Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Amazing prophecy fulfilments

Many Christadelphians believe that the contents of the Bible originated from God. One of the primary reasons they believe this is Bible Prophecy. Essentially, they believe there are prophecies in the Bible that were accurately fulfilled, something they claim a mere human could not have produced.

That is a claim this article will explore a bit further, but perhaps in a surprising way. Rather than argue that most, if not all, of the prophecies in the Bible were not actually accurately fulfilled, as I have done in previous articles, I want to look at human predictions made outside the Bible.

Can humans predict the future?

Before I try to answer this question, let's just suppose for a moment that the answer is 'yes'. If so, that would effectively diminish all Bible Prophecy claims. Fulfilled prophecy would no longer be evidence of divine authorship. To argue for divine authorship without Bible Prophecy would in most cases involve an appeal to people's personal incredulity, which is a logical fallacy.

So clearly this is an important question to ask when talking about Bible Prophecy. If Bible Prophecy is to offer any evidence for divine inspiration, the answer to this question must be 'no'.

So without further ado, I give you a list of examples when humans really did predict the future, and sometimes with uncanny accuracy.

Alexander the Great's death predicted

Firstly, it seems that the Chaldeans successfully predicted the death of Alexander the Great, a prediction they attributed to their god Bel.
On his march to Babylon, Alexander, after crossing the Tigris, was met by some Wise Men of the Chaldaeans, who drew him aside and begged him to go no further, because their god Bel had foretold that if he entered the city at that time, it would prove fatal to him.
Livius.org
A philosopher, named Kalanos (also spelled Calanus) also predicted the place of Alexander's death in the previous year, 323BCE.
...his last words to Alexander were "We shall meet in Babylon". Thus he is said to have prophesied the death of Alexander in Babylon. At the time of the death of Calanus, Alexander, however, did not have any plan to go to Babylon.
Wikipedia (see linked sources within)
The defeat of the Persians by the Romans predicted

This one is interesting because it mimics the kind of prophecies made in the book of Ezekiel, which Christadelphians often cite as evidence for divine inspiration. However, this one is from the Quran, not the Bible.
Another interpretation of the Qur'an is that it predicted the defeat of the Persians by the Romans. Before the prophecy, at the Battle of Antioch, in 613 C.E., the Persians defeated the Romans. Muslims were upset by this defeat because they felt more connected to Rome, a Christian empire, than to Persia, a Zoroastrian one. A few years afterwards, the following verse was revealed in the Qur'an: "The Roman Empire Has been defeated – In a land close by; But they, (even) after (This) defeat of theirs, Will soon be victorious – Within a few years. With God is the Decision, In the Past And in the Future: On that Day shall The Believers rejoice” (30:2-4). By 627 C.E., the Romans had successfully defeated the Persians, resulting in much celebration by Muslims and fulfilling the prophecy of the Qur'an.
Wikipedia (also see this link)
The American civil war predicted

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, predicted a war between the northern and southern states, including that the war would be regarding slavery and would begin in South Carolina.
Joseph Smith's Civil War prophecy is contained in sections 87 and 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants. He prophesied on December 25, 1832, that a war would begin in South Carolina; that the southern states would divide against the northern states; that the South would seek support from other nations, including Great Britain; and that the war would lead to the death and misery of many souls. These items in the prophecy were all fulfilled in the Civil War (1860-1865). In 1843 the Prophet noted (D&C 130:12-13) that he had also learned by revelation in 1832 that slavery would be the probable cause of the upcoming crisis.
Source
Colour photography and the internet predicted

In the year 1900, John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions for the next 100 years, many of which came true.

"Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.... photographs will reproduce all of nature's colours."

And also...

"Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn."

Mark Twain predicted the date of his own death

He made this prediction in 1909.
"I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together'." 
His prediction was accurate – Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut, one day after the comet's closest approach to Earth.
Wikipedia
Demise of the Soviet Union predicted

Ray Kurzweil, an American author, inventor and futurist, has made several predictions, many of which have come true.
Kurzweil wrote his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, between 1986 and 1989. When published in 1990 it forecast the demise of the Soviet Union due to new technologies such as cellular phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. In 2005, Mikhail Gorbachev told Kurzweil that emerging decentralized electronic communication "was a big factor" for fostering democracy in the Soviet Union.
Wikipedia
Some of his predictions have been fulfilled with remarkable accuracy, others less so.
According to Ray Kurzweil, 89 out of 108 predictions he made were entirely correct by the end of 2009. An additional 13 were what he calls “essentially correct" (meaning that they were likely to be realized within a few years of 2009), for a total of 102 out of 108. Another 3 are partially correct, 2 look like they are about 10 years off, and 1, which was tongue in cheek anyway, was just wrong. Kurzweil later released a more detailed analysis of the accuracy of his predictions up to 2009, arguing that most were correct.
Wikipedia

But... but...

Perhaps you found yourself skeptical as you read through this list. Perhaps you already have several objections in your mind. If so, I applaud you. It is very likely that there are plausible, non-miraculous explanations for all of these predictions. But therein lies the key point I am trying to make. If you really want to look at prophecy, take that same skepticism that you held regarding the above claims and point it back at the claims found in the Bible.

How long would you spend researching the above "prophecy fulfilments"? Would you be content to accept the first critical response to each of them? If you read that a claim had been debunked by critics, would that alone be enough for you to drop it and move on? What would you say to someone who did the same regarding the claims in the Bible? Do you think they would have exercised due diligence?

Possible objections

No doubt some of you will still wish to dismiss this entire argument, claiming that there are unique features of the Bible's prophecies that set them apart. Indeed there are. In fact every prophecy has unique features. You will almost certainly find some feature that only applies to the prophecies in the Bible, or the Quran, or some other source. But so what?

If your goal is to find some piece of "evidence" to hang onto in order to protect and insulate your faith, then you'll surely find it. But that has almost no bearing on whether your beliefs are true. People can do the same for almost any set of beliefs, including belief in conspiracy theories. If you want to know whether a particular prophecy claim is true, you need to go further than this. You first need to accept the possibility that it may not be true, and that requires a preparedness to change your beliefs depending on what evidence you find. The next step is to imagine the kind of evidence that might exist if your belief was false, and go looking for it. This is not easy, but such efforts will be rewarded as it will inevitably lead you closer to truth. It is also essential that your beliefs are testable, otherwise you cannot know whether they are true no matter what you do.

Objection 1: The Bible predicted events hundreds or thousands of years in advance

So did the prophecies of Nostradamus, the Quran, Joseph Smith, and ancient chinese prophets. The difference is that while you dismiss these prophecies for various reasons, you perhaps downplay or simply ignore the very same criticisms that have been made against Bible prophecies.

The prophecy is too vague? check.
The claimed fulfilment is not actually what the author had in mind? check. 
The author could have just been lucky / it could have been coincidence? check.
The prophecy was written after the fact? check.
There are discrepancies between the prophecy and its claimed fulfilment? check.
The prophecy (or other prophecies by the same author) failed? check.

Not surprisingly, for each of these prophecies (of Nostradamus, Mormons, Islam etc), there are large numbers of people who still insist that they were accurately fulfilled, despite these debunkings. How certain are you that you are not simply doing the same as they are?

Objection 2: The Bible claims that these prophecies were received by divine revelation

And so do other holy books. If you're skeptical about one, but credulous when it comes to another, it's time to review your methods and apply more consistent skepticism.

A good tool for doing this is to first take a step back and ask what you're trying to achieve. Would you be happy to unwittingly believe a lie? If not, then you owe it to yourself to detach from your current belief as much as possible and do your best to find out what is actually true, and not just what you want to be true. If you are inconsistent when applying skepticism to various beliefs, you are effectively sabotaging your own efforts to find truth. It's easy to fool ourselves. It's much, much harder to avoid it.

Another useful tool is to imagine a person who had been brought up in another religion. Everything they know has been taught to them by people in the same religion. Everything they read from other sources has been interpreted through that lens. They have a loving family and a supportive group of friends. They have a vibrant worship community and a real sense of belonging. But their inherited view of the world is wrong. Should they stick with it, in order to preserve their comfortable life, perhaps believing they will go to live in paradise when they die? Or would they be better off deeply questioning their beliefs, in order to discover the truth about reality? What advice would you give this person that might help them to see their error? What if that person was you?

Objection 3: The Bible's prophecies are more specific

In what way? Are you cherry-picking the particular way in which you think a prophecy contains more specific information?

How many of the Bible's prophecies contain specific time limits or dates? The answer is 'very few'. In contrast, several of the examples I gave did exactly that.

Anyone can make open-ended predictions and have a later group of people rejoice when an event in their lifetime appears to match one of them. But without a specific date, how do we know it wasn't just coincidence? After all, some events are bound to happen, given enough time. Or, if they never happen, it is likely that the original prophecy becomes forgotten as well, or just interpreted a different way (perhaps the "still future" response?).

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article, I asked the question, "Can humans predict the future?". I think the answer depends on what is meant by the question.

Can humans see into the future? No. Not as far as I am aware. However, we can make some educated guesses about the future, which appears to be what Ray Kurzweil has done, and very successfully too.

Can humans make predictions that come true? Yes. And they have done many times.

So would a successful prediction in the Bible prove that it was divinely inspired? Let me respond with another question. Would a successful prediction in the Book of Mormon prove that it was divinely inspired?

Maybe. Maybe not. Let's assess each prediction on a case-by-case basis. But at the end of the day, even if we determined that a prediction did come to pass, how would we decide that it wasn't simply a lucky coincidence? What about other potential causes? What if the author received information from some as-yet-unknown source, but mistakenly attributed it to their deity? And how does any of that tell us anything about other books by different authors? Remember that the Bible is a compilation, not a single book.

And let's not forget that to even suggest divine inspiration as a possible explanation presupposes the existence of a divine being. Where is the evidence for that? At best all we could say is that we don't know how they came up with the prediction, and keep looking. To jump to any other conclusion at this point seems premature.

Of course you could "have faith" that God exists, and that a prophecy was revealed by God, but if you're going to bring faith into the picture, why not skip the prophecy step altogether? And while we're talking about faith, wouldn't that answer work just as well for someone with another religion? I thought the goal was to find truth, not comfort and reassurance?

6 comments:

  1. I agree, the predictions people have made are fascinating. It can be particularly interesting when reading old fiction, as some predictions are way ahead of our time, while others are way behind it (a favourite example: Heinlein had his characters colonising Mars, mining on the asteroid belt, and visiting other star systems - while still using slide rules and programming massive ballistic computers in binary). In the technology world, one of the things I notice is that many of the predictions were very specific applications of technology (e.g. being able to transport music over a wire network, or being able to swiftly and efficiently transfer physical documents), while the reality ended up much more general purpose (we transfer data over the internet, which could be music, documents, or any amount of other things).

    One thing I don't think you considered is prophecies that are self-fulfilling or (more generally) inspire people to try and fulfil them. In fact, there is a common literary trope of characters going out of their way to try and avert a prophecy of doom, and ending up fulfilling it. With things like technological advances you can see that sometimes people are inspired by the prophecy and try to work towards it. I think you can see the same in religion too. People see prophecies of a promised Messiah and think "Could I be like that?" or "This person is doing something out of the ordinary. Might they be the promised Messiah?" Or people see prophecies of a return to a holy land and work towards that return.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I tried to avoid examples of predictions that were obviously self-fulfilled, just because I wanted readers to have to try a bit harder to rationalise them. I think it's easy to be very dismissive of other claims just because they're not biblical.

      However, I think that could explain at least some of Kurzweil's predictions. I don't necessarily think people were trying to make his predictions come true, but the predictions themselves may have provided inspiration for new inventions.

      I think your last sentence carries some merit as well. Is it conceivable that those in the Zionist movement and associates were unaware of the Bible's mentions of a revival of the nation of Israel? Hardly.

      "Ideas favoring the restoration of the Jews in Palestine or the Land of Israel entered the British public discourse in the 1830s, though British reformationists had written about the restoration of the Jews as early as the 16th century"

      "In August 1840, The Times reported that the British government was considering Jewish restoration"

      "In 1839, the Church of Scotland sent Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Alexander Black and Alexander Keith on a mission to report on the condition of the Jews in Palestine. ... They sought out Jewish communities and inquired about their readiness to accept Christ and, separately, their preparedness to return to Israel as prophesied in the Bible."
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Zionism#Views_in_the_British_Empire

      Wikipedia also lists several failed attempts at reviving the nation of Israel in earlier centuries here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zionism#History

      Those who claim it is a miracle are asking us to believe it couldn't possibly be coincidence. They assume that the biblical prediction was written with foreknowledge, rather than out of hope.

      But is it so unlikely to be a coincidence? In my view, there are 3 main ingredients required to explain it all:

      1. The motive for the prophet to predict their return.
      2. A reason for Jews to maintain their identity, also involving a strong interest in the land of Israel (or the land previously known as...).
      3. Conditions favourable to allow resettlement. Window of opportunity etc.

      Point number 1 is easily explainable - they had been exiled and wanted to return, and so they predicted it would happen in order to give themselves and their audience hope.

      Point number 2 is essentially an extension of what was born during the Babylonian exile. They transitioned from a people identified by a land to a people identified by a book / culture etc. The Bible really became more important to them throughout this period, and became a large part of their identity from that time onwards. That in itself I believe is a sufficient explanation for their ability to maintain that identity. I'm sure many who experienced the second exile in AD132-136 would have found the writings in the Old Testament particularly relevant. And likewise from that time onwards.

      Number 3 barely needs an explanation. It wasn't the first attempt to create a new home for the Jews. It's just that eventually one of the attempts was successful. And there is plenty of evidence suggesting that many who worked or voted in favour of it did so precisely because they thought they were fulfilling prophecy.

      If all 3 have a plausible natural explanation, then yeah, it's pretty likely to be a coincidence. Did the Bible's authors have any idea about events that would take place in the 20th century? Not a chance. There isn't even a hint in the Bible about this time period. Any suggestion that we must be living in the "last days" is derived from circular reasoning. Thus it isn't surprising that we're also not the first generation who thought they were living in the "last days". Not even close.

      Delete
  2. Also of interest is when people make confident predictions based on their interpretation of particular prophecies that are still to come (more likely to happen with religious prophecies than say technological prophecies):
    1. I was reading some magazines from mid-1967 (around the time of the Six Day War). There was lots of excitement then. Lots of baptisms, too. "Jerusalem is no longer trodden down of the Gentiles - so: Lift up your heads - for your redemption draweth nigh." Was followed in the next issue by an article trying to demonstrate that the generation from 1948 might be finished by 1985 - so, since God wouldn't let us set a date, maybe it would be some unexpected time before 1985. Actual quotes: "The generation born in 1948 will see Jesus Christ come again. There is nothing surer than that" and "Christ will probably return before 1985". Ten years ago 2007 was the big thing (40 years after Israel got control of Jerusalem). Now one of the numbers used is a 70 year generation, which could take you to 2018 (or 2047). And of course we still have Newton's 2060 to look forward to if we live that long.
    I guess this matches your "too vague" point. If lots of people have made predictions based on a particular prophecy (or combination of prophecies) and they have all turned out wrong, then maybe this shows the prophecy isn't a clear sign of anything. And if one of the predictions from the prophecy was right and the other 500 were wrong, how would you know that prediction was the "correct" interpretation of the prophecy? Because it was fulfilled?

    2. I came across this article: http://www.breakingisraelnews.com/68439/temple-mount-rights-activist-yehudah-glick-ascends-for-last-time-before-knesset-swearing-in-05-16/.
    Which I had to read after seeing the headline "Does Newest Knesset Member Yehudah Glick Fulfill Jerusalem Prophecy of Zachariah?" (even though I assumed Betteridge's Law would apply).
    The interesting thing with this article is that it takes a prophecy which Christians tend to assume is obviously Messianic and refers to the future kingdom of God, and applies it to the nation of Israel's future role while following the current political system.
    It has a bold statement about how clear and obvious this fulfilment of prophecy is: "Yehudah Glick’s devotion to Jerusalem and his unlikely Knesset appointment carry all the signs of fulfilled prophecy. It is not every day that a headline can so closely resemble a Biblical verse. In this case, the new Likud appointment comes straight from the book of Zechariah." And I'm afraid I just don't see that it closely resembles the scripture quoted (and haven't grown up with any biases towards interpreting scripture like that). I'm also not seeing any blinded horses, panicked riders, or Judah devouring the surrounding nations.

    3. I'm interested to see what will come of the UK "In or Out" referendum. I'm secretly hoping it comes out "In", both because it would preserve a status quo that seems to keep most people happy, and because it would annoy lots of people who originally predicted Britain would never enter the common market and have ever since been predicting with Bible in hand that God will separate Tarshish from the beast in his own good time. For them, the looming referendum is a gold mine now, but could so quickly easily turn into ashes of another failed hope (which is always a great time to reaffirm that we know what will happen, we just don't know when).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. //And if one of the predictions from the prophecy was right and the other 500 were wrong, how would you know that prediction was the "correct" interpretation of the prophecy? Because it was fulfilled?//

      Bingo. This hits home and I've used this argument in previous articles. If a prophecy could be interpreted a number of ways (and they all can, as evidenced by the variety of views among other Christian denominations, as well as the repeated attempts to guess the future based on these prophecies), then how should we know which interpretation was the correct one?

      How do you go about ruling out the idea that one of the now-failed interpretations was actually the correct interpretation, and the apparent correlation between history and another interpretation is just happy coincidence? You can't.

      It's a fool's game, designed to convince those who want to believe. And it does. Not saying they are "fools" in the sense of being stupid. Far from it. If I was saying that then I would have to include myself, since I once believed it. I'm saying they have been fooled, in most cases without any malice, and in many cases they even avoid reading anything that might make them aware of it.

      Employing methods designed to rule out any chance of having fooled oneself (i.e. the scientific method), beyond reasonable doubt, invariably leads to agnosticism. To maintain a position of belief requires that one ignore or dismiss serious reasons for doubt. I cannot think of a good reason to do that, as far as seeking truth is concerned.

      // I'm also not seeing any blinded horses, panicked riders, or Judah devouring the surrounding nations.//

      Indeed. A careful reading of any prophecy will expose details that simply don't match up and need to be reinterpreted. If a prophecy is limited only by the available interpretations, then it is limited only by people's imagination and credulity, more or less.

      //I'm interested to see what will come of the UK "In or Out" referendum.//

      Haha, yes so am I. Thing is, this isn't the first time this issue has been talked about. So if it's "in" the first time and then "out" the second time, is the second time a prophecy fulfilment, or was the first time a prophecy failure? If any "out" result would count as prophecy fulfilment no matter how many "in" decisions there had been in the past, or no matter how long it took, then is this really evidence of the miraculous? We might as well predict that one day someone will toss a coin and it will land on "heads".

      Of course, the EU was never mentioned in the Bible, and although it was really convenient back in the 90's that it had 12 member states, that number has now blown out to 28 and it's really difficult to fit 28 into biblical numerology. Is it 4 * 7? Perhaps the UK will leave, making it 27, which is 9 * 3? It's like the universe's corniest competition, where you have to solve the riddle to win a chance at eternal life in the magic castle.

      At the end of the day, if Britain remaining in the EU would not falsify the Bible, then its exit could not be considered confirmation of it.

      The fact that the Bible almost never sets time limits on prophecy makes it so much more likely that any supposed fulfilment will be due to coincidence than miracle. Given enough time, and given enough flexibility of interpretation, there's not much that could not be "predicted". Would the Bible's authors have considered events today as fulfilments of their writings? I highly doubt it.

      Delete
    2. I was told that it was part of God's great plan that he made all generations think they were near the return of Christ, because otherwise they wouldn't be properly ready. If people had been told his return wasn't for 2,000+ years they would lose interest.

      Of course, I did have trouble reconciling that with the insistence that this time it was for real - we were truly in the Last Days.

      Delete
    3. //I was told that it was part of God's great plan that he made all generations think they were near the return of Christ, because otherwise they wouldn't be properly ready.//

      What would it look like if that wasn't God's plan?

      I can see why a believer would want to believe it was, but how would they go about determining whether or not that idea was true?

      //If people had been told his return wasn't for 2,000+ years they would lose interest.//

      Really?

      Delete

Comments will be moderated. Please keep comments on topic.

Please do not comment as "Anonymous" (use "Name/URL" instead - the URL is optional). If you wish to remain anonymous, just use a fake name. That way it makes it easier to track who is replying to whom.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.