Frank Capra's classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" portrays one man asking the "what if" question about his life and experiencing the answer. George Bailey is an all-American guy who longs for adventure. But whenever he's about to follow his dream, he's held back by a family or national crisis. Each time he gives up what he wants to do in order to do the right thing.
George watches his brother and friends achieve the things that he's wanted, and laments his own mundane existence. Finally, feeling trapped by responsibilities, George wishes that he'd never been born. In answer to his wish, an angel comes to show George what life without him would have been like for his family and community.
If George had never lived, he wouldn't have been around to save his little brother's life, so the boy would never have grown up to become a war hero. George wouldn't have been there to encourage the town floozy to do better, so she would have done worse. He wouldn't have wedded Mary and had a family, so she would have ended up sadly alone. And if George hadn't been there to fight the greedy banker, Mr. Potter, their hometown would have lost its wholesomeness and many hardworking families would have lost their homes. George Bailey's life, it turns out, was crucial to the town of Bedford Falls.
George Bailey is just a character in a story. But he provides us with a pretty good analogy for understanding the most important life of all. Jesus Christ's life was crucial to our planet.
However, at one time He, too, questioned His life and what He was doing for others. He reached a distressing point where He wondered whether the pain and struggle was worth it. And because of His choice, the world has never been the same.
The setting for Jesus' greatest conflict was Jerusalem at the time of Passover. The holiday—the festival of freedom—evoked both celebration and mourning. God had freed His people at one time, but now they were under foreign rule again. Every Jewish woman, man and child prayed at Passover that God would save them once more.
The disciples had arranged the Seder, the Passover ritual meal commemorating the Exodus. As twilight tossed out its first star, Jesus sat down to eat that last supper with His twelve disciples. At the center of the table was the roasted lamb, sacrificed as a substitute for human death. Jesus appropriated the bread and the wine, over which every Jewish holiday blessing is still said, as symbols of His sacrifice and the forgiveness of sin.
Threads of meaning were winding and weaving together. This Passover there would be deliverance again a deliverance even more central to human hopes and fears than release from slavery. In fact, the first Passover, glorious as it was, gave a mere foretaste of this new freedom that God was shaping.
When Jesus and His disciples had finished the Seder, they walked out of the city gates and climbed the Mount of Olives to an area called Gethsemane, which was probably an orchard rather than our notion of a garden. There, Jesus' sacrifice took place. No, He didn't die there, but He did make His decision to die as a ransom for humanity's sins. The Crucifixion couldn't take Jesus' life—He had to surrender it.
That choice took Jesus through the loneliest, most severe anguish anyone has ever experienced. In their most poignant scenes, the Gospels describe Jesus as truly struggling on that fateful night. His struggle proved that His humanity was not merely a disguise for His divinity. If it were, the decision to become the substitutionary Sacrifice for our sins would not have been so crushing.
You see, suffering and dying are common to human beings. A divine Being could have faced these challenges unscathed and unshaken. But somehow in this mysterious, glorious melange of humanity and divinity that is Jesus Christ, the Divine could only serve as the currency for forgiveness, while the human must bear the cost. At the Passover meal, Jesus was clear about His mission. He knew what His death would mean. But that night He needed to pray for the strength to say Yes to it. The enormity of bearing all the sins of humanity filled Him with anguish and dismay, and He asked Peter, James and John to stay awake and pray while He struggled.
"He went on a little, [and] fell on His face in prayer." Ellen White described Jesus' agony at Gethsemane this way:
"The guilt of fallen humanity He must bear. Upon Him who knew no sin must be laid the iniquity of us all. So dreadful does sin appear to Him, so great is the weight of guilt which He must bear, that He is tempted to fear it will shut Him out forever from His Father's love. Feeling how terrible is the wrath of God against transgression, He exclaims, 'My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.'"
In the updated language of a modern Bible translation, His expression of pain is even more poignet: " 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death'" (Matthew 26:38).
He who had always acted and spoken with confidence of His oneness with God is now overcome with human anguish. He pleads for His own deliverance, His own exodus: "Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39, KJV). In his Gospel, Luke the physician reports that Christ's sweat "was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Desperate for some support, He goes to Peter, James and John, but they've abandoned Him for sleep.
Three times Jesus prays His heartbreaking prayer, shrinking from the unimaginable sacrifice. Again, in the words of Ellen White:
"The awful moment had come—that moment which was to decide the destiny of the world. The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even now refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty man. It was not yet too late. He might say, Let the transgressor receive the penalty of his sin, and I will go back to My Father. Will the Son of God drink the bitter cup of humiliation and agony? Will the innocent suffer the consequences of the curse of sin to save the guilty?" A third time according to Matthew, He searched out His closest companions and found them oblivious to His suffering. But now time has run out. A mob gathers about them, and Judas betrays his Lord with a kiss.
In this moment of turmoil and danger, Jesus makes His final choice. Peter whips out a sword to defend Him, but He objects. "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53; John 18:10). He has made His decision. He is the Sacrifice, the Passover Lamb to be slain for sinners. Escape is only a prayer away, but Jesus says to undergo death for every woman, man and child. "Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" (John 18:11).
From this decision follow the terrible events of the rest of that night and the following day. And from it also follows the miracle of the Resurrection, for "through him [God chose] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Colossians 1:20).
What if Jesus had said No? Without the salvation He provided, we'd be captives to sin and its wages. There would be no promise of eternal life. Our lives would have no ultimate meaning, nor would our relationships. Grief and suffering would be unrelieved by hope. Essentially, we'd have no irrefutable evidence that God is a loving God.
In "It's a Wonderful Life," George comes to see that the choices he made have paid off. His life, though hard at times, has contributed to the happiness of many others. In Gethsemane, Jesus could have chosen an easier path. He could have said No to suffering the penalty for our sins. But He said Yes, and it will take us all eternity to begin to grasp why He considered us worth the pain He suffered. Truly, though, with His death the universe became wonderful.
What would your life be like if you had made different choices? I don't know the answer for my own life, but I do know one thing: the details we wonder and worry about are much less important than we sometimes think, because Christ has taken care of the big picture. Because of His death, the "what if" questions about our own lives have an incredibly wonderful answer—"all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28).
Christ promises us a wonderful ending, one He's already purchased with His blood. Knowing that—and believing it!—doesn't just tell us about the future. When given to Christ, our lives begin to take on the colors and flavors of eternal life now. "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8).
When we are Christ's people, our joys need not be clouded by the knowledge that they won't last. Instead, they can soar because we know there's even more joy ahead. Our grief need never be the grief of despair, of those who have no hope. We can live abundant lives because there's a safety net under us. We can live joyful lives because with God there are second chances.
What if Jesus had said No to giving us all this and heaven too? We needn't let the alternative trouble us, because He said Yes. That's reality. It really is a wonderful life!
This article originally appeared in Signs of Times in the April, 2011 issue.