Imagine your father tells you he will give you anything you ask for. But when you ask for new shoes, you don’t receive new shoes. When you ask your father about this, he lists several possible reasons why you didn’t receive the shoes.
You may have 1) asked selfishly, 2) asked with an impure heart, or 3) asked without sufficient faith the shoes would be given. It appears the initial promise of your father had some hidden stipulations. You re-examine your heart, then ask again with a unselfish, pure and believing heart. Still no shoes. You ask your father why. He says it is not his will to give you shoes, but everything he does want to give you he will give you if you only ask. Ignoring the fact that this appears like a clear broken promise, does this not make your father’s responses to your requests identical to what you would expect if your father were dead or deaf to your requests? Would you go around the neighborhood proclaiming how your father amazingly responds to your requests? In the same way, does the God of the Bible answer prayer as advertised, or does he “answer’ prayer in precisely the same way a godless universe would? How likely is it that an actual God of the universe who promises to answer prayers would answer prayers in a way we would expect of a universe without the Christian God?
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. -James 5:16
Some Christians might concede that the Bible makes no promises concerning prayer. And James 4:15 seems to be in agreement with this notion of prayer with no guaranteed answer when it says “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'” Other religions add a simple emasculating qualifier to the promises of their God by adding “…God willing” to their prayers. This makes all possible outcomes consistent with their God, but also renders their “prayer-answering” God essentially impotent and indistinguishable from what we would expect from a godless universe.
However, most Christians maintain that the Christian God has made promises about prayer. They boldly claim in prayer meetings that God did answer their prayer. For someone to be able to make the claim that it was God rather than a material cause behind an effect, a clear criteria of assessment is necessary. Is this what we find? When someone recovers from influenza after praying for recovery, how do we know the recovery was due to divine intervention instead of due to the quite natural defeat of the influenza virus by the immune system? When someone prays to win a million-to-one lottery and wins, how do we determine this was God rather than normal probabilities when a million others are praying to win the lottery?
Statistics that run contrary to what we expect from a material world could constitute enormous evidence for the supernatural and an actual God. But will these statistics take the form of some football team’s amazing comeback after fervent prayer when the same God is being unsuccessfully petitioned by a mother to feed her starving child?
There is an inexplicable apparent decline of the use of answered prayer to demonstrate the existence of and power of the God of the Bible. Elijah boldly called down fire from Heaven while the prayers of the “false” prophets went unanswered, if the Bible is to be believed. It seems quite natural to ask why any actual God could not and would not answer prayers to exhibit his existence and might, a goal quite consistent with that God’s alleged agenda.
Luke 16:29 is often cited in response to this. When a man being tormented in Hell asks Abraham to have someone to go back and warn his brothers, Abraham replies…
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
Do you think reading Bible stories about the alleged power of an alleged God should be as convincing as personally experiencing those alleged events? Do not most successful religions have a holy book with amazing stories of the miracles of their God in response to prayers? Has not the frequency of these miracles declined at precisely the same time that the ubiquity of tools of scientific assessment and the number of technological devices of observation such as cameras have increased? What should we make of this inverse correlation?
The following are just a few ways an actual prayer-answering God could be detected:
1: Christians and Muslims within the same demographic could simply pray for their parents to recover from illnesses. If any actual God is answering those prayers, there will be a clear statistical disparity in longevity between the two groups.
2: Christians and Muslims within the same demographic could ask for greater practical wisdom. After a decade or so, if one of the two groups ends up with a significantly higher increase of wealth through wiser investments, that would constitute evidence on the side of a prayer-answering God.
3: More persuasive would be that, instead of asking merely for wisdom, each group would ask for precise knowledge of the future to avoid natural disasters or to gain wealth to redistribute to those suffering from poverty.
4: Another related way would be for demographically similar Christians and Muslims to pray for the insight into scientific and technological discoveries that would alleviate the enormous amount of suffering around the world. If there is an actual prayer-answering God listening, why would such a God not respond to this selfless request?
5: And then there is the straightforward replication of the Elijah challenge in which two or more religious groups are asked to petition their respective Gods to clearly perform a task accepted by all to be contrary to known physical laws. What a great way for any actual God to introduce himself.
At present, all the alleged phenomena theists point to as evidence of answered prayer are, at best, well within the range of normal statistical or physical explanations. Is this the murky evidential terrain that an actual prayer-answering God would confine itself to? Why not occasionally heal an amputee or two in response to earnest prayer? Why not move a mountain or two when someone truly does pray with the faith of a mustard seed? Why would this be difficult or improper for any actual God of the universe?