The Second Coming was something of a washout, if you remember. It lit up early-warning radar like a Christmas tree, of course, and the Israeli Air Force gave the heavenly host a respectable F-16 fighter escort to the ground, but that was when they were still treating it as a UFO incident. As soon as their sandals touched the dust, Jesus and the handful of bewildered Copts who’d been caught up to meet him in the air looked about for the armies of the Beast and the kings of the earth. The only soldiers they could see were a few terrified guards on a nearby archaeological dig. The armies of the Lord hurled themselves at the IDF and were promptly slaughtered. Their miraculous healings and resurrections created something of a sensation, but after that it was detention and Shin Bet interrogation for the lot of them. The skirmish was caught on video by activists from the International Solidarity Movement, who happened to be driving past the ancient battlefield on their way to Jenin when the trouble started. Jesus was released a couple of months after the Meggido debacle, but most of the Rapture contingent had Egyptian ID, and the diplomacy was as slow as you’d expect.
Jesus returned to his old stomping ground in the vicinity of Galilee. He hung around a lot with Israeli Arabs, and sometimes crossed to the West Bank. Reports trickled out of a healing here, a near-riot there, an open-air speech somewhere else. At first the IDF and the PA cops gave him a rough time, but there wasn’t much they could pin on him. It’s been said he avoided politics, but a closer reading of his talks suggests a subtle strategy of working on his listeners’ minds, chipping away at assumptions, and leaving them to work out the political implications for themselves. The theological aspects of his teaching were hard to square with those previously attributed to him. Critics were quick to point out the discrepancies, and to ridicule his failure to fulfil the more apocalyptic aspects of the prophecies.
When I caught up with him, under the grubby off-season awnings of a Tiberias lakefront cafe, Jesus was philosophical about it.
‘There’s only so much information you can pack into a first-century Palestinian brain,’ he explained, one thumb in a volume of Dennett. ‘Or a twenty-first-century one, come to that.’
I sipped thick sweet coffee and checked the little camera for sound and image. ‘Aren’t you, ah, omniscient?’
He glowered a little. ‘What part of “truly man” don’t you people understand?’ (He’d been using the café’s Internet facilities a lot, I’d gathered. His blog comments section had to be seen to be believed.) ‘It’s not rocket science … to mention just one discipline I didn’t have a clue about. I could add relativity, quantum mechanics, geology, zoology. Geography, even.’ He spread his big hands, with their carpenter’s callouses and their old scars. ‘Look, I really expected to return very soon, and that everyone on Earth would see me when I did. I didn’t even know the world was a sphere—sure, I could have picked that up from the Greeks, if I’d asked around in the Decapolis, but I had other fish to fry.’
‘But you’re—‘ I fought the rising pitch ‘—the Creator, begotten, not made, wholly God as well as—‘
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. He mugged an aside to camera. ‘This stuff would try the patience of a saint, you know.’ Then he looked me in the eye. ‘I am the embodiment of the Logos, the very logic of creation, or as it was said in English, “the Word made flesh.” Just because I am in that sense the entirety of the laws of nature doesn’t mean I know all of them, or can over-ride any of them. Quite the reverse, in fact.’
‘But the miracles—the healings and resurrections—‘
‘You have to allow for some … pardonable exaggeration in the reports.’
‘I’ve seen the ISM video from Meggido,’ I said.
‘Good for you,’ he said. ‘I’d love to see it myself, but the IDF confiscated it in minutes. But then, you probably bribed someone, and that’s … not something I can do. Yes, I can resurrect the recent dead, patch bodies back together and so on. Heal injuries and cure illnesses, some of them not purely psychosomatic. Don’t ask me to explain how.’ He waved a hand. ‘I suspect some kind of quantum handwave at the bottom of it.’
‘But the Rapture! The Second Coming!’
‘I can levitate.’ He shrugged. ‘So? I was considerably more impressed to discover that you people can fly. In metal machines!’
‘Isn’t levitation miraculous?’
‘It doesn’t break any laws of nature, I’ll tell you that for nothing. If I can do it, it must be a human capability.’
‘You mean any human being could levitate?’
‘There are recorded instances. Some of them quite well attested, I understand. Even the Catholic Church admits them.’
‘You could teach people to do it?’
‘I suppose I could. But what would be the point? As I said, you can fly already, for all the good that does you.’ As if by coincidence, a couple of jet fighters broke the sound barrier over the Golan Heights, making the cups rattle. ‘Same thing with healing, resurrections of the recent dead, and so on. I can do better in individual cases, but in general your health services are doing better than I could. I have better things to do with my time.’
‘Before we get to that,’ I said, ‘there’s just one thing I’d like you to clear up. For the viewers, you understand. Are you telling us that after a certain length of time has passed, the dead can’t be resurrected?’
‘Not at all.’ He signalled for another pot of coffee. ‘With God, all things are possible. To put it in your terms, information is conserved. To put it in my terms, we’re all remembered in the mind of God. No doubt all human minds and bodies will be reconstituted at some point. As for when—God knows. I don’t. I told you this the first time.’
‘And heaven and hell, the afterlife?’
‘Heaven—like I said, the mind of God. It’s up in the sky, in a very literal sense.’ He fumbled in a book-bag under the table and retrieved a dog-eared Tipler. ‘If this book is anything to go by. I’m not saying you should take The Physics of Immortality as gospel, you understand, but it certainly helped me get my head around some of the concepts. As for hell …’ He leaned forward, looking stern. ‘Look, suppose I tell you: if you keep doing bad things, if you keep refusing to adjust your thoughts and actions to reality, you’ll end up in a very bad place. You’ll find yourself in deep shit. Who could argue? Not one moral teacher or philosopher, that’s for sure. If you won’t listen to me, listen to them.’ He chuckled darkly. ‘Of course, it’s far more interesting to write volumes of Italian poetry speculating on the exact depth and temperature of the shit, but that’s just you.’
‘What about your distinctive ethical teaching?’
He rolled his eyes heavenward. ‘What distinctive ethical teaching? You’ll find almost all of it in the rabbis, the prophets, and the good pagans. I didn’t come to teach new morals, but to make people take seriously the morals they had. For some of the quirky bits—no divorce, and eunuchs for the Kingdom and so forth—I refer to my cultural limitations or some information loss in transmission or translation.’
I’d already seen the interrogation transcript, and the blog, but I had to ask.
‘Could you explain, briefly, the reason for the delay in your return?’
‘Where I’ve been all this time?’
I nodded, a little uneasy. This was the big one, the one where even those who believed him could trip up.
‘I was on another planet,’ he said, flat out. ‘Where else could I have been? I ascended into heaven, sure. I went up into the sky. Like I said, levitation isn’t that big a deal. Gravity’s a weak force, not well understood, and can be manipulated mentally if you know how. Surviving in the upper atmosphere, not to mention raw vacuum, wearing nothing but a jelebah—now that’s difficult. As soon as I got behind that cloud I was picked up by an alien space ship that happened to be passing—you can call it coincidence, I still call it providence—and transported to its home planet. I’m not at liberty to say which, but—assume you can’t go faster than light, think in terms of a two-way trip and a bit of turnaround time, and, well—you do the math.’
‘Some people,’ I said, trying to be tactful, ‘find that hard to believe.’
‘Tell me about it,’ he said. ‘They’ll accept levitation and resurrection, but I mention an extrasolar civilization and I’m suddenly a fraud and a New Age guru and a flying saucer nut. Talk about straining at gnats and swallowing camels.’ He shrugged again, this time wincing slightly, as if there was a painful stiffness in one shoulder. ‘It’s a cross I have to bear, I guess.’
What I was thinking, completely irreverently and inappropriately, was the line you jammy bastard! from the scene in Life of Brian. I’d stumbled at this point, like so many others. It was all too Douglas Adams, too von Däniken, too much a shaggy god story. Just about the only people who’d swallowed it so far were a few Mormons, and even they were uncomfortable with his insistence that he really hadn’t stopped off in America.
We talked some more, I thanked him and shook hands, and headed back to Lod airport with the interview in the can. When I glanced back from the corner Jesus was well into a bottle of wine and deep conversation with a couple of off-duty border cops and an Arab-Israeli tart.
I couldn’t pitch the interview as it stood—there was nothing new in it, and I needed an angle. I settled on follow-up research, with scientists as well as theologians, and managed to pull together an interdisciplinary meeting in Imperial College, London, held under Chatham House rules—quotes on the record, but no direct attributions. The consensus was startling. Not one of the clergy, and only one of the phycisists, thought it at all probable that we were looking at a return of the original Jesus. They all went for the shaggy god story.
‘He’s a Moravec bush robot,’ an Anglican bishop told me, confidently and in confidence.
‘A what?’ I said.
He sketched what looked like a tree, walking. ‘The manipulative extremities keep sub-dividing, right down to the molecular level,’ he said. ‘That thing can handle individual atoms. It can look like anything it wants, walk through walls, turn water into wine. Healing and resurrection—provided decay hasn’t degraded the memory structures too far—is a doddle.’
‘And can it make Egyptian Christians float into the sky?’ I asked.
He pressed the tips of his fingers together. ‘How do we know that really happened? His little band of brothers could be—more bush robots!’
‘That’s a stretch,’ said the Cambridge cosmologist. ‘I’m more inclined to suspect gravity manipulation from a stealth orbiter.’
‘You mean the ship’s still up there?’ That was the Jesuit, sceptical as usual.
‘Of course,’ said the cosmologist. ‘We’re looking at an attempt to open a conversation, an alien contact, without causing mass panic. Culturally speaking, it’s either very clever, or catastrophically inept.’
‘I’d go for the latter,’ said the Oxford biologist. ‘Frankly, I’m disappointed. Regardless of good intentions, this approach can only reinforce religious memes.’ He glanced around, looking beleaguered (‘like a hunted animal,’ one of the more vindictive of the clergymen chuckled afterwards, in the pub). ‘No offence intended, gentlemen, ladies, but I see that as counter-productive. In that part of the world, too! As if it needed more fanaticism.’
‘Excuse me,’ said the bishop, stiffly, ‘but we’re not talking about fanaticism. Nor is he. He is certainly not preaching fanaticism. Personally, I’d almost prefer to believe he was the original Jesus come back. It would be quite a vindication, in a way. It would certainly make the African brethren sit up and take notice.’
‘You mean, shut up about gay clergy,’ said the Jesuit, rather unkindly.
‘You see?’ said the Oxford man, looking at me. ‘It doesn’t matter how liberal he sounds, or how any of them sound. It’s all about authoritative revelation. And as soon as they start arguing on that basis, they’re at each other’s throats.’ He sighed, pushing biscuit crumbs about on the baize with a fingertip. ‘My own fear is that the aliens, whoever they are, are right. We’re too primitive a species, too mired in all this, too infected by the mind virus of religion, to be approached in any other way. But I’m still afraid it’ll backfire on them.’
‘Oh, there are worse fears than that,’ said the computer scientist from Imperial, cheerfully. ‘They could be hostile. They could be intentionally aiming to cause religious strife.’
That statement didn’t cause religious strife, exactly, but it came damn close. I waited until the dust and feathers had settled, then tried to get the experts to focus on what they all actually agreed on. As I said, the consensus surprised me. It added up to this:
The supposed Second Coming had no religious significance. The man calling himself Jesus was almost certainly not who he claimed to be. He was very likely an AI entity of some type from a post-Singularity alien civilization. Further interventions could be expected. Watch the skies.
I wrapped all this around the interview, ran a few talking-head soundbites from the meeting through voice-and-face-distorting software filters, and flogged it to the Discovery Channel. This took a couple of weeks. Then I caught the next El Al flight from Heathrow.
I was sitting in a room with a dozen men, one of them Jesus, all sipping tea and talking. All of them were smoking, except Jesus and myself. I’d caught up with him again in Ramallah. The conversation was in Arabic, and my translator, Sameh, was so engrossed in it he’d forgotten about me. I must admit I was bored.
I was, of course, excited at the idea that this man, if he was a man, represented an alien intervention. I was just as excited by my doubts about it. There was, as the bishop had implied, something quite tempting about the notion that he was who he said he was. The original Jesus had explained himself in terms of the religion of his place and time, and had in turn been explained in terms of contemporary philosophy. It begins in the arcane metaphysics of Paul’s letters, and in the Stoic term ‘Logos’ in John, and it continues all the way to the baroque Platonic and Aristotelian edifices of theology. So it was perhaps not entirely strange that this Jesus should explain himself in modern philosophical terms from the very beginning.
Right now, though, he was trying to explain himself to Muslims. The going wasn’t easy. I couldn’t follow the conversation, but I could hear the strain in the voices. The names of Allah and the Prophet came up frequently. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet too, and there were plenty of the faithful who didn’t take kindly to this man’s claims. The gathering here, fraught though it was, was the most sympathetic a hearing as he was likely to get.
In terms of publicity Jesus wasn’t doing too well. He’d had his fifteen minutes of fame. Religious leaders had refused to meet him—not that he’d asked—and even the scientists who were prepared to speculate publicly that he was an alien were reluctant to do anything about it. I mean, what could they do about it—cut him up? The defence establishment may have taken seriously these scientists’ claims about alien intervention, but there’s only so many times you can draw a blank looking for a stealth orbiter before you conclude that there’s no stealth orbiter. The general feeling was that something odd had happened, but nobody could be sure what, and for all anyone knew it could have been a bizarre hoax. There were photographs, videos, eyewitness accounts, radar traces—but that kind of evidence can be found any month in Fortean Times and debunked every quarter in Skeptical Inquirer.
The only people—apart from his own small following, most of it online—who paid close attention to his activities were fundamentalist Christians. Not because they believed him. Oh, no. They believed me. That’s to say, they believed the religious and scientific experts I’d cited in the documentary. They were quite happy with the notion that he was an alien entity of some kind. To them, an alien meant a demon. Worse, a demon walking around in human shape and claiming to be Jesus could only mean one thing: the Antichrist.
I only found that out later.
Handshakes all round. Smiles. Frowns. Jesus and two of the men—followers, I’d gathered—went out. I and Sameh accompanied them into the muddy street. Breezeblock buildings, corrugated zinc roofs, mud. Ruins here and there. It was nearly dusk. Lights in windows, braziers at stalls, the smell of frying chicken. A big Honda people-carrier drove slowly down the crowded, pot-holed street, conspicuous among old Renaults and VW Polos and Yugos.
We stood about—a moment of uncertainty about where to go next. Some problem with the traffic. Sameh was talking to the followers, Jesus was gazing around, and I was fiddling with the camera.
I saw a flash. That is to say, for a second I saw nothing else. Then I saw nothing but sky. Everything had become silent. I saw two bright lights moving fast, high above. My legs felt wet and warm. I pressed the palms of my hands on damp gravel and pushed myself up to a sitting position. I could see people running around, mouths open, mouths working; cars accelerating away or coming to a halt; everything covered with grey dust; but I could hear nothing. A little way down the street, smoke rose from a flower-like abstract sculpture of bent and twisted metal: the Honda, its wheels incongruously intact.
I saw Jesus run towards it. Sameh and the two followers were face down on the street, hands over the backs of their heads. They didn’t see what I saw. I don’t know how many people saw it. He leaned into the wrecked Honda and started hauling out the casualties. He dragged out one corpse, whole but charred. He laid it down and pulled out something that might have been a torso. Then he clambered in and started heaving out bits of bodies: an arm, half a leg, a bearded head. More. It was like the back of a butcher’s shop.
He vaulted out again and knelt on the road. I saw his hands move, with effort in the arms, as if he was putting the bits together. He stood up. Three men stood up beside him. They looked down at the rags that clothed them, and then at the wreck of their vehicle. They raised their arms and cried out praise to Allah. Jesus had already turned his back on them and was hurrying towards me. He wore jeans and scuffed trainers, a shirt and sweater under a new leather jacket. He was looking straight at me and frowning.
Sound and pain came in a rush. My ears dinned with yells, car horns, screams. My thighs felt—
I looked down. My thighs felt exactly as you would expect with a chunk of metal like a thrown knife in each of them, stuck right into my femurs. I could see my blood pumping out, soaking into the torn cloth. Everything went monochrome for a moment. I saw his hands grab the bits of metal and tug. I heard the grate of the bones. I felt it, too. I heard a double clatter as the metal shards fell on the road. Then Jesus laid his hands on my legs, and leaned back.
‘Up,’ he said.
He held out a hand. I caught it and stood up. As I got to my feet I saw the pale unbroken skin of my thighs through the ripped fabric. My camera lay crushed on the ground. Sameh and the two followers picked themselves up and brushed themselves off.
‘What happened?’ I asked Jesus, but it was Sameh who answered.
‘Another targeted killing,’ he said. ‘That Honda. I knew it had to be a Hamas big shot inside.’ He stared across at the wreck. ‘How many?’
I pointed at the men, now the centre of a small crowd.
‘They had a miraculous escape,’ I said.
Jesus just grinned.
‘Let’s go,’ he said.
Jesus had a knack for making his movements unpredictable. I and Sameh stayed with him and his followers, jammed in the back of a taxi, to Jerusalem. Through the wall, through the checkpoints. Jesus nodded off. The followers talked to Sameh. I sat bolt upright and replayed everything in my mind. I kept rubbing my thighs, as if I had sweaty hands. When we got out of the taxi at the hotel Jesus seemed to wake up. He leaned forward and said: ‘Would you like to meet me tomorrow, privately?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Where?’
‘You know where the tours of the Via Dolorosa start?’
‘There,’ he said. ‘Alone.’
I was still struggling for a remark when the taxi door slammed.
I pushed past guides and through coach parties, looking for him. He found me. He had a camera hung from around his neck and a big hat on his head, a white T-shirt under his jacket. We fell in at the back of a dozen or so people following a guide who shouted in English. I think they were Brits. Jesus rubber-necked with the rest of them.
‘I saw the Gibson film on DVD,’ he said.
‘What did you think of it?’ I asked, feeling a little smug.
‘I liked it better than yours,’ he said.
‘I just report,’ I said.
‘You could have done better,’ he said. ‘ ”Moravec bush robot!” I ask you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Do you deny it?’
He looked at me sharply. ‘Of course I deny it. What use would a robot be to you?’
‘And the whole alien intervention hypothesis?’
The crowd stopped. The guide declaimed. Cameras clicked. We shuffled off again, jostling down an alley.
‘Yes, I deny that also.’
‘And any other natural explanation?’
His lips compressed. He shook his head. ‘If you mean a hoax, I deny that too. I am who I say I am. I am the natural explanation.’
The man in front of us turned. He wore a baseball cap with a Star of David and his shirt was open at the neck to display a small gold cross on a chain. He reached inside his heavy checked jacket.
‘Blasphemer,’ he said.
He pulled out a handgun and shot Jesus three times in the chest.
I grabbed Jesus. Two men barged out of the crowd and grabbed the assassin. He’d already dropped the gun and had his hands up. The two men wrestled him to the ground at gunpoint, then dragged him to his feet. Screams resounded in the narrow space.
‘Police!’ the men shouted. One of them waved a police ID card, like it wasn’t obvious. I learned later that they’d been shadowing Jesus from the beginning.
The assassin held his hands out for the plastic ties. He kept staring at Jesus.
‘Save yourself now!’ he jeered. One of the undercover cops gave him the elbow in the solar plexus. He doubled, gasping.
Jesus was bleeding all over me. ‘Lay off him,’ he wheezed. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s done.’
The man strained upright, glaring.
‘Play-acting to the end, demon! I don’t want forgiveness from you!’
Jesus waved a hand, two fingers raised, in a shaky blessing, and sagged in my arms. I staggered backwards. His heels dragged along the ground. One of his shoes came off.
It took a long while for the ambulance to nose through the narrow streets. Jesus lost consciousness long before it arrived. I stayed with him to the hospital. The paramedics did their best—they’re good with gunshot wounds in the Holy Land—but he was dead on arrival.
I couldn’t believe it.
I watched every second of the emergency surgery, and I know he was a man.
The autopsy should have taken place within twenty-four hours, but some procedural dispute delayed it for three days. I managed to attend. It didn’t even take much effort on my part—I was a witness, I had identified the body when it was pronounced dead. On the slab he looked like the dead Che Guevara. The pathologists opened him up, recovered the bullets, removed organs and took tissue samples. Results came back from the labs. He was human right down to the DNA. So much for the bush robot theory. There was a burial, and no resurrection. No levitation and no infinitely improbable rescue. Some people still visit the grave. One thing I’m sure of: this time, he’s not coming back.
There was a trial, of course. The assassin, an American Christian Zionist, disdained the prompting of his lawyer to plead insanity. He proudly pleaded guilty and claimed to be acting to thwart the attempts of the Antichrist to derail the divine plan for the End Times. I was a witness for the prosecution, but I suspect my testimony had as much effect as the rantings of the accused in the eventual ruling: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The assassin did six months in a mental hospital. After his release he made a splash on the US fundamentalist lecture circuit as the hero who had shot one of the Devil’s minions: the false messiah, the fake Christ. The man he killed wasn’t the real Antichrist, it’s been decided. The Antichrist is still to come. Millions still await the real Rapture and the return of the real Jesus.
Perhaps it was some obscure guilt about my own inadvertent part in Jesus’s assassination that drove me to research his writings and the live recordings of his sayings and miracles. They’re all online, and the authentic ones are carefully kept that way by his followers: online, and authentic. There’s enough apocryphal stuff in circulation already, and far more interest in him than when he was alive.
The odd thing is, though, that if you trawl, as I’ve done, through his blog posts, his devastating put-downs in the comment sections, and the shaky cell phone and home-video recordings of his discourses, it has an effect on how you think. It isn’t a question of belief, exactly. It’s more a question of examining beliefs, and examining your own actions, even your thoughts, as if under his sceptical eye, and in the echo of his sardonic voice. It works on you. It’s like a whole new life.