[I wrote this article back in 2002 for the now-defunct UK website Facing the Challenge. Reposted here, with minor edits, for posterity.]
What would you do if you were accused of a murder you had not committed… yet?
So runs the tagline for Minority Report, the latest action-thriller-cum-futuristic-noir from director Steven Spielberg. Intriguing though the question may be, it is by no means the only conundrum raised by this equally entertaining and thought-provoking film. As The Matrix did to a lesser degree, Minority Report touches on a host of age-old ethical and metaphysical puzzles — some raised explicitly, others apparent only on later reflection — but in an imaginative, contemporary, and stylish manner.
Are we free to determine our futures or are we destined by fate? If you know in advance that someone will perform a certain action at a certain time, can that person then be acting freely? Could it ever be just to punish a person for a crime they didn’t commit, yet surely would have committed had others not intervened to prevent it? Is a crimeless society thereby a virtuous one? When are privacy and freedom more valuable than safety? Where does justice end and vengeance begin? Is it ever justifiable to treat human beings (even abnormal ones) as means rather than ends?
IVP’s New Dictionary of Theology is an outstanding reference work. (Just look at the original editorial team and you’ll see why!) So I was delighted not only to learn that a second edition is in the works but also to be invited to contribute an updated entry for ‘Paradox in Theology’. The editors of the new edition have kindly granted me permission to reproduce the article here.
A past-directed prayer is one that petitions God either (1) to have brought about some state of affairs at some time in the past or (2) to bring about some state of affairs (now or in the future) that would require God to have brought about some (other) state of affairs at some time in the past.
In this paper (submitted for publication in this forthcoming book) I argue that past-directed prayers can be answered by God only if God has foreknowledge of our future free choices, and therefore any evidence of answered past-directed prayers constitutes evidence against open theism (which denies God’s foreknowledge of future free choices). I also suggest (to complete the argument) that there appear to be actual cases of answered past-directed prayers. In the penultimate section of the paper, I make reference to a remarkable story related by Helen Roseveare in her book Living Faith. Her account is too long to quote in full in the paper, but since it’s such a striking (and encouraging!) testimony I thought I would reproduce it here instead (see below).
This is a follow-up to my earlier post, in response to some comments.
To recap: on Justin Taylor’s blog, a commenter called ‘Arminian’ took issue with an article by John Piper by contending that Calvinism is incompatible with the claim that our prayers can be “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers. As he put it, “the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing.” I responded (here and here) that (1) this is correct, but Piper wasn’t making that claim in the first place, and (2) it’s hard to see how our prayers could be “genuine causes” (in the sense intended by ‘Arminian’) on the classical Arminian view either. This post is an elaboration on (2).