To Pray or Not to Pray

Many years ago, when I was the pastor of a church in California, I received a call from one of my deacons asking me to visit a woman who was very sick, afflicted with cancer. When I arrived at her house, I discovered that she was a Jehovah’s Witness.

She was at an advanced stage in her cancer and she badly needed a blood transfusion. Since she was a Jehovah’s Witness and this religious group does not believe in blood transfusion, she did not know what to do and she needed my opinion.

I explained to her how the Jehovah’s Witnesses misinterpret the Bible on this issue and that there is no Biblical mandate on blood transfusion. After a long conversation about faith, the Bible, and Jesus Christ, the woman accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior and decided to go ahead with the transfusion.

That saved her life, but the cancer did not go away. The woman was baptized in the church and began to attend the church regularly, as her illness allowed her to drive. A few months later her doctor told her that the cancer had advanced to a critical level and that she needed immediate surgery.

The woman was a divorced mother with two children. The doctor told her that she did not have long to live. Desperate to provide for her children after death, she asked a couple in my church to care for the children after her death. The couple told her they would care for the two boys.

Our church had been praying for this woman. After the doctor told her that she needed surgery and that she did not have long to live, my deacons and I went to her house to pray for her. Following the Biblical injunction (James 5:14-15), we prayed for her, asking God’s will to be done in her life.

Finally, the day of the surgery arrived. When the doctor prepared to remove the cancerous organ, he discovered that there was no cancer. The cancer was all gone. Miracles still happen.

Several months later, in a cancer survival meeting, the doctor was invited to speak to the group. He said that the woman had cancer before the surgery and that when she went to surgery there was no cancer. The doctor just said that he could not explain what happened.

The woman was so grateful for the miracle God performed in her life, that she went back to school, became a nurse, and began to work with people with cancer. This woman’s life and her survival from cancer are evidence that God answers prayer.

Last year I went to Brazil to visit my aunt who was dying with cancer. My sister called me from Brazil regularly to keep me informed about her health. My aunt went for treatments but her health was not improving. My sister urged me to go home to visit our aunt, since she was our favorite aunt, one who took care of us when we were small children.

When I heard that my aunt had cancer, I asked my church in Chicago to pray for her. In addition, another sister in Brazil whose ministry is to work with the sick and visit them in the hospital, formed a prayer group to pray for our aunt.

When I went to Brazil, I visited my aunt and spent several days with her. One thing we wanted to do was to visit the rest of the family while I was in Brazil. During my visit, my aunt asked me several times to pray for her, which I did.

A few months ago, my sister called me and said that my aunt had gone to the doctor and the doctor said that she was cancer free. Her cancer had reached some vital organs and no one expected my aunt to live very long. Yet, she is alive because God answers prayer.

A few days ago, I wrote a post reviewing Peter Hitchens’s book The Rage against God, Peter Hitchens is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, a man who has made a name for himself by proclaiming that there is no God, that God is not great, and by making ridicule of religion, the Bible, and prayer.

At the time I wrote my post, I did not know that Christopher Hitchens had announced that he has cancer of the esophagus. According to Hitchwatch, Christopher Hitchens’s cancer had reached stage IIB or possibly stage III and for this reason he may not have many more years to live. Once a person reaches stage III, the chances of surviving five years is 15%.

In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlin Romano wrote about Hitchens’s situation:

If God occasionally intervenes in the world to shoot down an atheist—to show who’s boss, or simply to vent—it makes sense for Him to target the esophagus.

As organs go, it’s long and conveniently placed, stretching from throat to stomach, making a good target for an elderly yet determined deity with possibly shaky hands. Its importance to speech heightens the symbolic force intended. And its connection to swallowing suggests the irony some believers think God enjoys too much: You can’t swallow me? You won’t swallow anything!

Christopher’s Hitchens’s cancer has provoked a debate on the Internet: should people pray for an atheist when that person does not believe in God and does not believe in prayer? The reaction has been mixed, but both Jews and Christians believe that it is appropriate to pray for an atheist while most atheists say that people should not pray for Hitchens.

The prospect of death and the implications of what comes after death frightens even atheists. When confronted with the reality of death, atheists seek a loophole in their argument for the nonexistence of God. A good example of this is Richard Dawkins.

In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins developed a spectrum of probabilities about the existence of God. In this spectrum, there are seven levels of probability concerning the issue whether God exists. At one extreme is Level 1, where strong theists are. Those who are on Level 1 believe 100% that God exists. On the other extreme, Level 7 is where the strong atheists are. A strong atheist is the one who says for a fact that there is no God. Dawkins places himself at Level 6. Those who are on Level 6 say that there is a very low probability that God exists. Those on Level 6 are the people who say they cannot know for sure but think that maybe God does not exist.

I do not know at what level Hitchens places himself. But from his writings, it seems that he places himself at level 7. If this is so, Hitchens does not accept that there is a God and since there is no God, it is futile to pray.

As for me, I have already prayed for Christopher Hitchens. He may not accept my prayers, but maybe the fact that he is about to meet his maker may open a door for him to rediscover God. After all, it was the fear of the final judgment that led his brother to discover faith and return to God.

Some day, sooner or later, Christopher Hitchens will die, in the same way I and everybody else will die. As the Bible says: “It is appointed for human beings to die once, and after that comes the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

And when people die, they must give an account to the Creator for what they have done: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done” (Revelation 20:12).

Cancer is a devastating and painful experience for believers and non-believers alike. This is the reason I believe people of faith should pray for Christopher Hitchens.

To Christopher Hitchens I have this word of advice: “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to To Pray or Not to Pray

  1. Andy says:

    >It seems odd, surprising even, that believers would suggest not praying for a militant atheist. Why would God tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us and then not want us to do the same for those who stand against him? Did he not, after all, love us when we were yet sinners?


  2. >Andy,I agree with you. However, many people who call themselves Christians said they would not pray for him. This is sad became everyone in need, even atheists, deserve our prayers.Claude Mariottini


  3. Anonymous says:

    >This is a great read. Thanks for addressing this issue. Pedja Jovanovic


  4. >Pedja,Thank you for your comment and thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini


  5. Anonymous says:

    >"And its connection to swallowing suggests the irony some believers think God enjoys too much: You can't swallow me? You won't swallow anything!"I believe there's no god, but comments like this just show how pathetic the Christian god would be. It'd seem to be an inmature child, a lot like people that follow him…


  6. Anonymous says:

    >Love the "immature child" comment.My feelings about God and religion are simple and best expressed by Voltaire: "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities."Our only hope is Reason.


  7. >Dear Anonymous 1,Not all people who believe in God would agree with the writer of the article. There is a God and there is divine justice. I do not believe that what is happening to Hitchens is a punishment for his atheism.It is at the time when an individual is facing death that he (and every person) must prepare to meet their Creator. Even though some people choose not to believe in God, God exists and we must give an account for what we do or fail to do. This is the reason I prayed for Hitchens.Claude Mariottini


  8. >Dear Anonymous 2,Once I read somewhere (unfortunately I do not remember where) that Voltaire said that within one hundred years his books would be better known than the Bible. Today, very few people has ever read Voltaire.As the Bible says:“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate’” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).Claude Mariottini


  9. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Mr. Mariottini,From 1 Corinthians 1:18-19, it's clear the Bible doesn't want people to use their intelligence. Its declining power lies on people's ignorance.The bible also says:"If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity."Deuteronomy 25:11-12Any book with such misguided principles show be condemned, or better, ignored.Logic and Reason, not a 2,000 year old book written by primitive people, is what's going to save the world.P.S. I do salute you for keeping comments challenging your post in your blog.


  10. >Dear Friend,You should read my three posts on Deuteronomy 25:11-12.Claude Mariottini


  11. Pingback: Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster? | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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