What Makes a Good Prophecy (and Why Bible Prophecies Aren’t)

What makes a good prophecy?

Most of us are pretty skeptical of bad prophecies and can spot them easily—tabloid predictions by psychics such as Jeane Dixon or Sylvia Browne, for example. Not even many Christians are sucked into the end-of-the-world predictions by such “prophets” as Harold Camping. (There’s a great infographic of Christianity’s many end-of-the-world predictions here, and I write about Harold Camping’s ill-advised venture into prophecy in 2011 here and here.)

And now there’s the (new ’n improved!) prediction by Ronald Weinland that Jesus will return on May 19, 2013.

I’d like to propose some rules for good prophecies against which we can compare the gospel prophecies.

1. The prophecy must be startling, not mundane. “Barack Obama will be re-elected president” isn’t very startling. “Michelle Obama will be elected president” would be startling.

We regularly find big surprises in the news—earthquakes, wars, medical breakthroughs, and so on. These startling events are what make good prophecies.

2. The prophecy must be precise, not vague. “Expect exciting and surprising gold medals for the U.S. Olympic team!” is not precise. “A major earthquake will devastate Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2010” is precise.

Nostradamus is another example of “prophecies” that were so vague that they can be imagined to mean lots of things. Similarly, the hundreds of supposed Bible prophecies are simply quote mining. You could also apply the identical process to War and Peace or The Collected Works of Shakespeare to find parallels to the gospel story, but so what?

3. The prophecy must be accurate. We should have high expectations for a divine divinator. Edgar Cayce could perhaps be excused if he was a little imperfect (that he showed no particular gift at all is damning, however), but prophecy from the omniscient Creator should be perfect.

4. The prophecy must predict, not retrodict. The writings of Nostradamus predict the London Great Fire of 1666 and the rise of Napoleon and Hitler … but of course these “predictions” were so unclear in his writings that the connection had to be inferred afterwards. This is also the failing of the Bible Code—the idea that the Hebrew Bible holds hidden acrostics of future events. And maybe it does—but the same logic could find these after-the-fact connections in any large book.

5. The prophecy can’t be self-fulfilling. The prediction that a bank will soon become insolvent may provoke its customers to remove all their money … and make the bank insolvent. The prediction that a store will soon go out of business may drive away customers. The prediction that Harry Potter would kill him drove Voldemort to try to kill the infant Harry first, but in so doing he inadvertently gave Harry some of the abilities that Harry used later to kill Voldemort.

6. The prophecy and the fulfillment must be verifiable. The prophecy and sometimes the fulfillment come from long ago, and we must be confident that they are accurate history.

7. The fulfillment must come after the prophecy. Kind of obvious, right? But some Old Testament prophecies fail on this point.

Isaiah 45:1 names Cyrus the Great of Persia as the anointed one (Messiah) who will end the Babylonian exile (587–538BCE) of the Israelites. That would be pretty impressive if it predicted the events, but this part of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) was probably written during the time of Cyrus.

Or take Daniel. Daniel the man was taken to Babylon during the exile, but Daniel the book was written centuries later in roughly 165BCE. Its “prophecies” before that date are pretty good, but it fails afterwards. There’s even a term for this, vaticinia ex eventu (prophecy after the event).

8. The fulfillment must be honest. The author of the fulfillment can’t simply look in the back of the book, parrot the answers found there, and then declare victory. For example, that Mark records Jesus’s last words as exactly those words from Psalm 22 could be because it really happened that way, or that Jesus was deliberately quoting from the psalm as he died, or (my choice) Mark knew the psalm and put those words into his gospel.

I think that any of us would find this a fairly obvious list of the ways that predictions can fail. We’d spot these errors in a supermarket tabloid or in some other guy’s nutty religion.

But the Jesus prophecies are rejected by this skeptical net as well. Consider Matthew: this gospel says that Jesus was born of a virgin (1:18–25), was born in Bethlehem (2:1), and that he rode humbly on two donkeys (21:1–7). It says that Jesus predicted that he would rise, Jonah-like, after three days (12:40) and that the temple would fall (24:1–2). It says that he was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (26:15), that men gambling for his clothes (27:35), and it records his last words (27:46).

Are these the records of fulfilled prophecy? Maybe all these claims in Matthew actually did happen, but if so, we have no grounds for saying so. Because they fail these tests (primarily #8), we must reject these claims of fulfilled prophecy. The non-supernatural explanation is far more plausible.

In some circumstances, the refusal to be defeated
is a refusal to be educated
— Margaret Halsey

Photo credit: gnuru

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The Argument from Mathematics Doesn’t Add Up to God
About Bob Seidensticker
  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    I’d add one more rule to your list:
    You can’t change your mind about a prophesy.

    For example, the “suffering servant” was predicted to be ugly and deformed. Paul and the early church Fathers said Jesus fulfilled that prophesy:
    (Luke 4:23) ‘Doctor, heal yourself’.
    What was there about Jesus that needed healing?
    (Philippians 2:6-7) “did not exhibit the shape of a god because he considered it larceny to be equal to a god. Rather, he degraded himself by taking the shape of a slave.”
    Note that Paul did not say that Jesus adopted the “status” of a slave. He wrote that Jesus had the shape/form/morphe of a slave.
    “Surely a god would never have such a body as yours, that is so contemptible, being subject to such numerous and considerable imperfections.” Celsus
    Celsus “cannot deny that if our liberator was born as we say he was, that then his body had in some sense a stamp of divinity on it.” Origen (Contra Celsum ch. 59)
    “His body was not even of honest human shape.” Tertullian
    “a very ugly face” Clement of Alexandria
    “eyebrows which meet” Andrew of Crete
    Where then in Scripture do we find Jesus uncomely and deformed, as we have
    found Him comely and ‘beauteous in loveliness
    surpassing the sons of men ?’ where
    find we Him also deformed? Ask Esaias(Isaiah): ‘And we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness.’ Augustin.

    Compare those descriptions with the pictures of Jesus we see today!

    There’s also the matter of apocryphal Jewish books which contained prophesies but were left out of the canon later. Not to mention the Christian apocryphal books which were once considered inspired and contain prophesies for the future.
    I would note also that all the prophesies that were ‘fulfilled’ by Jesus came from the Septuagint, a revised version of the OT.


    • Bob Seidensticker

      Wait–you mean Jesus didn’t look like one of the Beach Boys?

      Isaiah 52:14: “there were many who were appalled at him; his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being.”

      Didn’t gnostic and Greek thinking detest the weakness of the human body and imagine gods as spirits?

    • RandomFunction2

      to avalon,

      Maybe Jesus was ugly. Or maybe the verses you point are just intelligently designed by Christians to make Jesus fit the old prophecies. Or maybe you got the wrong interpretation…

      But what cannot disputed is that Jesus was very charismatic.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Carismatic? Let’s consider two options.

        (1) The whole thing is legend. In this case, there either is no Jesus to be charismatic, or the actual Jesus who inspired the stories is so distant that we can’t reconstruct him.

        (2) The Jesus story is accurate. In this case, Jesus had just 100+ followers at his death. Compare that with Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian mystic who died in 2011 who had millions of followers during his life.

        Either way, I don’t see that Jesus was particularly charistmatic.

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