Chapter 7 - Why can't you move mountains?

Many people believe that God reaches down onto earth on a regular basis to answer prayers. People talk about their answered prayers all the time. Inspirational books and magazines document thousands of answered prayers.

In chapter 5, however, we learned that there is a specific group of people whom God never helps through prayer. No matter how much they pray, no matter how many people gather into a prayer group to pray for them, no matter how much they believe, no matter how deserving and holy they are, what we found is that God never reaches down onto earth to regenerate the legs of amputees. And amputees aren't the only group that God completely ignores. For example, God never reaches down onto earth to cure those who suffer from Down syndrome either. There are hundreds of diseases that are impossible to cure with prayer.

In chapter 6, things got even more interesting. What we discovered is that God actually does not answer medical prayers in general. We found that it is easy to create the illusion that prayer works. The way you do it is by reporting only on the successes of prayer. As soon as you start tracking both the successes AND the failures of prayer, and apply some statistical analysis to the data, it is easy to see that prayer has no effect on the outcome of disease.

The amputation experiment in chapter 5 falls into a class of prayers that could be called "impossible prayers." It is impossible, in the natural course of events, for a human leg to regenerate. It is easy to think of hundreds of other impossible prayers, and it turns out that impossible prayers can teach us something about how prayer works. Here are several examples:

  • "Dear God, I pray that, tomorrow morning at 8AM, you pick up and move the Empire State Building to Paris. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you levitate this car 5 feet off the ground right now, and leave it hanging in the air for 15 minutes. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you let me fly over the earth today, just like Superman does in the comic books. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you let me run the World's first one-minute mile tomorrow, shattering the Olympic record in that event. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you make a living, breathing Tyrannosaurs Rex appear on the Mall in downtown Washington DC tomorrow. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you move Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ tomorrow. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you put $100 million in small unmarked bills in my basement tonight. Amen."
  • "Dear God, I pray that you completely eliminate all of the diseases in the world tomorrow. Amen."
If you were to pray any of these prayers, none of them will ever be answered. Ever. We all know that. No matter how sincere you are. No matter how much you believe in God and his ability to answer prayers. No matter how many people gather together in a prayer circle. Your impossible prayers will go unanswered.

What if your impossible prayer is incredibly worthy? For example:

  • What if you are praying to levitate a car because a drunk driver has run over a college freshman and she is currently pinned under one of the wheels?
  • What if you are praying to fly like superman so that you can rise up to a tenth story window and save two children from their burning apartment?
  • What if you plan to donate the $100 million that God gives you to a worthy and deserving charity?
None of it matters. God never answers impossible prayers.

Why is that?

It really is strange. We can take Mount Everest as the simplest example. It should be easy to move Mount Everest to Newark. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus talks about mountains directly and says quite clearly:

    For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
What could be simpler? There are no reservations in Jesus' statement. There are no conditions. There is no waffling. A devoted person with a little bit of faith should be able to move Mt. Everest to Newark at a moment's notice. Jesus is God, so he cannot be wrong and he has no reason to lie to us in the Bible. If you believe Jesus, impossible prayers should be getting answered all the time. What could be clearer than, "Nothing will be impossible to you"?

And yet... We have never seen a mountain move. Not even Jesus moved a mountain, even though he claimed it was easy.

God is omnipotent, so nothing is impossible for God. However, if you pray for anything that is clearly impossible in the natural course of events, it is not going to happen. You certainly are not going to see the Empire State building fly off to Paris one morning and settle gently next to the Eiffel Tower. Nor are you ever going to see a human being on the evening news stretch out his arms and zoom up to a tenth story window like Superman.

Although God should be able to do the impossible according to the Standard Model of God and Jesus' promises in the Bible, it never actually happens. It is essential that you ask yourself, "Why might that be?" It is a very important question.

Explaining the contradiction

How do we explain the fact that God never answers impossible prayers?

There is the "God must remain hidden" argument. But, as mentioned in chapters 5 and 6, a hidden God would never incarnate himself, or publish a Bible, or part the Red Sea, or put rainbows in the clouds, so obviously God has no need or desire to hide.

There is the "you are misinterpreting Jesus and taking his statements out of context" argument. But, since Jesus is God, and God is omniscient, Jesus would account for that. Jesus would know that when he says, "nothing will be impossible to you," normal human human beings would interpret it to mean, "nothing will be impossible to you." This is not rocket science. If Jesus did not mean that, he would not have said it.

Imagine the following conversation:

    Norm: Does God answer prayers?

    Chris: Yes, certainly. He has answered hundreds of my prayers.

    Norm: Pray for him to put $10,000 in my pocket right now.

    Chris: It does not work that way. I said God answers prayers, not that he is a cosmic genie.

    Norm: So, in Mark 11:24, when Jesus says, "Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours," what did he mean? That sounds like you can have whatever you pray for.

    Chris: He means that you pray for something, and if it is his will then you can have it.

    Norm: If it is his will, aren't I going to get it anyway? Why pray?

    Chris: Ask, and you shall receive. You have to ask...

    Norm: ...and then you should receive. Jesus does not say, "Ask, and you might receive if it is my will." His statement has no conditions.

    Chris: Well, he meant that. It is implied.

    Norm: OK, why does he never answer impossible prayers?

    Chris: It is not his will.

    Norm: Ever?

    Chris: It is never his will.

    Norm: So in Matthew 17:20, when Jesus says, "nothing will be impossible to you," why isn't flying-like-superman or $10,000-in-my-pocket-right-now part of that?

    Chris: What he meant is that nothing that is possible will be impossible for you.

    Norm: So when Jesus uses the example of moving a mountain, which is clearly impossible, what did he mean?

    Chris: He was speaking metaphorically.

    Norm: So when Jesus said "anyone with faith can move a mountain," what he actually meant was, "No one with faith can move a mountain."

    Chris: No.

    Norm: Then, who can move a mountain?

    Chris: God can move a mountain.

    Norm: But he never does.

    Chris: It is not his will.

    Norm: Let me make sure I have this straight. Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 17:20:

      You will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.

    But here is what you think he meant:

      You will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you, as long as it is possible and as long as it is my will.

    Is that right?

    Chris: You are really splitting hairs here.

    Norm: Answer the question. Is that what he meant?

    Chris: This is irrelevant to the conversation.

    Norm: Here's what I don't understand. What Jesus said in the Bible is quite clearly wrong. If God is inerrant, there is no reason why God would put something that is completely wrong in the Bible. Why do we need human beings like you to interpret and massage and explain what God might have meant in the Bible? Why wouldn't an omnipotent, all-knowing God have written it the way he meant it, in an understandable, clear, unambiguous, truthful, correct way? There isn't anything vague about, "Nothing will be impossible for you" or, "Ask, and you shall receive." Yet, it is completely wrong. Explain that to me.

    Chris: You are completely missing the point.

And so on...

Most people can see the problem that is apparent in this conversation. There is no reason why an all-knowing, perfect God would write down, "you can move mountains" or, "nothing will be impossible for you" or, "Ask, and you shall receive" unless he meant that.

Unfortunately, the reality is that no one can move mountains, and thousands of things will be impossible for you. Not even Jesus could move a mountain.

Divine inspiration

Key Point

In Matthew 17:20 Jesus promises that you can move mountains and that "nothing will be impossible for you." Unfortunately, the reality is that no one can move mountains, and thousands of things will be impossible for you. Not even Jesus could move a mountain.
A thoughtful person might say, "You are completely missing the point. Coal companies move mountains. Scientists create artificial limbs for amputees. A crane can make a car levitate. These human accomplishments are divinely inspired. God acts on this world through men."

There are three problems with this argument. In Matthew 21:21 Jesus says:

    I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
Jesus does not say, "You will have to hire thousands of people, spend a billion dollars on heavy equipment and then work 24 hours a day for 20 years to move this mountain into the sea, and it will be done." He says, "You can say, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." The mountain actually moves itself in Jesus' statement.

The second problem is that the vast majority of people do not have a billion dollars. Therefore, Jesus statement is false even if he had earth-moving machinery in mind.

The third problem is that, if these human accomplishments are "divinely inspired," then there is no reason why God did not "divinely inspire" them 4,000 years ago. For example, why didn't God "divinely inspire" a smallpox vaccine in 2000 BCE, rather than waiting until 1950? Why would an all-loving God want tens of millions of people to suffer and die from smallpox over the last 4,000 years, and then suddenly decide to "divinely inspire" a cure in the twentieth century? If that explanation is true, then God is clearly a sadist. Only a sadist would cause the suffering of smallpox for thousands of years when he had a "divinely inspired" cure waiting in the wings. Why would we want to worship a sadist?

The reason why we call them human accomplishments is because they are human accomplishments. God has nothing to do with them. If God is divinely inspiring them, then the headline in the paper should never be, "Scientist discovers transparent aluminum." It should always be, "God divinely inspires scientist to discover transparent aluminum." In that case, you have to wonder why God is so unfair in his distribution of inspirations. You also have to wonder why we pay the scientist, since quite clearly he didn't do anything. And why did the scientist need to go to college?

Explaining prayer

The fascinating thing about impossible prayers is that they allow us to see what is actually happening when a person says, "God answered my prayer."

Let's imagine that a person prays for something that is impossible, no matter what it is. For example, a person prays that Mt. Everest fly to New Jersey. Obviously this is not going to happen, despite all of Jesus' promises. So the religious person prays and nothing happens.

How does the religious person rationalize the prayer's failure? The person will rationalize the unanswered prayer by saying, "it is not part of God's plan." Is this rationalization true? No - of course not. The fact is that this event is impossible, Jesus lied and God is imaginary. That is why no impossible prayer will ever be answered.

Now let's look a different situation. A person prays for something that is possible. For example, a person prays to win a church raffle, and he actually does win. What is happening here is nothing more than a coincidence. Here are the steps that led to the coincidence:

  • The event in question must be possible. It has to have some non-zero probability of happening.
  • Then it does in fact happen.
  • A person, coincidentally, happens to pray.
That coincidence is an "answered prayer." How can we prove that this "answered prayer" is a coincidence? We simply look at all the losers. If there were a million people entered in the raffle, then 999,999 people lost. Since it was a church raffle, they all are believers and they all prayed. That's 999,999 unanswered prayers vs. 1 answered prayer. It is a terrible ratio. As soon as we look at the successes AND the failures of prayer, it is obvious what is actually going on. "answered prayers" are coincidences every time.

What we are seeing here is important. There are two easy ways to unmask the illusion of prayer:

  1. Ask a believer to pray for something concrete that is impossible. According to the Bible and the Standard Model of God, God should be answering impossible prayers all the time. However, what we will find is that every impossible prayer goes unanswered:
    • This explains why God ignores the prayers of amputees.
    • This explains why no one can move a mountain.
    • This explains why, if Jeanna's prayer circle had prayed that God completely eliminate rabies worldwide, nothing would happen.
    • And so on...

  2. Ask a believer to pray for something that is possible, and then simply count both the successes AND the failures of the prayer. As soon as we count both sides, we can statistically analyze the situation and see that "answered prayers" are nothing but coincidences. The statistics prove it every time:
    • This explains why non-believers win lotteries just as often as believers do.
    • This explains why believers die of cancer as often as non-believers do.
    • This explains why believers need health insurance just like non-believers do.
    • And so on...

Even if you are a devout believer, you should be starting to see a pattern here. God does not answer the prayers of amputees. If he did, we would see amputees regenerating their severed limbs on a daily basis. God does not answer medical prayers. If he did, you would not need health insurance. God does not answer impossible prayers. If he did, people could actually move mountains like Jesus promises.

If you are a believer, here is the question that you must seriously consider: Is it possible that God is imaginary? Is this the reason why God is not answering all of these different kinds of prayers? The advantage of this explanation is that it perfectly fits the data that we see in our world. No rationalizations, hand waving, explanations or excuses are required. Let's look at another example that will further reinforce this line of reasoning....

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
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