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.
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.
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.