Prophecy Part 1: Introduction

In my last post, I explained why I believe the Bible would need to be inerrant if it were truly inspired by God. Now, I’d like to begin examining why I don’t believe the Bible meets that standard.

People will often defend the Bible’s inspiration by saying that it contains fulfilled prophecies. Is that really true? Certainly if their claim is valid, it would practically guarantee the truth of the Bible. In fact, the Bible itself makes this very point in Deuteronomy 18:22:

When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

This passage says that a true prophecy of God can not fail. That’s important. It provides a vital litmus test to anyone claiming to be from God, and it’s a litmus test we can use on the Bible itself. But in order for us to be able to apply that test accurately, we need to set up some criteria. An apologist I’m familiar with, Wayne Jackson, has offered the following guidelines for determining the quality of a prophecy:

Prophecy must involve: (1) Proper timing, i.e., the oracle must significantly precede the person or event described. It must be beyond the realm of reasonable calculation so as to preclude the possibility of an “educated guess.” When one “prophesies” that it will rain tomorrow—with a weather front moving in—it hardly evinces divine intervention. (2) The prophecy must deal in specific details, not vague generalities which are capable of being manipulated to fit various circumstances. To predict that “someone” will do “something” at “sometime” is not terribly impressive. (3) Exact fulfillment, not merely a high degree of probability, must characterize the prediction. A prophet who is 80% accurate is no prophet at all!
(“Principles of Bible Prophecy,” url)

To help illustrate the importance of these criteria, I’d like to provide two examples of prophecy in the Bible that don’t really provide good proof of prophecy fulfillment to us today.

Sennacherib
In 2 Kings 19, Sennacherib, king of Assyria has come against Judah. King Hezekiah is afraid, but Isaiah tells him that the threat will go away and Sennacherib will fall by the sword in his own land. We see in verse 37 of the chapter that this is exactly what happens to him.

Is this a good example of prophecy fulfillment? Not for our purposes. The prophecy and its fulfillment are both given in the same chapter. And since 2 Kings records events that run through the Babylonian captivity, it seems quite likely that this entire account was written long after the events transpired. So how can we know that the prophecy was actually spoken and not just added in after the fact? We can’t. So it fails the first of the criteria we established. In other words, while this prophecy doesn’t provide any proof against the Bible, it doesn’t serve as any real evidence for it either.

Josiah
Another example that people commonly point to as an example of prophecy fulfillment is in 1 Kings 13, where we have the story of the man of God who came to speak out against Jeroboam’s idolatry. While there, he prophesied that a king named Josiah would one day sacrifice the false priests upon the altar and tear it down. In 2 Kings 23, Josiah does those very things. If I remember correctly, there are approximately 300 years between these two events.

Is this a good example of prophecy fulfillment? Once again, we have an issue where the book that contains the prophecy and the fulfillment are the same. 1 and 2 Kings are not two separate works, but two halves of one large volume. Essentially, these works seem to have been compiled long after the events in question. So whether or not any prophecy was ever given is impossible to know. As a Christian, you can certainly believe that this was a prophecy and was really fulfilled. But there’s no way to use it as proof of the inspiration of the Bible.

To make this clearer, let me use an example. If someone in 2011 were writing a biography about a person who lived in New Orleans, they could write that this person predicted Hurricane Katrina (by name) back in 1973. Should we believe that this was a true prophecy? I mean, it was supposedly given 32 years before the event transpired, and the prophecy is now written into an actual biography. Do those things make it true? Of course not. We would probably be skeptical of that claim since an author today could easily slip it in.

The last two examples we’ve looked at are similar. The books we find them in were not completed until long after these events transpired. While it’s certainly possible that God inspired the writer (or writers), and it’s possible that the prophecy was really given, it could just as easily be explained that this was added into the narrative after the fact to give the illusion of prophecy fulfillment. In fact, that’s actually the most likely scenario, since it doesn’t require miraculous means or divine intervention.

Now that we’ve established the criteria we’ll be using to examine the Bible’s prophecies, my next post will begin to deal with prophecies that actually seem to have failed.

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29 thoughts on “Prophecy Part 1: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Prophecy Part 2: Throne Forever | Finding Truth

  2. Pingback: Prophecy Part 3: Egypt & Rachel | Finding Truth

  3. Pingback: Prophecy Part 4: Triumphal Entry | Finding Truth

  4. Pingback: Prophecy Part 8: Conclusion | Finding Truth

  5. Pingback: Prophecy Part 6: Tyre | Finding Truth

  6. Pingback: Prophecy Part 7: Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 | Finding Truth

  7. Pingback: Prophecy Part 5: Virgin Birth | Finding Truth

  8. Jim Owens

    You make some broad assumptions. You assume this was all written after the fact. You assume this was made up. You are only willing to accept assumptions that would seem to support your idea of the Bible being a false work of man. What about the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12? They are fulfilled throughout the course of the Bible Story. What about the prophecy in Genesis 3 regarding Christ? I would hardly call this an objective post.

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  9. agnosticpastor

    Actually Jim, if you look at the timeline of when these were written, you will find it was AFTER the Babylonian exile. Everything, including Genesis 3, was written many, many years…centuries in some cases, after it supposedly occurred. A good resource is Dr. Mickey Efird or Dr. Bart Ehrman. Both are very well recognized as experts in their fields.

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  10. Nate, in my misspent youth (now 40m years ago) I completed a degree in theology. In it we studied some books in detail, and one of mine was Isaiah. This included a study of what prophecy was (and wasn’t).

    If you check the books of the prophets, very little is predictive, most of it is warning and judgment. Even when it is predictive, it is often ambiguous. It often has more than one application or fulfilment. So when the NT writers quote it, they often don’t apply it literally and in context as we moderns would, but in a more flexible and creative way. They don’t do this to prove a point so much as to illustrate and explain.

    And no-one seems all that concerned about absolute literal fulfilment. The Jewish people preserved prophecies that appear not to have been fulfilled literally without seeming to be be troubled by that. I think they valued the general fulfilment without being so concerned about every last detail. For example, the famous Ezekiel prophecy concerning Tyre gets the broad future of Tyre right, and many of the details, but not other details. Thus Ezekiel was right, but some of his details were just ‘window dressing’.

    So while fulfilled prophecy may be remarkable, it isn’t really the main point. And prophecies that appear not to have been fulfilled to the letter literally shouldn’t worry us too much, for their purpose was generally different.

    It is understandable that you would want to write this series of posts on prophecies, granted the claims that some people make, but ultimately, those who claim too much for fulfilled prophecies and those who debunk them both miss the point. It is a pity if this was a major factor in your deconversion (IMO).

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  11. I appreciate your perspective on this, even though it’s a little hard for me to understand. And I’m not saying that’s a problem with you — apparently many people view this issue similarly. But I just have trouble seeing the point of the prophecies if they aren’t really all that prophetic.

    Let me take that back a little. I do see their value in a cultural/historical way, but I just have trouble accepting that the prophecies aren’t all that specific or accurate yet are somehow inspired.

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  12. “But I just have trouble seeing the point of the prophecies if they aren’t really all that prophetic. … I just have trouble accepting that the prophecies aren’t all that specific or accurate yet are somehow inspired.”

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “inspired”. Many christians take it to mean “written by God”, but normally the word refers to the original idea (“this painting was inspired by the Mona Lisa”). Its meaning in the Bible is arguable I guess.

    You also have to ask whether the recipients of the prophecies ever heard them. No doubt some did, but did the king of Tyre and all the foreign nations prophesied against in Ezekiel ever hear? I don’t know, but I doubt it. If so, then their purpose is a bit different to what is commonly thought.

    But, like I said on another post, I can’t see this is a major reason to disbelieve. I can see why it shook your tidy christian belief at the time, but I can’t see why it stopped you believing in Jesus or believing that creation by God is the best explanation of the universe. It seems like your faith must have been based on a very small rock! Would you say that was true?

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  13. If you consider the Bible to be a “small rock,” then yes, I guess it was. But why should I believe in Jesus if the Bible wasn’t really “written by God,” but just “inspired” in the same way that a work of art is? Why should I believe in the Christian God as opposed to any other?

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  14. I don’t consider the Bible to be a small rock, it your view of it as needing to be fully inspired or else of no value that I was referring to.

    I think you should believe in Jesus for the same reason why you believe anything is true – because of the evidence. In this case, the evidence is historical, and we can know about Jesus just the way we know about Hannibal or Alexander – on the basis of historical evidence.

    There are many reasons beyond the Bible why we should believe in God, especially the christian God. I have just done a summary on my blog – Why believe?. Some of them are objective, some personal – my query is whether any of these were, and are, relevant to you, because it seems that you only focus on the perceived problems with the Bible.

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  15. I checked out the link you provided, and I think you did a nice job. Those are things that I have considered, but I don’t view them quite the way you do. I don’t think the historical evidence for Jesus is so good that the best explanation is his divinity. Even if he was more than just an average man, what should we do about that? What beliefs and doctrines should we hold to? At most, I could see being a deist who believes Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, etc, had all tapped into some general “spiritual truths.” Maybe a god is behind that. But I personally haven’t seen anything to make me think such a god is anything like the Christian god. I’m actually more agnostic than I am atheist — but since I don’t have a particular belief in a god, the term atheist still applies. I suppose you could even think of me as a possibillian.

    In fact, I’m not sure that you and I are really all that far apart. You’re just more certain that a god is actually there, and you visualize him along the Christian lines. Is that a fair portrayal?

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  16. “I checked out the link you provided, and I think you did a nice job. Those are things that I have considered, but I don’t view them quite the way you do.”
    Thanks. If you follow the link at the bottom (to Why believe?, and then the links on that page, you’ll find a whole lot more discussion of the same issues, one at a time. For example, there are three formal logical arguments that seem to me to be very persuasive – see Cosmological, Teleological and Moral. I don’t just say this as propaganda, for I try to be fair, and I think that the argument for evil (against God) is also persuasive (I will be addressing that too soon). The case, to me, is cumulative.

    “I don’t think the historical evidence for Jesus is so good that the best explanation is his divinity.”
    I think it may be more persuasive than you think (but I have been wrong before!) – see Jesus – son of God?. But I agree the evidence can be interpreted several ways. I don’t try to argue people into my belief about Jesus – I argue about the historical facts, but each person is free to interpret as they see fit, and if someone doesn’t ‘see’ that Jesus is who he claimed to be, there is little I can do (except pray) that they will eventually see it.

    I actually think this is as it should be. It isn’t only the smart and the knowledgable who God wants, but those whose hearts are open to him and who are willing to listen to the Spirit. Evidence is important, but it can only take us so far.

    “In fact, I’m not sure that you and I are really all that far apart. You’re just more certain that a god is actually there, and you visualize him along the Christian lines. Is that a fair portrayal?”
    This is an interesting question, Nate. I think intellectually we may not be far apart in how we assess the evidence. I do think the evidence for God is stronger than you think, but I am not (I hope) arrogant enough to think I am always right. I think the difference is that I am willing to make a jump, whereas you may not be, at present at any rate. My view is we only have one life, and I’m going to go with the best I can find, not wait around for something more definite to drop in my lap. So I run with the truth that I have, but have always been willing to adjust and change.

    So yes, I feel more sure about God than you and yes, I feel Jesus is the best picture of God we’ll ever see.

    Thanks again, and sorry again about length.

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  17. Cool. Yeah, I do think we’re actually very close to the same position. I think the existence of God is possible, but I just don’t feel it strongly enough for it to form a belief.

    My view is we only have one life, and I’m going to go with the best I can find, not wait around for something more definite to drop in my lap. So I run with the truth that I have, but have always been willing to adjust and change.

    I’m actually very similar to this as well. I have learned enough to know that the version of Christianity I grew up with is impossible — especially if God really is loving and righteous. If he’s not, then all bets are off. But because of those wonderful qualities he’s supposed to possess, and because of the quality of the evidence we have, I’m also very confident that if he exists he won’t be disappointed in me. I’m a kind person. I truly do want to know what’s true. And I try to be honest with myself and others. If there’s a God, I’m convinced I’m on his good side, even if I don’t believe. 🙂

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  18. “I just don’t feel it strongly enough for it to form a belief.”
    Fair enough. The only thing I can suggest is that you ask God, if he’s there, to show you or convince you.

    “If there’s a God, I’m convinced I’m on his good side, even if I don’t believe.”
    I hope you’re right, but I don’t know. Most christians would say you are not believing in Jesus, so how can he ‘save’ you? I am not certain, but I do think you are not (at this moment – nothing is set in concrete) responding to the light you have been given. I don’t think ‘kindness’ is probably all that Jesus is looking for. But I’m not going to be dogmatic or trying to push you, so I’ll leave it there.

    Best wishes.

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  19. But you know, most Christians get that notion from the Bible. And how much of that can we really rely on? And how do you know that Jesus is looking for more than just kindness? Love for your fellow man seems to have been his main message, if we can trust the gospels’ versions…

    But again, I’m not asking those questions to make points — I’m honestly asking them as questions. I really appreciate this conversation we’ve been having. It’s not often that two people can discuss such personal things so politely. I’ve always admired that about you. It makes for a really nice dialogue.

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  20. Thanks Nate, for welcoming me to your blog, and for your positive comments. I too am enjoying getting to understand where you’re at, and I appreciate your willingness to discuss.

    “most Christians get that notion from the Bible. And how much of that can we really rely on?”

    I have pondered this a lot, and I am thinking that most people today are too critical of history. If someone writes something down as an apparent history or biography, I don’t think we should be overly suspicious or overly trusting. The writing should be tested of course, and it may be possible to show that it is accurate or inaccurate, but some aspects we cannot check. If it is accurate where we can check, then I am happy to accept it is probably reasonably accurate overall.

    The starting point for any christian must be Jesus. For him we have 4 biographies, many other references (in the NT letters and a few elsewhere) and an unprecedented number of manuscript copies – possibly the only ancient documents with enough copies for us to be able to check minor copying details. This shows beyond any reasonable historical doubt that Jesus lived, said and did certain things, and was executed. The biographies agree on the main facts but differ on some minor ones.

    If we consider Luke as a writer (of Luke’s gospel and Acts), we can see a person who did historical research. Classical historians generally accept that Acts is pretty reliable. Luke comes across as a caring and meticulous person (he was a doctor). I see no reason to distrust him and plenty of reason to trust him.

    I think all this gives sufficient reason to believe in Jesus.

    “how do you know that Jesus is looking for more than just kindness? Love for your fellow man seems to have been his main message, if we can trust the gospels’ versions…”

    I don’t believe this is a correct understanding of Jesus. He did many things that pointed to him claiming to be a prophet, or the Messiah, or the rightful king, even to be divine (he forgave sins which only God could do, he said he was setting up the kingdom of God, he claimed to be the son of God, he acted out the part of the messiah/king in his symbolic actions and parables, etc). Thus most scholars today, even unbelieving ones, agree that Jesus was (at the very least) a messianic prophet, not just a wandering sage.

    Jesus said (reportedly) that if we have seen him we have seen the Father. That is the foundation of my faith – I believe him. So how he acts is how God acts. And Jesus treated the marginalised and suffering very tenderly, and reserved his strong words for the rich & powerful and the religious leaders (often the two were the same).

    This is seen in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee earns Jesus’ condemnation but he says the tax collector, classified as a “sinner” by the Pharisees, was the one accepted by God. It was their attitude that made the difference. If we want to be accepted by God, we need the humility of the tax collector.

    But Jesus also said we needed to choose sides – by our words and by our behaviour. He invited us to join his side in making ourselves (first) and the world right. If we are not for him we are against him – but also, if we are not against him we are for him. So there are only two sides in the long run. I have chosen his side, and think it is the best side even if he was no more than a prophet. But since I believe he was indeed divine, it is clearly the right side.

    Hope that answers the questions. Thanks again.

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  21. In regards to the Bible being inerrant or infallible,

    What of the KJV only people? To my understanding they assert that the KJV Authorised version of 1611 is the only inerrant translation of the Bible. Furthermore, it is also asserted that all other translations are just corrupted or intentionally deceiving.

    according to these studies –

    http://av1611.com/kjbp/charts.html
    http://www.biblebelievers.com/jmelton/compare.html

    I’ve also read people express that even other versions of the KJV are corrupted.
    Apparently the NKJV is also corrupted and misleading. According to some – only the KJV 1611 Authorised version is free from errors.

    http://www.biblicalscholarship.net/AV.htm

    Some of the links are full on, but I was wondering

    – Has anyone here done an in depth study into the KJV 1611 Authorised version?

    – If so, does it come up with the same errors or is it worded differently?

    I’d be really interested to know

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  22. Pingback: A Collection of Failed and Discrepant Bible Prophecy | The BitterSweet End

  23. Writing an historical account is no problem. But this is claiming that a prophecy took place without giving any evidence for it. It’s just based on the word of whomever wrote this. To be considered an actual prophecy, we’d need to be able to substantiate that the prophecy was in fact given before the event.

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  24. Peter

    I am with you Nate on disregarding prophecy in the same book. It proves nothing.

    A further factor to bear in mind, is that we know later Jews pretended to write in the name of ancient figures and then to talk about current events as though they had been prophesied in the past. Whilst this activity in the period 200 BC to 200 AD does not prove earlier authors acted in a similar way, it does show something of the Jewish culture in that era.

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