On Retroactive Impetratory Prayer

As I was driving today I began thinking again on a theological topic that has crossed my mind before, but that I've never actually put to much proper consideration.  When it comes to the problem of divine foreknowledge, I'm generally in the Molinist camp.  For those of you not familiar with what Molinism is, I recommend that you follow that little blue link prior to reading below.  Or you can just read on and try your best.  Or you can (as I suspect most people will choose to do) just stop reading.

Ok, so here is the question: If today I choose to pray that event E that happened yesterday would not have happened, (a) is it possible that God answer this prayer and (b) is it plausible that God would answer this prayer.  I'm calling this "Retroactive Impetratory Prayer" (hereafter, RIP).

I've come to the conclusion that (a) depends on which theological view to you hold to with regard to divine providence.  Let's start there.

Suppose I am an Open Theist approaching this question.  The Open Theist almost certainly has to answer in the negative.  On Open Theism, God does not have complete, definite foreknowledge.  He can be 99.999% certain of most things and even 100% certain of some things, but most things are probably in the "extremely well-informed guess" category rather than the "absolute certainty" category.  If this is the case, then there is no way that God could really justify answering a prayer that He doesn't know with absolute certainty will be prayed.  There's no way, then, that He actually would answer a prayer prior to its being prayed since it's still possible that the prayer won't be prayed.  This could change once all the necessary and sufficient conditions are met for a given prayer's being prayed.  Once that happens, I would think that answering the prayer prior to its instantiation would be fair game for God on Open Theism as well.

The Augustinian/Calvinist (A/C) (determinism or compatibilism, take your pick) view would also have to answer in the negative.  Strictly speaking, the past happened the way it did because God intentionally caused it to be that way in every case.  For God to answer a prayer prior to its being prayed, God would have to essentially admit that His plan was flawed to start with and then change it.  Of course, some of you A/C folks out there may disagree with my interpretation here, and if so I'd appreciate hearing about it.  One reason you may want to disagree is that this exact same reasoning can be used against the possibility of impetratory prayer of any kind on the A/C view, which is something I bet a lot of folks will want to avoid.  And, incidentally, this is yet another great reason not to hold the A/C view.  Just sayin'.

The Molinist, it seems to me, is the only one who can really entertain the possibility of RIP being able to work on any consistent basis.  First, on Molinism prayer definitely has the potential to impetrate.  That is, God's decisions in the world are definitely affected by prayer.  Second, God knows prior to the creation of the world exactly what prayers will be prayed at what time and by whom.  Third, it seems to me to be possible, if not probable, that God would be willing to take those future prayers into account when guiding events prior to the prayer.  So I think that the RIP issue is one that Molinists are (mostly) unique in having to address.  So there is my answer to (a).  (Brief aside: I'm not really sure if it's possible that a Molinist hold to a B-theory of time.  Haven't thought about it too much.  If one were to do so,  there may be some issues there as well...which I haven't bothered considering.  For now, though, I'm going to assume an A-theory of time and move on.) 

Now, if a Molinist answers affirmatively to (a), then what of (b)?  Well, I think first we need to recognize that on the Molinist account of prayer, God makes the decision of whether or not to answer a prayer prior to the creation of the world, so strictly speaking the time at which a prayer is prayed shouldn't affect His ability or willingness to answer it.  The problems really come when we conceptualize the prayer.  Say E happened yesterday and it displeased me.  Now let's say that I choose today to pray that E never happened.  Well, if I know I pray the prayer in the first place I already know that it went unanswered.  If there is but one timeline (and I think it's pretty reasonable to think this is the case, especially on the Christian worldview), it follows that events I have already experienced cannot be changed.  Those events would have never have been able to take place were my prayer answered retroactively (i.e. prior to my prayer having been prayed).  So, then, if I believe in the possibility of RIP, it follows that if I attempt a retroactive prayer I'm already guaranteed that the prayer was not answered.

But this is not the end of the issue!  Far from it.  No, no.  This is right where it gets interesting.  See, the mere fact that my praying for retroactive answers guarantees that those retroactive answers didn't happen does not mean that such prayers are completely superfluous!  God may actually answer some retroactive prayers, it's just that the believer who would have done the praying would never know it.  However, in order for there to be the possibility of such a prayer being prayed, the believer must actually get in the habit of praying such prayers.  Example:

Suppose there are two separate and unrelated events E1 & E2.  Believer B dislikes both and will pray that both did not happen in the past (these prayers will be P1 & P2, respectively).  God decides logically prior to creation whether or not he will answer either prayer.  Say God decides to answer P2 but not P1, so that E2 would not have happened, but E1 still would.  B would still have to have a mindset that may cause her to pray both P1 & P2 in order for P2 to be answered.  Likely, then, prayers of the P1 variety would still have to be prayed (even though B knows the prayers are superfluous) in order to guarantee that prayers of the P2 variety would also have been prayed (and thus not have taken place).  Otherwise there is no possibility that God know via middle knowledge that P2 would be prayed (since it would not, in fact, be prayed), and thus He would not prevent E2 from obtaining.

So the answer to (b) above would be: no. It is impossible that God answer the retroactive request you are currently praying for.  However, the Molinist can (and maybe even should) believe that such prayers may nevertheless be necessary in order for God to answer other retroactive prayers that she will never actually pray.

I really look forward to some thoughts on this from any of you theology dabblers out there!


In a discussion I had on this last night with my roommate, I found that framing the issue in more explicitly Molinist terms was helpful.

Molinism, roughly, is the belief that God obtains His foreknowledge from the combination of three logical moments.  Moment 1: natural knowledge (knowledge of all necessary truths).  Moment 2: middle knowledge (knowledge of the truth value of all counterfactuals).  Next comes the decision to create the world.  Knowledge from moments 1 and 2 are then combined with the knowledge of which world was created, which gives God moment 3: Free knowledge (complete, definite foreknowledge of all circumstances that will obtain in the world and all free choices that will be made by creatures in those circumstances).

Consider the example I gave above in Molinist terms:

Prior to creation, God is presented with 2 counterfactuals:

C1. Given E1, B would freely choose P1.
C2. Given E2, B would freely choose P2.

Assuming both counterfactuals are true, God then weighs whether or not He plans to answer either P1 or P2 (or both) and chooses (still prior to creation) to answer P2, but not P1.

E2 now will never obtain.  B will only ever pray P1 and B will have no idea that E2 (and thus P2) was ever even a possibility.  B will certainly have no idea that God answered P2 without it ever happening.

However, the truth value of counterfactuals is determined by the free creature.  So, the truth values of both C1 and of C2 are in the hands of B.  It just so happens that God knows what B would choose given each circumstance.  So if B does not freely choose to pray retroactive prayers sometimes (already knowing that the prayer will not be answered), then it is a virtual guarantee that the truth values of both C1 and C2 would be false, causing God to not answer P2.


  1. Very interesting. Here's my reaction.

    In short, I'm not sure why God would make the fact that you would pray for something impossible (i.e. that you would pray P2 while knowing that E2 had happened) action guiding.

    Here's what you say: "God decides logically prior to creation whether or not he will answer either prayer. Say God decides to answer P2 but not P1, so that E2 would not have happened, but E1 still would." That way of putting it is misleading, of course. God doesn't decide whether to answer either prayer, since if either prayer were prayed, it would be impossible for God to answer it. Instead, God ponders two counterfactuals (E1->P1 and E2->P2) and decides what decisions to make in light of their truth. And I'm not sure why either counterfactual would motivate God to prevent E1 or E2. (God might have other reasons for preventing them, including the fact that either event would cause you distress. I just don't see how the fact that you would pray for the impossible adds anything to God's reasons.)

    The problem isn't with retroactive prayers. On Molinism, it could make sense to pray, for example, that your kids stayed safe last night, when you don't know whether they did. God could have ensured that they did, knowing that you would pray that. The problem is with retroactive prayers when you already know what happened. Can you think of any reason why the fact that you would pray P2 might motivate God to prevent E1? I just can't see one.

  2. Oops - 2nd last line should read "E2" instead of "E1."

  3. Ray, thanks for the comments!

    Yes, it's true that the wording there was a bit imprecise. God would be reacting to the truth of the counterfactual regarding whether or not the prayer would be prayed, but would not actually be "answering the prayer."

    Ok, the objection that you bring up is, roughly, that while it is possible that God answer retroactive prayers, it's not very plausible that He would, since we aren't really sure what would motivate Him to answer an unprayed prayer that, if prayed, would be logically impossible to answer. Does that sounds like a good restatement of the objection? I can understand the issue. Here's my take:

    Let's add an E3 to the discussion. E3 is the event “attractive girl calls Scott in 5 minutes.” P3 would be the prayer that E3 obtains. Consider how God would go about answering this prayer. I think it's highly unlikely that God would wait until P3 is prayed to begin answering it. A lot of factors go into women's decisions, the majority of which I don't pretend to know. But I think that if God is to motivate the girl to call me in 5 minutes, He will probably have to start working with her will an hour, a day, a week, a month prior to the actual call. Of course, this would mean that even with non-retroactive prayers God determines whether and how to answer them based on the counterfactual knowledge He has regarding whether or not the prayer would be prayed if put in that circumstance.

    So it's safe to say that answers to prayers of the P3 variety are motivated by the same types of things that would motivate answers to prayers of the P1 & P2 variety – God's prior knowledge of counterfactuals relating to whether or not those prayers would be prayed in particular circumstances.

    I guess I don't see a reason to think that God wouldn't take into account P1/P2 counterfactual prayers just because if they were to take place they would be impossible to answer. If He acts based on C1/C2 then the impossible-to-answer prayer will never take place and thus will not be impossible to answer. So the impossibility problem goes away.

    As far as God's reasons for answering, who knows, right? I think it definitely would take a certain childlike faith to consistently pray prayers you know won't be answered in the faith that prayers you never pray will be answered. Perhaps God would want to honor that. I'm sure God could have a lot of reasons for answering, but I don't think that they'd be much different than His reasons for answering non-retroactive prayers.

    So in short, here's what I'm arguing. The method by which God would answer would be the same for retroactive and non-retroactive prayer. The way God would know the prayer would be prayed would be the same. His motivations for answering would be the same. So why not think that His propensity to answer would be the same?

    I hope that answered you. If I missed something, let me know and I'll try again.

  4. Yeah, I'd want to take the notion of God "answering prayers" out of this discussion, because God can't answer a prayer that is never given (i.e. a non-existent prayer). And of course God can't answer prayers for the logically impossible (i.e. God cannot fulfill requests that are impossible for God to fulfill).

    The question then is how God deals with certain kinds of counterfactuals. I think that, in general, the fact that under certain circumstances you would pray for X gives God reason to actualize X in worlds where you find yourself in those circumstances. And there are all sorts of reasons for God to do that. When we ask God for things, we recognize our dependence on God; such prayers make us more attentive to our circumstances and to the needs of those for whom we pray; and we are also inclined to gratitude when those prayers are answered. These are all reasons for God to answer our prayers and encourage us to pray.

    I say that IN GENERAL God has reasons to answer our prayers. (Those are obviously defeasible reasons, since many prayers don't get answered. But they are still reasons.) But I think that God has no reason at all to answer an impossible prayer. If God knew that under certain circumstances, you'd freely pray, "God, please make 2 + 2 = 5," I think that would probably give God no reason to do anything at all--no reason to actualize those circumstances, and no reason not to. And similarly, if God knew that under certain circumstances you'd pray, "God, I know that X happened, but please make it the case that X didn't happen," I think that (by itself) would give God no reason to do anything at all--no reason to actualize those circumstances, and no reason not to.

    On the other hand, if God knew that under certain circumstances you'd pray, "God, I don't know what happened to my son last night, but please let him be OK," then God might say, "Alright, in order to strengthen his faith and enable him to experience the joy of answered prayer, I'll actualize those circumstances and include in them that his son is in fact OK." So on Molinism it can be sensible to pray (when you're appropriately ignorant) about the past--not that God will change it, but that God will have made it the case that things turned out favorably for you.

    So you can see I'm not persuaded that there's any reason to pray for the impossible and hope that I tend to do the same in nearby possible worlds. You ask, who knows God's reasons for answering impossible prayers you never actually pray [i.e. for God determining not to actualize C1 on account of the fact that in some feasible world you pray "I know C1 happened, but please make it the case that it didn't"]? I answer, I can understand some of God's reasons for answering prayers of the more conventional variety (see above), but none of those reasons would apply to prayers for the logically impossible. So, despite the fact that I'm inclined to accept Molinism, I don't feel any motivation to ask God to make bad things that I know did happen not happen.

    And anyway, rather than praying prayers that I know can't be answered in hopes that my counterfactual tendency to pray such prayers will incline God to prevent bad things from happening, wouldn't it be easier for me simply to pray that bad things won't happen?

    Sorry that that got so long! I hope what I said is clear enough. I really have enjoyed pondering what you wrote.

  5. I can appreciate the objection, but I think there's an important distinction between the two impossible prayers.

    God sees the following two counterfactuals:

    C1. Given [comprehensive set of circumstances], on Monday, Roger would freely choose to pray that on Tuesday 2+2=5.
    C2. Given [comprehensive set of circumstances], on Monday, Roger would freely choose to pray that on Tuesday girl x will call him.

    C2 corresponds to a prayer that would clearly be possible for God to answer, whereas the C1 prayer would be impossible for God to answer. Consider the next two counterfactuals:

    C3. Given [comprehensive set of circumstances], on Wednesday, Roger would freely choose to pray that on Tuesday 2+2=5.
    C4. Given [comprehensive set of circumstances], on Wednesday, Roger would freely choose to pray that on Tuesday girl x would have called him.

    Both C1 & C3 correspond to prayers asking for the same thing (2+2 to equal 5 on Tuesday), while both C2 & C4 are also corresponding to prayers asking for the same thing (girl x to call Roger on Tuesday).

    But it's clearly impossible for God to respond to either C1 OR C3, whereas the same is clearly not the case with C2 & C4. The C1 & C3 prayers are asking that God do that which is always logically impossible. But it's not logically impossible that girl x call Roger on Tuesday. The only time logical impossibility enters the equation is if the prayer is actually prayed subsequent to the event's having happened. Yes, if God were to wait for the prayer to be prayed, then He wouldn't be able to answer it (which is consistent with my case). But he wouldn't be waiting for the prayer to be prayed to answer it, so I just don't think this is a huge problem.

    I think we have to say that we're dealing with a different kind of impossibility here. C4 is only impossible if the time at which the prayer would have happened is relevant to God. I'm not entirely convinced that it would be. Why can't we suppose that God may reason as follows: I know that if x were to happen, p would pray for it to have not happened. Its not having happened would be a good thing for p and I want what is good for p. Further, it is fully within my power to prevent x from happening. Therefore, I will prevent x from happening.

    He couldn't possibly reason the same way for a prayer that 2+2=5 on Tuesday since (a) it's hard to imagine how 2+2 equaling 5 would benefit anyone and (b) God could never reason that it's within his power to make 2+2=5.

    As for the prudence point you bring up: I can't really argue with it. It certainly seems to make more sense to pray for things you know about than for things you don't know about. But if one, as Paul suggested, prays “without ceasing,” eventually she may run out of things to pray about. In those times perhaps she should pray for things in the past :) I'll be the first to admit that it seems ridiculous and probably impractical when considered against other things one could pray about. The point of this post isn't to be suggestive of what people should pray for, but merely of what people could pray for if they so choose.

  6. OK, let me see if I can sum up our disagreement.

    Suppose God is trying to decide whether to set up the world so that girl x [Suzy] will call Roger on Tuesday. God knows that C4 is true, so that in the world where Suzy doesn't call on Tuesday, on Wednesday Roger prays that she did.

    Would knowing that C4 is true give God reason to have Suzy call Roger on Tuesday? You say yes; I say no. I say that God may have OTHER reasons to have Suzy call Roger on Tuesday (perhaps Roger would be really thankful if she called); but the fact that C4 is true would indicate to God only that if Suzy didn't call, Roger would become desperately confused and ask God to change the past. Again, I don't see how, by itself, the fact that Roger would pray that prayer (for what is impossible, given what happened on Tuesday) would give God reason to have Suzy call on Tuesday. You think it might.

    Of course, if open theism is true, Roger's Wednesday prayer would be doubly confused...

    In Tom Flint's book Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, he's got a great chapter on praying about the past. If memory serves, it opens with a quote from a woman holding a sign outside the courthouse at the O.J. Simpson trial that says, "O.J., I pray you didn't do it!" You should read the chapter if you get the chance.

  7. I'd love to read that chapter. I had no idea if or where a discussion on this subject existed. The Flint book has been on my list to buy for quite a while, so maybe this discussion will have to be my tipping point to finally buy it.

    I will admit that I do see the force of your objection. This is where my thought stands on the topic now: at worst it is highly improbable that God would answer counterfactual retroactive prayers because he knows that were the prayer to be prayed it would be logically impossible that it be answered. I think it is, however, at least possible that he would and virtually certain that he could answer such a counterfactual prayer if he so chose.

    Thanks again for discussing this with me - it's been really helpful getting some thoughts from an expert like yourself!

  8. I liked your earlier comment about Paul's recommendation that we pray unceasingly, and that conceivably a person might run out of things to pray for and have to resort to praying that things that did happen didn't! I can't see any harm in that.

    Hope you're doing well. I enjoyed the discussion, too. I've got to teach Molinism again in a couple of weeks.