A common argument made by Christians is that the Bible contains prophecies that it would be impossible for any ordinary human to know and must have come from God. These claimed fulfilled prophesises are supposedly undeniable proof that the Bible is the word of God.
“Unique among all books ever written, the Bible accurately foretells specific events-in detail-many years, sometimes centuries, before they occur. Approximately 2500 prophecies appear in the pages of the Bible, about 2000 of which already have been fulfilled to the letter—no errors.”
This is seen as irrefutable proof in the truth of the Bible and of God and it is claimed that “the odds for all these prophecies having been fulfilled by chance without error is less than one in 102000” (there is no explanation of the maths behind the number and seems to be entirely guesswork.)
But before we examine these claimed prophecies, it is necessary to lay down some tests for what constitutes a prophecy and to determine how reliable it is. After all, every religion, mystic, fortune teller and crank has made prophecies so it is necessary to sort the good from the bad.
1. It has to be a prophecy
Now this may sound a bit obvious, but the original line must have been intended as a prophecy and not merely a story. So if a line says “a house will fall in a storm” this is just a story and not a prophecy of the fall of an empire. The author must make it clear to his readers that he is making a prophecy and not just speaking in general.
2. It must be clear
The prophecy must be instantly clear as to what it is foretelling; it cannot simply be so vague that any event could fulfil it. For example “a house will fall in a storm” is not a prophecy as anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it and those who hear it would not know. If a prophecy is supposed to be about someone, then it should make this clear from the beginning and not be left for future generations to try and guess who it is.
3. It cannot be simply guesswork
If two armies are going to war, I could make a lucky guess and predict the winning army. This wouldn’t be much of a prophecy as any lay person could guess that. For a prophecy to count as evidence, it must be so specific that not even someone who studied the topic could have made an educated guess. The more unlikely the prophecy, the more impressive it is, so something that was completely unexpected would be the sign of a strong prophecy.
4. It must occur before the event happens
If I was to tell you about September 11th, this wouldn’t be a prophecy but rather history. We must be sure that all prophecies occurred before the events in order to be genuine. Likewise we have to make sure we are reading the original accounts and not seeing some that were changed later to give the impression of a prophecy.
5. There cannot be self-fulfilment
If it is prophesised that a great ruler will conquer a town, then people will conquer that town in order to claim that they are that ruler. Or if it predicted that Israel will become a country again, then people will try to rebuild Israel so as to fulfil the prophecy. Nor can later writers edit the text to give the impression that the prophecy was fulfilled.
6. The event must be unique
If I say “a king will be murdered by his son” this could apply to any monarchy anywhere. Loads of kings have been stabbed in the back by people they trust, including family. So a prophecy must refer to a specific event and specific people.
7. No cherry picking
You can’t simply take the prophecies that you like and ignore the others. The Bible is full of metaphorical language, so it is not good enough to take everything that sounds like it came true and ignore everything else. Likewise prophecies must be taken as whole, you can’t exclude the parts that didn’t come true and keep the rest. If you make a 100 prophecies and only one came true, then you cannot ignore the other 99 and call yourself a prophet.
8. The prophecy must be falsifiable
The prophecy must have the potential to fail or be proven wrong. If there is no time limit on the prophecy then we could have to wait thousands of years before it is “fulfilled” at which point it is not a prophecy but a matter of probability. A prophecy can only be evidence if it could have failed as well as succeeded.
So those are the 8 ground rules. It may sound like I’m raising the standard very high, but we must realise what an extraordinary claim a prophecy is. It is nothing short of claiming that the creator of the universe is telling you how the future will unfold. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. After all, we are dealing with the creator of the universe for whom all things are possible. If God wanted he could predict the exact time and place of the next earthquake as well as the exact casualty list. I don’t think Christians should be worried that I am imposing stringent conditions on the prophecy, after all, that merely makes it all the more impressive if the Bible passes the test.
Probably the most used prophecy is that of Ezekiel 26 which prophesies that Tyre will be destroyed as vengeance for rejoicing over the fall of Jerusalem. The prophecy predicts that its walls will be destroyed and its towers pulled down, even its rubble will be removed until nothing but bare rock is left. It says that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon will attack the city. The invaders “will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea.” It will be pillaged and destroyed and “will never be rebuilt”.
So how does this hold up? Nebuchadnezzar did attack Tyre which could be simply a good guess as the prophecy dates from roughly the same time. However, the attack fails and Tyre is not captured. But 250 years later Alexander the Great did capture Tyre and it is claimed that this fulfilled the prophecy. However, this is a strong case of wishful thinking. The prophecy was almost definitely referring to Nebuchadnezzar not Alexander the Great. For it to be an accurate prophecy it must be unique, it cannot be fulfilled anytime a city is captured. After all, war was very common in the region and every city was captured multiple times. Claiming that a city will fall at some time is as unspectacular as claiming there will be a famine. Furthermore, it was meant to be punishment from God. What good is punishment that comes 250 year later after everyone at the time is long dead and forgotten?
The final reason this prophecy fails is that Tyre was not abandoned but instead has continued to this day as a thriving city. Even the New Testament records Jesus visiting Tyre debunking the claim that it “will never be rebuilt”. Surely if Ezekiel could see 250 years into the future he could be clear about it? If he did receive a message from God, would it really have been so vaguely worded? It seems that this is an example of desperately twisting history in order to salvage a failed prophecy.
Most of the prophecies in the Bible are contained within the books of Isaiah and Daniel so I will address each one in turn. First there is Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1 which is supposedly a prediction of the rise of Cyrus the Great who will conquer Babylon and allow the Jews to return to Israel. However, the prophecy is incredibly vague and was not written hundreds of years before but rather at the time of Cyrus conquests. It should be noted that at no point is Babylon mentioned nor is it described who Cyrus is (as though it was already known to the readers of the time). Finally Cyrus is referred to as “the anointed one” which is another term for the Messiah.
Isaiah 13:17-22 is claimed to be a prediction of the fall of Babylon which will be destroyed and never inhabited. Except that it has been continuously inhabited and today it is called Iraq. Also Isaiah 13:22 refers to “dragons in their pleasant palaces”. I don’t think something that claims the existence of dragons is something Christians should boast about.
Daniel 8 is one of the silliest attempts at claiming a prophecy. It tells of a bizarre vision Daniel had where a ram was defeated by a goat whose horn broke and four new ones grew out and then the goat stamped on some stars (as they do). This is apparently a prophecy predicting Alexander the Great (the goat) and how his empire split into four pieces. This is an unbelievable stretch of the imagination that I doubt anyone could seriously believe it is a prophecy. David concludes his account by saying “none understood” the vision. This fails 1, 2, 4, and 6 as the goat could be a metaphor for literally anything.
There are many failed prophecies such as Isaiah 17:1 which predicted Damascus would be destroyed and no longer a city. Ezekiel 29:8-12 predicted that
“And the land of Egypt shall be desolate and waste; and they shall know that I am the Lord: because he hath said, the river is mine, and I have made it. Behold, therefore I am against thee, and against thy rivers, and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from the tower of Syene even unto the border of Ethiopia. No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it, neither shall it be inhabited forty years.”
However, this never happened and Egypt has been continuously inhabited until the current day.
There are numerous failed prophecies such as Genesis 15:18 which promises the land of Canaan as “an everlasting possession” to the Israelites (a possession the Israelities constantly lose in wars). God promises to drive all the Israelites enemies out of the land (Exodus 34:10-1) (which he could not do because some of them had “iron chariots”). It is prophesied that Josiah will die in peace (2 Kings 22:19-20) but he later killed in battle with Egyptians (2 Kings 23:29-30) Zechariah 9:8 prophesies that Israel will never be overrun again (it is). Zechariah 10:11 prophesies that the river Nile will dry up (one of the more spectacular failures).. This is also prophesised in Isaiah 19:5 which further predicts (19:17) that Judah will conquer Egypt (it never even tried to invade), five Egyptian cities will speak Canaan languages (19:18) (never happened), Judaism will become a major Egyptian religion (19:21) and there will be an alliance or unification between Egypt and Assyria (19:23) (which never happened).
The evidence for Biblical prophesies is weak to the point of non-existent. Most of the claimed prophecies are merely wishful thinking. Metaphorical languages is twisted to give it an unintended meaning which is then applied to random historical events as though they are linked. The prophesies are as vague as any standard fortune teller with the accuracy level of wild guesses. It boggles the mind that someone could think these meagre scraps could be held as proof of communication with God and an ability to see into the future.