How prophecy works

Prophecy – what actually is it? In the Bible, it involves a clear, specific message from God, often (but not necessarily) predicting the future in some way, and any “prophet” who got something wrong was to be put to death. In real life, what people call prophecy usually involves vague images and feelings, and those who make specific claims that turn out to be false face no penalty beyond possible slight embarrassment. But I always used to find it fascinating and intriguing.

Once, years ago, I was at a Christian festival and someone who was praying for me gave me a “word of knowledge” that God would give me calves of iron. I always used to take an interest in things like this, even writing them down in a notebook, but I hadn’t thought about this or anything else in years. Until recently.

While examining the muscularity of my legs after a few years of daily cycling (I never said I wasn’t vain), these words suddenly came to mind. I hadn’t thought about this for years, but the obvious connection had an effect like one of Proust’s madeleines in transporting me back into my past. Could this be the fulfilment of prophecy?

Of course not. If there’s a God, and He has the eternal perspective and means of communication to send me a message, I’d have thought He had better options than using a third party to send me a cryptic promise that was essentially both meaningless and irrelevant, and wasn’t fulfilled until I’d left the church over 10 years later. I mean, what would He be hoping to achieve?

The words also seem far more specific than they really are. At first glance, it seems like a fairly clear prediction, but at the time, the phrase was used to contrast with feet of clay – the context was a spiritual one. So there are at least two different ways of understanding what is an unhelpfully vague prediction anyway, and there may well be others.

Despite this inherent hedging, which makes it nigh on impossible to pin down most modern prophecy to a clear yes/no statement, it’s very tempting to make connections with actual events or my interpretation of them, and to attach some degree of significance to any perceived similarity. As a species, we’re very good at making connections, but not so good at evaluating those apparent connections objectively.

And of course, over a lifetime you’re likely to amass a huge number of prophecies, which will mostly be forgotten like this one, until brought to mind by something which would pass as fulfilment. The rest are simply forgotten, or could be considered yet to be fulfilled – a classic “Heads I win, tails you lose” situation.

The greatest appeal of prophecy is the sense that there’s someone watching over you, directing your life. If you’re looking for reassurance that you’re on the right track, any connection will do, however tenuous. Someone once told you that God would deliver what you need? You just got a tract stuffed through your letterbox, or even a pizza flyer when you were feeling hungry – proof that God’s still in control! Confirmation bias is a constant problem.

If someone claims to have a prophetic gift, I want specific statements and predictions, not vague word-pictures. But self-proclaimed prophets tend to steer clear of such dangerous waters (with some notable exceptions) and stick to the safer ground of vague visions with plausible deniability. That’s how they avoid total loss of credibility.

When someone claims a fulfilled prophecy, such as those in the Bible, ask how specific the initial prediction was, and whether it was known to the people involved in the supposed fulfilment. If it was specific, recorded and unknown, there might be something worthy of explanation. Otherwise, I’m unlikely to bother with it.

Photo by Studeo Grinta, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

One response to “How prophecy works”

  1. unklee says :

    I don’t claim to have any gift of prophecy, but I have thought about it and observed a bit, so here’s my thoughts for what they’re worth:

    1. Prophecy is a gift given to some and not others – probably not given to as many as think they have it.

    2. The gift isn’t clearly defined (like most gifts), and “word of knowledge” and “insight” might blur into prophecy.

    3. Much of what is said to be prophecy is probably “encouragement”, or perhaps even random.

    4. Nevertheless some genuine prophecy occurs – i.e. insights from God into situations where natural abilities may not be able to reveal truth.

    5. I think God communicates in this roundabout way because he chooses to do things through people – because he has given people authority in this world, and he has to some degree “backed off”.

    6. Many Biblical prophecies are of a form that isn’t properly understood until the event occurs, and the prophecy can be “applied” to that event, not always rigorously. Those who attempt to use OT prophecy to demonstrate the truth of the Bible need to be very careful.

    I’ll be interested to see what others say.

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