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What makes a good prophecy?

Bible prophecies don’t get special treatment. Prophecies from an all-knowing God should easily pass the highest standards, and if they don’t, the religion behind those claims should be rejected.

We’ve just finished a look at 13 Bible prophecies from Hugh Ross of the Reasons to Believe ministry. He said that 2000 Bible prophecies have already been “fulfilled to the letter—no errors.” In fact, the 13 prophecies that he gave were laughable failures—see for yourself. (Maybe he read his list wrong and gave us the bottom rather than the top 13?)

Judging bad prophecies

Most of us can easily spot bad prophecies—tabloid predictions by psychics such as Jeane Dixon or Sylvia Browne, for example. And not even many Christians are sucked into the end-of-the-world predictions by such “prophets” as Harold Camping.

There’s a great infographic of Christianity’s many end-of-the-world predictions here, and I write about Harold Camping’s ill-advised venture into prophecy in 2011 here and here. Ronald Weinland assured us that Jesus would return on May 19, 2013. John Hagee imagined that lunar eclipses predict something (he wasn’t quite sure what), and Ray Comfort just imagines things.

Another interesting category are the claims of fulfilled biblical prophecies. (I’ve responded to some of those claims here, here, here, and here.) The claims are so weak that I wonder: don’t we have a common idea of what fulfilled prophecy actually looks like? Don’t we critique prophecy claims like those made by Sylvia Browne or Jeane Dixon the same way? Let’s take a step back and agree on what makes a good prophecy.

1. The prophecy must be startling, not mundane.

“The [fill in political party] will gain control of [fill in branch of government] in the next election” isn’t very startling. “There will be no legislature because of a coup” would be startling.

We regularly find big surprises in the news—earthquakes, wars, medical breakthroughs, and so on. These startling events are what make useful prophecies.

2. The prophecy must be precise, not vague.

“Expect exciting and surprising gold medals for the U.S. Olympic team!” is not precise. “A major earthquake will devastate Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2010” is precise.

When Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in 480 BC, the Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi. The prophecy: “The wooden wall only shall not fail.” But what does that mean? A literal wooden wall? Or maybe the thorn bushes around the Acropolis. They finally decided that it meant their wooden ships. The navy saved Greece, but this prophecy was so ambiguous that it was no prophecy at all. A cryptic prophecy makes a good story, but this is not an indication of an omniscient source.

Nostradamus is another example of “prophecies” that were so vague that they can be imagined to mean lots of things. Similarly, the hundreds of supposed Bible prophecies are simply quote mining. You could also apply the identical process to War and Peace or The Collected Works of Shakespeare to find parallels to the gospel story, but so what?

3. The prophecy must be accurate.

We should have high expectations for a divine divinator. American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce could perhaps be excused if he was a little off (in fact, he showed no particular gift at all), but prophecy from the omniscient Creator should be perfect.

4. The prophecy must predict, not retrodict.

The writings of Nostradamus predicted London’s Great Fire of 1666 and the rise of Napoleon and Hitler . . . but of course these “predictions” were so unclear in his writings that the connection had to be inferred afterwards. This is also the failing of the Bible Code—the idea that the Hebrew Bible holds hidden acrostics of future events. And maybe it does—but the same logic could find these after-the-fact connections in any large book.

5. The prophecy can’t be self-fulfilling.

The prediction that a bank will soon become insolvent may provoke its customers to remove all their money . . . and make the bank insolvent. The prediction that a store will soon go out of business may drive away customers. The Greek god Kronos heard that one of his children would kill him, so he ate them, but if he hadn’t been so violent, Zeus might not have killed him.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are cheating.

6. The prophecy and the fulfillment must be verifiable.

The prophecy and sometimes the fulfillment can come from centuries past, and we must be confident that they are accurate history. We must have higher standards than that they were written down.

7. The fulfillment must come after the prophecy.

Kind of obvious, right? But some Old Testament prophecies fail on this point.

Isaiah 45:1 names Cyrus the Great of Persia as the anointed one (Messiah) who will end the Babylonian exile (587–538 BCE) of the Israelites. That might be impressive if it predicted the events, but this part of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) was probably written during the time of Cyrus.

Or take Daniel. Daniel the man might have been taken to Babylon during the exile, but Daniel the book was written centuries later in roughly 165 BCE. Its “prophecies” about events before that date are pretty good, but it fails afterwards. There’s even a term for this, vaticinia ex eventu—prophecies after the event.

8. The fulfillment must be honest.

The author of the fulfillment can’t simply look in the back of the book, parrot the answers found there, and then declare victory. We need strong evidence that this didn’t happen.

But we see this when Mark records Jesus’s last words as exactly those words from Psalm 22. Did it really happened that way, or was Jesus was deliberately quoting from the psalm as he died, or (my choice) Mark knew the psalm and put those words into his gospel?

I think that any of us would find this a fairly obvious list of the ways that predictions can fail. We’d quickly spot these errors in a supermarket tabloid or in some other guy’s nutty religion. But the Jesus prophecies are rejected by this skeptical net as well. Consider Matthew: this gospel says that Jesus was born of a virgin (1:18–25), was born in Bethlehem (2:1), and that he rode humbly on two donkeys (21:1–7). It says that Jesus predicted that he would rise, Jonah-like, after three days (12:40) and that the temple would fall (24:1–2). It says that he was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (26:15), that men gambling for his clothes (27:35), and it records his last words (27:46).

Are these the records of fulfilled prophecy? Maybe all these claims in Matthew actually did happen, but if so, we have no grounds for saying so. Because they fail these tests (primarily #8), we must reject these claims of fulfilled prophecy. The non-supernatural explanation is far more plausible.

Should we have separate standards for biblical prophecies? Yes, we should judge a perfect God and a flawless Bible with much, much higher standards.

See also: Make Your Very Own Prophecy (That Actually Comes True!)

Risky predictions have been successfully made
thousands of times in science,
not once in religion.
— Vic Stenger


(This is an update of a post from 3/28/15.)

Image from Dawn Endico (license CC BY-SA 2.0)

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...