A Thing of Naught: World Judgment and The Trial of Jesus Christ

H. Curtis Wright, Things of Redeeming Worth: Scriptures Messages and World Judgments (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002).

In the Gospel of Matthew we read an account of a lawyer who asked Jesus a question and tempted him, saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” We are familiar with the answer of the Savior: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Perhaps not as many realize that Jesus turned interrogator and asked those gathered this question, “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?” (Matt. 22:37–39, 42). This question has been echoed whenever men have been confronted with the message of Christianity.

In our modern world some dismiss Jesus as merely an ethical and moral teacher of righteousness. Others think of Jesus as symbolic, originating from a mythological point of view. To them, he is not the resurrected Christ, the literal Son of God, but merely a man in whom tradition and myths have been catapulted into a place of prominence. Some would deny not only the historical Jesus but would shun his way of life with regards to ethics and morality.

A few accept and understand Jesus as the living Christ, the Son of God, in whom all life is centered. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), “for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Salvation is not only redemption from physical death but from spiritual death. He redeems people from the effects of the Fall and will cleanse them from their sins if they have faith in Christ and repent. But others are confused and bewildered when confronted with the concept of the Christ and the message of Jesus.

Curtis Wright’s pamphlet “A Thing of Naught” brings into sharp focus the mission of the Savior. He utilizes the trial of Jesus to indicate how people respond to the Savior. It is an interesting treatment of how men will handle the question, “What think ye of Christ?” This pamphlet should be helpful to every thoughtful person who desires to understand the message of Christianity in the midst of a confused world.

—B. West Belnap, Dean of Religious Instruction, 1962–66 Brigham Young University

For many years now I have been deeply interested in the trial of Jesus. It all began in seminary when I saw a film presentation of that trial, which left a vivid and permanent impression upon me. The scene I remember best showed Christ among the soldiers. He was sitting in the barracks clothed in Herod’s robe, and the soldiers were amusing themselves at his expense. Earlier in the trial he had claimed to be a king; and so they had put him on a “throne,” dressed him in “royal purple,” and placed a reed in his hand representing the scepter of his “sovereignty.”

The climax of their sport occurred when the soldiers decided to make a “crown” for their king. After a wreath had been hurriedly plaited out of thorns, it was placed upon a pillow and brought before him. And while the soldiers stood about in squadrons, heads bowed in mocking reverence, one of their number removed the thorny diadem and “crowned” the king. Immediately the shout went up, “Hail! King of the Jews! Hail! King of the Jews!” In the confusion that followed, the soldiers thronged the Savior, striking him with their hands and bowing before him in mock worship; and against this raucous backdrop the camera kept moving closer and closer to Jesus, until, in a final close-up of his face, tiny rivulets of blood could be seen trickling down his forehead and onto his cheek.

I remember thinking as I watched the trial of Jesus that God was saying something really basic about us. Chronology was all mixed up. It was not as though he were accusing the soldiers who had mocked the Lord or Judas who had betrayed him, or Peter who had denied him, or the apostles who had all forsaken him and fled, or even Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin who had condemned him without hearing his defense, or Pilate who had written the execution order, or Herod who had “set him at nought.” There was more to it than that. The implications of that trial were important enough to transcend the limitations of time and place. God was speaking to us. He was pointing to a universal tendency in human nature, something that expressed itself again and again in every generation; and in a very real sense, we were being indicted by the trial of Jesus Christ.

Now it is not surprising that many of our commentators completely miss that aspect of the trial. After all, the Savior hinted that there were “hidden” messages in the scriptures when he said that only those with ears to hear and eyes to see would understand. This meant that many would look without seeing and listen without hearing. And the danger of overlooking these hidden messages is especially acute in this modern age of experts. We have amassed concentrated studies on specialized subject matters by the top men in virtually every field of knowledge, but we feel at the same time that we are sacrificing breadth for depth. Our theology, for example, is extremely detailed and in some ways very accurate. But how meaningful is it? In our modern preoccupation with analysis we are able to understand the individual parts all right, but the more general features which build the parts into a unified and meaningful whole elude us. This predilection for hyperanalysis is aptly described by a simple analogy.

You may recall from your childhood those picture puzzles which frequently appeared in magazines. Maybe they still fascinate you. There was one that taught a great lesson. It was a picture of a little boy beside a big tree in a deep forest. In the far background was a house that looked very small in the distance. Beneath the picture were these words: “This little boy is lost. He is looking for his father, who is very near to him, but he cannot find him. Can you find the boy’s father in the picture?” That was the puzzle. And, indeed, it certainly was a puzzle! You examined the picture from every point of view, turning it first one way and then another. You held it close, searched every corner, and even turned it upside down. But the father was nowhere to be found. Finally you put it aside in defeat. After a while you happened to glance at the picture there on the table where you left it, and suddenly you saw from a distance the clear outline of the father. You wondered how you could have missed him, for now you could see nothing else. The curves of the skyline formed his head and shoulders, the branches of the trees outlined his body, and the tree trunks made his legs. He was so big in proportion to the boy, and the house, and everything else in the picture. That’s why you missed him at first. You were not looking for one so big. [1]

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion nowadays that something like that has happened to biblical scholarship. Many of our theologians are so concerned with analyzing details that they can’t see the general picture of anything. They are very proficient in examining the historical and literary problems of the Bible, but they seem to miss its general message of salvation. Everyone wants to study that particular part of the Bible which coincides with his subject specialty. The trial of Jesus, for example, has a tremendous appeal to specialists in the legal profession. A quick check of holdings in any good library will turn up at least a dozen writers of this type who have published whole books on the subject, including some multivolume works. Their approach, generally speaking, has been similar to that of the lawyer George W. Thompson, whose interest in the “legal aspects” of the trial of Jesus led to a rigorous investigation of Hebrew and Roman jurisprudence, against which his findings as to the legality of the trial and verdict were presented in an exhaustive study. Titles of such works include The Trial of Jesus from a Lawyer’s Standpoint; The Case of the Nazarene Reopened; The Prosecution of Jesus, Its Date, History and Legality; The Illegality of the Trial of Jesus; The Legality of the Trial of Jesus; The Trial of Jesus Christ, a Legal Monograph; The Trial of Jesus, a Judicial Review of the Law and Facts of the World’s Most Tragic Courtroom Trial; and A Lawyer Reviews the Illegal Trial of Jesus. [2] The injustices of the Jewish and Roman courts receive the emphasis in most of these monographs, while the more general moral and theological considerations tend to be minimized, if they are treated at all. These magna opera with their comprehensive coverage, meticulous footnotes, and lengthy bibliographies impress us with the assurance that we have mastered the obscure legal minutiae of the trial, but they also remind us that we have largely missed the point. We have spent a lot of time and research on the Savior’s trial, but the basic implications of that trial for our own generation have escaped us.

The most significant commentaries on the trial of Jesus Christ are found, of all places, in the Book of Mormon. That trial was witnessed by Nephi hundreds of years before it happened when it was shown to him in a vision by an angel from God. He saw the significance of that trial and summarized it in these words: “And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Ne. 11:32–33).

Now, Latter-day Saints, at least, would do well to consider the serious implications of those remarks. Nephi apparently looked upon that trial as an expression of world judgment. He did not connect it directly with the judicial practices of the first century. According to him the Savior was taken by the people, not just by Judas and his band; furthermore, he was brought into a world courtroom, not merely into the Jewish and Roman courts; and there he was judged of the world, not of Caiaphas, or Herod, or Annas, or Pontius Pilate. And when he was finally condemned and “lifted up upon the cross and slain,” it was “for the sins of the world,” not for the crimes of blasphemy or sedition. These are solemn thoughts, and this is a serious indictment on the part of Nephi. He is saying that Jesus died for the same world which condemned him, and he means to accuse all of us—the whole world—of complicity in the trial of Jesus!

And there is more truth than fiction in that accusation. We know that a man’s personal estimate of Jesus Christ determines his own judgment in the eyes of God. Men are free, of course, to form their own opinions about the Savior; but they are also accountable for those opinions. It is obvious, however, that we differ widely in our evaluations of him. In the judgment of some, including many “important” people, he is worth nothing—zero! To others, the worth of his atoning life and death, the price for which he bought us, is beyond all comprehension of value. Our world, like that of other generations, is sharply divided on this issue. In the words of Nephi: “The things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; . . . they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels”(l Ne. 19:7).

This idea of world judgment, implicit in the trial of Jesus, was later repeated and reaffirmed by Nephi: “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men. And the God of our fathers . . . yieldeth himself . . . as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, . . . and to be crucified, . . . and to be buried in a sepulchre” (1 Ne. 19:9–10; emphasis added).

Once more we note the far-reaching implications of Nephi’s remarks. It was the world who judged him to be a thing of naught: they not only found him guilty, but worthless. They had a good reason, of course, for bringing in that verdict. Jesus had exposed their iniquities by testifying of their sins, and so they had officially condemned him in their courts, intending to silence him forever, as though he were the sinner for saying such things about them (cf. Hel. 13:24–28). It was the world, furthermore, who scourged him and smote him and spat upon him. Nephi insists that the world is the culprit: they did it. He will not let us escape responsibility by blaming Pontius Pilate and the Jews, for he knows that our iniquities prompt us to make the same judgments they made; and that is especially true when the Savior exposes our iniquities, as he did theirs. It is only when we confess those iniquities and humble ourselves before God, seeking forgiveness in repentance, that we are acquitted of complicity in the trial of Jesus. The truth hurts, they say, and that is verily true of this truth. But only in its light can we see the Savior as he really is; and only when we see him as he really is can we sense the infinite worth of his Atonement and the high cost of our redemption through his sufferings and the shedding of his blood.

The world has never seen things that way, and it never will. In every age those who have really believed in the infinite worth of Christ’s Atonement have been a definite minority. Even the few who have held this view of things have not always held it: they have had to come to it, sometimes through a brutal and agonizing process of reorientation in which they finally got their thinking straight about religion. But meanwhile, the masses of men have gone right on making the age-old mistakes of Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin. There’s no doubt about it. Nephi’s observations will hold up in any age. The trial of Jesus Christ confronts us with a world picture that portrays a great deal about us and about our generation.

Nevertheless, we can’t help wondering what prompted Nephi to interpret the trial in typological terms. In doing so he obviously extended its meaning far beyond the immediate context of the first century and the literal statements of the New Testament. But why did he do that? Well, we learn from the Book of Mormon that he lived in a world of “signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows” which were based invariably on the redemption, the grand, underlying theme of all true religion. He lived in a time of great expectation when the minds of the people were continually looking forward to the promised coming of the Son of God. There was among the ancients a vast and uniform system of similitudes and types which formed an integral part of the prophetic method in both hemispheres. [3] These ubiquitous types were based on revelation from God and designed by him to assist men in coming to Christ and repenting of their sins. They appeared in history and prophecy and were the foundation and superstructure of all ritual, where they served as supplements to worship. They were effective only because of their direct association with the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the primitive theme of all Nephi’s theology. Here are a few expressions of that theme:

My soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard (2 Ne. 4:15–16).

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him. . . . And my soul delighteth in proving unto my people that save Christ should come all men must perish (2 Ne. 11:4, 6; emphasis added).

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; . . . And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (2 Ne. 25:23, 26).

That goes a long way toward explaining Nephi’s sweeping statements about the trial and world judgment. It is one of those revealing types and shadows of which he spoke so often. That does not minimize its historical actuality or its literal implications: it merely extends its application to the world in all its generations. God actually intended that the trial be typical in nature and that it carry a rebuke to the world for its typical judgment of his Only Begotten Son.

Another statement by Nephi helps us understand further his typological orientation and his attitude toward scripture. “I did read many things to them [my brethren] . . . which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:22–23; emphasis added).

Well, that’s simple enough, isn’t it? Nephi’s approach to the word of God was so simple, as a matter of fact, that we never would have guessed it. He merely related the ancient scriptures to modern contemporary situations among his own people. That was possible, of course, only because the scriptures have from the beginning treated the great basic themes of life and experience. If more of those who preach religion would only realize that, they wouldn’t complain so bitterly about the sagging interest of their yawning congregations. Nephi’s people were probably amazed to find that human nature hadn’t changed very much since it was created. It was only the situations that changed, as though the same old picture were given a new frame now and then. The scriptures always reminded them of themselves or someone they knew just down the street. That’s why they profited so greatly from the word of God and why they learned so much from studying it. Those old books came alive for Nephi’s listeners. They met real flesh-and-blood people in the scriptures, people with problems and hopes and fears just like their own. There were good and bad examples among them, to be sure, and they found plenty of mysteries incapable of scientific proof. There were even some embarrassing passages about sex in which the extreme depravity of sinners was revealed; and the critics probably said those old texts were unreliable and could not be trusted. But through it all the faith of the fathers was somehow transmitted to the children, and a knowledge of the Son of God increased among the sons of men, at least among the faithful. But I fear that we will never thrill with that exhilarating experience of reading the scriptures as long as we regard ancient history as though it never really happened. And while our modern preachers continue to treat the word of God as the mythological product of day-before-yesterday, their congregations will continue to become the audiences of playwrights and actors who treat the word of man as the factual product of today, for fact presented as fiction can never hope to compete with fiction presented as fact—especially when it sounds like it came from the dank and musty swamps of ten thousand years ago! The former is verily worse than the latter.

And now . . . suddenly, those remarks about world judgment begin to make sense. Nephi is suggesting that we follow his example and liken the trial of Jesus unto ourselves so we can learn something from it that might profit us; and somehow that doesn’t seem like a bad idea anymore. It shouldn’t bother us overmuch to find that our more critical theologians disagree with Nephi. They prefer what they call their “historico-critical method” because they exalt learning by study over learning by faith. They never cease their tireless evaluation of other men’s works, although they produce very little themselves, and it is not flawless, by any means. They are fond of reviewing an opus by pointing out its historical inaccuracies, internal inconsistencies, chronological anachronisms and stylistic limitations; and they are especially critical of an author’s way of thinking. Some of them go so far as to rule out the whole realm of typology. They would maintain that there is nothing in the scriptures to justify Nephi’s extra-literal interpretation of the trial. He was just being overly enthusiastic in reporting what he saw in that vision. Isn’t it easier to believe that he was simply overstating the facts? He was reading something into the trial, something that wasn’t there at all. But then most scriptural writers use hyperbole occasionally: its one of their favorite tricks. Nephi needn’t be embarrassed because they caught him at it. All this assumes, you understand, that he actually saw a vision; he could have invented that too: that would have been easy to do, especially if Joseph Smith invented him in the first place! And there is nothing in the New Testament to support his wild contention that the world prosecuted Jesus. It was a handful of religious fanatics who did it. Oh, of course, they were clever enough to implicate others in their designs. They used a mob and a Roman governor, for example, to accomplish the death of their victim. But strictly speaking, they were responsible for the deed. Nephi is overdoing it when he insists that the world must share in their guilt. The very most we can say is that the Jewish nation and the Roman government collaborated to form a conspiracy against the Savior, and even that exaggerates the facts. No, it was not the world that condemned the Lord as Nephi suggests—not even the world of the first century, to say nothing of its other generations.

But that particular kind of reasoning is rather patronizing, isn’t it? It is precisely this devious worldly thinking that Nephi was talking about. He would have had great difficulty tolerating our shallow, superficial approach to everything and our condescending propensity for getting tangled up in technicalities. He meant what he said about world judgment, all right, even though he didn’t expect the world, or worldly theologians for that matter, to agree with him. There was no room on those plates for the historico-critical nonsense that stuffs our theological journals; and the reasons for this are worth noting.

Nephi clearly foresaw that the modern quest of the historical Jesus would obscure the Christ of faith because there are two kinds of theology. Revealed theology explains the meaning of our presence in the natural universe through living witnesses that come to us from God’s presence in another universe. All explanations of systematic theology, however, are humanly originated formulations based on critical studies of recorded scripture and historical tradition. Nephi understood, to be sure, that we need explanations—but not by speculation. What we need most, since God alone is wise, is actual revelation: historic revelation, important as it is, cannot redeem us; and there is no salvation in the human speculations of systematic theology. There is, of course, no essential conflict between systematic theology and history because both studies are humanly originated and neither study is governed by supernatural assumptions. In a revealed religion, on the other hand, conflict with the secular outlook of the human arts and of the scientific, philosophical, and historical disciplines is inevitable, since revealed information is not derived from the natural order by the reasoned speculations of human wisdom: it is brought into the natural order by informed messengers from another world order who know whereof they speak because they come directly from the presence of God. The ultimate realities of revealed religion therefore lie completely beyond history, not within it. History can clarify religious experience but can neither determine nor authenticate it. The gospel is thus an intrusion into this world from outside, an invasion of nature by the grace of God in which human wisdom is subordinate to the wisdom of God; it is not the secular worship of human wisdom in which the mind of God is subordinated to the mind of man, as in the historical determinism of systematic theology. [4]

Nephi, accordingly, recorded only those things which were pleasing to God and to those who were not of this world. His words contain an implicit warning against swallowing wholecloth the bland, predigested conclusions of professional theologians who want to spare us the agony of thinking for ourselves. He would rebuke us, furthermore, for jumping wildly to conclusions based on our first hasty perusal of the sources. He would send us back again to those same sources in the hope of inspiring some second thoughts. And if we would only stop telling ourselves that we know it all long enough to listen to him for a moment, we might learn something. And then, perhaps, we would humble ourselves and go back to the New Testament in order to reread its accounts of the trial in the light of this world’s attitudes toward Jesus Christ.

To begin with, the conspiracy against Jesus was inspired by the religious motives of pious public officials whose sense of virtue had been outraged. [5] We must disagree with the bulk of Christian writers who describe the leaders of the Jews as hoodlums and outlaws, rascals and ruffians, rogues and scoundrels, knaves and villains, or blackguards and highwaymen of the deepest, darkest hue. That, I’m afraid, really is a “magnificent hyperbole” and a gross distortion of the truth. They were criminals all right, but of a vastly different piece. They had no use for the seamy side of crime and campaigned relentlessly against it. They were not unprincipled hoodlums lurking in the black recesses of unlighted cities and slinking through dark alleys. No, indeed! For they didn’t like darkness—or dirt! They moved in the upper strata of Jewish high society and lived in the better sections of Jerusalem; and they bathed every day. They inhabited the country club ionosphere of the city’s “velvet alleys” where they breathed the rarefied air of religious piety and unimpeachable integrity. Nor were they like Chicago gangsters in the 1930s: they didn’t have an arsenal where they stashed tommy guns and blackjacks and knives and rubber hoses and tear gas and brass knuckles and sawed-off shotguns and vials of nitroglycerin and acid and various poisons, both slow and fast acting; and there were no strongarm methods, no bodies falling out of closets, no corpses floating down the river. Unlike our soldiers of World War II, they didn’t know eighteen ways to kill a man, twelve of which were silent. But their legal methods were just as effective. And there were no handkerchiefs over their faces, no gloves to cover their fingerprints. They wore instead the robes of righteousness, the cloak of respectability and public trust, and the mantle of high official office. And in addition to that, they were exceptionally well educated. They were full of high-minded talk about the search for truth and the evils of ignorance. But meanwhile, they went efficiently about their business, unnoticed by the public at large. They operated in broad daylight, too, in full view of the law. They knew and insisted upon their rights, and they also knew how to “protect” them. They attempted to interpret and control the legal code, but they always stayed within its boundaries, for they were above all else respectable and irreproachable citizens.

Now spiritual wickedness has always had a way of ending up in high places; and just how that happens is described in detail, step by step, in the Nephite scriptures. “There are two great treatises on crime in the Book of Mormon, the one in Helaman, describing the doings of ancient Americans, the other in Mormon, describing the doings of modern Americans.” [6] “It is organized crime and for the most part singularly respectable. Here we trace the general course of criminal doings . . . showing that the separate events and periods are not disconnected but represent a single great tradition. . . . Petty crime is no concern of the Book of Mormon, but rather wickedness in high places. The Book of Mormon tells us how such comes into existence and how it operates, and how it manages to surround itself with an aura of intense respectability and in time to legalize its evil practices,” [7] since “the criminal element is almost always large and usually predominant . . . and is always consciously and vocally on the side of virtue.” [8]

The leaders of the Jews belong to that “single great tradition” of syndicated crime. It is an unbroken tradition that can be traced clearly all the way back to “that same being who did entice our first parents to partake of the forbidden fruit” (Hel. 6:26). The ways of the wicked are clearly disclosed by the Book of Mormon, and in the trial of Jesus the patterns of that ancient criminal tradition were followed almost to the letter by the conspirators—those suave, sophisticated zealots who were the respectable spiritual shepherds of Israel.

The plot against Jesus was an intricate and skillfully contrived project to get him out of the way. It was no jumbled mishmash of bungling schemes frantically hurled together at the last moment. It was instigated by the calm and reasoned planning of men with cool heads, who convened in secret and covenanted with one another to form a pact, and “took counsel together for to put him to death.” They gathered at the swank city estate of Caiaphas, the high priest, and sat down together in the palatial mansion where they “consulted that they might take Jesus by [subtlety], and kill him” (Matt. 26:4; see also John 11:47–57; 12:19; and Luke 19:47–48; 22:1–2). It was a conspiracy in the worst sense of the term, and its perpetrators were the elite of Jerusalem, the impeccably reputable “men of affairs,” the “solid citizens,” the “chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people.” They recall vividly those earlier intrigues when, six hundred years before, the “Jews at Jerusalem,” and later two of Lehi’s own sons, had laid the groundwork for taking Lehi’s life; and but for the intervention of the Lord who warned him of the danger in a dream, they would have succeeded.

It was no excited street rabble or quick impulse of a city mob that threatened his life; certain parties “sought his life” (1 Ne. 1:20), with purpose and design. . . . The most significant thing about these plots is that their authors, “murderers in their hearts” (1 Ne. 17:44), had themselves convinced that they were doing the right thing; they believed that Lehi was a dangerous and irresponsible trouble maker, and in view of the international situation, treasonable and subversive to the bargain, while they themselves were defenders of respectability and the status quo.. . . Laman, Lemuel and the Jews at Jerusalem were defenders not only of common sense against a man “led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart” to exchange the comforts of gracious living for years of misery in the desert (1 Ne. 17:20), but they had solid conservative arguments of respectability and religion on their side. In daring to criticize them and to predict awful things about them, Lehi had set himself up as a judge. [9]

When that meeting was called and those men assembled from all parts of Jerusalem, the murderous processes of legalized assassination had long since been set in motion. The leaders of the Jews had probably begun whispering together early in the ministry of Jesus, shortly after he proclaimed himself as the Son of God. Had he alerted them already, as early as that wedding feast in Cana of Galilee? It was there at any rate that he first revealed himself publicly as the Messiah by turning water into wine. One thing is certain: there had been other meetings like this, lots of them, although they had been convoked as secretly as possible. But there were hints of the conspiracy all along—the way Jesus was treated in his home town; the repeated charges of sabbath breaking and demoniac possession; the murmurings and divisions he caused among the people; and the displeasure of the chief priests and scribes later on when the children shouted hosannas to him in the temple. And in spite of all the secrecy there are at least fifteen direct references to the conspiracy in the Gospels. Jesus knew about it, too, for he spoke of it many times himself in those cryptic passages about his death that so baffled his disciples. And we must not forget that the disgruntled Judas knew of the plot somehow, for he went willingly and directly to the conspirators to make a deal with them. They took him up on it, too. It turned out to be the worst deal he ever made in his life, for he sold his Savior and his soul for silver. That, as a matter of fact, is the worst bargain in the world, no matter how you look at it and no matter who makes it or when.

During that meeting the world’s very finest criminal minds were at work. There they are, the reputable senior citizens of Jerusalem who really believe in the righteousness of their project. They include the best lawyers, of course, and important civic officials, as well as businessmen, educators, physicians, and prominent townspeople. And there is perfect unity among them. They are dedicated men, and they have assembled for a common purpose under the guidance and inspiration of their nation’s responsible spiritual leaders. So here they are, in this meeting, conspiring together against Jesus. That describes their business perfectly, too, for “conspiring” really means “breathing together.” And that’s it. That’s what they are doing. They are “breathing together” the real atmosphere of syndicated crime: the hot, stifling breath and sanctimonious talk of professional law-abiding criminals as they meet around the big walnut conference table of a stately west side manor for one of their planning sessions.

When that meeting was over the curtain began to descend on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. He sensed it, too, for on the same Tuesday afternoon while that criminal convocation was holding forth, he went with his disciples to the Mount of Olives where they also met in private. His words were especially sobering that day as he instructed the disciples about the end of the world and admonished them to prepare for it by telling stories of five foolish virgins and a man who hid his talent in the earth. He spoke also of the judgment to come, when all the nations would be gathered before the Son of Man. And he seemed to know of his own coming judgment when he would stand before the nations; for now, at the very moment when that other group was dispersing, he said plainly to his disciples, “Know ye that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (Matt. 26:1–2). [10] He knew all about the elaborate, imposing equipment of organized crime. The big shiny machine was well-oiled and running smoothly and all ready to go. Each component had been checked and double-checked and adjusted to a high degree of operating efficiency and integrated with the rest of the machine. All the bugs had been worked out by now, and there would be no mistakes. The lenses of the tracking mechanism were especially efficient: they had been ground and polished by experts; and they were now focused on him. From this point on that machine would trace his every move, until it finally moved in for the kill. He was in the crosshairs now. It had all begun to converge on him. In a few days he would be dead, legally and lawfully executed. He would be the victim, not of hoods and con men, but of professional conspirators; and their skirts would be “clean,” for they were only irate citizens, campaigning in the name of justice and civic virtue and insisting on the protection of their rights! And let no one suppose, even for a moment, that they did not really believe in the righteousness of their crusade!

And his disciples just could not understand the reasons for that. It all seemed so abysmally tragic and pitiful to them. Their eyes were wet with weeping and full of heaviness. They could not yet see for sorrow that his crucifixion would be a triumph—not a tragedy, but a victory over the twin evils of death and sin. He had to go out of the world this way so that salvation could come into the world. That had been decreed in heaven before the world was and spoken by all the prophets from the beginning, and the scriptures had to be fulfilled. They could not yet understand that, but he knew they would understand it later on when he returned to them after his resurrection and endowed them with power from on high. So for the present, he did not explain it to them. He comforted them instead by speaking of the many mansions in his Father’s house where he was going to prepare a place for them. He also promised to come again and take them unto himself, that they might live with him in those mansions. And he prayed fervently for them, that they might be one with him as he was one with God.

On Thursday evening, the night of the grand performance in the garden, Judas played his part to perfection. His role was difficult, indeed: you might even say it was “treacherous” in places. But his evil nature had found its element, as though he had waited from all eternity for this one big scene. And when he kissed the Savior, he stole the entire show. The script called only for a kiss on the cheek as a means of identification. But according to the reviews of two reliable “critics” who were eyewitnesses to this drama, he put his whole being, his entire soul, into that kiss, fawning over the Lord in a moving portrayal of tenderness and warmth that feigned the deepest loyalty and devotion. The casting was superb, the presentation simply marvelous. Judas was a natural for the role of traitor. It was as though there had been real love in that kiss. No one could have done it better. Not even John the Beloved could have improved upon it. [11]

And it was no drunken street rabble that hauled Christ away from the garden, for that would have been illegal. He was officially arrested by “men and officers” sent by “the chief priests and elders” who represented “the people” in this case (see John 18:3 and Matt. 26:47). He was indeed “taken by the people” (1 Ne. 11:32), as Nephi said. The whole trial, in fact, could have been summarized on the dockets of the Jerusalem courts as “The People Against Jesus,” for it was an aroused public conscience that considered him a dangerous nuisance and dealt with him accordingly.

After a brief appearance before Annas, he was bound over immediately to the Sanhedrin, the highest tribunal of the Jews. And how well that august body fits the patterns of organized crime! Like the Gadianton robbers, they filled the judgment seats, “employing their office very profitably indeed, ‘letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money;’ and using their positions ‘in office at the head of government . . . to get gain and glory’“ (Hel. 7:5). [12] “Still, the judges had to proceed with some care, since they were supposed to be administering justice (Hel. 8:4), and could not be too crude and obvious in their attack, for even among the exceedingly wicked and depraved . . . the feeling of civic virtue was perhaps as alive as it is in America today.” [13]

They fumbled on the first play, for the false witnesses who were to perjure themselves under oath got their signals confused and were momentarily out of their places. But they quickly recovered the ball and started rolling again. A few plays later they scored a touchdown and found the prisoner guilty. All in all there were a few irregularities in the trial, but it satisfied the minimum requirements of the law and no one could accuse them of being underhanded about it.

They would have enjoyed executing him then and there, but there was a complication. Again like the Gadianton society, “these lawyers and judges had one annoying check on their powers—the Federal Government” of Rome. “All orders of capital punishment had to be signed by the governor” of Judea. [14] So they marched the prisoner to Pontius Pilate, “and Jesus stood before the governor.”

Now Pontius Pilate undoubtedly figured prominently in Nephi’s concept of world judgment, for he was a prominent figure in the trial. His importance is historical, moreover, as well as theological, since he represented to Judea the whole world empire of Rome. Like our high government officials, he was not just one man acting on his own. He had constituents who had put him in office and kept him there as long as he did not violate their public trust and confidence. Some of the Romans liked him and others did not, but for better or for worse he reflected something of every one of them in what he did, especially in his official public acts. Most politicians have deep-seated beliefs and convictions about their jobs which form their public policies and platforms; and they usually have a strong sense of civic responsibility. Some of them, like Pilate, are overly concerned with public relations; and some, I suppose, are crooks through and through. But it seems to me that most of them at least try very hard to be honorable public servants, worthy of the public that keeps them in office. On the other hand, however, sometimes that public itself is not too honorable; and then it seeks and usually gets politicians who reflect that fact quite accurately, for the public, regardless of its morals, does not want to be misrepresented. We should thus be able to learn a lot about people by taking a good look at their politics and their politicians.

Pontius Pilate has been extolled as a saint by some. In the minds of most Christians, however, there has always been something devious and questionable about him. But whatever he was, he was the official representative of government in that world which condemned the Lord and executed him by crucifixion. That has always been a strange and compelling paradox to those of us who accept him as our Savior. Think of it! Jesus had to have a formal trial in a criminal court under a secular judge and be condemned to death by the law of the land and sentenced and executed by the state! Why? we ask, just like those disciples. And the answer comes back with humiliating force: it was not for anything he did, but rather for what we have done, for he suffered all that to save us from our sins and from the temporal and spiritual death which they have caused. There are profound typological implications in Pilate’s treatment of Christ, especially in view of Nephi’s pronouncement of that trial as a world judgment. They fling a smarting accusation not only at Pilate but at his world, and at ours as well! That accusation, furthermore, stings those of us who believe in him most of all. He may save the others from temporal death, but only to be resurrected unto judgment where they will pay for their sins in full. [15] In a very real and significant sense Christ suffered all that in a special way for the believers—and because of them.

Isn’t it an amazing thing to watch our Christian world (it used to be the pagan world!) as it attempts to restrict the significance of that trial to the long ago and the far away? They want to lock it up in the first century and keep it there forever and forever. The idea that history repeats itself and that the same attitudes and value judgments and spectacular blunders of men keep recurring in the world is especially bothersome today. We like, instead, to think in terms of human perfectibility and unlimited progress. But there it is anyway, that haunting trial. It’s typical, isn’t it—as Nephi suggests. It’s a little model of a big world; and it doesn’t make any difference whether you look first at the model and then at the world or first at the world and then at the model: the same things are there either way—the same secular attitudes toward Christ, the same spurious judgments of him, the same evasive reasoning of worldly men which is amazingly alike in every generation. As one commentator puts it: “In the case of Pilate it came to a most dramatic expression, but nevertheless we should not regard it as something exceptional. In a sense you may say that this world is like an immense courtroom, where the Son of Almighty God is on trial, and where the world is re-enacting the same drama in every period of history.” [16]

Pontius Pilate typifies those secular souls who get involved in religious matters against their will. He had nothing against Judaism, as long as it kept its distance and didn’t make too much noise. But he didn’t like dealing with the Jews, and especially with their leaders. Not too long before, he had slain some Galileans who were sacrificing at an altar, and the leaders of the Jews had taught him a lesson he would never forget. They had raised some objections to that (and a few other things) in Jerusalem which apparently got him into quite a bit of trouble. Had they sought and obtained redress for those wrongs through the laws of Pilate’s own government? It seems likely, but my best guess is that no one really knows. And now, all of a sudden, here they were again, insisting on their rights. They had a prisoner with them, too, and they were demanding that he be punished. Pilate could see trouble ahead and he didn’t like it. But he didn’t know exactly what to do about it either.

He told the Jews to take the prisoner and judge him according to their law. They had already done that, of course, and there was no doubt as to the verdict: it had been unanimous. He was guilty all right, they assured Pilate, but “it is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” Pilate must have trembled a bit as he learned that capital charges were being brought against the prisoner: it was going to be harder than he had thought to try this case. And when he asked what the charges were, there was a pious chime of righteousness in their voices as they answered: “If he were not a habitual criminal, we would not have delivered him up unto thee” (John 18:30). [17] They remind us of the extremely corrupt and intensely respectable Laban, whose words carried that same indulging ring as he said to Laman: “Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee!” (1 Ne. 3:13; emphasis added). And Pilate knew that any law student could demonstrate beyond all question that they were well within their rights.

The first interview, furthermore, revealed that Pilate was bothered by the prisoner himself. Like many other people he was uncomfortable in the presence of Christ. Jesus made him nervous, and Pilate’s superstitious temperament had prompted him to circumvent, if possible, the responsibility of trying the Lord. He claimed to be the king of those Jews, but he would answer nothing to their charges. That was an amazing thing to Pilate, and so he marveled at it. The whole thing was putting him on the spot, and his political stature was at stake. But there was one thing he simply could not afford, and that was another insurrection. He had already had too much trouble with the authorities. And so, with the greatest reluctance, he took Jesus from the mob and began his indictment of him.

But right from the beginning Pilate had been looking for a way out of his difficulty. He discovered that Herod, tetrarch of Galilee and one of the Roman Empire’s “junior executives,” was in Jerusalem at the time. This gave him an opportunity he couldn’t afford to miss. He knew also that Jesus was accused of stirring up the people, “teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.” And so, he would refer the matter to Herod. It was as simple as that. Jesus was “technically” under his jurisdiction anyway. What a relief that must have been to Pilate! No doubt he congratulated himself as he passed Jesus on to Herod.

But Herod didn’t want the responsibility of trying Jesus either, even though he thought he did at first. He had been as pleased as Pilate when he took charge of the prisoner with such gusto. He had been delighted to do it, for his curiosity was getting the best of him. He had heard a lot about this man, and he thought he would enjoy seeing him in person. He even hoped that Jesus would “entertain” him by performing some of his signs and wonders. But as Herod “questioned with him in many words,” he began to experience the fears that had previously gripped Pilate. He, too, was uneasy in Jesus’ presence. The ominous silence of Jesus, the uproar and confusion of the chief priests and scribes as they “stood and vehemently accused him,” and his solemn and foreboding refusal to answer the charges—these things soon brought the mirth making and gaiety of Herod to a halt. He made friends with Pilate that day, for now they had something in common: an overwhelming desire to steer clear of Christ. After his one-sided conversation with Jesus he could sympathize with the governor’s problem, but he wanted no part of solving it for him. And so he began acting as all godless men act sooner or later when they come face to face with Jesus Christ: “And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.”

When Pilate realized that he could no longer avoid the perplexity of trying Christ, he resolved anew to do as his conscience had bade him all along and set him free. In view of circumstances he knew it would be difficult at best. He was already apprehensive about the prisoner, to say nothing of the mob; and now as he sat on the judgment seat a message came from his wife that increased his anxiety. She had been distressed by a frightening dream and warned, “Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” That didn’t help matters much. It served only to aggravate his superstitious fears. But she did have a point, he thought, and he decided to follow her advice: he would have nothing to do with Jesus. That sounded like a good idea and an excellent philosophy of justice. He would find the quickest way to dispose of the prisoner and wind this case up. And the sooner the better.

For the second time now Pilate took the prisoner aside into his chambers for a private conference. He had hoped to learn something that would hasten the acquittal, but the philosophical density of the conversation disappointed him. It was all too deep and theoretical. Jesus was as bad as those Greeks who were always talking of things above the earth, up in the sky somewhere. Pilate had only asked whether or not he was king of the Jews, and Jesus had begun talking in metaphysical terms about a mystical kingdom that was not of this world. That kind of talk was all right for philosophers, but Pilate was the more practical type. And when Jesus brought up that other chestnut of philosophy, the problem of truth, he despaired of any profit in the interview. There were thousands of books on that topic in the libraries and precious little agreement among them. And so he sighed wearily and took Jesus back to the judgment hall; but not before he asked that cynical question, “What is truth?”

Pilate next tried to release the prisoner by taking advantage of a Passover custom. There were in the dungeon those surly fellows who belonged to that small core of extremely hardened criminals who scandalized even the rest of the criminals. They had no scruples whatever, and they broke all the laws, even the strict union rules of the syndicate! They gave crime a bad name and were a constant source of annoyance and trouble. Pilate selected Barabbas, the worst of those congenital offenders. He then sought acquittal for Jesus by offering the mob this substitute victim, who was guilty of murder.

That was supposed to be a political masterstroke, even though he knew it was exceedingly poor jurisprudence. But it failed; in fact, it backfired in his face, for the people and their leaders wanted to kill Jesus, not Barabbas. And Pilate, caught in his own trap, finally cried out in desperation: What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? Ah! That was the crux of the matter, the real problem in his soul! And, since he was asking the mob for advice, he got it, quickly. They shouted back: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” But he didn’t want to do that! He only wanted to get rid of Him, to get Him off his hands! [18]

The tempo of things had picked up considerably by now, and like an amateur jazz musician Pilate was having trouble keeping up with it. He preferred the slower numbers anyway. Those fast tunes always made him run out of ideas. He needed a break, an intermission, time to settle down and think of something for the next set. So he took the prisoner back to the barracks and turned him over to the soldiers for a while.

But there was no respite for Jesus. We have already described the mimicry of the soldiers, but we must add here that as Pilate watched that pitiable sight he was, if anything, more to be pitied than Jesus. Still, he felt sorry for the prisoner as he watched him being abused. Like Alma, “his heart again began to sicken,” though not for the same reason (see Alma 31:1). But he was an indomitable optimist, and that scene also suggested his next move. He thought of a way to elicit the pity of the mob by dramatizing the innocence of his prisoner, thereby hoping to convince them that he should be released. “Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.” There was an awkward silence as Jesus came forth “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.” And Pilate made the most of that one brief moment. Pointing to the prisoner he said, “Behold the man!” But the appearance of Jesus had an entirely different effect on the Jews than the one he had anticipated. It failed completely in its purpose, for there was no compassion in that mob as they looked upon the Savior. They were bound and determined to have him executed at all costs, and they would show him no pity, none whatsoever!

And Pilate was disappointed by their reaction to the prisoner. He was obviously disheartened by the repeated failure of his plans, and he was thoroughly disgusted with the Jews. Their resolute insistence that he crucify the man unnerved him. And when they persisted in their demands, he turned on them angrily and said, “Take ye him and crucify him: for I find no fault in him!” He was saying in effect, “You’re not going to involve me in your miserable crimes! The man is innocent, and I want no part in his execution! If you want him crucified so badly, do it yourselves! But count me out of it completely!” And that only served to antagonize the Jews. They were unable to impose the death penalty under Roman law, and therefore Pilate would have to do it. “We have a law,” they retorted, “and by our law he has to die, because he made himself the Son of God!”

For the third time now, Pilate took Jesus aside for a private interview. It was difficult to say who disturbed him more—the mob or the prisoner. He was troubled most of all, perhaps, by the Savior’s claim to be the Son of God. “When Pilate therefore heard that saying,” the Bible says, “he was the more afraid.” And there was something else about that interview. Pilate had been out of patience when the prisoner wouldn’t answer his question, and so he said, “Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee and . . . to release thee?” But Jesus had answered, “Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” It was that last part he didn’t like: it was as though the Savior had told him, “Cheer up, old man. You’re not as bad as Judas! You’ll inherit a higher degree in hell than he will!”

By this time Pilate was in a quandary. He had no doubts about the prisoner’s innocence and said so time and again in public. But there were other considerations. What does a politician do when he is caught in a conflict between the demands of his conscience and those of his constituents? Should he release the prisoner over the protests of the mob as his conscience directed? Or should he give in to their demands and condemn the prisoner even though he was innocent? The former choice was the right one; there was no question about that. But where would Jesus go if he were released? He would not be safe in Jerusalem, for that mob would find him somehow and kill him anyway. And even though the latter choice was definitely wrong, it would avoid an awful lot of trouble with the authorities, for Caesar and the Romans would be harder to manage than that mob if those subjugated Israelites rebelled again! And, of course, if that happened again it would be Pilate’s fault, for he was supposed to keep the captives quietly in their chains!

He wondered halfheartedly if torturing the prisoner or punishing him severely would satisfy the Jews, but he didn’t really think it would work. And sure enough, when he proposed to chastise Jesus and release him, they replied immediately, “If thou let this man go thou art not Caesar’s friend: Whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar! . . . Pilate saith unto them, Behold your king! . . . Shall I crucify your king?” And the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” Pilate felt the snare closing tightly about him. He had tried everything he could think of to pacify that mob without sacrificing the prisoner. What more could he do? But he would not give in.

Let’s see now, how many things had Pilate attempted? He had told the Jews to try Jesus according to their own laws. They had already done that and found him guilty of a capital crime, but they could not legally execute him. He had referred the Savior to a lower Roman court, but Herod refused the case and sent him back. He tried to follow the advice of his wife and have nothing to do with Jesus, but he was having a great deal to do with him. He had interviewed the prisoner three different times, but all he got out of it was philosophical talk or cryptic sayings or silence, and he didn’t even have enough information to construct a brief for the defense. He had offered a substitute victim, but the mob rejected his offer. He had felt pity as his own soldiers mocked the Lord, but the mob didn’t share his feelings. And he had proposed to chastise Jesus and release him, but the mob reminded him of Caesar and threatened to revolt. That makes nine attempts in all to free the prisoner without stirring up the Jews and, consequently, the authorities. And now at last he was at the end of his rope and couldn’t think of anything else.

But wait! There was a solution, he thought. It wasn’t a very good one, but then it was a solution and it might work out—at least for him. He must have felt a little foolish as he sent for that basin and ordered it filled with water, for he did it only after he “saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made.” That made his solution an admission of defeat as well as a disclaimer of responsibility. But he stumbled through the ceremony, presenting it as a kind of visual aid in the form of an object lesson. He “took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”

And that was all right with the mob as long as Jesus was put to death. They were even willing to assume the blame in order to relieve Pilate of responsibility in the whole messy affair. And so they cried out, “His blood be on us, and on our children!” But there wasn’t much comfort left in those words: the Roman governor had been outwitted by the mob, and he knew it. They had forced his hand, and he was selling out against his will and better judgment. The thoughts of condemning an innocent man haunted him, but so did that mob! Everything was slipping out of his control. And finally, when he could stand it no longer, he gave up in defeat and surrendered completely to their demands. In spite of all his reservations we are told that “Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.”

The story of Pontius Pilate is the story of a little boy in a big cage with his father’s lion and his mother’s lamb. The lion wanted to eat the lamb, but his mother insisted that he protect the lamb against the lion because it didn’t deserve to be eaten. But his father didn’t want the lion provoked either. He preferred it contented and quiet, and he didn’t like to hear it roar. Now the boy didn’t care too much for either of those animals, and ordinarily he wouldn’t have interfered with them if they didn’t bother him. But as it was, they were the pets of his parents, and he had to protect the lamb against the lion: he had to hold the lamb and he couldn’t release it or that lion would get it and he would end up in the doghouse. And on the other hand, the lion wanted only that lamb, but he had been pacing restlessly back and forth for some time now, and if he didn’t get it pretty soon, he would not only roar, but he would devour the boy along with the lamb! And the boy never was able to determine what the lamb wanted.

So what did the boy do? Well, inasmuch as he was a child, he thought as a child, and he hit upon a child’s solution. His mother’s name was “Conscience,” and he didn’t like to hear her cry. But he didn’t like his father’s whippings either. His father’s name was “Rome,” and he had a terrible temper. The boy, accordingly, had to decide whether he would rather hear his mother cry or take a whipping from his father. That was necessary because the lion was getting out of hand.

Now, like most little boys he didn’t like whippings. He thought he would rather hear his mother cry instead. And so he said, “Please don’t blame me for what I’m going to do.” And then he gave the lamb to the lion. It seemed like a good idea at first, but not long after that his mother began to cry. And she kept it up, too. In fact, she never did stop crying after that, for she knew the lamb should not have been eaten, and she was deeply offended by what her little boy had done.

And what finally happened to that little boy? Well, he grew older, but he never did grow up. He was always a little boy; he didn’t ever become a man. And not being a man, he couldn’t think like a man. And so he didn’t realize until it was much too late that it is always better to take even a bad licking than it is to live with a whining conscience. And strangely enough his father was even displeased by what he did: the boy never could understand that, for he had tried so hard to keep the lion quiet. But he was never able to please his father after that. The Roman governor for all his maneuvering and scheming did not avert political disaster, as he was deposed by Caligula in A.D. 36. And soon after that, according to Eusebius, Pontius Pilate, “wearied with misfortunes,” killed himself. You see, he wasn’t really as bad as Judas after all or he wouldn’t have waited so long to commit suicide: he would have done it right after the trial. [19]

Well, there we have it, the story of Pontius Pilate. It is a sad, tragic story, and there is something of it in most of us. It would have been an entirely different story if Pilate had followed that other alternative, the one he knew was right. But he was too worried about the consequences. That lion concerned him more at the moment than justice did. Still, we shouldn’t condemn him too severely, for we don’t find it too easy ourselves to “do what is right” and “let the consequence follow!” But if he had acquitted Jesus, you say, that mob would have devoured them both. Yes, I suppose that’s true, for one righteous governor could not have stopped a powerful machine like that one among the Jews. Our governors can’t do it alone today, either. But before they were consumed together, Jesus would have spoken to Pilate, perhaps as he later spoke to the thief on the cross. He might have said, “Pilate, this day shalt thou sit down with me in my kingdom which is not of this world.” And what if Pilate had been fortunate enough to escape the mob? He couldn’t have saved the Savior ultimately, for Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world, as Nephi said. But he could have fought the remainder of his days against spiritual wickedness in high places. And even if he had been condemned at Rome, the Christians would have taken him in. John would have been the first to seek him out and say, “Pilate, won’t you come to our house and live with me and Mary?” And how the disciples would have loved him! And Peter, who didn’t have the strength of his convictions during the trial, would have been ashamed in his presence: he would have looked upon Pontius Pilate as the supreme example of judicial righteousness, that tough-minded justice which is never cowed before the forces of evil no matter how strong or popular or respectable they become. And Paul might even have written a letter to him later on, as he did to Timothy and Philemon. And Pontius Pilate would have been taken by our own courts as their symbol of equal justice for all before the law. And we would have referred proudly to our best judges and governors as the “Pontius Pilates” of Utah and Maine and California and Washington, D.C. But that’s all dreaminess, isn’t it? That’s not how it is today. Pontius Pilate’s name is linked instead with corruption in the legal profession. He is the type of everything that is evil in jurisprudence. He is the outstanding example, not of righteous judgment but of world judgment. And he represents especially all of those judicial pawns who allow themselves to be used and manipulated in the sophisticated game of modern legalized crime. Pontius Pilate stands today in a place reserved specifically and solely for him as the supreme example and archetype of the judicial murderer! And let us remember that Pilate never did forget the last words Jesus spoke to him: “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” Yes, the sin of Judas was greater than the sin of Pilate. But how much greater? Pilate must have asked that question over and over again for years, until it finally drove him to suicide!

Now, if we look closely at the trial of Jesus, viewing it through the eyes of Nephi, we see all the elements of world judgment. There they are in miniature. The principals in that trial had the same mental attitudes toward the Savior that we see today on every hand. Many of our people sound just like the attorney for the defense in the modern counterpart of that trial. They find no fault in Jesus and they see great value in what he represents. They come to his church, listen to the words of eternal life, marvel at the wisdom of the scriptures, and generally benefit by his teachings. But they don’t want to be considered too “religious” by men of the world. And so they just accept all of the by-products of the gospel without accepting the gospel. The whole business of redemption is superfluous in their judgment. When we preach “Christ and him crucified” today, it is just as much a stumbling block to them as it was to the Jews, and they think it every bit as foolish as the Greeks thought it was. The thing that really matters is that the church is a “going concern”: they can’t stand inefficiency, and so the church for them must be a smashing success, as though it were a thriving business or something. But when you ask them what they believe—well, they want to be “open-minded” and “objective.” They haven’t made up their minds about that yet, and they won’t until all the “facts” are in. They are perfectly willing, of course, to consider any point of view, for that’s an indication of maturity according to them; but they won’t commit themselves to one, no matter what it is. They will, however, argue either side of any question at the drop of a hat without having any convictions about it one way or the other!

Well now, isn’t that an amazing turn of events! There was a time when it really meant something to be a Christian. People used to believe that they had to forsake the world in order to follow Christ and vice versa. Those who were of the church were not of the world, even though they were in it. It was impossible to belong to the world and the church at the same time. But today, the pagan world and the Christian church have embraced each other with open arms. It is not only possible but fashionable to belong to both. Men of the world are in the church; and they are quite comfortable in it. They don’t see much difference, apparently, between the world and the church; and that, I fear, is not entirely their fault! But don’t let them fool you. They are not really of the church at all, even though they are in it. It’s just an organization to them, like other organizations. It is certainly not the kingdom of God! That notion is a “theological hangover,” the medieval ecclesiology of less enlightened and more gullible souls. And what do these people think about the Savior? Well, he was a wonderful teacher, of course, and a great man—even a perfect man—but a man, nevertheless. He did not come to redeem them from their sins, but to teach them how to live. And his death was not expiatory in any degree. It was a tragic thing, of course, for he was maltreated and grossly misunderstood. But the real value of his example is that he inspires them to live their religion. And they want to be like him, for he had enough moral courage to practice what he preached. And when he died, he was dying for his principles, not for the sins of the world!

Two thousand years ago the Roman governor had those same extremely pragmatic notions about everything, and so did his world. The prevailing secular philosophy which found expression in his desire to have nothing to do with Jesus was widespread and commonplace, especially in religious matters. And it showed up, not only among the practical, hardheaded Romans, but in Israel, too. Have you ever really stopped to notice the people who came into direct contact with the Savior? They form three distinct and identifiable groups. Two of those groups were small minority elements in the fractious society of Pilate’s world. The first group comprised that handful of avowed and zealous enemies of Christ. They were the conspirators headed by Caiaphas and other leaders of the Jews; and like dedicated unbelievers today, they campaigned relentlessly against Christianity, for they were filled with deep, embittered hatred of Jesus Christ and everything he represented.

There was a second group of zealous and dedicated believers in the Holy Land. They comprised that small nucleus of the Savior’s loyal and devoted followers. They were a sorry lot in some ways, for they were full of weaknesses: even Peter, their leader and chief Apostle, denied his Lord with curses, and three different times at that; and all of them had forsaken him in the garden and fled for their lives when the chips were down. But they were humbled by their weaknesses, and they became men of strength whose influence carried far beyond Judea and Galilee, for Jesus made them his witnesses and sent them out among the nations to bring his spiritual kingdom into their secular world. But the third group was a big one, that vast and variegated sea of humanity represented by Pontius Pilate—the masses of people who came into contact with Jesus Christ. There were thousands of them, and they were thoroughly fascinated with Jesus. They were the common people who “heard him gladly.” A few of them did become his followers later on, but if they changed their loyalties at all, they usually went over to that other group and joined Caiaphas. Jesus never ceased to amaze them with his miracles; and like their spiritual father, Pilate, they never ceased to marvel at him. Listen to these graphic descriptions of that huge third group:

And a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and from beyond Jordan; and they about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude (Mark 3:7–8).

And his fame went throughout all Syria . . . . And there followed him great multitudes of people from . . . Decapolis (Matt. 4:24–25).

And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself (Mark 3:20–21).

And he spake to his disciples that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him (Mark 3:9).

Now that sounds like his ministry was very successful, doesn’t it? Yes, indeed. But those same descriptions also tell us why those crowds flocked to him from every quarter. They came to him in droves

when they had heard what great things he did. . . . For he had healed many; insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him, as many as had plagues (Mark 3:8,10).

And he came down . . . and stood . . . [with] a great multitude of people . . . which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases . . . and they were healed. And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all (Luke 6:17–19).

And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them (Matt. 4:24).

And great multitudes came unto him, having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus feet; and he healed them: Insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see (Matt. 15:30–31).

Yes, Jesus was an amazing healer and an interesting preacher, too. And he had lots of followers—thousands of them! You could go through the streets and marketplaces of any city where he had been and feel the enthusiasm of the crowds. He was clearly the central topic in their buzzing conversations, and the excited hum of talk went on and on. But then one day something happened to change all that. Jesus spoke to that huge audience about their reasons for following him; and after that they weren’t so willing to go tagging along behind him anymore. They still talked about him in the cities, but the excitement of their conversations had subsided somewhat. They were calmer now; and sometimes they would even whisper when they spoke of him. This is how it happened: The Twelve who had been sent out by Jesus returned one day, and he went with them to a mountain on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. They wanted to tell him “all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught” (Mark 6:30). But true to form the crowd learned of it somehow.

And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased (John 6:2).

And the people . . . ran afoot thither out of all cities,.. . and came together unto him. And Jesus . . . was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd (Mark 6:33–34).

And he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing (Luke 9:11).

And when evening came he fed that big crowd, over five thousand of them in all, with a few small loaves and fishes. “They sat down in ranks, by hundreds and by fifties. . . . And they did all eat and were filled.” And as usual, they marveled at him for that. “Those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (Mark 6:40, 42; John 6:14). And when the meal was over that crowd thought so much of him for feeding them miraculously that they wanted to “take him by force, to make him a king” (John 6:15). But Jesus eluded them somehow, and they bedded down for the night. He then sent his disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat and went up alone into the mountain to pray. And later that night Jesus left the crowd sleeping on the shore and walked across the Sea of Galilee to join his disciples in the boat. The next morning there was a stir on both shores of the Sea of Galilee. At Gennesaret, where Jesus landed, he received the usual welcome from another crowd, just like the one on the northern shore.

And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all the country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased (Matt. 14:35).

And [they] ran through that whole region round about, and began to carry about in beds those that were sick, where they heard he was. And whithersoever he entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole” (Mark 6:55–56).

Meanwhile, back at the northern shore, the crowd had discovered the absence of Jesus. That was distressing to them because he was their hero and they wanted to follow him wherever he went. And so some of them rustled up some boats and set out on the sea, while others walked around the shore toward Capernaum; and according to the story as John tells it, they were “seeking for Jesus” (John 6:24).

Well, they found him all right, but they were shocked by what he had to say to them. “Ye seek me,” he said, “not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26). Now that really means something like this: “You did not seek me this time, as you usually do, so you could applaud as I do miracles; but you are here instead because you think I am a butler who will serve you bread if you follow me about.” The crowd was taken aback by that; but Jesus continued: “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you” (John 6:27). The spokesmen for that crowd had to think those words over for a moment; but then, since he was talking about labor, they asked him: “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” (John 6:28). And that, translated into plain language, means, “Come now, good fellow, don’t speak in mystical terms. Tell us your meaning. What is this 'labor for bread’ of which you speak?” And then Jesus did a funny thing. He asked that crowd for its personal loyalty: he asked them to believe on him. He said, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). And once more, that really means, “My followers are not men who follow me around out of curiosity or selfishness: they are men who believe in me!” Well, imagine that! A look of consternation came over that crowd, and they seemed to be thinking: “Now this fellow has a real lot of gall! Why, we have made him the most successful messianic claimant to come through these parts in a long time! But he isn’t satisfied with that: he wants us to believe in his divinity! This ‘carpenter’s son’ actually expects us to believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God!” The crowd was quiet now, and it had already begun to get smaller. You see, that crowd wanted to follow the Lord without believing in him; but Jesus wouldn’t have it that way. And now the spiritual kinship between that crowd and Pontius Pilate begins to become apparent. They weren’t really against Jesus, and they certainly wouldn’t have condemned him; but they weren’t really for him either. And they never would have faced the basic question of believing or disbelieving in him if he had not confronted them with it. They would have continued right on the rest of their lives as a kind of spiritual fan club. They would have listened to him preach, and they would have said “Amen!” whenever he mentioned something they could agree with. They would have followed him about clapping and cheering his every noble act; and they would have kept right on thanking him graciously whenever he did them a favor, like healing their sick or giving them bread. But he wanted them to make up their minds about him. Did they believe in him or not? He wanted them to quit hiding in that huge massive crowd represented by Pontius Pilate and join one of those two smaller groups. He wanted them to come right out and identify themselves, either with Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin or with Peter, James and John. But they didn’t want to do that: they wanted to stay where they were, with Pontius Pilate. When it came to a personal commitment of loyalty to Jesus, they would neither give it nor withhold it; and when they finally had to face the crisis of making up their minds whether or not they accepted Christ along with his teachings and his way of life, they would have nothing to do with him. And like Pontius Pilate, they worked hard at that philosophy, for like him, they really believed that it would work!

And Jesus wasn’t finished yet. He went on talking about the manna from heaven. He said that the manna was not the real bread of life at all, and that it was only a type of himself! Jesus actually told that crowd that he was the real bread of life!

My father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. . . . I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. . . . Every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day. . . . He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. . . . This is the bread which . . . a man may eat . . . and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world . . . . Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. . . . This is that bread which came down from heaven: . . . he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever (John 6:32–58).

Now Pontius Pilate’s crowd of spiritual relatives were offended by that. They “murmured at him because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41). They had not murmured when he did miracles or gave them bread to eat, but now they grumbled, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60). And they took offense at it. “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66). There they go, the crowd of Pontius Pilate, slinking off one by one until every one of them is gone: not one of them is left. And Jesus stands there watching them go. His heart is sad, but he is not alone. There are twelve others with him. Only one of them should have sneaked off with Pilate’s crowd: the rest are loyal to him, and they follow him because they believe in him. So when he turned to them and asked, “Will ye also go away?” they answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:67–69).

The Lord would have all men understand that they do not become his followers by following him from place to place, applauding his miracles, accepting his bounteous gifts, and talking about his teachings. But that is a favorite trick of Pilate’s vast worldly group in every age: they will try to do that every time! No wonder Elder Talmage was moved to write this commentary on the flesh and blood of Christ:

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ was and is to believe in and accept Him as the literal Son of God and Savior of the world, and to obey His commandments. By these means only may the spirit of God become an abiding part of man’s individual being. . . . It is not sufficing to accept the precepts of Christ as we may adopt the doctrines of scientists, philosophers, and savants, however great the wisdom of these sages may be; for such acceptance is by mental assent or deliberate exercise of will, and has relation to the doctrine only as independent of the author. The teachings of Jesus Christ endure because of their intrinsic worth; and many men respect his aphorisms, proverbs, and His profoundly philosophical precepts, who yet reject Him as the Son of God, the Only Begotten in the flesh, the God-Man in whom were united the attributes of Deity with those of humanity, the chosen and foreordained Redeemer of mankind, through whom alone may salvation be attained. But the figure used by Jesus—that of eating His flesh and drinking His blood as typical of unqualified and absolute acceptance of Himself as the Savior of men, is of superlative import; for thereby are affirmed the divinity of His Person, and the fact of His pre-existent and eternal Godship. [20]

Now there aren’t very many people in America today who really know what “unqualified and absolute acceptance” of Christ is all about. But there are plenty of them around who understand perfectly well the philosophy of Pontius Pilate. He wasn’t the only one, you know, who washed his hands of Jesus. That whole big crowd of his did the same thing in one way or another. And they are doing it today. Where do you go anyway to get away from Pontius Pilate and his crowd? I’ve found that big unwieldy blob of jellyfish neutrality everywhere I’ve ever been. Look at them! They’re not publicans and lepers and Pharisees and Roman soldiers! They’re Americans! And they’re alive today! They want to be broad-minded and relative and neutral about everything, and no matter what you do you can’t pin them down to take a stand on anything! Not even the eels are as slippery as they are. And they feel no need of religion, except that they want the Christian church around somewhere to exert a refining influence on society. Even the Mormon Church will do, for Americans aren’t as narrow-minded as they used to be. And it is really something to hear that pious cant about religious freedom in this country: it sounds like it came from a massed choir about the size of those multitudes that followed the Savior about the countrysides. Americans don’t stand in the way of religious freedom. They are neutral about most things, including religion, but religious freedom is one of the few things they are definitely for! We are constantly reminded that our whole Western heritage is based upon it. But I’m afraid we talk so much about freedom of religion these days that we don’t know what it is anymore. We seem to think it means freedom to be neutral and secular about everything. I ask you, are Americans today really interested in the freedom to believe in Christ without restraint, or do they want the freedom to reject him the same way, so that there will be nothing to restrain them from furthering their own interests? I may not be overly optimistic, but it seems to me that for the great majority of Americans (and even for some “Saints”) it is the latter!

How much closer can we get, really, to the world of Pontius Pilate? People today don’t reject Christ; they know better than that. But then, they don’t accept him either. They just stay completely out of his way if they can, for they want nothing to do with him. And they do it en masse, the organization way, as well as individually. We are secular in today’s America. Today is the era of the colossal dodge when our whole society gingerly sidesteps any direct contact with the Savior. If there is any relationship at all between Jesus Christ and the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, it is a very vague and hazy one indeed. The scriptures are pretty good books on theology, although somewhat out-of-date for us, perhaps. But they had better stay out of the sciences—especially the life sciences and geology—where they are liable to be proved wrong on a number of points. Some of our scientists give us the impression that they could tell God a thing or two about this universe! And, oh my! Aren’t we flattered in America when one of those scientists says publicly on occasion that he still believes in God in this age of cybernetics and missiles and the cyclotron and mushroom clouds and outer space! And essentially the same thing can be said of the humanities and social sciences, those other pillars in our academic trinity. Mathematics and psychology, chemistry and business, music and history, sociology and art, industry and agriculture, politics and engineering, geography and education, economics and botany, animal husbandry and air science, recreation and accounting, literature and architecture—these things have no definite relationship to Jesus Christ that can be defined as either “for” or “against” him. They are neutral and secular, of course! We insist on keeping them that way, too. And why don’t we just declassify religion from the humanities and reenter it under the social sciences where we seem to think it belongs? Religion in America often walks off with all the first prizes when it comes to secularism. May I ask just one question on behalf of those in our Western culture who do accept Christ unqualifiedly and absolutely? How do we keep from choking as we inhale the suffocating air of righteousness that hangs like an irritating smog over all this secularity? We could use some gigantic exhaust fans in this country—and especially in our religious institutions!

Pontius Pilate’s legacy to America has been described in strong terms by a preacher who is obviously a scandal to modern liberal Protestantism:

[Pilate] would have enjoyed great popularity today. Christ is tolerated among us. Christianity is given its little corner somewhere to work out its ideas and practice its ritual unmolested and in seclusion. But it does not permeate the culture of our day, much less does it occupy a place of commanding influence. It is expected to be a follower, not a leader of men. They talk piously about religious liberty, and they feel very magnanimous and benevolent when they preserve for Christianity a pigeonhole in the social structure. Oh no, Christ must not be persecuted, nor condemned, nor crucified. And let us be good enough to exempt His church from taxation. And let it enjoy certain concessions and privileges! And let’s inscribe our coins with a pious motto, and open our legislature with prayer, and put our hands on a Bible when we take oath of office! Let’s not be antagonistic to Christianity, but friendly, and tolerant—and even protective! We don’t want to be like the Russians, do we? That’s what gets me, this patronizing indulgence on the part of insufferably smug and independent men and women, who are religiously neutral, who themselves have no need of Christ, who really want nothing to do with him! Sometimes I think it would be much easier to bear the outright persecution of those who hate Christianity, than to suffer this complacent and sophisticated toleration of a secular world. You can’t come to grips with these people. They seem to have a hard shell of indifference about them, and you can’t break through it. [21]

Howard Pierce Davis pointed to that same loss of faith and lack of convictions in “modern” religion when he said that the liberal Protestants with whom he associates would not be caught dead believing in anything. [22] They have freed themselves, not from sin but from the Savior! And the gloomy thing about it is that those same Protestant liberals have mesmerized many Latter-day Saint intellectuals: in forsaking the standard works they, too, have acquired that same hard shell of secular indifference; and they also belong to that huge contemporary crowd of Pontius Pilate’s spiritual descendants.

The ubiquity of that spineless conglomerate, moreover, is simply amazing. What’s the matter with this generation? Do we seriously believe that this impotent ideology is Christian and that we want to share it with men like Pontius Pilate? Well, we must believe it, for we see his philosophy everywhere. It is found uptown and downtown and across town and in the semi-rural and rustic areas. It is espoused by the urbane, the half-cultured, and the uncouth of all ages. We see these people in the streets and on the farms. They live in apartments, motels, rented flats, dormitories, mortgaged homes, and trailer houses. They turn up in our bus depots, air terminals, railway stations, and hotel lobbies. We hear them on the radio, read about them in newspapers and magazines, and see them in the movies and on television. They are among the faculties and student bodies of trade schools, high schools, and universities. And for relaxation they go to country clubs, bars, libraries, and night clubs, yes, and even to the churches! They are not too impressed with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God!

When Jesus came to Golgotha,
They hanged him on a tree.
They drove great nails through hands and feet,
They made—a calvary!
They crowned him with a crown of thorns,
Red were his wounds, and deep;
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to my hometown,
They simply passed him by.
They never hurt a hair of him;
They only let him die.
For men had grown more tender;
They would not give him pain.
And so they passed on down the street,
And left him in the rain. [23]

And one more thing. We should realize that those who espouse this philosophy are apparently naive enough to think it will actually work. They don’t seem to realize that Christ condemned it severely as a way of thinking. He told the neutral church at Laodicea, for example, “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16; emphasis added). Jesus is saying that people like this make him sick. They nauseate him. That word “spue,” you know, does not mean “spit”; it means “vomit,” “regurgitate,” “throw up!” [24] And those same people forget another saying which is recorded five different times in the scriptures where the Lord has said in substance, “He that is not for me is against me” (see Matt. 12:30; Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50,11:23; 2 Ne. 10:16). That, in effect, is what he told the big crowd in the public square. It means that there are not three alternatives at all. There are only two. There are not really two little groups and one big one. It only looks that way, for the third group is strictly an illusion. In actuality there are only two groups, a big one and a little one.

Now, if you doubt that, come with me back to Galilee to the place where Jesus preached about the bread of life. The sermon is over, he is still standing there, and that small group of disciples is with him. But where is that huge third group? Well, they didn’t just evaporate into the atmosphere. They went home, I suppose. But before the Lord bowed his head on the cross and “gave up the ghost,” that big crowd showed up again, at least three different times.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass, that multitude was there again to greet him. This is how the New Testament describes the way they did it: “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way” (Matt. 21:8). “And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:9). “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:10). “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matt. 21:9).

That was on Sunday. But five days later, on Friday, that same multitude showed up again, this time for the trial. They are still talking about Jesus, but their voices are louder than ever before. And what are they saying? “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And where are they standing? Well, they have gone over to that other smaller group. And who is their leader now, that man standing in front of them? It’s not Pilate, for he is on the judgment seat. It’s Caiaphas! You see, his little group has become a huge, massive group, and the third group has disappeared altogether!

And it’s no accident that this is a public trial, either. It had to be, as Hugh Nibley would say, “in the absence of television!” [25] Caiaphas and the conspirators could not have created a mob out of nothing: they had to have a big neutral crowd to work with first. They were expert mass psychologists who knew all about the so-called modern game of molding public opinion and changing and manipulating it to serve their ends. Human relations and advertising, moreover, were their special fields. Pontius Pilate’s big third group was no match for them. In the hands of Caiaphas and the conspirators, that huge neutral crowd easily became the mob at the trial shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And they meant it, too, for at heart they really belonged in that first group with Caiaphas all along! That’s why they were offended by that sermon on the bread of life, and why, incidentally, Elder Talmage has referred to Jesus Christ as “the greatest offender in history”! [26]

And that same multitude also came to the crucifixion, this time in their true characters as disciples of Caiaphas. They are still talking about Jesus. Once more, let’s read the story in the New Testament.

And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, . . . let him save himself if he be Christ, the chosen of God. And the soldiers also mocked him, . . . saying, If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself (Luke 23:35–37).

And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God (Matt. 27:39–43).

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us (Luke 23:39).

Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God (Matt. 27:54).

Certainly this was a righteous man. And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts and returned (Luke 23:47–48).

If we in America today could only learn a lesson from Pontius Pilate, instead of devouring his philosophy as though it were ambrosia! There are those who say that we learn from history only what we don’t learn from history. I sincerely hope they are wrong. But I know this: we should be able to see in Pilate’s tragic end the ultimate end of his philosophy carried to its logical conclusion. And we had better learn from it, for it tends surely and inevitably to suicide. The neutral secularism of America, and especially of her religious institutions, is a dangerous element in our current national panic and pessimism and manic depression. And it could lead eventually to national suicide, too—make no mistake about that! But it won’t if enough Americans get out of that big crowd soon enough and go over to that little group with Peter, James, and John and a few other Americans who worship the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ. But we are in serious trouble if we wait until that crowd becomes a mob, for then it is too late! There is not much difference, remember, between the crowd of Pontius Pilate and the mob of Caiaphas. Both of those men bear a strong resemblance to Judas. And you know, all three of them took their own lives, really, for although Caiaphas didn’t literally kill himself, he did commit spiritual suicide by what he did. And so did the conspirators. And so will we—unless we get out of their company before it is too late!

I don’t suppose it would be sporting to remind Americans that here in this country it was not unbelievers who banded together in Missouri and Illinois and swooped down upon the Latter-day Saints like marauding hordes of desert Bedouin to send them flying in all directions. And even if the Mormons had been what they were accused of being—that “insidious blight and festering sore” of America—how could anyone justify Missouri’s Governor Boggs in issuing an official “Order of Extermination” against them and unleashing the vicious state militia to perpetrate, say, the Haun’s Mill Massacre at Shoal Creek? I suppose it was all right because it was religious, or because it was done in the name of civic virtue by citizens of the United States whose patriotic instincts had been abrased and who were only “protecting their rights”! But history, I’m afraid, will refer to that and not the Mormons as:

A blot that will remain a blot, in spite
Of all that grave apologists can write;
And though a Bishop try to cleanse the stain,
He’ll rub and scour the crimson spot in vain. [27]

And many of the Latter-day Saints would be offended if I were to tell them that I was almost twenty-five years of age before I heard the basic doctrines of the Book of Mormon, the Fall of man and the Atonement of Jesus Christ, although I was born and raised in the Church and active all my life. Now that is partly my fault, I know; but I can’t take all the blame, as I did manage to win a couple of those 100-percent awards for perfect attendance. And, since I have been converted to Jesus Christ by the Book of Mormon, I speak of him occasionally. I didn’t do that before I was converted because there were too many other interesting things to talk about—like the parables, the welfare plan, the Sermon on the Mount, the good life, the gold and green ball, the MIA basketball tournament, the Golden Rule, the internal consistency of the Book of Mormon, the Word of Wisdom, the golden plates, the ruins of South America, the Three Nephites, the great and abominable church, the Hill Cumorah pageant, eternal marriage, and the blood stain on the floor of Carthage Jail, to mention only a few. But my interests have changed somewhat since then. Oh, I still believe in those things and talk about them once in a while, but not in the same way as before. And I usually talk about other things whenever I’m called to speak in sacrament meetings or to teach Sunday School classes. I talk about all of the interesting things I found inside the Book of Mormon when I finally stopped worshiping that book and started reading it. I talk most of all about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Fall of man which made it necessary. I spend less time “proving” the Book of Mormon and more time teaching its doctrines and persuading the Latter-day Saints to believe in Christ and repent of their sins. I tell them that “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19), that all men are “carnal, sensual, and devilish by nature” (Alma 42:10), and that “all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters” (Mosiah 27:25). For only in this way can “they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 27:26). I speak of other things, too, but they are all related to the Fall and the Atonement—the birth of the spirit, the suffering in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, justice and mercy, the grace of God, repentance and the change of heart which comes from it, and the peace of conscience that came to converts in the Book of Mormon when “a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God” (Alma 5:13), who is Jesus Christ.

Now, I’ve discovered that most people in our sacrament meetings appreciate that kind of talk once in a while. But every now and then I speak in a ward which has that stiff, secular spirit of Pontius Pilate about it. And the people there are astonished by that kind of preaching at first, and then bored by it: after the initial shock is over, it’s a ho-hum affair until I get through and someone else goes on with those other topics, the ones they are more used to. And I can tell by the looks on their faces that they are thinking, “Who is this Protestant? And where did he get all of those medieval concepts?” But they are somewhat puzzled, too, for those concepts came straight from the Book of Mormon, not from some old sectarian catechism. And some of them have been quite frankly indignant about it, and have said to me, “Must we listen to this antiquated theology? That kind of talk may be all right for monks and ministers, and for a few extremely emotional and misguided Latter-day Saints, but it’s taboo in this ward.” And I usually say, “Yes, I can see that.” Then both they and I are happier when we go our separate ways—and those ways are separated, believe me.

And so the typological concept of world judgment speaks to every age, our own included. Those four words, “judged of the world,” are alive with meaning, for by them Nephi indicts those who merely ignore the Savior as well as those who reject and condemn him openly and bitterly. And every time we read the vision of Nephi we see those incriminating words: “And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.” And those words remind us every time of Pontius Pilate first of all, and then of Caiaphas and Judas.

In that great and last day when all shall stand before this man whom the world because of their iniquity have judged to be a thing of naught, the tables will be turned and he will be the judge. And in that day he will separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, the righteous from the wicked, the children of heaven from the children of hell. [28] It is not entirely correct to say, as some do, that Pontius Pilate handed down the most important decision of all time, for Jesus Christ will eventually decide the guilt or innocence of all men everywhere. He came into the world for judgment: that was the purpose of his life, for according to his own words, his Father sent him to “be lifted up upon the cross”; and as he had been lifted up by men, “even so should men be lifted up by the Father” to stand before him at the last day (see 3 Ne. 27:13–22; see also D&C 19:4,15–24; 45:2–6; et al.). In fact, when we really stop to think about it, if we ever do, the Father actually intended that he be “judged of the world,” so that the world in turn might be judged of him.

And there is nothing we can do to avoid that judgment—in either of its aspects. It is an awful thing to contemplate, but we, too, must try him and bring in a verdict: one way or another we must have an opinion of him, since we cannot remain neutral forever. That is a terrible responsibility, of course, but we cannot escape it by adopting the philosophy of Pontius Pilate. We may have all kinds of reasons for thinking that way now. But we won’t bother to repeat them then, for when we finally stand before him in judgment we will realize that in the last analysis indecision or neutrality are the same things as rejection or condemnation. Who knows? God may even consider them much worse!

The Lord himself asked the Pharisees of his day, “What think ye of Christ?” A cartoon appeared some years ago on the editorial page of the Deseret News that asked the same question of our generation. There in the foreground was Pontius Pilate, chin in hand, with a puzzled searching look on his face as though he were involved in deep thought. In the background were the soldiers and the restless milling mob. And there between them stood Jesus, hands bound, dressed in Herod’s robe. The words of that cartoon said, “Like Pilate, a question we all must answer—What to do with Jesus?” Well, what will you do with Jesus? That’s an individual problem, you know, and it’s coming right at you. Like all of us, you need the revealed wisdom of God—not the humanly generated wisdom of man—in order to answer that question properly, for you cannot dodge it, and you cannot pass it on to someone else. But remember this as you wrestle with that awful question: when you have finally answered it correctly, you will have discovered the pearl of greatest price: you will have found your Lord and Savior—the King of Kings—with the crown of thorns!


Monographs on the Trial

Josef Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus: The Jewish and Roman Proceedings Against Jesus Christ Described and Assessed from the Oldest Accounts (Westminster: Newman Press, 1959). Also available in German as Der Prozess Jesu (Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1955). One of the best accounts of the trials.

Gert Buckheit, Judas Iskarioth: Legende, Geschichte, Deuting (Gutersloh: Rufer-Verlag, 1954).

Walter Marion Chandler, The Trial of Jesus From a Lawyer’s Standpoint, 2 vols. (Atlanta: Harrison, 1956). One volume deals with the Jewish trial, and the other with the Roman.

Alberto Entralgo Cancio, Marti Ante el Proceso de Jesus (Habana: Editorial La Verdad, 1956). Hyman Elias Goldin, The Case of the Nazarene Reopened (New York: Exposition Press, 1948). A “vanity press” publication, this work treats the trial from a Jewish point of view.

George Fox Gresham, Jesus, Pilate and Paul; an Amazingly New Interpretation of the Trial of Jesus Under Pontius Pilate, with a Study of Little Known Facts in the Life of Paul Before His Conversion (Chicago: Isaacs, 1955). Based on the author’s “The Jews, Jesus, and Christ,” a Jewish point of view.

Richard Wellington Husband, The Prosecution of Jesus; its Date, History and Legality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1916). Husband is convinced that the trial of Jesus should be approached through Roman, not Hebrew, criminal law.

Alexander Taylor Innes, The Trial of Jesus Christ, a Legal Monograph (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1899). There is also a second edition, 1905.

John Evan Richards, The Illegality of the Trial of Jesus (New York: Piatt & Peck, 1915). Bound with this is Aiyar S. Srinivasa, The Legality of the Trial of Jesus. Richards was Associate Justice of the First District Court of Appeals of California. Srinivasa was High Court Vakil and editor of the Madras Law Journal

Giovanni Rosadi, The Trial of Jesus (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1905). Rene Jules Rousseau, Un Aspect Nouveau du Proces de Jesus (Paris: A. Bonne, 1957).

George Washington Thompson, The Trial of Jesus; a Judicial Review of the Law and Facts of the World’s Most Tragic Courtroom Trial (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1927). Thompson was Professor of Law at the University of Florida.

LDS Treatments of the Trial

Oscar Walter McConkie, A Dialogue at Golgotha; an Analysis of Judaism and Christianity, and of the Laws, Government, and Institutions of the Jews, and the Jewish and Roman Trials of Jesus of Nazareth (Salt Lake City: Oscar W. McConkie, 1945). James Edward Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1949). The Jewish and Roman trials are both covered in chapter 34.


[1] Peter H. Eldersveld, The Truth for Today (Chicago: The Back to God Hour, 1952), 23.

[2] See bibliography for a list of monographs on the trial.

[3] Herbert C. Wright, A Study of Certain Typological References to the Atonement Found in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1955), especially chapters 1 and 3, entitled respectively, “What Is a Type?” and “Book of Mormon Typology.” This thesis is unpublished but available at BYU Library.

[4] It is impossible to imagine a more secular discipline than history, which is simply the best method human wisdom has been able to devise for obtaining information about the past. Historia is a Greek word for describing the scholarly attitude of serious critical inquiry into anything by any human being whatever. This word, which implicitly rejects revelation as a valid source of information in any human study, must often be translated as “knowledge-seeking” or “science,” but not in the experimental sense of modern laboratory science. The histor is thus the knowledge-expert in any field, the aner sophikos who knows whatever he knows about this world by human wisdom; he is not the aner mantikos, the man of faith who knows things that may or may not be of this world by the revealed wisdom of God. History and science are therefore different aspects of the same thing, although they have been thoroughly differentiated in modern times. They are both secular disciplines which share the common attitude of human critical inquiry with all other secular disciplines. Science deals with the formation and testing of hypotheses about the observable realities of matter and energy. The present, accordingly, constitutes its only legitimate province, since the data of yesterday (or tomorrow) cannot be observed. History must therefore reconstruct yesterday’s data indirectly and reflectively by examining words, the verbal reports or surviving testimonia of witnesses from and about the past.

The seventeenth century, by exalting science above all else, came to despise history, which therefore remained crude and elementary throughout the eighteenth century. But a terrific resurgence of historical interest occurred in the nineteenth century, after the meteoric rise of scientific thought had dealt its near-fatal blows to the older reliance on metaphysics and revealed religion. The rise of modern history as a new secular religion was thus precipitated by the plummeting decline of both rational and pistic forms of transcendentalism in the West. History was at least compatible with “modern” thought; and modern thinkers have therefore relied on it to assume the traditional functions of metaphysics and revelation by answering the basic questions of human life without going even one iota beyond the pale of human wisdom.

The very different orientations of history and revealed religion, needless to say, have polarized twentieth-century studies of the life of Jesus. The Bultmannians, impatient with the naive source criticism of older humanist scholars, have invented their critical Formgeschichte by de-emphasizing faith in the redemptive Christ and applying to the human life of Jesus the exacting historical methods of classical scholarship, and more particularly of Homeric studies. On this scheme, of course, the modern emasculation of Christ’s redemptive mission was inevitable, since (1) classical scholarship was derived from the Greeks, who flatly rejected anything smacking of Near Eastern supernaturalism; (2) Bultmann was himself a classicist, a scientifically trained neohumanist openly hostile to the supernatural gospel which gave birth to the eschatological thinking of the ancient Near East; and (3) no Greek (or Roman) in his right mind ever had “faith” in Zeus (or Jupiter) in anything even remotely resembling the same sense in which David had faith in Elohim or Paul had faith in Christ. The Greco-Roman civilizations, in a word, were driven by the secular knowledge-spirit of western Europe, not by the Near Eastern spirit of redeeming faith. The Barthians, conversely, who regard the redemptive functions of Christ’s messianic mission as indispensable to the salvation of human beings, have provided the principal alternative to Bultmann’s overly historical methods by constructing the reformed neoorthodoxy of traditional Protestantism. They have failed, however, to explain why their “God who speaks” never says anything, or how a deity “wholly other” than themselves can be their God; but they have at least shown that the quest of the historical Jesus, which is academically respectable and very popular today, is a secular quest derived from the Greco-Roman West that can only obscure the Christ of faith, who comes to us from the ancient Near East.

[5] Much of the following discussion is taken from Hugh Nibley, “The Way of the Wicked,” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1957), 315–35. Those who think syndicated crime is a product of the modern world will be enlightened by this study. I highly recommend it. Nibley is professor emeritus of ancient history and religion at BYU.

[6] Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 317.

[7] Ibid., 315.

[8] Ibid., 317.

[9] Ibid., 315–16.

[10] Although this passage is rendered in the KJV as if the indicative mood were intended, the imperative mood, which I have followed here, is identical in form.

[11] The feeling of deep love in the traitor’s kiss is inherent in the preposition Karri, which is compounded with the verb meaning “kiss.” This compound form is found in both Matthew and Mark. For an excellent discussion of Karri and its antonym see F. A. Adams, The Greek Prepositions Studied from their Original Meanings as Designations of Space (New York: D. Appleton, 1885), 436. When κατά is compounded with the verb meaning “eat,” the resulting compound form means “devour greedily.” In the same way, when κατά is compounded with “kiss,” the resultant compound means “kiss passionately, with warmth and tenderness.” Use by both Matthew and Mark of the aorist” [undefined] tense, which states the mere occurrence of verbal activity (without defining the aspect of activity or how verbal action occurs), also leaves open the possibility that the kissing was done more than once. This possibility is implicit in the name of the “aorist” tense, since άόριρτος means “undefined,” “indefinite,” or “indeterminate” specifically because it lacks definers or limiters known as όροι, “definitions,” “limits,” “boundaries,” “frontiers,” etc.

[12] Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 322.

[13] Ibid., 323.

[14] Ibid., 329–30.

[15] See Alma 11:40–41, where we read: “And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else. Therefore the wicked remain as though there had been no redemption made, except it be the loosing of the bands of death.” See also Morm. 9:13–14.

[16] From a sermon entitled “Christ Before a World Court,” in Peter H. Eldersveld, That Ye May Believe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950).

[17] Κακὸν ποιων, usually rendered “malefactor,” implies repeated evil doing, since the present participle makes this combination of words mean “one who does evil habitually,” whereas the aorist participle would simply imply “one who has done evil.”

[18] See source cited in note 16, above.

[19] William Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1948), 519–20. See also Jacques Roergas de Serviez, The Roman Empresses: or, the History of the Lives and Secret Intrigues of the Wives of the Twelve Caesars (New York: H. S. Nichols, 1913), 1:167: this source says that Caligula “punished the misbehavior of the governors of provinces, among whom was Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, who, being convicted of bribery, extortion, and other crimes, was banished to Vienne, where he became his own executioner, and killed himself in despair.”

[20] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1949), 342–43; emphasis added. In note 6, p. 274, Talmage calls Christ “the greatest offender in history” because those who reject the gospel take offense at him.

[21] Source cited in note 16, above.

[22] Howard Pierce Davis, “Things That Matter,” an address delivered to the BYU student body on October 12, 1959. This address may be located in Speeches of the Year, a collection of devotional and forum addresses housed in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.

[23] Adapted with only punctuation and other minor changes, such as “drove” for “drave” and “my hometown” for “Birmingham,” from a poem by G. A. Studdert-Kennedy entitled “Indifference” and published in Thomas C. and Hazel D. Clark, eds., Christ in Poetry; an Anthology (New York: Association Press, 1952), 168.

[24] The word “spue” is translated from ε̉μέω, which means “vomit.” 25.

[25] Source cited in note 5, above.

[26] See note 20, above.

[27] This anonymous quatrain is cited without source in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 1:483, note 41.

[28] As C. S. Lewis has said, the last judgment will sort all men into two groups: those who have said to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “Thy will be done.” The niceties of those two groups—who goes where and why, etc.—do not concern us here.