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 ~

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The flawed methodology behind Christadelphian Bible Prophecy

Bible Prophecy was always at the forefront of the Christadelphian message while I was growing up. It was often cited in public lectures, and youth group talks, as one of the reasons we could be confident that the Bible was the inspired word of God, and therefore that we could trust everything it said to be accurate.

But is it as reliable as they say? Let's find out.

Rather than get into a detailed discussion of the various prophecy claims that Christadelphians make, I want to instead take a different approach. I want to look at how they got there in the first place.

What are some of the methods Christadelphians use in relation to Bible Prophecy, and are these methods reliable?

Pin the tail on the donkey

One of the favourite methods of Bible Prophecy advocates right across the world, and not just Christadelphians, is that of substituting modern nations for ancient ones, based mainly on the approximate geographical regions they occupy (and the obvious fact that the ancient nations are no longer in existence).

If you were raised in a Christadelphian environment, this may seem like an obvious and natural thing to do. But the more I think about it the less sense it makes. In fact, this practice starts to quite obviously lean towards the desires of the reader rather than those of the author. In many (perhaps all?) cases, it is not clear that the author even intended to write about any nations other than the ones they specifically named. Perhaps readers may like to inform me of passages where the author specifically named a nation while clearly intending for the reader to replace them with other nations who would later occupy the same or similar territory.

I have looked for a passage in the Bible that might endorse this practice, but have found none. I have also asked Christadelphians why this method is used, but have not (yet) received an answer. Perhaps someone will be kind enough to leave a comment here with a well-reasoned answer to this question. Please include evidence to justify your reasoning. That would be most appreciated.

Why is this considered a reliable method for interpreting Bible Prophecy?
What is the justification and reasoning behind it?

A couple of problems

You don't need to think about this very long to realise that there are some quite serious problems with this approach to interpreting Bible Prophecy, besides the obvious ad-hoc nature of it.

1. If a nation that is referred to no longer exists, why shouldn't we interpret that to mean that the prophecy failed?

If we allow ourselves the freedom to reinterpret the prophecy every time an existing interpretation is falsified, the prophecy would therefore be limited only by the number of possible interpretations that someone could come up with. Given that there are a potentially large number of ways to interpret many of the prophecies in the Bible (and history bears witness to this fact), we run the risk of making the prophecy effectively unfalsifiable. That significantly undermines the reliability of this method. An unfalsifiable claim cannot be proven true.

2. Some of the nations referred to in the Bible have been replaced by other nations with different borders, such that it becomes difficult to determine whether the territory is now occupied by just one, several, or even half a nation. On what basis should we select the nation or nations that now occupy the designated region? There are many possibilities, but all of them seem rather ad-hoc and even perhaps ridiculous. Again, what justification is there for any such method?

Did I say one? I really meant two

The dual-fulfilment idea is another popular argument among prophecy apologists. The simple fact is that there is no prophecy in the Bible that explicitly claims to have multiple fulfilments. The idea exists only in the mind of the believer, and was invented for the simple reason that without it the believer would need to acknowledge that either the primary or the secondary fulfilment was a false positive. And if one of them was a false positive, why not both?

Also, if a single prophecy could match two completely separate and distinct events, that actually serves as pretty good evidence that the prophecy is too vague to be meaningful. If it matched two events (that we know of), what other events might it have matched if history had played out differently?


Many Christadelphians seem eager to use world events as their benchmark for their interpretation of Bible Prophecy. They say, "This must be the correct interpretation because look how well it fits world events". The problem with this is that you cannot then turn around and claim that the prophecy miraculously predicts world events. The circularity of such an argument should be obvious, and yet many people seem to find it convincing. This just highlights the need for greater skepticism and critical thinking among believers.

You need to be able to justify your interpretation of a prophecy completely from either within the text itself or from the author's own worldview. In most cases we don't have much information about the latter, and we've already discussed the problematic nature of textual interpretation.

For example, Wikipedia lists at least 10 different ways to interpret the book of Revelation. Any book with that amount of scope for different interpretations seems pretty useless as a predictive source. There are probably more interpretations that it doesn't list as well.

Then there's the "day for a year" idea and other tricks believers have up their sleeve to avoid falsification.

Getting it right seems like more of an art than a science. Without a divine tap on the shoulder when we arrive at the one "correct" interpretation, how shall we proceed beyond ignorance and agnosticism?

Where does it get us?

Another issue with Bible Prophecy is that it cannot go the distance that apologists intend it to. It won't take us all the way to declaring that the Bible is divinely inspired. Let me explain why.

As you are probably aware, the Bible is not a single book. It is composed of several books written by different authors over some period of time. If one of those authors amazingly predicted some future event, what could we conclude? At best, it seems to me, we could perhaps say that the author had access to information from some external source that could see into the future (who the author identifies as God). At worst, we could conclude that the author made an extremely lucky guess. It tells us nothing about any other author. You're still left with the task of proving that every other book was divinely inspired. Prophecy gets us nowhere.

Also, what if an author made several predictions, some successful and some not? What should we do with that information? I am of course speaking of Ezekiel, who, it is claimed, predicted the return of the nation of Israel. Yet the same prophet also predicted that Egypt would be completely uninhabited for 40 years, beginning during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. That prophecy failed. How should we resolve this?

Cloud spotting

The last issue with Bible Prophecy that I want to draw attention to is the almost limitless ability of people to see patterns in things. It is well documented that people see faces in almost everything, and also that they see patterns everywhere - even in random data.

In general, humans are quite good at finding patterns, almost too good. In fact, we are very prone to finding false positives. That is, we see patterns where none exist. Conspiracy theories are a good example. There are many others, including the belief in invisible intentional agents acting in the world.

Given the afore-mentioned freedom and creativity in interpretation that is often applied to Bible Prophecy, and the fact that world events are often similarly afforded the same degree of freedom of representation, it does not seem all that surprising to me that people would find patterns and similarities between the two. What is not clear to me at all is whether the similarities actually exist outside the imaginations of those who wish to believe in them. In fact I'm not even sure how to find out. To what extent is any event similar to any other event? Is not such a comparison highly subjective? Again, are the events themselves similar, or is it only the language describing the events that is similar?

The problem with cloud spotting is that there's no way to rule anything out. Suppose someone predicted that sometime in the future you'd see a cloud in the shape of a boat. Then a few years later you see one that kind of looks like a fishing boat. Was the prediction confirmed true at that point? Or was that not actually the intended "boat" that was predicted? Maybe it was really two clouds, and only looked like one cloud from your particular vantage point? Perhaps the "real" boat is still would you know?

Perhaps 50 years later you see another cloud that looks even more like a boat than the original one you saw. Was the old one a misinterpretation? A false positive? Is this new one a second fulfilment? What if they're both false positives? What if the "real" boat is again still in the future? Again, how would you know?

And so it is with Bible Prophecy.

If you need faith in order to believe that the prophecy was fulfilled, that kind of defeats the purpose doesn't it?

The Verdict

When there's no time limit, no criteria for success or failure, no way to verify that you interpreted correctly, no way to justify your methodology, and no way to rule out coincidence, I fail to see how Bible Prophecy could be considered convincing by anyone but those who already believe.

And perhaps therein lies its true purpose.