Sunday, October 08, 2006

Prophecy 101

The world was supposed to end on the 12th September 2006.


This was the word of the House of Yahweh, an American based cult who firmly believed that our civilization would be destroyed by a nuclear war before or on that date. The cult made the prediction on their website, and devout followers in Kenya dug bunkers and stored food supplies in preparation for the war. As it turns out, nothing happened.

Religions abound with failed prophecy. This article and this article list numerous historical predictions made by various religions and Christian denominations – predictions of events that eventually never happened. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a good example: they have been known to make specific predictions about the end of the world, but none of those have come to pass. When Armageddon failed to materialise in 1914, it was predicted that it would occur in 1915, then in 1918, 1925 and 1975 (see here). One would think that prophets, who claim a hotline to their respective omniscient gods, would be able to at least get things right most of the time. Sadly, the success rate of specific predictions – those that can actually be tested – seems to be pretty low.

In fact, it can even be argued that Jesus made a prediction that didn’t come true: in Matthew 24, his disciples ask him when he will return to signal the end of the age (verse 3). Jesus replies by first listing the characteristics of the end of the age – wars, famine, false prophets, etc – and then describes how he will appear in sky for all to see. He then states: “Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died” (verse 34). A similar prophecy is made in Matthew 16:28. Obviously, the disciples have been dead for centuries. Is this not then an example of failed prophecy?

Of course, if you are a prophet or astrologer, and you are somewhat clever, you can adopt three methods that can save you from much embarrassment:

First, do not include any specifics in your prediction. In this way, your prophetic powers cannot be invalidated. Remember, specific dates are a big no-no. Just say general things like, “There will be unrest in the Middle East during 2007”, or “Nobody knows the exact date when Jesus will return.”

Second, make your prediction so vague that it can be applied to almost any situation or person. Astrological horoscopes are a great example of this. If you feel up to it, ask a friend to look up the weekly horoscopes in any magazine, then ask her to cut out each prediction, one for each of the signs of the Zodiac, but request that she remove the names of the twelve signs. Then read each of the predications and try figure out which one belongs to your own sign, by comparing it to the events of your week. You probably won’t be able to identify your sign at all using this method. Instead, you will probably find that parts of all twelve predictions are relevant to your present life.

Third, if you are smart, infuse your predications with so much symbolism that your readers (or listeners) won’t have a clue what you are speaking about. The confusion you reap will result in endless speculation for centuries. The writings of Nostradamas and the book of Revelation are good examples where this method has been implemented. The advantage of using confusing symbolism as prophecy is that any prediction you make can be read into almost any situation. Some skeptics will argue that symbolic prophecy does not tell us anything useful in advance, but this won’t deter your followers from offering countless interpretations.

So if you are a budding prophet or astrologer and you don’t want to make the same mistake as the House of Yahweh, adopt these three methods. The problem is that there will be no way to test the validity of your prophetic powers. As a skeptic, I will point this out and will remain unconvinced of your claims. But I guess it’s not me you are trying to convince at the end of the day. It’s your followers that really matter. And they will probably continue to believe every word you say, no matter what you say or how you say it.

(After writing this I discovered a much better article on this topic here)

7 comments:

JDHURF said...

Good suggestions for the prospective prophet, be vague and highly symbolic. Prophets have been refuted by time over and over again, the apocalypse is a myth. Good post. Interestingly enough I just saw a History channel show on Christians “prophesizing” the coming of the anti-Christ and habitually being wrong, such a silly concept prophecy is.

Dar said...

We're all going to die!
Sorry, couldn't resist.

Anonymous said...

Prophecy was given to build the
faith of the believer, not to
pretend to see the future.

Twice Jesus said "I tell you these
things now so that when it happens
you will believe".

see www.historicist.com

beepbeepitsme said...

The idea of prophecy is an interesting one. One of the major dangers associated with people who believe fervently in particular prophecies, is the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy, where the desire for the realization of the prophecy is so intense, that believers actively work towards ensuring that the prophecy occurs.

This has occured in at least a couple of doomsday cults and is an extremely dangerous psychological compulsion.

beepbeepitsme said...

The idea of prophecy is an interesting one. One of the major dangers associated with people who believe fervently in particular prophecies, is the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy, where the desire for the realization of the prophecy is so intense, that believers actively work towards ensuring that the prophecy occurs.

This has occured in at least a couple of doomsday cults and is an extremely dangerous psychological compulsion.

Dar said...

As fundamentalist as the American president is, I've half-wondered that he could be attempting to fulfill biblical prophecy. He certainly has done his work on stirring things up throughout the world.

r10b said...

I believe the conventional wisdom (among non-dispensational Christians) regarding Matthew 24 is "the age" is not the end of the world, but the end of the "world" as the audience at the time saw it. The audience at the time lived to see Jerusalem destroyed in 70AD. I don't have my resources at hand to go into much more detail but if you're interested in an exhaustive exegesis of the passage I can provide it. That prediction is not at all vague. It can be verified easly

Your point is well-taken that lots of people misinterpret Scripture out of ignorance, self-serving motives, or whatever. Similarly there are a lot of opinions about a lot of things like politics, economics, science; but the fact people hold a variety of opinions on, say, how to set prices for goods, does not mean that economics is bogus.