Some Remarks on Biblical Prophecy

Some Remarks on Biblical Prophecy August 17, 2007

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:

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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:

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.

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