The phone call I had been hoping for finally came on a Thursday afternoon. It was my friend the professor. “Get everything ready,” he said. “It’s going to be Saturday evening. The museum closes at five. We need a couple of hours to set up. Then the extraction process will take most of the night. You should have him by about seven on Sunday morning.”
I put the phone down and leaned back in the chair. I could not believe the moment had finally come. And how lucky I was. The professor’s extraction machine was top-secret, and only a small group of people had had the privilege of its benefits. When I had made my request to the professor he had looked at me with a look of amusement and bewilderment, and explained he didn’t see that as a top priority. In spite of the secrecy of the machine he had a long list of reservations. But he promised me if a booking fell through, he would give me a call.
I can only give you the rudimentary details of the machine. I understand very little of how it actually works. But somehow the extraction machine is able to ‘extract’ a person from a painting, and bring him to life as a holographic image, for a short amount of time. The image will dissipate after a few hours, but the total time will be long enough to have meaningful interaction. And so I knew that on recent weekends a small group of scientists had enjoyed a very insightful cup of tea with Albert Einstein. A political leader had spent a morning with Marcus Aurelius, and an artist had spent some time with Rembrandt. I was not privileged to the professor’s list of clients, but I knew it was long and contained some of the most well known people from international government and business.
The professor had dismissed my first choice immediately. We were drinking tea one afternoon when he asked me who I would want to meet. If I had the chance… My answer was simple: “Jesus”. As a student of theology that seemed like a logical choice. But the professor had waved his hands and made it clear that, given the political climate, he wasn’t going to touch Jesus (or Mohammed) with a ten-foot barge pole. “Try again”, he invited, and my second choice was equally obvious to me: The apostle Paul. “Why?” he had asked me. Because while Jesus is the core of Christianity, Paul is where the thinking of Christianity really happens, I had explained. The professor, himself a lapsed catholic, looked at me with a soft focus in his eyes. Extracting Jesus, he said with a wink, might be difficult because he supposedly wasn’t dead. But Paul… that might be interesting. He made no promises, but told me to prepare for meeting the apostle nonetheless.
And now it was really going to happen. I couldn’t believe it! It was all could do to not tell my theological friends and colleagues…. I had made my plans months before, and really I needed was a limo! One phone call to make sure the limo would be there was all it took. A limo — and a list of questions. Which I had also prepared months before. Nonetheless I went over my list again and again.
I arrived at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam right at five. Outside the museum evening began to fall, and the last visitors were just being escorted out. The custodian took me to a room in one of the side-buildings, one not open to the public. He knocked on the door, smiled at me knowingly, and then left. The door was opened from the inside by one of the professor’s assistants.
I noticed two things at the same time. First: the extraction
machine. It was large, metallic, had wires and screens everywhere. It seemed
strangely out of place in this rustic room.
The other thing I noticed, and that seemed not out of place at all, was the large painting in front of the machine. A number of lights were directed at the painting from various sides, so the painting seemed to shimmer in the room.
One of the professor’s team members directed me to a comfortable chair along the wall and gave me a few instructions. I watched the professor and his team going through their process. It was obvious that they had developed a bit of a routine. Everyone knew when to do what, and so the atmosphere was calm and focused. The extraction process started shortly after ten. From where I sat I could see all kinds of metrics on the screens, and it was obvious the computers were going at full power.
As I sat there and quietly watched the process my mind went back over why I had asked to meet the apostle Paul. I suppose I should say because Paul was a hero of mine. As a student of theology I had read Paul’s thirteen letters in scripture over and over. Not just that, but I had read many, many books by people who had also spent a lifetime studying Paul’s writing. You can get a sense of knowing a person through his writings, and I was really curious to see if my understanding of the man matched who he really was!
Of course I also had a long list of theological questions. Could
he clarify his view of women in leadership? Did he write the letter to the
Hebrews? If not him, then who? And we know he rejected the gay party life-style
— but how would he feel about two men being married in a monogamous relationship?
My list of questions long, and I knew it was too long for the time I would have with him. The professor had also recommended I hold to my list loosely, as the conversation was likely to go in directions I would not anticipate in advance. But, oh, was I curious. When Paul died the Roman Empire was really at its peak. Christianity was a small group of people, plagued by the debates between Jews and followers of Jesus. Persecution was just really starting. How the world had changed!
I think somewhere between two and three AM I dozed off in that warm quiet room. One of the students woke me up and said the process was almost done, and could I follow her. She handed me a cup of coffee and then directed me to stand in front of a small cubicle with a curtain in front of it. “Stand here,” she said, “and when he comes out, introduce yourself, tell him where you are and why, and then start the program you have organized.” From behind his screens the professor waved and smiled at me, and the raised his thumb in the air. He pointed to the student. “Her name is Adelaide” he said. “She is going to accompany you with the device that creates the holographic image.”
I stood in front of the cubicle and waited. I heard the ventilators of the computers slowing down. I waited in his anticipation. Suddenly I heard a sound in the cubicle. Someone in there had scraped his throat. Then a hand emerged and pushed aside the curtain. Then, blinking his eyes, at the light, a man stepped out.
Paul of Tarsus
I stepped forward and said ‘good morning’. I pointed at myself and said my name. He looked at me, puzzled, and then put his hand on his chest and said ‘Paul… Paul of Tarsus’.
I took a step closer and said ‘I’m so pleased to meet you!’ He looked bewildered and so I quickly added: “I bet you are wondering where you are.” I had prepared this carefully, and said it slowly. “You are in Amsterdam, a city in upper-Germania. The year is 2019. We have a machine that has brought you to life. I have prepared a little tour. I would like to show you this city. Would you care to follow me?’
I led him outside, with Adelaide trailing closely behind with the device. The limousine I had ordered was waiting at the curbside. I thought a comfortable limo would be the perfect place for our conversation: it was a small space, but it allowed us to see a lot.
I climbed inside and motioned for him to come sit next to
me. He hesitated. “What is this?” he wanted to know. I had anticipated the
question. “It is a car”, I said. “It is like a carriage, but it moves without
I also anticipated his next response. He jumped back. “Magic!” he exclaimed.
“No, not magic, Paul, but a machine. You are in 2019, and as you can see around you the world has changed a lot. Mankind has created all kinds of wonderful machines to help us. Can I show you?” I patted on the seat next to me.
I could tell he was not fully convinced, but he climbed in, with Adelaide right behind. Paul sat next to me, and Adelaide sat in the chair opposite. The driver closed the door, got behind the wheel, and the car started moving. Paul grabbed the seat and the door and held on tight. In his eyes a look of fear and wonder. He looked at me and I smiled at him. I sat back and let him see there was nothing to be afraid of. He looked out of the window, and I could see he was starting to relax.
From Amsterdam to Rome
Almost immediately he started to laugh. He pointed outside. “Look”, he said, “that person is riding on two wheels!” On Sunday morning the roads in Amsterdam are quiet, but there are always cyclists. Then we saw another car pass. He followed it with his eyes. “That’s like this!” he said pointing at the inside of the limo. He looked around. I could tell he was thinking. “You said we are in upper-Germania? So how look in one of these things to get to Rome? Two months? Crossing the Alps in this would be complicated…”
I smiled at him and said: ‘we could be there in roughly 24 hours in this thing.’ His eyes just went big.
And then immediately he said: “ah, but would the Romans allow you to travel in this all the way to Rome?” It was clear he did not think they would.
“Well, actually,” I said, “look outside. Do you see any Roman soldiers?”
When he didn’t see any I explained to him that the Roman empire had fallen, and that different empires had come and gone — each greater than the last, and each flawed in its own way. I am not sure how much he understood, but when he asked me “well, then, what is the current empire?”. I mumbled something about the European Union, and I don’t think he understood that at all.
Looking for the Jewish quarter
Then he looked at me and said: “take me to the Jewish quarter. I want to see how the Jewish people live these days.”
I have to be honest: I had not anticipated that. The professor had warned me Paul might ask questions I did not anticipate, but this one I should have anticipated: I knew from scripture that wherever Paul went, he first sought to be in contact with his own people.
And the question wasn’t unreasonable: Amsterdam had had a large Jewish population — before the war. But the holocaust had completely destroyed that. I didn’t know how to answer him. I started stumbling and said something about the war. Of course he wanted to know what that was about. I kept stumbling. When I mentioned something about the holocaust Adelaide shot me a warning glance as if to ask ‘why would you go there?’ But it was too late. I kept trying to explain and said something about 6 million Jews and camps… he sat back in his chair with his eyes closed. I finally managed to keep my mouth shut. There was an uncomfortable silence.
Lots of churches
He opened his eyes again to look outside. We passed a building where doors were just opening, and people were coming out. Paul pointed at them and asked what that building was. “Ah,” I said, glad to be on familiar territory again. “That is a church! Today is the first day of the week, and they meet together to celebrate the death and resurrection of the Lord! They are Christians!” His eyes went wide. “Really — and they have a large building like that? It looks like a temple!” He waited for a moment and then asked, “What do they do inside?”
I was careful not to repeat the same mistake and so left the
comment regarding the church looking like a temple alone, but I gladly focused
on the other question. “What they do is: they read your letters!” I exclaimed.
“Again and again, trying to understand what you meant when you wrote them!”
Again, confusion. “My letters? How did they get my letters?”, he seemed to be thinking. Just then we passed another church. “Is that a church too?” He asked. I nodded happily, thinking he would be happy to see more Christians too. But it resulted in more confusion. “Why don’t they meet with the other Christians?”
Dang it — I had done it again. Given information that would
only confuse my guest. How could I get myself out of this one? “Well”, I tried
“they are part of a different group. They don’t like the other group much. They
don’t agree with the other group…”
“Agree on what?”
“Well… in essence, on how to understand your letters.”
He looked at me with that puzzled look again.
“Well, if we get the two groups together, maybe I can help them sort it out”
I looked at him, appreciating his desire to help. But it wasn’t so simple.
“Well, actually, there are more groups than just these two.
And some of them really hate others…”
“How many groups of Christians are there?
I know I shouldn’t have said it, but it came out before I could stop myself. “Well… thousands!” I realized too late that this was the reality I was used to. For Paul, it was just a huge shock.
And so there was a silence again. But he wasn’t ready to
give up. He opened his eyes again.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s try it anyway. Let’s try to get all of them together. We should meet somewhere central… Let’s meet in Jerusalem, where it all started!” He looked excited, like he was starting to get it. He pointed at the limo. “We could drive there?” he asked.
“Actually, we could fly there and be there in a few hours…”
Again, too much information. He looked at me without comprehension, like I had introduced him to a new kind of devilish magic. I pointed outside, where high above the city a plane was creating a trail across the blue sky.
“That is an airplane. It is a machine like a car, except that
it can fly. With it, you can fly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.”
It was a lot for him to take in.
“That’s amazing”, he said. “You know the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho would take a day. Some of my letters wouldn’t reach the people to whom they were written in less than six months. And you’re telling me I could be in Jerusalem in six hours? All the way from Upper Germania?”
“Well, actually, it gets even better,” I responded. If you wanted you could talk to people in Jerusalem without actually being there right here, right now. Through the Internet! Just imagine how quickly you could send a note to the church of Corinth…”
I had stuck my hand in my pocket to get out my mobile, but stopped when I caught Adelaide’s stern look. It was clear I was piling mistake on mistake, and she did not think all this information was helpful at all. Her look made me realize that my excitement over the amazing technologies of the 21st century was hijacking my interview with this amazing person: the apostle that ‘made’ Christianity. What was I doing bothering him with all this irrelevant information?
I tried to recover, but it was too late. He sat back in his chair, closed his eyes and ignored Adelaide and me. I sat there kicking myself for not handling this better, but also confused as to how to bring back the conversation to the questions I had prepared. I was starting to panic a little too: I had already caught Adelaide checking her watch two or three times and I knew time was running out.
I tried to connect with him. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? I would like to talk about some things you write about in your letters.”
He did not acknowledge my question, even when I asked him a second and third time. I could tell he was deep in thought, but I wasn’t sure what he was thinking about. He just there, with his eyes closed.
Adelaide looked at her watch again, and shot me a glance… time was running out. I sat there, trying desperately to find a way to connect.
But this time he made the first move. He opened his eyes, looked straight at me, and asked me: “what year did you say it was?”
It was quiet for a moment. And then he asked the question that has haunted me ever since.
“2019… and he has still not come back?”
The question just hung in the moving limo. I sat there with my mouth open. He diverted his gaze out the window, but I could tell he wasn’t seeing anything. A quiet fell. I knew exactly what he was asking. I had come to know and love the man through his writings, and I knew he lived in anticipation of the return of Christ. It was palpable on every letter of his writings: Jesus would return within his lifetime, or at the latest shortly thereafter. How could one account for this being the year 2019, and there still be no sign of his return? It was one of the questions I wanted to ask him, but now that he was here, I knew there was no answer. And so we just sat in silence.
The holographic image gave up shortly after that. It was blurry around the edges at first, then just faded out. it took less than 5 seconds, and he never seemed to sense it. I stared at his spot on the backseat while his question just rang in my ears. Adelaide quietly closed the device and instructed the driver to go back to the museum. I just sat there.
When we got to the museum she climbed out first. I got out next and thanked the driver. Adelaide stood there, holding the device with both hands, and smiled. She knew what was going through my mind. “You know,” she said, “it’s entirely possible the whole thing is just a myth.”
I knew what she meant, but I couldn’t accept it. “Paul had a vision on the road to Damascus, and it changed his life!”
“Sure,” she said. “Lots of people have visions. Visions sometimes become religions. Doesn’t mean it’s not a myth.”
She looked at me, then nodded and turned around to go into the museum.
I looked around me. By now the sun was shining bright on a beautiful Sunday morning. Music from a Jamaican steeldrum was coming out of the cyclist tunnel underneath the museum. Lovers were lying in the grass, reading, talking, soaking in the sun. Tourists were lining up to get their tickets for the museum. Children were laughing and licking ice cream. I turned my face towards the sun and started walking.