A number of media outlets have asked me to provide responses to various questions about "I Was Called Barabbas," usually in written form but also in audio form. Below is a compilation of some of the answers I've provided. Even to me, the author, this book is still fascinating to think about.
Most of these questions also apply to the sequel, titled "Pillars of Barabbas," coming in March 2021.
1. What drew you to imagine the life of Barabbas?
When I read historical accounts, including the Bible, I like to think deeply about what it was like for our ancestors to live in those moments. They were real people, no better or worse than we are in their basic makeup. Their attitudes, hopes, behaviors, and opportunities for love and redemption were just like ours.
We know next to nothing about the real person called Barabbas. We often gloss over his identity, but I’m sure Jesus recognized Barabbas as a real person with eternal identity and potential, just like the rest of us. Jesus also surely comprehended how the gravity of the moment of Barabbas’s selection as the sacrifice—and then his unexpected freedom—would impact his life. That very real occurrence has fascinated me for a long time.
I didn’t sit down and plan out a book about the life of Barabbas and then start writing it. Instead, I would occasionally be thinking about what his later life might have been like in the context of everything going on around him, and a scene would come to me, and I would think it through and then write it down. Later, another scene would come, and I would write that down. After I had a compilation of half a dozen or so of these scenes, I started to imagine how I could put them together with other scenes to form an interesting and useful depiction of the life of Barabbas. I was busy with work, family, church, etc., so it didn’t happen fast, and the final product went through several iterations, including four additional “final” edits after the professional editor—Robin Patchen—had done her excellent work with it, but I finally got it done, and that felt really good.
2. One of the main themes in the novel revolves around redemption – something Barabbas doesn’t think he deserves. Why did you decide on that important theme?
People throughout history have had to deal with the reality of their own mortality and the daunting doubts about “what comes next?” The question expands quickly to family and friends. We have a natural inclination to both seek and give love, but what ultimately happens to that love? And, since we are both blessed and cursed with passions of the flesh while faced with the stark reality that survival on this planet requires hard work, how do we deal with all the mistakes we make and the people we hurt—even people we think we love? How can we be redeemed?
At some level, everyone can write a compelling story about personal redemption, because we all desperately need it. I still feel some of my past mistakes keenly. How can I be reconciled—not just with God, who gives us clear guidelines that will lead us freely toward a truly happy life—but also with myself? How can I forgive myself, and how does that relate to forgiving others and helping others in their search for redemption, especially my family?
Ultimately, it’s impossible for us to achieve the redemption we seek on our own, or even with the help of family and friends. There is only one person who can help us achieve true and lasting redemption, and that is the Christ. How do we develop enough faith in his love, his purpose, and his wisdom? How can we come to trust him enough to submit our free wills to his gentle—and always truthful—guidance? How do we invite his Spirit to heal our wounds and enlighten our souls? And how is selfless service to others a key element in that process?
I definitely don’t know all the answers, but I’ve been blessed with tangible, powerful experiences that show me that at least I’ve found the right path. Now, I have to persistently progress along that path.
3. What historical evidence exists of Barabbas that you were able to utilize in telling your story?
Barabbas is mentioned only briefly by the Gospel writers. Matthew refers to him as a “notable prisoner, called Barabbas.” Mark identifies him as someone whom the Romans had bound for committing murder in “the insurrection.” Luke notes that Barabbas had been cast into prison by the Romans for sedition and murder. Finally, John identifies Barabbas as a “robber.”
That’s not much to go on, and the noted Jewish historian Josephus didn’t mention him, so there were a lot of directions I could go with his life while at the same time staying true to events recorded in the Bible and other histories, most of which were written much later.
Unfortunately, we have precious few historical documents from the time period. There used to be many more records, of course, but most have been lost or destroyed over the intervening two millennia, which is a very long time, historically speaking.
4. Were politics in the time of the ancient Christian apostles as bad as politics now?
Compared to most people throughout the history of the world, we’re quite spoiled. We see powerful people behaving badly, including politicians spinning, lying, and throwing mud, and we think it could never have been so bad before. Yes, yes it has been, because people are people, and our basic makeup hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
Modern technology is just fancy wrapping paper. Placing too much power into too few hands has always led to disastrous results for countless millions of mostly innocent people. That was certainly true in the Roman Empire. Even though Roman leaders generally allowed conquered provinces to maintain their traditions and religions—a policy that yielded practical benefits—they could be cruel and capricious. Rule of Law and the Pax Romana were real, but the dynamics of human nature placed limits on them, just as they do today.
It’s important to note that the Roman Emperor was one of the most powerful positions the world has ever seen. He could snuff out a man’s life at a whim—within the limits of the politics always swirling about his own person—but no emperor ever obtained the power to restore life. It was tried. Mankind has long searched for the mystical powers of resurrection and immortality.
Only one man ever wielded that power, and he was Jesus Christ, the literal Son of God, who humbled himself before emperors and peasants alike to exercise power even greater than immortality—the propitiation of sins for all people who would humble themselves and follow him. Political “victories” are nothing compared to what the Lord of Lords did for us, voluntarily.
5. How are our day-to-day interactions with people and events similar to those of ancient peoples, despite the differences in technology?
Humans can only achieve happiness in families and communities, never in utter isolation. We are social beings, and we also exist on a planet that doesn’t yield its bounties easily. Faced with the reality that we must interact and cooperate with each other not only to survive but to thrive, we enter into myriad relationships and obligations that allow us opportunities to help—or hurt—each other.
The choice, of course, is always ours. The two primary similarities between us and our ancestors, both of them captured in Acts 17:28, are that A) we are all children of the same God, created in his likeness and image, and B) we are all free agents, our agency being granted by God himself. We “live, and move, and have our being” because of our inherent desire to be free, God’s eternal plan for our happiness and progress, and his grace.
Technology provides different channels by which we can interact, and the opportunity to potentially connect with more people, but we’re still mortals trying to survive and thrive together amid all the same basic challenges and temptations that have existed from the beginning. Every interaction is an opportunity, and every interaction is a risk, just as it always has been.
6. How did Christianity spread and grow so quickly in a world dominated by powerful ancient traditions?
This is fascinating to think about. I remember reading one historian’s estimate that by about 60 AD, there were probably 3,000 – 6,000 Christians in the world. Nonsense. Church membership exploded after Christ had fulfilled his primary mission, and the world had never seen anything like it.
Think about these two factors: First, after his resurrection, Christ appeared to hundreds of the saints, and he counseled with many of them for at least forty days. In person. That’s incredible to contemplate. Were they just having dinner parties? No. He was instructing his apostles and others how they should administer his new church and spread the gospel around the world; Second, he then sent his fully-trained apostles everywhere, at great sacrifice, to reach as many people as quickly as possible … and they carried the Spirit with them wherever they went.
It’s no wonder that Christianity exploded, and that people like the Apostle Paul emerged—often miraculously—to lead that charge. There were challenges and setbacks, yes, and the Lord wasn’t going to do everything for them or restrict people’s agency, for that would run counter to the perfect plan for our growth and happiness, but miracles continued at a pace we probably don’t fully realize.
One of the early centers of strength for the church became Rome, the hub of the Roman Empire. Paul commended the Roman saints for their strength and example, which he said was well-known throughout the church. He visited them at least twice, and he may have died there. Eventually, the center of the church shifted from Jerusalem (the horrific siege by Titus being a major impetus) and seems to have settled largely on Rome.
Someday we’ll have all the lost records of that era (2,000 years ago is a long time), and what an amazing treasure trove of discovery that will be!
7. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman empire, and where do we see those same things today?
The original Roman Republic was a marvel in many ways. It was also a valuable laboratory for self-governance on a large scale (which the American Founders and many others studied deeply). However, the success of the Republic created incredible temptations for some of the most ambitious Romans to consolidate and control its growing power and influence. It eventually gave way in about 30 BC to the Roman Empire, which tried to keep some of the vestiges of democratic republicanism but became more and more a true totalitarian oligarchy.
The primary weakness of any totalitarian state is the massive concentration of power among a few people. The natural consequences, driven by human nature, are devastating, both for those holding the power and those who become innocent victims of its unrighteous exercise. The constant and often violent struggles for power at the top of that superstructure are a vast playground for Satan and his angels, as lust for power overwhelms natural instincts of fairness and compassion. The old adage remains true: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Christ’s apostles were cognizant of this. There’s no better reflection than Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
How much power has been concentrated among small groups of people around the world today, be it in the United States, the constantly migrating “capital” of the European Union, China, or the United Nations? Are we seeing the effects of that concentration of power? How much are we not seeing as those “leaders” exert increasing control over our fountains of information? How far have we strayed from the concepts and ideals of the Roman Republic and become like the Roman Empire?
One final but critical thought. The morality and “goodness” of the people is as important as that of their leaders, and in fact they often reflect each other. One of the primary reasons Rome fell is that the people of the Roman Empire became so morally weak and tainted. Infidelity in marriage, dishonesty in foundational human interactions, fanatical pursuit of physical pleasures, and gross selfishness were part of that sad picture. How dissimilar are we today? Are there enough good people left for God to intervene on our behalf?
Thankfully, I’m convinced the answer to that is still “yes,” but we can’t let up; we must keep working to build his kingdom, in ourselves and all around us.
8. What other lessons can today’s readers take away from the life you created for Barabbas?
Life is hard. We all make mistakes, sometimes pretty big ones. But there isn’t anything too big for our Savior to help us with, if we humbly and sincerely seek him and ask for his help. Matthew recorded these words of the Savior in Matthew Chapter 11: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I don’t memorize many scriptures, but I’ve memorized that one, and it often gives me solace.
The Lord isn’t saying that hard work won’t be required or that challenges won’t come if we diligently follow him—history clearly proves otherwise, especially given the nature of our true adversary—but the Lord is promising to help us, and he is showing us that his path is far more fulfilling, far easier to live with, than the decadent, dissolute paths so often presented to us, which were poignantly described by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity as “the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils.”
I often ask youth if they have friends who have made some bad choices, and how much more difficult and complicated their lives have become because of their choices. We can revel in sin for the moment, but the piper must always be paid. We can choose our actions, but the consequences of those actions are very often out of our direct control.
9. Can “I Was Called Barabbas” help readers learn more about the life of Jesus?
I certainly hope so, yes. That was the intent. I Was Called Barabbas was written with a scriptural foundation. The teachings of Christ are presented throughout, in the words and actions of the various characters, including well-known personalities like the Apostle Paul, the Centurion Cornelius, and even Mary the mother of Jesus.
But beyond just reading about the teachings of Christ, we must commune with him and heed those teachings, continually. Redemption is a life-long process. It requires a tremendous amount of work and determination. And it is worth it, especially as we help each other and become unified in following our Savior. Unity in Christ is our true strength, because mortal ethnicity, skin color, economic station, etc. don’t matter a whit when it comes to accessing his promised blessings, both here and in the eternities.