Fulfilled prophecy is frequently thrown at us as “evidence” that a god exists. Here’s why I find it numbingly uncompelling.
I’ll discuss this topic through referencing this site, which attempts to make the case.
Perhaps the most compelling of evidences demonstrating that the Bible is the word of God is its unswerving ability to accurately predict future events, often in minute details. Specific prophesies are conspicuously absent from the 26 other religious books that claim to be scripture, including the Muslim’s Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Hindu Vedas, and Buddhist writings. This in itself should be a major eye-opener to the honest skeptic.
We will be “honest skeptics”… honest skeptics who also apply reason and critical thinking. I’ve discussed pieces of this in the past, but for the sake of a complete discussion, I’ll include them here.
Consistency versus Implication
One has to be careful about whether one is “following the evidence”, or “leading the evidence”. One of humans’ greatest faults, when it comes to investigating reality, is that we are prone to constructing “conspiracy theories”. That is to say, we’ll start with a conclusion, then hunt around reality for anything that confirms it. Ironically, the real problem with it, is that it doesn’t always fail. Many times, this is just confirming a hypothesis, and seems like a reasonable approach.
Depending on our emotional investment in something being true, we can pass a threshold, where we’re willing to overlook other possibilities, inconsistencies and contradictions. We start engaging in Confirmation Bias.
A general lack of education can exasperate the problem, where people are so unfamiliar with any kind of sound epistemic process, that their approach devolves into:
“This data is consistent with my conclusion, therefore, it’s evidence of my conclusion.”
Consistency is the weakest form of evidentiary support. It’s required, but cannot get the job done by itself.
You might define Gagacorcas as being Intergalactic Orcas that like to bathe in the magnetic poles of planets, and fart out auroras. The Aurora Borealis may be consistent with your defined entity, but the accumulation of observed auroras doesn’t equate to mounting evidence that Gagacorcas are real. There’s more to it than that.
You’re doing it backwards. The key isn’t to start with a conclusion, and then try to lead evidence to supporting it. One needs to follow where the evidence implicates is the answer. A regular heaping dose of trying to falsify your hypothesis also helps ensure that you aren’t creating a totally vacuous model that isn’t true, but is apparently supported by all sorts of data that’s consistent with it. There’s a slew of epistemic procedures to ensure that you’re on the right track…. few/none of which apologists adhere, if they somehow manage to be aware of them at all.
That’s where requesting that we be “honest skeptics”, as being sufficient to listen to these arguments from prophecy, is like saying that the prerequisites to becoming an astronaut is that one isn’t afraid of heights. There’s a bit more to it than that.
Precedent and Probability
Some will recognize this as something similar to an application of Bayesian analysis, in a very crude fashion.
Now that we’re examining what the data implicates, as opposed to dismissing it because it isn’t consistent with our desired conclusion, we first need to recognize that a piece of evidence can implicate one or more possibilities.
This is my classic example. The previous night, you set your garbage bags on the curb-side for garbage pickup. This morning, you look outside, and see that they’re torn open, and the contents strewn about the driveway. The question is, “What happened?”
Here’s the data:
- Bags show signs that they were opened from the outside, and didn’t burst open from the inside.
- Bags have long tears.
- Content is missing, like food.
The data points clearly to the fact that something was attempting to find something within the trash bags, and hastily tore through them to find it.
Here’s some possibilities to the culprit.
- Bob Dole
- “Garbageoids” – Aliens who are attempting to collect human DNA (such as through saliva)
The last two are laughable – but why? The answer is that raccoons are easily and frequently observed as partaking in this behavior. They are demonstrably real, and incontrovertibly awesome.
Garbageoids, on the other hand, have no other supporting evidence. There’s no realiable data that uniquely points to this as a possibility. In fact, we’d have propose a plethora of assumptions before this becomes feasible – that interstellar travel is practical; that they’re only interest in collecting DNA, and that their best approach is garbage; that despite their presence on our planet, no credible evidence has emerged to support them yet; that they could find our dinky little planet in the depths of space, where our radio signals might be 60-80 lightyears out.
So when the Garbageoid apologist says, “Perhaps the greatest and most obvious testimony to the accuracy of Garbageoids is provided by the torn-open garbage bags across the planet.“, you’ll be forgiven for laughing out loud.
Further, if you respond, “Aliens are the best explanation you can come up with to explain torn-open garbage bags?“, you’d have a good point.
We’re talking about Occam’s Razor – an often misunderstood rule of thumb. Many think it’s just “the simplest answer”, and some theists will says “God answers everything, so it’s the simplest answer.” Not quite. By “simplest answer”, we’re talking about the least number of unsubstantiated assumptions and hypotheses required to make it work. As we noted, the “Garbageoids” answer required many unsupported hypotheses.
Did you also laugh at Bob Dole, as an answer? Bob Dole is demonstrably real. He has the ability to go around, tearing into peoples’ garbage bags. We don’t have to invent magic or FTL technology to explain Bob Dole’s existence. However, the notion is still absurd, because he’s a well-off retired politician who has no basis for doing so. We understand the motivation and scenario of the raccoon, and seems like, without any further evidence, the best one to go with, until that further evidence is provided.
It’s possible that Bob Dole did do it. Maybe additional evidence will show this, but it isn’t rational to tentatively adopt that as the solution to the mystery, when there are other, more reasonable possibilities available. Nor is it reasonable to withhold all judgement until we’ve achieved a state of omniscience about the universe. That’s why we’re allowed to tentatively hold a position, and keep it open to review in the future. We literally cannot make progress in understanding the universe if we don’t allow for this.
Generally speaking, “good” evidence is evidence that strongly favors/implicates one possibility over others. So when we’re asking for “evidence”, that’s just shorthand for “evidence that’s worth a damn,” as not all evidence is created equal.
So what does my referenced article have to say about prophecy being evidence for a god?
Perhaps the greatest and most obvious testimony to the accuracy of Biblical prophecy is provided by the people and nation of Israel.
The Jews went without a homeland for 1900 years, just as God had promised numerous times in the Old Testament, as a reluctant judgment on His rebellious chosen people. Moses warned Israel that if they corrupted themselves, then “the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other (Deut 28:64, KJV)”. Remarkably, this century God restored the Jews to their ancient homeland, fulfilling many other specific Old Testament prophesies.
Just like we don’t have to appeal to aliens to explain our garbage strewn about our driveways, we don’t to appeal to magical universe-creating beings to explain “prophecy” in the Bible.
Illusion of Fulfillment
There’s several ways for proposed prophecy to appear to come true, without any magic being involved.
These are assertions that were bound to come true on their own, anyway. Predicting that something “bad” will happen to me next year is a safe bet, given the frequency that “bad” things do happen.One game I occasionally play is to look out the window, and “predict” that one of the next cars “will be a truck”. After a few vehicles, my prediction inevitably comes true.
Informed Likely-Fulfilling Prophecy
These are assertions that were bound to come true, with the probability enhanced, because you examined the evidence, and found a likely upcoming event. I can examine the brake lines on my truck, see that they’re heavily corroded, and “prophesize” that they’ll need to be replaced soon.
Fulfilling-Set enlarged due to vague requirements
The set of things that can “fulfill” the requirements of the prophecy can be artificially enlarged by being vague. There’s a big difference between saying “something bad” will happen to me in 2015, and saying “you’ll be in a car accident”.
Large Fulfilling-Set multiplied by undefined or extensive timeline
Without giving a start and end date, for when the prophecy applies, this greatly enhances the possibility it’ll come true without magic. I can predict that “Earth will be struck by a meteor.” Assuming it’s confirmed I had no access to any scientific data (making it an “Informed Self-Fulfilling Prophecy”), if I were to predict Dec 14, 2021, that’d be more interesting than if I said, “… within the next 10 million years.” The longer time goes on, the more likely the unlikely will happen – no magic required.
This is more psychological – someone is told that something will come true, and by mere fact of being informed, will (subconsciously or not) make it happen. Telling someone that he/she will be “unhappy next week”, it may act like a placebo effect, and the person will find reasons to be unhappy. Likewise, telling a teenager that he/she will be a famous person may cause that person to work towards the goal, ultimately accomplishing it.
Another example is ordering a steak at a restaurant, and predicting that you’ll get one. Unless a meteor hits the restaurant, that “prophecy” will likely come true.
Ignoring Inconsistencies/Contradictions; Rationalizing them Away
We can further enhance our prophecy coming true by simply ignoring anything that contradicts it. If that didn’t boost the chances of it fulfilling enough, anything that doesn’t align or match up can simply be rationalized away.
Make a gigabillion-and-one predictions, and then only trot out the ones that managed to succeed. It’d be like being on a firing range, shooting at a target a hundred times, and then taking the one that hit the bulls-eye, and claiming that you’re accurate with a firearm. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The formation of Israel after World War II is one of the most uncompelling prophecies they offer, and yet, they offer it as the most compelling one.
Let’s look at the prophecy through the lens of the above list of ways it can come true without needing God/magic/etc.
- It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t a prediction, it was a plan – a plan followed by lots of people trying to make it happen.
- It was an unbounded timeline. They didn’t speficy in the 20th century… they didn’t give any timeframe at all. The fact that it took nearly 2000 years makes it all the more boring.
- It was an informed prediction. Israelites, at the time, could already see the angst against them. Nor were they bound to migrate too far away from where they currently existed. Predicting that this would merely continue into the future, doesn’t take a prophet.
- The requirements were vague. The Bible specifies Jerusalem, but little more than that.
- There’s inconsistencies:
[Referring to the day of establishing the Jewish in Jerusalem] – “On that day the Lord will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, going before them. 9 And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:8-9)
Did any of that happen? Why do they get to cite things that came true as evidence for, but things that didn’t come true aren’t evidence against? It says “On that day“, which would invalidate this prophecy, but you know apologists will come up with some explanation that will explain why it doesn’t count… further decreasing the magic/God requirement for this to apparently come true.
Last, but not least:
- This is one prediction among many. We’re apparently only noting the ones that “hit”, and are ignoring the misses.
Is this really the best they’ve got? In every conceivable way that the probability of this prediction coming true – without requiring a single smidgen of magic/God/ESP/precognition – is met.
This honest skeptic thinks this is blatantly mundane. I ask, “God is the best explanation they could come up with to explain this?”
The article says:
It is inconceivable to me how the honest skeptic could deny God’s handiwork in the history of the people of Israel.
There doesn’t seem to be any God-handiwork present to deny. In fact, the author of the article seems to be operating on an Argument from Incredulity.
Throughout history the “wandering Jew” has been hated and despised, yet despite the unbelievable persecution they endured, the Jews somehow managed to maintain their identity such that when God’s timeclock warranted they were able to re-group as a nation in their ancient homeland. Indeed, history is replete with once great nations which were eventually overrun and defeated, but whose people were over time absorbed into the culture of the conquering nation. The fact that this did not happen to the Jews is nothing short of miraculous. There are American Jews, German Jews, Russian Jews, etc.; have you ever heard of a German Babalonian, or an American Philistine? The plight of this small percentage of humanity is certainly unique and unprecedented in the annals of world history.
Finally, who can deny the volatility of the Middle East, with Israel as the boiling point, and the worldwide focus of attention she receives. Bear this in mind when reading the following Bible passage, written almost 2500 years ago, and also consider that this was written at a time when Jerusalem was in complete ruins:
I just don’t think it was difficult to predict.
The fulfillment of hundreds of specific prophecies in the ancient and modern history of the Jewish people is God’s great sign to mankind–a sign that no one can mistake or deny…Jewish history stands as a universal visible monument to God’s existence.
Firstly, if we were to grant that, that’d demonstrate that the Jewish religion is correct, not Christianity. Christians merely stole their book and added some fan fiction at the end.
Secondly, as I pointed out before, additional instances of auroras and torn-open garbage bags do not creating an ever-increasing case for Garbageoids and Gagacorcas. Each of those “prophecies” fail for similar reasons. It’d be like trying to save up for a car by adding zero dollars to your savings account every week. You’ll never get there.
God and Prophecy
If all the above wasn’t bad enough, the next question is, “What’s the connection between God and Prophecy?”
Once, I was having a “debate” with an apologist, who kept bringing up prophecy over and over – the typical Bible-thumping brick wall. It took some attempts, but I finally got him to answer the question. How does fulfilled prophecy demonstrate a god?
Well, how else would it happen?
When I do get an answer, it’s rarely any better than this straight-up Argument from Ignorance. God isn’t the only possible explanation, though.
- Time-travellers are real, and gave the Torah/Old Testament writers a heads-up.
- Precognition is possible. Maybe psychics are real, but they’re X-Men, and it has nothing to do with a god.
- There’s a universe-creating God who has precognition.
- There’s a race of extra-dimensional beings, who aren’t gods, who see our entire timeline at once, and are communicating with us.
- Everything I said in the above sections.
I don’t know why they’re arbitrarily choosing #3 over the others. That’s where it boils down to just finding anything that’s consistent with what they already believe, and ignoring the rest.
We invented aurora-farting orcas, and auroras are consistent with that. They’ve invented a precognitive universe-creating being, and the Bible is consistent with that. They’re doing it backwards, with zero interest in falsification.
Even if the Bible were chalked full of pinpoint-specific predictions that were otherwise too random to have been accurately predicted… even if they we successfully confirmed that somehow, the authors of the book somehow gained accurate knowledge of the future, all we’ve done is demonstrated that the authors of the book somehow gained accurate knowledge of the future. How they gained it is another question entirely. To simply claim that it was a God because it was in the Bible, is nothing more than an Association Fallacy – that it’s somehow true by association.
If they want God to be responsible, they then have to demonstrate that asserted causal mechanism. To do that, they first need to demonstrate that the cause (God) exists, before the causal mechanism linking the two can be shown. That’s what also makes this circular reasoning. They must assume the thing they’re trying to demonstrate – that accurate prophecy can only come from a god.
From beginning to end, arguments from prophecy are utterly daft to me. Additionally, each time they’re brought up, it only reinforces in my mind that this truly is the best they’ve got…. and that’s pathetic.
I can only guess that what they meant by “honest skeptic” was, “just accept whatever we tell you without any actual skepticism, reason, logic, evidence, critical thinking or analysis.”