There is some controversy among Bible scholars relative to the etymology of the term “prophet,” as that word is employed in the Scriptures. Perhaps the best way to determine the meaning of this expression is to observe the contextual usage that is reflected in the biblical record. A good example is found in the case of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Aaron was appointed by God to be a “prophet” for Moses (Exodus 7:1). Elsewhere, Aaron’s role is described as that of a “spokesman” (Exodus 4:16). A prophet is thus one who speaks for another.
One aspect of prophecy is that of “prediction,” i.e., the ability to speak precisely beforehand of events that later are to be realized factually. Predictive prophecy, therefore, has great evidential value in establishing the divine authenticity of the biblical documents (see Jackson, 1988). Consider the following factors.
First, only God knows the future. He is able to “call the things that are not, as though they were” (Romans 4:17). He declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10; cf. Acts 15:18). In fact, the prophets of biblical history challenged their pagan contemporaries to demonstrate their predictive prowess so as to establish their spiritual credibility. Isaiah charged the heathen seers of his day: “Declare the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods” (41:23).
Second, if one can demonstrate the ability to declare future things that find exact fulfillment, it would follow logically that such a person, in possession of this gift, would be speaking on behalf of God. His message, therefore, would be valid. On the other hand, if one attempts to foretell the future, and his prophecy fails, the error provides clear evidence that the “prophet” is false. “[W]hen a prophet speaks in the name of Jehovah, if the thing follows not, nor comes to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah has not spoken: the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:22).
As suggested above, prophecy affords a powerful base of evidence that corroborates the Scriptures’ claim of divine origin. Scholars suggest that there are about 1,000 prophecies altogether in the Bible—some 800 in the Old Testament, and about 200 in the New Testament. Consider the following broad categories of prophetic data.
National Prophecies. There are prophecies that detail, centuries in advance, the fortunes and fates of nations. When the Babylonian empire was at its zenith, with utterly no military/political weakness apparent, Daniel foretold its demise, along with the subsequent rise of the Medo-Persians, Greeks, and Romans (see Daniel 2, 7). No one could have dreamed that these international events would occur. And yet they did, as every student of history knows. The prophecies are so astounding that radical critics have felt compelled to re-date the book of Daniel (placing it in the second century B.C.), so as to suggest “history” instead of “prophecy.”
Personal Prophecies. Some Old Testament prophecies deal specifically with individual persons. The role of Josiah (cf. 1 Kings 13, 2 Kings 23) was prophesied three centuries before the king’s birth. The mission of Cyrus, King of Persia (to deliver Judah from Babylonian Captivity), also was described 150 years before the illustrious ruler came to the throne (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1-7).
Messianic Prophecies. The Old Testament contains more than 300 prophecies that focus upon the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (Collett, n.d., p. 84). He was to be the woman’s seed (Genesis 3:15), from the lineage of Abraham (Genesis 22:17-18), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), to the virgin (Isaiah 7:14), etc. Mathematician Peter Stoner estimated that the odds of one person accidentally fulfilling just eight of the many Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah is on the order of 1 in 1017—a figure far beyond circumstantial possibility (1963, p. 107).
Prophecy, therefore, is a powerful packet of evidence that supports the case for Bible inspiration. However, it must be noted carefully that the gift of prophecy—clearly operative during those bygone ages when the biblical documents were being prepared—was terminated near the end of the first century A.D. The inspired Paul made it quite clear that supernatural “gifts,” including that of prophecy, were to cease “when that which is perfect is come” (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). The term “perfect” translates the Greek expression to teleion—literally, “the complete thing.” It stands in contrast to “the in-part things,” i.e., the prophetic gifts (as vehicles of revelation), mentioned within the context. W.E. Vine noted: “With the completion of Apostolic testimony and the completion of the Scriptures of truth (‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ Jude 3, R.V.), ‘that which is perfect’ had come, and the temporary gifts were done away” (1951, p. 184).
Since predictive prophecy is such a compelling line of argumentation, it comes as no great surprise that unscrupulous religionists, both ancient and modern, have sought to capitalize upon this phenomenon. In the history of Israel, both Zedekiah (1 Kings 22) and Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) were false prophets. Jesus Christ personally warned: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
In the balance of this discussion, I will call attention to some of the people, in relatively modern times who have attracted attention to themselves by their claim of being able to predict the future either by exercising the gift of prophecy, or by purporting to have special insight into the Bible so as to foretell such matters as “the end of time,” etc. The glaring relief between these pretenders, and the great prophets of the Bible, will be shocking.
“Nostradamus” was the pseudonym of Michel de Notredame, a French physician/astrologer of the sixteenth century A.D. In 1555, he published a book of rhymed prophecies, which secured for him a considerable reputation in an age of gross superstition. Though his utterances were woefully obscure, and the interpretations hotly debated by his most devoted followers, some have alleged that his prophetic declarations were as impressive as those of the biblical prophets. Dan Barker, a Pentecostal-turned-atheist, states that if Ezekiel was a prophet, so was Nostradamus (1992, p. 192).
The claim is ludicrous. But see for yourself. Here is one of the prophecies of Nostradamus:
To maintain the great troubled cloak
The reds march to clear it.
A family almost ruined by death,
The red reds strike down the red one.
To what does this cryptic riddle allude? Barker suggests that it foretells “the fate of the Kennedys” (1992, p. 185). With such a fertile imagination, it hardly is a mystery that Barker defected to unbelief.
The most famous oracle of Nostradamus—supposedly the best evidence for his “gift”—reads as follows:
The young lion will overcome the old one,
On the field of war in single combat:
He will burst his eyes in a cage of gold,
Two fleets one, then to die, a cruel death.
Allegedly, this passage has reference to the death of France’s king, Henry II, who was wounded in a jousting contest in 1557, and died ten days later. But here are the actual facts of history: (a) Only six years separated the ages of Henry and his opponent in the tournament; it hardly was a contest between the young and the old (Henry was only forty). (b) The accident occurred during a friendly sporting event, not on a battlefield. (c) There is no evidence that Henry was wearing a gilded visor (cage) of gold. Moreover, the king’s eyes were not damaged; a splinter from the lance pierced his skull and entered the brain. (d) The reference to “two fleets” is meaningless. (e) In addition to these significant factors, only two years before this tragic accident, Nostradamus wrote a letter to King Henry in which he described the monarch as “most invincible” (Randi, 1990, p. 173). He hardly was invincible!
Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) has been applauded as one of the most impressive prophets of modern times. At the age of six or seven he was seeing “visions.” Cayce claimed that by sleeping with his head on his school books, he could absorb knowledge, which enabled him to advance rapidly in his education. He claimed psychic healing powers (three almonds a day is a cure for cancer!), taught the doctrine of reincarnation, and advocated a number of bizarre theological doctrines (e.g., Jesus and Adam were the same person), and said that he (Cayce) wrote the Gospel of Luke in a previous life. As a prophet, Cayce was a catastrophic failure. For instance, he prophesied that during the early portion of a forty-year span (1958-98) a tilting of the Earth’s axis would produce drastic physical alterations of our planet. “The earth will be broken up in the western portion of America. The greater portion of Japan must go into the sea,” etc. (Stern, 1967, p. 37). Cayce’s apologists claim that he predicted World War II. And yet, Jess Stern, who did more to popularize Cayce than any other writer, wrote: “Edgar Cayce was as stunned as anybody else when the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor” (1967, p. 16).
Jeane Dixon, a Roman Catholic matron who claims to be inspired with the gift of prophecy, says that she began peering into the future when she was about five years of age. She has thousands of followers throughout the country who believe her claims. But what do the following Dixon prophecies have in common? Russia would be the first nation to land a man on the Moon. World War III was to break out in October 1958. Walter Reuther would be a Democratic candidate for President in 1964. There would be no significant legislation passed by Congress in 1965 (the year of the Medicare and Civil Rights Bills). The common thread in all these prophecies is that they all proved false! These are but a fraction of the failed oracles that Dixon viewed in her $8,000 crystal ball (Davidson, 1965, p. 139). On one occasion she predicted that John F. Kennedy would be elected President in 1960. She apparently forgot about that prophecy though, because in 1960 she declared that Nixon would be the election victor. Moreover, Ms. Dixon once prophesied that Nixon had “excellent vibrations for the good of America” and would “serve [his] country well” (Time, 1965, p. 59). How curious that her crystal ball never previewed the disgrace that would befall the 37th President (the only one ever to resign). But “the most significant and soul-stirring” vision she ever received asserts that: “A child, born somewhere in the Middle East shortly after 7 a.m (EST) on February 5, 1962, will revolutionize the world. Before the end of 1999 he will bring together all mankind in one all-embracing faith. This will be the foundation of a new Christianity, with every sect and creed united through this man who will walk among the people to spread the wisdom of the Almighty Power” (Montgomery, 1965, p. 171). This new “Messiah” better get busy, for the century is almost gone!
The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith Jr., who claimed to be a prophet of God. Mormons are thus required to “give heed unto all his words and commandments” (Doctrine & Covenants, 21:4-5). It is, of course, a matter of historical record that many of Smith’s prophecies proved false. For example, the “seer” prophesied that the American Civil War of the mid-1800s would become so intense that “war shall be poured out upon all nations” (D&C, 87:1-3), resulting ultimately in the “full end of all nations” (87:6). In 1835 he declared that the “coming of the Lord” would “wind up the scene” within fifty-six years (Roberts, 1950, 2:182). Smith foretold that the Mormon temple would be erected in Independence, Missouri (D&C, 57:1-3). None of these prophecies was fulfilled, and they have been a source of humiliation to Mormon leaders.
Occasionally, a Mormon writer will attempt to justify Smith’s prophetic blunders. One such effort is reflected in a book titled, A Ready Reply, by Michael T. Griffith. Griffith contends that after “studying prophecy for several years” he “deduced” that there are certain rules that must be considered in evaluating this topic. One of these rules is: “A prophet can be mistaken about certain details of a prophecy but correct with regard to its central message” (1994, p. 23). Mr. Griffith’s “deducer” is in need of repair. There is a logical axiom which affirms that the total of a thing is equal to the sum of its parts. In other words, if the details of a prophecy are incorrect, the prophecy per se cannot be correct.
William Miller and Ellen G. White
William Miller (1782-1849) was the driving force behind the movement that eventually became the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Miller was a Baptist minister initially. He developed an interest in prophecy and, after a two-year study, claimed that he had determined the precise time of the Lord’s return to Earth. It would occur on March 21, 1843. When this date came, and Miller’s prophecy was not fulfilled, he revised his calculations, and reset the date at October 22, 1844. When that prediction likewise proved false, thousands abandoned the Millerite movement.
Later, however, Ellen G. White would breathe new life into the disillusioned remnant. She, too, would accept the designation “prophetess.” “Almost every aspect of belief and activity of the Seventh-day Adventists was encouraged or inspired by a vision or word from Mrs. White” (Hoekema, 1963, p. 97). Adventists claim that between 1844 and 1915, Ellen White had more than 2,000 visions. An Adventist writer says that: “Some [of these] are in the process of being fulfilled, while others still await fulfillment” (Damsteegt, 1988, p. 225).
In the early 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, became a runaway best seller in religious circles. Like many others, Lindsey also tried his hand as a prognosticator—especially with reference to the return of Christ. He suggested that the “generation” witnessing the rebirth of Israel as an independent nation (which occurred May 14, 1948) would be that generation alive at the Second Coming of Christ. Hear him comment on Matthew 24:34: “What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs—chief among them the rebirth of Israel. A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place” (1970, p. 43). What was “obvious” in 1970, was not so obvious later. In an article published in Eternity magazine, January 1977, Lindsey waffled, and stretched his forty-year span to perhaps a century!
Harold Camping has a nationally syndicated television program out of Oakland, California. His greatest claim to fame is a book that he produced in 1992. It was titled 1994? Perhaps the most telling portion of the title is that question mark. The massive volume of more than 550 pages concludes in this unimpressive fashion: “The results of this study indicate that the month of September of the year 1994 is to be the time for the end of history” (1992, p. 531). September of 1994 should have been the end of Mr. Camping’s career as a teacher, but it wasn’t because in their own blindness, people continue to follow the blind.
There is not a more significant truth to be emphasized at this concluding point than this: the Bible is God’s final prophetic word to humanity. Do not listen to those who claim special predictive abilities, or to those who twist the Scriptures in an effort to fulfill a personal prophetic agenda.
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith in Faith (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).
Camping, Harold (1992), 1994? (New York: Vantage).
Collett, Sidney (n.d.), All About the Bible (London: Revell).
Damsteegt, P.G., editor (1988), Seventh-Day Adventists Believe... (Washington, D.C.: Ministerial Association General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists).
Davidson, Bill (1965), “Jeane Dixon Predicts the Future,” Ladies Home Journal, 82:74.
Doctrine & Covenants (1952), (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
Griffith, Michael (1994), A Ready Reply (Bountiful, UT: Horizon).
Hoekema, Anthony A. (1963), The Four Major Cults (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Jackson, Wayne (1988), “Principles of Bible Prophecy,” Reason & Revelation, 8:27-30, July.
Lindsey, Hal (1970), The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Montgomery, Ruth (1965), A Gift of Prophecy—The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon (New York: William Morrow).
Randi, James (1990), The Mask of Nostradamus (New York: Charles Scribners Sons).
Roberts, B.H. (1950), History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret).
Stern, Jess (1967), Edgar Cayce—The Sleeping Prophet (New York: Bantam).
Stoner, Peter W., and R.C. Newman (1963), Science Speaks (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Time (1965), “Seer in Washington,” 86:59-60, August 13.
Vine, W.E. (1951), I Corinthians—Local Church Problems (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
[See related articles on Charles Taze Russell and Fred W. Franz]