Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What If . . .

This Christmas season you will probably find yourself parked in front of the television watching Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. One reason this film has endured the generations is because of its timeless and universal message—one life, no matter how insignificant, matters.

As the film progresses we meet the desperate and discouraged George Baily (played by Jimmy Stewart) who is about to end his life. That’s when his guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes and gives George the opportunity to see what life would have been like had he never been born. Of course, George is horrified at what he sees.

Bedford Falls, his small town, was not the nice place he remembered. His children didn’t exist and his wife and mother didn’t know him. The people he had helped out in life with were despondent and down on their luck because he hadn’t been there to assist them. George’s little brother, who became a WWII Navy pilot and winner of the Medal of Honor for saving a troop transport was dead. The reason—George wasn’t there to save him from drowning when they were kids. As a result of his brother’s death the troops that would have been rescued perished as well.

The pivotal moment in the movie takes place on a snow covered iron bridge as George hangs off the edge peering into the dark, swirling waters below. When George realizes the impact of his life and the interconnectedness of his actions upon others he cries out, “I want to live again!” That stunning revelation that his life had transcendent meaning beyond himself makes George a new man.   

What Kapra brought to the screen, is actually a thought experiment that intellectuals have attempted for centuries. The hypothetical or  “What if…”  In 1964 a group of historians authored a landmark book called If—Or History Rewritten. Some of the “what ifs” those scholars considered were these: What if Robert E. Lee had not lost the Battle of Gettysburg? What if the Moors had won in Spain? What if the Dutch had kept New Amsterdam? What if Booth had missed when he shot at Abraham Lincoln? What if Napoleon had escaped to America?

The attempt to reconstruct the past on the basis of these “what ifs” (technically known as counterfactuals) is only an armchair historian’s game, but take a second and apply it to the central event in history—the advent of Jesus Christ. What if Jesus had never been born? Such a “what if” staggers the mind.

The birth of Christ forever altered the way we measure time—B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (in the year of our Lord). The babe in the manger turned aside the river of the ages from its course and lifted the centuries off their hinges. In his book, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?, D. James Kennedy argues that many of the institutions and discoveries we take for granted owe their existence to the entry of Christ into our timeline: hospitals, universities, capitalism, representative government, the abolition of slavery, modern science, the discovery of the New World by Columbus, the sanctity of human life, inspiration for the greatest works of art, the eternal salvation of countless souls, and much more.[1]

Kennedy’s point is well-supported. Even Time magazine agreed in 2013 when they placed Jesus at the top of the list of “The 100 Most Significant Figures in History.”[2] Jesus Christ was and still is the most influential person ever born and if you removed him from the picture then the fabric of Western Civilization would be torn asunder. As Dr. Ralph Sockman wrote, "The hinge of history is on the stable door of Bethlehem.”   

Finally, consider the eternal and spiritual ramifications if there had been no Christmas. If there were no Christmas then our Bible would be untrue, since many of the prophecies about the Messiah would have been left unfulfilled. Since Jesus was deity wrapped in humanity, then if there would have been no Christmas God would have remained distant and unknown. Most importantly, without a Christmas there would have been no cross and therefore our sins would remain unforgiven. In short, a world without Christ is a world without hope.

What if Jesus had never been born? Well, that’s a thought to painful to bear. Thankfully, we can rejoice because The Infinite became an infant. As Paul wrote, “But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage” (Gal. 4:4-5, MSG).     –DM



[1] D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
[2] Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, “Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History,” Time, 10 December 2013 <http://ideas.time.com/2013/12/10/whos-biggest-the-100-most-significant-figures-in-history/>

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