On God Answering Prayers Retroactively

Christians like C.S. Lewis and recently William A. Dembski in his book The End of Christianity, claim God can answer prayers retroactively. Kevin Timpe explains by saying "past directed prayers, as I understand them, are requests for God to have done something at a time prior to the time of the prayer." And he argues like Lewis and Dembski that God does in fact answer these prayers on most accounts of God's foreknowledge. ["Prayers for the Past" Religious Studies (2005) 41, 305–322]. This raises some interesting problems and allows me to propose a scientific test for prayer.

First, here's some of the problems. Consider this scenario by Timpe:
Allison is watching the morning news, and learns that a tornado touched down in western Ohio the previous evening, leaving a path of devastation and destruction in its wake. The news anchor reports that seventeen homes were destroyed by the tornado, and that one individual was killed. Allison’s father lives in the area affected by the storm. As she runs to the phone to call him, she offers a prayer that he may not have been the one killed in the tornado. Even though she knows that the state of affairs she is praying about is already in the past, and that thus it is already a fact whether or not her father was killed, Allison thinks that her prayer might be efficacious in the same way that prayers for future states of affairs can be.
At the time Allison prayed she didn't know whether her father was killed or not. What if, as in many unanswered prayer cases, Allison finds that her father was killed? Then what? Should she continue to pray for his safety after learning about his death? Can God answer prayers retroactively or not? What difference would it make to God whether or not something happened in the past if he can answer prayers retroactively prior to the time of the prayer, as Timpe says? Isn't that precisely what it means to say God can answer prayers retroactively?

Furthermore let's say Allison had a brother named Ned who lived in a different time zone and heard the news about the tornado one hour later than Allison. Since Allison found out about their father's fate, whatever it was, one hour earlier, does this mean God could not answer Ned's prayer retroactively? If not, because the past is the past, then what about a neighbor who lived near their father who knew what had happened to their father before Allison did. Should either Allison or Ned expect their prayers can be answered once that neighbor found out? What difference does it make to God, if he is able to answer prayers retroactively, whether or not Allison and Ned had any knowledge about their father's fate? If God can answer these prayers then it should not make any difference who knows what or when, otherwise there will almost always be someone at the scene who will learn what happened earlier than when these types of prayers are prayed, which would make almost all such prayers unanswerable. If these prayers can be answered it should not make one whit of difference at all who knows what or when.

Hence, if God answers prayers retroactively believers should pray for the past to be changed just as they do in praying for present and future hopes to be realized. Can these apologists really have it both ways, saying God can answer these prayers but also denying that the past can be changed?

So let me suggest a scientific test if God can answer these kinds of prayers, one that I broached in my book. Pick an event in the past and pray that God changes it. The event could be as simple as praying that some kids who were in a car accident and died the night before did not die because there was no accident.

My prediction is that the past will never be changed AND that every prayer to change the past will be remembered by the one who prayed it precisely because nothing will ever change, ever. What's YOUR prediction?

This is as sure of a test for prayer as we can get.

Come on Christian. Put your prayers where your mouth is! ;-)

First posted on 11/08/09

25 comments:

M. Tully said...

Looking at it from a different angle, isn't Allison now praying FOR the death of someone else?

What is a God to do? "Sorry Phil, I know you and your family thought you had survived the accident, but Allison prayed and all. So now you have to die and I have to bring Bob back. But hey, if someone prays for you after I do that switch than you get to come back and old Dave will have to bite it."

Is there any threshold of ridiculousness that cannot be crossed?

jjmontem said...

It seems like anyone who believes something like this never reached the stage in his/her infancy where he/she began to recognize that mom or dad didn't actually cease to exist behind their hands.

Jer said...

Ah, but see, there's an observer effect going on. As long as you don't know that God hasn't answered your prayer yet you can pray and maybe he'll answer it retroactively. Because clearly if the result you were praying for turns out to be the result that you get, God MUST have changed the past to answer your prayer, right?

Christians who subscribe to such silly notions of prayer amuse me - God is a giant slot machine that dispenses free wishes, and as long as they keep pulling that handle (praying) eventually the slot machine will pay out and give them their wish. It reduces the idea of God to just a big unreliable genie, dispensing wishes at semi-random intervals. Or at least they amuse me until their beliefs become harmful and they stop sending their kids to chemo because God is going to cure their cancer if they just have enough faith.

On an unrelated note, I don't understand why Ned being in a different time zone would have any impact on this at all. He could be in the same time zone and hear about it an hour later and it would be the same result.

Mark Plus said...

Hey, I have one: What if you pray, "Lord, I ask that you ignore this prayer"? What does god do in response? If he answers it, he ignores it; and if he ignores it, he answers it.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

If God were an "on-demand" deity created to appease our every desire, and if our prayer requests were the sole agent of salvation then your "test" is a legitimate tool to debunk idolotry.

One thing that your test presumes is that we ought to pray not to die - I forget that you probably believed in a god that taught that death is the ultimate, finite punishment something insurmountable. Jesus did not foster such an attitude.

Also, I cannot find where Jesus encourages or rewards cynicism or arrogant demands - these are not a part of learning to trust, so why would He honor such a test?? To do so would only enable one's contempt for the divine and enable idolotry.

openlyatheist said...

Anyone interested in the psychology of prayer should also study the psychology of addiction. It is a fact that guinea pigs who are punished and rewarded randomly develop addictions faster than those whose results are consistent. By extension, the more unreliable the results of prayer, the greater the lengths theists will go to rationalize the outcome.

One can also see this in the new trend of apologists who claim that they don't pray out of selfishness, but to become aligned with "God's will", meaning to rationalize whatever happens whether they get what they want or not. Which only goes to show that they don't really want whatever they prayed for in the first place.

In a sense, the only things Christians are really praying for is for God to help them not care about the outcome of prayers.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

openlyatheist wrote: "but to become aligned with "God's will", meaning to rationalize whatever happens whether they get what they want or not"

It seems that in this statement you are perceiving faith in God's will with being demoralized and growing hopeless/apathetic in order to accept a given circumstance - correct me if I have misunderstood.

I know it is possible in idolotry to believe in a god that impugns and demoralizes us for approaching him so that we must conform to being hopeless and apathetic but Jesus did not advocate such a relationship. While He acknowledges the existence of idol worship He also offers salvation from such.

As far as God answering prayers retroactively, I don't find this desire to "go back" to be consistent with what a progressive, creative God Who offers grace-to-move-forward has promised. It is what it is - you have already claimed to reject God, but which one???

stamati anagnostou said...

Can god answer this prayer retroactively?

Only if Allison's dad fell down in the woods and nobody was around to hear it.

Andre said...

Ooh Ooh! I have one too!
God will only answer your prayer, if you pray. And for your prayers not to be answered, you have to pray.

Does God ever answer the prayer of someone who will be "separated" from him after death?

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

The previous commment is:

"Does God ever answer the prayer of someone who will be "separated" from him after death?"

About this separation after death issue: When Jesus confronted a demoniac, the demons inside the man believed that Jesus was going to torture them - rather than asking to be with Jesus, their only request of Him was that they not be sent into the abyss. That is the way ppl approach God who do not know Him - they don't ask to be with Him - they ask to be somewhere other than with God.

I believe that Jesus said that hell was a preference.

Mark Plus said...

MMM writes:

"About this separation after death issue: When Jesus confronted a demoniac, the demons inside the man believed that Jesus was going to torture them - rather than asking to be with Jesus, their only request of Him was that they not be sent into the abyss."

I don't understand the relevance of this to the separation issue. Did these "demons" live as biological people at one time? Otherwise they might have reasons different from our for wanting "separation" from Jesus.

"That is the way ppl approach God who do not know Him - they don't ask to be with Him - they ask to be somewhere other than with God."

I don't see the problem with that. You can respect a powerful and dangerous being while not wanting intimacy with it. Didn't the rabbi in "Fiddler on the Roof" express this idea by saying, "The lord bless the tsar and keep him -- far away from us!"

Mysterium Tremendum said...

I find Dembski's idea that God answers prayers retroactively to be quite strange. Even more strange is his attempt to use this to explain millions of years of death, decay, and suffering as the result of Adam and Eve's sin. It just seems too far fetched to me.

Grace (common or saving) is unmerrited favor and God is therefore under no obligation to be merciful to His creation. If God witholds common grace from His creation then He does nothing wrong. Since He does nothing wrong then He remains a good God. Since God is good then He has a morally justifiable reason for allowing all that suffering.

Shawn said...

It's really easy to make claims like 'god retroactively answers prayers'. Does he now? Care to offer some verifiable proof that he answers any prayers, at all, at any point? Oh, I don't know, something small. Heal an amputee perhaps? Any christians, muslims, jews, whatever willing to let me cut their arm off? Of course we'll get some high-power pastor, priest, the pope even, to pray to make it 'miraculously' come back. Oh, I see, it doesn't work like that. Ok, how about a religious AIDS orphan who lost their legs in a landmine explosion and is now starving to death? No? Didn't think so.

Santa Claus retroactively answers my letters to him. Just the other day I asked him to not deliver presents to my house, and lo and behold, he didn't bring me any last year.

When I pray, I usually also write a letter to Santa to be doubly sure somebody gets the request. They tend to get answered about equally. Santa and jesus work in mysterious ways.

C. Andiron said...

John has missed the point. God does not 'retroactively' answer prayer by modifying the results of an event that has already occurred, but by averting the event itself based on his foreknowledge.

Since Allison found out about their father's fate, whatever it was, one hour earlier, does this mean God could not answer Ned's prayer retroactively?

If God had decided in eternity past to grant Ned's prayer, Allison would never have found out about their father's death, since it would not have occurred. The scenario presented does not apply.

What if, as in many unanswered prayer cases, Allison finds that her father was killed? Then what? Should she continue to pray for his safety after learning about his death?

Alternately, if she prayed and learned of her father's fate, this shows that God had not decided to answer her prayer, so there would be no point.

John is redefining what Lewis and Dembski mean by 'retroactive prayer', hence he is committing the fallacy of equivocation. He apparently cannot get his head around the concept of foreknowledge. He seems to be operating with an 'open theist' concept of God who can only react to prayers after they happen and then must monkey with the past after it has occurred.

Village Atheist indeed.

John W. Loftus said...

C Andiron, the prayers that would be answered retroactively would be the ones God foreknew would be prayed. So you admit God can foreknow prayers and answer them retroactively by changing what we think happened in the past.

My challenge is for Christians to start praying for the past, since God cannot foreknow any prayers unless they are prayed. If you are not praying for the past then there is nothing for him to answer retroactively.

What difference should it make whether or not someone knows what had happened? Why does this matter to God if he can foreknow prayers?

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

Mark commented: "I don't understand the relevance of this to the separation issue."

Scripturally, a reference to the demonic is associated with separation from the divine.

Then Mark wrote: "I don't see the problem with that. You can respect a powerful and dangerous being while not wanting intimacy with it. "

Bingo! Exactly my point! The inherent danger of intimacy with God is the death of ego.

The best to you Mark!

Chuck O'Connor said...

I don't get this:

"Grace (common or saving) is unmerrited favor and God is therefore under no obligation to be merciful to His creation. If God witholds common grace from His creation then He does nothing wrong. Since He does nothing wrong then He remains a good God. Since God is good then He has a morally justifiable reason for allowing all that suffering."

It reminds me of those poor women who say, "He beats me because he loves me."

Just plain silly.

C. Andiron said...

Actually, I can't think of any scriptural data that can definitively settle this issue. This is not a hill worth dying on. Sorry I snapped.

Mysterium Tremendum said...
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Mysterium Tremendum said...
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Andre said...

Hi MMM,

What if the demon already knows his fate? Or what about a christian who's not sure of their fate or thinks they are, and after death finds themselves "separated" from God, how would you then be able to say "they don't ask to be with Him"? Is it the case that anyone who calls on God to be with him will get their wish? Does it not say in Mathew 7:21, "Not everyone who says Lord Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven."? That being the case, I would also think it's safe to say then that not everyone who does the will of the father will enter.

So in your opinion MMM, do you think God answers the prayer of someone who will end up separated from him anyways?

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

Andre wrote: "So in your opinion MMM, do you think God answers the prayer of someone who will end up separated from him anyways?"

What would that prayer be exactly? And if it is from someone who holds God in contempt, I don't believe God would bless or promote a prayer that would enable someone to be condemned - He isn't an enabler but He is gracious - two different things. People are allowed a preference otherwise He would be a domineering dictator.

You also asked: "What if the demon already knows his fate." I don't think a demon thinks in terms of fate or is thoughtful - it's more like an habitual, compulsive cooperation in constructing the confines of hell.

The best to you, Andre,
3M

Mysterium Tremendum said...

"It reminds me of those poor women who say, "He beats me because he loves me."

This isn't the same at all.
God is in a different category than human beings. There's a huge distance between us and God so your analogy fails on many accounts. One of the ways God is different than us is that He's all-knowing and infinite in wisdom and knowledge. So, God sees and knows things that we don't. God, being good and infinite in in wisdom, obviously has good morally justifiable reasons for allowing evil and suffering even if I don't know what His reasons are. I'm learning to trust God even when I don't understand why. Demanding that God explain why is arrogant and untrusting.

Mysterium Tremendum said...
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