The Great Big Arguments #5: Prophecies

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. There were a great many arguments like this coming in, so it's time for a summary question for future reference.
Atheist Answer: 

Claimed predictions by the Bible (from which my examples will be drawn, since they're what I've been receiving lately) 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 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.

- SmartLX


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Okay, so give some examples

Let's take what seems to be a pretty easy one: God's promises to Abraham. Which category do you put them in?


Several prophecies, several categories.

To start with, the source is suspect. If we accept that God himself made the promises in the first place, their fulfillment is moot as evidence for divine action. For now let's just consider the prophecies as having come from Abraham himself as far as anyone knows.

The main category is Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, as with many of the prophecies by Jews, for Jews. If Abraham and/or those around him thought God had said they would make great nations, that's what they would set out to do. The prophecies named certain countries, so that's where they went. It specified set periods of oppression, so once oppression began they knew when they were supposed to fight or escape it, and morale was high. That's assuming that the Biblical portion of Jewish geopolitical history isn't partially or entirely Made to Order.

If they had failed, would we even know the prophecy existed? Therefore, how many other would-be nation builders following apparently divine visions might have fallen by the wayside? Any number. That's where the case for High Probability of Success could start. What if Abraham and his prophecies were just be the lucky ones that won out?

Still Unknown applies to those promises yet to come, the eternal inheritance Jews and Christians both think they're owed, God's end of the Covenant which is still renewed in church today.

Translation and interpretation issues might suggest Shoehorned elements if we had a look, but every other category is already suggested. That's plenty.

Mind you... even

Mind you... even self-fulfilling prophecies are amazing if they are made by sterile men, promising children by sterile wives...


So how do we know he or they were ever sterile?

Bobby Runningfox is a globe-trotting Native American spirit healer who once "treated" a friend of mine. He put his hands on her abdomen for a moment, and announced that he had removed a small cancer. There's no way to prove him wrong, but what evidence is there that he was right? One way or the other, there's no cancer now.

One way or the other, Abe had kids.

Still very improbable

Hey LX and hayesy,

It seems to me we're quibbling about the difference between one chance in a million and one chance in a million and one. Even if Abraham was young and fertile and had 20 children, or as many as LX wants to suggest, and desparately wanted the promises to be fulfilled- then the probability of it coming true by chance is still the equivalent of winning the lottery.

See you guys :-)


Thanks for mentioning the lottery, because it has something to teach us. The chance that a given person will win the lottery is one in millions, but how long goes by before someone takes home Division 1 in any given system? A month at most?

Abraham was one of a great many desert nomads, each with their own goals. There were potentially as many sets of prophecies as people. Winners write history; whoever eventually seized power in this population would claim that their guidance, from any source, was right.

The difference is not between one chance in a million and one in a million and one. It's between one chance in a million and hundreds of thousands of chances, or millions of them.