I remember the tabloid magazines from years ago at the grocery store checkout stand. Every new year’s first edition had famous psychics’ predictions splashed across the cover. What Hollywood or royal celebrities would get embarrassed, arrested, or divorced? What gaffes would various world leaders commit? What natural disasters or wars would happen, what scientific or medical breakthroughs would develop?
What was surprising was how they could keep doing this, year after year, when the issue just one week earlier had the end-of-year scorecard showing how badly the prior year’s predictions had done.
Kidding! There was no scorecard, not at the end of the previous year or ever. No need to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
The tabloid fan might admit that if you really want to get precise about it, sure, the occasional prediction wasn’t completely accurate. If the prediction was that a celebrity would lose a child from a drug overdose, but what actually happened was that their ex got divorced, that was close enough, right? Blur your eyes and score generously, and those psychics were still worth reading.
This has been called the Jeane Dixon effect after a prolific psychic. From her oeuvre, you can find loads of preposterously wrong predictions as well as the occasional correct one. Knowing what sells, the media celebrated the hits and forgot the misses. (One author called this kind of selection bias the Jeane Dixon defect.)
And isn’t it fun to believe? For the tabloid buyer, maybe, just maybe, the psychic will be right, the predicted natural disaster will happen, and they can say they knew it all along.
For the kid waiting for Santa, maybe, just maybe, they’ll get that pony they asked for.
And for the Christian, maybe, just maybe, their prayer for a miracle will be answered.
This naïve belief is widespread in many Christians today. The fraction of Americans who say that we’re living in the end times as described by the Bible is 41 percent. Of American evangelicals, it’s 77 percent.
When you or I hear a terrible news story—a pandemic virus, for example—we likely see this in the context of bad stuff that happens across the world from time to time. For apocalyptic Christians convinced that Armageddon is around the corner, however, any tragedy neatly confirms their conclusion.
John Hagee’s hysterical 2015 blather about the four blood moons scratched that “All aboard!” itch that these apocalyptic Christians seem to have. They’re playing the poker game of eternity, they’re all in, and they’re eager to show their cards. About the four blood moons, Hagee said, “God is literally screaming at the world, ‘I’m coming soon,’ ” and “The coming four blood moons points to a world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.”
(You didn’t notice the world ending in October, 2015? No four horsemen? Nothing to suggest the End? Me neither. The only blood is Hagee’s bloody nose when he walked face-first into reality.)
Just like psychics’ failed predictions in tabloid magazines, Christian prophets have no final reckoning. The Jeane Dixon defect is in play, and failed predictions are either ignored or reinterpreted to be close enough.
One relevant difference is that the Bible demands the death penalty for false prophets.
A prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded . . . is to be put to death. (Deuteronomy 18:20–22)
How can we identify this false prophet? The passage continues:
You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously.
Hagee’s flock haven’t picked up stones. He hasn’t even been shunned or exiled. It’s almost like Christians aren’t consistent and are selectively reading the Bible.
Comparison: psychics vs. prophets
The National Enquirer psychics seem not to be on the covers anymore, but they did predict big things for 2015: an assassination attempt on Pope Francis, a Hollywood job offer for Barack Obama, significant volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest, and a deathbed confession that that moon-landing thing really was a hoax. Wrong, as usual.
And notice what they missed. No 2015 prediction about ISIS or the Paris attacks or Charlie Hebdo. Nothing about the Obergefell decision or Christian bakers or Kim Davis. Nothing about Donald Trump and the sycophantic comedy that American politics would become.
We can laugh at how badly the psychics got things wrong, but then the Christian prophets, perpetually crying wolf about the latest disaster, were just as laughably wrong. My prediction for 2020: more empty and irresponsible predictions from both psychics and Christian prophets.
thousands of times in science,
not once in religion.
— Vic Stenger
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/1/16.)