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. Ronald Weinland assured us that Jesus would return on May 19, 2013. John Hagee imagines that lunar eclipses predict something (not quite sure what), and Ray Comfort just imagines things.
A more interesting category are the claims of fulfilled biblical prophecies. (I’ve responded to some of those claims here, here, here, here, and elsewhere.) The claims are so weak that I wonder: don’t we have a common idea of what fulfilled prophecy actually looks like? Don’t we critique prophecy claims like those made by Sylvia Browne the same way? I propose we take a step back and agree on what makes a good prophecy.
1. The prophecy must be startling, not mundane. “The [fill in political party] will gain control of [fill in branch of government] in the next election” isn’t very startling. “There will be no legislature because of a coup” 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 (in fact, he showed no particular gift at all), 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. Just that they were written down means very little.
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 might have been taken to Babylon during the exile, but Daniel the book was written centuries later in roughly 165 BCE. 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
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/3/12.)
Image credit: Russell Hayes, flickr, CC