Imagine your friend Tom claims that his parents had, long before Tom was born, amazingly prophesied that 1) Tom would get a haircut the day before he entered Harvard University, that 2) he would marry a French girl, and that 3) he would work as a doctor in Chicago. The odds of these three things happening to anyone are astronomical. Tom says this demonstrates his parents are psychics. You are willing to believe him, but you’d like to ask a few questions.
After digging deeper, you discover Tom had known about the prophesy from the time he was a child. You ask for the recording of the actual prophecies (shown below).
DAD: “I envision our clean-cut kids attending prestigious universities.”
MOM: “Yes, we’ll have a son who has a well-paying job in a city with a large lake on which he’ll go yachting with a wife from Europe perhaps.”
You discover they are very vague, many of them also “fulfilled” by one or more of Tom’s four siblings. You also discover there is nothing about Tom becoming a doctor. You also discover hundreds of hours of additional recording containing statements that could have been mapped to Tom’s life and have been then claimed to be prophetic. Should you conclude Tom’s has fulfilled his parents’ “prophecies”? Would not true prophecies have been far more precise? Shouldn’t we expect a high probability of finding significant overlap between the many speculations of the parents and the life of one of their children, especially since Tom could have made choices to live his life based on those visions?
The following are a few useful considerations when assessing prophecies:
- Is the prophesied event specific to one time and place, or does it clearly refer to another prior event, and is packaged with that prior fulfillment as a “dual fulfillment”? This would allow for the dubious practice of parallel hunting in which anything in the first “fulfillment” found slightly similar to a subsequent event can be repackaged as a second fulfillment.
- Is the prophecy suspiciously similar in degree of specificity to alleged prophecies of other religions you dismiss as false religions? Is the prophecy specific enough to be indisputably about the event? In Tom’s case, a “prestigious university” is not Harvard. In the case of Nostradamus, is “Two royal brothers shall war so much one against the other” predicting the 9/11 fall of the World Trade Center’s twin towers?
- Is the prophecy extracted from a large body of literature of proclamations that may possibly roughly map to some event today? The size of the Old Testament and the works of Nostradamus are both so large that the likelihood of an rough match between a prophetic utterance and a later event is high, just as the hundreds of recordings make an accidental “prophecy” quite probable for Tom.
- This is perhaps the most important consideration. Was the prophecy available to those who have made uncorroborated claims of events mapping to those prophecies? Could not many of the events found in the New Testament have been invented by individuals very familiar with the Old Testament prophecies? Could these events have not simply been either 1) fabricated or 2) have been intentionally “fulfilled” as Tom may have purposefully fulfilled his becoming a doctor?
The following is a list of specific Biblical prophecies that correspond to the list of caveats on the previous page:
Isaiah Chapter 7 includes the following prophecy that Jews claim is merely a prophecy of the way Jehovah would protect the kingdom of Ahaz.
v10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, v11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” v12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” v13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? v14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. v15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, v16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. v17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
Verse 14 is today frequently cited as also a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. This parallel hunting renders claims of the improbability of a fulfilled prophecy unimpressive.
Many Muslims claim that the following eschatological passage in the Quran refers to the 1969 moon landing when astronauts removed rocks from the surface, effectively “splitting” the moon:
Quran 54:1 — The moon has split and the hour has drawn closer.
Don’t we rightly chuckle at such a stretch between a vague prophecy and a modern event? Yet not just a few Christians have claimed the following is a clear prophecy of the helicopter gunships used in the Kuwait War:
Revelation 9:7-10 — The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.
Is this connection not just as absurd as the “splitting” moon? How many more biblical “prophecies” are simply attempts to pound square events into round prophecies and then call them “fulfilled”?
Given the number of verses in the Bible, how improbable is a coincidental “fulfillment” in which a “prediction” roughly maps to a subsequent event? In Isaiah 6:9 an angel instructs Isaiah to tell the Israelites “You will be ever hearing but never understanding”. How easily could this have been “fulfilled”? Are there not individuals hearing without understanding every day? Yet Matthew 13:14 makes the following claim:
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
How can this be categorized as a prophecy, especially in the context of Jesus speaking in vague parables? Was not Matthew taking quite excessive semantic liberties by calling this a “fulfillment”?
How many of the Old Testament prophecies could have been easily “fulfilled” through human manipulation of events, or through the invention of events by New Testament writers familiar with the Old Testament? Consider the triumphant entry of Jesus on a donkey into Jerusalem in Matthew 21 in an alleged fulfillment of the following passage:
Zechariah 9:9 — …See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey…
How difficult would it have been for those who knew of this statement by Zechariah to have staged this event? Yet Matthew cites this as prophetic evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. Also consider the alleged prophecy of the creation of the nation of Israel. Can the establishment of the nation of Israel be considered a miraculous fulfillment when many of the powerful actors in the process knew about the prophecy, and desired its “fulfillment”?
More important, however, is the real possibility that men familiar with the Old Testament simply constructed the life of Jesus around what they considered to be messianic prophecies. It would have been an enormous temptation for Jews yearning for a messiah under the seemingly invincible oppressive Roman rule to simply fabricate a spiritual messiah.
How might actual prophecy from an actual God distinguish itself from the vague and dubious prophecies of fabricated religions? An actual God could specify dates, times, and places with such precision that no one could dispute it as anything other than remarkable. On the fulfillment side, any real God could ensure fulfillments were immediately recorded publicly in a way that would eliminate the possibility the event was merely invented to map to the prophecy. Is there any good reason the prophecies of the Bible are as vague as those of any other proposed holy book? Is there any reason we are left to presume the honesty of the New Testament writers?
(See “Supplementary B” for more on biblical prophecies.)