Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part I)

Have you ever heard a preacher say that the odds against Jesus accurately fulfilling so many prophecies is essentially statistically impossible? They will happily tell you about as many supposedly fulfilled prophecies as they can remember, and they will probably expect you to take them at face value.

One of the most common sources used in this argument is from Peter Stoner who claimed in “Science Speaks” in 1963 that the probability of one man (Jesus) fulfilling 48 Biblical prophecies was 1 in 10157, and they make it sound even more impressive by stating that it is more than the number of electrons in the universe (estimated at 1079).

The main reason for this astounding number is that the believers are assuming from the start that these prophecies were all made and fulfilled perfectly. When we look at them in more depth though, how accurate and amazing do the prophecies really seem?

To consider a prophecy made and fulfilled, we should first prove that it at least meets these three criteria:

  1. The prophecy was made before the event happened.

    This is a simple demand, but difficult to prove. Unless manuscripts have been found which predate the supposed fulfillment of a prophecy, we can not know that the prophecy was written before the event.

    In cases where we do not have the original manuscripts and can not absolutely date their writing, it is also insufficient evidence to prove that a prophecy was not made prior to the event, but this should not lead us to just assume greater antiquity and credibility.

    Prophecies which can not be verified to have been written before the events they foretell must be viewed as suspect.

  2. The event actually did happen, in the manner specified, and at the time specified (if such was given).

    Again this can be difficult to prove or disprove in the cases of many Biblical prophecies, but the astonishing lack of evidence for even such monumental events as “the massacre of the innocents” and many other prophecy-fulfilling elements of Jesus’s life leads to the conclusion that these events are unlikely to have happened.

    If we have no evidence of the fulfillment of a prophecy other than the uncorroborated word of someone who has ulterior motives for saying that it happened, as the Bible’s authors and editors did, we are unwise to take it as definitively true.

    When there is no supporting evidence of an event, it can only be taken on faith. When evidence is expected but not found, or when contrary evidence is found, then belief in the event even pushes the limits of faith.

  3. The supposed prophecy was actually intended to be a prophecy of this future event.

    Strangely some New Testament authors inappropriately used certain Old Testament passages as if they were prophecies when they were never intended to be. Some of the best examples are the from Psalms where at least a dozen different supposed prophecies are made and later fulfilled by Jesus.

    Psalms is a book of songs, similar to a modern hymn book, and the songs included in it were never meant to be used as prophecy. Therefore, not being prophecies at all, they could not be fulfilled and the supposed fulfillment of these non-prophecies is only more evidence to support the idea that the New Testament authors were embellishing the truth or completely making things up.

Already the probability that Biblical prophecies are true and accurate is dropping rapidly, and the foundation of the “1 in 10157” chance is looking pretty shaky.

Tomorrow in Part II we will add the basic requirements for an impressive prophecy, and then finally in Part III we will examine a specific prophecy and then attempt to draw some conclusions.

Skip to: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

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About Kazz

My name is Shawn Esplin and I am an advocate of Free Thought and general good sense and thought in general. To that end, I encourage people to seriously question the things that they have been taught, especially as children, because many of these things - religious and secular - are taken on faith until we actively choose to seriously examine them for ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part I)

  1. I wasn’t aware that bits of Psalms were re-considered prophecies. Dost thou have any examples of this odd use for us to peruse?

  2. Here are a dozen from a list titled “Selection of Old Testament Prophecies about the Messiah”, compiled by believers:

    Prophecy: He is the son of God
    Prediction: Psalm 2:7
    Fulfillment: Matthew 3:17

    Prophecy: He will teach in parables
    Prediction: Psalm 78:2
    Fulfillment: Matthew 13:34

    Prophecy: He will be the rejected cornerstone
    Prediction: Psalm 118:22
    Fulfillment: 1 Peter 2:7

    Prophecy: He is to be betrayed by a friend
    Prediction: Psalm 41:9
    Fulfillment: Matthew 10:4

    Prophecy: His hands and feet are to be pierced
    Prediction: Psalm 22:16
    Fulfillment: Matthew 27:35

    Prophecy: He is to be hated without cause
    Prediction: Psalm 69:4
    Fulfillment: John 15:25

    Prophecy: His friends are to watch from a distance
    Prediction: Psalm 38:11
    Fulfillment: Matthew 27:55

    Prophecy: His garments are to be parted and cast lots for
    Prediction: Psalm 22:18
    Fulfillment: Matthew 27:35

    Prophecy: He is to suffer thirst
    Prediction: Psalm 69:21
    Fulfillment: John 19:28

    Prophecy: He is to be offered gall and vinegar
    Prediction: Psalm 69:21
    Fulfillment: Matthew 27:34,48

    Prophecy: He is to commit his spirit to God
    Prediction: Psalm 31:5
    Fulfillment: Luke 23:46

    Prophecy: His bones are not to be broken
    Prediction: Psalm 34:20
    Fulfillment: John 19:33

    Since these 12 “prophecies” from Psalms are more than 1/3 of the list of 33, I can only assume that either there are many more from Psalms as well, or at least that many of the best ones they could find were from Psalms.

    What kind of a prophecy is “He is to suffer thirst” anyway? Who doesn’t get thirsty several times a day, especially in the middle of a prolonged torture and execution?

  3. Leap of faith…Are you playing God in making the assumption that Psalms were not intended as prophesy? I will give you four psalms that appear to be very specifically prophetic. They will also fit your three criterion.
    Psalms 47 and 48 clearly correspond with the events in Israel in 1947 and 1948 from the perspective of the Jewish people.
    An even more astounding psalm prophecy is Psalm 91 which is a very clear picture of Israel during the first gulf war. The Gulf War was in 1991.

    Psalms is the 19th book of the OT. So Psalm 47 will relate to 1947, psalm 48 will relate to 1948, etc.
    Just for fun, check out Psalm 108 and compare that with the events in the last days of 2008.
    If psalms can be shown to have prophetic uses as well as being “a book of songs, similar to a modern hymn book,” then a major portion of your argument has been thrown out the window.

  4. The fact that these things “correspond” in some ways does not make them prophecy. If someone won a war today and wrote a song in which they said “We thank God for giving us victory over our enemies!”, and then in 2,000 years their descendants won another war, would you then think it was right to interpret that as a prophecy about the war 2,000 years in the future, or about the recent one?

    If the Bible actually says that everything in it should be interpreted as prophecy, or even that the Psalms should be, please tell me because I’ve never seen it.

    As for these particular Psalms fulfilling the criteria I listed in the article, this is how I would say they do when held up to that:

    1. The prophecy was made before the event happened.

    This is not completely clear for all of them, but for some they clearly seem to be talking about the past, and the others also seem to be talking about the past or present.

    Obviously they were all written before modern times, but I believe they were all referring to events from their own times or before, so I would not consider them prophecies.

    2. The event actually did happen, in the manner specified, and at the time specified (if such was given).

    Most of these are not clearly referring to specific events, so it’s hard to even guess at whether or not they were fulfilled.

    Psalm 48 does seem to be talking about how great God and His people have made Zion, but it talks about it in the present tense, so why would we look at it as a prophecy?

    If I said “Look how great Phoenix is!” and then it was destroyed and rebuilt in the future, people would still know that I was talking about what it’s like now.

    3. The supposed prophecy was actually intended to be a prophecy of this future event.

    As I’ve already stated, I don’t believe that any of the Psalms that I’ve read were intended as prophecy, and I don’t see any reason to try to interpret them that way.

    If you have a good reason for seeing them as prophecy instead of poems or songs about events in the distant past, please tell me.

    I’ll try to break the Psalms you listed down a little more though and tell you what I think of each one as a prophecy.

    Psalms 47 & 48: I guess these could be taken as prophecies of any one of many military victories at any time, but I don’t see any reason to take it as a prophecy, except for maybe one line.

    Based on the various translations I looked at, it appears that Psalms 47 and 48 are referring to past and present events, not future except for the idea that He will protect His city (Jerusalem?) into the future as well.

    If that was supposed to be a prophecy, I would say it failed. Jerusalem has been taken by various people many times since these Psalms were written.

    I see these verses as talking about their past military victories which they hope will continue, and which they probably expect to continue.

    By the way, I did notice that the King James Version includes more things in the future tense, but considering that all other translations I saw used the present (or even past) tense, I don’t think the KJV is an accurate translation in this case.

    Psalm 91: Could you clarify how this is supposed to relate to the 1991 Gulf War?

    To me it seems like a general poem about how great God is and how He will protect the people who believe in him. It doesn’t look at all like a prophecy to me.

    Psalm 108: I’m not sure which events you’re saying this matches up with exactly, but I’m guessing the fighting in Gaza?

    This one to me looks like a song, said to have been written by King David, praising God and asking Him to help him against his enemies thousands of years ago.

    Again I don’t understand why people would think that this should be interpreted as a prophecy.

    I’ll give one more example of why I don’t think that Psalms should be taken as prophecy.

    “But the dark hangs thick round our eyes
    We’re children cast into the cold
    Where teachers peddle empty lies
    And our hunger is a passion to be sold
    We lose our voices in the night
    And the brush lies heavy in our hands
    Hiding from the soldiers out to fight
    And trapped in our palaces of sand
    Trapped in palaces of sand”

    That is a verse from Refugees by McDermott’s 2 Hours. It was written in the late 1980s I believe. I take it as a song about the past wars which have created so many refugees, but particularly due to its use of the present tense it could be seen as referring to any refugees at any time, including the people in many places around the world currently enduring the same kinds of problems.

    I’m not trying to say that it is (or is meant to be) prophetic, just that so many events in the world happen over and over again. To interpret a poem or song to be about one specific event which happens long after it is written seems very strange to me, and I don’t see why anyone would do it whether it’s in the Bible or not.

    Unless we consider everything in the Bible to be prophecy, I think that only things which are clearly laid out as attempts to foretell future events should be considered prophecy.

    As unimpressed as I am with the constant reinterpretation of other prophetic writing such as that of Nostradamus, which people are also constantly trying to fit with modern events, his writings clearly were meant to be prophecies, and although I don’t believe he actually saw the future, some of his supposed prophecy fulfillments put your examples to shame, and even they are very questionable.

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