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.
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.The defeat of the Persians by the Romans predicted
Wikipedia (see linked sources within)
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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?
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?).
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?