Wednesday, March 22, 2017

That’s MY Mail You’re Reading

I came across a very cool website.

RationalWiki is basically a repository of unbelief designed to show people how and where the Bible is (in their view) untrue. Somebody has gone to a lot of effort to attempt to debunk scripture and compile evidence of its alleged irrationality.

Possibly the coolest section of all is the page on ‘failed’ prophecy, which begins this way:

“Some Christians claim that fulfilled prophecies prove the Bible’s inerrancy … mainstream Christians will actually claim that, for example, the Gospels are historical evidence of Isaiah being accurate prophecy (rather than works written with a copy of Isaiah to hand to claim fulfilment of prophecy), therefore the Bible is accurate and Jesus is Lord.”

You know, I think they’re probably correct about Christians claiming such things, though they don’t provide specific examples. But they have a bigger problem: they’re reading my mail. Small wonder they’re a bit confused.

Why I Believe the Bible is True

When I think back, I DO vaguely recall reading books as a teenager that cited the number of fulfilled Bible prophecies as evidence that should be compelling to an unbeliever. So maybe it happens, and maybe it even happens regularly. But for me, it’s not fulfilled prophecy that convinces me the Bible is true.

I believe it’s true because it says it is. The Bible claims to be the word of God, which is a claim I would logically expect to accompany any actual revelation from God. I believe it’s true because it describes sinful human nature precisely as it is. Every secular explanation I have ever come across fails miserably on that front. I believe it’s true because when you do what it says, you get the results it promises, and when you reject what it says, you also get the results it promises. I believe it’s true for a whole host of other reasons which I won’t take the time to describe here because it’s not my subject, but my point is that on my list of things that convince me the Bible is true and inerrant, fulfilled prophecy is way, way down near the bottom.

It’s nearly but not completely insignificant to me, at least as indisputable evidence of the truth of God’s word. And not because I don’t believe in the accuracy of Bible prophecy; I absolutely do.

So What is Prophecy For Then?

I just don’t think prophecy, fulfilled or otherwise, is primarily intended for unbelievers, and certainly not for those calloused souls who spend thousands of hours trying to debunk it. I don’t doubt that there are those who have come to Christ as a result of fulfilled prophecy, but I suspect their hearts were already in the right place and the prophecy was just the straw that broke the camel’s agnosticism, so to speak.

Nathanael is a scriptural example of that, as is the woman at the well. A relatively tiny, insignificant personal prophetic word from Christ and Nathanael blurts out “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” The woman at the well drops everything and runs to tell the townspeople “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” All this on the basis of the Lord telling her that she had had five husbands and that the man she was currently with was not her husband.

I think fulfilled prophecy reached these two because their hearts were already tender and looking for the slightest reason to exercise faith. On the other hand, most of Israel saw the Lord perform miracle after miracle after miracle in fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies about Messiah, after which they crucified him.

Fulfilled prophecy doesn’t work on the hard-hearted, and I don’t think it was intended to.

See, it’s really primarily for US, not for them. You know, pearls, swine, that sort of thing.

The RationalWiki Approach to Prophecy

When confronted with a bunch of prophecies, the RationalWiki folks start by barraging their readers with a list of the ones that remain unfulfilled. To them, that’s evidence that scripture errs, so they entitle the page “Failed Bible Prophecies”.

To me, “unfulfilled” would be a perfectly fine descriptor. It offends me not in the slightest. “Failed”, however, assumes facts not in evidence.

Why? Because for any prophecy to have genuinely failed we’d have to have run out of opportunity for it to be fulfilled. Guys, I hate to point out the obvious, but history is not over yet. Of course there will be prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled; in fact, there are bucket loads of them. But thanks for the list. It’s certainly encouraging to see all the things the Lord is in the process of accomplishing currently all compiled in one place. I’ve seen Christian resources that were less comprehensive.

See? Really cool website. You thought I was just being snarky, didn’t you.

To pick at random one of their examples of “failed” prophecy, I believe, among many other things, that the Egyptians will, one day in the future, speak the language of Canaan. That statement seems perfectly reasonable to me in the context of all the Old Testament’s other claims about the coming millennium.

If the RationalWiki folks are around to see it, I bet their jaws will drop.

“Unfulfilled Prophecies That Weren’t”

Another very cool section is entitled “Unfulfilled prophecies that weren’t”, which is “for alleged prophecies alluded to that were never made or that were not intended to be prophetic”.

One wonders how anyone can claim to know that a prophecy referred to by a New Testament writer was “never made”. Do the RW gang imagine that every single word spoken by every legitimate Jewish prophet was recorded for us in the Old Testament? It may be so, but there is no guarantee of that, and I think it is hardly likely. There may have been many prophecies with which the average Jew was familiar at the time of Christ that we could not possibly know about today. If there were not, why would Matthew and others appeal to them in the gospels as evidence? Their immediate Jewish audience would have called their bluff. One also wonders how anyone could claim to know what a Jewish writer several thousand years ago “intended”, let alone know the mind of the Holy Spirit who carried him along.

Anyway, let’s indulge our friends for a moment: They list a bunch of examples of things they think were appropriated by New Testament writers unreasonably because the original prophecy does not speak literally of the thing that was fulfilled. Like Jesus being born in Bethlehem. Like the virgin birth. Like his being called a “Nazarene”. But they are, unfortunately, conflating “not intended to be fulfilled literally” with “not intended to be prophetic”.

So why stop there? I’ll give them a couple of my own, because most of the cases they bring up demonstrate that they’re actually correct in one sense: the original prophecy in each case does NOT speak literally of the event by which the New Testament writers tell us it was fulfilled.

Different Kinds of Prophetic Fulfillment

Here’s the sort of thing I mean:
“The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.”
Now, when someone applies this verse to the Lord Jesus, we would be correct to point out that in its original context it actually had to do with national Israel. As did this verse:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”
which Matthew tells us was fulfilled in the experience of Jesus Christ:
“And [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ”
even though Hosea too is clearly speaking of national Israel, not the Lord Jesus.

To an unbeliever anticipating a literal fulfillment designed specifically to convince his hardened heart irrefutably of the truth of Christianity (and fully armored to dismiss or mock it regardless), this sort of fulfillment seems understandably inadequate. I actually sympathize.

But guys, it’s not for you. You’re reading my mail!

Literal and Figurative

Literal fulfillment is the only thing the ardent unbeliever can imagine (I won’t say “will accept”, because we know that won’t happen) because he does not value, discern or even acknowledge the possibility of allegorical or spiritual meaning. It’s not that he won’t see it, it’s that he can’t even if he wanted to, for “… the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

The RationalWiki folks entirely lack the necessary equipment to enjoy the way in which these prophecies have been fulfilled in a manner infinitely more significant and spiritually enlightening than anything merely literal. I’m not mocking them for that, but it’s to their loss, not ours, that they can’t see what we can.

And while the literal is the only thing that matters to an unbeliever, the spiritual significance is, or ought to be, the thing that matters most to the Christian. And what is that, in the case of these particular prophecies?

Well, to me these prophecies and many others identify the Lord Jesus with the nation out of which he came. He is the True Israel.

That is a precious spiritual truth because it tells a story I can relate to: God called one ‘son’, national Israel, and that son failed spectacularly in its mission to glorify God and be a witness to him. Having demonstrated conclusively through Israel’s failure that man could not, under his own steam, obey and glorify God, he then called his own unique Son, his beloved son, to do the job that national Israel could not.

And when Jesus died, he died not only for the sins of Gentiles like me but for the sins of national Israel. He dealt with it all. Their backs were plowed? So was his. They were called out of Egypt? So was he. They were tested in the desert for 40 years? He was tested in the desert for 40 days and nights. He was the perfect realization of all the plans of God for mankind. He walked down the road traveled before him by the Chosen People, but the difference is that this Israel did everything right.

Who Is It All About?

The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

That’s what matters. He’s what those particular prophecies are about and he’s what most, if not all, of prophecy in scripture is about. It is about glorifying Christ. It’s about showing those who already love him who he is and what he has done, and to give those of us who care and are invested in his will an inside look at what he is about to do.

So, no, I don’t think prophecy’s primary purpose is to convince the unwilling.

Trying to use it for that (if that’s what Christians are doing), is like using a chisel as a screwdriver. Once in a while you may get the job done, but you pretty much ruin your tool for any other use.


  1. Tom, I appreciate your use of the 1st Corinthians verse in this context. The unbeliever isn't expected to be able to see the spiritual things that have freely been given to all that seek them. It reminds me of Romans 6:20 which was a great passage for me personally as I was freed from addiction a year and a half ago, slaves to sin (unbelievers) aren't obligated/expected to live right or have discernment for things spiritual in nature.