The Theology of Time Travel
Don’t you hate it when people bring up objections to the Gospel that seem high and intelligent just to catch you off-guard in your witness about Jesus? For instance, have you heard that silly challenge that asks, “Can God create something so heavy that even he cannot lift it?” Those types of questions are designed to stump the Christian and even make you and I look silly. (By the way, the answer is yes he can. Jesus collapsed under the weight of his cross).
The movie, “Looper” and popular science fiction shows have brought up another protest to the Gospel that seems just as silly. “If time travel is possible, doesn’t that mean that God is not in control of the world, or history?”
I confess that I enjoy thinking through issues like these. These issues stretch the imagination and can force us to go back to the scripture for answers to even the silliest or the hardest of issues. And yes, there is also an answer to this question in the scripture.
Is Time Travel Possible?
Before you accuse me of having too much time on my hands to engage is this silliness, keep in mind that questions like these have actually led some people to be shipwrecked in their faith. If popular science keeps presenting theoretical ways that such things might be, then surely this lends evidence to the idea that God does not exist or perhaps is not in control of things the way the Bible presents. But we should not be afraid of questions like this—even highly speculative ones.
So, let me put the cookies on the counter where they are easily reached. Is time travel possible? The answer to this question is no. Now, I’m not going to argue from science or scientific theory about the possibility of time travel. That is not my area of expertise. Much has been written from that perspective. Nor am I going to try and answer philosophical musings about time travel such as the grandfather paradox. Rather, I’d like to answer this challenge strictly from a biblical or theological view. I’d like to back up my answer with explanations from four areas of theology:
• The argument from God’s unchangeable nature
• The argument from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection
• The argument from God’s decretive will
• The argument from prophecy
For each area I’d will state the ascertain why time travel is not possible, then I will present an argument from scripture and accepted theology. So let’s begin.
The Argument From God’s Unchangeable Nature
Time travel, by implication, would necessitate a change in God’s nature, specifically, his eternality.
How would time travel change God’s nature? Because God has already experienced the past in the manner in which it has unfolded. To go back in time and do things differently would necessitate a change in God’s actions or reactions to those past events, thus changing God’s unchangeable nature. This is impossible. God is immutable.
The scripture states numerously and clearly that God is an unchangeable being (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 46:10; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 1:12; 6:18; 13:8; James 1:17). This means that all that God does and decrees is born from within his unchangeable nature. God’s character and decisions are set. For God to change his mind would necessitate a change in his nature. Yet, he already declares that his nature is unchangeable. He is unchangeable because he is eternal.
To be eternal does not mean that God is unchangeable from moment to moment. Created things experience time as a succession of moments one after another. However, God is apart from and is outside of time. He does not experience a succession of moments as we do. All points in time are the same to God. Because God experiences life in this way any decision made is made in his eternal nature. It is made once and does not need to be made again, his decisions are eternal. Doing so would necessitate a change in his eternality.
The Argument From Jesus’ Life, Death, and Resurrection
Time travel would imply that the life of Jesus would not be fixed and thus man would have the power to thwart God’s plan for Jesus and for our salvation.
To use a popular concept from science fiction, the conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are “fixed” events in history that cannot be changed. In fact, all events in history are fixed and cannot be changed since there was a succession of events from creation until Jesus that were necessary to take place resulting in the coming of Jesus. Remember Jesus words to the Father in Matthew 26:42. He specifically asked God for the cup of suffering to pass from him. In other words, if there is another way to redeem man, then let it be. God’s answer to Jesus was that there was not another way. Why? Because God had fixed it as his will from his eternal counsel long before the foundation of the earth (Psalm 33:9-11; I Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8).
The Argument From God’s Decretive Will
Time travel would imply that God is not in control of events that he has determined will take place.
What is God’s decretive will? This is a term theologians use to identify those things of God’s will that will come to pass no matter what. These are God’s decrees. For instance, it is God’s decretive will that life exists. Sure, we may kill each other, but life itself is a necessary component of God’s plan and therefore living things must exist. Nothing that we can do will thwart God’s will in this matter. The work of creation is another example of God’s decretive will. He decided that the cosmos would come into existence and it did. Nothing thwarts God’s decretive will.
Though the concept is controversial to some, God has decided from eternity past those who would know him. We might say that the salvation we experience is God’s decretive will. Nothing we can do will separate us from the love of Jesus and the salvation we have from him. God has decreed it and it will happen. End of story. We find this concept in Matthew 25:34; Romans 8:29, 9:13-23; Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8.)
How is this related to the theory of time travel? To put it simply, God has decreed that certain things in history will take place, past, present, and future. Throughout the Old Testament we see God creating a people for himself that will one day give rise to the Savior. In order for Jesus to be born certain events preceding Jesus’ birth had to take place according to God’s eternal plan. Time travel essentially leaves open the possibility that those events can be changed by a traveler just like any other event. But if the past is immutable, so then is the future, as we shall see.
The Argument from Prophecy
Time travel implies that God’s purposes and working out of history can be altered and thus the scripture can be broken. Jesus said that scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). Let us look at this truth not only from the past that we look back to, but to the future, specifically, in scripture like the Old Testament book of Daniel, Matthew 24, I Corinthians 15, and the book of Revelation.
In each case there are specific prophesies made about nations, people, and events that at the time of their writing were unfulfilled. Gabriel makes it clear to Daniel that the events he revealed would take place in the future. He gave no option such as things “might” happen. Rather, he communicated to Daniel in clear certainty that they would happen and at specific times in history. We might say that these prophesied events are fixed. Just like Matthew 24 and Revelation, these events are promised and are indicated to take place at specific times. For that to happen certain events must take place in world history to lead to the fulfillment of those prophesies. They are guaranteed. They are fixed. There is no changing them. God has decreed they will take place.
It might be argued that the men who received this knowledge or view into future events effectively were time travelers. That is, God took them out of one time frame and placed them in another time frame to witness these events. I don’t think this is a persuasive argument. Most prophesies given would seem to be a foretelling. That is, the prophet spoke or wrote about what he was told, but did not actually see the events themselves, except in specifically revealed cases. God is outside of time and sees all time instantly from his perspective. Time travel is unnecessary to him.
It might also be argued that the Apostle John time traveled since he saw the events about which he wrote. I don’t think this is persuasive argument either. We are simply told about things that John saw, but the scripture does not indicate he was present for the events themselves. He also witnessed things in Revelation that are clear types or pictures meant to illustrate the truths he was seeing, but these were pictures, not the events themselves, such as the dragon and the beast and the woman fleeing to a prepared place (Revelation 12 & 13).
There is one aspect where seeing future events, or learning of future events affects the past. By learning of future events like we have learned in Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew 24, Daniel, and Revelation we can, and many do, reorganize our lives in keeping with God has revealed. A simple example of this happened in Genesis 19 when Lot was told the future—Sodom was to be destroyed. At the behest of the angels he took this future knowledge and tried to persuade his sons-in-law to escape with him. He then took his family and fled the city as the angels had directed him. Clearly, if Lot had been given no warning about the future then his life would have gone on none the wiser until the rocks started falling from the sky.
In this sense we can say that while time travel is not possible, warnings about the future can come to the past (or present) from God so that we might be saved from what is to come, or to be ready to endure it and not give up the hope of our faith in Christ. Only in this way does the future change the past. Yet because it takes an act of God to reveal the future there is no literal time travel involved, simply a revealing of what God knows from his eternal perspective.
We can divide what we know about God’s nature, his plan from eternity, and his revelation, that time travel is not possible in the universe in which we live. Hebrews 9:27 says “It is appointed for man to die once, then the judgment.” By this we can infer that it is also appointed for us to live once. There are no do overs. Therefore, knowing what the future holds we should pattern our lives after Christ to ensure that when our times comes before the judgment seat of God, our faith and cleansing in Christ will give us full confidence that we may stand before God clean.