Picture yourself standing at the airport waiting to meet someone you love who is expected to arrive soon on an incoming plane. The arrivals monitor had been reporting that the plane was on time. But then suddenly that statement disappears and you hear an announcement that people waiting for that flight should report to the airline’s desk. There an agent was directing all inquirers to go to a room nearby. Once a group had gathered there, an airline official announced to you all that there had been an accident upon the plane’s approach. Of the 250 passengers on board, about 50 had been seriously injured and some fatalities are expected.
You are stunned, but your immediate inclination is to ask God for your loved one not to be among the killed or injured. But it quickly dawns on you that what has happened is already settled, and that even God cannot change the past. Does this mean that the prayer you had just uttered was useless? Not necessarily, provided you are not asking God to change the past. You don’t know what had happened in the past, so there is still room to pray about it. What you are doing is telling God how you would like the past to have been. You might even recall Isa 65:24, where God stated: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” This text, on its own, is hardly enough to ground a theology concerning prayer for the past. But it is not unreasonable to see in this text a statement that God was able to answer in the past a prayer which he knew you would offer in the future. And so your prayer, about the past which is unknown to you, could well have been included in one or more of the possible worlds God knew about in his natural knowledge. God may, therefore, have chosen to actualize a world in which he saw that you, if placed in these particular circumstances, would pray that kind of prayer. And the world God chose could be one in which God decided that, in the time that is now past to you, but which was still future relative to God’s choosing, he would bring it about that your loved one was in a place on the plane where the crash landing would cause no injury.
This may sound like Molinism, but readers of my work will know that I accept the grounding objection against Molinism. I believe, both with other monergists and with open theists that, if God gives creatures libertarian freedom, it is impossible for him to predict with certainty what they would choose to do in a particular hypothetical situation. But this does not mean that God’s certain knowledge of counterfactuals (which is possible if he gives creatures compatibilistic [or soft deterministic] freedom) was not useful to God when he was establishing his eternal purpose for the world he had decided to create. Contrary to the fears of many Reformed theologians, God’s independence of his creatures is in no way compromised if the world God chose to bring about was one of a great many worlds which God had known to be possible. God’s knowledge of counterfactuals concerning the actions of morally responsible creatures does not depend upon their choices, it is grounded in God’s knowing naturally the principles of agent causation.
So, as you stand in the airport awaiting specific news about your loved one, you have good reason to believe that your earnest appeal to God, that your loved one was safe when the incident occurred, could be part of the complex of events that make up the world history that God had chosen before the creation of the world. That being the case, if you learn that your loved one is in fact unharmed, you have reason not just to be grateful to God for having protected them, but also for having answered your prayer on their behalf.
The bottom line is that, if we don’t know what happened, there is still time to pray about it. And if the past turns out to be what we had told God we hoped it would be, we have grounds to give him thanks for answered prayer. I hear this principle at work in Ezek 36:33-38 (“On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the towns to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. . . . I will also let the house of Israel ask me to do this for them: to increase their population like a flock. . . . Then they shall know that I am the Lord” [NRSV].) God had already decided what he was going to do, but he had also chosen to involve his people in the coming into being of that situation by “allowing” (36:37 NET) them to ask him to do it. This is the purpose of prayer, I believe: not to change God’s mind, but to discern what appears to be coherent with God’s purposes in the world, and to ask him to act accordingly. This is not a notion that originated with me, but I believe it to be true.
Something additional, however, struck me with new force quite recently, when I was enunciating the above principle to someone who had raised the question. Exactly the same principle is often at work when we pray about something in the future, which is still open as far as we are concerned, though not so for God if he has either simple foreknowledge (classic Arminianism) or foreknowledge that is based upon his knowledge of his own decree – that is, of his purpose in choosing to actualize this particular world history – (Calvinism ).
As a soft compatibilist Calvinist, I believe that there are some instances in which God “can’t get ‘there’ (that is, to the situation which we are asking him to bring about) from ‘here,’” so to speak. In the time left for God to act, between the time we pray and the time for which we want an answer, the past is already heading things in a direction in the future which God could only be changed if (1) God intervenes supernaturally (miraculously), or (2) if God overrides the dignity of human freedom in a way that would make the situation incompatibilistic. God can do either of those, and he does, on occasion (as even open theists grant, if I’m not mistaken), but usually he does not. There is an “economy of miracles” that makes science possible, through our discovering the normal order of things and causes in creation. This means that, for God to grant our request for something to be true in the future, God needs to have started working on the complex of events prior to the time at which we are now making our request.
When we pray, we neither ask God to change the past nor to change his plans for the future. But our prayer now, whether for the unknown past or for the unknown future, can make a contribution to what happened or what will yet happen. This is a theology of prayer that is only coherent within a compatibilistic understanding of divine human agency but, within that framework, it should foster confidence that prayer works; it affects outcomes. It does not change God’s mind, but God has purposed not only that the history of the world should be just as it unfolds, but that we should be workers together with God in bringing into being the realization of his good purposes. Knowing this, when things turn out as we asked God that they would, we can conclude that we were being led by his Spirit to desire what God desires, and we should thank God for answering our prayers and for giving us the privilege of participating in his work in the world through petitionary prayer.