Keeping false prophets accountable

Keeping false prophets accountable November 11, 2020

Donald Trump has been defeated in his attempt to be elected to a second term as president. The vote was slow, but it wasn’t close. It may have fallen short of the ginormous historic repudiation hoped for by Trump’s opponents, but it was still a resounding defeat.

President-elect Joe Biden looks to have won more than 300 electoral votes while winning the popular vote by more than 5 million votes. It was a more lopsided win than George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry in 2004. As a percentage of total electorate, Biden’s electoral mandate is on par with Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Heck, Biden swept every state mentioned in Steve Miller’s “Rock’n Me” (hat-tip to Jason Isbell for that observation). It’s a big win, by any measure.

Trump’s loss puts him in a select company of losers. He becomes just the 13th president to serve only a single term, only the fifth to serve as president after losing the popular vote, and only the third to have been impeached. And he’s the only person, ever, to be all three of those things at the same time.

So anyone who predicted that Trump was going to win was mistaken. He didn’t win. By a lot. And the prediction was wrong. By a lot.

Of course, there’s no shame in having gotten a prediction wrong. Predicting the future is difficult, even for experts whose livelihood is based on doing it well. That’s why, for example, professional bookmakers made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-point favorites in Sunday night’s game against the New Orleans Saints, only to see the Saints trounce the Bucs 35-3. Phew.

But some people didn’t merely predict a Trump victory, they prophesied it would happen.

And that’s a whole other ballgame.

See, a prediction just says, “Here’s what I think is going to happen.” A prophecy, on the other hand, says, “Here is what will certainly happen, without a doubt, because God told me so.”

That not a statement of opinion. It’s a claim of fact — a claim of two facts, actually. Fact No. 1: “X will 100-percent guaranteed happen.” And Fact No. 2: “God speaks directly to me and, therefore, my statements are as certain and trustworthy as statements directly from God.”

And when those claims turn out not to be true, that’s a much bigger problem for those making them. A person making a prediction stakes our respect for their predictive ability on the outcome of that prediction. If they’re wrong, we will say, “Haha — you are not very good at predicting things.” But a person proclaiming a “prophecy” directly from God is staking their entire credibility and their God’s entire credibility on the truth of that prophecy. If they are wrong, we will say, “You and your God are not trustworthy.” The stakes are infinitely higher.

So what does it mean that so many prominent white evangelical Americans “prophesied” that God had spoken to them, assuring them that Donald Trump would be re-elected?

Paula White said God had told her this. So did Jim Bakker. So did Robert Jeffress, and Curt Landry, and Michele Bachmann, and Kat Kerr, and Frank Amedia, and Dutch Sheets, and Janet Porter, and Steve Strang. And they were all wrong. What they said — what they prophesied — was not true.

Every one of these people publicly stated that God spoke to them directly, and that what God said to them was that Donald Trump was going to be re-elected as president.

And then Donald Trump did not get re-elected as president.

I can imagine only a few possible explanations for the discrepancy between their prophecy and what really happened.

1. The “prophets” were lying because God never spoke to them.

2. The prophets were lying because God told them something else.

3. God was lying when God spoke to these prophets.

4. God, for ineffable and inscrutable divine purposes, allowed a deceiving spirit to speak to these prophets, tricking them into believing that spirit was actually the voice of God.

5. The prophets were mistaken: God spoke to them, but they misunderstood what God was saying.

6. The prophets were mistaken: God never spoke to them, they were just hearing voices.

7. God was mistaken.

I may be missing some other variation of a possible explanation, but I think that pretty much covers it. And none of these possible explanations* is good news for the would-be “prophets” whose prophecy was proven wrong.

The safest, least-damaging and least consequential of these possibilities is No. 5, which seems to be the fallback position for most of the folks listed above once it became clear that their “Thus saith the Lord” alleged “prophecies” were not going to come to pass as they confidently foretold. If this is presented artfully, it can suggest that their drastically and demonstrably false “prophecies” weren’t quite altogether wrong — that they only need clarification and not correction.

The classic form of this “Yes, but what I meant to say …” argument is the post hoc claim that one’s earlier categorical assertion was actually intended to be heard conditionally. “When I said ‘X will happen,’ what I really meant was that ‘X will happen if …'”

The “if” there is conveniently elastic. It could be if you have sufficient faith (so the failure of my prophecy is your fault). Or if you repent of your wicked ways, or if you do not repent of your wicked ways, or if some third party does or doesn’t repent of their wicked ways. Etc., etc.

A responsible prophet, having received such a contingent and conditional message directly from God, ought to take pains to make the contingent and conditional nature of the prophecy clear. This is what most of the prophets in the Bible do, although, to be fair, sometimes they leave the “if” or “unless” of their message rhetorically implicit.

I imagine this is the escape plan for most of the so-called “prophets” who incorrectly and falsely assured their followers that God had told them Donald Trump was going to be re-elected. Most of these folks, after all, are from the no-holds-barred spiritual traditions of faith-healing and the prosperity gospel, a tradition with a long history of guaranteeing one outcome, then blaming the listeners for the failure of that guarantee.

Some of them, it seems, will be amending their mistaken “prophecies” by doubling-down on them. “I said that God said that Trump would be elected to a second term. I never said that God said that it would happen in 2020.” And so they will restake their credibility and the credibility of whatever God they claim to hear on the hope that their Chosen One will make another run for the White House in 2024. That could be lucrative for a bit, as it was for Sarah Palin and her promoters back in 2009. But this only buys them a brief extension on the accounting they’ll have to give for the fact that their “prophecy” is now (and will be then) undeniably false.

It’s often noted that Moses instructed a rather severe penalty — death — for false prophecy. Deuteronomy 18 sets out the rather obvious criteria for identifying false prophecy and false prophets:

But any prophet who … presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

Paula White, Jim Bakker, Robert Jeffress, Curt Landry, Michele Bachmann, Kat Kerr, Frank Amedia, Dutch Sheets, Janet Porter, and Steve Strang all spoke in the name of the Lord, but the thing did not take place or prove true.

That is proof that the Lord has not spoken. These “prophets” spoke presumptuously. Do not respect them.

I’m not looking for anyone to die. But some de-platforming would seem appropriate. The demanding of apologies seems necessary. And, for the foreseeable future, a boilerplate disclaimer should be attached to all of those names, reminding us all that these people presumptuously claimed to speak for God and that each was proved wrong.


* I’d note that biblical illustrations of each of these scenarios can be found except, perhaps, for No. 3.

The Bible also suggests an 8th possibility, one that none of the self-proclaimed “prophets” above would ever claim to be true of themselves. 1 King 22 tells the story of the grumpy prophet Micaiah, who initially offers a deliberately false prophecy to the kings of Israel and Judah.

Long story short, the wicked king of Israel, Ahab, wants to go to war with the neighboring kingdom of Aram and he’s gathered all the flattering court prophets and yes-men to tell him that his will and God’s will are the same thing. But his God-fearing ally, the king of Judah, is more skeptical and asks to hear from some prophets who are not on Ahab’s payroll.

So Ahab summons Micaiah who stands before the throne and mockingly repeats the exact words that all of Ahab’s lackey false-prophet liars said: “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

This is a false prophecy. It predicts the opposite of what soon thereafter comes to pass. But Micaiah isn’t mistaken and he isn’t lying — he’s mocking Ahab and mocking all the lying false prophets who’ve been saying that.

In the story, Ahab recognizes this immediately, responding angrily “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” and so Micaiah is, like, Fine, you want the truth from the voice of God? You won’t want to hear it, but here it is. And he tells Ahab flat-out that if he attacks Aram, he will be killed, his army will be crushed, and his people will be scattered. That turns out to be exactly what happens.

It would be an amazing thing to see any of the untrustworthy prophets we’re discussing here pull a post-election 180 and claim that they were simply, like Micaiah, being sarcastic in mockery of the wicked king and his corrupt, lickspittle clergy. This would demonstrate that they were not, as it initially appeared, false prophets themselves. But it would require them to stand before Trump and say to him what Micaiah said to Ahab:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Trump, so that he may go up and fall?”

Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.”

“How?” the Lord asked him.

He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his Evangelical Advisory Council.”

Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.”

So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.


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