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The Gospel According to Time Travel Movies

The possibility of time travel has captivated people for a long time. Ever since science-fiction master H. G. Wells popularized the concept with his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, storytellers have been further exploring the genre. Time travel narratives remain as popular today as ever. The latest time-travel movie, The Adam Project, is currently the #1 film on Netflix, following in the wake of other recent films like Tenet, The Tomorrow War, and Avengers: Endgame. There is something about travel stories that continues to intrigue and engage audiences.   

Recently, I took a similar approach to another popular movie genre in The Gospel According to Disaster Movies. I did not plan for that article to launch a series or receive any follow-up. Yet, as I’ve thought about the time travel genre—another personal favorite of my mine—I’ve realized several ways that these movies can relate to and challenge Christian viewers. No, these Hollywood films are not Gospel presentations with an alter call instead of end credits, but below are three ways that the Christian Gospel echoes in the time travel genre.

In Time & Out of Time

There is no reality as unavoidable or fundamental to the human experience as time. We are quite literally under the influence of time all the time. The same might be said of something like gravity, and yet airplanes exist. Technology and brainiac science allow us to manipulate and transcend gravity. Even the simple act of jumping represents a small and transitory victory over gravity. There is no such victory over time (no, daylight savings doesn’t count!).

The inescapable reality of time is perhaps why fictional time travel stories are such a fun playground to experiment, explore, and mess around with time. What if we moved backwards through time? What would happen to us if we went back in time and killed our ancestors, as in the famous ‘grandfather paradox’ thought experiment? What unintended consequences would there be in the present if we altered the past in subtle ways?  

Time is fundamental to our lives but there is a reality outside of time. God is not bound to time (2 Peter 3:8). God existed in the beginning (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1). Notably, even this biblical language reflects the limitation of human understanding. God existed in the beginning, but what beginning? As an eternal being, God has no beginning. The “beginning” in these scripture verses refers to our beginning—the beginning of time itself.

While time travel will likely remain exclusive to the realm of imaginative science fiction, the Bible reveals that one day we will escape time. Christians experience time while on earth—the good and the bad—but we are ultimately destined for eternity (John 3:16).

Past, Present, and Future

Time travel can go in two directions—backward or forward. Whether returning to the past or transporting into the distant future, a central theme in many time travel stories is the inseparable relationship between the past, present, and future. This idea is evident in movie titles such as Back to the Future or X-Men: Days of Future Past, and perhaps most famously depicted in the three ghosts of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Time travel allow characters to move between different points in time, but the moral quandaries and narrative tension is predicated on an understanding that decisions and actions can have a far-reaching impact, sending ripples throughout time.

The crucial relationship between past, present, and future is consistent with the Gospel. Christianity is both a backward-looking and forward-looking faith. The Gospel requires Christians to look back to the original sin in Eden and to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a historical event some 2000 years in the past.  At the same time, Christians also look longingly ahead to the second coming of Jesus and the glorious new creation (Revelation 21). The Apostle Paul captures this beautiful union of past/future when he writes, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

The Importance of Now

Despite being a genre about journeying into the past or future, the most interesting time travel stories are always fundamentally about the now. At its best, the imaginative ability to travel outside of time provides enlightening perspective and commentary on the present. Traveling to the past allows characters (and, by extension, audiences) to explore the decisions and events that led to our present-day circumstances. In a similar way, journeying into the future is a prophetic—and often sobering—forecast about what consequences await humanity if we do not make the necessary adjustments (“Artificial Intelligence is a really bad idea, guys. Trust me!” — every time traveler from the future).

As already noted, Christianity is both a forward and backward-looking faith. Nevertheless, the divine calling and responsibility of every Christian is to the present. Jesus commissions his disciples to be salt and light in the world and time in which they live. In many time travel stories there is a reverberation of the biblical wisdom, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Time is a part of God’s perfect design for His creation. Past, present, and future all matter, but must be kept in their proper place. As humans, we do not gain mastery of time by breaking out of it or manipulating it, but by embracing it as God intended.

This idea is captured in the famous question put to Queen Esther, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). The past prepares us, and our actions will have future consequences for good or evil, but what matters most is what we do in the present. Time is a fun concept to play around with, but ultimately Christians are called to live faithfully in such a time as this.   

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