few decades before Christ, the historian Livy wondered what would have happened to the world had Alexander the Great destroyed Rome before it became an empire. A few years ago filmmaker Spike Lee directed The Confederate States of America, in which he speculated how different America would be had the South won the Civil War. In 1962 Philip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle, about what life would be like had the Nazis won World War II (One thing for sure, you wouldn’t be reading this article).
These are “alternative histories”—speculations about what might have happened to the future if X instead of Y had happened in the past. What would our world look like had, say, a young art student named Adolf Hitler been accepted into art school, instead of being rejected?
However much fun alternative histories might be, there’s a philosophical term, counterfactuals, that depicts this idea, and it’s part of the narrow branch of epistemology called “theories of causation.” What do we mean when we say that something causes something else? On first glance that seems simple, but causation can mean a multitude of things. For example, wanting to know the cause, the reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, someone asked him, “Mr. Sutton, why do you rob banks?”
“Because,” Sutton replied, “that’s where the money is.”
Anyway, one theory of causation is based on counterfactuals, a kind of alternate history. Basically it says that event A can be deemed the cause of event B if one could say that if event A didn’t happen, then event B wouldn’t have happened either. The cause of you reading this article is my fingers typing on the keyboard; if I hadn’t typed these words, you wouldn’t be reading them. Thus, the cause of you reading this article was my fingers typing on the keyboard. Or, if Hitler had been accepted to art school, World War II would never have occurred. Hence, the cause of World War II was his rejection from art school. (As you might sense, counterfactuals come with their own limitations, as do all theories of causation.)
Nevertheless, Paul uses a counterfactual in his letter to the Galatians, a fascinating “alternative history” regarding salvation. Dealing with the question of the law and the gospel, Paul wrote: “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (Gal. 3:21).
If there had been a law that could impart life, then righ-
teousness would certainly have come by the law.
Think of the implications of this counterfactual. If anyone could have created a law that “could impart life,” it would certainly be the Lord, would it not? And if any law could impart life, it would be God’s law, right? Yet Paul is saying that even God can’t create a law that brings righteousness. If He could have, then “righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” But righteousness doesn’t come by the law because, according to Paul, it can’t—and not even God can make it so.
Paul presents an impossible hypothetical: a law that could give life. It’s almost as if he were postulating a square circle, or a positive integer less than zero. Though these examples aren’t quite the same as Paul’s, he’s still stating what he believes to be impossible, and that’s a law that can give eternal life.
This life, instead, comes only from the perfect righteousness of Jesus, wrought out 2,000 years ago in Him, which He offers to us by faith. And the good news is that the moment we accept it we have all the righteousness we need for salvation, because it’s “the righteousness of God” Himself (Rom. 3:22) and it becomes our own by faith.
The gospel provides us Jesus’ perfect life, Jesus’ perfect record of obedience, and Jesus’ perfect lawkeeping—all in place of our imperfections, our sins, and our faults. When we surrender to Him, Jesus’ victories, Jesus’ righteousness, and Jesus’ past become ours.
Talk about an alternative history!
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He also appears on the Hope Channel in the program