A while back, some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door. Big mistake. I had been working all morning and welcomed the break, and I love talking to religious people about their beliefs, so I was happy to see them.
There were two of them—an older woman, and a young man about my age who looked like he might be her son, both carrying Bibles. I smiled, shook their hands, and asked them what they wanted to talk about. Here’s a slightly shortened version of the conversation we had.
The woman started the pitch by saying that the Bible is the Word of God and contains the answers to life’s most important questions.
I said, “Okay, but how do you know the Bible is true?”
“All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching,” she said, quoting 2 Timothy 3:16.
“Okay, but how do you know that’s true?”
She opened her Bible, flipped to the verse she had quoted, and showed it to me.
“Yea, but how do you know that verse is true?” I asked, pointing at it. “I could write a book and add a sentence that says, ‘Everything in this book is true,’ but that wouldn’t make it true.”
At this point, the young man spoke up. “It’s not just that verse. We know the Bible is true because of all the prophecies that have been fulfilled.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Well, there are lots of verses that predicted Isreal would become a nation again, then in 1948 it happened.”
I already knew the verses he was referring to, but I decided to ask about them anyway. “What do these verses say?”
“In the book of Ezekial, God says he’ll bring Isreal back to life. And in the book of Isaiah, he says Isreal will be born in a day. There are others…”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “haven’t Jewish people been trying to make that prophecy come true for a long time? That’s cheating.”
They both blinked at me. I don’t think they’d ever heard this objection before.
“What I’m saying is, if you try to make the prophecy come true, then it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s not proof of anything.”
The woman looked a little upset and the young man looked annoyed. Here in the South, they probably don’t come across many people who debate them.
The young man said, “Well, let’s just agree to disagree.” They started backing away.
I was surprised. Jehova’s Witnesses don’t usually give up so easily. I said, “Wait, before you go, I want you to think about something. Why didn’t God make his prophecies more specific?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, why didn’t he say something like, ‘Isreal will reform on this exact date, and this person will be the first Prime Minister, and these countries will support them, and these countries will oppose them,’ and so forth? If a prophet had written a detailed account of how Isreal would reform, I’d be much more impressed. So why didn’t God do that? Think about it.”
They had been edging away from me, and now they both said, “Have a good day,” and quickly left. I hope they thought about what I said, but I doubt it.
Hundreds of Fulfilled Prophecies?
Many Christians believe there are hundreds of Biblical prophecies that have been fulfilled–but are there really? First, we have to determine what a prophecy is. Matt Dillahunty made a great video about what criteria are necessary for something to qualify as a real prophecy.
One of the points he makes is the same point I made to the two Jehova’s Witnesses: If people are actively trying to fulfill the prophecy, then it doesn’t count.
For example, if somebody declares, “Someday there will be a New California,” and he and many others spend years trying to make New California a reality and eventually make it happen, is that a fulfilled prophecy? Hardly. Then why do people consider the return of Isreal a fulfilled prophecy?
The modern Zionist movement began in the late 1800’s, which means that for over half a century, countless Jewish people were actively working toward the re-establishment of their ancestors’ country. Like I said, that’s cheating. And Christians often cite this as the Bible’s most impressive fulfilled prophecy!
Zechariah 9:9 says, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” It should be obvious that this verse doesn’t literally mean the king will be riding on an ass and a colt at the same time. That would be ridiculous.
Rather, Zechariah is using a type of parallelism which is common in Hebrew poetry. He’s repeating himself in order to add emphasis to what he said. For example, a poem might say, “I went to see my love, my one true love.” It wouldn’t mean the author is going to see two women, his love and his one true love. He’s just repeating himself to emphasize how much he loves her.
In the same way, Zechariah is just repeating himself to emphasize that the King will ride a mere donkey. Mark, Luke, and John understood this. Apparently, Matthew didn’t. It seems he misunderstood Zechariah 9:9, so he wrote that Jesus somehow rode two donkeys at the same time. If God inspired Matthew to write this account, you’d think he could have helped him avoid this error.
But perhaps Matthew wrote an accurate account of what happened. That would mean Jesus himself misunderstood Zechariah 9:9 because he’s the one who asked for two donkeys (Matthew 21:2). Did God misinterpret his own book?
Even if they hadn’t gotten two donkeys, this passage is still an example of a self-fulfilled prophecy because it says right there in Matthew 21:4-5, “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass [emphasis mine].” Once again, that’s cheating.
There are many other New Testament verses that supposedly fulfill Old Testament prophecies, but since the New Testament writers most likely had access to the Old Testament, how do we know they weren’t altering their accounts of Jesus in order to make their stories fit the prophecies? When you look at it that way, suddenly all these “fulfilled prophecies” don’t seem very impressive.
So far we’ve discussed two explanations for fulfilled prophecies: 1) People actively worked to make prophecies come true, and 2) New Testament writers altered their accounts of what happened to make them fit with Old Testament prophecy (or people told them altered accounts of what happened).
But here’s what I think is the most common explanation, and it’s the same for horoscopes: People reinterpret verses to mean whatever they want them to mean. Here’s a famous example. Matthew 21:14-15 is often said to fulfill Hosea 11:1. Let’s take a look.
Matthew 21:14-15 says, “When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.” And Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
Notice that Matthew only quotes the last part of Hosea 11:1. When you read the whole verse, it’s clear that Hosea is not talking about Jesus; he’s talking about Isreal and the time Moses led them out of Egypt. If you’re not convinced, just read the next verse, Hosea 11:2: “As they called them, so they went from them: they sacrificed unto Baalim, and burned incense to graven images.” Surely Jesus never did that. So in what way could this passage possibly be about Jesus? Well, it’s not. Matthew is just reinterpreting Hosea 11:1 to fit with his story.
Christians do this sort of thing all the time. For instance, according to this list of prophecies, Genesis 14:18 predicts Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. It says, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.”
Sure, maybe it was meant to predict the Last Supper, or maybe it was meant to predict the last time I ate at Olive Garden. Come on, this is what counts as a prophecy? Most of the other hundreds of prophecies are just as easy to dismiss. They’re instances of Christians reinterpreting the verses to mean whatever they want, just like with horoscopes or the writings of Nostradamus.
How To Identify a Real Fulfilled Prophecy
If you want to impress me with a fulfilled prophecy, here’s some criteria for you:
- It can’t be something people are actively working to fulfill.
- It can’t be an instance where the author could have written a false story that fits the prophecy.
- It can’t be a prophecy that is so vague, you could interpret any number of events to fit with it.
- It can’t be about something so common that it was likely to happen anyway.
God should understand and appreciate these criteria, so why didn’t he make better prophecies? In my post on reasons God is a terrible writer, I suggested this prophecy:
“In the third millennium, on the day after the celebration of our Lord’s birth, a great wave will rise from the ocean of India and swallow 230,000 lives.” This prophecy fits all four criteria listed above: It’s not something people can cause, it’s not something someone could make up as we would all know whether it actually happened, it’s specific enough that it can’t be reinterpreted to fit other disasters, and it’s about a type of event that is relatively rare.
Why didn’t God make prophecies like this? Many Christians say God made and fulfilled prophecies in order to convince people that the Bible is true. But if that’s the case, then why did he make prophecies that are so easy to dismiss? Why not make detailed prophecies that only someone with knowledge of the future could possibly know?
God wants to save as many people as possible, right? Imagine how many more people would be saved had God predicted:
- The exact year of the Sack of Rome.
- The name of the person who stabbed Julius Caesar.
- How many people died during the Black Death.
- The day Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.
- The name of the man who invented the printing press.
- The name of the man who penned America’s Constitution.
- Which states seceded from the United States before the Civil War.
- The day the Titanic would sink and how many people would die.
- Which countries fought (and on which side) in World War I.
- Where the first nuclear bomb was dropped and how many died.
- Any other major historical event.
People could try to make these events happen in order to intentionally fulfill prophecy, but it would be extraordinarily difficult. If the Bible were filled with detailed prophecies like those, even skeptics like me would be impressed.
So why are Bible prophecies so vague? You already know the answer.