Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
Therefore, just as God was able, before all things were made, [to bring it about] that they would not be made, so no less is he able even now [to bring it about] that the things that were made had not existed…
-St Peter Damian, Letter on Divine Omnipotence
This post is admittedly an exercise in speculation, to test the logical coherence and meaning of the extent of God’s power and ability to alter reality. There is of course no Scriptural text or verses by which one can definitively conclude either way as to whether God can alter the past. But the point of discussing God’s power to alter the past is not really to conclude one way or another whether God does or can actually do it, but simply to provide some idea or meaning in the course of this discussion as to the extent to which God can “radically” redeem and change us at the Resurrection and his ability to “undo” the evils and wrongs and sufferings which has occurred in his world. In the gripping words of the Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov,
Can we “understand,” can we grasp, what the prophets and the apostles announce in Scripture? Will Athens ever consent to allow such “truths” to come into the world? The history of humanity – or, more precisely, all the horrors of the history of humanity – is, by one word of the Almighty, “annulled”; it ceases to exist, and becomes transformed into phantoms or mirages: Peter did not deny; David cut off Goliath’s head but was not an adulterer; the robber did not kill; Adam did not taste the forbidden fruit; Socrates was never poisoned by anyone. The “fact,” the “given”, the “real,” do not dominate us; they do not determine our fate, either in the present, in the future or in the past. What has been becomes what has not been; man returns to the state of innocence and finds that divine freedom, that freedom for good, in contrast with which the freedom that we have to choose between good and evil is extinguished and disappears, or more exactly, in contrast with which our freedom reveals itself to be a pitiful and shameful enslavement. The original sin – that is to say, the knowledge that what is is necessarily – is radically uprooted and torn out of existence. Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths condemning what is and what is not. Reality is transfigured. The heavens glorify the Lord. The prophets and apostles cry in ecstasy, “O death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?” And all announce: “Eye hath not seen, non ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”
Athens and Jerusalem
Dare we believe, dare we hope that such radical annulment of evil is in God’s hands, that so great is his almighty goodness, that he does not merely heal a fallen being with the memory of the wound seared forever in the scars left behind, but he can even exterminate the very past event itself which lead to his wounds?
The Old Leaf Falling the Forest Does it Make a Noise Question: A Spatial Analogy and Berkeley
When St Peter Damian declared that God could alter the past in the 11th century, this was but a proclaimation made in pure faith for he lacked the conceptual philosophical tools to give his bold declaration any coherence or substance, conceptual tools which would only become more widely available many centuries later. In addition, we also have a illustrative resources made available by our digital age by which we can easily explain Peter Damian’s contention.
Thus before we can begin to understand how God can alter the past, it would be very useful to develop the framework for a “subjectivist” understanding of time by discussing George Berkeley, a 18th century Irish bishop and philosopher, idea of a “subjectivist” understanding of space and material reality.
Berkeley’s theory was basically that matter, literally, does not exist. What does exist are many individual spirits and one infinite Spirit who feeds sensations directly into our souls, thus his fundamental contention of esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived). To say that something exists is simply to say that it could or would be sensed by us, but it does not have an independent existence apart from our perceiving. Thus to say that an apple exist is to say that you see it as red, it smells like apple, it tastes and feels like an apple, etc, and when you consume it, God causes the apple through a biological mechanism, to feed the sensations of appetite satisfaction into your mind, etc.
When Berkeley first proposed his theory, it was greeted by howls of outrage and condemnations of outright absurdity, but oddly enough, today with quantum mechanics, his idea may not be so outrageous after all. As the equation goes, particles exists in a set of probability clouds until an observer comes along to “collapse” the particles into a fixed position and velocity, thus to be “real” is truly to be perceived. Furthermore, today we have a very easy way to think of Berkeley’s theory. Berkeley’s theory is basically The Matrix with the Matrix substituted for God. Thus, the “external material world” doesn’t actually exist, it is simply that God feeds the sensations and experiences of the “external world” directly into our minds. To be sure, God feeds these sensations in a somewhat “systematic” and “mechanical” fashion, e.g. the laws of nature, but it doesn’t change the fact that these many individual phenomena or discrete sensations which are experience by me has as its basis directly the decree of God which feeds these sensations into me, and the fact that these phenomena which I experience then to behave in a certain pattern or “cause-and-effect” is simply the fact that God regulates and orders the way they behave by what we call the “laws of nature”.
I am not really interested in defending this view of the material world, although I think there are considerable merits to it. What I am interested is simply in the fundamental thesis that “to be is to be perceived”, that is, the “reality” of the external material world consists in the fact of its effect or impression upon our subjective experience. If I can’t ever sense it or if it makes no impression or effect upon my experience, it literally does not exist. The “reality” of the external world simply consists of its impression or sensation which is produced by God in my spatial presence, and its reality is simply bound up to my experiencing.
Subjective Time and Radical Presentism
If the external world’s reality simply consists of the phenomena which God feeds into my soul which I sense through my five physical senses, how can this insight be applied to time?
St Augustine himself actually provides the framework whereby we can apply the spatial insight to time. Augustine describes how we perceive the past through our memory, our present through our perception and our future through anticipation. Thus, it is now quite obvious how we can apply the “to be is to be perceived” insight to time. The fact that a past event existed is simply the fact that either I, or some subjects somewhere, recalls the event in memory. But if God simply eliminated the memory from everyone’s mind, the event simply ceases to exist. Thus, this is how God can “alter” the past, he simply eliminates the memory of it in the present, and finally he himself, “remembers it no more”. In short, if God forgot something, it never happened.
To this argument there can be raised the following rather obvious objection: Just because no one can recall the event does not mean that the event ceased to exist. If, for example, God eliminated the memory of how I got this scar on my leg from everyone including himself, but my leg still getting cut still exists and I can still discern its effect upon my leg even if no one in the entire universe can possibly remember or recall how the scar got there.
To this objection there is an equally obvious reply, God can simply remove the scar and repair it as good as new (literally!), and since “to be is to be perceived” applies not only to time but also space and material reality, God in his infinite knowledge can track down every possible effect of the “event” down to the elementary particle and eliminate every effect or trace of its from the entire universe in the present. Thus, the event never existed. It is interesting to observe that in St Peter Damian’s discussion on whether God can alter the past was preceded by a discussion as to whether God can restore a woman’s virginity after she had sex, and as expected, St Peter Damian argued that God can of course make a non-virgin into a virgin as he puts it,
…with respect to the flesh, who can doubt even with an insane mind that he who restores crushed [spirits], [who] releases those in chains, who cures every weakness and every infirmity, cannot restore the virginal barrier? Oh yes, he who put the body itself together out of the thinnest seminal fluid, who in the human form diversified the species through the various features of the limbs, who made what did not yet exist into the pinnacle of creation — once it existed, he could not get it back when it went bad?
One can of course still insists that the event did exist, objectively, in “reality”, independently of whether any trace of it exists in the presence, it is still there in the past, and no amount of tinkering in the present, whether messing with our memories or empirical reality can change that fact.
To answer this, it would be useful to explain a little of the philosophical dispute between the “presentist” and the “eternalists”. Basically the “presentists” argue that only present objects exist. Thus, for example, the Taj Mahal exists but the Hanging Gardens of Babylon does not. This is in contrast to the “eternalists” who argue that the range of existing objects includes not only objects in the present but also the past and the future.
It is not necessary to go into this dispute at any great length, what we simply need to take away from this is that, God is in immediate control of all facts in the universe, thus in a sense, all “facts” are immediatelypresent to God, making him a sort of radical presentist. Thus only what is “present” to God is real, upon God’s say so, he can simply eliminate facts from our universe’s spatio-temporal history and “banish” that fact from his presence, and thus that event or “past” fact would simply cease to exist.
Here is an often useful analogy to understand how this works. Imagine an author writing a story and as the story develops to a certain point, he finds it useful to alter some of the events in the beginning or earlier parts of the story to better “fit” in with the later plot development. Is not God himself all the more capable of something like this? Could it not be that as the history of the world progresses, in response to the cries of his faithful, he finds it fitting to simply “annul” certain past events in our spatio-temporal history? In the words of Lev Shestov,
…the truth “Socrates was poisoned” exists only for a definite term and that sooner or later we shall obtain the right to say that no one ever poisoned Socrates, that this truth, like all truths, is in the power of a supreme being who, in answer to our cries, can annul it…
Naturally this analogy is flawed when applied to God for we can record the history of the author writing the story, noting that he first wrote this and then he scratched it out and wrote something else. But remember, God is a radical presentist, only what is present to Him is real, and there is simply no “history” of God’s past authorial actions, or anyone recording how God “wrote” the story of the history of the universe. Once God eliminates a certain event from our spatio-temporal history in response to some event within that spatio-temporal history, e.g. our prayers, that event simply ceases to exist.
Living in a God’s Computer Simulation
So far we have been discussing this from God’s point of view, but now we should return back to our point of view as creatures who exists bound within the spatio-temporal world. Let us recall what makes a past event a past event. The fact that a past event “exists” consists simply in the fact that someone could remember it and that we can empirically perceive its effects upon the world, and most importantly, the fact that God himself “remembers” this event and maintains the “effect” of this events upon the world via his decreeing of its empirical effects upon us who live in this world.
It would be useful to note Berkeley’s rather interesting definition of what constitutes the objectivity of the “external world”. One of the problem Berkeley addresses is what constitutes the difference between those impressions and sensations created by my own imagination and mind and those impressions and sensations which supposedly exists in the “real world”. The definition which Berkeley uses is that of the “will”. Berkeley argues that the “real” world consists in those sensations or impressions which our mind would be affected whether we want to or not, independently of our will, while those sensations or impressions which exists as a result of our imagination ceases as soon as we cease to will them into existence. Essentially, the “objective world” is simply to be defined by what God has willed for us to experience, while our “subjective” world is what we ourselves will. In short, the subjective-objective distinction is simply the distinction between our finite wills and the Infinite will.
Under this definition, therefore it is easy to see that all facts, not only empirical but also temporal facts, are simply subject to the will of God, and once he “forgets” them, then none of us could possibly remember it, and God simply ceases to enforce and will the effects of those events upon ourselves. However, this “radical” memory alteration procedure does raise some important questions as personal identity and continuity. A lot of “evil” or “bad” events in our lives are considerably significant in the formation of who we are and what we are. If God simply “eliminated” those events from our lives, would we still be ourselves if that event never happened? How much continuity would there be between my present self and my past self if God keeps wrecking havoc in the past?
Let us return back to our Matrix analogy again, but with a twist. Let us imagine the universe is one vast computer program or operating system made by God, and we are also likewise computer characters who exist within this program (one should check out this totally cool philosophy called “Digital Philosophy” which postulates that the entire universe is simply made of information processing bits, a form of panpsychism). As one of the more popular theory of consciousness and the mind goes, our minds are like the “software” to which our body is the “hardware”, essentially an information processing cognitive system. As we “play” the game or go through life, our character programs run within the larger “operating system” of the universe, encoding a historical log of itself and also our character programs can even modify itself in response to external events. For those who play Skyrim, you can simply imagine that we are essentially living in a sort of Skyrim world.
Now, remember that God exists beyond the entire computer simulation. He has full control over the entire operating system and the character programs. Just as it is not necessary for our computers to “load” the entire world of Skyrim at one go, only those parts of the map which our characters are located, thus, the “reality” of the entire universe does not adhere in some material substance or matter but it is simply a digital “program” stored in God’s mind which he simply “loads” into our minds at the appropriate moment.
Now how can God go about “deleting” our past? He can simply delete our quest logs for example and thus we would have never “done” or finished that quest. He could also delete certain parts of the map and eliminate all trace of it everywhere in the world, etc. Skyrim for example allows us to download many “mods” whereby we can modify the game by adding quests, locations, and our characters in various ways, and often as we play we get tired of some of the mods and simply get rid of them. Some of them would have immediate impact upon our characters, especially if they are character mods, some of them would simply mean the loss of some ability or locations or quests. Our characters would still retain the “effects” of these previous abilities or locations or quests by the experience which we have gained in the course of using these abilities which we now remove, the experience and resources gained still remains with us, but the ability is simply gone. Thus, even with these many mods, added or removed, it is still the same character, even if we remove some quest mods thus “erasing” our past quest accomplishments, the character would still be relevantly similar.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – 1 Corinthians 15:51
This is of course a very crude way of presenting how our characters can maintain “continuity” with our past even with these sort of modifications upon ourselves and the world. But the point that I want to stress is simply that the question of “continuity” is an empirical question, there isn’t any systematic way of deciding what makes you you and this depends upon your particular history. I don’t see any point in trying to postulate occult metaphysical entities like substances or souls to explain what makes me now the same me in the future because of a continuity of substance or soul stuff or whatever.
To put it bluntly, even what makes me me is itself determined by the pure will of God as Rowan Williams one said in a sermon talking about a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
It’s a poem written when he was in prison for his share in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer writes, ‘… they tell me I step out into the prison yard like a squire going to walk around his estate’. (Bonhoeffer was a man of rather aristocratic background and bearing.) And the poem is about the great gulf between what ‘they’ see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside; the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. ‘So which is me?’ Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person that they see or the person that I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: ‘I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am, is in the hands of God.’
Thus are we freed from our need to define ourselves or “find our identity” (urgh! horrible horrible phrase!), or to put it in Lutheranese to “justify” ourselves by our works, and thereby simply look in faith to the external Word of Christ which speaks its promise of redemption to us and simply obey His command whereever it leads us, even unto our deaths and utter limits of our life. We trust that as Christ lives, so shall “I” live and be raised with him, whatever “I” will mean at the General Resurrection and whatever shape or form or characteristic it will take. We simply trust in the divine Word which says that we shall be raised to newness of life and that is that.
Thus who we are, what we are, our character or experiences and our past, shall be changed, very extremely radically changed at the resurrection future, a future which “Eye hath not seen, non ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) We know that the scars of our past, the disappointments, the sin which seems to be fused into us, the pains and the sorrows, are capable of a radical alteration, no matter how deeply we think it fester into us, how severe its weight upon our souls, how great its impact upon our lives, but our being compared to God is but a simple computer code, one which he could easily program away and change, and we shall be changed, radically transformed, transfigured, when we are raised wholly anew at the resurrection future, taking with us only our faith, hope and love of God. God’s almighty love is greater than any past event in our life, and no past evil or sin no matter how grave or severe can ever sever us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, by whom all things are possible, and whose love can overpower all and annul even the past itself.
Even as we live in this body of sin, we cannot conceive, we cannot imagine, what such a future would be like, what our new and renewed self shall be like. Our minds darken both by the falleness of this world and by the sinful flesh which dwells within, we are not able to grasp at all what our new self and being would be like. But we have the divine Word of promise of a new heavens and new earth, and entrusting ourselves wholly to this Word which sanctifies us in the divine truth and inspires us with hope of our future resurrection.
Conclusion: The Greek Mind, Regret and Temporal Corruption, and the Christian Hope
The Greek mind has a considerable aversion to the concept of time whom they associated with decay and regret. To be a temporal creature was essentially to be liable to regret and loss for one in a sense cannot recover the past and what is past is “eternally” and unchangably so, fixed forever by Ananke, the goddess of necessity.
Thus in the Greek mind perfection, especially of the forms, must necessarily transcend time to escape both the corruption and change which inevitably follows temporality and also to be able to escape from regret and loss which comes from being bound forever with the consequences of a past event.
As the Christian faith spread throughout the Greco-Roman civilisation, the Greek-minded Christian theologians promptly adopted the Greek category of “timelessness” to apply to the deity as essentially beyond time. However even as God managed to escape the temporal corruption and regret and loss which comes from temporality, the question became as to what that left for the rest of us. If God was outside of time, and if God could control every fact which occurred in time, can we as a matter of fact, change anything which happened to us? Are all events in this world “predestined” and “fixed” from all eternity? Is it not truly futile to cry to God concerning the events of this world, if it was him who had eternally and unchangeably fixed it from all eternity? Are we forced indeed to live with the consequence of our past forever, shall the wounds never be healed nor our shame ever be taken away, for the past event has been fixed by God himself and shall not ever be altered?
It is interesting to observe that this “fixity” of the past has remained undiminished even to the present. We are continuously told that we have one life and that we shouldn’t “waste” it and maximise our time here on earth, for what is past, what is lost to time, can “never” be recovered, and that we must try to live with no regrets. The contemporary man lives in a race and competition against time, against the fatalistic forces of time which consumes our lives relentlessly and whom we must always keep a pace, never to “waste” a single moment for the past cannot be undone and time lost is “forever” lost.
But we who live in communion with Him to whom all time are present cannot live that way. We know that there is no such thing as a “waste” with God. In the words of Lev Shestov, we who know of the God of the Scriptures, know
that there is somewhere, “in heaven,” a supreme and omnipotent being who is interested in your fate, who can help you, and who is ready to do so.
Unlike the fatalistic gods of old whose hands are tied by the decrees of Ananke, we who know of the “living God” are confident that our God does not dwell in frozen stasis with decrees fixed in stone but is living and active, the eternal movement of Love between the persons of the Trinity. We are not anxious like the pagans who have no hope, nor are we forever condemned by a regret of some unchangebly fixed past event whose consequences we cannot escape, but we have a living and active God whose almighty power is great enough even to annul the past and to redeem us from the evils which have gone before into his new and glorious light. And most vitally of all, we have a God who cares about what we care, who knows of our present desires and the depths of sorrow out of which we cry, and is ready and able to respond to it.
Therefore the Gospel commands us never to despair of our past, never to allow it to foreclose or determine our future, but in everything to refer them to the almighty God to whom all times are present, and to cry out to him from the depths of our history which we have sunk in, for indeed, we know that God can deliver us from the claws of the past itself.