Saturday, February 6, 2021

Is Divine Simplicity Radical?

It is sometimes said that the doctrine of divine simplicity is "radical." By this, opponents typically mean that it is an extreme claim, one that really pushes the envelope of credulity. Saying God is all-powerful and all-knowing, those are apparently quite palatable. Once those bloody classical theologians start in on simplicity (or immutability and the rest), well, that just goes beyond the pale.

But why think simplicity any more radical than other claims about God? For example, is it not radical to claim that God exists necessarily or a se? Is it not radical or extreme to claim that God created the universe? That God spoke and 125 billion galaxies (or their predecessor states) came into existence from non-being? That the cosmos is sustained in existence by God at every moment? The Bible makes further extreme claims about God, such as that He exists as Three Persons in the Blessed Trinity or that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Are these deep theological truths mild in some way? 

All claims about God are in the 'radical' or 'extreme' category. 

When classical theists argue that God is simple, such a claim is more of a negation than a positive statement. We deny things of God that are impossible to say of Him based on certain metaphysical principles. The natural theological reasoning process informs us that we can know that God is but cannot know what God really is in His essence. We can affirm that God just exists; His essence is being ('to be'). He does not have an essence because He is not an instance of a kind. He does not have an essence because if He existed with an essence He would need to obtain His existence from another source. Such statements are of course completely mind-blowing! Anything said about God from the standpoint of creatures cannot possibly capture the totality of the divine essence. To demand one fully capture the divine is to demand that God be in the image of man, that He fit into man's imagination. Yet I believe this is what God has precisely said we must not do (Exodus 20:3-4). 

Finite creatures cannot comprehend the divine essence; they are unable in principle to form an intellectual concept of the totality of God. The finite cannot grasp the infinite. Yet I think this is one of the main problems that some analytic theologians and philosophers have with divine simplicity. The analytic theologian demands for the sake of systematic coherence that God be situated within a fully comprehensible metaphysical taxonomy. The approach is more of trying to solve problems instead of exploring and explicating mysteries (a helpful distinction in theological discourse made by Thomas Weinandy in Does God Suffer). When the nature of God and His attributes (even leaving aside the classical attributes) is perceived as a 'problem', then we must have a "map of the highways and byways of the divine" (phrasing borrowed from Brian Davies in The Thought of Thomas Aquinas) or else risk falling into 'incoherence'. Yet, in this process, the utter transcendence of God is sacrificed to make way for what seem to be dubious methodological commitments. 

Once God is conceived of as an instance of a kind, which I believe is entailed by a denial of classical divine simplicity, then the theologian has abandoned divine transcendence. He has abandoned the very (biblically mandated) otherness of God required to say that He is Creator. All claims about God are radical. In that way, divine simplicity is no different than other broadly held divine attributes. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Divine Aseity vs. Self-Sufficiency

In a recent post, I tried to sketch out an argument that divine aseity is ultimately incompatible with the concept of divine temporality. I mentioned RT Mullins briefly within that post as a prominent contemporary critic of classical theism. Mullins is a gifted philosopher and theologian, and his arguments are always interesting. One such argument he makes in a recent paper critiquing classical impassibility is that there is a difference between divine aseity and self-sufficiency. What is intriguing about this argument is the distinction itself and how it is weaponized. In this post, I will explore the latter issue because it speaks to what I believe is a deeper problem in his recent criticism of classical attributes.

Mullins believes the classical theologian smuggles the doctrine of divine simplicity into an identity claim that aseity and self-sufficiency are not different. The difference in aseity and self-sufficiency carries some weight in the conclusions Mullins draws regarding divine impassibility, so it bears fruit to unpack. Yet, I am curious as to why Mullins thinks the classical theist is doing the end-run. It seems he believes the classical theist has the burden of proof in showing there is no difference between aseity and self-sufficiency. But what compels the classical theist to yield this ground? It seems there should at least be an equal burden on the opponent of the classical theist to show good reasons why aseity and self-sufficiency are truly different. Perhaps toward this end, Mullins offers the following definitions:

Aseity: A being exists a se if and only if its existence is in no way dependent upon, nor derived from, anything ad extra.  

Divine Self-sufficiency: A being is divinely self-sufficient if and only if that being’s perfect essential nature is not dependent upon, nor derived from, anything ad extra.

He goes on to write “For the sake of clarity, it is worth emphasizing the difference between aseity and self-sufficiency. Aseity is a claim about the existence of God. Self-sufficiency is a claim about the nature of God.”

Here Mullins presents something fundamentally objectionable to the classical theist, which is a difference between the existence and nature of God. The classical theist would argue that God’s essence (nature) is His existence, and there is no real distinction in God. I therefore cannot see how Mullins’ definitions do not effectively beg the question against the classical theistic defense of classical impassibility.

The classical theist would, as Mullins explains, argue God is impassible (unable to undergo suffering or be subject to passions) because He is immutable, simple, and eternal. One who argues that way, however, only does do because God is the pure act of existence itself, transcending all categories of being because He is Being itself. If Mullins presupposes by his definitions of aseity and self-sufficiency that God is a being with a nature, then it is Mullins who is smuggling in the conclusion. He assails the classical theistic defense of impassibility based on premises the classical theist would not in principle agree with. Mullins argues that the systematic connection of the classical attributes do not entail impassibility, and then suppresses the very basis and reasoning behind these connections - connections which related immediately to the classical defenses of impassiblity at issue within the paper. This move is like saying your opponent in a hockey game can only show up with three players then disqualifying them for not being able to field a full team.

Mullins puts forth the notion that God’s perfect essential nature is different from His existence. He wants to say the classical theist will deny this in virtue of a prior commitment to simplicity and making an illicit imputation of it into a defense of impassibility. Mullins is probably right in how the classical theist would respond, yet wrong in thinking something is afoul. What really seems to be going on here is that Mullins demands the classical theist abandon core principles and tenets in order to defend analytic, piece-meal attacks on divine names or attributes that, as Mullins himself concedes, are taken as a package deal. 

It is almost as if Mullins is asking the classical theist what would happen to divine impassibility if, hypothetically, the classical theist threw out the metaphysical foundations of their position and abandon attributes that are taken together as different outcomes from the same ultimate conclusion. Then, when the argument seems to work in this per impossible scenario, it looks like there are major problems for the classical theist. However, the defender of classical theism is under to compulsion to make these concessions. Mullins strongly desires to pull out individual classical attributes and subject them to criticism apart from the overall metaphysical construct from which they are derived. He agrees that classical theists ‘bundle’ these attributes together as mutually entailing and reinforcing and then insists they be defended in an isolated manner, devoid of context. Such an approach amounts to a very sophisticated “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario. This unfortunatelyamounts to saying the classical theistic account of God is deficient because it does not fare well under certain, very idiosyncratic, analytical methods. 

Perhaps what Mullins sees is the classical theist describing properties of God in the way analytical philosophy does, whereas the classical theist sees the attributes as 'names' or simply ways of speaking about God. For the classical theist, saying God is impassible is just another true description of Him. We say God is impassible because He is. He is immutable because He is. He is simple because He is. And so forth. It is not necessarily the case in an absolute metaphysical sense that He is impassible because He is immutable, even though our way of discursive reasoning may draw conclusions about God and make sense of them in a certain order. He is not a certain way because of how we come to know Him. 

Zooming out for a minute, what appears to happen quite often in contemporary dialogues on classical attributes is that one side of the debate operates from certain methodological and metaphysical presuppositions which are fundamentally disagreeable or not acknowledged as legitimate by the other. For example, it is unlikely that a scholar like Mullins would agree with someone like Thomas Weinandy on concepts like essences/natures, existence/being, and so forth. The starting point for Mullins’ critique is from an analytic (philosophical/theological) position, one that has historically recoiled a great deal at the base metaphysics undergirding classical theism. That said, I do believe the disputation over coherence in divine attributes would bear more fruit if the focus was at the more basic metaphysical level versus the downstream conversation on specific attributes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Some Thoughts on Aseity and Temporality in God

I believe there exists a strong potential to move from divine aseity to the classical attributes of God. In this post, I will focus on a tension that arises between holding to divine aseity while affirming temporality. If one affirms in principle that God exists or could exist a se, then they should also agree that God is eternal. One cannot simultaneously affirm divine aseity and divine temporality. The problems attending the conjunction of aseity and temporality open the door to careful consideration of the classical predication of eternality to God.

Divine aseity is the notion that God exists of or from Himself. He is self-existent, self-sufficient, lacks dependence upon other things. Aseity is affirmed by most theists, even those that are very critical of classical theism, such as RT Mullins.

To explore the tension I alluded to above, I will briefly look at the views of prominent Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is a person whom I deeply respect and admire, and he is a strong proponent of divine aseity. His work on God and abstract objects demonstrates this commitment. It seems to me he is quite right in his motivations, because if abstract objects exist as conceived in a Platonic realist sense, or otherwise outside the divine mind, then God is not metaphysically ultimate or the sole source of all reality outside of Himself. If both God and abstract objects are self-existent or exist necessarily, then God cannot be said to create all things. Craig seems to believe that aseity is an essential attribute or predication of God. Yet, he also argues that God becomes temporal with creation. Sans creation, God is eternal and timeless, and with the act of bringing the universe into existence He becomes subject to time; God goes from timeless to existing in time simultaneously with creation.

But if God becomes bound or measurable, subject to before and after, or otherwise quantified, as He would be as a part of temporal reality, then He would no longer exist a se. He could not be self-existent per se, He would at best be a co-existent. And this is the same place He would occupy on Platonic or other kinds of thick/robust abstract object realism. For God to exist within or alongside anything or an ensemble of things undermines aseity because it makes God determined by the creation He descends into or conjoins himself with. He no longer can be said to transcend. Beings are in time as existent objects within the world. A temporal God thus becomes one existent thing among others. I think this has dire theological implications, among them is the abandonment of aseity.

Regardless of how one works out God existing temporally with creation, I submit the predication itself makes it impossible for God to be metaphysically ultimate. God could not be the ultimate reality or the cause of things outside of Himself if He existed within or alongside creation. Again, on the temporal theistic view, God and creation come to be on the exact same plane of reality. This is unavoidable. To predicate temporality of God, He must step down the ontological ladder, degrading or diminishing His essence in the process. It is difficult to think such a conception of shifting attributes in God is in any way desirable. 

Moreover, if God becomes temporal, He comes to be related to creation in a real way, at least according to Craig. Craig denies any Thomistic or classical theistic view of relations between the world and God. But such a denial results in a mutual dependence between creature and creator. A dependent God is not consistent with divine aseity.

A key aspect of aseity is that any existent thing which is not-God is created by God. However, the temporal view of God undermines this idea. For God to create and sustain is to give being from non-being, it is to cause things to exist at every moment they exist. I think most Christians will agree with this ex nihilo formulation. Yet, such an act must come from that which is not determined or limited in being. If we say God creates and sustains, He cannot be limited or bound in any way. Yet, if God exists within the created order He is bound to act in certain ways, such as being subject to before and after. Whatever He does must be done discursively and sequentially. Temporal divine action is subject to the conditions He exists within, which means the creative act is necessarily limited. To limit the creative, sustaining power of God is to impugn aseity.

Further, to say God is temporal is to place constraints on His essence that make Him less than perfect. God would need to move or change from eternal to temporal in a more significant way than just a logical convention of speech. To move or change betrays a need or lack that I do not believe is escapable by appealing to self-limitation. Needing or lacking is also incompatible with divine aseity.

Craig’s view is certainly not the only one on offer regarding God’s relationship to time. However, I believe the same problems would attend to any position where God is conceived of as a temporal being, regardless of whether one holds a tense or tenseless view of time. Craig provides a sound body of work for the considerations I have in view, given his focus on the subjects of aseity and God & time.

I have tried to tentatively sketch out several reasons why divine aseity and divine temporality are incompatible. The theist must take one position and give up the other, or vice versa. A good option remaining for the theist desiring to hold aseity is the classic eternal view of God. To believe that only God exists in Himself, He is that in which all other things depend for their existence, and that He exists in need of nothing should lead one to see the consistency of these predications with the eternal view of God and the process by which such a position is established.

Divine eternality is not always well understood or described. It is typically conceived in the modern tongue as God being “timeless,” which tends to be an unfortunate oversimplification (and sometimes, I believe, a straw man). Given time and space constraints, here we might think of eternality as God not being measured or bound by time, that there cannot be succession (before-and-after) in God, there is no beginning or end in Him. On the classic view of God, divine eternality has more to do with what must be denied as we speak about Him based on conclusions drawn from observations within the created order. We know God from creatures, but we must remove any creaturely imperfections when speaking about the divine essence itself. Thus, there is something like “timelessness” in the classical conception of divine eternality, but this concept can skew the conversation so care must be taken when comparing modern understandings of time and timelessness with classical eternality.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Thinking About Creation

When most Christians think about creation, they conceive of something like observable physical reality, the order of the universe, and the like. In other cases, they might go further and think about creation as God bringing forth the universe “in the beginning." This is to say more or less that God got things going a long time ago. This notion marks off God as somehow before matter/space/time. The main thrust here is that creation is the temporal origin of a thing or ensemble of things.

While almost inescapable to the modern mind due to a prevailing view of causation as essentially atoms banging into each other, I think the idea of creation described above is too small and not properly nuanced for Christian adoption. It is prone to substantive objections from those who contend with an absolute finite past of the universe, kalam argument appeals to Big Bang cosmology aside. What I would like to suggest in this post is returning to a deeper and more robust understanding of creation.

To some early Christian thinkers, the idea that God got everything going a long time ago might have been true enough, but comparatively unimportant. To someone like Origen of Alexandria, God creating things “in the beginning” had more to do with Christology than a temporal origination of the cosmos. The One to whom, through whom, and in whom are all things is the Son of God, which means that all things that are not-God have their very being or existence from God. This is true at every moment they exist. For Origen, God’s creating is not necessarily a postulated moment when that which is not-God came into being. Rather, it is the very giving of being from God to whatever is not Him. God is therefore always creating. Because He is eternal, He creates “from eternity.” There is no point in asking when creation began because that would ultimately require predicating time of God. Such would be impossible. It is in and by the eternal Logos that God brings forth beings from non-existence, not just when a long time ago God did something. Creating is what God continually does out of pure grace. 

In Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 2) and the Summa Theologiae (Prima Pars, Question 45), Aquinas makes a helpful distinction between making and creating. To make something is to work with what already exists. An artisan makes a bench out of wood and metal; he does not make the wood or metal or base elements to be what they are. He finds them in a certain state and puts them into a different state. These wooden and metal elements first exist and then are bent, cut, and manipulated by the carpenter into a final form. In more Aristotelian-Scholastic terms, making involves the actualization of potentials. The cedar tree is now actually a tree and potentially wood planks for the bench. The carpenter actualizes the potential in the tree by cutting and sawing. This type of making, the actualization of potentials, is what we might understand as taking place in the Genesis 1 story of origins. The earth is formless and void and God is then forming and shaping that to which He has given being.

Sticking with the Aristotelian terms of Aquinas for a minute, we must note that creation is not the actualization of a potential. We account for the very existence of things which are both actual and potential. For a potential to be actualized, something must first exist as actually X and potentially Y. When we consider the fact that there even is X in potency to Y, we acknowledge X could not be (or exist) in principle, save for something superadded to it. The existence of X, the very being it has, is what we should think of as creation. X is created by God insofar as it is, and Y is also created by God as it becomes actualized from X. Any movement from or to presupposes that a thing first exists, and the act of being underwrites that entire process of change, actualization, or movement. Being itself is gratuitously given by God to something finite from the very plenitude of His infinite Being. 

Following Aquinas (SCG II.16), causes of actuality by moving and changing must have a cause above themselves which is the first principle of being (God). Acting by motion or change is not compatible with the universal cause (i.e. first principle) of being because, in the context of motion/change, being cannot come from absolute non-being. The actualization of X to Y is being-to-being, not being from non-being. But any X or potential Y must have being in order for the potential to be actualized. If X is actually X and potentially Y, X exists in virtue of something beyond itself; X is 'borrowing' its being. Thus, it is contrary to the nature of God, who is infinite Being and unlimited Actuality, to act primarily or only by motion or change. So, if we think that creation is actualizing a potential, we limit God. And God, as almost all Christians would agree, is infinite and without limitation in His existence. 

Creation as an act can only be said of God. Owing to their finitude and other limitations, creatures cannot create. Creatures can only makeGod’s creative action should not first be temporally conceived as in the getting going of things a long time ago. Rather, God is creating at every moment that which is not-God exists. I believe this can be helpful for our worship and biblical interpretation. For example, when looking at the text where Genesis tells us God “rests” on the seventh day. There must be something deeper communicated to us in the text about God. We can also derive deeper insight from the earlier verses of that book as well as the adoption of creation language in the prologue to John’s Gospel. “In the beginning” means more than “a long time ago.”

Staying with the Genesis creation account, we might think of God both creating and making. He is creating in the sense that He is giving being to that which is not-Him and by His power He is also then making what He creates to be in such and such way. From this view, we can better understand why arguments for the existence of God from the finite past were not given as much weight by classical thinkers like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas as other arguments or demonstrations.

We can also better understand why someone might reasonably reject an account of creation that merely posits the getting going of something by another thing. This criticism is particularly acute when both sides presume that God is a univocal cause, where both God and creatures are competing with each other (what God does cannot be by the creature and vice versa).  

As we move past thinking about God as one who needs to “light the blue touch paper” of the universe, as Hawking pejoratively wrote, we might see that our conceptualization, though not comprehensive, necessarily rises to a new level. This in turn allows the Christian to step over facile objections to God that place Him as a being among other beings. Moreover, we are then more free to reverently love God in the worship He deserves. Nuancing creating versus making has a great deal of cash value for Christians.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Who is God? What is man?

Who is God? What is man?

These questions are at the root of our being; they permeate our existence. In our time, we have tasted the bitter fruit of thoughtless and ultimately shallow answers to questions about God and man.

Certainly, to ask who God is presumes one knows or agrees that God is. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphysical commitment for some. Against any pushback, on this point, I would argue that everyone has a god or God. If we are sufficiently reflective, we find there is something to which each person directs their lives and in which they place their hope. Perhaps it is an abstract notion of human progress, an ideal society, the fully actualized self (whatever one might mean by self), or something else. One directs their life to something either within the cosmos or beyond it. One places their hope in something finite or infinite. Hard binaries apply. To ignore the question is to answer it.

The same is the case with man. Is man simply a random collection of molecules in motion? Blood and dust? Soul and body? Soul in a body? Something else? Perhaps man is a slavish animal, forever yielding to his passions. Or maybe he is just a little lower than the angels. Given any careful thought, each person has a notion of what they are and what other people are. If man is just a sentient animal, then I have certain duties and obligations. If man is more than that, then perhaps different imperatives take hold.

So far, so banal. Let me try to make a less trivial point.

One thing we can do as Christians is to provide better answers to the questions above, viz. Who is God and What is man. I believe we live at an opportune moment to re-inject our evangelization and theology with the classical conceptions of God and man. We are faced with a profound natural evil with the Covid-19 pandemic (as well as moral evil in some of the responses), and classical theism provides a much more robust answer to evil and suffering (human and animal) than do other approaches to God (such as theistic personalism). For instance, classical theism does not think of God as an object in the universe. God is not ‘in’ time nor is He moved by passions or emotions. He is not ‘a’ being, rather He is being itself. Thus, He cannot ever be thought far away, hidden, or uncaring because, as Augustine puts it, He is interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (“You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” Confessions 3.6.11). The Doctor gratiae helps inform us in a short sentence that an anthropomorphic god is not God. What we can in principle picture is not the God who is and causes to be. In a time when we need transcendence, the classic view of God provides in spades.

Further, what I think of as the classical conception of man – as a body/soul unity with a distinct nature and specified teleology (end-directedness) - will be especially helpful and explanatorily satisfying in the current environment. Returning to the topic du jour, the dehumanization that has occurred during the pandemic under the guise of health and safety is better captured by the classical conception of man than in other ways (materialism, substance dualism, etc.). That man is a rational and social animal with needs beyond mere physical well-being will resonate deeply with people both inside and outside the faith at this time. This presents a strong anti-dote to capricious inclinations in the public and private spheres. It helps us truly play the long game.

Medical/ethical questions are also better answered on the classical model of man. People have real questions about whether they should take the Covid-19 vaccine, to fight authorities for their business to stay open, advocating for the rights of elder family members, treatment and visitation of the sick and dying, and much more. The prevalent reductionist or quasi-eliminativist view of man raises the specter of utilitarianism. Thinking of man as a utility or pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding occasional actor on a stage brings up the inevitable “who should we let live?” questions that are impossible to answer on a non-arbitrary basis.

We are presented with major questions in life and these are unavoidable. Such questions become acute in times of crisis, as we are experiencing. Classical theism presents sound answers to these questions that are especially relevant for our times. We have a great opportunity to bring new evangelistic zeal, to take certain conversations head-on with confidence.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Book Review: iGods - How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

A major issue faced by Christians is how to think about technology. We often rush to demonize or canonize things about which we understand little. The more acute forms of the technology question usually come from the realm of bioethics. For example, what will more advanced artificial intelligence mean for medical care? There are major questions about what should be done in the interest of disease research (e.g. embryonic stem cells) and treatment (e.g. search and destroy nanobots for cancer).

To a lesser, but highly visible extent, consumer technologies present us with many puzzles. These are the technologies we use in our daily lives. Many are more services than goods and initially stand more in the ‘nice to have’ camp versus ‘need to have’. Yet, we find they quickly move to an essential status for various reasons. 

We often hear that too much screen time on digital devices causes overstimulation and lack of focus, yet these devices are now so ubiquitously integrated into our daily lives that parting with them is conceptually impossible. You might as well tell someone to amputate their right arm (or head).  We feel a little uneasy about how much we rely on Google or our smartphones. Do we really know much of anything anymore? I mean, raise your hand if you can competently use a Rand McNally Atlas. I’m guessing that only people over the age of 40 have their hand up (or maybe even know what I am talking about!). Maybe geography is not a good proxy, but you probably know what I mean. It is hard to unplug. But the pesky why questions come up, and when they do most of us prefer to kick the can down the road. Some answers are just not on a Google search or a Quora post. And it has become quite convenient to leave the "why" and "what for" to someone else while I pull up my DoorDash app and listen to more streaming music on Spotify. 

In this book, Craig Detweiler asks us to take a step back from our devices and…think. Yes, the actual human act of engaging our moribund intellects without outside algorithmic assistance. Yes, to think without first genuflecting to the streaming ticker at the bottom of the news channel, website, app, or push notification. The reader is challenged to carefully consider how consumer technologies act upon us and what spiritual, cognitive, and behavioral changes follow.

Although a book from 2013 can seem outdated in our Jetsons meets 1984 era, I found it to be relevant and beneficial in many respects. Since the dawn of time, technology has shaped the lives of humanity. A major tailwind for this book is the way Detweiler circles the wagons around a working definition of technology (Chapter 1) that holds up well throughout the book and bears close scrutiny. It is more than gadgets and viral videos. Detweiler connects the reader with the techne of the ancient Greek thinkers and those before and after them who created and cultivated things toward the goal of harnessing, predicting, or controlling aspects of the world to facilitate some form of human flourishing.

The author nicely interweaves themes from the Genesis 1 ‘dominion/subdue’ mandate and Genesis 2 work directive. He also brings an important eschatological perspective into the fold, reminding us that there is a telos (end, objective) to technology that is beyond itself, and encouraging us to explore what that might be.

iGods provides helpful profiles on the history and business model(s) of four major consumer technology companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Detweiler also briefly covers YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. A return to basics helps us to know more precisely what these companies do that adds sufficient value to command so much web and headspace, not to mention money. If you have ever wondered how Facebook became so popular, you will find some good starting answers here. If you are really interested, you can dig further into some of the abundant source material provided in the endnotes (some of which might be a bit dated).

The personal and theological implications of these technologies in our lives is helpfully explained throughout. I especially appreciated the concluding chapter, which tied the previous analyses together nicely when they seemed to otherwise be quite siloed. It would have been helpful to read more on how a parent might approach technology, offering ideas to handle the constant dilemmas we face about screen time, content filtering, and gaming. The latter of these was a bit of an oversight in its absence from the book. Gaming is of course now an 800 lb. gorilla in the digital world, with Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and the like gobbling up server space and bandwidth at a breathtaking pace.

Detweiler seems to just barely glance upon some of the issues creeping up from the underbelly of digital consumer technologies. For example, the ease with which illicit content can be made and disseminated is not sufficiently covered as a perilous downside. Perhaps these issues were beyond the scope of the book. From a Christian standpoint, we must acknowledge that sins made easier by technology can be that much more insidious. Further, there is an important question about how much moral culpability a company might have in making such material available and profiting from it, directly or indirectly.

This book is worth reading and would be especially helpful for Christian parents and those in ministry who face the constant dilemma of how to reach more people for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in a digital age. Read it with an open mind, though perhaps not on a Kindle or iPhone.

 iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

By Craig Detweiler

2013. Brazos Press

Friday, November 27, 2020

Does God Hear the Prayers of Unbelievers?

This question comes up from time to time and it seems important to address for several reasons. From a Christian perspective, it first speaks to the goodness/benevolence of God. For example, one can imagine a person wondering how an all-loving God could not hear the prayers of an orphan child in a war-torn country, the child not knowing a thing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, maybe the question hints at the evil/hiddenness objections to God. Secondly, the question gets at the notion of prayer itself. We need to inquire into the nature of prayer, how it works, and so forth. Further, when thinking about this issue, we must consider certain distinctions often thought to exist between believers and unbelievers. Christians might think it problematic if believers and unbelievers were both on the same plane in terms of prayer. If they were, at least some promised benefit of being a believer would be voided or diminished.

In this post, I hope to sketch out some basic answers to the question of whether God hears the prayers of unbelievers. My answer is that God does hear the prayers of the unbeliever, and this should cause us to rejoice in His goodness. God’s hearing the prayers of unbelievers in no way diminishes those of the believer. Even a long series of blog posts could not address all the antecedent questions and implications. However, I will do my best to also address some objections to my affirmative answer. 

We might first say that in His omniscient and omnipresent nature, nothing is unknown to God. Thus, any utterance of a believer or unbeliever is known to God and thus ‘heard’ by God. The matter at issue is whether God might grant the petitionary or intercessory prayers of unbelievers. By believer, we mean one who is a Christian. In several New Testament passages, viz. Luke 18:13 and Acts 10:1-33, an unbeliever prays and God hears and honors or grants the petition. 

Here one might claim that God the Holy Spirit had first regenerated the heart of the sinner in these instances so that we simply have only believers are praying to God. But this rendering goes far beyond the biblical text, especially Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius and his house as a consequence of his prayers. This approach would turn on a combination of equivocation on the term ‘pray’ and a disjointed, perhaps question-begging, argument in favor of a negative answer to the inquiry. Something along the lines of “only believers can truly pray, therefore only believers’ prayers can be answered.” The price tag for such a position would be far too high, assuming what it seeks to prove and further presuming the petitionary utterances of a believer and an unbeliever directed to the transcendent are two essentially different things.* The act of prayer itself, in terms of communication of a need, desire, etc. cannot be rendered essentially different based on the eternal state of the person when they are communicating it. For if they are essentially different things, then the question cannot even be raised. If only believers can pray, then it would make no sense to ask if God can hear the prayers of unbelievers, because unbelievers cannot perform the act. So, asking the question presupposes that, in a general sense of the term, both believers and unbelievers can pray. 

We can furthermore look to the Old Testament where the people of Nineveh prayed that they might be spared (Jonah 3:5-10), where Hagar asked God to protect Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-19), and in 1 Kings 21:17-29, where Ahab fasts and mourns over Elijah’s prophecy concerning his posterity. In each of these cases, the petition requested by the unbeliever was granted by God. It would be spurious to suggest the events/outcomes asked for in these cases happened by chance or other reasons not related to the prayer. Such a suggestion would strain exegetical credulity beyond the breaking point, representing an ad hoc approach ultimately leading to incoherence by undermining consistent interpretative methodology. For example, if we explained away the prayers of the people of Nineveh in some other way as God not hearing (and granting them), then whatever means of explanation would introduce extra-textual speculation that could be inserted at any juncture to fit one’s desired end. 

We must say that God indeed hears the prayers of unbelievers and may answer them in the affirmative or negative in accordance with His abundance of mercy, grace, and justice. 2 Peter 3:9 tell us that God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. In view of this passage and others, in the providence of God, He may grant or will the efficacy of any prayers for this purpose. To say that God cannot use the means of hearing and answering prayers of the impenitent to bring about His unfolding plan for creation would be to presume far too much upon the grace and goodness of God that we impugn His character. In the Summa Theologiae II.II.83.16, Thomas Aquinas argues that if an unbeliever prays in accordance with sinful desire, God may grant the petition so as to bring about or accelerate the end (telos/purpose) of justice (or events leading to it). But if the unbeliever prays from a good desire, out of pure His mercy, God may hear the prayer if the one praying beseeches God for certain things. 

Aquinas' distinction is helpful in showing how we can exclude idle words or figures of speech from our evaluation. A robber muttering "I hope the big guy upstairs is taking a snooze right now, hehehe..." immediately before a bank heist is not praying. Neither would someone using the Lord's name in vain or uttering other euphemisms. Neither a believer nor an unbeliever is praying when speaking or thinking this way. As commonly understood, prayer is an act of religious piety or reverence, directed toward something beyond or greater than oneself. 

I will now consider some objections to God hearing the prayers of unbelievers, proceeding in a Summa Theologiae style for the sake of brevity and (hopefully) clarity. 

Objection 1: It seems God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because unbelievers are separated from God by their sins (which are not forgiven), and God can only hear the prayers of those whose sins are forgiven. 

Reply to Objection 1: This reasoning fails to take divine benevolence and providence fully into account. God may hear (and answer) prayers of the impenitent for providential reasons, to bring about effects through both His primary causal efficacy or via secondary causes. Further, this objection presupposes a certain soteriological framework which need not be conceded.

Objection 2: God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because these prayers are typically uttered in pagan or cultic practices. It is not befitting of God to hear prayers offered to demons, Satan, other deities, or physical objects and manifestations of nature.

Reply to Objection 2: In their ignorance, some unbelievers pray to things like statues, demons, natural forces, and the like. God can use these prayers to providentially bring about effects that further His benevolent and just ends for creatures. He can will that a pagan prayer be answered to a cultic deity for purposes of that person’s ultimate repentance or for purposes of bringing about temporal consequences and justice for wicked acts. 

Objection 3: Moreover, unbelievers pray for evil things that are not the proper objects of prayer. 

Reply to Objection 3: We know only good things come from God (James 1:17). So, we can say God does not affirmatively answer prayers which are for evil ends/means. All things in creation operate under the auspices of divine providence. If, for example, the demise of a man comes after the prayers of another man asked for that outcome, it is for some other providential reason the event occurred and not because the prayer has been answered affirmatively.

Objection 4: Prayer is an act of worship, and unbelievers cannot worship that which they hate or do not know. 

Reply to Objection 4: Whenever someone prays, an act of worship is being done in a manner of speaking. For the unbeliever, they pray in ignorance of ultimate truth. Yet, in such an act, if they are praying, they are worshipping something or someone. Such an act might be misdirected or disordered, but it does not follow that God, therefore, does not hear them. 

Objection 5: God hearing the prayers of unbelievers would diminish the prayers of believers.
Reply to Objection 5: There is a manifold purpose in prayer, as there are manifold types of prayer. We are primarily focused on petitionary and intercessory prayer, which when uttered by an unbeliever do not detract from those of believers. As Aquinas says, the prayers of the believer may be meritorious for them, whereas the prayers of the unbeliever cannot be (even if God hears/answers). Further, nothing can diminish the beatitude of those in Christ, because of the infinite love of God that abides in them. In the incomprehensible plenitude of His being, God is able to hear the prayers of the unbeliever without diminishing the grace He bestows upon those who love Him.

Objection 6: James 4:3 says “you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” This letter is addressed to believers. Thus, how much more an unbeliever cannot receive because their motives are worse than a believer. 

Reply to Objection 6: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Objection 7: Psalm 66:18 says “if I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” It must be said the unbeliever often, or always, prays with wickedness in their heart because of their sins. 

Reply to Objection 7: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.


That God hears the prayers of unbelievers should redound to His glory and praise. In His eternal benevolence, God can use the means of such prayers to bring about His ends. We know God loves His creation and delights in using divergent means, some of which are far beyond our comprehension, to attain His desired outcome. Isaiah 55:11-12 helpfully reminds us that God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. Such ways include the prayers of unbelievers. 

*Such an argument would presuppose a soteriological construct on which one cannot even pray to be saved but is saved first to enable them to pray. If one does not grant these theological precommitments, which would need to be successfully argued, then one cannot use this in support of a negative answer to the question at hand. For example, I surmise on perhaps some forms of Calvinism, one might hold that only believers can pray because God has enabled them to pray by unconditionally regenerating them. But this position would still run afoul of the issues mentioned. I see such a move as unhelpful in ultimately answering the question, because it undermines the question and further muddies the water with upstream debates. It is hard to see anything inherently problematic for the Calvinist to affirm God hearing or even answering the prayers of the unregenerate.