The Great Big Arguments #5: Prophecies

“…false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time.”

The basic form of this argument is that the Bible or some other holy text predicted some event or phenomenon its author(s) could not possibly have known about without divine inspiration. Examples: Jesus’ life and death fulfilled hundreds of prophecies made about him in the Old Testament, every detail of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack was laid out in Revelations, the Bible or Quran describes scientific facts only discovered later by scientists themselves.

Claimed predictions by the Bible (from which my examples will be drawn, since they’re what I’ve mostly received) and other old texts are presented along with a false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time. There are a number of other possibilities for each supposed prophecy or prediction, which are generally more likely than either. The names below aren’t universal, they’re my own.

1. High Probability of Success: the event predicted was likely almost to the point of certainty, especially given unlimited time in which to occur.

In Jeremiah 49:16, the fall of the city of Edom was prophesied. Edom had many enemies, including Israel, and was regularly at war. Which was more likely, that it would triumph forever or that at some stage it would be destroyed?

2. Still Unknown: the fact given by the text is in dispute even today.

Christians credit the Bible with foreknowledge of cosmology for saying that the universe had a beginning. Even if this is correct, it had a one in two chance which is hardly imposing odds. Importantly, though, the Big Bang might be the very beginning or it may have been caused by some precursor. There’s still the possibility of an eternally old universe or multiverse. Claiming credit for predicting a beginning at this point is like trying to collect your winnings from a horse race before it’s ended.

3. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: the very existence of the prophecy assists in its fulfilment.

There were prophecies, at least as told in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that the captive Jews would return to their homeland of Israel. Assuming for now that the non-supernatural parts of the stories are true to begin with, the Jews themselves knew of this prophecy. They believed God had stated directly that they would return. To do so was to obey His will. No wonder they did everything they could to get back.

In a more general sense, the Bible lays out a complete future history of Israel and Jerusalem. The Jews there do everything in their power to follow the instructions as far as rebuilding and protecting it, and largely use the actions of the Muslims to fill in the bits about invasion, destruction and exile.

4. Shoehorned: the text only applies to reality or to the present day through an unwarranted act of lateral interpretation.

Isaiah 40:22 says, “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth.” Some take this as a signal that the author knew ahead of everyone else that the Earth is a sphere, when the word “circle” seems more likely to refer to the apparent disc one sees when one looks out from atop a mountain. The now-all-but-defunct Flat Earth Society, which believed the statement as much as any other Christian group, maintained their position of a flat Earth because they interpreted it as I do.

5. Made to Order: accounts of a subsequent event were in fact tailored to fit the prophecy.

This possibility is most often applicable to the story of Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had access to the writings of Isaiah et al, and had every opportunity to make sure their own accounts lined up with the old prophecies. Jesus, after all, would have been just one of an army of self-proclaimed Messiahs at the time. He needed everything possible to make him stand out, and that meant fitting the bill to the letter.

This list is not a direct accusation that any of the above is in fact the case for any given prediction in an ancient text (extending beyond religion, to writers like Nostradamus). However, any given prediction in texts I’ve read can be explained by one or several of the above. These extra possibilities must therefore be considered in addition to the false dilemma of chance or God. In this company, divine inspiration is less of a sure thing to say the least.

So what kind of a prediction would bypass all of the above and appear truly, plainly supernatural in its accuracy? Simple: one that we are able to test ourselves, without any prior knowledge. An obvious example is the Rapture: if it happens, those of us who are left will know that prediction was right. You can’t engineer the Rapture, or interpret the bodily disapparation of every Christian (of only one denomination, you would assume) any other way.

For a less extreme example, say that instead of interpreting dates gone by to match counts of days in the Bible, someone uses Revelations to predict the day of a future earthquake in Los Angeles, far in advance of seismologists. It could still be coincidence, but it couldn’t be Shoehorned or Made to Order. Further, the chances are low, the outcome is known and the prophet couldn’t fulfil it him/herself without a nuclear weapon.

That, therefore, is what believers in Biblical prophecy need to do in order to score credibility: use the old texts to make new and accurate predictions, instead of cultivating awe for those gone by. Many do try this, of course, and so there’s a growing list of dates for the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Second Coming and lesser events like the collapse of the United States. So far, all of these dates have passed by uneventfully.


17 thoughts on “The Great Big Arguments #5: Prophecies”

  1. Here are my comments on your discussion of Prophecy.

    “1. High probability of success: the event predicted was likely almost to the point of certainty, especially given unlimited time in which to occur.”

    I’m not exactly sure what is meant by “unlimited time”, but let’s agree that what Jeremiah prophesied has already come to pass and that it happened after Jeremiah pronounced his prophecies. The question is, was Jeremiah any good at predicting what would come to pass?

    Let’s look at Jeremiah’s success rate, assuming that there are only two outcomes, either each town/city/nation he declares is doomed to destruction is destroyed, or it is not. So Jeremiah has a 1 in 2 chance of a successful prediction for each case. In a few chapters in his Biblical account he successfully predicts the demise of around 20 or so such places, maybe more. Each individual prediction has a 50:50 chance of being right. BUT, before all this happens (which is what ‘prophecy’ means, right?) a sequence of, say, 20 hits in a row has a one in more than a million chance of succeeding. That’s pretty good going! So, it looks as if Jeremiah had some outside help. He was given warnings, and he passed on these warnings to as many others as would listen.

    “2. Still unknown: the fact given by the text is in dispute even today.”

    What is meant by “it had a one in two chance” for saying the universe had a beginning?” Presumably, that the text of the Bible which says that in the beginning God created the universe might be right or it might be wrong. It could be wrong if the universe had no beginning. You also say: “There’s still the possibility of an eternally old universe or multiverse.” But the multiverse is a purely theoretical term used by some scientists. There is no empirical evidence for a multiverse, so why go there? What about the eternally old universe idea? Is that a possibility? If the universe had always been around, then there would seem to be no need for a creator.

    Let’s assume that by “an eternally old universe” you mean that past time consists of an infinite number of centuries. That is, it would take an infinite number of centuries to reach our present moment in time (or any other moment in history you like). But it would take forever to pass through an infinite series. Therefore we shall certainly never get to our present moment, which is contrary to common sense; for common sense tells us we are now experiencing our present moment.

    Therefore, the universe cannot be eternally old. It must have had a beginning at a definite time. The Big Bang looks pretty good here. What has all this to do with Prophecy? Well. I’m not sure. Apparently your point has something to do with the Bible mentioning a beginning to the universe when it did not have the scientific evidence for saying so. I guess the writers of the text must have used reasoning instead.

    “3. Self-fulfilling Prophecy: the very existence of the prophecy assists in its fulfilment.

    So, you mean the prophecy came true, is that what you’re telling me? Seriously, how can this be self-fulfilling? Wouldn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy be one which was fulfilled by the Prophet going out and doing what he predicted would happen himself? But, perhaps you mean that a prophecy is only legitimate when the event predicted occurs while those involved are ignorant of the prophecy. Well, why should it be? The Jews had enemies which would have done all they could to prevent them from succeeding in returning to their homeland. They faced battles, long treks, starvation. They had to make a real effort. During all this hardship they were sustained by the prophecy that a real return would eventually happen. But, it might not have – without all their effort.

    “4. Shoehorned: the text only applies to reality or to the present day through an unwarranted act of lateral interpretation. Isaiah 40:22 says: “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth.”

    I really prefer the more liberal English of the Good News Bible here. It gives this passage and the verses before and after as: ‘Have you not heard how the world began? It was made by the one who sits on his throne above the earth and beyond the sky; the people below look as tiny as ants.’

    So, I don’t think this passage has much to do with prophesying flat or globular Earths, but rather about God surveying his creation.

    “5. Made to Order: accounts of a subsequent event were in fact tailored to fit the prophecy.
    This possibility is most often applicable to the (Gospel) story of Jesus.”

    It is a fact that the Gospel writers do demonstrate knowledge of ancient prophecies about the Messiah. It is also a fact that the writings and preaching of Paul, Peter, and others contain the same accounts of the main events of Jesus’s life and death as do the later Gospels. But Paul, Peter, and those others were preaching and writing within living memory of the events of Jesus’s life. Ordinary people who had been present at the time the supposed miracles had occurred could have stepped forward to claim that the Apostles’ accounts of miracles were false. There is no record of such contradictions. The Christians had no control over what other people said or wrote; they could not have suppressed other accounts of the events of the time.

    They could have been contradicted by the authorities; about the Resurrection, for example. After all, Jesus’s tomb was guarded by soldiers of the military occupation forces, and they were certainly not going to let any Jewish plotters put one over them. The authorities had only to produce Jesus’s body to put an end to the Christian movement. They could not. We have to conclude that the Gospels tell us how the old prophecies about the Messiah came to fruition in the person of Jesus.

  2. Again, Malperdy, thanks for transferring your responses here.

    1. The basic idea is that the places Jeremiah picked to be destroyed were at war all the time, and the probability that each would eventually be destroyed was far greater than 50%. That’s why I applied “High Probability of Success”.

    So what was the real probability in each case? Given how many of these places haven’t been razed at some point, it’s quite close to a 100% chance. Even if one of the places had survived until yesterday, finally collapsing after its 78th war, Jeremiah would still be right as of today. In short, Jeremiah made obvious predictions that turbulent Middle Eastern regimes would fall, and that’s firstly how he got 20 right and secondly why it isn’t impressive.

    2. The multiverse, while theoretical, is a definite possibility and is therefore an alternative source of the material in the Big Bang to divine Creation. It must be ruled out, rather than simply dismissed, in order to prove Creation by elimination.

    Your argument against an infinite past is a bit like the old VenomFangX one. Here’s the problem with it: if infinite time must pass before the present, the only reason we wouldn’t reach the present is if time began a finite amount of time ago. But the distance between negative infinity and zero is infinity without having to add the distance between zero and positive infinity; the “beginning” was an infinite amount of time ago by definition and therefore infinite time has already had time to pass before the present. There is no more difficulty than with a concept we all easily accept: that of time passing eternally into the future.

    3. “Self-fulfilling” refers to the actual prophecy, which fulfills itself by motivating people to do what it says.

    I didn’t say that any prophecy known by those who fulfill it is necessarily self-fulfilling and therefore not prescient, only that it might be self-fulfilling whenever this is the case and this should be considered in addition to the false dilemma of coincidence and divine foreknowledge.

    4. If you don’t think Isaiah 40:22 contained foreknowledge of the shape of the Earth, we don’t have much to argue about.

    5. I don’t feel like attacking from scratch the Strobel-esque argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on the timing, character and circumstances of the apostles. I’ve addressed it most recently here, and included links to previous pieces on the subject. Suffice it to say that the apostles having been both honest and entirely correct about the resurrection of Jesus is not the only plausible scenario.

  3. I’m not going to be sickened and troubled by the way the Christians believe this and that by their Slimy “Guilt & Fear” Tactics.
    Its just plain chickenshit.
    As a New Atheist, I’m so glad I’ve got Truth to turn to.

  4. How about the state of Israel being predicted to come back into existence in exactly 1948? That’s quite specific.
    Even better is the book of Deuteronomy predicting the Jews being a hated people throughout all history. That is again very specific. Those Jews probably went out and said we’d better get our houses burned down, get ourselves killed, and scatter ourselves throughout the world to fulfill that prophecy.

    1. Several of the options might apply to the 1948 prophecy. It pulls together separate parts of Ezekiel, relies heavily on a start date known only from Ezra, and applies a 7x “modifier” from Leviticus which only directly applies to disobedience of the commandments declared therein (and the adjacent threat of being forced to eat one’s children is ignored) so there’s plenty of shoehorning (#4). If some clever Zionists did the math beforehand, the date might have even been chosen to best fit the numbers (#5). And of course, re-establishing Israel had been a constant goal for Jews ever since Biblical times as a direct result of the prophecy, making it at least partially self-fulfilling (#3).

      As for the Jews being a hated people, the Jews are a proud people with a strong cultural identity, very specific core beliefs that don’t match the majority religions in most places, and political goals at odds with those of other ethnic groups. Someone is always going to hate them as long as humans retain their tribalistic prejudices. Really, what collective “people” isn’t hated by somebody? It’s #1 to a tee.

    2. There is no such prophecy about Israel. The holes in that claim are many. If you care to detail your claim out, we can go through the individual points with you.

    3. The 1948 ‘prophecy’ ultimately relies on the claim that the conquest of Babylon by Ceres in 539 BCE is accurate.

      But the only source for that date comes from Herodotus. This is problematic. While Herodotus’ research normally relied on interviews from those who lived through historical events, he never actually went to Babylon and he wasn’t born until 59 years after the event, so it is highly unlikely he interviewed anyone who actually remembered the conquest. Herodotus also reports numerous supernatural events in his histories as fact. Within his own time the reliability of his work was suspect (e.g., by Thucydides, who more realistically reported no supernatural events in his histories).

      So, if Herodotus was wrong, as little as one year out, the whole notion collapses. Considered alongside LX’s and Tim’s comments, this particular ‘prophecy’ is hardly believable.

      As for the Jews being a ‘hated people’ throughout history: Any prophecy with a binary possibility of true/false is completely worthless as evidence. Why? Well, it’s not widely known that I was a prophet in Biblical times: I prophesised the sex of babies before they were born. I charged 10 shekels a time. I even offered a money back guarantee if I was wrong. I had 1000 clients and I only ever had to pay back 5,000 shekels. I not only became a rich man I had 500 people offering incontrovertible eyewitness evidence that I was a true prophet……

      Things haven’t changed. Nowadays people ignore the biblical prophecies that didn’t come true (Tyrus will/won’t be destroyed) and flag up those that do become true and shout hallelujah! Casinos love the people who fall for that kind of reasoning.

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