Your unbelieving friend is going through a difficult time. His whole life is falling apart, and you are praying that God would use this to bring him into a relationship with Jesus. You use this most recent trial as an opportunity to suggest that he pray to God about what is going on. But does God hear his prayer? Will God listen to the prayers of an unbeliever?
This is a question I’ve received quite a few times. And it is one of which you can find many articles if you ask Google. The general consensus is that God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers, except for the prayer of repentance. Verses like John 9:31 and Isaiah 59:2 are given to show that God does not hear sinners while they remain in their sin. God answers the prayer of the righteous. In a very helpful article John MacArthur lists fifteen reasons for unanswered prayer. And it serves as a basic profile of an unbeliever.
In my mind, though, we aren’t asking the right question. The real question isn’t whether or not God is going to give a person what they ask for if they are an unbeliever. That is not the nature of prayer. God is sovereign and he may or may not answer our requests. The real issue is whether or not an unbeliever has relational access to God apart from Christ. And that is a resounding no according to the Scriptures.
Unsurprisingly, I appreciate John Piper’s words on this:
As far as unbelievers are concerned, there is one prayer that we know God answers for them, the earnest plea to Christ for salvation. Whether God answers any other prayers of those who reject Christ is irrelevant. It is irrelevant whether persons who throw away eternal life and insist on going to hell are given a few earthly pleasures along the way. The only thing such pleasures will do for them, if they persist in their unbelief, is to make their guilt and their torment all the worse because they don’t use them as an occasion for repentance. So it is no great boon even if God does answer some of their prayers. (Source)
I’m inclined to say that the Scriptures teach that apart from union with Christ, which comes by grace alone through faith alone, then an unbeliever does not have relational access to God. That does not mean that God is incapable of hearing, nor that he is deaf to pleas for mercy. But it does mean that apart from the mediatoral work of Christ being applied to someone, they are not on good terms with God.
God is not a Santa Claus who dispenses gifts to good little boys and girls. He is a consuming fire who graciously relates to sinners through His Son. Does God answer the prayers of unbelievers? Maybe. We know he answers the prayer of repentance. But the better question, the eternally meaningful question, is whether or not unbelievers have relational access to God apart from Christ. That only comes through Jesus.
The good news of the gospel is that through Jesus Christ we have unhindered access to the throne room of God. The veil is torn. Let us, through Christ, plead with God for those who do not have the access we have.
Mike Leake is the Lead Pastor at FBC Marionville in Marionville, Missouri. He is currently pursuing his M.Div. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mike is married to Nikki, and they have two children, Isaiah and Hannah. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeLeake.
See Mike's original article on his page, Borrowed Light.