If you’ve ever heard a sermon on “How I know the Bible is true,” then you know that prophecy is one of the primary pillars used to support the Bible’s authenticity. You may have also heard that the Bible is unique in its prophetic ability (unlike all other forms of prophecy… which are all hooey… and prove nothing).
But before I delve into specific Bible prophecies, I want to take a look at prophecy in general, and its potential to confirm the Bible and the existence of God.
I figured a good place to start would be to note exactly how many prophecies are in the Bible. Surprisingly, some Christian sources claimed there are hundreds, others numbered them in the thousands, and still others said there were tens of thousands. Apparently, what qualifies as a single prophecy is a bit subjective, but the largest list I could locate that cited actual verses was in the hundreds.
So… what is prophecy?
Prophecy, for our purposes, is simply the ability to accurately predict the future. Because the future is unknown, it’s inferred that someone with prophetic abilities must have a special power, or they are in contact with someone from another realm (e.g. a spiritual realm) where the future is already known. But proving that someone has accurately predicted the future, or that their information is originating from another realm, can be quite challenging.
I believe prophecy could be impressively demonstrated if such a thing actually existed, but there are a lot of non-miraculous explanations would need to be ruled out before we embrace such an extraordinary claim. With that in mind, here’s my own “Top 20 list” of problems facing prophecy.
Top 20 Problems with Prophecy
1) Everyone who’s anyone is doing it
Prophecy is a very popular phenomenon. Nostradamus, astrologers, psychics, palm readers, mediums, cult leaders, fortune cookies, present-day prophets, voodoo priests, religious texts, and your mom’s real estate agent have all claimed to see the future. Regardless of how they do it, the very fact that everyone claims to be able to it should make us skeptical.
2) Prophecies are always made prior to their fulfillment
One of the most obvious problems with prophecy is that the prediction always precedes the predicted event. This can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, confirmation bias, or people simply lying about a prophecy’s fulfillment.
3) Prophecies are often vague
If a prophecy is too vague, it can take on many different meanings. The more meanings it can take on, the greater the likelihood that someone will find a match.
For this reason, prophecies should be specific, highly improbable, and its meaning should be clearly understood in advance of the event. For example, if someone predicted “On May 12, 2021 at 3:14PST, there will be a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in San Francisco that will kill 665 people… and Cameron Diaz,” that would be very specific (not vague) and highly improvable. Or if a psychic could repeatedly predict upcoming lottery numbers, or give the exact GPS coordinates of missing persons, this would be impressive (and suspicious!)
4) Prophecies can be self-fulfilling
For example, if Warren Buffet predicts the stock market will crash next week, everyone may sell as a result. Or if everyone believes that Israel will become a nation again, they might begin working toward this goal, bringing the prediction to fruition.
5) The prophecy may have been probable
Every prediction will have a certain probability of coming to pass on its own. For example, it means nothing to predict “the sun will rise again tomorrow” or “in the future there will be earthquakes and wars.” If a prophecy is probable, it offers little proof.
6) Prophecies may be based on subtle, but keen observations
A good prophet may just be very observant. For example, before watching a “chick flick” with my wife, I will sometimes joke, “I predict that in the beginning they will fall in love, and then one of them will screw up, and spend the rest of the movie trying to make up for it.” I’m no prophet, I’ve just seen enough chick flicks to observe the pattern.
7) Predictions may take advantage of the power of suggestion
When you read your horoscope, you become aware of what to look for and, as a result, you often find it. However, if I were to hand you last week’s horoscopes, with all of the zodiac signs removed, you’d probably be hard pressed to determine which one was intended for you. Suggestions create expectations, which leads us actively seeking out events or details.
For example, if I tell you you’re going to meet someone in a hat, you probably will. Or if you move into a house that someone says is haunted, this suggestion is going to make everyday noises and events suddenly seem eerie.
And likewise, we have to wonder, if the Old Testament never predicted a coming Messiah, would anyone have looked for one? If new prophets arise even when we’re not actively looking for them, then how much more likely are we to find a Messiah when we are looking?
8) We may be ignoring the failed prophecies due to confirmation bias
We humans naturally seek out and interpret information in ways that reaffirm our preconceptions. This effect is even stronger for emotionally charged issues and deeply entrenched beliefs. We cherry-pick what helps to confirm our existing positions, and we ignore details that do not; we see the “hits” and ignore the “misses.”
For example, Christians often point to the destruction of Tyre (Ezekiel 26:1-21) as proof of prophecy, but they ignore (or heavily reinterpret) failed prophecies concerning the destruction and abandonment of places like Damascus and Egypt (Isaiah 17:1 and Ezekiel 29:8-12).
9) We may be reading a prophecy into a text where it was never intended (aka “shoehorning”, “eisegesis”, or “apophenia”)
This practice derives from the human tendency to seek out patterns and relationships, even when no actual correlation exists. As a result, many religions seem to be able to read into the Bible many ideas that support their own very different conclusions.
For example, many Mormons see the following verse as a prophecy concerning the golden plates that Joseph Smith would eventually dig up on the hill Cumorah:
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. — Psalm 85:11
And they also see John 10 as a prophecy about Jesus appearing in the Americas after his crucifixion:
I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. — John 10:16
And Muslims see the following verse as a prophecy concerning the coming of the Prophet Muhammad (and not the Holy Spirit, as Christians see it):
Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. — John 16:7
But did the Bible really predict the coming of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet Muhammad? Or were followers of these religions just reading “prophecies” into the existing text? And if Mormons and Muslims can do it, why not Christians?
It’s also vitally important that a prediction be labeled as such from the beginning. In many cases, Jews and Christians disagree over what portions of the Old Testament should be considered prophetic. If we can’t agree on whether or not something was intended as a prophecy in the first place, then there’s a good chance it was selected with the benefit of hindsight. (Meanwhile, all other non-prophetic statements that do not have meaning, are ignored.)
10) A prophecy may have been written after the fact (also known as postdiction or “Vaticinium ex eventu”)
It should go without saying, but to prove a prophecy is authentic, we must be able to prove it was written before the event it predicts.
11) A prophecy may have been edited after the fact
Similar to postdiction, a prophecy may become altered after the event in order to better align with the results. If we don’t have original documentation from before a predicted event took place, it may be impossible to prove that all the details remained unchanged.
12) Failed prophets may have been excluded from the Bible
We really don’t know how many tens, hundreds, or thousands of prophetic texts were excluded from the Old Testament. Perhaps out of a thousand prophetic texts, only a handful made the final cut. If these were selected solely on the basis of accuracy, it is not proof that prophets can predict the future, but rather proof that those living in the future can weed out the losers.
Mutual fund managers have been known to play similar tricks, assembling dozens of funds for the sole purpose of marketing the winners (ergo, “Past performance may not be indicative of future results.”) The never predicted the future, the merely weeded out the losers.
Similarly, if we asked 1,000 people to write prophecies about the future, and in 100 years someone compiled a book (with the benefit of hindsight) featuring only the top 10 most impressive predictions, the resulting book might seem quite extraordinary… if you didn’t know they’d eliminated 990 failed prophets.
13) Prophecies may be translated with bias
Similar to postdiction or editing a prophecy after the fact, often translators can’t help but apply their own bias to a translation. For example, if a translator translates Isaiah 53:5 to read, “He was pierced for our transgressions” instead of the less compelling (but more accurate) “He was wounded for our transgressions,” then he probably has a a certain someone in mind.
14) The person defending a prophecy may be employing a double standard
If we agree to accept prophecy as proof of a claim, then we must also be willing to accept someone else’s prophecy as proof of their claim, otherwise we may be employing a double standard.
For example, if Muslims claim that there are prophecies in the Quran that were fulfilled (and they do), then we must give these prophecies equal weight.
To avoid this problem, some Christians will claim that other prophecies are of the devil, or are a test from God (Deut. 13:1-3). But if competing religions also have accurate prophecies, not only does this make prophecy suspect, but it cannot be used to confirm one religion over another, because you can never be certain which side the real God is on.
For example, the prophet Zoroaster (who founded Zoroastrianism, formerly one of the world’s largest religions) may have been right about Ahura Mazda being the one true god, and the evil Angra Mainyu inspired the authors of the Bible just to test faithful Zoroastrians! Or perhaps the Jews are right, and God sent Jesus as a deception.
15) A prophecy may be considered fulfilled regardless of the outcome
If a prophet says “God will spare your city if you repent,” then he has actually predicted all possible outcomes. If nothing happens, then the prophet has predicted how God would spare the city. If the city is destroyed, he predicted its destruction.
16) The prophet could’ve gotten lucky
Even prophets sometimes get lucky.
For example, in 2006 Pat Robertson prophesied that “something as bad as a tsunami” would hit the Pacific Northwest. And… well… nothing happened. But had something happened, you can bet your life he would’ve played it up on The 700 Club. (And for the record, God didn’t warn Pat that 230,000 Indonesians would die from a tsunami in 2004, or that thousands would die from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. God waited until 2006 to warn Pat of a non-event.)
17) A prophecy might be “eternally pending”
If a prophecy doesn’t have a deadline, it’s practically worthless, because without a deadline, it can never fail. This can make it appear as if a prophet is never wrong, because some of his open-ended prophecies will, by sheer chance, come to pass, while all the others might be perceived as still pending.
For example, it’s been 2,000 years since Jesus said, “I’ll be back,” and this still isn’t considered a failed prophecy. Without a deadline, we’ll never know if this prophecy has failed.
18) Failed prophecies can be reinterpreted as being spiritually, metaphorically, or allegorically fulfilled.
When a specific prophecy literally fails, believers will sometimes claim it was fulfilled spiritually or metaphorically instead of labeling it a failure.
For example, when Harold Camping’s May 21, 2011 rapture prediction failed, he said it was fulfilled spiritually. And when Jesus failed to fulfill a number of Messianic prophecies, his followers simply said he’d fulfilled them spiritually or metaphorically (or they were still pending).
19) A prophecy’s fulfillment may have been lied about
It’s easy to lie about details that are difficult to disprove. For example, if Jesus wasn’t actually born in Bethlehem, or didn’t ride into a donkey into Jerusalem, someone could’ve lied about these events decades later, and no one would’ve been the wiser.
It’s much more difficult to lie about well-known events. For example, you couldn’t lie and say “Jesus became the literal king of Israel!” or “Jesus returned all the Jews to Israel!” or “Jesus brought about world peace!” Because people would know you were lying.
When “easily lied about” prophecies are the only ones being fulfilled, while the “difficult to lie about” prophecies are being fulfilled spiritually, metaphorically or are made eternally pending, it should raise red flags.
20) Prophecies may not be from God
And finally, even if someone could give specific prophecies, it still doesn’t prove that they are in cahoots with God, Satan, or some other spiritual force. It may be a trick, or luck, or aliens, or Ahura Mazda, or an unknown god, or they could’ve found ways to predict or control certain events, or they may be from the future or a parallel universe.
In order for a prophecy to be convincing, it should be:
- understood as a prophecy from the very beginning (not converted into a prophecy in hindsight),
- a highly improbable event,
- well out of human control,
- specific enough that only one event could satisfy it, and this meaning should be understood prior to fulfillment
- fulfilled in a narrow time frame or given a specific deadline,
- fulfilled literally (never spiritually or metaphorically),
- unedited or accurately translated,
- the fulfillment must be extremely well documented (ideally observable),
- and the prophecy should not be grouped with other prophecies that have failed, they should all be successful.
Although impressive prophecies should not be difficult to demonstrate (such as the aforementioned earthquake example), I have yet to see a prophecy that successfully navigated this gauntlet of qualifiers. Typically, they will violate one or more, which allows them to appear impressive, when nothing incredible has happened.
With all the problems facing prophecy, it’s a wonder why God would choose such a questionable medium to qualify his other claims, especially when there are so many other good ways to demonstrate his authority (such as sending fire from heaven, revealing insider information, or responding to prayer on a testable basis).
If God is able to deliver on hundreds of questionable prophecies, but not demonstrate his superiority in any other arena, it would lead me to suspect his prophecies are no better than anyone else’s. I’m willing to examine and remain open-minded about Bible prophecies, but I predict there will be problems.