Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Thursday, March 08, 2007

    The Prayer and the Past Challenge

    While I've ceased being amazed at how often unbelievers argue against a gospel which is not the true gospel (which displays how great their fear and enmity against God is since they go to the extent of arguing against God through the fabrication and argument against their own strawmen), I'm still not amazed at how many different ways unbelievers will come up with in misunderstanding or misapplying the text of Scripture to try to argue against God.

    For example, John Loftus, in his recent post on "Debunking Christianity" entitled "Can Prayer Change the Past? One More Time" sets a challenge before Christians to "pick any event in the past, announce that they are praying to change it, and then watch what happens." His argument is that if God lies outside of time, but hears the prayers of believers, then God can change the past, events like "the Holocaust, the terrorist 9/11 attacks, or any tragic event reported in the daily newspaper."

    Besides the obvious question of how one would determine that God changed the past (given that the change would then be our past), Loftus' challenge is an example of either poor exegesis or faulty logic when it comes to the Scripture. Does not Loftus understand that God does not change and that the prayers that God honors are those in keeping with his will? In effect, what Loftus seeks to accomplish through his challenge is to put the burden on believers to prove the existence of God by having God answer a believer's prayer which is contrary to his will (something contrary to Scripture). This is no different than the logic used by those who in arguing against freedom of the will in light of predesitination are willing to suppose that God predestines the end but then fail to recognize that God ALSO presdestines the means to that end as well. Or better put, it can be likened to someone challenging another to prove a spouse's love for their mate by presenting evidence (or seeking to show evidence) that is contrary to love.

    Let readers beware, that often what may appear to be fine sounding arguments at first by unbelievers (even those who set themselves up as previous believers or pastors), are easily untangled and found faulty when one takes the whole truth into account. Scripture shows that one of the tactics often used by those who oppose Christ is to try to set forth a half-truth as the whole truth. Those who want to avoid deception and become mature must learn to discern and then they will not fall to those arguments which are falsely set forth as high-minded wisdom and knowledge.


    Anonymous said...

    In effect, what Loftus seeks to accomplish through his challenge is to put the burden on believers to prove the existence of God by having God answer a believer's prayer which is contrary to his will...

    If this is the case, that such prayers are contray to God's will, then you need to show why they are contray to his will. And if you cannot show this, then you'd have to show why believers shouldn't pray in the hopes that it is according to God's will. As far as you know nothing you pray for is according to God's will anyway. That's why you say "Thy Will Be Done." But if that's the case with all prayers, then there should be no problem in praying to change the past, either. Just say, "Thy Will Be Done."

    jdlongmire said...

    How in the world would one know if God changed the past, anyway?

    Once the event(s) were modified all succeeding memory building events would disappear.

    This is an illogical proposition.

    Puritan Lad said...

    "The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations." (Psalms 33:10-11)

    It happened, therefore it was God's will. If it was not God's will, it wouldn't have happened.

    "remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,' calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it." (Isaiah 46:9-11)

    Swordbearer said...

    Loftus responded: "If this is the case, that such prayers are contray to God's will, then you need to show why they are contray to his will."

    You miss several addtional critical points:
    1. History reveals the will of God
    2. Believers are not to pray against God's revealed will.
    3. God gives to his people the desires of his heart (which are in keeping with his will). Just because we do not always possess infallible knowledge in our prayers of the perfect will of God does not mean he does not at the same time in areas give us the things we should pray. Hence, we pray "thy will be done." However, given his revealed will, these are areas we can know.
    4. God's sovereign will and predestining grace includes not only the events of history but also the prayers of his people.
    5. While God reigns above time, he has ordained time and history such that it is real and progressive.

    Puritan Lad said...

    Besides, if some of us prayed against past tragedies like "Woodstock", we may not even be here. We would pray ourselves out of existance. :)

    Anonymous said...

    If you read the comments section of the linked Blog entry of mine I've answered all these questions in a link to Theology Web.

    You say, History reveals the will of God.

    Only if you accept the morally bankrupt view of Calvinism can you say this. Otherwise, how do you know this?

    Besides, all you can say, even if you believe this, is that final history reveals the will of God.

    If history can be changed, then you cannot say this particular history is the will of God. You can only say that about final history, i.e., the history that goes unchanged.

    And unless you want to show why God cannot prevent the past based upon his supposed foreknowledge of a believers prayers, then changing history is possible. And if it is possible and a believer prays for the past to be changed, then God's promises of answered prayer must apply to the past also.

    Swordbearer said...

    1. You say: "If history can be changed, then you cannot say this particular history is the will of God."

    Your conditional starting point is a myth. History cannot be changed.

    God has made time and history both real and progressive. Scripture provides the basis for this foundational belief.

    (Note: this does not negate the real choices of man acting within God's sovereignty in time and space.)

    Your logic does you no good when it tries to stand upon faulty exegesis.

    2. Consider your alternative: Man is ultimately left to the power of blind fate which is both impersonal and compassionless, leaving man ultimately purposeless, hopeless, and destined ultimately to a forgotten non-existence... as opposed to the fullness of abiding life, fellowship, peace and fulfillment promised to those who rest upon and abide in Christ.

    It's not hard to see why Biblical Christianity not only provides reasonable and substantive answers but an appeal that atheism can't begin to contemplate, much less compare.

    If you knew the wisdom of God and him in whom it is found, you would have asked him and all these benefits would have been given to you.

    Puritan Lad said...


    What exactly is the "morally bankrupt view of Calvinism"? What moral standard are you appealing to?

    Anonymous said...

    History cannot be changed.

    Where is that in the Bible? And why not, if God exists and can answer prayers regardless of when they are prayed?

    What moral standard are you appealing to?

    Well, what moral standard are you appealing to? The one during the Middle Ages, the early Christians, or the one Christians are adopting now?

    My standard is an obvious one, and I've deal with that briefly here.

    Anonymous said...

    Christians claim God answers prayer. But prayers about the future can be interpreted to mean anything. If a petitionary prayer comes to pass, then they count that as evidence their God exists and he answers prayer. If it doesn't come to pass then they can claim it wasn't God's will. Either way they win, correct?

    If you want to talk about something that is untestable, then there it is.

    But I'm trying to show that prayer can actually be tested, since there is no reason why God couldn't answer a prayer for an event in the past.

    And when prayer is tested in this manner it ALWAYS FAILS!


    How do you explain that?

    It's very simple. Try it and see what happens. We never have to talk about the possibility if God answers such a prayer, because he never does.

    Just pick any event in the past. Pray to change it. See what happens. Nothing will happen. Nothing. Never.

    What's there not to understand?

    Puritan Lad said...


    God moral law has never changed (Psalm 119:160), but that is beside the point, since you don't believe anyway. You seem to adopt the modern evangelical view of God, and since this god doesn't meet your expectations, he must mot exist.

    Was it immoral for God to send Joseph to Egypt the way He did (Genesis 45:7)? Was it immoral for God to "do this thing (Absalom's incest) openly before all Israel and before the sun (2 Samuel 12:11-12)? Was it immoral for God to do all of the things that He did to Job (Job 12:9)? Was it immoral for God to have bruised his own Son (Isaiah 53:10)? (Actually, many Christians are themselves appalled to read of such a God, which you would call a "morally bankrupt view:).

    The fact is that God's secret will cannot ne altered or impeded, as I have already pointed out.

    "...he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?"" (Daniel 4:35)

    "Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases." (Psalms 115:3)

    In order to make a moral judgement on God, you must first establish a moral standard apart from God and explain how He should be subject to it. Otherwise, your judgement on God's ethics is really nothing more than a personal opinion.

    Besides, even if God did change the past in answer to our prayers, how would we know it?

    jdlongmire said...

    John Loftus says: If a petitionary prayer comes to pass, then they count that as evidence their God exists and he answers prayer. If it doesn't come to pass then they can claim it wasn't God's will. Either way they win, correct?

    Not sure how what you count as a "win", but my wife was diagnosed with erythema nodosum which in turn led to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and my buddy had Amblyopia (lazy eye) - both petitioned the Lord for healing and received it - I would call that a "win".

    However - were they testing God when they petitioned Him? No, they set their request out in faith and trust that "all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose".

    The fallacy in your logic is that that God is testable according to Man's standards. God is only testable to the degree He has established for Himself - not to prove Himself for our faith, since that originates from Him, but to strengthen faith through His gracious gift of personal evidence and give Him greater glory from our living testimony. If individuals benefit tangiably from prayer, glory be to God! If not, glory be to God!

    It won't reduce the faith of the elect, anyway.

    So - to answer to your questions - in terms of "winning" - yes, either way we (the elect) win.

    "Testing" God through prayer is predestined to fail.

    "Testing" God, in general, is predestined to fail.

    Swordbearer said...


    Regarding the Scripture and the historicity of events, even as early as the creation account in Genesis 1, the "seasons and days and years" are communicated as both real and progressive. This is not just exegetically true of this passage, but of all the events and times in Scripture. In Scripture, while there is an account of the sun standing still, there are no accounts (precedent)for history changing or being undone. While on the one hand, nothing in keeping with the nature, will, plans and purposes of God is impossible, this revision and reversal of time and history is your concoction, not Gods. It's just an attempt to plot against the Lord in vain, no different than the Psalmist speaks of in Psalm 2, but doesn't change the fact that He has installed his king on Zion.

    Swordbearer said...

    Luftus says: "...there is no reason why God couldn't answer a prayer for an event in the past."

    HERE, we see the WEAKNESS of your Challenge:

    You falsely assume one's ABILITY automatically equates to one's PURPOSE, INTENTIONS, and METHODOLOGY.

    Not so!

    Anonymous said...

    There are people in the Bible who tested God, Moses (Ex. 3) Gideon. God himself asks you to when it comes to the tithe (Malachi 3).

    But this challenge need not be seen by believers as a challenge or a test at all.

    Just pray for that girl who died in a car crash the day before. If the prayer is answered then you have helped a whole family, even if you might never know it was answered. Who cares if you never know a prayer is answered? Why should you care? Your faith would be unaffected anyway. Just do it.

    My challenge is only directly related to the results expected. I predict these prayers will always fail. ALWAYS. And I predict you will know they will fail because nothing will ever change.

    Puritan Lad said...

    Hey John,

    [sarcasm]I want you to know that I prayed for God to change the past, and it worked. You see, originally Hitler's regime killed 12 million Jews. I prayed for God to go back in time and save half of them, and He did. As a result, only 6 million were killed in the Holocaust. God answered my prayer.

    Don't believe me? Check it out. It's in the history books. 6 million Jews were killed.

    Will this satisfy your inquiry?[/sarcasm]

    If not, maybe it will show you haw ridiculous your challenge is.

    Puritan Lad said...

    FYI: For the purpose of the above, I temporarily ignored God's immutable decree.