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Hail Mary: Why some religious scholars say prayers are wasted on the Super Bowl

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing that 53 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”
Center for Investigative Reporting

When fans pray during Super Bowl XLIX, will Satan be guiding their lips?

Baptist theologian David Jones won’t go that far. But he says new survey results showing that most Americans believe “God rewards athletes who have faith” reflect a distorted view of Christianity.

“If your team doesn’t win, then the Bible’s not true, right?” he asked. “The way people would affirm the notion you can pray for your sports team, and that’s supposed to have an effect, that’s outside the boundaries of what Christians would view as biblical teaching.”

Jones is an associate dean at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and is a prominent critic of the idea that Christian faith can bring material success. But with the Super Bowl approaching, he and other religion scholars seem to be in the minority.

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey [PDF] showing that 53 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.” This was up from 48 percent in 2014.

That belief, which says faith can produce worldly success, goes by names such as “prosperity gospel,” “gospel of success” or “health and wealth” gospel. Evangelists such as Oral Roberts and Joel Osteen helped popularize it. And it’s become endemic to many people’s understanding of Christian thought, according to Jones’ 2010 book, “Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ?”

But it’s dismissed as heresy across a spectrum of traditional U.S. Christian thinkers, including mainline progressives, conservative evangelicals and secular academic scholars of religion.

“This is as profoundly an unscriptural interpretation of Jesus that exists,” University of California, Riverside professor Reza Aslan said during a speech last summer. He’s written about what historical evidence tells us about the lives of Jesus and Muhammad and argues that rejecting material success is indisputably at the heart of Jesus’ message.

Jones says the prosperity gospel gained momentum during the early 20th century, when leaders of the positive thinking movement wed their ideas to Christianity to gain broader acceptance.

As evidence that the two philosophies are a bad marriage, Jones notes that Jesus and the apostle Paul were material failures.

Jesus is “wandering around without a home, without a fixed income,” Jones said. “He lived an austere life. Paul as well: He spent time in prison, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked. If good Christians are blessed with wealth and health because they are followers of God, we would expect Paul and Jesus to have at least half of that.”

Jones did not address the question of whether Jesus might have led the disciples to victory over the New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks. And his teachings don’t offer much solace for a fan in desperate need of a first down.

Who might have created the widespread impulse to cajole the maker of the universe into helping a team score, other than the maker of the universe?

For that fan, William Lane Craig, a philosophy professor at the conservative Talbot School of Theology in suburban Los Angeles, offers more inclusive guidance. One might call it the gospel of “it couldn’t hurt.”

Last year, following a Public Religion Research Institute survey result claiming 55 percent of football fans see supernatural forces at work in their sport, Craig suggested fans might as well try prayer to help their team win the Super Bowl.

“Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event,” he told Christianity Today. “That includes every fumble, every catch, every run.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick. Matt Smith can be reached at

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/30/2015 - 03:42 pm.

    From the link:….Nothing

    From the link:

    ….Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference….


    Just, wow.

    It’s all God’s will, every death, torture, illness, injury, setback. Because, like Santa Claus, he see’s who naughty or nice, and a win for the Seahawks is their just reward.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/30/2015 - 03:55 pm.

      Now that you mention it,

      During the Colts/Patriots game I thought I saw a bearded guy in robes over near the Patriots’ football sack holding something that looked like an air needle …

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/30/2015 - 06:09 pm.

      It’s Calvinism

      Everything is preordained. We all might as well just give up because nothing we do will make a difference anyway.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/31/2015 - 09:03 pm.

        I find the whole idea of pre-determined outcomes at odds with the Bible.

        The first story of God/human interaction results in the disobedience of humans (Adam and Eve).

        The second story, Cain and Abel, has this paragraph:

        6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

        Humans can choose to allow sin in their lives or not–they can rule over it.

        And the remainder of the Bible is pretty much a litany of how people repeatedly failed to live up to what God wanted.

        I would say that the Bible is pretty clear on the free-will people as it runs counter to God and the enormous, stubborn self-determination that people have.

        And given the far clearer rights and wrongs go on in this world than a sporting match between millionaires, it’s a very odd God indeed that forces the Seahawks win.

  2. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 01/30/2015 - 04:09 pm.

    This is like something written in The Onion.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/30/2015 - 04:51 pm.

    His Will be Done

    Because God really gives a rat’s hind end about the results of a football game.

    When I was in Sunday school, sometime after the Third Crusade, we had a magazine in which someone asked the question of whether it was alright to pray for his football team to win. The answer kind of waffled, but suggested a better approach would be to pray no one got hurt. Perhaps not as satisfying to your typical “I desperately need a life” football fan, but theologically, it works better.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/30/2015 - 09:11 pm.


    The implication of this article is that there’s some relationship between faith and what some call determinism. Having faith that an divine power is in control of events in a way we as humans cannot comprehend is not the same thing as what that divine power knows about how things turn out or even how any single individual with free choice will decide to do some given thing.

    Maybe it’s true that all things that happen, happen of necessity and are predetermined in a certain way. One need not even believe in God to have such a belief. But as humans we’ll never know. That doesn’t mean one should not have any faith in God or Providence or divine power. As St. Paul says, “faith is belief in things unseen.’

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/31/2015 - 08:56 am.

    Actually Erick

    One thing that has always amazed me is the fact that so many religious people, especially mono-theistic religious people, have no coherent concept of faith. A lot of religious people substitute certainty for faith and don’t even realize they’re doing it, they don’t understand the difference between believing in something and knowing something.

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 01/31/2015 - 03:36 pm.

    I think this skit from SNL

    says it all about praying for the outcome of football games…

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