Does God change history?

Tomorrow Adrian wrote (! – yes, I am responding to a post dated tomorrow, and we are in the same time zone)

Justification is no mere legal fiction, for when God declares something to be the case, He also causes it to become the case.

For once the point I want to make in response to Adrian is not really to do with the atonement, although there is a link. For Adrian’s assertion here raises serious philosophical issues. I am not thinking of the superficial breach of causality involved in me responding now to something apparently written in the future, although sentences like “Tomorrow Adrian wrote …” are of great interest to grammarians. The real issue is, when God declares us to be justified, that is, not to have sinned, does he change history?

So, when we are declared as not being sinners, does God cause it to become the case that our sinful acts have not actually happened? Well, certainly not in a simplistic way. If someone murders another person and then becomes a Christian, the victim doesn’t suddenly come back to life. So it is hard to claim that God not only counts as not having sinned but actually causes us to be people who have not sinned. The only way to rescue this teaching is to claim that God somehow makes Jesus into a murderer, guilty of the murder because in the rewritten history he actually did it – or, more generally, that God changes the past so that the sins which we seemed to have committed were in fact done by Jesus with our hands.

There are of course severe philosophical problems here, which are only partly lessened if the understanding is that there is no change in outward physical events, but only in how they were caused and who is responsible for them. For a start, there can only be no physical consequences at all if this change of responsibility takes place in some metaphysical realm entirely separate from the physical brain, which begs a lot of complex questions about the relationship between the human brain, mind and soul.

But there is also an issue of whether it is actually a meaningful thing to say that something in the past has changed. I think most philosophers would hold that an event is an event in a timeless and absolute sense and cannot be changed – at least after it has happened. It is another question whether in some sense it exists unchangeably even before it has happened. From the scientific perspective of relativity theory this would also be true of events, which are at a fixed point in space-time and cannot change with space or time.

In a recent comment at A Brick in the Valley, Jeremy Pierce wrote that there are many things which God cannot do because they are logically impossible. I would suggest that changing the past, so that we did not commit our past sins but Jesus did, is one of those things which even God cannot do. So, Adrian, try again!

0 thoughts on “Does God change history?

  1. What about retrocausality? The sin never occured because the atonement retrocaused the sins’s non-existence. If retrocausality is proposed as a solution for the paradox of nonlocal quantum entanglement (as per Costa de Beauregard’s proposed solution to spooky action at a distance: the measurement of a particle’s spin cause a retrocausal wave to be sent to the point where the entangled pair were emitted) I don’t see why a principle on a grander scale would necessarily violate physics.

    Now admittedly, this is a minority view (and it verges on pseudo-science — I can hardly see how it could it be applied on such a large scale), but I don’t see why it should be a priori dismissed absolutely.

  2. Indeed, Iyov, that would in principle be a possibility, and I am open to this kind of retrocausality. But the implication would be that anyone who had become a Christian would be observed and understood by all (as presumably memories would also be changed) to have led a sinless past life. This conflicts with observation, that there are many Christians who have sinned, whether serious criminals who have repented or ordinary sinners like myself.

  3. Clearly God does not change the past just because we have faith in in. I can’t think of anywhere in scripture where this belief could be found! He may, however, change our future/destiny, upon believing in Him, but that rather depends on whether or not you believe one is predestined to believe or not… 🙂

  4. I’m confused here. You seem to be quoting Adrian and advocates of penal substitution on the issue of justification, and then you conclude something about how it leads to absurd results about a completely different issue. Being justified in a penal way via substitution isn’t about the act never having been committed or about the consequences never occurring. It’s about the act no longer being treated as a sin the person is responsible for, since that sin is atoned for on the cross by Christ’s sacrifice. So I don’t see how you move from that issue to the other ones you’re raising. They don’t seem to me to be about the same subject matter.

  5. Jeremy, my point was not really about penal substitution or justification, but about the apparent claim by Adrian that when we become Christians we do not just become as if we had never sinned, but God actually makes it true that we have never sinned and so are just. God can do that only by changing the past. Now I am not quite sure that Adrian intended to make this claim, but it is an interesting possibility, however, one that needed to be refuted.

    You wrote:

    Being justified in a penal way via substitution isn’t about the act never having been committed or about the consequences never occurring. It’s about the act no longer being treated as a sin the person is responsible for …

    I fully agree, whether the way is penal or not. But Adrian seemed to be disagreeing, suggesting that God doesn’t just treat as not a sin, as a legal fiction, but makes it really not to have happened.

  6. I’m given to believe by an acquaintance who left New Frontiers a number of years ago (to become a mainstream Christian) that this would actually be totally consistent with New Frontiers theology.

  7. Thanks, Pam. I was wondering if in fact this idea that God changes history was only in my imagination, and misreading of Adrian. I am glad of some confirmation that there are people who really believe it! But I would be interested in any clear written statement of this teaching, which must surely deal with the objections I have made.

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