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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Behold The Man II

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/24/10 at 04:41 PM

I’m thinking of writing a variant of this famous novel, with the following premise: a time traveller (an American) returns to the Holy Land c.AD33 with the following macabre mission: to shoot Jesus with a high-power, 21st-century rifle, after he has been crucified and resurrected but before he ascends to heaven. The early stages of the novel would make narrative play with the questions of who and why, teasing the reader with possible motivations—is he a radical atheist? An agent of Satan? Of a rival religion?  Perhaps his intention is to prove that post-resurrection Jesus is unkillable (that, let us say, he has not simply spent three days in his tomb recovering from serious but not fatal wounds inflicted upon the cross). The later stages would pay off these questions, and reveal what happens when the ressurected Christ is shot at.

Now it seems to me that to write this (and irrespective of the particular ending I have in mind) I need to work out what is the likeliest outcome for this particular theological thought experiment.  Far as I can make out, if you shot the post-resurrection, pre-ascension Christ, there are three possibles:

1. He would die, like any mortal, and then he would be dead. This is to imply the resurrection was a once-only deal: die once, come back from the dead; die twice, that’s it.  As to what the implications would be for the subsequent notional development of Christianity, I’ve no idea.  I don’t know (I don’t have the expertise to assess) how important the ascension into heaven is as a component of that, as opposed to the prior fact of resurrection.  It seems to me from my outsider’s perspective that the ascension is not so important as the resurrection, but I could be wrong.

2. He would die, but then he would be resurrected a second time.  This would be to suggest that ‘conquering death’ means the ability to repeatedly come back from the dead.

3. He would not die, no matter how many times you shot him.  The idea here would be that, by resurrecting, he had become something that death could no longer touch.

I’m not including the common-or-garden atheist position—if you shoot him he would die because he is only a mortal; there never was any resurrection etc.  I’m not interested in that, because it’s dramatically rather inert.  Which do you think is the most likely?  Or am I missing other possibilities?


Other possibilities:
(1) he teaches Jesus how to play rock and roll, and he flirts with his own mother
(2) he leads the Jews in a hilarious and violent revolution against the Romans using his Yankee ingenuity
(3) the moment the bullet hits Jesus, he himself disappears, and Jesus is saved, because Christianity is the condition of possibility for a man being able to go back in time with a high-power rifle
(4) a airplane engine drops into the manger and a young Jesus wanders Bethlehem in a depression-enduced ennui listening to indie rock, haunted by Judas in a rabbit suit

By on 01/24/10 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like your (3) the best. That says a lot about my po-faced devotion to SF, I think.  I should probably let my hair down, dance, drink, laugh etc.

By Adam Roberts on 01/24/10 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, I saw this one: Jesus is able to stop the bullets in mid-air because after coming back to life he finally knows how to hack the code of the Matrix.

By G C on 01/24/10 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

4. The resurrection was actually a side-effect of Jesus being a time traveler who had sent a copy of himself forward to observe and outlast his own death.  Killing the copy means the copy can’t go back in time to eventually be crucified, so the branch of time the American should be invalid ... except Jesus was smart enough to also send a copy forward just a little to see if his copy returned from its mission to observe his death.  Whenever it didn’t/doesn’t, he has to figure out why and handle it.  Meanwhile, the American realizes he’s in an invalid branch, so he starts traveling back in time to arrange for a different time-traveling Jesus and/or to stop himself.  Etc.  ;)

By on 01/24/10 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Christological controversies (of which this would definitely be one) seem like really rich grounds for a SF novel. I mean, not only can the logic get extremely precise, but the meaning of that precision is always potentially huge--the whole universe literally turned upside down with the addition of a vowel. And it’s surprisingly interesting reading--or it was when I read them in Catechism class.

So the position of the Catholic Church on Christ’s nature has been (since the dust of Arianism cleared) that Christ is both fully human and fully divine--and, as far as I remember, the present tense of that verb is emphatic--the resurrection did not change Christ’s nature, and he remained fully human and fully divine through the Ascension and resides in heaven as such. Because he retains his full divinity, I assume he can resurrect himself, although the specifics of how God the Father’s will/plan for the Resurrection might run some interference. That is, did God will that Christ be resurrected and then ascend sometime/anytime, or that he be resurrected at one specific time, and an interruption would place a second resurrection (and eventual ascension) out of bounds. But if given the opportunity, I think it’s safe to say Christ, being still fully divine, could raise himself from the dead again.

However, Catholics also believe that Christ was resurrected with an incorruptible body. The meaning of incorruptible, though, is a little tricky. I think it does mean imperishable, as in it won’t decay, get diseased, or otherwise degrade, and it means immortal in the sense that, all things equal, the body will continue to exist forever, like elves in Tolkien. I’m actually not sure the Church has ever pronounced on whether incorruptibility extends all the way to being unkillable, though. Although the Catholic Encyclopedia has many pedantically exceptionally detailed articles on many things, incorruptibility is unfortunately not one of them. But if there is no opinion either way, have it your way. Or have it Yahweh.

A couple of observations, though, about Christ’s behavior and state after the resurrection. His body retains the wounds from the cross, so it’s not as if he has become Wolverine; he can’t or won’t heal himself completely. He is more prone to larger, more awe-inspiring miracles, including what we can basically call teleportation. That might present a problem for your shooter.

Even sticking with strict Catholic doctrine, there’s probably (surprisingly) enough ambiguity to have fun with this, and to choose really any of the three options you’ve laid out.

By Andrew Seal on 01/25/10 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As to what the implications would be for the subsequent notional development of Christianity, I’ve no idea.

This assumes that the theological development of Christianity is based on the actual facts of the case: it’s equally plausible that case #1 could result in Christianity as we know it if the story comes down to the Gospel-writers intact, either through error, mythologizing or collusion.

By Ahistoricality on 01/25/10 at 12:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like it. I would be very interested to see how you “fill out” the idea into a full story. The main event would probably be over in a matter of minutes. Would you keep it fairly high brow? As a concept it could be very humourous but as a theological/hypothetical discussion it probably couldn’t get more serious.

Another option would be that God would remove the time traveller from existance before he fired the gun to avoid any paradox. Because our version of the Bible doesnt include the bit where someone mows down Jesus with a BFG. Therefore it couldn’t have happened… damn those pesky time paradoxes… obviously you could adopt a many-worlds time travel theory… or even say there weren’t witnesses to the event (but that implies in our version of the bible, the ascention scene is invented. On another note this could explain the contradictions within the bible of when and where (and even if) the ascention occurs!)

By CSA on 01/25/10 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait, Doubting Thomas could put his hand into the wound in his side, right?  Still having the death-wounds suggests that he’s become a zombie.  In an echo of another famous SF short story, he’d probably slowly walk over to the rifleman as the guy futilely tried to shoot him again and again, and then eat his brains.

Couldn’t only an atheist really write this story?  The function of theologians now is to assure believers that they need not take any of this stuff too seriously.

By Rich Puchalsky on 01/25/10 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fairly sure that Moorcock nicked that idea from a Clarke short story - I hope he acknowledged it.

There is a tradition in northern India that Christ did not ascend, but instead went to live in Srinagar, where he died of old age and was buried (his tomb’s still there).

Theologically speaking, I think, there’s no reason to suppose that the risen Christ was different from the original - he still had physical existence, he still had the wounds from his crucifixion, he could be touched, he spoke and argued, he ate with his disciples. So I’d have to incline against 3 - he wasn’t unkillable before the Resurrection, so there’s no reason he should be afterwards.

2 seems most plausible, but I can’t say quite why.

Another point: how is the third betrayer of Christ going to be remembered? Judas, who gave him up, is execrated; Peter, who denied him, founded the Church. What happens to Silas, who killed the risen Lord?

And the important theological moment isn’t the Ascension or even the Resurrection - it’s the Passion, the suffering and death of God on the Cross. The Resurrection is really a symbol that, from now on, “whosoever believeth in me, though they die, yet shall they live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”, and some theologians don’t believe it actually happened. Could you have recognisable Christianity without the Resurrection? They reckon so.

By on 01/26/10 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some theologians believe that you could have Christianity without the Resurrection, really?  I didn’t expect my comment above to be so quickly supported.

To expand on, then, why only an atheist could write something like this.  If someone like Dawkins tries to look at the Christ story as if it’s a factual story, suitable for SF thought-experiment introductions of people with time machines and rifles, the first response from theologians is to say that the person hasn’t read enough.  OK, let’s assume you get past that one.  Then theologians will now insist that this isn’t meant to be a factual story.  It’s supposed to symbolic, except not really—it’s supposed to be symbolic in some ineffable way that makes it not really symbolic, but actually true, except not really true.

Only an atheist or a fundamentalist really takes the story seriously enough to imagine a guy with a rifle in it.  To everyone else, it’s just either something that they carefully don’t think about too hard because they’d worry about death if they did, or it’s a prop for their job.  And the fundamentalist has no interest in thought experiments like this because in their view it couldn’t have happened any other way.

By on 01/26/10 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is a tradition in northern India that Christ did not ascend, but instead went to live in Srinagar

There’s a similar tradition in Japan, for reasons which surpass understanding.

By Ahistoricality on 01/26/10 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, specifically what are you thinking of adding to Moorcock’s handling of the premise?

And have you considered the idea that the whole thing was the misunderstood activities of space aliens?

By on 01/26/10 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But surely the real theological answer could be a disappointing “you don’t get to go back in time and shoot Jesus.” The Christian view isn’t that the world works just like atheists think, except that once there was a guy with super-powers; it’s that God has total control over everything, all the time. So He doesn’t have to make Jesus’ body bulletproof to prevent him being killed: he can make the rifle misfire, or make time travel impossible, or make the time traveler see the sinfulness of what he’s doing and decide to become a Christian, or whatever. I don’t think a theologian would see it as a serious dilemma to say “well, assume I’ve been able to do what I want, regardless of what God wants, right up to the point where the bullet hits Jesus; what does God, granting him absolute power again, make happen now?” By assuming you can take all the previous steps, you’ve basically made the question meaningless.

To prove that I’m not a killjoy, though, I’ll say that the bullet should not kill Jesus, but just be really painful, leading to a divinity who’s in a really bad mood for the rest of human history, and correspondingly bad weather everywhere on earth, every day, forever.

By on 01/28/10 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for not responding to these comments earlier; I’ve have a crazily busy (marking, mostly) week.

All of these suggestions are excellent, and some of them touch on brilliance.  Maybe I’m not the person to write this after all.

Working backward, as time permits:

Latinist: “The Christian view isn’t that the world works just like atheists think, except that once there was a guy with super-powers; it’s that God has total control over everything, all the time.“ OK, I sort-of see this; and I’m certainly not the person to argue over what is the Christian view.  But isn’t it closer to the truth to say that Christianity shares with other monotheisms the view that ‘God has total control over everything, all the time’, but more pertinently that it differs from Islam and Judaism in holding the view that, just once, God also gave up unalloyed deity and became a human being, subject to all the vagaries of mortal existence? (Isn’t that kind of the point of Christianity?) Of course, a Christian is going to believe that God is still ‘in charge’ (not a sparrow falls etc); and of course, theologically speaking, an assassin couldn’t go back in time and shoot Christ unless God permitted it.  But that’s like saying: Roman soldiers couldn’t nail Christ to a cross unless God permitted it.  The thing is our not knowing what God is going to permit and what he isn’t.  Who’s to say the assassin isn’t also part of his plan?

Laufeysson: “Adam, specifically what are you thinking of adding to Moorcock’s handling of the premise? “ Moorcock’s novel is fine, is a little one-note; but it’s not really interested in Christ, both in the sense that Christ turns out actually to be a cretinous child, and in the sense that Moorcock’s focus is on the mind of the time traveller.  But what interests me is the theology, really; or more specifically, the peculiar interregnum after God has died and before He has returned.  I was struck, for instance, by this excellent passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy book:

When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, . . . but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation, only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

I can’t believe this atheism (as it were) survived the ascension; but as an atheist I’m drawn to that period, however brief, when God and I were of the same mind.

By Adam Roberts on 01/29/10 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: “Couldn’t only an atheist really write this story?  The function of theologians now is to assure believers that they need not take any of this stuff too seriously.“ Perhaps; although I suppose theologians might say they take the story seriously in a different sense.  So, for example, I suppose a properly believing individual couldn’t imagine the story of Passion happening any other way to the way it happened; because its happening that way is a function of divine necessity.  So counterfactuals, applied to Christ, are kind of heretical.  (Another: what if Christ had evaded the cross? Would he have grown old and died at three-score-years-and-ten? Would he have lived as long as a Patriarch, like Methuselah? Would he have lived forever?)

ajay “Fairly sure that Moorcock nicked that idea from a Clarke short story - I hope he acknowledged it. “ I did read a story, long ago, that ended with the time technicians having to stop one of their number who wanted to go back in time with a rifle to stop the crucifiction happening at all.  Was that really by Clarke? I’m ashamed I can’t remember ... it predates Moorcock, I’m sure.

By Adam Roberts on 01/29/10 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew: “have it your way. Or have it Yahweh“ Wins the thread.

By Adam Roberts on 01/29/10 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Chesterton wrote the most romantically thrilling anarchists ever, because he wanted really good bad guys for his stories, and to him, that included nobility.  So his anarchists eat lobster when they want to, follow their pledged word because to do otherwise would be dishonorable, etc etc.  Real anarchists with black, round anarchist bombs were very few—mostly, they were figments of anti-anarchist propaganda, although some propagandists of the deed existed and were condemned by most anarchists—but Chesterton’s anarchists had e.g. an underground room shaped like a bomb whose walls were covered by racks of bombs. 

What I’m getting at is that he’s not exactly the best authority on the subject.  Did Jesus “seem for an instant to be an atheist”?  Never.  The cry “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” doesn’t doubt the existence of God.  Is it a revolt?  Perhaps.  But it’s a very Chestertonian form of revolt, a cry from the heart, in protest, against someone who the revolter knows is really right.  The anarchists in Chesterton don’t really seem to have an agenda, they are protesting tragically against what is because they don’t understand. 

It’s better to say, I think, that Chesterton made anarchists over into resemblances of this moment rather than to say that they’re similar.  And it makes a great story (at least, _The Man Who Was Thursday_ has a good claim to being a great book.) And it makes a great story here, sort of.  But only if you’re willing to think like Chesterton.

By on 01/29/10 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve actually been working, off and on, on a similar story for a long time now.  In mine, the time traveling protagonist goes back and kidnaps Christ before he can be betrayed by Judas and, of course, before he can die for the sins of all men.  His idea is to hold Christ (who is himself ransom for all the sins of the world) ransom. 

I know for a fact that you’re a hell of a talented writer, so I’m really hoping you actually write this. It sounds like exactly the kind of quandary Borges loved attributing to some fictional heresiarch.

By on 02/02/10 at 02:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

... let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation, only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Don’t forget the gnostic doctrine that the creator of this world is an evil usurping subordinate, and the Christ an emissary from the real god, the usurper’s boss. Which is all Chesterton’s romanticism and a bag of chips.

By on 02/02/10 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Roberts: Okay, but I still think it’s a problem. (Though really, maybe this part of the argument should be taken up by an actual christian; I don’t even play one on TV.) Yes, God could have prevented Jesus being crucified; but (on the Christian account as I understand it) he didn’t, because Jesus’ crucifixion served a purpose (atoning for human sin or something). I don’t see how it makes sense to imagine God choosing whether to make Jesus killable separately from choosing whether to let him be killed (as if he had sent Jesus to earth, not intending the crucifixion, but just saying “well, let’s see what happens"). So God isn’t at any point making the choice “what will happen if someone shoots Jesus” separately from the choice “will someone shoot Jesus.” He’s choosing between an infinite range of options, including “someone shoots Jesus without effect,” “someone shoots Jesus, who dies permanently,” “someone shoots Jesus, who has to be re-resurrected,” etc. And when you ask which option he “would” choose, I think the answer has to be that he DID choose one: for Jesus not to be shot at all. The question “what would he have chosen if he had chosen something else” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

By on 02/03/10 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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