CNN has a featured segment called Counterfactual Files in which experts in history provided educated guesses about what would have happened if different conditions occurred in history. It is fascinating. They have asked questions such as “What if Alexander Hamilton had lived?”, “What if Richard Nixon had never resigned?”, “What if the Cuban missile crisis led to war?”, “What if Abraham Lincoln had lived?”, “What if FDR had lived through his fourth term?”. Counterfactuals point to how the world would be different if other-than-actual events occurred. Like a game of chess, counterfactuals show that free-will choices can have significant effects that impact circumstances and decisions of others.
Counterfactual “would” statements are found frequently in fiction. For example, in Episode 1 of The Amazing Spiderman, before Peter Parker was Spiderman, he was invited to go as a third wheel on a date. If he had gone on that date, he would have stayed Parker—but he didn’t. Instead, he attended a science event and was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him super powers. Super power is just one component he needed. He needed to direct the newfound power. In another scene, when a crook ran by him, Parker could have easily stopped him. But Parker was angry and let the bad guy go in order to spite someone. If Parker stopped the crook with his new superpower, the crook would have gone to jail and Parker’s uncle would have lived. However, Parker may not have felt the motivation to be a crime fighter. Instead, in fictional reality, Peter Parker let the crook go, the crook later murdered his uncle, and this motivated Peter Parker to use his powers to become crime-fighting Spiderman. It was a necessary condition for Peter Parker to gain both the power and the motivation in order to become a super hero. The creator of the Spiderman comic shows us the power of circumstance, choice and what would have been.
Counterfactual “would” statements have import into the real world as well. For example, in October of 2015, Eugene Finney was swimming with his daughter in the cold ocean at Huntington Beach in California. A wave hit the two of them and they were forced to the floor of the ocean. At this point, Finney felt a painful thud to his back. It was a shark. His vision glittered and then went dark. Dazed, he clutched his daughter and swam to the shore. His back was bruised and bloodied and he eventually went to the hospital. A CAT scan showed bruising around his heart but it also revealed that he had cancer in his right kidney. It was the size of a walnut. His grandmother had died from the same cancer. Finney exclaimed, “If it was not for that shark (bludgeoning me), I would have never have gone to the hospital and caught it (in time before the cancer metastasized and eventually killed me).” Finney went on to state that he was thankful for the shark as it indirectly saved his life. Finney believes that if the shark did not bludgeon him, he would have died later due to undetected cancer.
Where does God fit in all of this? In the Scriptures, God is described as providential (cf. Acts 4:28, Eph. 1:11). Humans are described as having the ability to make free choices (cf. Dt. 30:19, Luke 13:34). Sometimes, if our normal free choices are not furthering God’s end purposes, then God has the ability intervene and to use circumstances in which we freely choose in a way that furthers His end purpose in this world.
For example, on the road ťo Damascus, Saul had no intention of becoming a believer (Acts 9). He wanted to jail or kill believers. But God had other plans. God interjected Himself into the circumstance and Saul became a believer. It may be the case that Saul would not have become a believer in any other circumstance if not profoundly prompted by God.
Second, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand Isaiah 53 until Phillip came to Gaza as prompted by the Spirit (Acts 8). God made Himself part of the equation. Otherwise Phillip would not have known to go to Gaza. Written another way, we could say that if God prompted Phillip (G), then if Phillip went to Gaza (P), then the Ethiopian would understand Isaiah 53 and become a believer (E). Symbolically, this conditional is very roughly written, (G->(P->E)). God makes (G->(P->E)) true.
The language behind this is called possible-world semantics. The logic behind these semantics are called modal logics. Modal logics are well formed and it is possible that God uses this form of logic to determine whether statements are vacuously true, trivially true, feasibly true, actually true, necessarily true, false, or impossible. Watch for the “would” statements going on around you. They are everywhere, everyday. God works in “would” statements. God is a “would” worker.