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Playing the Prophecy Game

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

Harold Camping, pastor of Family Radio, is a nutcase, yes, but at least he is straightforward when he makes a prophecy, unlike all of those so-called prophets of the bible. Camping has prophesied that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011, and that the world will end on Oct. 21, 2011. Thus, he has given us a prophecy which can be tested, or, in the language of science, something which is falsifiable.

The end of the world!Image by Newbirth35 via Flickr
I’m no expert, but it seems to me that bible prophecies are never this clear, this definite. They always carry a load of ambiguity which makes them doubtful. Sometimes the ambiguity concerns persons, sometimes places, sometimes details of an event, and they appear to be always ambiguous as to dates.

One of the more common tricks of bible prophecy is for an actor to perform an act with the specific intent to fulfill a prophecy. I’m sorry, but this is just cheating. For example, Zechariah 9:9 reads, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” By this symbolic act Jesus claimed to be the Messiah of the Jews. So then, according to Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, in order to fulfill the prophecy. Matthew apparently misunderstood Zechariah and has Jesus ride on a donkey AND a colt (a colt is a young male donkey), presumably at the same time. That must have been a funny sight.

Let’s think about this Zechariah prophecy a bit. Other itinerant preachers of the day also must have known about this passage, so perhaps one or more of them also rode into Jerusalem on one or more donkeys. So, did they fulfill the prophecy, too? Or is this not really fulfilling a prophecy at all, because they all just played to an existing, well known script? Let’s face it, however you judge this, we should not be the slightest surprised that such a prophecy was fulfilled; all one needed was the town and a donkey.

If Camping knew how to play the prophecy game the way the old bible prophets played it, then people might be impressed with his prophecies for generations. As I said, sometimes the ambiguity of prophecy concerns persons. Isaiah 7:14 reads,
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." 

Now, Jesus is generally taken to be this Immanuel because, in Hebrew, Immanuel means “God with us.” Now maybe this isn’t quite the same as forcing a square peg into a round hole, but it’s awfully close. If the author of Isaiah wanted to wow them with a prophecy, then why didn’t he just say, “…and shall call his name Jesus?” Since he didn’t, we are certainly justified in questioning whether the birth of Jesus actually fulfills this prophecy.

Then there are the prophecies that are fuzzy - or just plain thoroughly confused - about the details. Isaiah 9:6-7 reads,
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.”

Of course, the child, the son, the king of this kingdom, all supposedly refer to Jesus. One major problem with this attribution is that Jesus was never a king and never ran a government (“Of the increase of his government…”). Of course, some will say that the Church fills the role of government in this instance, but that just illustrates the ambiguity; because the writer never said “Church,” we can never be sure that’s what he meant. Another problem is that the passage implies that the child will be a descendant of King David, but in the genealogies provided in Matthew and Luke (which differ, by the way, suggesting no one knew the real genealogy), Jesus’ family line is traced through Joseph, yet, according to all Gospel accounts, Jesus was fathered by the Holy Ghost, not Joseph.

To some of us it would seem reasonable to simply discount any and all prophecies about or by Jesus since he and his followers were utter failures at prophecy. In fact, there are at least 20 passages in the New Testament in which Jesus or one of his followers declares the end of the world will be “soon.” It is one of the major messages of the New Testament (see for citations). Obviously, every one of these “prophecies” was wrong, because the world is still here 2,000 years later, and that cannot qualify as “soon” in texts written for the instruction of humans.

Now, to the real crux of the matter. Feel free to discount everything I’ve said so far in criticism of biblical prophecy, if you wish, but riddle me this: Why are there never, ever any exact dates attached to biblical prophecy? I have been unable to find a single instance of an exact, unambiguous date accompanying any prophecy. This seems to me a dead giveaway that all biblical prophecy should be taken with a grain of salt, when not discarded altogether.

Judgment Day May 21, 2011Image by Chris Yarzab via Flickr
Let’s look at what you can do with prophecy when you avoid using dates. If I wrote that the nation of the eagle would do battle with the flag of three colors, I can be virtually certain to have a correct prophecy. You might have to wait awhile, but since many nations use the eagle as a national symbol, or in its coat of arms, and dozens of countries have three colors in their flags, how can I go wrong? But would you assume that I had foretold the future if my prophecy proved correct?

My thesis here is that biblical prophecy is a farce used to ensnare the unwary. If you really think about those prophecies, every last one of them can be questioned. Not one of them provides enough detail, especially dates, to be truly testable, falsifiable. I challenge any Christian reading this to provide a single instance of a prophecy with enough detail to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that its author was actually, and accurately, foretelling the future. That is, only one specific event could fulfill this prophecy, not several, and that one event must be proven to have occurred in history. Of course, any example without accompanying dates will be especially difficult to prove.

Yes, Harold Camping is clearly nuttier than a fruitcake, but at least he hasn’t dodged the issue and prevaricated or equivocated. If Camping knew how to play the prophecy game the way the old bible prophets played it, then people might be impressed with his prophecies for generations. But, in his ignorance, he got too specific, and by October 21st of this year, Camping will be proven right or wrong and there will be no ambiguity about it.