The idea that God intervenes in sports is one that most Christian theologians reject as absurd at best and blasphemous at worst. "The notion that God cares whether the Packers or the Broncos win the Super Bowl suggests that God is in detailed control of what human beings do, which is dubious," says Wood. "We have a terrible war going on in Bosnia and the persecution of Christians in Indonesia and the genocide in Rwanda, and to suggest, in that light, that God has a direct involvement in athletic contests trivializes the whole notion of God's involvement with the world. It is a heresy."
"It makes God look immoral and arbitrary," says Joseph C. Hough, a minister in the United Church of Christ and the dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School. "I find that religiously offensive. From my perspective, the Christian message is that God will help you bear up under anything. You will not escape tribulation or suffering or defeat, but God will give you the grace to bear it with dignity and courage."
The players see no heresy in what they think. "It's not that we're trivializing anything," says the Broncos' Griffith. "The question was posed to us, Does He control wins and losses? Yes, He does."
On the eve of the conference title games, a number of players from all four teams admitted that they prayed to win, most of them explaining that they sought victory only as a way to bring glory to God. "I ask him to keep us from injuries," said Green Bay guard Adam Timmerman, sounding a common theme. "And I ask for victories: 'God, I want to win so I have an even bigger platform to use for you.' People listen to winners more than they do to losers."
Yet even most evangelical theologians, who view the Bible as the authoritative guide to life, see trouble in beseeching God for personal triumphs. "I don't believe that God is aloof from it all," says Richard Mouw, an evangelical Protestant who is president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, "but I think it's very dangerous for us to identify the will of God with a specific win. There may be all kinds of ways in which the outcome of a game could serve God's purpose, but God isn't a Michigan or Notre Dame fan. Football can be a way of serving God, and I think God cares about how people play the game. But I think we have to avoid identifying God with any partisan cause."
Prayers summoning God to intervene on one's own behalf "are grounded in a very primitive urge to manipulate life," says Hough, "and they get latched onto Christianity because of the literal interpretation of certain verses in the New Testament: 'Ask what you will in my name and I will do it,' and 'Faith can move mountains.' I don't think God intervenes to make anybody win over anybody else, just like I don't think God makes people win wars over anybody else. This kind of ritual enactment to manipulate God is really anti-Christian at its core."
"That's ridiculous," says Griffith. "It's not anti-Christian to pray for wins."
"You've got to do justice to the possibility that prayer makes a difference," concedes Wood. "Then you say, 'What's wrong with praying for victory in a war or a ball game?' Most who pray thoughtfully, like chaplains in a war, like to add, 'if it be Thy will.' "
White bristles at the theologians' suggestion that God takes no part in the outcome of games. "How do they know?" he says. "They're not God. They can't find anything in the Scriptures that proves it." White says the Bible is filled with evidence of God's decisive role in human conflicts. "God intervened in David's fight with Goliath," he says. "When Jesus died, [God] intervened in Jesus's victory over death."
The theologians also say there is no reason to conclude that a higher being is partisan toward the believer over the non-believer. "The Bible says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike," says Wood. While many football players contend that the virtuous ultimately will triumph, not a few warn that this is often not the way to bet. "I have seen some of the dirtiest, filthiest guys have great success on the field," says Broncos fullback and devout Christian Anthony Lynn.