The Problem With Prophecy
The main reason I am not a Christian is that I don’t accept the authority of the Bible, because I have zero evidence from outside the Bible to do so. This is also why I don’t subscribe to the beliefs of other religions—I reject the claims of their founding books, because I have no reason to accept them as true. Apologists make many cases for why we should accept the authority of the Bible, some of them more compelling than others, but in my mind, the least compelling is prophecy.
“There are prophecies early in the Bible that come true later in the Bible!” people will exclaim, without any trace of awareness about how ludicrous a statement this.
There are, as I see them, four big problems with citing prophecy as evidence, so I shall break each of them down.
- Just About All Religions Contain Prophecies That Have ‘Come True’
Among religions, Christianity is far from alone in showing predictions being made early in its foundational text that come to pass later in the text. Islam, Hinduism, Baha’i, Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and countless others (This website has an excellent compilation of prophecies made by different religions that have supposedly come true.) all allege the same thing as Christianity: That certain things foretold early in history (History according to the religious text, remember, which is a very different thing from actual history.) come true later in history.
Christianity hinges on the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy that a descendant of King David will be born in Bethlehem, and that he shall be the Son of God and the leader of the Jews. Christianity diverged from Judaism in its belief that Jesus of Nazareth fit this description. There are countless examples of passages from the Old Testament that foretell occurrences in the story of Jesus. To name just one example, King David himself composed Psalm 22, beginning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Gospel According to Mark’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus, the author says, “And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” [Mark 15:34] … That’s amazing, right? I mean, we have here an old book written by an unknown guy saying that Jesus said something that’s identical to something that somebody else wrote in a much older book! Prophecy!
Now, if you’re suspicious, you have a right to be. For one thing, Mark’s account of Jesus’s dying words is different from Luke’s. While “Why have you forsaken me?” is the last line spoken by Jesus according to Mark, Luke says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.*’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” [Luke 23:46] It’s reasonable to wonder why two different people writing about the Most Important Event In the History of the Universe should disagree about something so simple as Jesus’s last words, but “Don’t ask questions” is about all you’re going to get from an apologist if you bring that up. But set that aside, and think about how unimpressive this “prophecy” is. So Jesus said the same words that a poet had written earlier? Would a similar prophecy from another religion seem remarkable to you? Because other religious texts are packed with similar prophecies.
*No gospel mentions Jesus grabbing a brush and putting on a little makeup.
To take one example, ancient Hindu texts prophesied the breakdown of the caste system and the increasing secularization of India. That has, of course, happened. Hinduism is awaiting the arrival of their version of Jesus—their messiah—in the figure of the Kalki Avatar. The Kalki shall arrive on Earth as the current era draws to a close, as people move away from Hinduism and embrace modernity and secularism. The Baha’i faith believes that the Kalki Avatar has already arrived. I mention all of this to say that all religions can make similar claims to Christianity. And if all of them can, then none of them have the advantage over the other. If I were rebutting each fulfilled Christian prophecies with an Islamic prophecy that has allegedly been fulfilled, a Christian would dismiss me. I dismiss all of it. If all religions have the “prophecy” advantage, then it’s not really an advantage; it cancels out, therefore we must discard prophecies altogether.
- How Hard Would It Have Been to Alter the Text to Make Prophecies Appear to Come True?
The books of the Bible were maintained and edited by believing Christians, who would have been free to edit them as they saw fit, to revise any prophecies or reverse-engineer any accounts so that everything fit according to a prophecy. Christians take it on faith that this didn’t happen, that every single editor of the Bible has acted with honesty and integrity.
In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that the later books of the Bible were edited and reverse-engineered to fit early prophecy. One of the best examples is the prophecy of the messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. Going merely by the text of the Christian Bible, here is what happened:
1) Jesus’s earth-parents were from Nazareth. Nevertheless, a Roman census forced them to go to their ancestral home to be counted.
2) According to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem (John does not say where Jesus was born. What’s more, a crowd of Pharisees announces that Jesus can’t be the messiah because he was not born in Galilee, not Bethlehem, and the author makes no attempt to question, contradict, or correct this. See John 7:41-42.).
3) Then Jesus moved back to Nazareth.
Most mainstream historians think there probably was a man named Jesus who came from Nazareth and built a following of Jews (Although even this stance is controversial.). There is no historical evidence whatsoever of Jesus of Nazareth having been born in Bethlehem. The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah, arrived on Earth to fulfill King David’s ancient prophecy about the future King of the Jews, and one of the big elements of the prophecy was that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Because we have no historical evidence of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, and because one of the four gospels doesn’t mention Bethlehem at all, ask yourself what is more likely: That the elaborate story is true, of a nonsensical census that forced Jesus’s family out of Nazareth and into Bethlehem, because Bethlehem was the family’s ancestral homeland, and then Jesus was born and later moved to Nazareth? Or that Jesus was born in Nazareth, and this inconvenient truth was awkwardly altered by the writers of the Bible to bolster their claim?
There are so many more examples, detailed by people who spend their lives studying this stuff. I point you to the works of Prof. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina, as a great place to start.
- People Correctly Predict Things All the Time, and That Doesn’t Make Them Prophets
Even if it could be proven that prophets did make accurate predictions about the future, and that the editors and keepers of scripture did not alter the biblical account in any way—if we could honestly prove that “prophets” made accurate predictions about the future—it still wouldn’t prove much of anything. It certainly wouldn’t prove that they had the power of foresight or divination, any more than the octopus that correctly predicted the winner of the 2010 World Cup had the ability to see the outcomes of soccer matches.
I predict the sun will rise tomorrow. I predict the Los Angeles Angels will win this year’s World Series. I predict that, when I return home from work tomorrow evening, the Dark Lord Sauron will not be sitting on my sofa, waiting for me. I can be right about all of those things, and it won’t be because I have magical future-seeing abilities. Correlation is not causation; one thousand octopi correctly predicting the outcomes of one thousand different sporting events would be amazing, and would make even the hardest skeptic second-guess her convictions about the universe… but it still wouldn’t prove that legitimate prophecy exists. Christopher Hitchens famously said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To prove the existence of true prophets would require an enormous amount of evidence, since our current understanding of the world doesn’t include magical prophets, and we don’t simply rewrite natural laws whenever something weird shows up.
- Even the Existence of Magic Wouldn’t Prove the Existence of God
AND EVEN STILL, if it could somehow be proven that the biblical prophets did make accurate predictions using prophecy—if they were legitimate prophets, in other words, and not just lucky guessers—we STILL couldn’t make the leap from that to the existence of God. Magic could be proven to exist, but that’s not the same as proving that God exists; it would only prove that magic exists. To prove more, we would need to do MUCH more work. Apologists make this mistake all the time; if there exists a gap in scientific knowledge, then they say, by default, that it must be God. It’s called the “God of the Gaps” argument. It’s a logical fallacy in that it makes the giant leap from “I don’t know” to “It is God,” and it dismisses the possibility that many other explanations could exist.
We should also ask how impressive these prophecies are, in and of themselves. The Bible doesn’t contain a simple bit of knowledge or wisdom that wasn’t available to the world at the time of its writing. In fact, the Bible’s knowledge about the world is primitive even for the time of its writing… remember that ancient Palestine was an obscure and undeveloped area*. It might be too much to ask that Jesus—a carpenter by trade—should have used his divine knowledge to design and build a car, but maybe there could be just one thing in the Bible that we can read today and say, “Hey, no one else in the world knew that at the time.” There’s nothing like that. In ancient Palestine at the time of Jesus’s life, half of all children died from disease. If that were so today, it would mean half of the children you know would die before age 18, and your own child would have a 50% chance of dying along with them. As Dr. Richard Carrier points out, a perfectly reasonable thing Jesus—in his godly and all-knowing nature—could have done is to teach his followers something so simple as to wash their hands. He didn’t do this, of course, because nobody in the world knew about the germ theory of disease yet. Doing something like that would have been truly impressive in retrospective. But the Bible doesn’t have any of that kind of thing, but there plenty of lame predictions about the future success and failure of great families and the prevalence of war, famine, and earthquakes (things that have always happened and will always happen, so it’s a pretty safe prediction).
*One example I like is the Bible’s calculation of the geometrical constant pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter). It’s 3, according to 1 Kings 7:23-26. This was many years after the Greek mathematician Archimedes had calculated pi to the 3.14 figure we use today. Apologists argue that the Bible should be given credit for getting it “close enough.” Okay.
But even if Jesus talked about germs, it still wouldn’t be sufficient proof of his divinity, would it? A far likelier example would be that he was also a brilliant scientist who made an amazing discovery. The point is, using prophecy to prove the truth of the Bible is impotent, useless, and raises far more questions than it answers. It’s something to satiate incurious people who are impressed by card tricks.