Some Remarks on Biblical Prophecy

Recently, Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog invited me to comment on a post of hers in which a theist mentioned my article “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists“. This person claimed that the fulfillment of prophecies in the Bible should be sufficient reason for atheists to believe in Christianity. That comment can be viewed here.

Below is the text of my reply:

* * *

Hi all,

Greta Christina invited me here, since Mr. Cawley was commenting on an article of mine. I’d like to address some of his claims about the alleged accuracy of biblical prophecy.

Let me be clear about one thing at the outset: some of the nations and cities whom the biblical authors claimed would be destroyed, were indeed destroyed. This, however, is hardly stunning proof of the foresight of the Bible’s authors. Most cities and nations of antiquity have fallen, and most of the ones that are around today will probably fall eventually, also, if only you’re willing to wait long enough.

This is especially true given that Mr. Cawley seems to allot infinite time for any of the Bible’s prophecies to come true. Notice, for example, how he claims that the destruction of Ashkelon – in 1270 AD, for truth’s sake – was a fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy of doom nearly two thousand years earlier. This is the stunning foresight that should so impress us all? If I predict that a great flood will strike Egypt, and then a thousand years later such a thing does happen, does that make me a miraculously gifted prophet? Hardly: it just means that if you predict a fairly likely event and are willing to wait forever, sooner or later your prediction will be fulfilled.

To prove that your prophetic powers are up to snuff, it’s not enough to predict a likely event and then wait for eternity. Rather, as I said in my article, such prophecies should come with specific, falsifiable details about time, place and circumstance. In this case, Mr. Cawley has definitely fallen off the horse. Most of his alleged “fulfillments” are derived only by removing relevant context – stripping out specific details which show that the Bible’s prophecies actually did not come true as written. I’m not going to address his every example, but as a sample of the kind of misrepresentation he repeatedly engages in, let’s consider this point about Egypt:

Of Egypt as a whole, Ezekiel said in Ezekiel 29:15, “It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations.” Egypt continued as a great and powerful nation for many centuries after the prophecy was written, but finally Egypt became a backward, impoverished, weak nation and has remained so ever since.

Mr. Cawley, you are blatantly guilty of out-of-context quotation. But that’s not surprising, considering the full details of the prophecy show that, rather than a success, this was a conspicuous failure. Here’s the full text of what Ezekiel said would happen to Egypt:

“Behold, therefore I am against thee, and against thy rivers, and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from the tower of Syene even unto the border of Ethiopia. No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it, neither shall it be inhabited forty years. And I will make the land of Egypt desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate, and her cities among the cities that are laid waste shall be desolate forty years: and I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and will disperse them through the countries. Yet thus saith the Lord God; At the end of forty years will I gather the Egyptians from the people whither they were scattered. And I will bring again the captivity of Egypt, and will cause them to return into the land of Pathros, into the land of their habitation; and they shall be there a base kingdom. It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations.

—Ezekiel 29:9-15

I think even Mr. Cawley can agree that this never happened. Egypt has never been desolate, much less for forty years at a time, and the Egyptian people were neither scattered nor later regathered. That entire string of predictions failed to come true. It’s only the coda at the end, about Egypt losing its superpower status, that Mr. Cawley seizes on and elevates to prophetic status – and, again, history shows that most empires and superpowers decline in status given sufficient time, so this is hardly proof of divine foreknowledge.

For one more example, let’s consider Mr. Cawley’s claims about Tyre. Again, he’s guilty of removing relevant context to disguise prophetic failures. Ezekiel didn’t just predict that Tyre would be destroyed; he predicted it would be destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:

“For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses, and with chariots, and with horsemen, and companies, and much people. He shall slay with the sword thy daughters in the field: and he shall make a fort against thee, and cast a mount against thee, and lift up the buckler against thee. And he shall set engines of war against thy walls, and with his axes he shall break down thy towers. By reason of the abundance of his horses their dust shall cover thee: thy walls shall shake at the noise of the horsemen, and of the wheels, and of the chariots, when he shall enter into thy gates, as men enter into a city wherein is made a breach.”

—Ezekiel 26:7-10

Again, this is a false prophecy. Nebuchadnezzar did indeed besiege Tyre for many years – but, as any history book will tell you, he failed to conquer it. (Tyre is a city on an island just offshore, with suburbs on the mainlands. Nebuchadnezzar conquered those, but failed to break into the island city.) Alexander the Great did conquer it later, but he was not the object of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

But now comes the real howler:

God also said in Ezekiel 26:14, “And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the Lord have spoken it, saith the Lord God.” The site of ancient Tyre is quite suitable for habitation, but the prophecy has stood fulfilled now for over 2, 000 years, and Tyre has never been rebuilt.

This is completely wrong. Tyre exists to this day, and plenty of people still live there. Here’s some modern satellite imagery of this supposedly non-existent, never-rebuilt city:

http://www.earthspots.com/ExploreEarthSpot.php?NID=1211&MT=1

When Biblical apologists resort to denying the existence of entire cities in an attempt to mangle history sufficiently to make their prophecies appear to come true, you know there’s nothing more that needs to be said.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://tinyurl.com/rotht HeathenDan

    pwnd!

    I can’t believe he didn’t check the reliability of the arguments he copied from the internet troll handbook™. The (non)destruction of Tyre, is an old argument and I still get that from the copy+paste apologist. ~_~

  • http://tinyurl.com/rotht HeathenDan

    pwnd!

    I can’t believe he didn’t check the reliability of the arguments he copied from the internet troll handbook™. The (non)destruction of Tyre, is an old argument and I still get that from the copy+paste apologist. ~_~

  • Jennifer

    It’s been my experience that most of them all are copy+paste apologists. Being anything else would imply that they’d actually read the book they were quoting, in which case, they would likely be atheist.

  • CM

    Even taking these out-of-context quotes at face value, how can a Christian believe in a good and loving God, when it seems he spends his time destroying lives and property in epic proportions in the most horrific of ways?

  • CM

    Even taking these out-of-context quotes at face value, how can a Christian believe in a good and loving God, when it seems he spends his time destroying lives and property in epic proportions in the most horrific of ways?

  • Pi Guy

    I’ve said before that I think that ALL believers know, deep down, that they’re harboring a mythology as the focus of their faith. They just can’t bring themselves to admit it. I think that, in general (and, yes, I am generalizing), that most believers would rather be wrong forever than adjust their cherished world-view. That said, I am absolutely certain that people like the good (?) Rev. Cawley know better. However, as long as there are people who don’t wish to face the truth there will be people there to help them hide from it. Way to go, Reverend!

    …that they’d actually read the book they were quoting, in which case, they would likely be atheist.

    And if they just read one or two other things as well, they’d be skeptical enough to stop sending me all of those “Send this to 10 other Faith-Heads and God will perform a miracle for you, too!” and other ridiculous emails that I keep dragging right into my Trash Folder. Haven’t any of these people ever heard of Snopes or do their automatically computers load Faith-Net or Crystal Healing as their home page?

  • Will E.

    From what I remember of my OT class in college, prophecy wasn’t even intended as foretelling the *exact* future, but as a warning of what *could* happen if Israel/Judea didn’t straighten up their acts. If these folks really want to impress us atheists, show us where in the OT that the discovery of DNA was predicted? Or that we inhabit a distant arm of the Milky Way? Or, simply, that the earth is a fucking sphere. Or anything *real*. Carl Sagan discusses this kind of thing in “Varieties of Scientific Experience.”

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    Even if these prophecies were more “accurate” (and they are nothing like accurate), they still aren’t terribly convincing because they all describe events in the past. How hard could it be for a prophecy to “come true” when both the prophecy and the event it supposedly predicted are in the past?

    How difficult would it be for a chronicler–especially for a book written thousands of years ago and covering thousands of years of history–to, shall we say, “ensure” that such-and-such prophecy “came true” through scribal? Now I doubt they’d do it cynically–changing the historical record in full knowledge of their own deception–but rather through ignorance of what was really prophesied or what really happened afterwards. Most premillennial Christians reading Revelation assume that references to “Rome” mean “the Vatican” rather than the more obvious reading that Rome meant the Roman Empire which existed at the time of Revelation’s authorship.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    If these folks really want to impress us atheists, show us where in the OT that the discovery of DNA was predicted? Or that we inhabit a distant arm of the Milky Way? Or, simply, that the earth is a fucking sphere.

    To be fair, I don’t think knowledge of a spherical Earth would be evidence of divine origin. There were ancient Greeks who had that one figured out.

  • Jeff T.

    It is sad that many people fail to put any effort into researching their belief system. How hard would it have been to go to the Internet and do a google on Tyre? I would have at least done that before declaring that God had wiped it off the face of the earth several thousand years ago.

    I remember as a young child asking where the bible came from. The answer given to me was, “God wrote it”.

    I will make a prophesy: Religion will either vanish over time due to the overwhelming evidence against it, or it will wipe us out with its violent hatred and prejudice. Granted, this prophecy is not time bounded, but it is better than most old testament ones or the ones made by new age astrology.

  • http://none John Nernoff III M.D.

    Even if certain prophecies were accurately predictive, that doesn’t mean there is a traditional “God” with omnimax properties. The prophecies could have been due to alternative, albeit unlikely, reasons such as time trave or aliens or other advanced civilizations. If anything unusual happens (such as the art of prophecy under discussion) why is “God” almost always invoked?

    Moreover what IS the “God” supposed to be? I am hoping Ebonmuse will some day address the issue of non-cognitivism.

  • Robert Madewell

    Tyre, Lebanon appears to be a hustling and busy city for a non-existant one. I love google maps.

    It’s funny that in the Bible you read about prophecy that comes true later in the bible (sometimes in the same book of the bible). Kinda like a neighbor of a serial killer saying, “I knew that boy was trouble!” a day after the serial killer is arrested and reported on TV. The statue in the book of Daniel is a prime example. The various parts of the statue represents the succession of empires after Babylon. The text says that the persians will conquer babylon. Those empires are all gone now, so how does that prove anything to us now? I think that the book of daniel was written after the fact, then the author said, “I told you so!”

  • Matt R

    Hi Jeff T.

    Religion will either vanish over time due to the overwhelming evidence against it, or it will wipe us out with its violent hatred and prejudice.

    Good one! I always appreciate irony.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://lifewithoutfaith.com Richard

    It is very clear that the gospel writers were trolling through the Old Testament to find “prophecies.” Some of them are so ridiculously out of context and were taken from the Septuagint and not the original Hebrew. It is easy to say something is fulfilled after the fact. Just look at what people do with Nostradamus.

    Richard
    http://lifewithoutfaith.com

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The book of Isaiah speaks of the Nile River drying up, but it never has. ISaiah also has a passage in which the Israelites will have foreign kings and queens kneeling before them But such a thing never happened. Instead it was the Israelites who had their kingdom destroyed and were scattered.

  • CHE

    I grew up in christianity and the past year came to the conclusion that no man can prove that God 100% exists or doesn’t exsist. I will say that I believe the bible isn’t as sacred as they have made it to be. Christ may not have even walked the earth since there was no written accounts of him while he was alive until 70 years after he “died”.
    But I don’t think that I can still come to the conclusion that there is NO GOD whatsoever because christianity can be picked apart by a second grader. I just think that based on the spledor of our universe and the complicated way our body works perfectly together there has to be some type of Creator out there, he/she or it. I am not saying the story of adam and eve is the correct way to portray the creator but to believe particles in space exploded and became our solar system over millions of years we evolved into complicated human beings. Just not something I can believe.
    But I will say I am a step closer to athiesm which is agnostic. I believe there is a God out there just not the by humans definition because no finite creature can understand the infinite.

  • CHE

    There is only one absolute in life and that is there are no absolutes. No one can explain life to another human being and know 100% of what the hell they are talking about. Just because we haven’t seen or experienced something doesn’t make it not exist. But just because someone has percieved to have seen or experienced something does not make it real or evidence that it is real. I think religion is mans way of trying to understand life and creation. It’s noble but in alot of ways it’s been turned into wickedness and corruption.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I am not saying the story of adam and eve is the correct way to portray the creator but to believe particles in space exploded and became our solar system over millions of years we evolved into complicated human beings. Just not something I can believe.

    Che, This is often called the argument from incredulity. Just because you can’t believe it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Try thinking of the events leading up to complex life (humans are really no more evolved than any other organism) as happening over very very long periods in very small increments. Each increment is possible even if the overall journey seems incredible.

  • Jared

    I would like to point out that the prophecy of Ezekiel 29 in fact came true.
    From a historical perspective we know that Old King Nebby conquered Egypt and took the ruling and land owning class into exile as he did with every conquered nation. The remaining poor people “ran” the land for him.

    Cyrus was allowing people to return to their lands as Cyrus did with Israel which is recorded in the Bible as well. His 3rd to 4th year of his reign would have been forty years for the Egyptians.

    If you study history you will see that all prophecies have been fulfilled.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    So, Jared, you’re claiming that no one inhabited or even walked through Egypt for those 40 years all the Egyptians were scattered and then put into captivity after the 40 years? Oh wait, you mean that’s not what happened after all?