Joan of Arc thought she saw visions of God telling her to lead French troops against the English during the Hundred Years War. She became a saint. But Brian Mitchell was convicted in 2010 of kidnapping and raping Elizabeth Smart. He said God gave him license to do.
Abraham was ready to kill his own son Isaac because he thought that God told him to. He is seen as a Jewish patriarch and a prophet of Islam. But Charles Manson was convicted of conspiracy in the killings of three people though he thought he was the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of Mary in Lourdes, France. She also became a saint. But Andrea Yates drowned her five children (aged six months to seven years) one by one because she was trying to save them from Satan.
Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days to bear the sins of Israel and then 40 days for the sins of Judah because God told him to. He is a prophet. But Jim Jones, another supposed incarnation of Jesus Christ, ordered over 900 people to kill themselves in Jonestown, Guyana.
How do you tell the saints from the insane? One source (“Drawing The Line Between Religious Inspiration And Insanity”) quotes a researcher who concludes that the difference between a prophet and a psychopath is “whether or not [they] can get followers.”
So we know prophets based on the number of their followers, not whether what they say is true or not?!
(Contrast this with the scientific consensus. Issues like plate tectonics, evolution, the Big Bang, and so on become the consensus in a similar way but with two massive differences: the consensus is built on and destroyed by evidence, and the consensus comes only from those competent enough to evaluate this evidence.)
What if Charles Manson had gotten a million followers? Would that turn him into a prophet? Conversely, what if Joseph Smith had gotten only 20 followers? Would that turn him into a nut?
The other factor separating saint from insane is harm, but it’s not that the saints did nice things and the insane did bad things. We have no more evidence that God spoke to military leader Joan of Arc than to convicted rapist Brian Mitchell, but we do know that Joan of Arc participated in more killing. The military leaders in the Bible (Joshua, Saul, David, Gideon, Samson, and so on) killed many more people than Jim Jones. But saints can’t kill good people. They can kill “them,” but not “us.”
Let me propose a rule. A saint (or prophet or patriarch):
- (1) can’t hurt people that you can identify with, and
- (2) must have sufficient followers.
Try this out on some well-known names. John Hagee and Hal Lindsey preach the coming end, and they may have enough followers to be called prophets (using a generous definition of “prophet”). But Harold Camping, though he had the guts to make specific predictions, fails on requirement 2 (I wrote about Camping here).
Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science), Ellen White (Seventh-day Adventism), and Aimee McPherson (Four Square) were prophets, but David Koresh (Branch Davidian) and Charles Manson fail on 1 and 2.
Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba was a prophet, but Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the supposed Buddhist bodhisattva who is said to fast continuously for months while meditating, fails on 2.
The pope can say that he’s the Vicar of Christ, but if I say it, that fails on 2.
Though “saint” has a formal definition, colloquial forms of the labels “saint” and “prophet” are bestowed by popular acclaim. In short, you’re a prophet when people say you are. Popularity doesn’t mean that what you say is true, and there’s no requirement that it be true anyway.
This flabby definition of “prophet” is obvious for the other guy’s religion, but maybe all of us should reconsider what it means for those that we think are prophets.
If you talk to God, you are praying;
if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia
— Thomas Szasz
Photo credit: Univ. of Missouri