Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Could He Have Called 10,000 Angels? Modality and the Mission of Christ

Ray Overholt had a successful career as a songwriter and performer; he was one of the original singing cowboys of the early television age and was the star of the Ray’s Roundup TV show. In time, Ray realized that the lifestyle of drinking and partying was empty and while still performing on the club circuit he decided to write a song about Christ. He knew that in order to write a song about Jesus he had to learn something about Him and his first serious exposure to the Bible was the reading he did as research for the song. After reading about the arrest and execution of Jesus, still not a believer, he wrote the song He Could Have Called 10,000 Angels. One evening, however, after singing the song at a church and listening to the sermon that followed, Overholt became a believer in Jesus Christ and accepted the message he had been proclaiming through his own song.

The song was inspired by Matthew 26:53-54 where Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of one of the arresting officers saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Overholt later said that he did not realize at the time that 12 legions would actually be around 72,000.

When we consider that a single angel was powerful enough to destroy an entire city (1 Chron. 21:15) and see what they are capable of in the book of Revelation we realize that anyone who commands a group of either 10,000 or 72,000 possesses unimaginable power. The point is that Rome, even had they assembled all of their legions, could not have taken Jesus by force. He went voluntarily. It is this willingness of Christ to refrain from using His power so that He might redeem men that Overholt captures in his famous song:

He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world and set him free
He could have called ten thousand angels
But he died alone, for you and me

This raises an interesting theological question. Was it actually possible for Jesus to call for these angels and avoid the cross? Had He done so, all of the Old Testament promises and prophesies would have been invalidated and God’s word would have been false. If He could not do this, then it seems His claim is either incorrect or a lie. If that is true, He could not be who He claims to be and the promises of God have been invalidated and God’s word is false.

The word of God, however, stands on both accounts. We need to recognize that the terms “possible” and “impossible” function on multiple levels. As a result, certain things can be both possible and impossible depending on the sense of the terms. The study of statements and propositions about possibility, necessity, contingency, etc., is known as modal logic and is an important supporting discipline for theology and apologetics. One of the most important things to keep in mind when thinking about modal statements is the distinction between the real world and the world of concepts.

Many things in the real world could be different from the way they are. Anytime we are imagining a world where something is different than it actually is, we are no longer talking about the real world but are thinking about a conceptual world. Philosophers often refer to these conceptual worlds as “possible worlds”. There are an almost infinite number of possible worlds but only one, the real world, is actual. When we ask if something is “possible” we must distinguish between it being merely possible if the world were different, or possible in the actual world, given the way things are. The reason is that for something to be actually possible it must be conceptually possible but certain things that are conceptually possible are not actually possible.

There are certain things that are not possible in any world because they involve logical contradictions. For example, all triangles must have three sides. Triangles must have three sides in every possible world. Since a four-sided triangle is conceptually impossible, it is also actually impossible. Just because something is conceptually possible, however, does not mean that it actually exists. For example, it is conceptually possible that Bigfoot exists but as far as we know, he does not actually exist.

Of course, it is possible that Bigfoot could actually exist. He is both conceptually and actually possible. There are certain limitations within the actual world, however, that make it impossible for some things that are conceptually possible to be actually possible. For example, it is conceptually possible that someday a person could be born who had the ability of unaided flight. Human physiology, along with physical laws in operation in the real world, however, makes this an actual impossibility. Unaided human flight is therefore conceptually possible but actually impossible (we might say reality has an opportunity cost).

This brings us back to the statement of Jesus about calling the angels. If we look carefully, Jesus makes it clear that He is distinguishing between the actual world and a conceptual world. Jesus said:

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

In the first part of the statement, He is telling Peter that if He wanted to He could ask the Father who would send the angels. It is His choice to make. It is therefore conceptually possible for Jesus to have called upon the Father to send angels. The second part of the statement, however, begins with the word “but” and imposes certain limitations associated with the actual world. His mission was the redemption of humankind at the cross. His greatest desire was to fulfill the scriptures and submit to the will of the Father. Jesus and His sinless nature are a part of the real world. This creates certain limitations on which conceptual world He can possibly actualize.

Jesus is therefore telling the truth that it was possible for Him to call upon the Father but to actualize that choice is impossible, not because of any limitation placed upon Him from outside but because of His own identity and nature. God cannot lie and His word stands forever (Num. 23:19, Heb. 6:18) therefore there was no possibility that Jesus would actually call for those angels even though He had the power to do so.

The short answer then is that yes, it was possible for Jesus to do what He claimed but it was not possible for Him to do so and also accomplish His purposes. His faithfulness to the Father is why He overcomes at Gethsemane and why the Bible calls Him the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. It is the same reason that we can have complete confidence in our Savior to keep God’s promises to us.