Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
In the Back to the Future movies, Doc Brown chides Marty McFly for not thinking fourth-dimensionally.
He means that Marty—like most of us—is letting his options be limited too much by the here and now.
Marty’s not taking into account the possibilities that open up if we’re not stuck in that one moment of time we call the present.
Something similar happens in theology . . .
God and Time
We cannot grasp the full reality of who and what God is. He is infinite, and our minds are only finite.
As a result, we often depict God as if he were a human being—just as a way of helping us understand him.
That’s why Scripture talks about him having a strong right arm (a symbol of his omnipotence) and eyes that survey the whole earth (a symbol of his omniscience).
But in reality, apart from the Incarnation, he doesn’t have body parts.
One of the ways we picture God is as an old man—“the Ancient of Days,” to use Daniel’s phrase. We also picture him as an immortal Being who will live on and on into the endless future.
This envisions God as if he is bound by time the same way we are, and it has implications for how we relate to him.
If God is bound to time like us, always stuck in the present as that moment rolls ever forward into the future, then it would make no sense to pray for certain things.
Suppose that someone has died. In the here and now, that person’s eternal fate is sealed, for “it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
If God is bound by time the way we are, it would make no sense to pray for the person to be saved in the moment he died. He either was or wasn’t.
But things are not so simple.
God and Eternity
In reality, God is not bound by time. He is completely outside of time. All of history is simultaneously present to him like a giant mural.
From his eternal perspective outside of time, God simultaneously knows everything that exists, whether in the past, the present, or the future.
He is also capable of interacting with history at any point. This is illustrated by the fact that he not only created the universe in the beginning, he also—from his eternal perspective—sustains it at every moment of its existence.
The consequences of these facts are significant: If God is aware of everything in history then he knows it if on April 15 I am praying for a man who died on April 12.
Further, if he is capable of interacting with every point in history, he can give his grace to that man—as he is dying on April 12—in light of the request I make on April 15.
It thus can make sense for me to pray for the salvation of someone who is already dead.
Usually, our prayers concern the future, but they can also concern the present, and as this illustration shows, they can even concern the past.
We are thus capable of praying across the fullness of time—for things past, present, and future.
C.S. Lewis and Padre Pio
The idea of praying across time in this way is not something unique to me.
C.S. Lewis famously discussed it in his book Miracles (see Appendix B: “On ‘Special Providences’”).
A while back, a friend asked if I could name any Catholic figures who had discussed the idea, and off the top of my head, I couldn’t, though I was sure there were.
Recently, I came across a reference to such a figure: Padre Pio is reported to have made such prayers. Susanne Tassone writes:
A doctor who was very close to Padre Pio received a letter from a woman whose daughter was near death. The mother implored the future saint for his priestly prayers and blessings. The doctor was unable to get this letter to Padre Pio until several days after he had received it. After reading the letter to Padre Pio, this physician asked how should he answer it. Pio responded, “Fiat.”
The doctor knew that some time had passed since he had received the letter, and that the girl was at death’s door. He was perplexed by Padre Pio’s assurance that all was done, that the request for prayer would work. The Capuchin priest continued, “Maybe you don’t know that I can pray even now for the happy death of my great-grandfather.” “But he has been dead for many, many years,” replied the doctor. “I know that too,” said Padre Pio. “Let me explain by giving you an example.
“You and I both die, and, through the good fortune and the goodness and mercy of the Lord, we are obliged to stay in purgatory for 100 years. During these years nobody prays for us or has a Mass offered for the release of our souls. The 100 years pass, and somebody thinks of Padre Pio and the good doctor and has Masses offered. For Our Lord, the past does not exist; the future does not exist. Everything is an eternal present. Those prayers had already been taken into account so that even now I can pray for the happy death of my great-grandfather! . . . ”
The little girl in need of prayer, by the way, was healed (Praying with the Saints for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, 71-72).
I’m sure that the concept of praying for past events has been discussed by various Catholic authors, and perhaps someone can point to additional examples, but the logic behind such prayers is sound.
In fact, it would be sound even if God were not outside of time.
The Core of the Issue
All that is needed for requests concerning the past to be efficacious are two things:
- Knowledge of what a future request will be, and
- Possession of this knowledge when it is needed to affect matters.
A being does not have to be outside of time to have these two things. It is quite possible for us to have them in the here and now.
Suppose that every Tuesday when you get home from work, your spouse asks you to order a pizza for dinner. It’s now a Tuesday, so you know (for practical purposes) that when you get home your spouse will ask you to do this. You have foreknowledge of the request.
But suppose that this particular Tuesday there is some reason you won’t be able to order the pizza once you get home. You therefore order it in advance and schedule it to arrive at dinnertime.
When you get home, your spouse makes the request, and you’re able to announce, “Already taken care of!”
In this case, you had both of the things you needed: Knowledge of the future request and possession of this knowledge in time to affect matters.
Of course, one could quibble about whether one really had “knowledge” of the request, since humans don’t have infallible certitude regarding what their spouses will ask in the future.
But this objection would not apply to God, who does have infallible certitude regarding the requests that will be made to him. His omniscience guarantees that.
Thus even if God were not outside of time—if he were stuck to the present the way we are—then he would still be able to affect matters based on his omniscient knowledge of what people will ask him in the future.
Unlike Marty McFly, God has no problem thinking fourth-dimensionally.
The Practice of Praying Across Time
The possibility of praying about things in the past raises the question of when it is appropriate to do so.
I would answer this question by dividing things in the past into three categories:
- Things we know happened
- Things we’re uncertain about
- Things we know didn’t happen
Things That Didn’t Happen
The most straightforward answer concerns the last category—things we know didn’t happen.
It is not appropriate to pray for these things.
The reason is that we know it was God’s will to allow our history to unfold in a way that didn’t include them. To pray for something we know didn’t happen would be to pray contrary to God’s known will.
For example, we know that the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. We know that God allowed that to happen as part of his providence, and it would be contrary to God’s known will to pray for the Twin Towers never to have fallen.
It would be equally improper to pray for things we know won’t happen in the future, because they are also contrary to God’s known will.
Thus God periodically told Jeremiah not to pray for the welfare of the people because he was determined to bring judgment on them (Jer. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11).
In the same way, it would be in appropriate for us to pray contrary to things we know will happen in the future (e.g., that the end of the world not happen).
Things That Did Happen
The answer for the first category—things we know did happen—is more complex.
Suppose you are considering praying—all these years later—that at least some people survive the 9/11 attacks.
Well, we know that some people did survive the attacks, so we know that it was God’s will to allow this to happen.
Praying that some survive thus is not praying contrary to God’s will. In fact, it’s praying in accordance with his known will.
It could even be that God allowed some of the people who survived the 9/11 attacks to do so because you are praying for them now.
I thus can’t say there’s anything wrong with praying for things that you know to have happened.
I do, however, have a note of caution: God has designed us as time-bound creatures to be principally oriented toward the future, not the past.
There is a sense in which, like St. Paul, we need to be “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13).
Spending too much time thinking about the past can lead us to neglect the attention we need to give to future concerns.
I can’t rule out that some might grow closer to God by praying for something they know God allowed to happen in the past, but it’s easy to see how this kind of prayer could become a spiritual distraction from more urgent concerns.
Things We’re Uncertain About
The case where praying concerning past events is most appropriate is the middle one—things we aren’t certain about.
Suppose it is 9/11 and you’ve just watched the Twin Towers go down on television.
You know someone who worked in one of the towers, and that person either died in the collapse or he got away, but you don’t know which.
Because you don’t know, it’s appropriate for you to say, “God, please let him have escaped!”
In this case, you don’t know whether it was or wasn’t God’s will, so you’re neither praying against God’s known will nor praying for something you already know happened.
That’s the situation we’re in with most of our prayers: We don’t know whether God will grant them or not, but he encourages us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
This principle has a special application to the dying.
We can’t objectively tell whether a person is in a state of grace at the point of death, so this knowledge is by its nature inaccessible to us.
It thus makes sense, whenever someone has died, to ask God to have given the person the graces he needed for salvation at the moment of death.
In view of the stakes involved—eternal life and eternal death—I regularly make this prayer when I hear of someone dying, and especially if it is a friend or loved one.
Care to join me?