story called “Friends in High Places” by Jack McDevitt, Jesus argues with God in the Garden of Gethesmane and changes his fate. I’ll quote from the description given in Holy Sci-Fi:
Jesus waiting in the Garden of Gethesmane for the mob to take him. Jesus does not want to die, as we learn from his thoughts:
“It sends the wrong message [Lord]. It will be a hard sell, persuading people You love them when you let this happen to me.”
“Why? Why must we do it this way? We create a faith whose governing symbol will be an instrument of torture. They will wear it around their necks, put it atop their temples. Is this what we really want?”
In this story, too, Jesus escapes (to become a librarian in Egypt!), and as he begins his journey to a new life he thinks “how much better it was than a cross.” What has happened is that God, apparently in answer to Jesus’ concerns about the Crucifixion, has changed the past.
I would review this as the Passion according to Saturday Night Live. All the profound theological arguments about obedience to God, Jesus suffering for our sins out of love for His brothers, the Crucifixion required for our salvation, are swept away with the broom of a naive theodicy.
In another story an alternative history dispenses with the Crucifixion in a more plausible way. (Unfortunately this old guy can not remember the title or the author, nor have extensive online searches been helpful; but he is sure about the story.) Recall Matthew 27:19: “When he [Pontius Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.”
Here, Pontius Pilate’s wife implores to set Jesus free. In the story her pleas are successful. Jesus goes back to Galilee as an honored prophet, but is largely ignored in further history. Ironically, Rome accepts Judaism with the Emperor becoming the Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin and with a new Temple built in Rome.
Is the Passion and Resurrection too profound for SF?
An in-depth treatment of the Passion and Resurrection has not been given by science-fiction authors, not even by those who account themselves Christian. Perhaps Scripture gives too little to elaborate, although I have always wondered—given the two natures of Jesus Christ—what he thought about dying and being resurrected. As Scripture says, he knew of his resurrection, but was he sure? What did Jesus do when he was in Hell? There are theological speculations, but only those. Perhaps, as the Greatest Miracle, The Resurrection cannot be acknowledged by writers who don’t believe, and by those who do believe, what more can be said.
The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the pioneer of life,’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.—C. S. Lewis. Miracles, ch. 16.
More to come…