Originally published by Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, August/September 2022.
What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed the Earth?
What if Marc Antony never met Cleopatra?
What if England had been overtaken by the Spanish Armada?
What if Adolph Hitler had never been born?
What if the Allied Powers lost World War II?
We can play the “What If?” game all day, every day, and still never run out of dynamic discussion topics.
The “What If?” game is such a blast because it fires the synapses of our imagination. It requires creativity and logic. Knowledge and inventiveness. And it assumes that despite the way things are, they could have been different, sometimes dramatically so.
“What If?” has also never been more prominent in our popular culture.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been toying with “What if?” scenarios for a while. Spider-Man: No Way Home focused on “Spider-Men” from three separate universes joining forces to take down their respective foes, while Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness features the title character traversing different dimensions. Marvel even has a show on Disney+ that is literally titled What If? Marvel isn’t alone, as DC Comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who are just a few popular properties who have tackled would-be universes.
“What If?” is prolific in pop culture, but it may not be science fiction after all. Increasingly, theoretical physicists argue persuasively that multiple, “parallel” universes exist — and always have. According to The New Scientist: “During this period of inflation [following The Big Bang around 13.8 billion years ago], there were quantum fluctuations which caused separate bubble universes to pop into existence.”
The theory of “parallel universes” extends to the cosmic, but narrows down to the personal. It suggests that everytime something happens to you, however seemingly minor, it means that there must be another you in an alternate dimension where a different outcome occurred. There may be a near-infinite number of alternatives for your life, some that differ only slightly, some that differ dramatically. If true, your reality is a “choose your own adventure” and many versions of you chose differently.
So just like you can play “What If?” with human history or pop culture, you can do the same with your own life:
“What if I went to a different college?”
“What if I chose a different major?”
“What if I never stopped in that coffee shop where I met my spouse?”
“What if I accepted that job in another state?”
What does this have to do with Catholic theology and our understanding of reality and salvation history? In this article, I’d like to consider a few of the most important “What If?” scenarios in salvation history — and what they mean for us today.
First, we must note that the God of our reality must by definition be the same God of every reality. The “parallel universes'' theory only applies to the material universe(s); God who created the material universe(s), must necessarily exist outside of it/them. Thus, it would be absurd to posit an alternate universe where God does not exist, for God transcends this universe and every universe.
What could this mean for the events in our universe? Let us start with the most consequential event in history: Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. This seminal event not only opened the gates of Heaven to the faithful, but fundamentally changed the course of human history for everyone. The world we live in would not exist without Jesus Christ, a fact even secular scholars acknowledge.
We may be tempted to ponder: “what if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?” However, this is an irrational question, in the same way as “what if there’s a universe where God doesn’t exist?” Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a choice made by a mortal human being like you or me, but a cosmic reordering made by a divine being.
We know Jesus is God because he rose from the dead. Had Jesus not risen from the dead, we would have no reason to believe Jesus was God. He simply would have been another great moral teacher, like the many throughout history, such the Buddha, Lao Tzu or Confucious. Though unlike them, Jesus’ life would have been noteworthy because He was brutally and tragically murdered by the Roman Empire in first-century Palestine.
Yet because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that He is God and His resurrection redeems us.
But as reality altering as Christ’s Resurrection was, is, and ever shall be, it still could have been forgotten.
How could this tragic scenario have occurred? Simple. Nobody could have preached it. The reason Christs’ divinity hasn’t been forgotten was because of the choices made by His Apostles.
What if the Apostles didn’t follow their mission?
Christ did not broadcast his Resurrection to the widest possible audience on the streets of Jerusalem or Rome. Instead, He appeared to His friends and followers, perhaps less than twenty people in total, and charged them to preach the good news.
As St. Matthew tells us in chapter 28, verse 18-19: “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted [italics mine]. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Because the Apostles did as Christ commanded, and spread the Gospel, human history was altered in this life and humankind was redeemed in the next.
But what if the Apostles didn’t preach the Gospel?
What if the Apostles did not believe that Jesus truly rose from the dead?
As St. Matthew himself points out, the Apostles initially “worshiped, but…doubted.” What if the Apostles continued to doubt? What if they denied their own senses and believed that the risen Christ, whose wounds St. Thomas touched with his own hands, was simply a delusion brought on by grief or madness?
Or what if they thought Jesus “faked” his own death, as some early Christian heretics believed? How one could possibly fake being scourged, crucified and buried, or why such a person would be worthy of worship, is beyond me, but what if the Apostles believed that and rejected Christ’s divinity?
Worst of all, what if the Apostles did believe Jesus was the divine Son of God who rose from the dead to redeem the world, but they chose not to tell anyone? What if they selfishly guarded the truth of Christ’s gift of salvation, or what if they were too afraid to preach it, for fear of Roman persecution (which they did, of course, suffer unto death)?
Naturally, God would never allow humankind’s salvation brought by Christ’s Resurrection to fall on deaf or denying ears. The Apostles were chosen by Christ for a reason — because He knew they would spread the Gospel.
However, He never forced them too. This is key.
We must never forget the Apostles were still flesh-and-blood human beings like you and me, graced with Free Will and thus, technically, they could have ignored Christ’s command to preach the Gospel.
What if they did?
If the Apostles chose not to follow Christ’s command to preach His message, the consequences for every soul would be tragic beyond measure. Salvation would be won, death would be defeated, and yet nobody would ever know, simply because the Apostles chose not to preach the good news.
It’s hard to imagine a more horrifying “what if?”
Thankfully, we don’t have to live with that scenario. Commanded by Christ and graced by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles made two critical choices through their own Free Will — to acknowledge the truth that Christ rose from the dead and to spread His truth to all the nations.
As monumental as these choices were, it’s important to remember that you and I make the same choices every Sunday at Mass.
Through our active participation, we are accepting the same reality that His Apostles accepted nearly 2,000 years ago: The divine and living Christ rose from the dead and is still among us to this day.
And when the deacon dismisses us, saying “This Mass has ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord” and we respond “Thanks be to God,” we are making the same pledge the Apostles did: To follow Christ’s command and go preach the Gospel.
So at the end of every Mass, and the beginning of every day, we are given the same choice Christ gave the Apostles; to spread the Gospel.
We have already considered how tragic it would be if the Apostles didn’t listen to Christ. How tragic is it when we don’t either?
Preaching the Gospel and living as Christ commanded is a responsibility — and an opportunity — we accept as Christians. It is a firm commitment to the truth that millions more from antiquity to the present day, have suffered pain and death to proclaim.
So “what if” you and I aren’t willing to do the same?
In this reality, we live with the faith and hope that the God who created all of reality, loves us so much that He walked among us, died for us, and lives again, with the promise that those who follow him will live with Him in eternity.
“What if” each of us lived our lives with that conviction guiding our decisions?
“What if” we saw the Mass as an opportunity, not an obligation?
“What if” we didn’t just admire the Apostles and Saints, but we lived like them?
We may never know what different paths our individual lives may have taken if we made different choices. All we do know for certain is where our lives will lead if we follow Him.
St. Luke tells us in chapter 23, verse 43: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
Let us not hoard this reward.
Let us not stay silent, when we should celebrate.
Christ’s disciples made the choice to follow his command to preach the good news nearly 2,000 years ago. Thanks to them, we know the Truth.
Years from now, let our descendents say that thanks to the choices we made, they know the Truth as well. The Apostles did this for us. We should do it for others.
Thanks be to God.