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

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