We have it on high authority that we should not tempt (aka test) God. (Matthew 4:7)
It might seem that this means that we shouldn't seek evidence for the existence of God or the claims of Christianity, but any of my long-time or even short-time readers will know that that is the last use I would make of Jesus' injunction. The Bible also tells us that God has provided much evidence. Jesus emphasized his works as evidence of his being sent from the Father.
But there is a certain model of evidence that depends upon experiment and repeatability. In fact, some people have no other model for hard evidence, so when they think of "evidence for God," they immediately look around for some kind of test they can do to find out whether God is really there. The prosperity hacks and the verses they rip out of the context of the Bible as a whole and present as "divine promises" provide plenty of fodder for this. God promises, they say, to "pour down blessings" on those who give, so therefore, if you give, God will make you rich. Then, of course, we find out that plenty of such people don't get rich, so there y'go! God failed the test, the experimentum crucis has been done and has yielded a negative result. Christianity has been falsified!
This entire model of evidence for Christianity is flat wrong. God is not a physical law nor a physical process but a personal being. He gives evidence of his existence through many avenues, the most dramatic of which are miracles. Miracles are mighty acts of power that occur at a particular time and place and are thereafter available to historical inquiry. This does not make them subjective; it doesn't mean that they can be known only "by the eyes of faith." But it does mean that they are not something you can repeat in your back yard as a test.
All of this is related to some questions that I was recently asked about a couple of posts at an atheist site. The posts urged Christians to test God by praying sincerely for good things and then seeing how the alleged "promises" in the Bible of answered prayer are falsified. I'm reluctant to link the atheist site, because quite frankly, I think it's a mistake for Christians to get involved in lengthy, public, on-line debates with Internet atheists. Sincere inquirers are one thing, but even then it is better to communicate with them privately than in the form of a kind of gladiatorial contest surrounded by an often trollish and un-serious audience. At the same time, I'm afraid that, "God didn't answer my prayer" has probably led more than one soul to damnation. (I know of one case among my own acquaintances in which I later learned that the person excused his deconversion in this way.) So it is probably worth looking at some of these questions and at the verses that prompt them. I beg the reader's indulgence for some absence of organization in what follows, as it is a somewhat edited version of what was originally a personal e-mail.
Notice how [our atheist blogger] lumps things together. He lumps the fact that Jesus did miracles or that Paul was not killed when bitten by a snake together with verses that appear to promise answers to prayer and treats all of these as though they are part of some “Christians will have success” pattern of biblical promises. But this is ridiculous. Jesus was God! The apostles were showing signs and wonders as part of kicking off Christianity. It simply isn't true that the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead means that all of us are supposed to be able to raise people from the dead.
Inconsistently, he also faults Christians for taking seriously all those places where the New Testament, especially, tells us to expect earthly troubles and persecution. He argues that this makes Jesus' promise never to leave us meaningless. But why so? If Jesus' promise never to leave us is a spiritual promise of His presence through our trials, a promise of spiritual strengthening, and a promise of carrying our souls through to everlasting life, how does the existence of those earthly trials make that promise meaningless? On the contrary, the expectation of trouble and persecution is far more deeply woven into the warp and woof of Christian theology than the relatively far fewer passages that appear in isolation to promise an earthly answer to prayer. That very fact should cause us to think twice (on the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture) about taking those passages to be promises of earthly success. But the atheist wants to have it both ways. He wants to chide Christians for taking Jesus' promise of being with them spiritually through unpleasant trials as though that makes Jesus' promise meaningless, and he wants to fault some of them (Pentecostal snake handlers and prosperity preachers) for believing that Christianity promises earthly success. It's heads he wins, tales we lose. Christians are just wrong whether they look at the whole sweep of New Testament teaching and don't expect earthly success as a promise or whether they look at isolated passages and do expect earthly success as a promise.
Here follows a short digression on the long ending of Mark, in which we find Jesus predicting that Christians (or his apostles) will be able to pick up serpents and drink deadly poison without harm: This ending is considered not to have been part of the original manuscript of Mark entirely for textual reasons. The oldest manuscripts do not have this ending, and it appears that the original ending of Mark was lost. It happens to be the case that this obviates the need to deal with the “snake handling” verse, but that is not why the ending is rejected. Certainly the gospel would end very abruptly without the long ending, but that is a reason for believing that the original ending has been lost, not for insisting that the added ending is authentic. Note that this does not in any way call into question the genuineness of post-resurrection accounts in the other four gospels, even though treating the long ending of Mark as inauthentic involves cutting out the post-resurrection account in Mark itself. Whether or not Mark is in fact the oldest gospel (patristic evidence is that some version of Matthew was the oldest), we have no reason to accept the shallow, higher-critical evolutionary view that only what is in the oldest gospel is true and that everything else evolved in a legendary fashion from there. *All* of the gospels, including very strongly the *latest* gospel, John, show clear internal signs of eyewitness testimony and also of having an important degree of independence in their accounts. Nothing heavy rides on whether we have an authentic ending to Mark including a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.
Now, back to the “promises” criticism: Any attempt to press Christians into adopting a prosperity gospel is monumentally unconvincing. One verse used for this purpose is 2 Cor. 9:6ff, in which the Apostle Paul urges the Christians to give generously to a collection he was gathering for the Christians at Jerusalem. Paul says that he who “sows generously” will also “reap generously.” These words have a strongly proverbial ring and are pretty clearly an allusion to a proverb. In fact, they sound much like Proverbs 11:24-25. Now, Proverbs are notoriously overstated, just because they are proverbs. Think of the English proverb, “What goes around comes around.” We can all think of counterexamples to this. Nobody takes it as an exceptionless truth. Nonetheless, we've seen enough examples to think it worth embodying in a proverb. A stitch in time doesn't always save nine, etc. Proverbs 11:24-25 is not giving some kind of divine promise but rather worldly wisdom. It is warning against stinginess and pointing out that sometimes being stingy causes you to end up literally poorer than you were before. (There's a whole Victorian novel in that picture right there!) Paul is citing this proverbial wisdom as part of urging the Corinthians to give, but for that very reason he should not be taken to be making a revealed promise of wealth as a result of giving. Moreover, below in the same passage, vs. 11, when Paul uses the phrase “enriched in everything...” he seems to be echoing I Corinthians 1:5 which says that the Corinthians are “enriched in everything” by God and clearly refers to spiritual gifts.
Once we clear away the fog, what we are left with is not a consistent pattern of actual divine promises of prosperity or of positive answers to prayer. What we find rather is a handful of verses that, taken in isolation, appear to be sweeping promises of answers to any prayers or at least to any serious and good prayers. There is, however, so much in Jesus' own teaching and in the apostles' teaching and practice that stands in opposition to the “promise of success” interpretation that that sweeping interpretation seems ruled out. The same Jesus who said, “Ask and ye shall receive,” “You shall do greater works than these,” and “Anything you ask, believing, you shall receive,” also said, “In this world you will have trouble,” “They will cast you out of the synagogue and kill you,” “Happy are you, when men persecute you,” and “Take up your cross and follow me.” If the “ask and receive” verses were really supposed to mean that we could ask for anything, or even anything serious and good, and receive it, then all the prophecies of persecution, all the calls to come and die with Jesus, would be meaningless. For it is in an obvious sense a serious and good thing, not a frivolous or wicked thing, to ask that God would rescue a Christian in danger of death or being persecuted for his faith or that God would heal the sick. And again, since the themes of suffering for Christ and growing through suffering are absolutely pervasive in Christianity, to the point of being of the essence of the Christian commitment, the handful of “ask and you shall receive” verses ought to be interpreted in a way that is consistent with these overwhelming and pervasive themes.
The same point applies to the book of James. It is James who says that “the prayer of faith will heal the sick,” but at the beginning of the book James says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” It seems clear that illness is an example of a trial that could be used by God to produce patience, which leads one to conclude that James didn't really think that all sick Christians would be healed by prayer.
Or again: The Apostle Paul did sometimes heal sick people miraculously, but in Philippians 2:27, Paul talks about the sickness of his friend and fellow-worker, Epaphroditus. He says that Epaphroditus was near to death but was healed and that God “had mercy on” Paul because of the sorrow Paul would have had if Epaphroditus had died. Paley says in the Horae Paulinae, and I agree with him, that the whole tenor of the passage implies that Epaphroditus was healed by secondary causes–that is to say, that he got better naturally. Otherwise, Paul presumably wouldn't have let him get so close to death before miraculously healing him. Apparently Paul's ability to heal by miracle was not a “sure thing,” nor does Paul say that the elders of the nearest church prayed over Epaphroditus, and, voila, he was immediately healed. His sickness was serious, it was a near thing, he almost died, but eventually got better. We can assume that Paul did pray for him, and in that sense Paul's prayers were answered, but evidently not in any dramatic or obviously miraculous fashion. Again, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that he himself had some sort of physical ailment, prayed for healing, and did not receive it.
And let us not forget that Our Lord Himself, the perfect petitioner, asked in the garden that the cup might pass from Him, but then added, “Nevertheless, thy will be done,” and of course did not receive His own petition.
So Christian teaching and practice seems to indicate that we should not expect any good prayer to be answered, nor should we expect to be able to engage willy-nilly in “faith healing.” We as Christians are responsible to take all of this Scriptural data into account, not to grab a few verses, take them at their most literal, and then insist on “holding God to” those as promises.
What, then, is the meaning of the problem passages? First, let me list what I right now (of course, I might be forgetting a couple) consider to be the remaining prima facie difficult verses.
Matthew 21:21-22, which includes “All things, whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” The parallel passage in Mark (11:24) says, “believe that you receive, and you shall have them.”
John 14:12-13, which includes the promise that “he that believeth on me” will do “the works” that Jesus has done–“the works” being a phrase which refers clearly to miracles in vs. 11. In vs. 13 we have, “Whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do...”
Matthew 18:19 “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”
James 5:14-15, apparently promising that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up...”
I think a number of options are open to us, and we shouldn't be dogmatic. C.S. Lewis discusses this in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer, on pp. 59-61. There he conjectures that the apparent promises of receiving whatever one asks in faith may be intended to apply to people who are, or at least are at that time, in a special state such that they have special insight into what God intends to do and therefore ask for it. In the Protestant tradition we hear stories about a man named George Mueller who ran an orphanage and may have been one of these people. (Of course, we don't hear of any cases where Mueller prayed and didn't get what he asked for, so we may have a case of cherry picking.) The stories are rather striking and always show Mueller as calmly confident in the result and then some event, natural in itself but a remarkable coincidence, which brings about the result. So perhaps Lewis's conjecture is correct, in which case most of us should just keep following the “thy will be done” model, which was good enough for Jesus Christ Himself at one point in His life.
There are other options for specific passages. For example, the James passage specifically says that the sick person should confess his sins and that, if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. Paul in I Corinthians 11 says that many were sick and some had actually died among the Corinthians because of their disrespect for the Holy Communion. Perhaps James had in mind situations where the sickness was a punishment for sin. That shouldn't be taken to mean that all sickness is a punishment for sin; far from it. Merely that this might have been the sort of situation James was thinking of when he says that the prayer of faith would save the sick person and that the Lord would heal him.
John 14, where Jesus says that those who believe in him will do “greater” works, immediately says that this is “because I go unto my Father.” He strongly emphasizes the coming of the Holy Ghost, which he said could not happen until after the Ascension (going to his Father). He may therefore be referring both to the special gifts (such as the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues) given to the disciples as a sign and special aid from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and also to their (in one sense) miraculous success in spreading the Gospel with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 18:19, which Lewis lists in an essay in Christian Reflections as particularly problematic, comes (at least in the discourse as we have it) immediately after the promise of the power of binding and loosing committed to the disciples in vs. 18. “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This verse apparently alluded to a Jewish tradition that the “right” rabbinical rulings concerning the keeping of Judaic law had special status with God, so that those rulings were ratified in heaven. Here Jesus appears to be giving that sort of power as his “council of rabbis” to make rulings to his Apostles, a power that they have to exercise later, in Acts, when questions arise about whether the Gentiles have to keep the Jewish law. Verse 19 which says that “if any two” agree it will be “done for them” by the Father may be a reiteration, specifically to the Apostles, of their special authority.
You can take or leave any of these interpretations as you find them more or less plausible. The more important take-home lesson is how few of them there are and the necessity, in the light of a much larger biblical consensus suggesting the good of suffering, of not interpreting them as a blank check from God promising earthly answers to prayer for any Christians who asks with confidence and sincerity.
Let us by all means look for the truth and follow the evidence. But let us not create “crucial tests” for Christianity where they do not exist. We have to take our evidence as it comes and give it its due weight, not manufacture an artificial set of requirements that embody the form in which we would prefer to receive evidence. If one is locked into a test-tube model of evidence, even empirical evidence, one will miss much that is genuinely and objectively evidential in nature while simultaneously thinking that Christianity has somehow "failed." That such a mistake could have eternal consequences is a good reason for being careful not to fall into it.