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I posted a question on Philosophy Stack Exchange titled Is the Skeptic's Prayer a legitimate scientific experiment?. Please review it for contextual information. Numerous responses, predominantly from non-believers and skeptics, present various objections to the scientific validity of the Skeptic's Prayer.

However, let's consider a scenario where a skeptic, intrigued by the possibility of God's existence and the truth of Christianity, decides to earnestly give it a try. This individual prays with the hopeful expectation of a divine response, but despite genuine effort, experiences no discernible outcome, and no conversion experience takes place. Eventually, the skeptic abandons their exploratory pursuit.

From a Christian standpoint, what conceivable explanations exist for why a truth-seeking skeptic, in the specific endeavor of seeking an encounter with or a response from the Christian God, might perceive a lack of "results" in their pursuit?

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  • is the prayer the only genuine effort put in? How long was the effort? There are too many unknowns, even if we know everything about the skeptic and their efforts, we don't know what God has/is/will do. Any answer is an opinion on why/what might've happened, what we don't know, and why skeptic made said decisions on the experience (or lack there of).
    – depperm
    Commented Feb 1 at 15:07
  • @depperm In an ideal situation, what should the genuine effort include, beyond just the prayer, and for how long?
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 15:31
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    Within PHILOSOPHY a skeptic is defined as "an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere." Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?". Truth was standing right in front of Pilate, yet Pilate either couldn't or wouldn't acknowledge the truth of Jesus. Pilate was a skeptic.
    – Lesley
    Commented Feb 1 at 16:44

3 Answers 3

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earnestly give it a try

Taking this to be true, earnestness implies no shallow effort, no flimsy resolve, but a long-term, concerted and committed endeavor. If this is truly the case, we would expect to see at least years of committed effort and real sacrifice, not merely a minute taken each day for casual pleading for a sign, etc., or a week-long intensive flurry of reading Scriptures and churchgoing, but some real earnest or sacrifice implying an ongoing commitment. An earnest is a pledge, something of great intrinsic value used to show sincerity and depth. For example, quitting smoking, foregoing inappropriate social relations, attending church regularly, immersing himself in the Scriptures, taking real time to ponder and reflect on them, and so on. If he truly is in earnest, he would be making a real down payment on eternity, so to speak, not merely window shopping or browsing through a catalog of life and faith choices. In home purchasing, earnest money is paid as part of an actual offer on a home. If he is in earnest, he has already made up his mind that he wants it and is willing to pay full price for it once he has completed some further due diligence and a final appraisal, and his financing comes through if he is not paying cash. He is happily willing to forfeit all that he has deposited and is "risking" it in a sense if it turns out not to be what he wanted.

experiences no discernible outcome, and no conversion experience takes place. Eventually, the skeptic abandons their exploratory pursuit.

One apparent inconsistency between this sentiment and the homebuyer analogy is that the due diligence period is not a time to be converted into wanting the home. The homebuyer already wants the home, likely because something has already impressed him about it. The due diligence period is to resolve any doubts regarding potentially dealbreaking defects, and to do one's final calculations and preparations for financing. It is not that the skeptic has found an actual defect with the religion he is investigating, it is that he did not feel an additional overpowering "wow" that he was expecting to feel, perhaps primed by the promise of the skeptic's prayer. But if he did not feel a "wow" moment at any point, then why did he deposit--and forfeit--his earnest in the first place? Viewing the due diligence period less as a honeymoon and more as an opportunity to get one's financing together, and to assure oneself of the initial perceived value, is more in line with its real purpose. A failure to falsify the initial perceived value would actually be a success for most rational homebuyers. They do not demand an additional impressive display of magical feeling and emotion, because again, if they are in earnest, they have likely already had such an experience.

It is common for skeptics to tell themselves there is nothing impressive about their prior experiences with faith and even to discount them subsequently merely because there were not additional "wow" moments that overflowingly impressed them in some almost romantic, infatuated sort of way.

Forgetting what we already know or failing to appreciate what we have already been given is extremely easy. For these reasons I am grateful and awestruck that the most frequent ordinance in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes a promise to "always remember [Jesus]". God wants us to keep wonder and gratitude alive, and to fortify ourselves by effort. Realizing that we know something or have experienced something can be just as valuable and enlightening as knowing it. There is more to our growth and happiness than just knowing things; how we feel about what we know and what we do with it are at least as important. This is well expressed in the talk "Knowing that we Know" by Douglas Callister:

The moment of testimony realization—when you know that you know—is sweet and sublime. That testimony, if nurtured, will rest upon you as a mantle. When we see light, we are engulfed by it. Lights of understanding turn on within.

There may be great treasures in the house, but how can they be identified let alone appreciated if we do not turn on the light and remember them?

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

One suggestion here is that the skeptic may have actually experienced a discernible outcome, but that he did not discern or recognize the answers to his prayers because it did not conform to his expectations. This is exceedingly common, especially when the individual does not have a history of recognizing the hand of God in his life. Working on improving his discernment will help. If a powerful prophet of God needed to be schooled in the fact that God answers ordinarily not by the shaking of mountains or sending some other gargantuan sign, but by a still, small voice, everyone ought to take note that God's voice is subtle and quiet, so that if we are preoccupied or distracted by loud voices we will almost certainly not hear His.

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:16)

Ask the skeptic what he expected as an outcome. Did he expect to be struck by lightning or to see an open vision? Or could he candorously admit that he needs more depth of his own righteousness and spirituality before he can reliably discern an answer from God? These things take time and effort and reaching for God to develop.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

These fruits are subtle and are rarely prized by society. If they are recognized at all they are often treated as weakness. If he has been taught be the world, he is likely trained to dismiss such things as mere evolutionary hardcoding, and to ignore his conscience as either a genetic or a social construct, or a blend of the two. The journey of conversion and discipleship will require him no longer to take such things for granted nor devalue them.

It's not a matter of predestination. It's a matter of sincerity. It is a matter of the individual's choice to begin to notice things he hadn't before. Without such discernment, anyone is prone to dismiss the reality that God answers sincere prayers, even after having given much to find out.

God's promises are sure.

Ask, and ye shall receive (Matthew 7:7)

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. (James 1:5-7)

Did the skeptic waver?

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. (Matthew 13:3-8)

Where did the failed skeptic abandon his desire to labor to bring forth fruit? Did the scoffers prevail and snatch the seed from him? Or did he immediately begin to grow upwards, but neglected his roots and died of thirst? Or did he let the cares of the world, pleasures, riches and temptations for fame or temporal exigencies choke his testimony, so that it ceased to grow?

Where are we willing to eject ourselves from this process, or not at all? Bearing fruit takes a whole season, sometimes longer as we sometimes need years of development for our roots to grow deep. If we neglect their nourishment and care, we cannot expect fruit.

Trust is not a freebie

Think also of what is required to gain another person's trust. Say there is an employer who is looking to hire someone who will be responsible to safeguard a vast amount of assets in a bank vault. The employer may administer one test after another to prove the faithfulness of the applicant, including in situations the applicant is not aware he is being tested by or observed. Merely passing a verbal exam would not be enough.

God cannot be deceived and if He is going to entrust someone with treasures of eternity, that individual must fairly earn the trust of God. This will certainly not be a trivial undertaking.

If the skeptic is honest with himself, on reflection, he may realize there are subtle signs he had failed to notice or appreciate, perhaps attributing them to evolution or to the teachings of his parents. He might notice he has grown apathetic due to his interest in worldly things, and no longer puts real effort into nourishing spiritual discernment and growth. He might be placing unrealistic demands on God or isn't so much as grateful for the oxygen he breathes. If he has committed none of these errors, then where is the dilemma?

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  • As a Latter-day Saint, I know you must believe in the concept of "gaining a testimony". Would you characterize the precise moment when a testimony is gained as a "wow" moment? What difference do you see between "gaining a testimony" and having a "wow" moment? Feel free to respond by editing your answer instead of replying in the comments.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 18:50
  • @Mark It is a sweet experience, but it is easy to take for granted even so, and I think that is part of the test. Think of a wedding day, which ought to be memorable and happy for a couple, but do they always choose to remember it or view their relationship in that light? And I wouldn't say that "gaining a testimony" is necessarily the right terminology. It is more finding it. The wow factor depends an awful lot on our focus. It is completely unsurprising but awesome to me that the most frequent ordinance we participate in admonishes us to "always remember [Jesus]". Forgetting is so easy.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Feb 1 at 19:07
  • @Mark There is much more I could say but I added a brief edit with a link to a description of the process of realizing and appreciating what one already knows.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Feb 1 at 19:30
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The Skeptic's Prayer quoted in the Philosophy.SE question is a good prayer and theologically orthodox, although I agree with the accepted answer that the authors misrepresent the Skeptic's Prayer as a scientific experiment because the criteria for success is too nebulous. As humbling as it is, I'm afraid Christianity doesn't claim to possess a proven guaranteed pathway for conversion either: if you end up believing until you die then you got it, if not then you don't.

At this point of my faith and intellectual journey, I can be gracious when non-Christians say that I have been deceived by churches selling their theologies, or that my conviction is a placebo effect or confirmation bias. Similarly, I now have compassion (instead of previously disdain) of victims of the Word of Faith / prosperity gospel movement that they have been had.

What Christianity claims, though, is that you CAN BE an intellectual skeptic for your whole life but you trust God anyway by the "light of faith" which I explained in my other answer proven by your actions, not in the prosperity gospel way, but trusting God understood by the mind of the orthodox church. That way, Christians can claim to act rationally when they entrust their life to Jesus despite the lack of scientific / philosophical certainty until the dying breath. Christians can also have ups and downs, which we understood as tests that build up trust or purify our understanding of God.

So to answer your question of conceivable explanations for a sincere truth-seeking skeptic who "perceive a lack of "results" in their pursuit", it is very humbling that I can think of only these few:

  1. At the very core, God wants to purify us into the image of Christ. If in the pursuit of the truth this happens to the seeker (i.e. when reviewing past 5 years the seeker sees his/her life being transformed), then the seeker can at least be sure that he/she is on the right track, even though God is not present in his consciousness the way he/she expects the traces of that presence. It is rational to say (without iron-clad scientific / philosophical proof) that God is present in our conscience and that God is present (as witness) to all our thoughts and actions. We may not feel God, but we can trust that He is present in both ways. So the "lack of results" is about wrong expectation.

  2. Most Christians do not demand a conversion experience, especially not the dramatic Damascus encounter that St. Paul had. Conversion that is gradual is valid, and of course even less "scientifically testable". Christians emphasize fruits: are we wiser in life and are we more loving (according to Christian standard). Again, the "lack of results" is about wrong expectation of how conversion should be observed, i.e. not in terms of specific psychological state, but of changed life as simple as a husband becomes more compassionate to his wife, or wife becomes more forgiving.

  3. Even if the seeker who is on the right track (see #1 above) quits, who to say that God will not engineer a way so the seeker comes back to Him again, and using the episode of apostasy for teaching, like how the prodigal son discover the unfruitfulness of doing life his own way? So the "lack of results" is to do with insufficient time horizon.

    In Christianity the whole span of life matters. Death bed conversions are valid, where Jesus would knock on the dying person one last time and gives sufficient light of faith so that the dying person can review his/her whole life in that light and finally see the reasonableness of allowing Jesus to enter his/her heart, saying: "I repent, I want to love like you, I want to be united with you, please come in."

Yes, it looks really bad when Christian apologists say that you cannot guarantee the timing on when the "light of faith" is given, nor whether the event that in which the light is given can be felt, except as the resulting ability to assent that the Christian claims at least make sense (not irrational) and that it is sufficient to reform your life in the right direction. Many apologists say that giving in to temptation and continue the path of habitual sin can obscure this light, so at least there is something a skeptic can do to nurture the right environment for the light to be effective again.

All this is quite humbling (for the apologist). But I think all Christians can do these:

  • to accompany the skeptic to address misconceptions (like in this answer, or in my other answers)
  • to teach a wise way of living as a proposal to be tried
  • to pray together asking God for the light of faith to be given
  • to be accountability partners to help avoid falling into temptation
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  • " if you end up believing until you die then you got it, if not then you don't." Isn't the endurance of faith to the end of mortal life a clear, demonstrable evidence of conversion?
    – pygosceles
    Commented Feb 1 at 17:31
  • Thank you for this thoughtful answer. I only have one objection. I liked your comments on wrong expectations, which is an aspect I actually asked about yesterday in this related question. I accepted an answer, perhaps too prematurely, which asserts that the conversion experience is unmistakable. In contrast, your answer here suggests that the conversion can be gradual and barely perceptible. I'd be interested in your answer to the related question, and I'd be happy to accept it
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 1 at 17:36
  • @pygosceles I would think so yes. But this Q is about the subjective experience of the skeptic. My answer emphasizes trust in the non-intellectual dimension. It is possible that the skeptic is intellectually unsatisfied until he/she dies. So I think the original name of Christianity as "the way" is appropriate; conversion is proven by life lived following the way of Christ, regardless of your pursuit / satisfaction in the intellectual arena. But to be fideist is bad, though, since it characterizes faith as irrational, and can really makes one susceptible to abuse / heresy. Commented Feb 1 at 17:38
  • @Mark Thanks, I'll look into it in the coming days. But what's the objection? About gradual / barely perceptible, I'm helped by Eleonore Stump's description in this video in the segment starting at 8:59 where Robert asked a follow up question on "suppose I never hit that bottom ... am I hopeless because I don't see that I'm hopeless?" Commented Feb 1 at 17:42
  • @Mark How I process those 2 experience is that in the case of the gradual one, one can look back and re-interpret that experience as an unmistakable conversion experience. So for some people, it can be dramatic (although it can also be fake), for some (like myself), it's more of a gradual process and when looking back to certain past experience I can re-interpret (guided by the church's teaching) that at that moment God was unmistakably involved (let's say of an intense moment leading to sorrow of my sins) that in effect nudged me toward going back to "the way". Commented Feb 1 at 17:52
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It is truly a question between God and the skeptic. God gives believers the ability to see the truth. How then is free-will reconciled with predestination? God's foreknowledge of all is how mankind retains their ability of free-will belief.

1 Peter 1:2

Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.

God knew the heart of every human before the existence of any. Even though God is who gives the true believer the ability to have faith, the believer (prior to belief) must still exhibit to God the earnest desire to believe. It is not possible for anyone to discern whether a person truly wants to believe other than God Himself.

Hebrew 11:6

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Both free-will belief and predestination remain intact when viewed in light of God's ability of foreknowledge of all. If He knows that a person will never truly believe, then that person will never be allowed to see the truth. If He knows that at some point in a person's life they will truly come to believe, then their 'eyes will be opened' to the truth.

Acts 16:14

And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.

The Lord opened the heart of Lydia because He knew she would believe Paul's gospel of God's grace and Christ crucified.

1 Corinthians 4:1-7

Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. 4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. 6 And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. 7 For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?

The shaking Philippian jailer had a true desire to be saved. What did Paul then tell him to "do" for salvation? "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ". It was the jailers true desire of salvation that God then allowed him to be saved.

Acts 16:29-31

Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, 30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? 31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

If one will believe, God will open their eyes.

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