The Bible’s Broken Promises

The Bible’s Broken Promises June 16, 2008

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.

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