August 18, 2011

The “Problems” with Prophecy

by Nathan Busenitz

Fulfilled prophecy is one of the strongest evidences for the truthfulness of the Bible and the authenticity of Jesus Christ.

Numerous Old Testament predictions were fulfilled perfectly in Christ. As the apostle Peter preached: “To Him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43).

Our Lord Himself, on the road to Emmaus, demonstrated how the Old Testament pointed to Him as the Messiah. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus’ life, which culminated in His death, burial, and resurrection, was the perfect fulfillment of God’s prior revelation (Matt. 5:17); everything took place “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

Though the evidence is overwhelming, unbelieving critics and skeptics raise objections nonetheless. In their unwillingness to embrace the truth, they propose alleged “problems” with biblical prophecy. But how are Christians to answer those kind of critical attacks?

In this post, I’d like to briefly respond to five common objections to biblical prophecy:

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Critical Objection 1: Many biblical prophecies were written after the events they predict.

This objection is usually reserved for prophecies that were both predicted and fulfilled during Old Testament times. (After all, it’s impossible to credibly assert that messianic prophecies from the OT post-date the life of Christ.)

In response, a couple points can be made. First, very compelling cases have been made by conservative commentators for the authenticity of each of the Old Testament prophecies in question. Excellent discussions on the dating of each prophetic book, and even each individual prophecy, can be found in solid exegetical commentaries and other OT resources.

As just one example, consider the book of Daniel (a particular hotbed for critics), in which the prophet Daniel predicts with astonishing detail the rise of the Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. In chapter 11 of Daniel alone there are over 100 prophecies which were fulfilled years after they were predicted.  “The detail of this history as presented provides one of the most remarkable predictive portions of all Scripture,” notes commentator Leon Wood. [1]

Daniel’s prophecies are so precise, in fact, that critical scholars have argued that it could not have been written until after the events it describes (usually ascribing it a date in the second century B.C.). But as biblical linguist and Old Testament professor Gleason Archer explains,

The linguistic evidence from Qumran makes the rationalistic explanation for Daniel no longer tenable [i.e., that it was written after the events it predicts]. It is difficult to see how any scholar can defend this view and maintain intellectual respectability. . . . There is no evading the conclusion that the prophecies of the Book of Daniel were inspired by the same God who later fulfilled them, or who will fulfill them in the last days. [2]

When the evidence is honestly considered, biblical prophecies (like those in Daniel) cannot be explained away.

Second, it is important to understand that the case for redating OT prophecies (as the critics attempt to do) is an arbitrary one—driven not by historical evidence but by antisupernatural presuppositions.

Bruce Waltke reveals why critical scholarship is unwilling to accept the actual date of Daniel’s authorship, in the sixth century B.C., even after linguistic and archaeological evidence has confirmed it.

If evidence for a sixth-century date of composition is so certain, why do scholars reject it in favor of an unsupportable Maccabean hypothesis? The reason is that most scholars embrace a liberal, naturalistic, and rationalistic philosophy. Naturalism and rationalism are ultimately based on faith rather than on evidence; therefore this faith will not allow them to accept the supernatural predictions. [3]

Moreover, in their attempt to explain away OT prophecies by redating them, skeptics generally ignore one major aspect of biblical prophecy — namely, those prophecies relating to Jesus Christ. Since messianic prophecies (which everyone agrees predate Jesus) were literally fulfilled by Christ, they serve as compelling examples of authentic predictive prophecies. As such, they directly undermine any antisupernatural bias.

If the Old Testament accurately predicted the coming of the Messiah, hundreds of years before He came, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of its other predictions. As William Webster explains, “The Old Testament prophecies are there for all to read. There are several hundred years between the writings of these prophecies and the life of Jesus, and yet He fulfilled every one of them” [4]

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Critical Objection 2: Many “fulfillments” were arbitrarily directed toward Jesus by His followers (even though the original prophecies were not messianic in their original contexts).

This objection is due in large part to confusion over the way that the New Testament writers speak of prophetic “fulfillments.” As Bible scholar William Varner explains:

Regarding the specific number of promises about the Messiah, there is a wide divergence of opinion. Rabbinical writings refer to 456 separate Old Testament passages used to refer to the Messiah and messianic times (Edersheim, 710-41). One Christian scholar lists 127 personal messianic prophecies (Payne, 667-68). The differences are due to the way in which the New Testament refers to the Old Testament promises. There are direct messianic prophecies (e.g., Micah 5:2; Zech. 9:9); typical messianic prophecies, utilizing an immediate referent in the prophet’s day which pointed to the ultimate referent (e.g., the sacrificial levitical system); and applications of Old Testament concepts to the Messiah (e.g., the reference Matthew 2:23 makes to the prophets saying: “He will be called a Nazarene.”) If we limit ourselves to the direct messianic prophecies just mentioned, a conservative number would be around 65. [5]

When we talk about “fulfilled prophecy” with unbelievers, it is best to either explain how the New Testament speaks of fulfillment, or to focus on direct messianic prophecies. Narrowing the “prophetic field” to just the direct messianic prophecies does not diminish the apologetic value of prophecy. Rather it increases the credibility of our apologetic case by removing potential confusion from the hearer.

It has been calculated that the probability of only 48 prophecies coming true in one person is 10 to the 157th power, making it a statistical impossibility. [6] Thus, with 65 direct prophecies related to Jesus, the case for Christ does not get any weaker when we get more specific.

We would add also that the Jews before the time of Jesus saw key passages like Genesis 3:15; 49:10; Deuteronomy 18:15, 18–19; Psalms 2; 118:22; Isaiah 11:1–10; and 53:1–12 as messianic in nature. Jesus’ followers did not invent the messianic implications of these passages. [7] As Alfred Edersheim explains, “A careful perusal of their [the Rabbi’s] Scripture quotations shows that the main postulates of the New Testament concerning the Messiah are fully supported by Rabbinic statements.” [8]

To this we could add the words of Franz Delitzsch and Parton Gloag: “The ancient Jews admit the Messianic character of most of [the messianic prophecies]; although the modern Jews, in consequence of their controversy with the Christians, have attempted to explain them away by applications which must appear to every candid reader to be unnatural.” [9]

* * * * *

Critical Objection 3: Many of the “fulfillments” were intentionally fulfilled by Jesus, meaning they were contrived. Jesus was motivated to try and fulfill messianic prophecy, so He manipulated the circumstances to make that happen.

The answer to this objection is easy. On the one hand, there are prophecies that Jesus intentionally fulfilled. We cannot deny that He was very aware of the Father’s timing (cf. John 13:1; 17:1), and that He deliberately purposed to accomplish certain things at the proper moment (cf. Luke 9:51; 18:31).

On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled many prophecies that no mere man could accomplish in his own power, no matter how intentional he might be. The Old Testament predicts that the Messiah would be a physical descendant of Abraham (Gen. 22:18), Jacob (Num. 24:17), Judah (Gen. 49:10), Jesse (Is. 11:1), and David (Jer. 23:5), but not of Jeconiah (Jer. 22:30 — making the virgin birth necessary); that He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); that He would have a forerunner like Elijah (Mal. 3:1); that He would be able to perform miracles (Is. 35:5, 6); that He would cause a major stir among His people and eventually be rejected by them (Psalm 118:22); that He would be beaten and killed as a criminal (Is. 53:5–12); that He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Is. 53:9); that He would have His side pierced (Zech. 12:10); that He would die before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (Dan. 9:26); and that, in spite of His death, His days would be prolonged, implying His resurrection (Is. 53:10).

That list is not exhaustive, but it makes the point — these are things that are humanly impossible to fake or manipulate. Jesus fulfilled many prophecies that, from a human perspective, could not have been “orchestrated” or “pre-arranged.”

Finally, it should be noted that even if Jesus did fulfill some prophecies intentionally, it does not invalidate those predictions. The fact that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy perfectly, intentionally or not, points convincingly to Him as the Messiah. No one else in all of history (in spite of their best efforts) can make such a claim.

In the words of Robert Newman: “Of all the Messianic claimants that Judaism has ever had, the only one ever considered an outstanding historical figure and ethical teacher (even by atheists) is Jesus of Nazareth. And He ‘just happened’ to conduct His short public ministry and be ‘cut off’ (killed) in the period A.D. 28-35 [in fulfillment of Daniel 9]!” [10]

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Critical Objection 4: Many of the “fulfillments” were invented by Jesus’ followers (as recorded in the NT gospels) and cannot be independently verified by other sources.

This objection can also be answered on several fronts. First, as we have written about elsewhere, the New Testament gospel writers demonstrate themselves to be historically reliable sources (cf. Luke 1:4). Their authoritative record presents the Jesus of history in perfect detail. To read their accounts is to glimpse a true picture of the Savior.

Second, the main points of the Jesus’ life are attested to by sources outside the Bible, even by those who were antagonistic to Christianity (see here). Though not authoritative, these extra-biblical sources are very affirming. As historian Edwin Yamauchi explains:

Even if we did not have the New Testament of Christian writings, we would be able to conclude from such non-Christian writings as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger that: (1) Jesus was a Jewish teacher; (2) many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; (3) he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; (4) he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; (5) despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; (6) all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshipped him as God by the beginning of the second century. [11]

After extensively studying ancient sources regarding Christ’s life (outside of the New Testament) Gary Habermas concludes:

We have examined a total of 45 ancient sources for the life of Jesus, which include 19 early creedal, four archaeological, 17 non-Christian, and five non-New Testament Christian sources. From this data we have enumerated 129 reported facts concerning the life, person, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus  . . . While some believe that we know almost nothing about Jesus from ancient, non-New Testament sources, this is plainly not the case. [12]

Third, other prophecies (regarding the nation of Israel) have also been fulfilled since the time of Christ (and the completion of the New Testament). Following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (Dan. 9:26; cf. Luke 21:24), such prophesies include the dispersion of the Jews among the nations (Deut. 28:64; cf. Ezek. 22:14–15; Hos. 9:17), the persecution of the Jews throughout much of history (Deut. 28:65–67), and the subsequent return of Israel to the land (Ezek. 20:34; Hos. 3:4–5; Amos 9:14–15; Zeph. 2:1, 2; cf. Is. 11:11). Obviously, these prophetic fulfillments could not have been faked by early Christians.

* * * * *

Critical Objection 5: Many Old Testament predictions about the Messiah did not come to pass when Jesus was on earth.

This is easily answered by noting the difference between historical prophecies (those which spoke of events which would occur in a relatively short time after they were predicted—including messianic prophecies), and end-times prophecies (which will not be fulfilled until Jesus returns).

To quote again from Dr. Varner:

The key to understanding the role of the promised Messiah, and also the main difference between traditional Jewish and Christian messianic views, lies in recognizing His dual role of suffering and reigning. While there are many passages that describe a glorious reign for the Messiah (Jer. 23:5,6; 30:1–10; Zech. 14:3ff), there are others that describe His rejection and suffering (Psalm 22, Isa. 53, Zech. 9:9; 12:10; 13:5-7). The NT views the suffering and glory passages as fulfilled in Jesus’ first and second comings respectively (Luke 24:25-27; 1 Peter 1:10,11). [13]

So what can we conclude at the end of all this?

Christians need not be afraid when objections like these are raised. Unlike other religions that collapse under scrutiny, Christianity stands up to critical investigation. Believers, then, can be confident that there are good, reasonable answers to every objection. After 2,000 years, the Christian faith remains unscathed by higher critical attacks. That fact alone is testimony to its truthfulness.

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(* Today’s post was adapted from my book, Reasons We Believe: 50 Lines of Evidence that Confirm the Christian Faith.)

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Pingback: The “Problems” with Prophecy (End Notes) | The Cripplegate

  • Thomas L

    Great stuff.

  • Keith Brown

    Thank you Nathan for this affirming and scholarly piece!! Praise God! His truth endures forever!

  • Robert Sakovich

    Thank you for this, Nathan. May we raise up our next generation to take the time to research and find the truth so that they can defend the faith.

  • Anonymous

    Your opening paragraph is one of the reasons the modern growth of fallible prophecy is so damaging to Christianity. There is a uniqueness to prophecy–it is inerrant and often points to Jesus, but it always confirms the testimony of Scripture and our infallible God.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly. Deuteronomy 18:15-22 makes the issue crystal clear.

      For a helpful response to Grudem’s view (the continuationist position), see the following article by David Farnell: http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj2h.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.e.harris1 Jonathan Edward Harris

    Great job prof. Busenitz!

  • http://www.facebook.com/christian.delaguila Christian Ives Del Aguila

    Thanks Nathan for this helpful article. Regarding the Gary Habermas quote, where could we lay guys find a list of those sources he examined? Would love to examine them where available or at least an analysis of them.