Well, today’s the day. October 21st, 2015. Thirty years ago, intrepid time travelers Emmett Brown and Marty McFly journeyed to the future to avert disaster and save the McFly family from untimely (sorry!) decline. As a result, so many questions linger in our minds… Will the Cubs really take the series this year? (Wouldn’t *that* (re?)energize the conspiracy theorists!) What happened to the other 15 Jaws movies? Where’s my flying car, my Mr. Fusion, and of course my self-sizing, self-drying jacket? Am I crazy for not being as gaga as everyone else seems to be over the hoverboard? Why haven’t we developed a less smelly and disgusting way to fertilize the garden? Etc.
But instead, I’d like to pose a slightly more serious question… With all due respect to Doc Brown, I would ask if there is in fact a moral dimension to time travel? Is it morally neutral? I’m not so much asking if it’s possible or a good idea socially, but if it’s an affront to God?
Assuming time travel were possible, would it be sinful?
In my opinion, it depends.
We are called by God to consider the present far more than the past or the future. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:34 (ESV). After a paragraph about trusting God and not worrying, He commands, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Or look at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV), where he explains, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Respectively, these are calls to trust God (vs fret about the future) and turn our hearts from sin to submission (vs wallow in regret). And although it’s deeper and broader in its meaning, Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV) is amazingly pointed, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” And if you’re looking things up, check out Philippians 4:6 too, while you’re at it. God makes it pretty clear that His focus for us is on TODAY (and arguably – in another discussion – on the ultimate tomorrow you can read about in Revelation 21-22), but God is for sure not encouraging us to live in the past or worry about the future.
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24, my emphasis)
But most of us don’t think or act like that at all. It is incredibly common for people (for me) to get seriously distracted dwelling on either the past or the future. Or both. We regret decisions and wish we could go back and change them. We worry about the future and wish we knew what was going to happen. I suppose that there are some who, if they had the power to travel through time, would use it only to observe the past or the future … which I guess could be argued to be “morally neutral”. But for the vast majority of us, time travel would instead be fundamentally about making the present better. And if we were going to extract moral lessons out of Back to the Future 2, this would be one of them… Doc adamantly insisted that they only observe the timeline, but ultimately neither he nor Marty could leave well enough alone (not to mention the cascading unintended consequences), and disaster nearly resulted.
How does this connect with our understanding of sin?
We are murders, not only when we shoot someone in a dark alley or poison their breakfast cereal, but because we nurture hatred against them in our hearts. (Matthew 5:21-26)
We are adulterers, not only when we sleep with someone that belongs to someone else, but because we have looked lustfully at another person. (Matthew 5:27-30)
It’s not just the actions that are sinful; they are multiplying our sin. We were “guilty enough to convict” when murder and adultery were still in seed form in our hearts.
This is because looking at a woman with lust in your heart means that really the only reason you aren’t engaging in an inappropriate relationship with her is because you fear the consequences. Your heart and motives aren’t pure. You don’t love God to the exclusion of sin. Instead, you’re just constrained by fear … even if it is the very appropriate fear of God. The truth is that you want her, but you just can’t have her. Sin and righteousness is less bound up with appropriate or inappropriate actions with her, and more bound up in not wanting her in the first place … with appropriate or inappropriate thoughts about her.
The same is true with hatred and murder.
The train came off the tracks in your mind and heart long before it did so in your hands and feet.
But the argument works in reverse as well. If you kill someone (action), then by definition you started with hatred in your heart (desire). If you sleep with someone that isn’t your husband, then by definition you started with lust in your heart.
And if you travel through time to fix what you perceive as broken, then I would say that by definition you started with divination and idolatry in your heart.
- If only I could change that decision I made in college…
- If only I know what the stock market was going to do…
- If only I hadn’t taken that promotion, gone on that trip, or stayed at the bar that night…
- If only I knew how this disease would ultimately affect me or someone I love…
Bound up in each these scenarios – and every other time-travel-could-fix-it scenario I can think of – is the desire to “reset” today and make it better, and in the self-inflated (likely totally wrong) estimate that you would know what to do when you got there even if you could. With the right scientific breakthrough, you could set yourself on a more solid foundation, reinforce your own strength and smarts, better position yourself for tomorrow, undo mistakes, get rich, right wrongs, and ultimately recast your life. You could change the past and predict the future in order to generally make the world – your world – a better place.
God has no place in this scenario. Who needs Him!
Seriously, what gives you the right to redefine reality – even if we assume for a second that it would only be your reality that got redefined (which is ridiculous)? Even if your estimation is correct that you know more now than you did then, what makes you so sure the new choice you have in mind for that past failure would be a better one? Even if you could see the future, what makes you think you would understand what you’re looking at well enough to make a better decision?
Used this way, time travel becomes a form of divination and witchcraft. How does the desire to supersede nature and go back and change what’s past not equate to sorcery? How does trying to see the future and interpret it properly for today not equate to reading tea leaves? In either case, you demonstrate that don’t trust God to redeem your past or control your future … so you take matters into your own hands. Or at least you wish you could.
Why do you think God hates divination (et al) so much? See Leviticus 20:6, where God lumps those who “prostitute themselves [with] mediums and spiritists” in with those who sacrifice their children to foreign gods. Ouch! Maybe it’s because doing an end-run around God to understand the future is to God among the worst forms of idolatry. And we’ve already seen that wallowing in the past “brings death”. (Corinthians 7:10)
Forget time travel! You’d be better off trusting God.
Spend your energy walking with Him in the garden in the cool of THIS day (c.f. Genesis 3:8). God is not in the past or the future. He’s the unchanging God of right now. Let go of what’s happened – God will use it for His glory (Isaiah 43:18-19). If locusts have eaten years of your life, God can restore them (Joel 2:25). Seek God NOW, while He may be found (Isaiah 55:6). And heaven awaits you (or at least, it’s your choice), where all wrongs will be righted (Revelation 21:1-8). Let go of wanting to control the future. It’s God’s place to be in control, not yours. When you try (to control the future), you set yourself up against God! And the truth is that you’re not strong enough or smart enough or good enough to be in control of anything cosmically important anyway.
As we nurture these forward- or backward-looking desires or anxieties, we dishonor and disregard God and we miss out on what He has for us now. So even if I could whip up a flux capacitor out of used pinball machine parts, I wouldn’t. I’d rather be here with God now, not wandering around with Doc Brown and my crazy endless machinations about how I could somehow perfect history if I just had the tech to do so.
It’s sinful idolatry to believe that changing the past or knowing the future will make you happy. The moral entanglements far outweigh the quantum entanglements. (Yes, I admit I was looking for a way to work that one in!) For those who would claim to be sons and daughters of God, our hope and joy and confidence and peace cannot be in “fixing” the universe. Instead they need to be “resting” in Christ’s work to reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:15-23). Our delight is in the law of the Lord, and on that law we meditate day and night (Psalm 1). Our trust is in the Lord, who has been a sanctuary and shelter in every generation (Psalm 90). Our peace is in asking God to do for us what we – even with a DeLorean and some plutonium – could never do for ourselves (Philippians 4:4-7).
What great benefit we would all see from turning our regretful and worrying hearts toward the Lord, and the great hope of the PERFECT life He is establishing for us… “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:4-5)
Even with a time machine, there is simply no topping that!
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:1-3)
“For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him…” (Colossians 1:19-22)