How to Salvage Claims of God’s Capabilities? Change the Definitions!

How to Salvage Claims of God’s Capabilities? Change the Definitions! June 7, 2018

What do you do when your preferred definition of an important religious word clashes with reality—a fundamental word like miracle, prayer, faith, or good? A popular Christian tactic is to dilute the definition so that they can still use the words, but this tactic has consequences.

I’ve already looked into the words “good” and “faith.” Now let’s look at two Christian apologists who wrestle with “prayer” and “miracle.”

How do prayers work?

Patheos evangelical blogger John Mark Reynolds wrote “Prayers amid Hurricane Harvey” a few days after that hurricane hit Houston, Texas in August, 2017. He writes of being huddled (with his family, I presume) in an interior closet in his house, which makes sense when you remember that Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4 hurricane. It killed 106 in the U.S. and tied with Katrina as the costliest U.S. natural disaster ($125 billion).

How did he respond to this frightening experience? He begins, “Prayer is the best action one can take in a storm” but soon admits, “We prayed to be spared this test, but God said ‘no.’ ”

God said no? Did Odin say no, too? Why pray to God if Odin (or even a jug of milk) delivers the same results? And if you say that praying to God produces better results, show us. Give us evidence.

Here’s where wishful thinking about prayer gets tripped up by reality. Instead of getting what you pray for (what Jesus promised) and instead of prayer at least improving the probability of getting what you need, prayer must be redefined. Prayer is now asking for something and then reframing the result so that God looks good whether you got what you asked for or not. God is sensitive, you see, and must be treated like a baby.

We see more rationalization when he says:

Hurricane Harvey came despite our prayers—and that is good. It is good for us to ask, and God helps as He can.

God helps as he can? This world is the best that he can produce? I must have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do.

We asked that the storm would pass over us.

Do you ask that for every hurricane? Or only the ones that hit the U.S.? Or only the ones that hit you? And who does the disaster hit if God nudges it to avoid you?

Taking a step back, what’s prayer (even this watered-down version) good for? You aren’t telling God something he doesn’t already know, and you can’t be so arrogant as to ask God to change his perfect plan (more).

God can’t lose

To avoid the Problem of Evil, Reynolds needs to rationalize why God would allow a hurricane Harvey.

[God] is all powerful, but He is also good. He will not do a superficial good for us today at the cost of greater evil tomorrow. . . . If He who can does not, it must be better so.

This is an empty and meaningless claim. Without evidence, we’re supposed to accept that Harvey was a net good? Give us examples of what might have offset the cost of $125 billion and 106 lives.

Here again, I have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do. A hurricane was as surgical as God could be? He couldn’t precisely fix the problem with magic and avoid the collateral damage?

Sure, a god might exist who used a hurricane for a good that we can’t yet understand, but why imagine this? Where’s the evidence pointing to this? Why is this anything more than a rationalization to help Christians maintain their unevidenced beliefs?

Don’t give us a hypothetical—support your claim with a specific situation where God allowed (or caused) harm to prevent a worse harm later. Can’t do it? Then you’re making the Hypothetical God Fallacy.

God continues to be a solution looking for a problem. It’s a hypothesis that complicates the picture while answering nothing better than the naturalistic explanation (which is: nature is a mindless force, and sometimes people get hurt).

I want to give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt—surely he acknowledges the value of prayer in the here and now. Is that what he’s focusing on? Not really—he says, “This is not just a meditation technique” as he doubles down on prayer as an actual conversation with an actual person who actually delivers. But, of course, any error is his, not God’s: “Just as I can misunderstand any person, I can and do misunderstand what God is saying, but still, He is there and is not silent.”

Does the dictionary say what you think?

He moves on, only to trip over yet another common English word.

Government may fail me. Community may be sundered and cold waves wash over me, but God never fails.

Government is what provided the hospitals, rescued people in peril, and got the power back on. When you compare government and God, you’re right that only one came through for you, but it wasn’t God. If you say that the government help was imperfect, I’m sure you’re right, but God’s help was nonexistent. God “never fails” only if you carelessly redefine words to suit youself.

Let’s return to that quote—government may fail, but God never fails—to see if that word is used consistently. What would “government fail” mean? Presumably it means that incompetence might get in the way of a prompt response, shortsightedness might have postponed necessary infrastructure maintenance, and so on. You expect it to do something (maybe that it promises to do something), but then it’s not there for you.

Isn’t that exactly what God does? The Bible promises that prayer works, but where is God when disaster strikes? Didn’t he fail you in being indistinguishable from nothing? Remember that this isn’t a human-caused disaster such as murder. A hurricane is an “act of God.”

Is even the word fail a problem word that you must redefine? What does it say about your fragile worldview that you must redefine so many words to maintain your beliefs?

Who inspired the Bible? Could it be . . . George Orwell??

Reynolds concludes with this optimistic line: “Thank God prayer works.” And, sure, prayer “works” if you redefine away definitions that get in your way. “Answered prayer” no longer means what you’d think it means. Whatever happens is now “answered prayer.”

It’s like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where 2 + 2 = 5 and war is peace. Christianity has already enshrined “Big Brother is watching you” and thoughtcrime (such as thinking lustful thoughts = adultery). By giving itself permission to redefine troublesome words, it’s now adding doublethink. 

I’ve responded to John Mark Reynolds several other times:

Concluded with a Christian attempt to redefine “miracle” in part 2.

Think of the one thing you would do
to improve the world if you were God.
Now realize that he hasn’t done it.
— seen on the internet

Image via Daniel Lobo, CC license


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  • watcher_b

    This was the first thing I noticed when I stopped believing. My mental energy was freed up from constantly having to make excuses for God. Even if I just “let go and let God”, or whatever, that “letting go” is just an excuse for God seemingly not keeping the promises that are expressed in the Bible. I had to constantly wonder, “am I not understanding scripture correctly? What else am I not understanding correctly?” and “How does God and prayer work?”

    Personal story time
    When my daughter was born she spent 7 weeks in the NICU due to seizures. She wasn’t eating and she had severe apnea where she would just stop breathing. And she had it good in that NICU! We saw a lot of terrible things happen to other families while we were there.

    Every day we would drive the 30-45 minutes to and from the children’s hospital talking about prayer. I was a “believer” at the time and we had friends and family all over the world who had their whole churches praying for our daughter. We were so appreciative of it, but we would have some serious and honest discussions about what that meant. What were they praying for? Healing? We saw every day God not healing children around us. Strength? Wisdom? How did God operate in these situations? What could we expect of God? If we couldn’t expect anything of God, then how the heck are you supposed to have a relationship with something that you couldn’t expect anything from?

    My last time speaking in front of a church was at my daughter’s baby dedication. I talked about this very thing and ended it with that even though I didn’t have the answers I could expect God to love my daughter. But the chink was already there. When applying the same questions to what does it mean for God to “love” my daughter I quickly realized the meaninglessness of that love as well.

    If you’ve read this far and care, my daughter is 6 years old now. She is non-verbal, has a feeding tube, is autistic, and has cerebral palsy (she can walk but has issues with fine motor tasks). She has been learning to use a communication device and has come pretty far with her eating skills (she gets almost all of her nutrition by mouth now). She LOVES Daniel Tiger and R2D2 right now and is always asking us to sing or tell her the story of “Kiss the Girl” from the Little Mermaid.

    • Foxglove

      I hardly know what to say to you. Such honesty at such a hard time–it’s hard to think of anything more admirable and courageous than that. You’re showing what love is: love means something, love does something. It’s not that empty word that Christians offer us. I wish you all the best, and above all, I wish your little girl all the best. Hopefully, in the midst of her struggles, life will also shower her with blessings.

    • Thanks for sharing. That’s a tough situation. I’m sure a Christian would try to spin that as “Aren’t you comforted to know that God has a plan?” or whatever, but as you note, this is no superior worldview compared to naturalism. What you can really count on is all-natural friends and family. Best wishes.

      • watcher_b

        Being a part of the Special Needs community, now for 6 years, it is fascinating to see how religion is treated.

        Many many many parents there have been deeply hurt by their churches because of how their special needs children were treated. At the same time a number of parents find a lot of comfort in religion. So that interaction I’ve seen is very healthy. When someone mentions God they do so in a way that doesn’t demean those who don’t. And when someone mentions being hurt by religion, those who believe in God don’t try to “fix” or sell them on their own religion.

        And when the rare times someone does bring up something like “how can any parent have any hope without God?”, the correction from the community has always been swift and decisive (in my experience).

    • katiehippie

      Being with my son for 7 weeks at the children’s hospital and seeing all these kids that were born with problems that there was no cure for and would always need help with everything really cemented my disbelief. What reason could an omnipotent god have for doing this? If god was trying to teach people something, couldn’t he find a better way? He knows everything. It was much more comforting to me to know that these things happen and that there wasn’t an omnipotent god just letting it happen or even causing it to happen.
      I’m glad your daughter is doing well. Your love is indeed better than any imaginary god.

    • RichardSRussell

      All the good things in life that will ever come to you will have been provided by your fellow human beings. All the good things that will ever come to your little girl likewise. And by far the best of those is you.

    • Rational Human

      Not to pry, but curious what impact this all had on your wife’s faith. Being in a mixed faith (since I deconverted) marriage myself, I’m always fascinated how the same experiences, facts, and evidence can impact people differently.

      • watcher_b

        It is funny how often I’m asked this question, and I really do not have a good answer. I used to tell my perspective of how she has handled it and how it has effected, but I have never been comfortable with it. Mainly just out of respect but also I just don’t think I fully understand her perspective. We met at bible college, but we’ve always expressed our religious views very differently.

        I can say that I occasionally bring up going back to church for the community aspect. I’m interested in checking out something like a Universalist church or a theologically liberal Methodist church. She is uncomfortable with the idea, not because of the theology, but because they tend to be smaller churches who are not prepared to take on someone like my daughter and her needs. We know of only one church in the area that has a special needs ministry and neither of us like it (they just stick the special needs kids off in some room and stick them in front of a TV watching Veggie Tales or some bull shit) and I refuse to go to a church that promotes hate.

        We have agreed to hide it from her family. I don’t see any good conversations coming from them and she doesn’t want to hear it from them. That has been tough. But I have told my own family (my brother is a worship pastor at a theologically liberal mainline church) and that has brought its own challenges as well.

        • TheNuszAbides

          best wishes for compassion and honesty to all of ‘your people’. and genuine thanks for sharing awkward and painful slices of your life. you definitely aren’t the only one here with such challenges/conundrums/dilemmas/etc. in your family, but of course this is so often not the ideal medium for ‘showcasing’ if you will.

          your comment about expectations hit very hard and I am not even a parent. going from the image of a NICU to the daunting questions that went through your mind (how could they not?), you had me recalling the vague bluster that passes for excuse-making on behalf of an Omnimax Creator … that contrast seriously casts the typical Christian deity in the light of the mafia trope: “see what happens when you don’t put all your trust in [insert litany of unfalsifiables here]?”

  • One of the things I hated in Christianity was being told that God can do whatever he wants and we are too stupid to understand, and we aren’t entitled to understand.

    • epicurus

      And we are arrogant and presumptious for even asking, as we read in God’s answer to Job.

    • We have a moral code that we impose on ourselves, and supposedly that came from God. But what do you do when God doesn’t feel like following his own rules? “God works in mysterious ways” = God doesn’t exist.

      • god is above the rules…….or something……

        • Ignorant Amos

          Even his own…only when that’s convenient of course.

      • carbonUnit

        “God works in mysterious ways” = God doesn’t exist.
        as in indistinguishable, the difference which is no difference.

    • carbonUnit

      But God is a personal God…

    • Kevin K

      And immediately afterward, the same person will tell you that they know exactly what “God” wants you to do with regard to your reproductive system.

  • Greg G.

    The government hasn’t done much for Puerto Rico except for keeping the death toll from the hurricane to a minimum by not counting the deaths due to the secondary results of the hurricane. But God hasn’t picked up the slack.

    • carbonUnit

      Or stopped it in the first place…

  • 3vil5triker .

    Of course God never fails; in order to fail, you have to try.

  • John MacDonald

    Suppose your child has terminal cancer, and you pray to God about it, and God heals your child. Now, if your child grows up to be a serial killer, is an omniscient God, who knew this would happen, be implicated in the murders?

    • Of course not! If it’s bad, God didn’t do it. QED.

      • John MacDonald

        The theist precept is “God is to thank for everything good, but never blame for anything bad.”

        • Sweet! It’s going to be like that for me when I get to be World Dictator.

        • John MacDonald

          Just as I figured: You are a Sith Lord, lol

        • Susan

          when I get to be the World Dictator

          Of course, as your loyal minions, we have committed our lives to you attaining that goal.

          Praise be to Bob.

          And all things Good and Bob.

        • TheNuszAbides

          but you repeat yourself.

    • Greg G.

      Isn’t omniscient God in collusion with every murderer he didn’t give terminal cancer?

      • John MacDonald


  • carbonUnit

    I always envision it like a basketball game with a broken scoreboard. When things work out, the God score tallies. When things go wrong, the Visitor score stays mysteriously at zero. God always wins !!

    If prayer worked, even partly, the insurance industry would know about it. They’d easily detect anomalies in the actuarial statistics.

    • Jim Jones

      Many actual businesses would use “super powers” if they existed at all.

      • TheNuszAbides

        right? they’d make damn sure every board meeting, contract signing, etc. were accompanied by sincere and effusive prayer.

        • Jim Jones

          Or hire psychics to tell them their next move.

  • Max Doubt

    “[God] is all powerful,…”

    Well, if we define “all powerful” as meaning less powerful than I am.

    “… but He is also good.”

    As in, nowhere near as good as your typical human being.

  • Grimlock

    I’ve seen some Christians do the same thing with omnipotence and omni-benevolence. First, they acknowledge that the former constrains the latter, and the other way around. But then they redefine e.g. omnipotence to being able to do everything, except what’s constrained by god’s own nature.

    This strikes me as absurd. It’s like saying you can have a square circle, where its squareness is simply contained by its circleness.

    • Greg G.

      I like that definition of omnipotence. It applies to me. I am able to do anything that is not constrained by my nature. My nature is defined by what I can and cannot do. It is my nature to be able to leap a rolled-up newspaper in a single bound. My nature is constrained from leaping over my car.

      • Rational Human

        And we were also given a “sin” nature by god, and punished for it, while he retains goodness by his very nature, and demands we worship him for it. Figure that.

        • We are ,made sick and commanded to be well (Hitchens).

        • TheNuszAbides

          paraphrased from a scribbler high up in the administrations of QE1 (daughter of AnglicaYahweh) and King James Himself, actually:

          Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity! …
          Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
          Created sick, commanded to be sound: …
          Is it the mark, or Majesty of Power
          To make offences that it may forgive?

          Greville is best known today as the biographer of Sir Philip Sidney, and for his sober poetry, which presents dark, thoughtful and distinctly Calvinist views on art, literature, beauty and other philosophical matters.


          i dunno what’s supposed to be “distinctly Calvinist” about referring to Humanity as “vainly begot”. but i won’t make all that much fuss over a fragment of a wikilede. “sober”, “dark”, and “thoughtful”, however, seem apt.

      • TheNuszAbides

        … that definition of omnipotence … applies to me.

        well, you just re-sold the wafflers on the “in His image” gimmick.

    • Otto
  • Kit Hadley-Day

    nothing fails like prayer. Sadly it’s what many people choose to do instead of actually helping (thoughts and prayers people)

    Christian apologists, redefining words to hide their god for centuries

    • You’d think that evidence that prayer does nothing would be convincing, but you’d be wrong.

      • TheNuszAbides

        nobody would keep pounding the rhetoric (or re-decorating the rabbit-holes) if it weren’t effective.

  • Brian Curtis

    It’s a common throwback to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma: “If God does it, that means it must be good.”
    “But this wasn’t good at all.”
    “Only in your limited, human view. We can’t judge God’s actions; his definition of good isn’t like ours.”
    “So… tell me again why we should worship him?”
    “Because he’s so good.”

  • Kevin K

    I think the most curious definition contained in that word salad is “fail”.

    God (actually Yahweh the Magnificent™ — no god’s name is God) doesn’t stop the storm (despite the fact that this is a known god-power), doesn’t deflect the storm, doesn’t prevent a single millimeter of water from flooding the area — and this somehow is converted into “God never fails”?


    • Maybe the familiar slogan should be, “God’s people move in mysterious ways” since they’re the ones who do this doublethink with a straight face.

      • carbonUnit

        Kind of like getting rid of the divining rods or Ouija planchette and realizing it’s the users hands (ideomotor effect) that are at work.

      • TheNuszAbides

        i think i solved that particular mystery. at bottom it is pure despair: they refuse to imagine that humans can resolve anything “on our own” (the definition of which will of course be selected for convenience between the Rebel Atheist Island Strawman and Vague Universals Strawmob) – therefore punt to The Ineffable Yet Undeniable Uberpower Whom We Individually Hope Will Have Mercy On Our Puny Individual (yet Super-Precious) Souls.

        and they just paper it over with a posture of faithful certitude. “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” writ large.

    • RichardSRussell

      I’m still irritated that people use the verb “fail” as a noun, when the perfectly consistent, comprehensible, and convenient actual noun “failure” is available.

      • I’m still a little taken aback whenever I hear about the war on terror. “Terror” sounds like a movie genre. Wouldn’t “war on terrorism” be more appropriate?

        • RichardSRussell

          A friend of mine assures me that “any noun can be verbed”. I guess this is a corollary.

        • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

          Verbing weirds language.

        • Greg G.

          Verbing weirds languaging.

        • Rational Human

          Lord, beer me strength!

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          You beat me to it! 😉

  • RichardSRussell

    Not just religion, unfortunately. Anthony Kennedy also took a crack at it:

    “War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.”

    —Big Brother

    “Corporations are people.
    Money is speech.”

    Citizens United

  • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

    God never fails, because he never tries. He’s not even a loser. He doesn’t show up to the game.

  • GalapagosPete

    Just for fun I went to Reynolds’ blog, and apparently he does not allow comments; they didn’t show up for me, anyway. I can only conclude he is here to preach rather than to engage.

    Of course, if his idea of useful advice is statements like “Prayer is the best action one can take in a storm,” he was probably getting a lot of people calling him an idiot. Including Christians.

    • Yes, I believe he does have a no-comment policy. Weird. Whenever I see a conservative post that looks worth pushing back against, I always scroll down to see if comments are allowed. If not, I usually don’t bother reading it. No sense in getting annoyed if there’s no way to respond.

      However, in response to one of my prior posts, he came here and got into the discussion. It was thoughtful and civil, at least by comparison to the typical Christian blogger.

    • Greg G.

      If you aren’t going to say, “Amen”, he doesn’t want to hear it.

    • Rational Human

      Yes, he posts many things that beg for a refutation, but if he opens for comments it’s only for a day or two it seems. I’m sure he would say “if you want to disagree or argue, get your own blog”, as several other Evangelicals at Patheos have made clear. Roger Olson is one that screens comments and will not allow dissent, there are others. But we nonbelievers are the closed minded ones!

  • Pofarmer

    I’ve told this before, but one of my last attempts at “prayer” as a Christian was “Let your will be done” because it was pretty apparent that nothing was going on in regards to prayers being answers. One of the really last things was when I started “praying” the left back door post and the results from that were the same as the results from prayer in general. Then I dropped it.

    • An oldie but a goodie from–this replaces praying to the door post with praying to a jug of milk.

      • Otto

        I don’t know…I prayed to my jug of milk that it would help my Oreo’s taste better…and the results speak for themselves.

      • Kevin K

        I am an a-milkist. Hate the taste of the stuff. Yuk.

        • Greg G.

          You need to pray to Jug in the name of Cheeses.

        • Kevin K

          You’re a Muenster! I Camembert puns like that.

        • Greg G.

          I could try to Provolone it to you Tilsit I am Bleu in the face but if you don’t Comté Cheeses, you will be smoked.

      • Syzygy

        It’s an illusion, but there’s nothing optical about it.

  • Greg G.

    Humans of New York put up an interview with a man in a coral suit:

    “When you’re a kid, Jesus sounds like a hippie or Bernie Sanders or something so it all sounds pretty nice. But then the rules get confusing. You go to Catholic school and some guy in a dress named Brother Roy starts beating you cause you got in a fight. It’s sorta like Gitmo in there. And you start to realize that all these rules are just to keep people down. To keep women down especially because they have the ultimate power of not fucking you. I do like the Jews because their version is less full of shit. A lot of those Talmud guys are so smart that they’re practically just atheists who love fairy tales. And Buddhism is pretty cool too cause it’s all in your head. No Pope. No mandatory meetings. Anyway, let me know if you figure it out. I don’t know shit I just dress well.”

  • Phil

    It’s all my fault. I prayed to god some 50 years ago not to answer people’s prayers. He has come through for me, thus proving without a shadow of a doubt he exists and answers prayers.

    • Greg G.

      You are the reason I never got that pony and never grew up to be a cowboy.

      • Phil

        Awfully sorry old chap. But hey, life’s a bitch.

        • Ignorant Amos

          …life’s a bitch.

          It is when that twat of a god is answering your kinda prayers and ignoring all the others…and it looking suspiciously similar to prayers not getting answered at all, ta boot.

  • Syzygy

    To sum up, religion is gibberish.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “A popular Christian tactic is to dilute the definition so that they can still use the words”

    They do that constantly with the definition for slavery.

  • The purpose of prayer is to give people something to do while they wait for whatever is going to happen to go ahead and happen. You’d be better off taking up knitting. Its the same result except that you end up with a useful item like a sweater that you might be able to trade for whatever you were praying for. #knittingisbetterthangod

  • Gary Whittenberger

    GW: Another great essay, Bob! I want to focus on one point here.

    “Sure, a god might exist who used a hurricane for a good that we can’t yet understand, but why imagine this? Where’s the evidence pointing to this?”

    GW: What might the evidence look like? First, the Christian apologist must demonstrate that a community hit by a hurricane is better off than it would have been if not hit by the hurricane. This effort would take a lot of work and would probably fail. Then, the apologist would need to show that all communities hit by hurricanes are better off than they would have been if they had not been hit. Lastly, the apologist would have to show that God caused or allowed all those hurricanes before giving him credit for all the good that was done.

  • TheNuszAbides

    “Answered prayer” no longer means what you’d think it means. Whatever happens is now “answered prayer.”

    good Earthly things happening to ‘good people’ (i.e. Team Yahwehjesus) are all gifts, blessings etc. (Unless of course this week’s sermon is about moderation in being overly concerned about Earthly Things.)

    the exact same things happening to … anyone else are opportunities to (a) scold them for not being grateful to The Ultimate Source, (b) handwave the things as Earthly therefore trivial in the Grand Scheme [cf. You’ll Be Sorry When You’re Dead!].

    bad things happening to ‘good people’ are Tests of Faith. (well, we can’t expect The Team to waste thought-energy fretting over whether their supposed gifts and blessings are actually curses in disguise, from The Great Deceiver, right?)

    bad things happening to Others are, well, exactly what They deserve. even though the only Judgment that Actually Matters occurs Beyond The Pale and is something no puny mortal has access to. so … Bog isn’t necessarily interested in persuading the idolaters, naysayers, infidels, apostates, et al. of anything important – sometimes He just needs to vent. (or have his top operative LuciferSatan vent on His behalf.)