An essay donated by R. C. Symes
"Bible prophecies and myth"
The Bible contains hundreds of prophecies claimed to be the word of God. Have these prophecies been fulfilled? Are they historically true or religious myths? Can prophecies for the future be trusted? The answers to these questions have profound implications for Christian theology and beliefs.
What is prophecy?
In simplest terms, a prophecy is the accurate prediction of a future event. In religious terms, a prophecy is the inspired declaration of divine will and purpose by someone chosen and guided by God’s foreknowledge. The Christian New Testament says that true prophets were “… impelled by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the words of God.” (2 Peter 1:21, New English Bible).
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) state that the test of whether a prophecy is true or false is as follows: “When the word spoken by the prophet in the name of the Lord is not fulfilled and does not come true, it is not a word spoken by the Lord. The prophet has spoken presumptuously; do not hold him in awe.” (Deuteronomy 18:22).
Conditions for a valid prophecy:
As noted above, if a prophecy is not fulfilled it is invalid. But there are other conditions that need to be met to avoid fraud. To be valid, the prophecy must have been made before the actual event prophesized; the prophesized event when it occurs should correspond to the details of the prophecy and these details should be specific rather than generalizations; the prophecy should be clear and unambiguous so that its meaning cannot be misinterpreted or changed; and it should not be just a logical guess about an impending event.
Why is biblical prophecy important?:
Many Christian apologists argue that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) prophetically foretold future events that were fulfilled in history. It is claimed by fundamentalists that biblical prophecies were fulfilled with such accuracy, that the odds are too great that the outcomes were just due to chance. The prophecies, therefore, could only be due to God’s inspiration and guidance to the prophets; hence what the Bible says is true and worthy to be believed and followed as the inerrant word of God. Biblical literalists believe that there are no false prophecies in the Bible because if there are, then the credibility of God and his word are totally undermined. For Christians, the culmination of biblical prophecy was the advent of Jesus Christ and the religion founded in his name. This was all part of God’s plan as spoken by the prophets.
I have dealt elsewhere about prophetic issues related to Jesus’ birth and resurrection miracles. Please see:
In this essay I shall focus only on one Old Testament and one New Testament prophecy because of space limitations.
How reliable are Old Testament prophecies?
One of the most controversial prophecies of the Old Testament is the prophet Ezekiel’s prediction made sometime between 592-570 BCE that the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and never be rebuilt. The Tyrians had angered God by their failure to help Judah against the Chaldeans (Babylonians) who had conquered Jerusalem; therefore they were to be punished. Tyre was a prosperous trading city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in what is now modern day Lebanon. It consisted of an island fortress city with two harbours and nearby suburbs on the mainland.
Ezekiel begins his prophecy in Chapter 26 with a general curse against Tyre outlining her destruction (26:1-6). According to Ezekiel, many nations will rise up against Tyre, her walls will be torn down and God will scrape the soil off her island and make her like a gleaming rock where fishermen spread their nets. Ezekiel then becomes more specific when he claims that God told him that Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon and his army will bring all this to pass by laying siege to the city, killing its inhabitants, plundering it and laying it waste (26:7-13). He then repeats that God will make the ruined Tyre only a gleaming rock where fishermen spread their nets. In addition, he prophesizes that Tyre will “never be rebuilt” (26:14) and “never again be inhabited or take your place in the land of the living” (26:20). In this part of the prophecy, Ezekiel drops the earlier reference to many nations attacking Tyre because this will not be necessary after Nebuchadrezzar’s triumph. He writes “I will bring you to a fearful end, and you shall be no more; men may look for you but will never find you again. This is the very word of the Lord God.” (26:21).
Tyre was not permanently destroyed:
History records that Nebuchadrezzar did attack and destroy Tyre’s mainland suburbs, but could not destroy the island part of city, even after a thirteen year siege (586-573 B.C.E.). The outcome was that Tyre reached a compromise agreement with Nebuchadrezzar to pay tribute and accept Babylonian authority while Tyre resumed its trade and rebuilt its mainland parts. Despite the prophecy, historical records show that Tyre was rebuilt several times and that the city existed during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods and the centuries that followed, but in the end it did not achieve its former wealth and power. The New Testament even has numerous references to Tyre’s existence during the time of Jesus and Paul (e.g. Matthew 15:21, Acts 21:3). Modern day Tyre is built on and about the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city and its successors, and is currently the fourth largest city in Lebanon. So much for the prophecy that Nebuchadrezzar would utterly destroy Tyre and that it would never be rebuilt or inhabited again!
In addition, the timing of the prophecy is suspicious. Ezekiel made his prophecy about the destruction of Tyre sometime between 592 and 570 BCE. However, Nebuchadrezzar’s siege was between 586 to 573 BCE. Therefore Ezekiel’s prophecy was either made after the fact or so close to the event that he could have guessed what might have happened. This timing fails one of the tests for a valid prophecy, yet the prophecy is still claimed to be “the word of God”.
Later Ezekiel made another prophecy in which he appears to admit that he was wrong about Nebuchadrezzar destroying Tyre. In chapter 29 he writes: “Man, long did Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon keep his army in the field against Tyre, until every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder chafed. But neither he nor his army gained anything from Tyre for their long service against her. This, therefore, is the word of the Lord God: I am giving the land of Egypt to Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon. He shall carry off its wealth, he shall spoil and plunder it, and so his army will be paid.” (Ezekiel 29:18-19). Ezekiel further predicted that Egypt would become desolate, her cities ruined and derelict with no one passing through the land, that Egypt would be uninhabited for forty years and thereafter it would become a petty kingdom (Ezekiel 29:8-16). He also predicted that the land would be filled with the slain and God would dry up the river Nile (Ezekiel 30:10-12). In 568 B.C.E. Nebuchadrezzar attacked Egypt but was repulsed by Pharaoh Amasis II under whose rule Egypt continued to prosper. History has no record of Egypt ever suffering as Ezekiel prophesized. He was wrong again.
Did Alexander the Great fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy?
Some biblical apologists who believe that the Bible can never err, claim that although Nebuchadrezzar did not destroy all of Tyre, the prophecy was fulfilled almost two and a half centuries later when the Greek general, Alexander the Great, destroyed both the mainland and island parts of the city. However, the prophecy (which after all, looks into the future) does not say it would be Alexander who would finish the job, but that Tyre would be utterly destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar. Why would God deceive Ezekiel who thought he was talking about his times rather than two centuries later and an Alexander whom he knew nothing about? And what sense was there to use Alexander to kill the people of Tyre centuries later when those whom Ezekiel wanted punished for thwarting God were already long dead? Ezekiel was really talking about the Babylonians and Tyre, not the Greeks and Tyre.
Those who believe Alexander fulfilled Ezekiel’s prophecy also have to contend with a different prophecy about Tyre written by Isaiah over a hundred years earlier than Ezekiel. Isaiah prophesied that the Chaldeans would destroy Tyre which would remain desolate for 70 years then return to the Lord’s favour and prosper, giving her trading profits to the Jews (Isaiah 23:8-18). However, the Chaldeans did not destroy Tyre, nor did Alexander fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy either. According to the rule of Deuteronomy, both Ezekiel and Isaiah spoke presumptuously and should not be believed.
Other Old Testament prophecies are also suspect, but it only takes the failure of one to show that the “word of God” as related in the Bible is untrustworthy. God’s prophets were not infallible. Those who read the Bible literally, believe that the Bible is without error; but then have trouble trying to explain away its obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods. They end up turning biblical prophecies into a confusing puzzle of rationalizations open to a multitude of conflicting interpretations. Is this the clarity that an omniscient God would want? Or is the simpler answer really that the prophets got it wrong and it’s time to admit it? We are dealing with myths here.
What are the implications of New Testament prophecies?
Prophecies in the New Testament are primarily concerned with the glorious Second Coming of Jesus Christ to earth to judge the living and the dead. This cataclysmic event will be the end of the world as we know it. The book of Revelation is the primary source that prophesizes the doomsday circumstances under which this will happen, and other references are also made in the New Testament epistles and gospels as well as the Old Testament book of Daniel. These biblical texts about the end times have given rise to hundreds of prophecies by believers from the first century to this day, usually predicting that the Apocalypse will occur at a certain time. All these prophecies have failed.
Yet beliefs about Jesus’ return and the end of the world still persist. A 2010 survey of Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press 1 found that 41 per cent of all Americans 18 years of age and over (i.e. around 95 million) believe that the Second Coming of Christ will occur by 2050, while 46 per cent do not. Among Christians, 58 per cent of Evangelicals believe this will happen, as do 27 per cent of mainline Protestants, and 32 per cent of Roman Catholics. Even 20 per cent of the denominationally unaffiliated believe this too.
The millions who believe that the existing order will soon be destroyed cannot help but be affected in their attitudes about political, economic, environmental, social and moral issues. Some want to hasten the end times by supporting certain policies and actions that will spur on the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil and thereby fulfil God’s redemptive plan. Christian Zionists, for example, uncritically support Israel and its territorial policies even if it precipitates war, in the belief that without the Jewish nation God’s plans cannot be fulfilled. They believe that conflict will hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy that the battle of Armageddon will take place in Israel. Here is where the end of history will arrive and all those on earth who have not converted to Christianity will face God’s judgement and wrath, culminating in their death.
How reliable are New Testament prophecies?
The earliest written comments on Christ’s Second Coming are found in the Apostle Paul’s letters in response to queries by Christians of his day. Early Christians believed Christ’s return was imminent. For example, in his letter to the church in Corinth written about the year 54 C.E., Paul writes, “What I mean, my friends, is this. The time we live in will not last long.... For the whole frame of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31; emphasis added). Again in his letter to the Thessalonians specifically to address their concerns about believers who have died before Christ’s Second Coming, he writes, “For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; … the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left will join them, caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18; emphasis added). Of course this did not happen in Paul’s lifetime, despite his firm belief that it would.
Jesus was wrong:
Even more astonishingly, a prophecy from the very lips of Jesus himself about the Second Coming of the Son of Man (God’s messianic heavenly agent, i.e. Jesus) failed to materialize. Jesus told his disciples that their generation would see his apocalyptic return before they died.
The Synoptic gospels all relate a common prophecy of Jesus to his disciples: “I tell you this: there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). Also, referring to the end times, “I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all” (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). In response to his disciples’ question of what will be the signs of the end of the age and his coming kingdom, Jesus tells them that there will be wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, lawlessness, false prophets, the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world, and the temple destroyed. The Son of Man will then come like lightning, the sun and moon will be darkened, stars will fall from the sky, the celestial powers will be shaken, peoples of the world will lament, and then he will come on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory. With a trumpet blast his angels will gather his chosen ones and he will sit on his throne in judgement, consigning sinners to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life (Matthew chapters 24 & 25). Jesus warns his disciples that “when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the very door.” (Matthew 24:33).
Yet Jesus’ Second Coming as he prophesized did not happen. There were no apocalyptic heavenly events in first century Palestine or elsewhere. The first century generation, whom he said would see it all happen, died. The end of the world did not occur. Life went on. If the second person of the Holy Trinity could not get it right, what does this say about all the subsequent prophecies about the end times? And what does this say about the reliability of God’s infallible word in the Bible?
Rationalizations that Jesus did not mean what he said:
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians cannot admit that the Bible could be wrong, let alone that the Son of God would misspeak himself. It is intriguing that while they take the Bible’s contents literally everywhere else (e.g. Noah and the worldwide flood, Jesus’ miracles, etc.), they fail to do so with Jesus’ own words about the timing of the end of the world! All kinds of rationalizations are put forth that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled or that he was prophesizing about the distant future. The following are some of the most common excuses.
Some argue that the Second Coming was really Jesus’ Transfiguration that occurred shortly before his journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion in about 30 C.E. At that time the Bible relates that Jesus appeared in a glorious state to Peter, James and John on a mountain where his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light, and a voice spoke from a cloud and said “This is my Son, My beloved, on whom my favour rests, listen to him.”(Matthew 17:1-6). This is interpreted as a manifestation of the power and glory of Christ, a foretaste of his second coming, before his disciples died. However, Jesus did not prophesize that his Second Coming would be seen by only three disciples, but that it would be a more dramatic event with the cosmos in turmoil and Christ descending from the heavens to judge the living and the dead. This was to be witnessed by the whole world at the same time (see above, Matthew chapter 24).The Transfiguration, therefore, fails to meet the details of the prophecy.
Others try to argue that Jesus’ Second Coming occurred at Pentecost, fifty days after his resurrection, with the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is claimed that this was the Second Coming and it enabled Jesus to head a spiritual kingdom with the foundation of the Christian Church. However, this was not the answer Jesus gave when asked by his disciples what his Second Coming would be like. There were no cataclysmic events at Pentecost as described above. Moreover, Jesus had prophesized that the people of the world would see him coming in the clouds in glory and judgment. His followers did not see Jesus at Pentecost, but instead they were filled with the Holy Spirit, a distinct entity who is the third person of the Trinity (Acts 2:1-4). Pentecost does not fit the bill.
Still others conclude that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans signaled Christ’s return, but in an invisible manner. This is based on the prediction in Matthew chapter 24, and Mark and Luke, that there would be wars, false prophets and the temple would be destroyed during the end times. As well, it links to the prophecy that this would occur before the generation of Jesus’ time had died out (there could have been a few of his generation left, although the average life span was only about 40 years in those times). However, this interpretation is also false. The gospels do not say that Jesus will return invisibly, but that “all the peoples of the world … will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory” (Matthew 24:30). This did not happen in the year 70. Moreover, his chosen (the Jews) were not gathered together from the ends of the earth (Matthew 24:30), but just the opposite -- they were slain by the thousands and many were exiled by their Roman conquerors. Moreover, Christ failed to restore the sovereignty of Israel (Acts 1:6; Luke 1:32) at the time of the Jews’ defeat. Nor could he have returned spiritually because it was promised during Christ’s bodily Ascension into heaven, that at his Second Coming “he will come the same way as you have seen him go”, that is, bodily on the clouds (Acts 1:11).
Given that the above rationalizations fail, some believers resort to redefining the original Greek words of the New Testament to change the meaning of the “generation” of Jesus’ time to the “Jewish race”. The Greek word for generation is “genea” and it means “all those living at the same time; contemporaries”. This is the meaning of the word when it is used many times elsewhere in the gospel (e.g. Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 17:17). The Greek word for race or nation is “genos”. The rationalization is that genea is being used as a synonym for genos, which could then mean Jews living in the distant future could experience the prophecy. This ignores Jesus’ disciples’ question about specifically when the end times would occur. Let us see, for example, what happens when “race” is substituted for “generation” in the following passage in Matthew. Here Jesus says that the disciples can recognize that the kingdom of God is near when the heavenly portents appear: “I tell you [i.e. my first century disciples] this: the present ‘race’ [i.e. Jews] will live to see it all” (Matthew 24:34). Using “race” instead of “generation” does not make sense from a time perspective. It is akin to making a general statement that someday the Jewish race will live to see the end, which is hardly a prophecy. And the adjective “present” before “race” also does not make sense. The only sensible conclusion is that Jesus was speaking to and about his contemporaries, not a future generation or a race of people. This is why virtually all biblical translations use the word “generation” with its plain meaning.
As a last resort, some Bible apologists state that after his resurrection, Jesus simply changed his mind about the timing of his Second Coming. However, Christians claim Jesus is the Son of God and has God’s quality of being omniscient, knowing all, including the future before it happens. If so, then why would Jesus make a prophecy that he knew was untrue and that he would revoke later? Why make himself a false prophet while on earth and thereby confuse his followers? After all, God’s holy word says, “God is not a mortal that he should lie, not a man that he should change his mind. Has he not spoken, and will he not make it good? What he has proclaimed, he will surely fulfil.” (Numbers 23:19).
Conclusion – Prophecies or Myths?
What are we to make of Bible prophecies? The Old Testament writer Ezekiel failed the test of a true prophet. What he claimed as God’s prophetic word was not fulfilled. Other prophets are equally guilty and therefore according to Deuteronomy, should not be held in awe. If just one prophecy is false, what other ones in the Bible can be trusted to be God’s word?
The issue of Jesus’ false prophecy about the timing of the coming of the Son of Man has profound implications for Christian belief. He did not return in glory in the first century to judge mankind as the authors of the synoptic gospels believed he would.
How did the erroneous stories of Jesus’ Second Coming develop? Speculation about the end time grew with the preaching of Paul, but he lacked the details that were later ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. These were first elaborated in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 13), written a couple of decades after Paul wrote the excerpts quoted above. The later gospels of Matthew and Luke copy and expand Mark’s narrative about the apocalypse. The gospel of John, which was written at the beginning of the second century when it became apparent that Jesus was not returning as prophesized, has no reference to the Apocalypse.
The author of the first gospel, believing that Jesus was the Son of Man and Son of God by virtue of his resurrection, believed that Jesus’ return and the end of the age was near. However, the author of Mark who found few details about the Second Coming from earlier oral traditions or Paul’s letters, mined the Old Testament books of Daniel, Isaiah and Deuteronomy for details to put in the mouth of Jesus. For example, Mark has Jesus say, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory….” (Mark 13:26) which is based on a dream found in Daniel 7:13-14: “and I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven …. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him….” Also Mark has Jesus prophesize, “But in those days, after that distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light; the stars will come falling from the sky, the celestial powers will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24). This is based on Isaiah 13:10-11 (which was an oracle against ancient Babylon, not a description of the Apocalypse): “The stars of heaven in their constellations shall give no light, the sun shall be darkened at its rising, and the moon refuse to shine. I will bring disaster upon the world and due punishment upon the wicked.” But why, if these really were Jesus’ words, would the Son of God need to plagiarize Scripture? Surely he would have had the authority and knowledge to describe his Second Coming in his own words, with more clarity and precision with respect to circumstances and timing.
Such precision would have avoided the need for the author of the Book of Revelation (who wrote 65 years after Jesus’ death) to envisage an incredible mishmash of apocalyptic scenarios that involve bizarre beasts, great tribulations (e.g. Revelation 9:13-19, where a cavalry force of 200,000,000 men with horses spewing fire, smoke and sulphur, kill one third of the human race!), the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, Christ’s millennial reign, etc. These fantastic visions and prophecies have been seized upon and interpreted by many doomsday preachers throughout history down to the present day, causing millions to believe falsely that the end is nigh. This lack of clarity in the Bible has also given rise to competing theologies of pre-, a-, and post-millennialism; dispensationalism; pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation rapture; preterism; and pantelism. In line with the belief that God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), is it not more reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ prophecy in the Gospels about his return was not a verbatim account, but rather the words of the gospel writers who believed (albeit erroneously) that the predictions of the Hebrew prophets were true, and who were convinced that the end time was imminent?
It is important to recognize that biblical prophecies fail to meet the criteria for what makes prophecies valid. They are not predictions to be taken literally because there are too many failures to justify this. In essence, the prophecies are myths used to support the theological beliefs of the Bible’s authors.
- "Section 3: War, Terrorism and Global Trends: Jesus Christ's Return," Pew Research Center, 2010-JUN-22, at: http://www.people-press.org/
Original posting: 2014-FEB-01
Latest update: 2014-FEB-01
Author: R. C. Symes