I recently posted the following question on Twitter:
If a Muslim imam prays for a man stricken with cancer, and the tumor immediately disappears, can a Christian interpret that as a miracle wrought by the Christian God?
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) October 18, 2021
One commenter noted that, in his view, if the Christian God answered a Muslim’s prayer to Allah he would be deceptive because he would be effectively affirming Muslim theology in the mind of the individual. In my experience, such assumptions are common both among conservative Christians and many atheists and skeptics. For example, if creation was not in a literal six days (as per Genesis 1) then God is a liar. Or, if God created a young earth with apparent age then God would be a liar. Or as in this case, if God answers the prayer of a Muslim then God would be a liar.
It isn’t hard to see, however, that if this argument proves anything it proves too much. Let’s start with the case of answered prayer. The assumption is that if God answers the prayers of an individual whilst that individual believes faulty things about God that God is thereby affirming those faulty things. And this is deceptive. But it isn’t just Muslims who believe faulty things about God on the Christian view: Christians do as well. Indeed, it is a safe bet that there is not a Christian alive who does not have some faulty beliefs about God. So if God cannot answer the prayers of an individual who has faulty beliefs about God for fear of thereby being seen to affirm their faulty beliefs, then God cannot answer the prayers of anybody. Like I said, if this point proves anything, it proves too much.
Let’s think about deception a bit more. I have noticed a disturbing trend in our polarized age of people accusing other people of lying simply because they disagree with them. But if Jones says that vaccines don’t work, and Smith has excellent evidence to believe they do work, it doesn’t follow that Smith can accuse Jones of lying because Jones might very well believe that vaccines don’t work. Lying requires the specific intent to deceive another about the nature of truth. If that intent is not present, one is not lying by definition. So if Jones testifies that vaccines don’t work, Jones isn’t lying even if Jones is completely wrong.
God, of course, cannot be wrong about anything. (That’s even true on open theism, by the way, for on open theism God always makes the best decision relative to the currently available evidence and God’s assent to the truth of a claim about the future is always perfectly proportioned to the likelihood that it will be true.) So God cannot parallel Jones in that sense. The point, rather, is simply this: we cannot say God is lying unless God has the specific intent to deceive a person. So consider our prayer example. If God answers Muhammad’s prayer, we are not in a place to say that God is lying unless at least part of the reason that God answered Muhammad’s prayer was to deceive Muhammad into believing Islamic theology correctly describes God when, in fact, it does not. Given our limited access to God’s intentions and the range of non-deception reasons God can have for any action, the wiser course would be to withhold any hasty judgments about God lying.
One more thing: it does not seem to be the case that truth-telling is an unqualified good. All one needs is the old example of hiding Jews in the basement when the Nazis come knocking. The morally good person lies to the Nazis and sends them on their way and that person does so because in that instance the good of protecting innocent life trumps the good of telling the truth. By the same token, if there is ever an occasion where God does deceive us, it would be for a morally sufficient reason. And that’s good enough for me.
But not for everyone, it would seem: some folks will raise the old worries about skeptical theism at this point. “How do you know God isn’t lying to you now? Huh? Huh?” But hypotheticals like that are no more troubling than “How do you know you’re not being deceived by an evil demon?” or “How do you know the laws of nature will operate tomorrow as they do today?” Unless we are given some good reason to consider these as live options rather than merely hypotheticals, we don’t need to worry about them any further.