Understanding the Gumball Machine

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It is quite common for people to pray and for God to completely ignore their prayers. For example, Chapter 5 talks about the plight of amputees. No matter how many people pray, no matter how sincere they are, and no matter how deserving the amputee, God never restores the lost limbs of amputees through prayer. People believe that God is solving all sorts of other medical problems in response to prayers -- eliminating cancers, curing viruses, reversing the effects of poisons, etc. -- yet God never helps amputees with their lost limbs. Why not?

Examples like these are easily dismissed by many people. "So what?" they say. "God is not a gumball machine. He is under no obligation to answer prayers. What if his answer to the prayer is, 'No' or 'Not Right Now?'" These seem like valid points, until you read the Bible.

What God says about prayer in the Bible

Jesus and the Bible do actually say, in many different places, that God will answer your prayers. The whole notion of the gumball machine is biblically based. Here are ten examples:

In Matthew 7:7 Jesus says:

    Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says:
    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.
In Matthew 21:21:
    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.
The message is reiterated Mark 11:24:
    Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
In John chapter 14, verses 12 through 14, Jesus tells all of us just how easy prayer can be:
    "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.
In Matthew 18:19 Jesus says it again:
    Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
James 5:15-16 the Bible says:
    And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Mark 9:23:
    All things are possible to him who believes.
In Luke 1:37:
    For with God nothing will be impossible.
Jesus even promises us in the Bible that people will not suffer from starvation. In Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus says:
    "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

    "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

What could be clearer than, "all these things will be given to you"?

Unfortunately, 10 million children (never mind adults) die of starvation and similar simple problems around the world every year (see Chapter 5 for details).

And you yourself know that you can pray about all sorts of things and God will completely ignore you. Even though the Bible says, "Nothing will be impossible for you," and "I will do it," it is far more common for prayers to be ignored than for them to be answered.

Look at this article about God. The article discusses common Christian concepts about how God answers prayers in our world today. The article was published in 2006 in a magazine read by millions of people. Compare that article to God's treatment of amputees. The contrast makes no sense, does it?

Understanding God

People have many different ways to explain why these ten verses in the Bible do not work. They will say things like this:

    "You need to understand what Jesus was saying in the context the first century civilization in which he was speaking..."
    "When Jesus talked about 'moving a mountain', he was speaking metaphorically. When someone says, 'it is raining cats and dogs,' no one takes him literally. Jesus was using a figure of speech rather than speaking literally..."
    God is not a thing. He is a being. He has a will. He has desires. He relates to people. He has personality traits. Prayer is a fancy word for talking to God. God, who knows everything, even before we say it, knows the difference between our thoughts and wishes, and when we are actually addressing him. He hears our prayers and responds. His responses are based on his personal decisions. We cannot predict how he will respond to our prayers... [ref]
These three explanations attempt to paint over a problem. Unfortunately, if you think about it, the problem cannot be painted over. The problem is simple, and has two parts:
  1. God is supposed to be an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect being.

  2. The statement, "Nothing will be impossible for you", along with the other Bible verses quoted above, are false. The fact is, lots of things are impossible for you.
If a perfect being is going to make statements about how prayer works in the Bible, then three things are certain:
  1. He would speak clearly
  2. He would say what he means
  3. He would speak the truth
That is what "being perfect" is all about.

A perfect, all-knowing God would know that people would be reading the Bible 2,000 years later, and therefore he should not use first-century idioms (he would say what he means).

A perfect, all-knowing God would know that normal people will be reading the Bible and interpreting it in normal ways (he would speak clearly).

A perfect, all-knowing God would know that when you say, "Nothing will be impossible for you", that what it means is, "Nothing will be impossible for you" (he would speak the truth). If God says it, it should be true -- otherwise he is not perfect.

Unfortunately, the fact is that thousands of things are impossible for you no matter how much you pray, and no one (including Jesus) has ever moved a mountain.

How do we explain this?

The Scientific explanation

Here is the factual explanation for the evidence that we see in our world. The fact is, God does not answer any prayers. The entire idea that "God answers prayers" is an illusion created by human imagination.

How do we know that "answered prayers" are illusions? We simply perform scientific experiments. We ask a group of believers to pray for something and then we watch what happens. What we find, whenever we test the efficacy of prayer scientifically, is that prayer has zero effect. It does not matter who prays. It does not matter if we pray to God, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Ra or any other human god. It does not matter what they pray about. If we perform scientific, double-blind tests on prayer, and if the prayers involve something concrete and measurable (for example, healing people with cancer), we know that there is zero effect from prayer. This fact is discussed in detail in Section 1 of this web site. Every single "answered prayer" is nothing more than a coincidence. Both scientific experiments and your everyday observations of the world show this to be the case every single time.

This is why God doesn't heal amputees. If God answered prayers as described in the Bible (see the ten verses previously mentioned), we could restore amputated limbs through prayer. What we know is that God never restores amputated limbs. There is no documented case of prayers spontaneously regenerating a lost limb. This is compelling evidence showing that "answered prayers" are an illusion. If the prayers were actually being answered, as God clearly says they will be in the Bible, we would see limbs being restored all the time.

If you look at both the scientific and experiential evidence, you will see that what the Bible says about prayer is not true. It is not that "God is not a gumball machine." It's that "God does not answer any prayers, ever." See Section 1 for details.

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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