Can God Change the Past?
Believe it or not, this is the kind of question that I enjoy thinking and talking about—even though it is ultimately, for now, before the eschaton, unanswerable in any absolute way. Yet, I do happen to think “no” is a better answer than “yes.” If, in the eschaton, I find out I was wrong, I will not be dismayed. I will only be very surprised.
We often hear Christians and others say “God can do anything” and “You can’t limit God.” I understand their intentions are good, but sometimes these folk religious clichés need to be challenged. There are things God cannot do. There, I put it that simply. God cannot lie. God cannot make a square circle. God cannot break an unconditional promise. God cannot commit blasphemy (against himself). God cannot change the past.
I have a rather strange “bedfellow” (used in the archaic sense!) in saying that God cannot change the past. Some years ago I was a speaker at a conference hosted by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. British evangelical Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm was another speaker. During his presentation he argued that open theism cannot be true partly because it limits God. He argued that it denies God’s omniscience. During the Q & A I asked him if God can change the past and he, possibly not sensing the trap, adamantly declared that no, God cannot change the past. I then asked him how he was not denying God’s omnipotence. Of course, he then went into a discussion of the logic of the term “past” – as denoting what cannot be changed. This is, of course, what is so funny about the “Back to the Future” movies and others like them. How could one go back to the past to assure that his parents meet and marry? If they didn’t necessarily (by the time he leaves the present) meet and marry he would not be able to go into the past to…. You get the idea. If the past “changed,” whatever it changed to would be “the past.” So, “the past” would not have changed. This is where Paul Helm’s expertise in analytical philosophy helped.
But the funny thing about that exchange is, of course, that open theists argue that “the future” is by definition what has not yet happened – in the same way that “the past” is by definition what cannot be changed. I could go on, but that would be to go off track, to digress. My point is that Helm ultimately could not address the issue I raised. If “God cannot change the past” does not limit God’s omnipotence, as he claimed, then why does “God does not know the future exhaustively and infallibly” necessarily limit God’s omniscience—assuming as all open theists do that God knows all possibilities?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
By now I have lost all readers who are not theology nerds. How may theology nerds are there? Two? Three? Ten? I doubt twenty are left.
By my definition, a theology nerd is someone who, like me, is interested in questions like “Can God change the past?”
So why do I (ironically) agree with Paul Helm that God cannot change the past?
First, nowhere in scripture is it recorded that God changed the past nor are we ever in scripture given an example of someone praying for God to change the past. Nor does scripture ever command prayer to change the past. If God could change the past, don’t you think (as I do) that we would be encouraged, if not commanded, to pray for the past to change?
Second, I have never met any devout (or other) Christian who prayed regularly for God to change the past. I say “regularly” because I did know a Christian woman who lost her purse and prayed that God would make it happen that a Christian found her purse so that it would be returned to her. (She was sure by that time that her purse had been found as she left it in a very public place.) I don’t know the end of the story. What I do know is that she did not make it a common practice – to pray for God to, say, “undo” the Holocaust or whatever. I knew her well and knew she did not normally pray for God to change the past. This particular prayer, I assume, was ad hoc and arose out of fear and frustration and hope.
Third, as I said earlier, “the past” is by definition what cannot be changed because if it were changed that to which it was changed would then be “the past.” It’s a matter of logic and language.
“The past” is by definition (and I’m not talking about any dictionary) what cannot be changed. That’s that. “It is what it is.” Even for God.
Now, if you disagree, please tell me that you pray for God to change the past and give an example. And explain how you would know if God changed the past. And why the past is not what cannot be changed. If God answered your prayer and the past changed, are there now two “pasts?” Which one is really “the past?”
By now even you few remaining theology nerds are letting go and leaving here. Or are some of you still with me?
I can think of one escape from my logic here and that is simply an escape from logic. Someone will predictably claim that God can change the past and that it is a paradox. Well, a paradox is one thing; a sheer logical contradiction is another thing. Saying that God can change the past is, so far as I am concerned, like saying that God can make a square circle. And some will no doubt say so. But I don’t even know what their words mean. That God can change a square into a circle is not what is meant; I mean…. Well, I’ll leave it there and trust that people who have read this far know what I mean. One geometric figure cannot be simultaneously square and round.
Why are some people upset when I argue, as I have, kindly and respectfully, that God cannot change the past? I can only assume it is because they are mired in folk religion and conditioned by folk religious clichés such as “My God can do anything” and “Don’t limit God.”
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