This article from Dr. Norman L. Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, is titled Prophecy as Proof of the Bible. It documents many of the Bible’s miraculously predictive prophecies, and explains that the Bible is peerless in this regard:
Prophecy, as Proof of the Bible. One of the strongest evidences that the Bible is inspired by God (see Bible, Evidences for) is its predictive prophecy. Unlike any other book, the Bible offers a multitude of specific predictions—some hundreds of years in advance—that have been literally fulfilled or else point to a definite future time when they will come true. In his comprehensive catalogue of prophecies, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecies, J. Barton Payne lists 1817 predictions in the Bible, 1239 in the Old Testament and 578 in the New (674–75).
The argument from prophecy is the argument from omniscience. Limited human beings know the future only if it is told to them by an omniscient Being (Ramm, 81). It is important to note that this is not an argument to omniscience. It is sometimes wrongly argued that a forecast of unusual events is proof that there is an omniscient Being (see God, Nature of). This is not necessarily the case, for the odd does not prove God (see Miracles, Arguments Against). No matter what the improbability, an odd event (say, a perfect hand in the card game of bridge, an extremely improbable deal) can, and sometimes does, occur. However, if an omniscient Being is known to exist (see God, Evidence for), and highly improbable predictions are made in his name which come to pass without fail, then it is reasonable to assume that they were divinely inspired. Fulfilled prophecy does not prove the existence of God, but it does show that unusual events predicted in his Name that come to pass are evidence of his special activity.
Predictive Prophecy. If an omniscient God exists who knows the future, then predictive prophecy is possible (see Theism; God, Nature of). And if the Bible contains such predictions, then they are a sign of the Bible’s divine origin. Not everything called “prophecy” in the Bible is predictive. Prophets forthtold God’s Word as well as foretold the future. There are several earmarks of a supernatural prediction, at least one with apologetic value. First, it is more than a vague guess or conjecture (see Ramm, 82). It cannot be a mere reading of the trends. Second, it deals with human contingencies that are normally unpredictable. Scientific predictions are not of the same order, since they deal with projections based on the regularity of nature, for example, the prediction of an eclipse. Third, it is a highly unusual event, not normally expected. Sometimes the miraculous nature of the prophecy is manifest in the length of time in advance the prediction is made, so as to reduce the probability of guessing. At other times it is revealed in the unique fulfillment itself.
Biblical Predictions. Messianic Predictions. There are two broad categories of biblical prophecy: messianic and nonmessianic. Payne (ibid., 665–70) lists 191 prophecies concerning the anticipated Jewish Messiah and Savior. Each was literally fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth (see New Testament, Historicity of; Christ, Deity of). A sampling of these prophecies includes:
Messiah’s birth. God said to Satan after he had enticed Adam and Eve to fall into sin, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The New Testament reveals that Jesus was indeed born of a woman in order to crush Satan’s power. For “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (Gal. 4:4; cf. Matthew 1; Luke 2).
Isaiah 7:14 predicted that one named Immanuel (“God with us”) would be born of a virgin (see Virgin Birth): “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This prediction was made over 700 years in advance (see Isaiah, Deutero). The New Testament affirms that Christ fulfilled this prediction, saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (Matt. 1:22–23). The objection that this is not really a prediction of Christ’s birth is answered in the article, Virgin Birth of Christ.
Micah made the unambiguous prophecy, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). Even the unbelieving Jewish scribes identified this as a prediction of the Messiah and directed the inquiring magi to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1–6):
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ”
Messiah’s ancestry. God declared in Genesis 12:1–3 that the Messianic blessing for all the world would come from the offspring of Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2–3; cf. 22:18). Jesus was indeed the seed of Abraham. Matthew begins with “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Paul adds, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
The Redeemer would come through the tribe of Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Gen. 49:10). According to the New Testament genealogies this was Jesus’ ancestry. Luke declares: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, . . . the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham” (Luke 3:23, 33–34; cf. Matt. 1:1–3). Hebrews adds, “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah” (Heb. 7:14).
The books of Samuel record the prediction that the Messiah would be of the house of David. God said to David: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Sam. 7:14). The New Testament repeatedly affirms that Jesus was “the son of David” (Matt. 1:1). Jesus himself claimed to be “the son of David” (Matt. 22:42–45). The Palm Sunday crowd also hailed Christ as “the son of David” (Matt. 21:9).
Herald of Messiah’s coming. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be heralded by a messenger of the Lord who would be “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’ ” (40:3). Malachi (3:1) added: “ ‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” These predictions were literally fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew records: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ ” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’ ” (Matt. 3:1–3).
Isaiah 11:2 foretold that the Messiah would be anointed by the Holy Spirit for his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” This literally happened to Jesus at his baptism. Matthew 3:16–17 says, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ ”
Isaiah 61 said that the Messiah would preach the gospel to the poor and brokenhearted. Jesus pointed out his fulfillment of this ministry in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17–20):
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus carefully cut off his reading in the middle of a sentence, failing to add the next phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” That refers to his second coming; it was not fulfilled that day in their hearing, as was the rest of the prophecy.
Isaiah 35:5–6 declared that the Messiah would perform miracles to confirm his ministry, asserting: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” The Gospel record is filled with Jesus’ miracles. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35). Jesus even cited these very things for John the Baptist as his messianic calling card. “Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’ ” (Matt. 11:4–5).
Messiah’s work. Malachi 3:1 foretold the authority over the temple worship that Jesus showed when he twice drove out the moneychangers—at the beginning and at the end of his ministry: “ ‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
Matthew 21:12–13 relates that: “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’ ”
Among many psalms applicable to the ministry of Jesus is 118:22, which foretells Messiah’s rejection by his people: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” This very verse is cited repeatedly in the New Testament. For example, Peter wrote, “Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.’ ” (1 Peter 2:7; cf. Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11).
Suffering and death of Christ. One of the most amazing predictions of Christ in all of Scripture is that of Isaiah 53:2–12. This precise description of Jesus’ sufferings and death of Christ was all literally fulfilled (see Matt. 26–27; Mark 15–16; Luke 22–23; John 18–19). Isaiah predicts twelve aspects of Messiah’s passion, all fulfilled. Jesus . . .
1. was rejected;
2. was a man of sorrow;
3. lived a life of suffering;
4. was despised by others;
5. carried our sorrow;
6. was smitten and afflicted by God;
7. was pierced for our transgressions;
8. was wounded for our sins;
9. suffered like a lamb;
10. died with the wicked;
11. was sinless; and
12. prayed for others.
Further confirmation of the predictive nature of Isaiah 53 is that it was common for Jewish interpreters before the time of Christ to teach that Isaiah here spoke of the Jewish Messiah (see Driver). Only after early Christians began using the text apologetically with great force did it become in rabbinical teaching an expression of the suffering Jewish nation. This view is implausible in the context of Isaiah’s standard references to the Jewish people in the first-person plural (“our” or “we,”) whereas he always refers to the Messiah in third-person singular, as in Isaiah 53 (“he” and “his” and “him”).
Predictions elsewhere about Christ’s death include:
13. the piercing of his hands and feet (Ps. 22:16; cf. Luke 23:33);
14. the piercing of his side (Zech. 12:10; cf. John 19:34); and
15. the casting of lots for his garments (Ps. 22:18; cf. John 19:23–24).
While it wasn’t recognized until after the fact, one of the most precise predictions in Scripture gives the very year in which the Christ would die. Daniel was speaking of both the exile of Israel and the atonement for sin when he recorded a prayer of confession for the sins of his people (9:4–19) and a vision in response in which the angel Gabriel gave to Daniel the following foresight (9:24–26):
Seventy “sevens” are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One [Messiah], the ruler, comes, there will be seven “sevens,” and sixty-two “sevens.” . . . After the sixty-two “sevens,” the Anointed One will be cut off.
The context indicates that Daniel knew he was speaking of years, since he was meditating on the “number of years” that God had revealed to Jeremiah that Jerusalem would lay waste, namely, “seventy years” (vs. 2). God then told Daniel that it would be 7 x 70 (years) before the Messiah would come and be cut off (die).
Artaxerxes ordered Nehemiah “to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:25; cf. Nehemiah 2) in 445/444 b.c. From that year, rather than the earlier date when Cyrus approved only the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 1:3), Daniel predicted that it would be 483 years to the time of Christ’s death. Taking the widely accepted date of 33 for the crucifixion (see Hoehner), would be 483 years exactly:
Seven sevens plus sixty-two sevens is 69 x 7 = 483
444 + 33 = 477
Add six years to compensate for the five days in a solar year not in the lunar year followed by Israel (5 x 477 = 2385 days or 6+ years).
477 + 6 = 483 years
This assumes Daniel’s 490 (70 x 7) is not a round number, which is possible. The Bible frequently rounds its numbers (see Bible, Alleged Errors in; Chronology, Problems in the Bible). In either event, Daniel’s prediction takes us to the very time of Christ.
Psalm 16:10: Christ’s resurrection. The Old Testament also foretold the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead. Psalm 2:7 declares: “I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ ” In Psalm 16:10 David adds, “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”
Both of these passages are cited in the New Testament as predictive of the resurrection of Christ. Peter said explicitly of David’s prophecy in Psalm 16, “But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay” (Acts 2:30–31; cf. 13:35). Psalm 2 is cited as a prediction of the resurrection in Acts 13:33–34 (cf. Heb. 1:5). Indeed, using these passages, “Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2–3). This would scarcely have been possible unless his skeptical Jewish audience did not recognize the predictive nature of passages like Psalms 2 and 16.
The ascension of Christ. In Psalm 110:1, David even predicted the Ascension of Christ, writing, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’ ” (cf. Pss. 2:4–6; 68:6; used in Eph. 4:8). Jesus applied this passage to himself (Matt. 22:43–44). Peter used it as a prediction of the Ascension of Christ: “For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” ’” (Acts 2:34–45).
Prophecy and the Messiah. It is important to note unique things about biblical prophecies. Unlike many psychic predictions, many of these were very specific, giving, for example, the very name of the tribe, city, and time of Christ’s coming. Unlike forecasts found in tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter, none of these predictions failed.
Since these prophecies were written hundreds of years before Christ was born, the prophets could have been reading the trends of the times or making intelligent guesses. Many predictions were beyond human ability to fake a fulfillment. If he were a mere human being, Christ would have had no control over when (Dan. 9:24–27), where (Micah 5:2), or how he would be born (Isa. 7:14), how he would die (Psalm 22; Isaiah 53), do miracles (Isa. 35:5–6), or rise from the dead (Psalms 2, 16).
It is unlikely that all these events would have converged in the life of one man. Mathematicians (Stoner, 108) have calculated the probability of sixteen predictions being fulfilled in one man (e.g., Jesus) at 1 in 1045. That forty-eight predictions might meet in one person, the probability is 1 in 10157. It is almost impossible to conceive of a number that large.
But it is not just a logical improbability that rules out the theory that Jesus engineered his prophecy fulfillments; it is morally implausible that an all-powerful and all-knowing God (see God, Nature of) would allow his plans for prophetic fulfillment to be ruined by someone who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), nor can he break a promise (Heb. 6:18). So we must conclude that he did not allow his prophetic promises to be thwarted by chance. All the evidence points to Jesus as the divinely appointed fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies. He was God’s man, confirmed by God’s signs (Acts 2:22).
Nonmessianic Predictions. Other biblical prophecies are specific and predictive. The following are examples:
Daniel 2:37–42: The Succession of Great World Kingdoms. An amazing prediction in the Bible is the succession of the world empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome by Daniel. Interpreting the metallic man in the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, he told Nebuchadnezzar”: ‘You, O king, are the king of kings. . . . You are that head of gold. After you, another kingdom will rise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others’ ” (Dan. 2:38–40).
So precise and accurate is this prophecy that even negative critics agree that Daniel spoke in order of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Critics try to avoid the supernatural nature of the prophecy by claiming these words were written after the fact, in about 165 b.c. But there is no real substantiation for this claim.
Cyrus King of Persia. One of the most specific Old Testament predictions identifies Cyrus of Persia before he was even born. Isaiah 44:28–45:1: “The Lord . . . who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” ’ This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut.”
This prediction was made some 150 years before Cyrus was even born (see Isaiah, Deutero). Since Isaiah lived between about 740 and 690 b.c. (2 Kings 25–21) and Cyrus did not make his proclamation for Israel to return from exile until about 536 (Ezra 1), there would have been no human way for him to know what Cyrus would be named or do. The attempt of critics to divide Isaiah and postdate the prophecy is without foundation (see Isaiah, Deutero) and is a backhanded compliment to the detail and accuracy of the prediction.
The Return of Israel to the Land. Given their long exile of some nineteen centuries and the animosity of the occupants of Palestine against them, any prediction of the return, restoration, and rebuilding of the nation of Israel was extremely unlikely. Yet predictions made some centuries and over two and a half millennia in advance about the two restorations of the Jews to their homeland and their restoration as a nation have been literally fulfilled. Regarding the 1948 restoration of Israel, Isaiah predicted that “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea.”
The first return was under Ezra and Nehemiah in the sixth century b.c. But Israel was sent again into exile in a.d. 70 when the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the temple. For nearly 2000 years the Jewish people remained in exile and the nation did not exist. Then, just as the Bible foretold, they were reestablished after World War II and a bitter struggle with the Arab Palestinians. Millions have returned and rebuilt their country and in the Six-Day War in 1967 Jerusalem again became a united Jewish city. No other nation in history has managed so successfully to keep a culture, identity, and language intact over hundreds of years, let alone against the genocidal hatred repeatedly encountered by the Jews. This Bible prediction is incredible evidence of the supernatural origin of the Scriptures.
The Closing of the Golden Gate. The Golden Gate is the eastern gate of Jerusalem, through which Christ made his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday before his crucifixion (Matthew 21). Ezekiel 44:2 predicted that it would be closed one day, and not reopened until the Messiah returned: “The Lord said to me, ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it.’ ”
In 1543 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent closed the gate and walled it up as Ezekiel had predicted. He had no idea he was fulfilling prophecy. He simply sealed it because the road leading to it was no longer used for traffic. It remains sealed to this day exactly as the Bible predicted, waiting to be reopened when the King returns.
The Destruction of Tyre.Tyre, an important sea port in the Eastern Mediterranean, was one of the great cities of the ancient world. It was a heavily fortified and flourishing city. Yet Ezekiel 26:3–14 predicted her doom and entire demolition hundreds of years in advance, declaring: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishing nets. . . . They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. . . . I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishing nets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
This prediction was partially fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and left it in ruins. However, the stones, dust and timber were not thrown into the sea. Then Alexander the Great attacked the seemingly impregnable Island of Tyre by taking the stones, dust, and timber from the ruined mainland city and building a causeway to the Island. Not only has the city never been rebuilt; today it literally is used as a place “to spread fishing nets.”
The Doom of Edom (Petra). Unlike many Old Testament predictions of doom, Edom was not promised any restoration, only “perpetual desolation.” Jeremiah wrote in 49:16–17: “ ‘The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart have deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks, who occupy the heights of the hill. Though you build your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down,’ declares the Lord. ‘Edom will become an object of horror; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds.’ ”
Given the virtually impregnable nature of the ancient city carved out of rock and protected by a narrow passage way, this was an incredible prediction. Yet, in a.d. 636 it was conquered by Muslims and stands deserted but for tourist and passers by.
Flourishing of the Desert in Palestine. For centuries Palestine lay wasted and desolate. These conditions extended throughout the land. But Ezekiel 36:33–35 predicted that “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. They will say, ‘This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.’ ”
Today roads have been built, the land is being cultivated, and Israel’s agriculture is flourishing. This renovation began before the turn of the twentieth century and continues a century later. Agricultural crops, including a large orange harvest, are part of the restoration—just as Ezekiel had predicted.
Increase of Knowledge and Communication. Another biblical prophecy being fulfilled after thousands of years is that of Daniel’s forecast of the increase of knowledge and communication in the last days (12:4): God said: “But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”
Never in the history of the world has there been such a burst in knowledge, transportation, and communication as in the late twentieth century. Jet aircraft propulsion and computer microcircuit have caused a transportation and information explosion.
An Important Conclusion. A fact often overlooked by critics is that only one real case of fulfilled prophecy would establish Scripture’s supernatural origin (cf. Ramm, 86). Even if most biblical predictions could be explained naturally, even one clear case establishes the rest and confirms the prophetic event. Thus, if the critic is to make the case against prophecy, all instances must be naturally explainable.
Objections to Predictive Prophecy. Numerous arguments have been advanced to negate argument for the supernatural origin of biblical prophecy. The most important ones will be briefly considered:
The Language of Prophecy Is Vague. Critics insist that the language of prophecy is so indefinite that some sort of fulfillment is not difficult to find. Vague predictions are sharpened by their fulfillment.
Not all biblical prophecy is sharp. Some is vague and sharpened by its fulfillment. However, the critic must show that all prophecy is of this nature. But, as shown in the above examples, some prophecies are quite specific. The predictions of when Christ would die (Dan. 9:24f.), in what city he would be born (Micah 5:2), and how he would suffer and die (Isaiah 53) are hardly vague.
Other Religious Books Have Prophecies. It is also protested that prophecies are not unique to the Bible, but are found in other holy books. Hence, it has no value in proving the truth of Christianity over other religions. This argument is similar to David Hume’s argument that similar miraculous events are claimed by all religions. Hence, alleged miracles cannot be used to establish the truth of any one religion over another.
This objection is subject to the same criticism as Hume’s (see Miracles, Arguments Against). First, it is not true that other religions have specific, repeated, and unfailing fulfillment of predictions many years in advance of contingent events over which the predictor had no control. These kinds of predictions are unique to the Bible. A discussion of prophecies made by Muhammad in the Qur’an, the Bible’s closest competitor is found in the article Muhammad, Alleged Miracles of, and shows the disparity between the two books.
R. S. Foster says of other holy books and the writings of pagan religions: “No well-accredited prophecy is found in any other book or even oral tradition now extant, or that has ever been extant in the world. The oracles of heathenism are not to be classed as exceptions. There is not a single one of them that meets the tests required to prove supernatural agency, which every Scripture prophecy evinces” (Foster, 111). M’Ilvaine adds, “the history of pagan nations indeed abounds with stories of auguries and oracles and detached predictions. . . . But innumerable distance separates all the pretended oracles of paganism from the dignity of the prophecies of the Bible” (M’Ilvaine, 246–47). After making a careful examination of Hebrew and Pagan prophets, Calvin Stow concluded that there were no credible prophecies in other writings, but that each “is just what we would expect from men of this world, who have no faith in another” (cited in Newman, 17–18).
Psychics Have Made Predictions Like the Bible’s. Contemporary critics of biblical prophecy nominate psychic predictions for equality with Scripture. However, there is another quantum leap between every psychic and the unerring prophets of Scripture (see Miracles, Magic and). Indeed, one test of a prophet was whether they ever uttered predictions that did not come to pass (Deut. 18:22). Those whose prophecies failed were stoned (18:20)—a practice that no doubt gave pause to any who were not absolutely sure their messages were from God. Amid hundreds of prophecies, biblical prophets are not known to have made a single error. A study of prophecies made by psychics in 1975 and observed until 1981 showed that of the seventy-two predictions, only six were fulfilled in any way. Two of these were vague and two others were hardly surprising—the U.S. and Russia would remain leading powers and there would be no world wars. The People’s Almanac (1976) did a study of the predictions of twenty-five top psychics. The results: Of the total seventy-two predictions, sixty-six (92 percent) were totally wrong (Kole, 69). An accuracy rate around 8 percent could easily be explained by chance and general knowledge of circumstances. In 1993 the psychics missed every major unexpected news story, including Michael Jordan’s retirement, the Midwest flooding, and the Israel-PLO peace treaty. Among their false prophecies were that the Queen of England would become a nun, and Kathy Lee Gifford would replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show (Charlotte Observer 12/30/93).
Likewise, the highly reputed “predictions” of Nostradamus were not that amazing at all. Contrary to popular belief, he never predicted either the place or the year of a great California earthquake. Most of his “famous” predictions, such as the rise of Hitler, were vague. As other psychics, he was frequently wrong, a false prophet by biblical standards. More about Nostradamus is related in the article Nostradamus.
When Were Biblical Prophecies Made? According to this objection, all biblical prophecies with enough specificity to be unexplainable were made after the events. Daniel’s amazing statements were made quite late, and Isaiah’s predictions about Cyrus were edited in after he arrived on the scene. They were recording history, not uttering prophecies. For discussions of the dating of these two books, see Daniel, Dating of, and Isaiah, Deutero. Neither these nor other charges of post-dated prophecies have any foundation in fact. And many fulfillments have occurred long after the writings are known to have existed.
Alleged Fulfillments Misinterpret the Texts. Critics argue that the alleged fulfillment of Old Testament predictions are frequently misinterpretations of the Old Testament text. For example, Matthew says repeatedly “that it might be fulfilled” (cf. 1:22; 2:15, 17). However, when the Old Testament passage is examined in context, it turns out that it was not a real prediction of the event to which Matthew applied it.
A case in point is Matthew 2:15: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ” When the Old Testament source passage, Hosea 11:1, is examined, it is discovered that this is not a predictive prophecy about Jesus coming out of Egypt when he was a child but a statement about the children of Israel coming out of Egypt at the exodus.
It is readily admitted that many “prophecies” are not predictive and that the New Testament applied certain Old Testament passages to Christ that were not directly predictive of him. Many scholars speak of these Old Testament texts being “topologically fulfilled” in Christ, without being directly predictive. That is, some truth in the passage is appropriately applied to Christ, even though it was not directly predictive of him.
Others speak of a generic meaning in the Old Testament passage which applies both to its Old Testament reference (e.g., Israel) and the New Testament reference (e.g., Christ), both of whom were God’s “son.” Some scholars describe this as a double-reference view of prophecy. Whatever the case, these kinds of prophetic passages are not directly predictive and have no apologetic value. There are Old Testament passages that are not merely typological but are manifestly predictive, as was shown above. For example, the time and place of Christ’s birth and death were told. What the critic cannot show is that all Old Testament “prophecies” are merely typological and nonpredictive.
Jesus Manipulated Events to Fulfill Prophecy. Another argument used by critics was popularized by Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot. He argued that Jesus manipulated people and events so as to make it appear that he was the predicted Messiah. This interesting theory is destroyed by the facts. First, numerous miracles (see Miracles in the Bible) confirmed Jesus to be the Messiah. God would not confirm a fraud to appear to be his Son (see Miracles, Apologetic Value of). Second, there is no evidence that Jesus was a deceiver. To the contrary, his character is impeccable (see Christ, Uniqueness of). Third, Jesus had no control over some predictions over which he had no control, such as, his ancestry (Gen. 12:3; 49:10; 2 Sam. 7:12–16); birthplace (Micah 5:2), time of death (Dan. 9:24–27); and conditions of his death (Isaiah 53). Fourth, in order to manipulate all the people (including his enemies) and even his disciples in order to make it appear that he was the promised Messiah, Jesus would have needed supernatural powers. But if he had such powers, he must have been the Messiah he claimed to be.
Only the Successful Prophecies Are Recorded. This objection affirms that Old Testament prophets were just as fallible as any other prophets. They got some right and some wrong. However, only the ones that succeeded were placed in the Bible. Thus, there is really nothing supernatural about them. After all, if only the successful predictions of Jean Dixon were collected into one volume long after her death, she too would look as supernatural as the biblical prophets.
This objection is based on fallacious premises. First of all, it is the fallacy of the Argument from Ignorance. It presents no evidence that there were other prophecies that failed. It merely assumes that there were. The burden of proof is to show that there were. Second, what it admits is sufficient to destroy its contention. If all the prophecies in the Bible are good ones, then we have numerous positive evidence, that the Bible is unfailing in its predictive power—a sure sign of their divine origin and far beyond the best psychics on their best days. Third, the argument is a false analogy, since in the case of the psychics we have numerous known examples of where they were wrong. In the case of the Bible we have none. It also assumes the prophet’s contemporaries would have gone along with the misses and accepted the hits as from God. As noted, that is not how it worked.
Some Biblical Predictions Were Not Fulfilled. A number of critics have argued that not all the predictions of the Bible were fulfilled. Jonah’s prediction that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days was not (Jonah 3:4). Christ did not return in one generation, as he said he would. Indeed, Christ has not returned and set up a literal kingdom as he promised (Matthew 24–25). Neither has God destroyed the world by fire (2 Peter 3:10–13) and set up a perfect Paradise (Revelation 21–22).
The alleged unfulfilled prophecies all fall into one of the following categories (see Payne):
Some were conditional. Jonah’s warning to Nineveh was conditioned on their continuing rebellion. When they repented (3:5–9), God relented of the impending doom. As Jesus said to those of his day, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3). Likewise, there is an implied “unless you repent” in every prophet who warns of God’s judgment. As Peter said, “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The same is true of Deuteronomy 11:25 where God said to Israel, “No man will be able to stand against you. The Lord your God, as he promised you, will put the terror and fear of you on the whole land, wherever you go.” Yet they did suffer defeats, for example, at Ai (Joshua 7). But when this promise is examined, it is clearly conditional—“if you carefully keep all these commandments” (vs. 22). When Israel did obey God, they were undefeatable, even against overwhelming odds (cf. Joshua 6, 8–11).
Some simply have not yet been fulfilled. Most of these relate to Jesus’ second coming which has not yet occurred. It is simply fallacious to claim the Bible has false prophecies because they have not yet all been fulfilled. As Peter warned (2 Peter 3:4–5, 8–9):
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” . . . But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. . . . The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
The other alleged unfulfilled prophecies are not errors in the Bible but errors in the critics’ understanding of the Bible. For example, Jesus did not say he would return to earth in the disciples’ lifetime (in Matt. 24:34). He never said “I will return in your life time.” What he said was, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This phrase can mean one of several different things. To make their point, the critics must assume that it can mean only one thing.
Further, “generation” in Greek (genea) can mean “race.” One interpretation of Jesus’ statement is that the Jewish race would not pass away until all things are fulfilled. There were many promises to Israel, including the eternal inheritance of the land of Palestine (Genesis 12, 14, 15, 17) and the Davidic kingdom (2 Samuel 7), yet the nation was about to be destroyed by the Romans. Jesus could be promising God’s preservation of the nation of Israel in order to fulfill his promises to them. Paul speaks of a future of the nation of Israel when they will be reinstated in God’s covenantal promises (Rom. 11:11–26). And Jesus’ response to his disciples’ last question implied that there would yet be a future kingdom for Israel, when they asked: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Rather than rebuking them for their misunderstanding, he replied that “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in his own authority” (Acts 1:6–7).
What is more, “generation” could also refer to a generation in its commonly understood sense of the people who will be alive at the time indicated. In this case, “generation” would refer to the group of people who are alive when these things come to pass in the future. The generation alive when these things (the abomination of desolation [vs.15], the great tribulation [vs. 21], and the sign of the Son of Man in heaven [vs. 30]) begin to come to pass will still be alive when these judgments are completed. Since it is commonly believed that the tribulation is a period of some seven years (Dan. 9:27; cf. Rev. 11:2) at the end of the age, then Jesus would be saying that “this generation” alive at the beginning of the tribulation will still be alive at the end of it.
In any event, there is no reason to assume that Jesus made the obviously false assertion that the world would come to an end within the lifetime of his contemporaries.
Summary. The Bible is filled with specific predictive prophecies that have been literally fulfilled. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecies calculated that 27 percent of the entire Bible contains predictive prophecy (Payne, 675). This is true of no other book in the world. And it is a sure sign of its divine origin.
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