Can the Past Be Changed (Even By God)? Some Musings about Time
Recently I’ve been listening (on my ipod, as I exercise and drive) to Stephen King’s excellent novel “11-22-63.” I don’t really like King’s horror novels, but I have enjoyed listening to some of his books—especially murder mysteries (The Mercedes Man and Finders Keepers). 11-22-63 intrigued me when I read about it. I have always been fascinated by the assassination of President Kennedy. I remember where I was when I heard about it. I was walking back to school from lunch when a kid going home stopped to tell me. I didn’t believe him. When I got to school everyone was sitting in the lunchroom watching the news from Dallas. Ever since then I’ve wondered what really happened and have never been entirely convinced by the “official accounts” of the Warren Report and the later House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Anyway, 11-22-63 is filled with historical details about the events leading up to the assassination—especially about Lee Harvey Oswald’s life and politics and the sinister people who came into contact with him in the months leading up to his assassination of the president.
The story involves time travel—something I tend to avoid as much as possible in books, television shows and movies. I can’t stop my analytical mind working or suspend disbelief. For example, in 11-22-63 “the past” tries to kill the hero of the story who traveled back to 1963 from 2011. How seriously can one take that? If he was killed by anyone in the past he wouldn’t have been in the future to travel back to the past to be killed! (My wife chides me for asking questions like that while we watch movies about time travel on television. I don’t blame her, but I can’t stop myself!) I will admit, though, that I have never laughed as hard at any movie as at the first “Back to the Future.” I literally rolled on the floor laughing (watching for the first time on our VCR way back when that was “new technology”).
When I was a child I heard my parents talk about something that supposedly happened to them. According to the story, my mother put her purse on the roof of the car and drove out of the driveway with it still up there. She had simply forgotten it. Sometime and someplace between home and wherever she was going, of course, it fell off. She only realized what had happened when she arrived at her destination. So, she retraced her journey watching for the purse somewhere on a street she had driven. There was no sign of it; someone had obviously already retrieved it. So my parents and church members (“the prayer chain”) prayed that evening that it would turn out to be the case that a Christian found her purse so that it would be returned to her. I don’t remember the rest of the story—whether she ever got her purse back or not. But even as a child I wondered if it made any sense to pray that way—that God would change the past.
Fast forward many years. I am at a conference of Calvinists talking about Arminianism and open theism. I’m their invited Arminian—there to explain and defend it. They also invited a couple open theists who were given ample time to explain and defend open theism. During the conference a well-known British evangelical philosopher-theologian (who now teaches in Canada) argued that if open theism is true, God is not omniscient. During the ensuing discussion I asked him if God can change the past. He said no; God cannot change the past because the past is “by definition” what has happened and cannot be changed (analytical theology at work). So I asked him how God can be omnipotent if he can’t change the past. Well, he responded, God’s omnipotence simply means God can do anything consistent with his character and logically possible. Changing the past is not logically possible. So, of course, on behalf of the open theists, I suggested that perhaps God can be omniscient even if he can’t know the future in every detail as it will happen—because, given free will, that’s not logically possible. He didn’t buy it; I didn’t expect him to. But at least I think I scored a point in the debate.
I happen to agree with the British evangelical philosopher-theologian, even though he’s a Calvinist and I’m not. In this case it doesn’t matter. His argument as to why God can’t change the past did not depend on his Calvinism. Of course, he could have appealed to Calvinism (viz., that God can’t change the past because he himself predestined it all to happen for his glory), but he didn’t. Where we agree is that “the past,” by definition, is what cannot be changed because it is gone—out of anyone’s reach to change—including God’s.
Someone will respond that if someone, including God, changed the past we wouldn’t know it. True enough. But my argument is that the past cannot be changed and that has to do with the definition of “past.” Something being “past” means it is inaccessible to change. Were it to be changed, it would still be “the past.”
Changing the past would require one of two things—either time travel or a timeless being, a being (such as many suppose God to be) “outside of time” or “above time.” Let’s take those one at a time (no pun intended). Suppose someone could travel “back in time” to November 22, 1963 and stop Oswald from shooting President Kennedy. Then it would be the case that President Kennedy was not shot by Oswald in which case the person would not have gone “back in time” to stop him from being shot by Oswald. Conundrum.Now, suppose God, being “timeless” (existing in an “eternal now” where past, present and future are all simultaneous to him), attempted to change the past. He would have to be temporal to do that; he could not do that “from eternity” defined as timelessness. From such eternity he could, I suppose, create everything, but once he created it (even that “once” is a problem analytically) he could not change it without somehow entering into it or being affected by it. In other words, he could not change the past without being on a timeline with the past. Even then, however, the same conundrum as stated above would come into play. If he changed the past, then “the past” would be what he changed it to in which case “the past” would not have to have been changed. The mind boggles. The whole idea of “changing the past” is rationally ludicrous. Which won’t stop many people from believing in it or at least enjoying the idea in fiction.
Now, there’s another, more biblical-theological reason, for believing the past cannot be changed. If it could be changed, surely there would be at least one example of that in Scripture. To the best of my memory there is not. Nor is there any prayer to God to change the past or for the past to be altered commanded, urged or offered—anywhere in Scripture. If the past could be changed, that would seem to be odd. Also, who prays for the past to change? Oh, yes, my parents. But, honestly, my parents and most of the people in our church and denomination reveled in what was logically impossible. The more mysterious and even illogical, the better! (Or so it seems to me now from this distance.) But strangely, they did not pray for God to undo the Holocaust or the kidnapping, rape and murder of any child. Most of the time, with that one exception (so far as I know) they treated the past as beyond even God’s ability to alter.
If the past can be changed, and if one believes God did not foreordain and render certain the Holocaust (which even most Calvinists I know are reluctant to say they believe), then surely we ought to pray fervently for God to “undo” certain horrible events of history. To the best of my knowledge, no Christian group has ever held a prayer meeting to ask God to undo the Holocaust or any other horrible event of the past. Why? Because intuitively they know even God can’t change the past and they know from the Bible itself that there is no precedent for it.
So why does this even matter? Well, it certainly is a step toward affirming that God’s omniscience does not require being able to know future, free, contingent events that nothing has yet determined to happen. If such events will happen, as many people believe, God’s inability to know them with absolute certainty and comprehensiveness, does not necessarily limit his knowledge or make him “ignorant” as one Southern Baptist seminary president described open theism in a magazine article. Does not knowing the DNA of unicorns limit God’s knowledge? Nobody I know would say so. Does God not being able to change the past limit God’s power? Even a conservative Calvinist philosopher-theologian thinks not.
I suggest that people stop saying that open theism denies God’s omniscience; it most certainly does not. It defines the future differently than many people do. It defines the future as “partly settled and partly unsettled” and says the part that is truly not-yet-settled by anything is unknowable. I no more denies God’s omniscience, given what open theists believe about the future, than conservatives who believe even God cannot change the past deny God’s omnipotence.
Note to potential commenters: If you choose to comment, please stick to the exact topic; do not go off on tangents about other aspects or alleged problems with open theism. The discussion could simply run too far afield if not strictly restricted to the points made in this post. Also, if you are unfamiliar with open theism, please read an introductory text such as God of the Possible by Gregory Boyd. I don’t have time to explain it in detail—beyond what I have said of it here. Keep comments and responses respectful and on topic; avoid sermons and merely quoting Bible verses. The issue at hand is how to interpret the verses. Open theists are very familiar with all the relevant Bible verses and have offered interpretations of them they believe are reasonable and consistent with open theism. In sum, please respond only if you have something to add to the topic as I raised it here—a directly relevant comment or question. Thank you.