Time Travel, God, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
I am a science fiction fan. So much so that I am actually excited about the forthcoming War of the Worlds movie, despite the fact that it stars Tom Cruise. Speaking of H.G. Wells (the author of the book, War of the Worlds), his The Time Machine launched a whole sub-genre within Science Fiction.
It is interesting how time travel has such broad appeal. It is not just for science fiction geeks. The Back to the Future trilogy was so popular because of the premise, not the science (or does anyone have any idea how the Flux Capacitor really is supposed to work?). The Terminator series exploited time travel ruthlessly and inconsistently, without offering any concept of how it was supposed to work. Star Trek IV told us how (go really, really fast around the sun), but the focus of course was saving the earth from destruction by correcting humanity's errors in the past (hunting whales to extinction).
And this no doubt is one of the attractions of the genre; being able to make decisions in the past with knowledge about how the future will be different. The ability to "correct" mistakes that we have made in the past, either as individuals or collectively (Terminator II and Frequency). Often times, however, these efforts are portrayed as counter productive. Attempts to change the past are portrayed as futile (the most recent adaptation of The Time Machine, The Final Countdown, and Terminator III) or cruelly counterproductive (Back to the Future II and The Butterfly Effect).
The common element to these works is the attempt to travel back in time in order to alter the present. But despite this commonality, the moral of the stories differ. Those that show how time travel can result in positive change emphasize the importance of our actions. Because the audience knows that they will not have the option of time travel, the moral of the story is to do it right the first time. Do not kill off all the cute and friendly whales. Be a better father to your son. Do not plug in the ultra-smart artificial intelligence to the nation's defense systems. There is an optimism that once we understand the situation better, we want to and can make better decisions.
Those works that show the futility of attempting to change the past may have a similar message, but are more pessimistic. The moral may be that the past cannot be changed so we should get it right the first time. However, some works in this genre seem to suggest the inevitability of fate; bordering on questioning the very existence of free will or assuming the hopelessness of the human condition. The ability or even the desire to make better decisions is denied. The bad nature of humanity results in unalterable doom. This seems to be the moral of Terminator III, where despite everything our heroes do to change the future and their destinies, they end up right where the timeline said they should be. Similarly, in the recent adaptation of The Time Machine, our hero tries again and again to save his loved one from a violent end. Each time he does, she finds some other violent way to meet her demise. See also the time traveling chimps in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (as well as Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of Planet of the Apes).
Not all works in this mode are so fatalistic. In The Final Countdown, a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier with the latest and greatest is mysteriously transported back to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor right in the path of the Japanese fleet. Should they intervene, wipe out the Japanese fleet, and spare the U.S. a humiliating defeat? The military sees it as their duty to do so (understandably), but other characters point out the danger of such intervention (also understandably). Would the world necessarily be a better place had the U.S. not suffered such a humiliating defeat to launch WW II? Certainly the soldiers and sailors of that day would have, but would the country have rallied against Japan and Germany so unitedly? How would the United States have been affected by suddenly being in the possession of such powerful weapons? Eventually, the issue is decided by nature or God and the carrier is just as mysteriously transferred back to the present. The film poses the questions, but does not let the answers play themselves out.
As for those works that portray any interference with the past as having necessarily bad effects, the moral may be to emphasize the unpredictability of our actions or it may be to underscore the fatalism of mankind. The unpredictability angle is akin to the "chaos theory" prominent in Jurassic Park. The point seems to that it is unduly prideful to believe that we know better than fate or God how to order the very fabric of nature. I have some sympathy to this point. For example, would killing or even simply discrediting Hitler before his rise to power be a good thing? Obviously it would stop some of the greatest evil known to man. But what evils would such intervention unintentionally cause? What if someone more competent took Hitler's place in establishing the Nazi party? Or, what if Germany slid into communism and joined the Soviet revolution in spreading their own version of death-dealing fascism abroad? How can we know? (Notably, the tv series Quantum Leap avoided this problem by implying that God himself was using the hero to "correct" bad events in the past). As for the fatalistic angle, this relates to the viewpoint discussed above, that humanity is so hopeless that even if we try to better our situation we are doomed to failure.
But there is yet another category of time travel stories. Those that involve traveling forward into time, rather than into the past. This does not necessarily involve the use of a time machine, but may have the hero "frozen" or placed in some sort of suspended animation. Often times the time travel is inadvertent. The classic example is Buck Rogers, who is transported forward in time into a very different place with very different customs and values. The book is excellent and explores these issues in greater depth than the tv show. Nevertheless, in the tv show we get to explore our own culture by placing a representative of it in a very different culture. The author gets to give his opinion about how present trends may result in future harm or good, such as portraying a future environmental catastrophe resulting from present day carelessness. The author may emphasize what is good about our present society that he or she fears may be declining (such as Buck Roger's self-sufficiency or mistrust of technology). This also seems to be the point of Blast from the Past, where the moral decline of our society is depicted through the eyes of someone raised in the ways of the 50s. An interesting book along these "fish out of water" lines is Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein.
Finally, there are time travel stories that are not about attempts to change the past or traveling forward into the future. The focus is on learning about the past. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is an example of this. Bill and Ted travel to the past to learn about history for a high school project. While doing so, they do more than earn good grades, they learn important lessons relevant to their present lives. Despite the comedic nature of this example, I actually think this -- assuming time travel is not invented by a super villain or evil genius -- would be the most practical use for time travel.
This educational purpose of time travel was recently explored in Michael Crighton's book, Timeline. In Timeline, a corporation masters time travel and uses it to get accurate knowledge about the past that they use to aid in archeological digs in the present. The focus of their efforts is a castle in France about 700 years ago. They intend to use the information gained by time travel to accurately reconstruct the castle into something like an amusement park. Perhaps my memory fails, but this seemed somewhat contrived. Certainly there was something else more important in history that we would use a time machine to learn about? The theatric version noted that the time machine, for no obvious reason, would only transport people to that particular time and place, thus solving this issue.
But the question stuck with me, just what would we use a time machine to learn about in the past? Assuming no intervention, what would be at the top of the list? For me, the answer was always pretty clear -- the Resurrection of Jesus. Who cares about how accurately a castle is reconstructed? Let us get to the heart of history. Is Christianity based on truth or misinformation? Sure, I have other things I would like to know. Did the Jews rebels really commit suicide at Masada as Josephus tells us? What happened to all those planes and boats in the Bermuda Triangle? For some no doubt, they would want to know who really killed JFK (my vote is still for Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone because of his leftist sympathies). And there are events I would like to witness even though I personally have no doubt about them. The resurrection is one. But I would also like to attend some of those meetings of the Constitutional Convention. I would like to hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech live. I would like to see Martin Luther nail his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. So, just what would be the priority of such an endeavor?
I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by asking that question. Just what would we want to go back into history and witness?
In any event, what prompted this free flow of ideas on my part was a book I learned about. It's called the The Didymus Contigency. Here is a description:
The story is premised on a single question, “If you could go back in time and witness any event, where would you go?”
The answer for the book’s main character, Dr. Tom Greenbaum, an embittered atheist and quantum physicist, is: the death and failed resurrection of Jesus Christ, a goal which he vigorously pursues throughout the story.
A hair-raising adventure ensues as Dr. David Goodman, Tom’s colleague and closest friend follows Tom into the past, attempting to avert the time-space catastrophe that would be caused by proving Jesus to be a fraud. But forces beyond their control toss them into a dangerous end game where they are tempted by evil characters, betrayed by friends, pursued by an assassin from the future and haunted by a demon that cannot be killed.
I honestly do not how the book resolves these issues, though I will find out soon. A few remarks from the author:
“It’s my hope that everyone can enjoy this novel,” says Robinson. “My intent is to tell a story surrounding the life of Jesus without sterilizing it. Most people react positively to the book, but some have a problem with the harsh language and violence, not to mention the fact that many Biblical characters, including Jesus, appear in several scenes not actually recorded in the Bible.”
“It certainly isn’t my intention to rewrite the Biblical record of Jesus,” says Robinson. “This is a work of fiction, after all, and should be read as such.”
At the end of the day, I am skeptical of the ability of humans to travel back in time for the simple reason that we have never detected any visitors from our future. Either there is not much of a future or they never figure it out. But what really matters about the sub-genre of time travel is what really matters about the genre of science fiction. What questions does it cause us to ask? In this case, what matters to you in history?
Update: It would appear that the same thought, even about Jesus, has occurred to notable Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke:
Arthur C. Clarke discusses a much more interesting objection to time travel than the "kill yourself" or other grandfather-type paradoxes. He writes [Clarke, 1985]: "The most convincing argument against time travel is the remarkable scarcity of time travelers. However unpleasant our age may appear to the future, surely onewould expect scholars and students to visit us, if such a thing were possible at all. Though they might try to disguise themselves, accidents would be bound to happen—just as they would if we went back to Imperial Rome with cameras and tape-recorders concealed under our nylon togas. Time traveling could never be kept secret for very long." As a skeptic in "Time's Arrow" explains Clarke's problem to a would-be time-machine inventor: "If it [time travel] could be done, someone will eventually learn how. If that happens, history would be littered with tourists. They'd be everywhere. They'd be on the Santa Maria, they'd be at Appomattox with Polaroids, they'd be waiting outside the tomb, for God's sake, on Easter morning.
Paul J. Nahim, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction, page 43. (tip to Ryan Schultz).