Preacher Math: Prophetic Probabilities (Part II)

In Part I we examined the basic criteria that every prophecy should meet. Today we will strengthen the requirements to a level that actually makes them impressive.

Using just the basic criteria of a prophecy, being made (with the intent of telling the future) and fulfilled, anyone can make prophecies all day long with nearly 100% accuracy. Even saying “I prophesy that within the next 10 minutes you will breathe” would meet the basic criteria, but it would also almost always be true for a living person, so it is very unimpressive. So what would make it more impressive?

To be truly amazing, after meeting the most basic criteria a prophecy would also have to meet at least three further requirements:

  1. It must be specific.

    Saying in 1920 “One day The Soviet Union will dissolve” would not have been much of a prophecy, just a statement of the overwhelmingly probable.

    On the other hand, saying in 1820 that the Soviet Union would rise in 1917, spreading from Russia through much of eastern Europe and Asia, and then it would collapse in 1991 following a failed coup against a man with a coffee-stain-like birthmark on his head, that would be much more impressive.

  2. The person who made the prophecy should not have made a large amount of failed prophecies along with the accurate one(s).

    Anyone can make hundreds or thousands of predictions about the future, and if they are trying then they are likely to get at least some of them correct. This is not impressive.

    If we assume that the Bible is actually a complete and accurate record though, it does not appear to have a huge number of failed prophecies along with the accurate ones. However, it does have failures.

    Ezekiel’s prophecies of the destruction of Tyre and Egypt by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon for example. Despite the semantic games some apologists try to play to make them appear to have been fulfilled, they were not and can not be now that Nebuchadnezzar is dead.

    If we believe that the Bible is inerrant, as many Christians do, then it should have no failed prophecies at all, but even if we assume that the Bible is a completely accurate record of prophecies made by a series of real prophets, there are prophecies which have clearly failed, and in some cases we can see clear proof of their failures today.

    We can not know how many unrecorded prophecies were made, or whether or not they were fulfilled, but even looking only at prophecies recorded in the Bible, we can see that the Biblical prophets are not infallible.

  3. The event should be something that a person reading and intending to fulfill the prophecy could not just decide to do to fulfill the prophecy.

    An example of this is the difference between prophecies of a series of plagues as depicted in Exodus, which would have been far beyond the means of a person of that time to instigate, and riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus is said to have done in John 12 (or on two donkeys as Matthew 21 claims).

    If you wanted people to believe you were the Messiah, and there was a prophecy saying that you would do something so simple, would you not do it? If a famous psychic said “The reincarnation of Elvis will ride into Graceland in a pink Cadillac.”, do you think there would not be a nearly endless parade of Elvis impersonators “fulfilling the prophecy”? And this isn’t the savior of the world, just a human celebrity!

Evidence of Jesus?

The most commonly used “evidence” of Jesus is the single passage about him in the works of Josephus (a Jewish historian born just a few years after Jesus is said to have died).

Unfortunately we do not have the original documents and in the copies we do have this passage has clearly been altered at least, or quite possibly just completely added by a later scribe.

One of the main reasons we know this is not Josephus’s original work is that the passage calls Jesus the Messiah, and since Josephus lived and died as a Jew, never converting to Christianity, this is not something he would have said.

The biggest problem we have when trying to determine the validity of Biblical prophecies is that we can not establish any of the most important elements in most cases!

It’s true, there is evidence that certain cities were destroyed at some time in the past, but proving that they were destroyed at the right time, in the right manner, and that accurate prophecies of these events were made before the events happened has proved to be much more difficult.

Jesus’s birth, miracles, death and resurrection fare worse still. Even his historical existence seems to lack any real evidence. (See Evidence of Jesus?)

It may be true that a single person accurately fulfilling dozens or hundreds of prophecies while not failing to fulfill any prophecies from “real prophets” would be a near impossibility, but we have no evidence to suggest that many (if any) of these prophecies were real.

Maybe we are looking at the wrong set of probabilities. The probability that the Bible’s authors simply wrote their stories to appear to be fulfilling prophecies is starting to seem like a much more plausible explanation.

Tomorrow in Part III we will delve further into just one of the prophecies of Jesus to see if we can determine anything about its authenticity, and then we will attempt to draw some conclusions about these probabilities.

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

Mill Avenue Resistance: Saturday, November 15th 2008

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the SFTS does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog for Saturday, November 15th 2008.

The nightly Saturday action-pack of the Way of the Master preachers has come to us again in the form of Al, Edwin, Erin, and Sean—I am missing a few but there wasn’t much going on tonight to speak of. Jim also came around in his wheelchair but we didn’t have much of a chance to speak when he did so.

They split themselves across the Ave between a spot at Borders (and across the street in front of the parking-lot formerly known as Long Wong’s) and the Post Office. The SFTS split themselves also accordingly. Setting up originally in front of the P.O. but then eventually heading over to set up in front of Borders. This is partially because while the preachers pitched in front of the P.O. at first, they did make a mass exodus and then gathered in front of Borders.

For the most part tonight Rocco and Joe dominated the speaker.

Rocco by presenting a strong, staunchly logical presentation; not accepting bad or un-cited messages, pointing out fallacies of bare assertion. A favorite that he uses is about the assertion that the Bible is inerrant because of the number of prophecies fulfilled—an thing possibly acceptable as long as those prophecies are not fulfilled by the Bible itself; because it’s provenance cannot be proven. (To explain: if there are prophecies in my history and I write a book speaking after-the-fact, I can say that they were fulfilled in my book and as long as my writings are not corroborated my assertions are not meaningful.) So the destruction of Tyre is brought up, as prophesized by Ezekiel. Except that it never happened.

Tyre was never destroyed—and still exists today.1

It is not uncommon for the evangelicals to attempt to use prophecy in their holy book as a proper and right resource to say that it is true. This has never been a good idea because of those prophecies that could be corroborated by history (i.e. by sources outside of the Bible) they are often shown to be either false, too vague to be trusted, or of a language that couldn’t be tested for truth anyway.

Joe chose to argue the depths of the philosophy and the flaws that it opens up. With his background in Catholicism he also uses Biblical scripture. His discussions tended around arguments that managed both morality and evidence in differing segments. Sean, of course, never quite listens to what’s being said to him. He is, however, a far better listener than Jeremiah.

Sean said, “There is more evidence for Jesus Christ than there is about George Washington, the first President of the United States.”

Sometimes these evangelicals say things that are so absolutely knowable as wrong that it’s hard not to mention them. There are thousands of corroborated documents to the existence of George Washington, even original manuscripts of his own writing still survive. We have paintings of the man created during the time he was alive along with other figures also corroborated. None of these things are true of the Christian god, Jesus Christ.

To say a thing like this a person must be staggeringly ignorant of not just the historical provenance of George Washington, but has to be totally ignorant of all modern knowledge of what we know historically about the history of the mythological figure of Jesus—who didn’t get written about in any sort of document until long after he would have lived.

When people wed their mythology as tightly as they can to empirical evidence and reality they set themselves up to be disappointed in some terrible ways. It is this sort of behavior that creates apostates and crisis in their very own congregations—because at some point, a lot like children discovering that Santa Claus is “just an idea,” people will discover that Jesus doesn’t have a lot of corroborating evidence.

What is a spectacle?

It is not the design of these evangelicals to actually convert anyone. They might believe in their minds that this is what they are doing, spreading their mythology, but they have been marginalized into something less substantial and more surface instead. Their behavior is almost wholly spectacle and not conversant.

When on their soap-boxes they do not converse, and they do not convert. They yell at passersby, present them with barely-quandaries, and instead puff themselves up in their own regard. The effect of a spectacle is to present yourself against the world, it deepens the bonds of the group through shared activity. They present themselves, their holy book, and their thoughts together in a sort of open-air echo-chamber where they do not hear and do not listen to the criticism leveled at them.

In order to provide a particularly effective spectacle they gather crowds, then they revert to their mirror-speech, absorb the catcalls as part of their performance, and then go on. It is in fact our very own little side-show for Mill.

The effect it has for them is one of bonding. It gives them something to do on a Saturday. A way to make each other see that they have worked at what they are about, providing their mandate, but it has little to no real effect on the world. It may also work as a sort of release-valve for their tensions over the week, a chance to speak their minds into the microphone and let them breathe out.

This is a lot of the reason why week after week extremely ignorant things get said. Especially things that could be corrected after five minutes of simple research—even things that get corrected by passersby, the STFS, and others every week. Mirror-speech is an unbreakable bubble designed to provide a sort of armor against criticism; but it also armors a person from enlightening themselves to the actuality of what they’re talking about.

People who agree with them while walking past will smile to themselves and chuckle; those who disagree will always shake their head; and those who don’t care will continue not to care.

The only effective part of the evangelism that has been brought to Mill Ave is the one-on-one speeches done by preachers to individuals. The speakers presenting themselves through the amplifications are only a spectacle to gather that crowd.