The Bible's Broken Promises

In their endless quest to evangelize the world, Christian apologists like this one are prone to making grandiose claims about the supposed perfect accuracy of biblical prophecy:

Unique among all books ever written, the Bible accurately foretells specific events – in detail – many years, sometimes centuries, before they occur. Approximately 2500 prophecies appear in the pages of the Bible, about 2000 of which already have been fulfilled to the letter — no errors.

Needless to say, this claim requires a considerable amount of interpretive flexibility, as well as a very loose definition of the terms “prophecy” and “fulfilled”. Even then, a knowledgeable atheist can dismantle it with little trouble. Hugh Ross, the apologist quoted above, also gives a convenient definition of what constitutes a true prophet:

The acid test for identifying a prophet of God is recorded by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:21-22. According to this Bible passage (and others), God’s prophets, as distinct from Satan’s spokesmen, are 100 percent accurate in their predictions. There is no room for error.

With that definition in mind, let’s examine some of the more prominent erroneous and failed prophecies of the Bible.

The Destruction of Tyre

One of the most famous unfulfilled Bible prophecies has to do with the destruction of Tyre. In Ezekiel 26, the prophet predicts that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer and destroy the city of Tyre, and that it would remain desolate from that day on:

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… 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… 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.

This prophecy was a twofold failure. Nebuchadnezzar did besiege Tyre, but he failed to conquer it; he did not break down its walls or enter into its gates, as the Bible claimed he would. Alexander the Great did conquer it later, but he is not mentioned and was not the object of the prophecy. And neither of them destroyed the city permanently, as the Bible predicts. Indeed, Tyre exists to this day, on the same spot as the ancient city, and tens of thousands of people still live there.

The Egyptian Exile

Also in Ezekiel, in chapter 29, there is a very curious prophecy of doom for Egypt:

Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt… 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.

I think even a biblical literalist can agree that none of this ever happened. Egypt was never desolate, much less for forty years at a stretch, and its people were neither scattered nor later regathered. The archaeological evidence supports no such conclusion; even the Bible itself does not record this ever occurring. And an apologist cannot claim this is still in the future, because the verse specifically addresses the pharaoh, a system of government which no longer exists.

God’s Failed Land Promise

In the early chapters of Genesis, God makes a sweeping promise to the patriarch Abraham:

“In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

—Genesis 15:18

This was no small promise. The territory promised to the Jews in this verse would encompass not just the modern-day borders of Israel, but would contain most or all of the modern nations of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Needless to say, this promise was not kept. Even at the height of its power (which wasn’t much, to judge from the archaeological evidence), ancient Israel never controlled anywhere near this much territory. And if modern Rapture-believing Christians are correct, the world will end very soon, forever foreclosing any possibility that this prophecy will be fulfilled at a later time.

The usual apologetic rebuttal to this claim is that God’s promise was conditional, predicated on the Jews’ good behavior, and when they turned from him and worshipped other gods, he took away their rightful inheritance. This argument is flatly contradicted by the biblical text. In Deuteronomy 9:5, God says that even though the Israelites are wicked, he will still deliver the land to them, so as not to renege on his promise to Abraham:

Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Non-Return of Jesus

By far the most significant prophetic failure of the Bible is the New Testament’s repeated, and false, predictions that Jesus would return and establish the kingdom of God on earth during the lifetime of his original disciples. More verses than I can list here make this claim. (“2000 Years Late” on Ebon Musings has a longer list.) But passages such as the one below make it very clear that the New Testament authors anticipated an imminent return:

“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

—Matthew 10:23

Two schools of theology have arisen to deal with this problem. One, the apocalyptic school, believes that these verses were meant to apply to the present day (despite clear indications of timing such as the one above, or Jesus’ repeated references to “this generation”). The other, the preterist school, believes that these verses referred not to a global destruction but to an ancient, local event, such as the destruction of Jerusalem. In their own way, each school acknowledges the problem; in their own way, each one fails to face up to it. But an atheist who looks at these passages with a clear eye, unconcerned with the theological dictum that the Bible must be rescued from error no matter how contorted the reinterpretation, can easily see them for what they truly say and recognize the obvious broken promise.

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.

  • Jeff T.

    Ebon,
    I have read before that it was the coastal city of Tyre that was destroyed after a 13 year siege by Neb… The Tyrians then fled to the island portion (ie suburb) which was not destroyed. So instead of a falsehood in the prophecy here, perhaps there is just a half truth? Perhaps it is due to the fact that the ancient Isrealites had not yet mastered the 15th Century English language which modern Christians adore them for? Or perhaps this prophet confused Neb and Alexander?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    That’s true, Jeff, except that the coastal part of Tyre was the suburb, and the part on the island was the main city. The island part of the city was the fortified one and had the walls and towers that Ezekiel’s prophecy refers to. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the lightly defended coastal suburb, but despite a prolonged siege, failed to break into the walled island city. That wasn’t accomplished until Alexander literally built a causeway from the shore to the island, which still exists today.

  • http://erichaas.blogspot.com Eric Haas

    Jeff, it was the coastal area that was the “suburbs” of Tyre. The island was the main city. In fact, the coastal area was called Ushu or Palaetyrus, rather than Tyre.

    Ebon, just to add to your bit about the failed prophecy concerning Tyre, in chapter 21 of Acts, the apostle Paul spends a week in Tyre looking up fellow disciples while his ship unloads its cargo. The city seems quite lively for a 600 year old ruin.

  • Jeff T.

    Thanks. I was just making sure I was being open minded about it.

  • Jeff T.

    I also want to point out that the prophecy concerning the land promise is very indicative of the primitive and limited knowledge these writers/prophets possessed. Calling the Euphrates the great river is a dead giveaway in my opinion. The Euphrates was probably great for the Sumerians but it is not even in the top 15 list of the world’s longest rivers.

    Once again this proves my position that the ancient sheep herders who wrote the bible have little to zero knowledge about the complexities of nature much less human nature. Giving them such power over your life is a stupid decision in my humble opinion.

    A good essay, Ebon. It is so easy for you to dismantle these obvious lies that parade as gospel that it is almost sad.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    One of my Christian friends used to love pointing to the prophecies of Daniel as proof of the Bible’s correctness – a surprisingly common argument in Christian apologetics. He stopped after I pointed out the reams of research showing that Daniel was written as historical fiction around 167BC, long after the “prophecies” had come true…

    I’ve never really got the whole “fulfilled prophecy” argument. They’re either so nebulous that they can mean anything (Revelation), written after the events have passed and then put in the mouths of earlier prophets (a la Daniel), massively misinterpreted (“unto us a child is born” – that would be King Hezekiah, not Jesus) or just flat out wrong (the death of King Jeraboam comes to mind). Find a better argument, apologists!

  • Valhar2000

    Find a better argument, apologists!

    Yes, the idea that anyone would think biblical prophecies are even vaguely correct, much less “fulfilled to the letter — no errors”, is amazing and incomprehensible. Say what you will about the ontological argument, or the argument form design, or even the execrable Pascal’s Wager: they run rings around this sort of idiocy.

  • 2-D Man

    The apologist goes on to say,

    Since the probability for any one of these [2000] prophecies having been fulfilled by chance averages less than one in ten (figured very conservatively) and since the prophecies are for the most part independent of one another, the odds for all these prophecies having been fulfilled by chance without error is less than one in 10^2000 (that is 1 with 2000 zeros written after it)!

    Even if one accepts (on faith – hah!) that this guy isn’t lying or wrong, as yunshui pointed, it seems he only has a rudimentary grasp of probability, and is not capable of properly analyzing the data.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    In Isaiah, in the section where he rags on the Egyptians, there is a reference to the Nile River drying up. While the Nile is not specifically named, when you associate “the River” with Egypt, it is pretty obvious which one you are talking about. Needless to say, the Nile has not dried up yet.

  • Logismous Kathairountes

    I’d just like to point out that history is not yet finished. God promised to destroy Tyre and Egypt and give a certain amount of land to His chosen people, and He doesn’t seem to have done it yet. But think about it logically – Don’t assume that the prophecy says more than it actually says. Maybe He’ll do it in the future.

    It’s notoriously difficult proving negatives. For instance, take that Matthew 10:23 prophecy. I realize you weren’t providing it as an example of an unfulfilled prophecy, but it’s a great example of my point.

    It has two parts: A command (“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.”) and a prediction (“I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”). The command cannot possibly be proved false since it’s not making any claim.

    The prediction is that a certain group of people will NOT do a certain thing before He returns. Do you have proof that they actually did do that thing? You’d need a list of the cities of Israel, a list of the people He was talking to, and a travel history for each one of those people.

    Seems to me that if there’s a single city that those people did not flee to, then no matter how long He takes coming back He’ll have kept that promise.

  • mikespeir

    So it’s completely open-ended, Logismous? No matter how long time goes on you can still suggest that “maybe” the fulfillment is still around the corner? There will never be a time when anyone can say definitively, “Well, it didn’t happen. Let’s move on”? According to Second Peter, a day with God is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. Why, in A.D. 1,000,000 that’ll only be 1000 days–less than three years to you and me. Christians then, if the religion exists then, could still be insisting that Jesus is coming “soon” by that kind of reasoning.

    The real problem with the way you’re thinking is that Christians put forth prophecy as proof positive for the inspiration of Scripture. And yet those prophecies haven’t panned out. Even if they only apparently haven’t been fulfilled, they still are apparently unfulfilled. What makes that good evidence that the Bible is the “Word of “God”?

  • Brock

    RE: Matthew 10:23.
    Read the entire chapter rather than taking the quotation out of context. This comes from Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to carry out the mission of witnessing to the people of Israel. The two parts of the verse are not necessarily related. What Jesus is saying is that his disciples will not have time to complete their mission of spreading the gospel to Israel before the Coming. I think it would be hard to find a Jew who hasn’t heard about Xianity at this point. Thus, this is a failed prophecy.
    OK, to be fair, this is my interpretation. Which brings us back to the point that most of the so-called prophecies of the Bible, like all good prophecies, are so vague that it’s impossible to prove/disprove them, witness the spectacular nitpicking that apologists are prone to.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Logismous:

    We might find evidence in the future of life on Mars, therefore there must be life on Mars. Do you see why that doesn’t work? If you argue that prophecy has not yet been fulfilled, you can’t then argue that the Bible is true because of fulfilled prophecy.

    I say again, find a better argument, apologists!

  • Randall

    Esteemed Mikespeir & Yunshui,

    Any nominal Bible student will tell you that many of the Bible’s prophecies are meant to describe a yet-unrealized future. That many Biblical prophecies are INTENDED to be unclear until their fulfillment is built into the text; so I think it premature to discount the argument that some of the prophecies may yet come true.

    However, with regard to your point about the open-endedness of the time-frame of their fulfillment, I think I can understand where you are coming from. That someone can just indefinitely say that “Hey, it might come true somewhere in the future” – I believe you are justified in some skepticism at this point.

    For analogy’s sake, let’s try this: the battered woman who for years refuses to leave her abuser because she says, “I know that he is a good man at heart.” Well, that may be so, but that does not justify her faith that he will indeed change. Anything is possible, but the MERE possibility does not count as evidence on which to base a conclusion, particularly in light of evidence to the contrary. To be absurd, suppose I say that “Pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent mice from another planet who are bent on destroying the Earth MIGHT show up tomorrow.” No one can PROVE that it is IMPOSSIBLE; that does not make it in the least bit credible. I think that is akin to the point you are making (correct me if I’m wrong).

    Still, I think this misses the point. It is not the POTENTIAL fulfillment of any individual prophecy on which Bible apologists make their stand, but rather, the fulfillment of myriad. Suppose you are right, suppose, to be fair, we disqualify the handful of prophecies which have been pointed out. That still leaves an explanation wanting for the HUNDREDS of others that were fulfilled.

    There are, unless I am mistaken, at least two (related) claims at stake here: 1) The Bible proves to be an authoritative Divine revelation because of the sheer quantity and accuracy of its fulfilled prophecies and 2) The Bible is to be considered 100% trustworthy because ALL of its prophecies have been/will be fulfilled. Let us, for argument’s sake, strike the latter of these two claims, assume that #2 is unverifiable. That still leaves the first. I do not see how your arguments adequately deal with that; perhaps I am wrong?

    You are saying, if I understand you correctly, that one is not justified in lending credence to the Bible on the basis of prophecies which have yet to be fulfilled or seem to be inaccurate. Ok; what about the ones that have been fulfilled? What about the ones that were PIN-POINT accurate? Does that not raise a question?

    You have also said that Bible-apologists claim this as “proof-positive.” I humbly submit that there are strikingly few things in this life that we can assert with 100% certainty – that does not mean that we are not justified in coming to provisional conclusions based on evidence and reason. I take this task to be not too dissimilar to forensics. My argument then, would look like this: “Given all the available evidence, what are the best explanations to account for the various fulfilled prophecies in the Bible?” My answer is, “Provisionally, as I am unaware of any natural human capacity or human agency that could orchestrate a volume of fantastic and purposeful coincidences to this extent, I conclude that this represents information intentionally organized and directed by a supra-human source.” I believe that is a JUSTIFIED explanation.

    Can you furnish a BETTER one?

  • Debbie

    Randall, I can. First, prove that any of the prophecies, which you claim to be fulfilled, were verifiably corroborated by more than one source (which all prohecies must do), and also PROVE that they were not recorded after the alleged event. Too, prove that they mean what YOU say they mean (since your interpretation could always be wrong). Another problem: your argument begins with a “given”–but you’ve not proven (nor can you or anyone else prove)your “given”. There is NO provable evidence, therefore, your argument is totally shot. I’d like to believe, as I once did, but once I realized that what I thought was true couldn’t be verified, I had no chance but to question. And when I did, I came to the realization that I’d always sounded just like you and your colleagues: desperate and irrational. Never again.

  • TommyP

    Yay more failed prophecy links. You can never have enough of those.

  • Ashton V.

    Different religious believers are debating with each other claiming tat their religion is the right one. Bart Ehrman has been getting a lot of flak. He is the author of the book, “Jesus Interrupted,” which is about Biblical inaccuracy, and gives a critical look at the core of Christianity through logical research of history, and more importantly, the historiography (the study of the writing of history and how it was compiled) of the Bible. The upcoming release of Angels and Demons, sequel to the DaVinci Code, has brought up a lot of debate over the accuracy of the Bible and the development of the Christian faith.


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