As a child & teenager my mother and I had frequent conversations about spiritual matters. I remember asking her, during one of these heart to hearts, about what would happen to those who have never heard of Jesus. I mean, is it really fair that they should go to Hell, forever, if they didn't even have the chance to ask Him into their hearts before they died? She said that if any such person were to truly seek God, with the sincerest of intentions, He would send someone (a missionary, presumably) to tell them about the Gospel while they still had an opportunity to accept it here on Earth. Looking back I'm not sure I entirely believed her, even at the time, but for some reason it was enough to satiate my curiosity and stop that particular conversation in its tracks. Prayer must be incredibly powerful, I reasoned, if it can even direct the paths of missionaries half a world away.
Years later, during what I now refer to as my "de-conversion process", the power of prayer would be put to the test in a terribly personal way. I could feel my faith slowly slipping through my fingers, piece by painful piece, but there was just no way I was going to let it go without a fight. "I believe; help thou mine unbelief" became something of a personal mantra (Mark 9:24).
It takes me about half an hour to get to work, and this commute was a very precious, almost sacred, time in my day. I can remember praying out loud in the car, morning after morning, just pouring my heart out to God and (often) literally begging him to give me some sort of sign, however small, that He was really up there. I knew that's all it would take for me to fully embrace Christianity again, and to chalk whatever doubts I might happen to still have up to God's "mysterious ways".
During this phase I was also becoming increasingly aware of a community of people, found online rather easily, who seemingly had already been through what I was still in the middle of. Ken Daniels, for example, was a missionary who literally had to return home from the mission field due to a personal crisis of faith. He tells the whole story in "Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary", which I strongly recommend. I grew to love and cherish this book, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the way Ken took you into his inner world during the numerous peaks and valleys of his struggle. This is just one of the prayers Ken recounts...
"Father God, Creator of all things, lover of my soul, have mercy on me, a sinner. How I learn more and more each day of my inadequacy to discern truth by myself! I don't know whether it's because of pride or because for some other reason you've chosen not to reveal yourself to me, at least to the extent I would like. All I know is that I do not have full assurance of the truth, and I submit myself before you now, asking that you will somehow reveal the truth to me and give me confidence that it is indeed the truth.
The Bible seems so conditioned by the ideas of the times in which it was written and to me bears no evidence of divine authorship. Must I be eternally damned because I can't believe that Samson, under the influence of your Spirit, avenged himself on his personal enemies by killing 1, 000 of them with the jawbone of a donkey? Or because I see inconsistencies in the accounts and viewpoints of the biblical authors, such as whether Jehu was justified in killing the household of Ahab (Kings) or not (Hosea)? Or because I see many of the ethics of the Bible (for example, polygamy, taking virgins as war captives and slaughtering the rest, and slavery) as objectionable? Or because I see innumerable parallels between the myths of the Ancient Near East and those of the Bible, leading me to believe that they are in fact mere myths? Or that I can't see why you couldn't just forgive truly penitent people for their sins without requiring a blood sacrifice, just as humans forgive each other?"
So, why am I sharing all of this with you? Well, simply put, God didn't answer my prayers. He didn't answer Ken's either (although at times Ken thought God had "answered", more on that below). But, why not? Surely it's clear, from even the above prayer alone, that Ken was a "real Christian" and sincere in his search to the nth degree. What possible reason could God have for not answering such heartfelt prayers?
When Christians are presented with stories like mine, or Ken's, they often give an answer that, in essence, boils down to "you didn't do it right" (or at least that's how I hear what they're saying). Prayer does work, you see, but only if you meet all of Gods' special requirements beforehand. Among the things that might disqualify you from having your prayers answered, or perhaps even heard, by God are...sin in your life, wrong motives, lack of faith, praying for something that isn't "God's will" and so on and so on. And you can be sure they've got a Bible verse (or several) to back up each of these claims.
I now believe that the most probable scenario is much less complex...God didn't answer my earnest prayers, quite simply, because He doesn't exist. I had previously learned about the "yes, no, or wait" fallacy so it was very difficult for me, this time around, to honestly interpret God's silence as anything other than just that...silence. I had also been learning about our evolved tendency, as humans, to read in patterns where none actually exist (I'll write more about my changing views on evolution vs. creation in a future post). In other words, I knew there was a psychological state that is helpful (necessary?) for seeing God's "answers" to prayer all around. Heck, for Christians it's practically a bragging right to locate God's fingerprints on something or other, however deceptively normal, mundane, or coincidental that thing might *appear* to be at first glance (or perhaps, as is often assumed, it's just one of the signs of a mature Christian...kind of like a heightened spidey sense, but for God instead). It would have been alarmingly easy for me to delude myself into thinking that something, almost anything really, was indeed the sign from God that I had long been waiting for (ie. "Thank you God, for that beautiful sunset while I was praying this morning, I just KNOW that was you telling me to keep trusting!")
Here's the nub of the issue...if God is in fact "all loving", and there exists even one deeply sincere person on the planet who has sought but not found Him, isn't this fact alone problematic for the Christian worldview? If so, the problem multiplies, exponentially, according to the number of such people who actually do exist. Does God "desire all men" to be saved, or not?? You can't logically have it both ways. For the sake of argument, I'll even grant the additional assumption that this one person meets all of the special requirements God supposedly places on prayer in the Bible. I know what you're thinking...God is God, right, so He is under no obligation to answer anyone's prayers, God can do whatever He wants! But wouldn't an "all good" being, by definition, do everything in His power to keep people from burning in Hell? Wouldn't He want to?