It didn’t take long searching the most intellectual sites on the internet[i] to find a heading, “What would it take for you to believe?”. This particular atheist web-source had countless personalities weighing in on the perceived short-comings of God, and why their particular worldview was far more intellectually responsible than that of their counterparts. As I scanned through the list, I couldn’t help notice that all the responses—though uniquely worded—came down to the same three things. Well, most of the responses. Several, like those of G.P., responded this way, “There isn’t any possible evidence that can make factually inaccurate claims true, or make the illogical logical. There isn’t any possible new evidence that can come along and make 2 plus 2 equal 5.”
For people like G.P., their mind is made up. He (or she), ultimately rest (comfortably, I presume) in the ignorance of being all-knowledgeable about all things. But for others, their minds are not made up. While they are assured their atheistic perspective is true, they are willing to concede provided God do something only God could do. Here are a few:
- A Confident Atheist: “if there were any sort of proof that prayers to the Christian god or any other god are answered at better than 50/50 chance…”
- Lee: If he appeared to me, not in a dream or a drunken state, but face to face…”
- A. Robinson: “I would hold out for a demonstration of some sort that would be clearly impossible for anyone but a God to perform…I would suggest that, say, 1000 stars that are visible to the naked eye be relocated within a few hours so that they form the message ‘I AM.’…
These three perspectives fairly well depict all the accounts I found (note: I didn’t look very long before they started repeating). Most atheists demand from God: an answered prayer, a personal appearance, or a miracle. If I missed any, please leave a comment below and I will address it. It is my contention to show that God has provided exactly as asked, albeit on His terms—not (y)ours.
A brief note.
In some cases, I will be appealing to Biblical accounts. I am doing this for two very different reasons. (1) The appeal for God to do something is an appeal to a specific religion. It only makes sense to appeal to the religious book appealing to the specific God for the answer. By doing this, I am not arguing for Biblical authority, authenticity, or inerrancy. Those are all well defended within the faith, but that’s not the purpose of this post. I use it in the same way atheist might appeal to the teachings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or many other forefathers of modern atheism in arguing against religion. It is the same way a biologist appeals to a microscope to conclude his findings on evolution. The point is simple, finding support in Biblical text to support a Biblical God is not in violation of the request for God to do something.
(2) I don’t see how asking God to perform the same miracle repeatedly has any bearing on his ability to either accomplish the task required or substantiate the claim. It certainly doesn’t fit the claim, ‘if God would’ since He already did. If, for example, you asked how I broke my arm, simply sharing a story of a skateboard and the phrase, “Watch this” should be adequate; I certainly would not ‘do it again’ just because you didn’t believe it happened. Further, and more to the point of this piece, demanding that God subjugate himself to your demands are simply asinine. One would not walk up to the Oval Office and elicit demands of the president anymore (indeed far less) than one should think he/she can march up to the Creator of the universe and make demands.
If God would answer prayers
In 2001, ABC’s 20/20 investigated prayer in medical studies. The ABC study revealed 11 independent studies either already concluded or currently being conducted. What is interesting about ABC’s findings is they all indicate beneficial consequences of prayer.
Now, I’m not going to dive in to details of the study because in the name of honesty, the studies don’t seem to merit excellence in research and data collecting. As one adversary of the study pointed out,
“most prayer studies to date have been sloppy and untrustworthy.”[ii]
For example, patients were blindly prayed for but there is no indication who prayed for them (Christian, Islamist, Spiritual Universalist) nor was there any indicators that ‘non-prayed for groups’ were actually getting ‘no prayer’ (family not involved in testing may still be praying, e.g.). However, I bring the study up because there are other benefits, tangible benefits, discovered through processes like these, which seem to denote the workings of prayer. To quote a 2016 study,
“A total of 92 papers were identified and 12 were included in the review. Prayer was considered a positive factor in seven studies, and several positive effects of prayer on health were identified: reducing the anxiety of mothers of children with cancer; reducing the level of concern of the participants who believe in a solution to their problem; and providing for the improved physical functioning of patients who believe in prayer.”[iii]
At this point I should point out that 7 out of 12 is greater than 50/50; did you hear that ‘A Confident Atheist’?. But there is far more to glean from these studies.
In a 2006 NY Times report, which first shed light on the inconsistencies of the ABC study, revealed “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery”[iv]. It is no wonder atheists seem unimpressed by prayer. Further adding to their skepticism, it is easy for Christians to hide their God behind the crux, God is not susceptible to science. Meaning: we really have no great way to test prayer. Prayer isn’t quantum physics; it doesn’t go in a box, through a piece of cheese, reflected off a mirror and scored by a prayer-ometer. But just because prayer isn’t a data set of statistics doesn’t mean it’s not effective.
Christians will tell you, prayer is not a vending machine; God is not a genie granting wishes. One does not simply ask and receive. But what about Matt 21:22; “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” What about John 14:13-14; “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Don’t these indicate the power we should see in prayer? Maybe in Trump’s Bible. In my Bible, however, there are verses before and after which indicate differently.
In Matt 21, Jesus had just shown his disciples his power over vegetation by cursing a fig tree. His disciples asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” And Jesus replied, “If you believe” (emphasis added). He wasn’t talking to everyone; he was talking to a specific group. A group, by the way, that was sent out and actually did receive whatever they asked in Jesus’ name. This same group was sent out with no provisions and did not return hungry. John 14 has a similar context, with the caveat, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (emphasis mine). There is nothing in these verses to think prayer should subject God to our will, but rather our prayers should be subject to the glory of Jesus.
Certainly this doesn’t bode well in my appeal to attract ‘A Confident Atheist’ or his cohorts to Christianity, but first we needed to lay the ground work. I needed to show that studying the effects of prayer do indicate benefit but should not be the focus. That is, answered prayer is not measurable in a 50/50 chance relationship. Prayer, as we’ve seen from the Biblical text, is for the glory of Jesus. Sometimes that means healing. More often, however, it comes in the form of comfort, assurance, and relationship (as seen in the study mentioned above).
Biblically speaking, many miracles were performed by Jesus and several were performed by his disciples and later the apostles. These occurrences were significant and recordable, but they were the exception. Most of Paul’s prayers, for example, had nothing to do with healing and everything to do with salvation and thanksgiving:
- We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…(Col 1:3)
- …we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. (2 Thes 1:11)
- …ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus…I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Eph 1:15-16)
So let’s get to the heart of the issue. If God would give “proof” by answering prayers ‘A Confident Atheist’ (and many others) would believe in Him. My conclusion is two-fold. First, you are attempting to subjugate God to your standards. It is an unfair proposition. It is indeed the same reasoning as a Christian stating, “I will stop believing in God if science proves evolution.” Certainly there is a lot of “proof”, but it is only a matter of how it is interpreted. Similarly, a Christian can show you experience, studies can show benefits, and the Bible can show events, but demanding your own standards is simply inconsistent with the desired outcome. One does not believe in a God willing to conform to your rules any more than one shows G.P. how the illogical becomes logical; they are contradictions in terms and therefore impossible. With that said, prayer is a communication tool, not a magic wand. For example if I ask my wife to take out the trash, it does not mean she will. Just because it may not get done in no way indicates she did not hear me. In the same way: an unanswered prayer is not the same as an unheard prayer.
Secondly, and more importantly, prayer is not the source of healing; it is the mode by which we access the healer. To that I say: healing always begins with the Spirit. In Luke 5:17-26, Jesus is teaching the crowd and many were coming to him to be healed. A man was brought to Jesus who could not walk and Jesus said to him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” This induced outrage in the religious leaders because it was understood that only God had the authority to forgive sins. Jesus then said to them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Jesus knew that anyone could say ‘your sins are forgiven’ because there is no physical proof confirming or denying the event. So the physical proof, after the forgiveness of sins, was restoring the lame man’s ability to walk. Forgiveness of sins does not require physical proof. Jesus went on to say, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25a), which is articulated by John later as, “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Don’t miss this point. Prayer, as it relates to the forgiveness of sin, is 100% effective. It is promised and validated through the Word of God. ‘A Confident Atheist’ and anyone else willing to come before God to give glory to the Father through the Son is heard and restored. The conditional requirement of greater than 50/50 chance is far exceeded. All conditions satisfied.
[i] This is written as sarcasm. However, the atheist site I mention here is patheos.com which claims to be a “hosting the conversation of faith” with an atheist channel (the sarcasm stems from the irony of this aspect). The quotes later in this post come from religioustolerance.org.
[iii] Simao, Caleira, & Campos de Carvalho, “The Effect of Prayer on Patients’ Health: Systematic Literature Review. 1 Dec 15. (Abstract). From: http://repositorio.ucp.pt/bitstream/10400.14/18981/1/2016_Religions_Prayer.pdf 1 January, 2016.
[iv] Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer”. March 31, 2006. From: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?_r=