Jesus got to his feet. “Who are you?”
“You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of yours,” the stranger said. “I’ve traveled a long way to see you because I have things to show you, very important things.” He stretched out his hand to Jesus. “You can call me Joshua.”
Jesus shook Joshua’s hand. “What things do you have to show me?”
Joshua indicated the street with a wave of his hand. “Walk with me.” Joshua led Jesus down a side street, away from the busy market. The further they walked, the fewer people they saw, until they reached a deserted place on the far side of the city. Joshua pointed to a temple at the end of the street. “I have things in there to show you,” he said.
The outside of the temple was dilapidated, the stone lined with cracks, the steps crumbling. “What is there for me to see in there? It looks like it’s been a long time since anyone visited this temple.”
“There’s nothing inside for anyone else to see,” Joshua said. “Come on.” He led Jesus up the steps and through the front door. Inside was a long narrow chamber, lit by torches, with curtained archways every few feet on both sides.
“This isn’t like any temple I’ve ever seen,” Jesus said.
Joshua took one of the torches down from the wall and waved it between him. “I’ve brought you here to enlighten you. Behind these curtains are visions of the future – your own future, and the larger future you will help to create. You don’t realize it yet, but your life will touch countless others. Even hundreds of years after your death, whole civilizations will rest on your words and deeds.”
“Why?” Jesus asked. “Why would anyone care so much about what I do or say?”
Joshua pulled back the nearest curtain and held the torch inside. “This way.” Jesus stepped past him through the archway.
They passed through shadows and found themselves standing outdoors on a hillside. The sun was hot and bright, but Joshua still held his torch high. Jesus shielded his eyes from the light and looked around him. Below the hill was a great city, the biggest Jesus had ever seen. Joshua touched him on the shoulder and pointed him up the hill to where a small crowd of people were gathered. They joined the crowd, none of whom seemed to notice them. At the top of the hill was a prisoner, a gray haired bald man, held by three soldiers. The soldiers laid him over a long cross made of wood, tied his hands to the middle and his feet on either side of the cross beam.
“Who is that man?” Jesus asked.
“As an adult, he’ll be your student and one of your closest friends. Following your death, he’ll be charged with continuing your work.”
One of the soldiers held a nail over the man’s bound wrists and drove it through into the cross. The prisoner opened his mouth and released an agonized scream. Jesus tried to turn away, but Joshua forced him to watch. “Why are they doing this to him?”
“He’s considered an enemy of Rome,” Joshua said. “His teachings – which he will learn from you – undermine the authority of the emperor. This is the method by which he is to be executed.” The soldiers nailed each of the prisoner’s feet to the cross as well, then raised it up and planted it in the ground, suspending the prisoner upside down. “He was given the opportunity to recant, in exchange for his life, but he refused.”
“Why would he refuse? When he knew he would die in such a gruesome way?”
“Because of you,” Joshua said, looking down at Jesus. “He is willing to die this way because he believes to do otherwise would be the worst kind of betrayal. He isn’t the only one. At this point in time you’ve been dead a little over thirty years, and dozens – perhaps hundreds – of men and women have chosen execution before forsaking their faith in you and your teachings.”
“They believe you were a man of truth, that you brought them a better way to live and a better way to pray. They believe you had the power to heal the sick, and that faith in you could save their souls from eternal damnation. They believe you were the son of God.”
“Was I?” Jesus asked. “Am I?”
“It isn’t for me to say,” Joshua said. “Follow me. I have more to show you.”
They walked back into the shadows and emerged from the archway back into the temple chamber. “I should be proud that teachings of mine will mean so much to people, I suppose,” Jesus said, “but what you’ve just shown me is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”
Joshua walked further into the chamber and drew back another curtain. “We’ve only just begun,” he said. Jesus stepped through the archway into the shadows.
On the other side was a small stone room, cold and damp and dark. Crouched in one corner, dimly illuminated by Joshua’s torch, was a pale, emaciated man. “Who is this man?” Jesus asked. “Is he another follower of mine?”
“Indirectly,” Joshua said. “He is a believer in you, like the man you saw a moment ago, but he never knew you in person. He won’t be born until over a thousand years after your death.”
“Which emperor has sentenced him to this imprisonment?” Jesus asked.
“No emperor,” Joshua said. “The head of the church you will found.”
“But this man is a follower of mine! Why would my church punish one of its own brothers?”
“His teachings diverged from those approved by the church. He was branded a heretic and locked in this prison. He’ll die alone in this small room after years of solitary confinement.” Joshua turned to leave.
“How did his teachings differ from mine?” Jesus asked.
“His teachings differed from those sanctioned by the church only in their minutiae,” Joshua said. “And his were nearer to your teachings than were those of the church.” Joshua led Jesus back through the shadows and out into the temple chamber.
“The man you just showed me lives a thousand years from now,” Jesus said. “How could he or the church that imprisoned him even know what my teachings were? No one so far in the future could have learned them first-hand, or even second-hand.”
Joshua pulled back the next curtain. “I’ll answer that question on the other side of this archway.” They passed through into another room, larger than the last one and lit by sunlight shining through tall windows in one wall. There were shelves filled with books, and a man sitting behind a desk in front of one of the windows. The man dipped a quill into a bottle of ink and scribbled feverishly on a sheet of paper. Joshua pulled a book off of one of the shelves and handed it to Jesus. “This book contains the scriptures you know from temple, plus accounts of your life and ministry and writings by some of your early followers. It’s the foundation of the faith.”
Jesus opened the book and paged through it. “What language is this?”
“German,” Joshua said.
“I can’t even read this. How could these possibly be my own words when I can’t even understand the language?”
Joshua nodded at the man behind the desk. “It was translated from the original languages into a more contemporary tongue by that man. He believes in bringing religion closer to the common people, in removing the barriers the church has erected to its own benefit since your death. In fact, the document he’s writing makes many accusations of corruption against the church; it will ignite a revolution that will split the church in two.”
“He seems like a noble man,” Jesus said.
Joshua waved the torch in front of the face of Jesus. “Look at him now.”
The man at the desk was older now. The shelves were stuffed with even more books, but he still sat writing at the desk. He was older, his hair gray, his skin ashen and wrinkled.
“The same man,” Joshua said, “only much later in life. The book he’s writing now will advocate violence against Jewish people and the burning of Jewish temples, in your name.”
“How could he use my teachings to justify violence against Jews?” Jesus asked. “I’m a Jew. Doesn’t he know I’m a Jew?”
“He knows,” Joshua said. “He also blames the Jews for your death, and for the ills of his society.”
“When does this man live?”
“Even further into the future. Hundreds of years after the man I showed you in the dungeon.”
“How could the Jews of his time possibly be held responsible for my death hundreds of years before they were born?” Jesus asked.
“He holds all Jews responsible, everywhere,” Joshua said. “He justifies his bigotry by his faith in you.”
Jesus watched the man dip his quill into the ink and scratch it furiously across the page. “How could this man go from battling vice within the church to inciting violence against his fellow men in so little time?”
Joshua looked at the man behind the desk and shook his head. “He gave in to the attitudes of his time. There are many people in the church and in the world who share his prejudice. His voice is only one of many.” Joshua led Jesus back through the shadowy archway into the temple.
On the other side of the next archway was a man of science forced by the church to deny the truth of his findings, sentenced to confinement in his own house for the rest of his life for making declarations contrary to the sanctioned views of the church, that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Through another archway was a man Joshua described as the leader of the church, the wielder of God’s authority on Earth, violently making love to his own sister. Through other archways were visions of men and women being tortured or burned alive for heresies against the church, visions of entire continents plunged into wars between faiths, visions of supposed men of God violating children in the vilest ways. The journeys continued until Joshua had led Jesus through each of the archways, up one side of the temple chamber and back down the other side. When Jesus had seen all that Joshua had to show him, Joshua placed his torch back on the wall and led Jesus outside.
They stood on the temple steps, and Jesus said, “If everything you’ve just shown me is the result of my life and teachings, what can I do differently to prevent so much suffering and death at the hands of my followers?”
Joshua put his hand on the shoulder of Jesus. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“How is that possible?”
“The religion those men adhere to isn’t based on what you will actually do; it’s based on what other men will write about you – and how still other men choose to interpret those writings. In the future, billions of people in all parts of the world will believe you to be their souls’ salvation, a worker of miracles, the only son of God. They’ll believe it because it was taught to them by their parents, or because they read it in a book.”
“If there’s nothing I can do to change what I’ve seen, why did you show me?” Jesus asked. “Who are you? Why did you come here? How do you know these things you’ve shown me?”
“It’s not important who I am or how I’ve shown you what I’ve shown you,” Joshua said. “Your life – including your death – will be like a stone dropped into a pool of water. It will throw ripples across all of history. I know what you actually said and did, and I know what crimes men will commit in your name in the centuries to come. I wanted you to know, too, now, before any of it happened. Not for the sake of the future. For your own sake.” Joshua reached out his hand. “Good-bye, Jesus.”
Jesus shook Joshua’s hand, and Joshua walked away.
But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. – Luke 2:44-52
He passed through a wall of light and stood in the presence of God on the other side. “How went your visit?” God asked.
Joshua sat down to the right of God and breathed a sigh. “I showed . . . him . . . everything I wanted to show him. But it made no difference, to him or to myself. I feel the same as I felt before. And I see the same suffering in the world.”
God smiled benevolently at his son. “The suffering you see isn’t your fault, even if they inflict it in your name.”
“But look down there, Father,” Joshua said. “The wars, the torture, the intolerance, the bigotry – all things I was sent to Earth to destroy, and many of these things are being carried on by the very people who claim to love me the most.”
“I’ll tell you again that it isn’t your fault. You can show yourself the future as often as you like, you can inspire that young man in Jerusalem to be more courageous, more virtuous, more honest, more dedicated to the path of love and forgiveness, but it won’t make any difference after a thousand years.”
“If I could just go down to them again,” Joshua said. “If I could return and teach them all over again, tell them the truth I meant to bring them. Tell them to love, to give, to accept one another.”
“You mean tell them the same thing you already told them?” God asked. “You delivered your message once. What they’ve done with it is their responsibility. Go back down there and deliver it again. Why would they do anything different this time? Do you really think that in a few hundred years they would be any more faithful to your real message than they are now?”
Joshua put his hand to his eyes and shook his head. “It would be worth a try, at least.”
God put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s not up to us to try,” he said. “We gave them what they need.” God gazed down at the world beneath him. “Now it’s up to them.”