Science Fiction Theology

I’m a theologian, science fiction fan, and science fiction writer. It is an interesting combination. With all that being jammed into one human being, the fact I’m so peculiar may almost make sense, and it may explain why both my fiction and my theology tend toward the odd. Consider the thoughts I’ve had on the eternality of God and his relationship to space-time. Genesis 21:33, Deuteronomy 32:40, Psalm 90:2-4, and Psalm 102:24-27 are the classic texts on the eternality of God (see also, Hebrews 1:10-12, Revelation 13:8, and 2 Peter 3:8). By eternality, I mean that God is without beginning or end; he is free from the succession of time. God is not in time: instead, he sees the past, present, and future equally clearly. He sees Adam eating the forbidden fruit, the birth of Christ, the resignation of the Pope, and the last judgment all at once.

An interesting question to consider, both for the eternality of God, as well as for our everlasting state: why doesn’t God get bored?

One could suggest that the indeterminacy of the universe (free-will) has something to do with it.

What are the theological implications of modern physics when we think about time? Augustine (AD 354 – 430), in speaking of the creation of the universe wrote:

The world and time had both one beginning. The world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time.

His words of more than a thousand years past, express well the basic thrust of relativistic physics. Augustine ridiculed the idea of picturing God waiting an infinite time and then deciding at some propitious moment to create a universe—because without the universe, time doesn’t exist. God is outside time, unbound by it. Psalm 90:4 records:

For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night. (Notice also 2 Peter 3:8)

Consider the otherwise hard to understand phrase in Revelation 13:8: “…the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.”

Given that Jesus was crucified around 30 AD, we perhaps see an indication of how radically different God’s relationship to the universe and time are. From his perspective, the creation of the world and Jesus’ death on the cross were both in God’s sight.

Paul Davies, in the somewhat dated God and the New Physics discusses the implications of the theory of relativity for time. He writes that the revolution in our ideas of time can be summarized by stating that, whereas time was once viewed as “absolute, fixed, and universal—independent of material bodies or observers…” it is now recognized as being dynamic: it can “stretch and shrink, warp and even stop altogether at a singularity.” Today, the movement of clocks are recognized as not absolute; instead, such movements are relative to the state of motion or the gravitational situation of the observer. This has forced physicists to abandon some long held assumptions. For example, there is no longer a universal agreement on the choice of “now”.

An experiment has been proposed. If one were to get a set of twins and then place one in a spaceship moving at very close to the speed of light, and then leave the other on Earth, an interesting phenomenon would occur. If the destination of the twin in the spaceship were a star twenty light years away, upon his return, he would have aged at most a few months. His twin on Earth, however, would be many years older. This is known as the time dilation effect, and has been described fictionally in Time For the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein and The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman—among others. To give a sense of the weirdness this effect entails, let me quote a short passage from The Forever War:

We wound up spending a lot of time in the tanks, just to keep from looking at the same faces all day long in the crowded ship. The added periods of ac-celeration got us back to Stargate in ten months, subjective. Of course, it was 340 years (minus seven months) to the hypothetical objective observer.

Time dilation is not a fictional concept. It has been demonstrated empirically repeatedly and has to be taken into account to ensure the accuracy of GPS.

Now, consider another incident that may be enlightened by the idea that God is viewing the universe in a way rather different than we do: the Transfiguration.

Matthew 16:28-17:9 presents an interesting and unique event (also recorded in Luke 9:28-36 and Mark 9:2-13):

“I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus in-structed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The mountain where this occurred is traditionally identified as Mt. Tabor. It looks like an upside down bowl—perfectly smooth and round. So what happened here? There was obviously a physical change in Jesus of some sort. Based on the context of the episode, it apparently in some way fulfills the statement immediately preceding it that “some here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

What does this mean? Is the transfiguration to be understood as the Kingdom of God, revealed early to the disciples? Or are we to suggest that Christ made a mistake and the second coming and the eternal kingdom didn’t arrive as planned—or can we make something of what John wrote?

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:22-23)

It is unlikely that John is still alive, or anyone else from that period. Since Jesus has yet to come back, it seems unlikely to me that the fulfillment of his words refers to the still future Second Coming.

But, it may be an over simplification to suggest that this was merely a “shock and awe,” “lights and magic spectacular.” Since God is not bound by space and time, perhaps we should consider a radical possibility: that what happened on the mountain was not just a change in Jesus, but rather, a change in location for the disciples, both spatially and temporally. The Transfiguration might be best understood as the disciples being moved through time to the end of everything, where they experienced a glimpse of what that yet future day (for us and them) would be like. The appearance of Moses and Elijah might make more sense if we think of them as being in their post-resurrection bodies in the Eternal Kingdom. If we understand the transformation of the Transfiguration in this peculiar way, it makes the fulfillment of Christ’s words in Matthew 16:28 rather more literal than they otherwise would be.

The “two men” were not disembodied spirits. The disciples recognized them, apparently without introduction. This may be remarkable, demonstrating that when we reach the Eternal Kingdom we will recognize each other, and perhaps people we don’t know, too. Or it could be that as Jesus talked to them, he called them by name, or it could be simply that they were introduced and the passage just doesn’t tell us, since that’s a minor thing and we know that the Bible does not tell us everything that happened.

Obviously this is all quite speculative; but speculation and wondering and looking at even the most wild ideas is what keeps theology interesting–and sometimes leads to better understanding.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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