“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Once upon a time, Jesus of Nazareth was building a table in his workshop. This was before all the good stuff, of course—before he was baptized by John the Baptist, before he fasted for forty days and forty nights in the desert, before he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Before Jesus was Jesus. Now he was just a humble carpenter, constructing tables and chairs and other pieces of furniture, like his father before him.
There was a knock at the door. Jesus found this strange, since he seldom had visitors this time of day. He put down his hammer and answered the door. Standing before him was the most peculiar man he had ever seen. He was tall and thin and dressed in odd-looking clothes. In front of his eyes were two pieces of glass held in place by a frame supported by his nose and ears. On his back, strapped to his shoulders was a large black sack. In his right hand, he held a translucent tube with a needle at one end, and in the tube was a brownish liquid. The man’s eyes were filled with sadness and regret.
Jesus had only a second to process all of this before the stranger stuck the needle into his neck. He felt a tiny prick, and then the world suddenly went blurry. The strength went out of his legs, out of his entire body, and he collapsed to the floor. A moment later and there was only darkness.
And just like that, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Messiah was no more. He never preached his gospel. He was never arrested and crucified. He never sacrificed himself for the sins of humanity. He was just another dead carpenter.
And just like that, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust—they never happened. Jesus saved more people dying alone in his home than he ever did on the cross.
At least, that was the plan.
It didn’t take long for the other machine to appear. I had timed my arrival so that I would get there only minutes before he did. The deserted field I was standing in was just as I remembered it. There wasn’t anybody for several miles in any direction. To avoid detection, I had calibrated the machine so that it would appear in a secluded area, away from human eyes.
There was a loud crack as the other machine materialized out of thin air. Its resemblance to a metal porta-potty was almost comical. A part of me always expected it to appear with a puff of smoke and covered in electricity like in the movies, but instead it just sort of popped into existence. One second it wasn’t there, and the next second it was. To keep it from merging with the matter in the space it was appearing, the machine was preceded by a vacuum or bubble that expanded and pushed everything aside to make room for it. The machine also had to calculate where the given destination was located at that time in the universe. Since the earth was constantly rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun, and the universe was constantly expanding, no point on earth was ever in the same place. Precise computations had to be made, or else the machine might appear in the middle of deep space.
With syringe in hand, I quickly ran over to the machine, which was only about ten meters from my own. The door opened. A man stepped out, and before he could take in his surroundings, I crept up behind him and injected him with the anesthetic. He immediately went limp, and I caught him under the arms before he could hit the ground. I dragged his body over to the nearest tree and sat him against the trunk. I took some rope and a roll of duct out of my backpack. I bound him to the tree and put a strip of tape over his mouth.
Ten minutes later, he came to. I crouched down in front of him. His eyes widened as they focused upon my face. He started to struggle against the ropes and grumble behind the tape. I slapped him hard across the cheek, and he silenced. He looked at me with wet, fearful eyes.
“I could have killed you right away,” I said, “but I want to tell you why I’m going to kill you first. If someone was going to kill me, I would want to know why. So shut the fuck up and listen. This is as hard for me as it is for you.”
And it was true. Killing him was like killing myself.
One morning when I was sixteen, my sister Janice and I were eating breakfast in the kitchen. My mother stormed into the room, held a bag of pot out in front of her, and glared at me furiously.
“I found this in the basement between the couch cushions,” she said.
I must have left it there after lighting up with a friend the night before. I was so stoned I had forgotten to put it away. Now I stared at it blankly. I opened my mouth, unsure of what I would say, but before I could find out, Janice said, “It’s mine. Well, not mine. Darlene brought it with her when some of us were hanging out here. I wouldn’t let her use it, Mom, I swear. You know I’m not into that stuff.”
I gaped at my sister, dumbstruck. My mother was looking at her too with one eyebrow cocked, deciding whether she should believe her. I knew she would, of course. Janice was her favorite, her perfect angel. She would never do drugs, not like her delinquent son.
My mother made up her mind and said, “I never liked that Darlene girl. You tell her she’s not welcome here anymore. I don’t want this junk in my house.”
With one last glance at me, my mother stamped out of the room. She seemed disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to scold me.
I was still shocked. “Um, thanks, Jan,” I said.
She didn’t look at me but continued eating her cereal as if nothing had happened. “Don’t thank me. I never liked Darlene either. But the next time you do this kind of shit, be more careful, you dumb ass.”
This is the memory that came to me as I stood in front of my sister’s grave years and years later. I never knew why she took the fall for me then. She never did it again before or after. It was just one spontaneous moment of chivalry. But, of all the time I had known her, that was the one moment that stuck out for me. That was the first time I admitted to myself that I truly loved her, and I don’t think I ever loved her as much ever again.
Janice’s husband, their two sons, and my parents stood with me in a moment of silence. This was the tenth anniversary of her death. Every year we came to the cemetery together and placed fresh flowers on her grave. The cemetery was a busy place today, as it was every year.
Janice died on September 11, 2001. She worked in the North Tower, somewhere above the point of impact. Her body was never identified. She was one of the eleven hundred that just disappeared off the face of the earth. I had tried contacting the people in her office, but none of them had survived. I didn’t know what I wanted to hear from them anyway. Maybe I just wanted proof that she was there that day, that somebody saw her and spoke to her, that her death was more than a few words on a piece of paper.
Blaming the terrorists was too easy. Calling them evil was too easy. How can someone be evil when they think their actions are right? The people who killed my sister weren’t sadists. They were devout believers. They killed in the name of their God. They thought they were sacrificing themselves for the greater good. It was easy for us, the victims, to label them cowards, but back home, their friends were hailing them as heroes. And in the afterlife, they were supposedly being rewarded with seventy-two virgins for their courage and sacrifice.
In America, people turned to their own Gods. Some prayed to God for support in these difficult times. Others preached that God was punishing them for their sins. The Muslim community condemned the attacks, claiming that the extremists involved did not represent the whole of the Islamic faith. Everybody had their own version of the Big Eye in the Sky, even within the same religion. And everybody could back up their beliefs by pointing out passages in their respective holy books. It seemed that God hated us and loved us, depending on which part of the Bible or Koran you happened to believe.
I was raised Catholic along with my sister, but I was never a very religious person. They say you either embrace your parents’ beliefs or rebel against them, and I rebelled. Yet I wasn’t antireligious either. I figured people could believe in whatever they wanted to believe. Beliefs weren’t real; they were just thoughts floating around in people’s heads.
And then one day, a system of beliefs flew two planes into the World Trade Center. One day, a system of beliefs murdered my sister. I realized, then, that beliefs could be dangerous, and in fact they had been for thousands of years. Throughout history, people killed for their Gods, killed for the precious ink in their holy books. Beliefs meant nothing until they were placed in the wrong hands, and then there was murder and bloodshed.
We walked back to our cars in the cool autumn afternoon. Before departing, I hugged my parents and shook hands with my brother-in-law and nephews. How awful it must be, I thought, to grow up without a mother. They were little more than toddlers when she died, and now they were becoming young men, the oldest having just started high school. I took one last look across the sea of tombstones, toward my sister’s grave where no body was buried. I said goodbye for, perhaps, the very last time.
No, blaming the believers was too easy. If you wanted to get to the heart of the matter, you had to go after the beliefs themselves. And the only way to get rid of the beliefs was to get rid of the people who started them so long ago.
I built the machine. I went back. And one by one, I killed them. Jesus of Christianity. Abraham of Judaism. Mohammed of Islam. Siddhartha Gautama of Buddhism. Guru Nanak of Sikhism. Every founder of every major religion. Some took only hours to find. Others took weeks.
It never got any easier. Murder isn’t natural for civilized man. Even when I told myself that it was for the good of mankind, that I would be saving millions, that the ends justified the means, it didn’t stop the fact that I was killing innocent men who only wanted to enlighten the world, who thought what they were doing was right. If only they could see the violence that their teachings would lead to. Whenever it came time to take out the needle, there was always a moment of hesitation as I looked into their clueless eyes and every particle of my mind and body screamed in protest. But I was determined to complete my mission, and somehow I would force myself to strike with the syringe and watch them crumple at my feet.
After every kill, I returned to the machine and wept into my hands. I thought of my sister sitting at her desk the morning she died. I thought of her crawling through smoke and fire, terrified, wondering if she would ever see her kids again. I thought of her body disintegrating as the building collapsed around her. And I thought of the terrorists huddled in the cockpit of the plane, also terrified, yet praising Allah to the very end. Everyone was a victim. The only criminal was an imaginary one, a bogeyman that whispered into our ears. True, it mostly told us good things, but every once in a while, it told us something bad, and the fear and hatred hardwired in our brains would explode like an atomic bomb.
I’m a murderer. There’s no doubt about that. I’m not going to make excuses. What I did was wrong…but maybe two wrongs do make a right. Maybe the salvation of many justifies the sacrifice of a few. I don’t know if God exists or if there’s life after death, but if He does exist, I hope He can forgive me. I thought if I destroyed Him, I could save the people we both cared about.
There are two main theories of time. The first is that time is fixed. What happens will always happen, and you can’t do a thing about it. The classic example is a man traveling back in time and killing his grandfather before the man is born, which means he can’t travel back in time to kill his grandfather, which means the grandfather will still be alive, and so forth. The only way to keep the timeline consistent is to assume that the man can’t kill his grandfather. No matter how hard the man tries, something will always prevent him from doing so. The rule is you can become part of history, but you can’t change it. This is known as the Novikov self-consistency principle.
The flaw with this theory is that it neglects freewill. Suppose a man travels into the future and discovers that he will be seriously injured on an upcoming trip. Certainly, he would decide to cancel the trip, but then the timeline would be disrupted. The point is, if your future is fixed, how can you possibly have control over your actions?
To solve this problem, a second theory was invented that incorporated multiple timelines. When you travel in time, you are really entering a separate timeline. In the case of the grandfather paradox, it is possible for a man to prevent his own conception, because he is from a different timeline and won’t be affected. After the new timeline is established, the original timeline most likely disappears.
My mission depended on the second theory being true. I always suspected that it was, but even as I stepped out of the machine for the first time, I was not completely sure. If Novikov was correct, then my mission would be a failure from the very beginning. I might trip over a stone and break my neck, or I might be struck by a bolt of lightning. The universe would find a way to stop me if it wanted to. But as I watched the poor carpenter—who looked less like Jim Caviezel and more like a Middle Eastern Steve Buscemi—die before my eyes, I knew that man’s will had triumphed. Novikov was wrong. The past could be changed.
Why not just use the machine to save my sister? Why not just prevent the terrorist attacks from happening? When I built the machine, I promised myself that I would only use it to benefit mankind as a whole. So what if I stopped the attacks of September 11? What is saving a couple thousand when millions have died before and millions more will die after? To stop one tragic event in my lifetime would have been selfish. If I was going to stop one act of religious violence, I would stop them all.
There was a near one hundred percent chance that when I returned to the future, my sister and everyone I ever knew, including myself, would no longer exist. You can’t eliminate a major component of human civilization and expect everything else to stay the same thousands of years later. But perhaps the simple nonexistence of many would pave the way for a newer and brighter version of humanity. I wasn’t replacing history; I was reinventing it, making it better. I was creating a world where people would be free from the beliefs of their fathers, where people wouldn’t die because of the God they worshipped. I couldn’t think in terms of individuals; I had to consider my species as a whole. Humanity had already disrupted the evolutionary process when it grew smart enough to manipulate the environment, when it grew compassionate enough to protect the weak. I was merely taking it to the next level. Nature created man, man conquered nature, and now man would conquer man. Humanity would no longer be prisoner of space, time, or itself.
So I traveled through the centuries, ridding mankind of its religions like a farmer pulling weeds from his garden. Some religions, like Hinduism, had no real founder, but I figured these faiths would not survive long in a world composed primarily of reason.
When I was finally satisfied, I traveled back to the future. I set the coordinates, flipped the switches, turned the dials. The familiar crack came from outside the machine. I took a deep breath and opened the door, eager to see the newer and brighter version of humanity.
But there wasn’t one. I had failed.
I expected a utopia. Worldwide peace. Without religion hindering scientific and intellectual development, technology and medicine would be centuries into the future. Space travel would have taken us beyond the solar system. People would live up to 150 years. I expected a golden age.
But nothing had changed. There was still war. There was still hatred. There was still religion. The level of science and technology remained the same. True, history, when compared to the original timeline, was radically different. There were different leaders, different countries, different cultures. Language, architecture, food, and fashion were all slightly altered. But, on the whole, nothing had changed. People still killed for their Gods and for the ink in their holy books. Aliens studying our planet outside of space and time would have noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
I went back to the machine and wept for the dozenth time. All of my work, all of the people I killed—it was all for nothing. I should have seen it coming, but I was blinded by my anger and ambition.
You can’t change the course of human development. People are always saying how lucky we are to have had great minds like Newton and Einstein, but they’re nothing special. If Einstein died of a heart attack before he devised the theory of relativity, somebody else would have figured it out. There are geniuses everywhere all the time; it’s just that history only recognizes the ones who get there first. For all we know, there was an Einstein before Einstein, but he was assassinated by a time traveler so we never heard of him.
Terminating the sources of the world’s major religions will only delay the inevitable. Kill Moses, and somebody else will come up with the Ten Commandments. Kill Jesus, and a blacksmith in the next village will claim he’s the Christ. There are prophets and saviors everywhere. Kill one, and another will soon take his place. Bullshit replacing bullshit. Religion, like any product, is less about substance than it is about marketing. It’s about who gets there first and talks the loudest.
Novikov was only partly wrong. You can change the past, but you can’t change human nature. People need direction and meaning in their lives. They need to put their trust in something bigger than them. And as long as there’s a demand, there’s a supply. What little progress we’ve made today is the result of millions of infinitesimal steps. You can’t rush the system. You can shift around the components, but any radical change will only happen on its own.
My mission was an utter failure. I sacrificed my sister, my family, everybody I ever loved, because I thought I was saving mankind. I thought I was doing it for the greater good. But I didn’t do anything. I changed the names, fudged the dates, but it’s still the same damn story. I knew rewriting the past wouldn’t bring my sister back, but I thought it might end the conflict that took her life and the lives of so many others. Now, the conflict was still there, and my sister was still gone. Her sacrifice was for nothing. I was no better than the terrorists who killed her, except my plane was a metal porta-potty, and the God that drove me was the God of vengeance.
My sister’s voice echoed from a time and place that no longer existed: The next time you do this kind of shit, be more careful, you dumb ass.
“I’m sorry, Jan,” I said to the empty darkness of the machine. “I screwed up.”
There was only one thing I could do. I went back to the place where it all began—a deserted field near the Sea of Galilee, where a few miles away, there was a carpenter constructing a table. I stood in the tall grass, waiting for the other machine to appear. There was one last person I had to kill. The only way I could bring my loved ones back to life, the only way I could restore the original timeline was to kill the one person who started it all: myself.
When I finished speaking, my younger twin didn’t move. He only stared at the ground, defeated.
“I don’t think you’ll go through with it after what I’ve told you, but I can’t know for sure.” I rolled up his sleeve and uncapped the syringe. “This is only temporary, anyway. Once I reset the timeline, I’ll go back to the future and destroy the machine before you—I—get into it. I’ll tell us what happened, and hopefully we’ll understand. What happens next, I don’t know. Two of us can’t live in the same time. Maybe I’ll do some exploring. Only as an observer, of course. Maybe I’ll jump ahead and see if mankind will ever fix itself on its own.”
I inserted the needle into his arm and injected the brown liquid. He didn’t resist. His tired eyes met mine as the life rapidly drained out of them.
“As for this meeting of ours, it’ll be like it never happened. It’ll only exist in my memory.”
Once upon a time, Jesus of Nazareth was building a table in his workshop. For no reason at all, he turned his head, expecting a knock at the door, but none came. He shrugged and went back to work. A few years later, he got his ass nailed to a cross, and people started to make up stories about him—how he cured the blind and walked on water and rose to Heaven. A thousand years later, his followers waged war against those who were not his followers. And lots of people died for no good reason. A thousand years after that, some planes flew into some buildings. And lots of people died for no good reason.
Then some guy built a time machine and tried to assassinate God, but failed because God is invincible. He is the product of all our fears, our weaknesses, our ignorance, and as long as those qualities exist, there will always be a God. There will always be someone there to tell us what to do, what to believe. And as long as there are different Gods telling different people different things, there will always be hatred and conflict and war. Like a good hangover, the only thing that can stop God is time.
People have always feared the consequences of time travel, but in reality, a time traveler can only scratch the surface. The butterfly effect only works on a small scale. Real change is gradual and subconscious. How foolish I was, thinking I could alter the fate of mankind by simply plucking a few blades of grass in an open field. Humanity is like an organism, consisting of billions and billions of cells. Every second, cells die and new ones take their place.
But, at the end of the day, it’s still the same damn organism. The same damn story.