05 / 06
birds birds birds

The Evangelical Problem of Prayer

February 01, 2021
The Evangelical Problem of Prayer


An atheist blogger asks why Christians bother to pray when God will do what he wants anyway.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we have an article that is pretty timely in that it talks about praying for who you want to become President of the United States, praying for political outcomes. The name of the article is “The Evangelical Christian Problem of Prayer and Agency.”[1] It is written from a female blogger. She is a feminist and a former evangelical Christian – I think she no longer is. I think she's an atheist or agnostic. But she talks about how Michele Bachmann prayed for Donald Trump to become President again. It brings up, she said, a bigger question. She says,

There’s something odd in all of this vis a vis human agency and the implications of an omniscient omnipotent God. If God is all knowing and all powerful, isn’t he going to make the best decision no matter what we do?

This is ultimately a much bigger tangle, and ultimately, I think it’s wrapped up in the fact that the Old Testament God and evangelicals’ Christian God are not the same entities. (Yes yes, I know evangelicals would disagree with me on this.)

It’s true that there are many passages in the Old Testament where people ask God to do things, or beg God not to do things, but the God portrayed in the Old Testament is fundamentally dissimilar to the Christian God evangelicals describe today. The God of the Old Testament was a God who could make mistakes, who could decide on one course and then later be convinced to change his mind. This isn’t particularly consistent with omniscience or omnipotence.

Do you want to stop there and just comment on what she said so far?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. So far the argument is that if God is omniscient and omnipotent (and all-good, I think we'd have to say) then surely he will do the best thing no matter what we pray. I would agree, I think, with that. And insofar as the options are radically different from each other in their goodness and their value, I think that she's right. And that's a great blessing actually that God doesn't always give us what we pray for because he knows what's best. If God just simply gave us what we prayed for he might be like the genie in the bottle who gives you your every wish but it turns out to be disastrous. I think it's wonderful that we are praying with a God who knows what is best for us and the Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to his will. But that doesn't mean that prayers don't make a difference because in many cases the options might not be radically different. They might be of equal value, and therefore there would be value in God giving us what we pray for rather than something that we didn't pray for. In that case there's no reason to think that God's omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness would prevent him from answering our prayers as we pray.

KEVIN HARRIS: What about her comments on the Old Testament God being different from the New Testament?

DR. CRAIG: I think that's silly. The Bible that was used by Jesus of Nazareth and New Testament Christians was the Old Testament! The Old Testament God was their God. So this attempt to drive a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and God in the New Testament I think is just completely wrong-headed. It fails to realize that there wasn't a New Testament at the time of Jesus or the apostle Paul and so forth. Rather, they believed in Yahweh – the God of the Old Testament just as he is described there.


. . . evangelicals will typically say that God is unchanging, but that man’s understanding of God has changed over time. Fair enough. Regardless of my disagreement over the actual existence of God [which indicates she’s an atheist or agnostic], it’s absolutely true that human understandings of God have changed over time—that is perhaps one of the greatest constants in any religion.

I guess you could expound on what you just said. I guess that's why we do systematic theology.

DR. CRAIG: Sure. Biblically speaking, one great example would be the doctrine of the Trinity. I think that the advent of Jesus of Nazareth and his person and resurrection from the dead forced these Jewish monotheists to radically rethink the nature of God and to realize that God is tri-personal not unitarian. There isn't just one person that is God; there are three – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So that would be a good example of where there has been a change that was forced by the person of Jesus. Also in certain ethical norms such as the distinction between clean and unclean foods. That was done away with. It was valid during the Old Testament, but now after the advent of Christ we are no longer obligated to keep this distinction between clean and unclean foods. What theologians call this is progressive revelation – that God doesn't reveal the full measure of his truth all at once but he does it over time so that progressively more and more truth is revealed about God. And his supreme revelation comes in the person of Jesus Christ. As the author of Hebrews says, in the days past in many and various ways God spoke to men of old by the prophets but now he has spoken to us by a Son through whom he has created all things.[2] So we have a fuller revelation of who God is in the person of Jesus.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is the bottom line. This is what she says is the evangelical problem. She says,

God was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and we, millennial evangelicals, had it all figured out.

But if God is omniscient, that means he knows the future, which means he already knows what he’s going to do—and what we’re going to do. In this framework, is it possible to change God’s mind, or affect his decision-making?

DR. CRAIG: That's the key paragraph. This is a very different argument than the first one which says that God will do what is best regardless of what we asked for. And I gave partial agreement to that statement and am thankful for it. But this is very different. This is the idea that if God knows the future then he already knows what he's going to do, what we're going to do, and so why pray about it? This is an expression of theological fatalism – the idea that if God foreknows the future then everything is determined and there is no freedom of the will. I think that that is a demonstrably logically fallacious argument. From the fact that God knows what will happen, it follows only that it will happen, not that it must happen. We could do something different, but if we were to do something different then God would have different foreknowledge than he does. So it's not necessary to be able to change God's mind in order to affect his decision-making. That's the fallacy of her thinking. She thinks that for prayer to make a difference you've got to be able to change God's mind, and that's not correct. God can take into account the fact that we will pray and base his decisions on the fact that we will or will not pray for something. So, for example, foreknowing that you will pray for your neighbor God arranges for something to happen in answer to those prayers for your neighbor. And if you were not to pray then God would not have made those arrangements. So prayer can make a difference without changing God's mind.

KEVIN HARRIS: I like the way you just put that. I think it's very encouraging that God allows us to participate. He asks us to pray. The Bible says to pray without ceasing, and God somehow incorporates . . .

DR. CRAIG: Exactly.

KEVIN HARRIS: He somehow incorporates our prayers with that. Isn't that amazing? Isn't that what you're saying?

DR. CRAIG: I am saying that. I'm saying that we have the ability in a sense to be co-determiners with God of how the future will go because by offering prayers that God takes into account in his providential direction of the future we are co-workers with God to bring about the future of the world. So prayers really do make a difference. If we were not to pray things might go very differently then they will in fact go because we do pray. So God factors our prayers into his plans for the future. And this view of prayer is a Molinist view of prayer which means that God knows how you would behave if you were in any circumstances that he might place you in. So God knew before he created the world that if you were in these circumstances you would pray for your neighbor, and so knowing that he adjusts his plan so that your neighbor is such and such and those prayers will be answered. And if he knew that you would not have offered those prayers he might have done something quite differently. So by having this middle knowledge he can factor in your prayers to his planning of the world without the necessity of our being able to change his mind.

KEVIN HARRIS: I don't want to get too far afield here because so much of your material deals with God's relationship to time. She does bring that up. She said, “I really did grow up believing God knows the future—indeed, I was taught that God is in some sense outside of time.” And then she gives a definition and things like that. Another one of those things that Christians say but we don't always know what we're talking about and we're not very technically precise perhaps. Here's another thing.

DR. CRAIG: Perhaps. I don't think that timelessness is really a key consideration here. Some people have tried to avoid theological fatalism by saying that God is timeless, but I don't think that that really solves the problem. I think rather it's simply logically fallacious to think that because God knows what you will do that therefore you must do it, or to think that in order to affect God's planning we have to be able to change his mind. I think that she's just made some logical mistakes and these are quite independent of whether you think that God is timeless or temporal.

KEVIN HARRIS: Skipping down just a little bit, she says,

think about it—are there any examples in the New Testament of prayer changing God’s mind? A few passages in the Gospel come the closest, but even these don’t go all the way—for instance, Jesus praying for God the Father to find some other way to save humankind, and save him from experiencing agonizing torture.

Now, there are some Old Testament passages where God listened to the prayers of the prophets and seemed to change his mind. We can get into that a little bit about how that's narrative and story and so on, but what about her accusation of the New Testament here?

DR. CRAIG: Well, I think this is just repeating the same thing – she thinks that in order for your prayers to be significant in determining the future you have to be able to change God's mind, and that's simply erroneous. That's not true as I've just explained. What you have in the New Testament are plenty of examples of where people, for example, come to Jesus for healing and to pray for healing or pray for him to do something and he responds and does it. You don't need to be able to change God's mind in order to have an effective prayer in bringing about certain results.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think we can get it all tied up in the last paragraph, and that is,

Perhaps even more notable than the conundrums of whether it is possible to change the mind or actions of an omniscient God, the New Testament, in contrast with today’s evangelicals, shows almost no concern with the outcome of political systems. You would think that those claiming they take the Bible literally and use it as their guide to live would realize this.

DR. CRAIG: Now this is a totally different concern that comes out of left field, and again one that I tend to be very sympathetic with. She's quite mistaken in thinking that for your prayers to be effective you have to be able to change God's mind. But what she's raising here is that we can pray for the wrong things. We can have prayers that often go unanswered or are ineffective because we're praying wrongly. When I read the New Testament what I discover is that although it says that we're to pray for kings and those who are in authority, we do so that we might live quiet and peaceable lives. But these Christians were not praying for a change in the Roman government. Paul lived under Nero – one of the most despotic and cruel military dictators of the ancient world, and yet he says in Romans 13 that he's appointed by God, you submit to the emperor, do what he says. Jesus himself said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God’s. It doesn't seem like the New Testament is very concerned about praying for changes in political leadership. I do have a suspicion that that's why so many of our prayers about political leaders may go unanswered because this just isn't the sort of matter we're to be praying for. When you look at the New Testament and look at New Testament prayers, what are they about? They're about a deeper knowledge of God, about understanding the height and breadth and length and depth of Christ's love, about sanctification and opening a door for the Gospel and being strengthened and all of those sorts of things. There just aren't prayers in the New Testament about changing political leaders or systems. So she might be onto something here.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, what do we do then? Can you imagine how much breath has been spewed praying for the presidential election, senate elections, congressional elections, and so on – praying for the man or the woman?

DR. CRAIG: It's kind of like when you're on a sports team and you're in the finals and you're a Christian. The temptation to pray that you will win is almost irresistible. I'm sure we've been in those sorts of situations where you don't think . . . and you know there could be somebody on the other team who's praying as well that they would win. And yet it's almost irresistible to pray.

KEVIN HARRIS: Especially with field goals! Please let him make this field goal, Lord! Please let him make this field goal! [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: Similarly with political candidates that we favor. It's almost irresistible to pray that they would win. I guess I would say if you really feel led to pray that way go ahead in prayer. It doesn't matter if the prayer goes unanswered. Don't be crushed or disappointed if the prayer isn't answered. If you feel led to pray, go ahead. But I wouldn't be surprised if those prayers go unanswered in the same way that praying for sports teams is apt to go unanswered. Instead, what the Bible says we are to pray about are all of those things that I just mentioned a moment ago. We can pray for our leaders that they would conduct themselves in such a way that we can have peaceable and quiet lives but without necessarily praying that God will bring about a change in political systems.

KEVIN HARRIS: Good advice. Words of wisdom, Bill. We’ll see you on the next podcast.[3]


[2] c.f. Hebrews 1:1-2

[3]Total Running Time: 20:02 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)