The Time Travel Trope Presupposes the Christian Worldview
In fiction, the concept of time travel can’t be separated from the assumption of the Fall. This is plain to see when we consider that time travel is always tied to either (a.)the rectification of some past ill that has led to the protagonist’s present day plight or (b.)the prevention of some future ill, of which the protagonist, apart from having such knowledge revealed to him, is ignorant. We want to fix what has gone wrong. We want to prevent wrong from happening. We want to give our past selves knowledge we now possess. We want to obtain knowledge of the future, from our future selves, that we don’t currently possess. We want to transcend our creatureliness in order to save it. The time travel trope simultaneously affirms and denies the creatureliness of man.
What’s interesting about the time travel trope is that it implies that man’s problem has to be solved, at one and the same time, by a single individual who is within temporality and yet, somehow, outside of it. Time travel is viewed as a way in which man can transcend the restless procession of interrelated causal chains comprising the history of the universe, allowing him the freedom to manipulate events to better suit his needs. Typically, the traveler’s ability to manipulate time works in his favor, however, only up to a point. What at first appears to be a relatively simple task – i.e. go to the past and prevent some event E from occurring in order to keep some later event LE from occurring during one’s own [future?] lifetime – quickly reveals itself to be a complex series of tasks that are seemingly without resolution.
Paradoxes abound, as we all know. Films like Back to the Future, Donnie Darko, Looper, and Predestination exploit the entertainment value of these paradoxes, leaving the viewer half-intrigued and half-horrified at the impossibility of man ever gaining control over the events that comprise his existence, and the existence of the universe. The viewer is given the task of choosing the lesser of two evils – he can leave the past and/or future alone and suffer the consequences, or he can fracture time into an infinite number of timelines complete with their own infinitely varied consequences.
Time is Not the Enemy
Ironically, time travel’s perceived greatest benefit is precisely what would render all of our experiences meaningless. Why regret or anticipate anything at all? Why perceive any experience as unrepeatable and, therefore, of utmost positive or negative value? In part, we value the idea of fixing the past, or safeguarding the future, because we recognize that once an event has occurred it can never be revisited. The past, i.e. every passing/passed moment, is immutably fixed, irreversible, our actions etched into the heavens and the earth, the witnesses God will call forth against his enemies on the day of judgment.
And to the dismay of the contemporary Gnostics who think time is an evil to be transcended via time travel, we will always only be temporal creatures. Time is not a corrupting power, a force that ruins an otherwise good creation. No. That is sin. Sin is the corrupting power that ruins an otherwise good creation. Sin renders the past regrettable, and the future an anxious prospect. Sin drives us to at one and the same time love and hate the immutability of what has already occurred. Sin is the issue, not time.
Genesis 1 very clearly teaches us that time existed prior to corruption. We learn from Gen 1:1-5 that the uncorrupted creation existed in time. This implies, of course, that time is not the cause of corruption. As we move on through the chapter, this is implied again in vv.6-13, and especially in vv.14-19, where the Lord creates the means whereby we measure time. God wanted man to be able to measure, and organize his life according to, the passing of time. Corruption was nowhere in sight, for sin had not entered the creation. The creation, as we learn from Gen 1:31, was declared by God to be very good.
What we need isn’t an escape from time, but salvation from the consequences of our past, present, and future sins. The time travel trope rests upon the assumption that all that is needed in order to ameliorate our present condition is a trip to the past or to the future, one which would afford us the opportunity to modify the causal chain whose effects we are now seeking to escape. The reality of the situation, however, is this: If we suffer it is because we are experiencing the consequences of either our sin or the sins of others. God is not a passive observer of an otherwise self-running universe; God is the one who sustains all things by the Word of his Power. He likewise is the one who can, and does, discipline his children, as well as kill his enemies.
What the Gospel gives us is what our technological pipe dreams could never give us – salvation from the consequences of our sins. In the Gospel, the Lord of Glory joins to himself a human nature, time-bound and capable of suffering the consequences of sin, and he does so without ever ceasing to be the Lord of time. The whole course of our lives is immutable in God’s mind, but by faith it is covered with the immutably righteous life of his Son. Therefore, the immutable past is no longer a threat to us, but is a blessed reminder that although we were vile sinners, enemies of God, and haters of his image-bearers, he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. The future is no longer uncertain, seeing as we now know that we are his people, and he is our God. The future is no longer a ravenous beast we need to tame, but a docile creature of God trained to do his will.
We are not given a do-over; we are made new creatures in Christ.
Time is not reversed; time becomes the means whereby we experience the blessings afforded to us as Christians, children of God who have, by faith alone, been declared righteous and the eternal property of God.
Soli Deo Gloria