Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Arguing For Prophecy Fulfillment From Common Ground With Skeptics

Christians often argue for Biblical prophecy fulfillment by using prophecies that are highly controversial, both in terms of the meaning of the passages and their alleged fulfillment. Critics often object to supposed fulfillments in the ancient world on the basis that we know too little about ancient history in general or the portion of ancient history that's most relevant to the fulfillment of prophecy. Or they'll argue that what we know is inconsistent with the claim of prophecy fulfillment.

One way to meet those objections is to argue that although the fulfillments occurred in the ancient world and are highly controversial, the evidence we have for them is sufficient. But another approach worth taking is to focus on the fulfillments that are acknowledged by critics, especially ones for which we have a lot of evidence in the modern world.

In the past, I've often cited the example of what the Old Testament predicts about Israel and the Messiah's influence on Gentiles. See this post on Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's Servant Songs, for instance. What I want to do in this post is supplement what I've argued elsewhere, such as in the article just linked.

Even without these prophecies, it's important that Jesus has had so much influence on the world. That increases the likelihood that he has the significance Christianity claims he has. That doesn't put Jesus in a category of his own. Other religious figures, like Buddha and Muhammad, have had a major influence on the world, though less so. But it does put Jesus in a category occupied by only an extremely small number of individuals. And the manner by which he got into that category, including the way in which he fulfilled such unusual prophecies, sets him apart from those other figures.

Like the Servant in Isaiah's Servant Songs, Jesus was initially rejected by his own people, to the point of being put to death, yet became highly influential among other nations. Like Isaiah's Servant, Jesus didn't just become popular with the lower classes among the Gentiles, but even among the leaders of Gentile nations. Something that makes Jesus' influence over the Gentile world even more striking is the prominence of antagonism toward the Jewish people and Judaism down through the centuries, including in the modern world. The influence of a Jewish Messiah on Gentiles is more impressive accordingly.

The manner in which his influence spread is also worth noting. Jesus' parable of the kingdom of God gradually spreading over time, like a tree (Matthew 13:31-32), has an Old Testament basis. A kingdom of God would break into the world during the time of Daniel's fourth kingdom, the Roman empire, and would gradually grow over time (Daniel 2:35; cf. Psalm 110:1).

Passages like the ones I just cited seem to make more sense if Israel's initial rejection of Isaiah's Servant would persist for a long time rather than being resolved sooner. Zechariah 12:10 and the surrounding eschatological context about Israel's sorrow, repentance, and need for restoration suggest there will still be a broken relationship between the Jewish people and God leading up to that time. And that carries with it the implication that the Jewish people will have the ongoing existence and prominence involved in the passage and its context. Zechariah also refers to the prominence of the city of Jerusalem in world affairs at the time, which is also something we see in the modern world. There are similar themes in the New Testament, such as in Romans 11.

The initial Jewish rejection of Jesus and the persistence in that rejection are widely acknowledged by non-Christians and are often cited as evidence against Christianity. Jesus' influence over the Gentile world, including many Gentile rulers, is a highly obvious fact that few people, if any, would deny. The same is true of the ongoing existence, identifiability, and prominence of the Jewish people and Jerusalem. For skeptics who accept the historicity of Jesus' crucifixion, you could add the significance of the references to it in passages like Zechariah 12:10 and the Suffering Servant prophecy. Even on issues where they reject a Christian conclusion, such as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:10, they would agree that Jesus was thought to have risen from the dead. And there's a good chance they'd agree that he was thought to have risen from the dead by some people who had been opposed to him until at least shortly before his alleged resurrection (e.g., James, Paul), not just his disciples. That makes the belief in his resurrection harder to dismiss.

This sort of approach would have to be adjusted according to the views of the person you're interacting with. Jesus mythicists, for example, won't acknowledge that Jesus even existed, much less that he came into the world at the time of the Roman empire. But they will acknowledge that Christianity originated then, that Jesus was believed shortly afterward to have come into the world at that point, that Christianity has had a major influence on the Gentile world, etc. And only a tiny percentage of non-Christians are Jesus mythicists. Other critics may dispute other points, like whether Daniel's fourth kingdom is Rome, but they'll still acknowledge much of what I'm referring to here, and they'll have less grounds for objection than they have for something like Jesus' resurrection, his healings, or his fulfillment of prophecies that are more controversial and more focused on the ancient world (Davidic ancestry, the Bethlehem birthplace, etc.).

I'm not suggesting we should stop there. We should go on to argue for our more disputed conclusions. But the approach I'm outlining here is a good place to start. There will still be disputes over the passages and fulfillments involved, but it's better to start with less disputed passages and less disputed fulfillments. People often underestimate how much common ground there is and the significance of it.


  1. Excellent points! I've been thinking along similar veins over the past year or so, but not enough to develop anything. You're inspiring me to delve in again.

  2. Jason, what apologists do you think make the best arguments for the authenticity of biblical prophecy?

    1. Jayman,

      I put together a collection of links to Triablogue posts on prophetic issues several years ago, and I've occasionally updated it since then. You should use Blogger, Google, or some other source to search our archives as well, since many of our posts haven't been linked on the page I just cited. I've linked some of Steve Hays' posts there. He's written a lot of good material on prophecy. His bibliography for the Old and New Testaments provides some good recommendations for commentaries on the relevant books of the Bible. Supplement it with the latest bibliographies from Denver Seminary, found here and here. And I cite a lot of other sources in my own posts. Robert Newman and Michael Brown have produced some valuable material, for example. But any source I could recommend isn't going to cover every topic, and I'll disagree with each of them on some points. Read a lot of non-Christian and non-conservative sources. In my material on Isaiah, for example, I often cite conservative Christian sources, like Gary Smith, but sometimes cite useful material in sources who aren't conservative Christians, like Robb Andrew Young and H.G.M. Williamson. It's a large and often neglected field, so you should consult a lot of sources and supplement them with your own thinking. I've often found that even the best scholarly sources don't make some of the points that ought to be made (e.g., about Isaiah 9, about John's material on Jesus' childhood in chapters 7-9 in his gospel).