In a fascinating two-part series of posts beginning with this one, Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor, grappled with this question: “Does it make sense to pray that God would change something that’s already happened in the past?”
The answer seems obvious: No. But not so fast…
He gives an example of a time that his mother left her purse on top of her car and drove off. Naturally, at some point, the purse fell off. When she arrived at her destination, she realized what happened. She retraced her route, but the purse was gone. Someone had picked it up.
At this point, he said, she gathered some people from her church. They prayed that the purse would have been picked up by a Christian person who would return the purse to her without stealing anything. Even as a child, he said, this prayer made no sense to him: the purse was already picked up at that point—and whether that person was a Christian or not was already settled, even though his mother and her church friends were ignorant of the person’s faith or character. To pray that the person would be a Christian was potentially a prayer to change the past.
He gave an example that hits closer to home for most of us: Suppose someone is awaiting the results of a biopsy. Does it make sense, at that point, to pray that the person’s biopsy would be negative? After all, at that point the person already has or doesn’t have cancer. That we don’t know the results of the biopsy is beside the point. So this kind of petition is potentially asking God to change the past.
Then, in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerum, Olson says if God could change the past in this way, why not pray, for example, that the Holocaust would never have happened?
Many of his readers voiced a conviction that I share: In order for God to answer our prayer petitions in the future, God often has to begin answering them in the past—which requires that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows what we’re going to pray from eternity past. If God has foreknowledge, which he does, this isn’t a problem.
For example, suppose a friend is facing surgery next week. We begin praying today that our friend would have a successful operation. What does it take for that to happen? A skilled surgeon, for one thing. While our prayer is for a future event, in order for God to grant our petition, God would likely have had to begin “answering” it perhaps 20 years earlier—when the surgeon was in medical school sitting in a lecture hall. Or perhaps earlier than that, when a particular author of a medical textbook was writing something that pertained to our friend’s medical problem, which the surgeon, then a medical student, read and understood. Or earlier than that, when that author was himself grappling to understand the intricacies of the human body and this particular disease.
It boggles the mind to imagine how God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence, can weave an intricate thread of cause-and-effect in the past that leads to a successful surgery next week. From my perspective, however, God would do this sort of thing all the time—unless God’s normal way of intervening in our world is to constantly suspend or override the laws of physics in a miraculous way.