Ask the Pastor: Does God Answer the Prayers of Unbelievers?
Don’t forget to submit your Bible questions to us – email@example.com or in the “Question Box” outside the sanctuary.)
The question submitted this week from a congregation member is:
Does God answer the prayer of unbelievers?
In short, yes, God hears such prayers. The bigger question, though, is whether their prayers are answered and are they mediated by Christ?
Rev. Robert Barnes of Third Mill noted well:
It is only through the gospel advantages of adoption, the intercession of Christ on our behalf, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and many other sanctifying privileges, that Christians are able to come boldly into God’s presence to obtain mercy in times of need.
To frame the answer further:
- God knows & hears everything—He is omniscient, all-knowing (Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:20; Isa. 40:28; Psalm 139; Rom. 11:33-36, etc.)
- God is sovereign over everyone and everything (Psalm 115:3; Pro. 16:9; Job 42:2; 1 Chron. 29:11-12; Eph. 1:11-12, etc.) and has the right to answer the prayers of unbelievers.
God hears the prayers of every single person even before they leave their lips. So, we must and are careful to affirm the omniscience of God. Literally, God knows all things. Jesus said that when we are judged, we will give an account of every idle word (Matthew 12:36). God’s interest in the world is not limited just to the rise and fall of nations. Instead, He is sovereign over, and knows all things. In fact, God ordains all things, having planned everything that would come to pass before the foundation of the world. God “hears” the prayers of the unbelievers, whether they believe these prayers to be addressed to the living God, or addressed to false gods the world around.
So, God hears all prayers. But does He answer them?
Psalm 34:15 says
The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.
Puritan William Gurnall (see the last page of the document) said about this question and passage:
If God sees you are not his child—and His eyes are not dim, like old Isaac’s that he can be deceived—your prayer is not accepted. Indeed, neither can you, in that state, pray in a Gospel sense, nor God graciously bid your prayer welcome. For the Spirit of prayer is a covenant grace and interest in the mediation of Christ a covenant privilege, without both no prayer is accepted. God hears not any that have not His Spirit to pray in them, and His Son to pray for them. And none have these but such as are in a covenant state.
In sum, an unbeliever / non-Christian trying to communicate with the Lord without the Mediator, God-man, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5; John 14:6) is to think they are worthy to enter the throne room based on their own merit is false. Outside of Christ, their prayers aren’t answered.
Proverbs 15:29 says:
The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.
Notice the distinction made between the two: the Lord hears the prayer of the righteous, which is contrasted with His relation to the wicked. He is far from them, which I believe is quite relevant to their prayers. Our Father is omniscient and so he “hears” the unbeliever in a sense; however, He does not heed them.
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him. 9 The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.
Again, consider the contrast.
If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.
Does the unbeliever turn his ear from hearing the law?
So to put everything together: The Lord hears the prayers of the unbeliever in the sense that He is aware of them, but He doesn’t heed them. He doesn’t hear their prayers in the sense that He doesn’t heed them. He hears and delights in the prayers of the righteous, which no unbeliever is. Christ is our righteousness.