Monday, July 06, 2020

Principles For Evaluating Prophecy

Here are some examples of what we should take into account (and see here for more):

- In the abstract, how likely is it that the prediction would be fulfilled by normal means?

- How many examples are there of the prophecy being fulfilled historically? Let's consider the Servant Songs of Isaiah, for example. We could begin with the abstract question mentioned above. Before we consider named historical candidates for fulfillment, how likely does it seem upfront that any entity would fulfill the predictions in question, such as those in the Servant Songs? We could then move on to the historical question of whether any entity has fulfilled the prophecy and how many have done so. For example, "Christians claimed that the facts of Jesus' life were proclaimed beforehand in the Jewish prophecies, but [according to Celsus] in fact the 'prophecies could be applied to thousands of others far more plausibly than to Jesus' ([Origen's Against Celsus] 2.28)." (Robert Wilken, The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], 115) Celsus' claim is absurd, and he never backed it up. But there's an element of truth in the underlying reasoning, namely that we should apply this historical test I'm referring to. If a skeptic is going to claim that there's nothing significant in how Jesus' life lines up with a prophecy or series of prophecies, yet he can't name anybody else whose life lines up comparably or better, that's significant. Critics like Celsus should be asked to name names and provide the relevant documentation.

- Critics often argue that Old Testament passages that have been taken as prophecies fulfilled by Jesus were actually about Old Testament figures rather than about a messiah or Jesus in particular. But even if Jesus only fulfilled the passages in a secondary or typological sense, the close alignment between Jesus' life and those prophecies offers significant evidence for Christianity. It's highly unlikely that Jesus' life would naturalistically line up with all of the passages in question, which are so unusual and significant. Even if passages like the Servant Songs weren't intended to be messianic, Jesus' alignment with the passages would need to be explained. Skeptics are often wrong in what they argue about the primary meaning of those Old Testament passages. But even if we granted their reading for the sake of argument, Jesus' secondary fulfillment of the passages would provide substantial evidence for Christianity.

- We need to keep watch on the cumulative effect of prophecy fulfillment. I think that principle is already widely recognized in some contexts, but it's neglected in others. The more prophecies there are that are fulfilled, the more evidential significance there is to the fulfillments collectively. But we also need to keep the issue of a cumulative effect in mind in other contexts.

Think of the psychology involved in setting out to fulfill prophecies by normal means, for example. I recently wrote a post on Jesus' fulfillment of the Seventy Weeks prophecy in Daniel. It could be argued that Jesus decided to try to fulfill that prophecy in a natural way, so that nothing supernatural was involved. There are problems with that sort of view (e.g., the lack of evidence of others trying to fulfill the prophecy in that way, which raises the issue of the unlikelihood that there would be anybody in the relevant timeframe who would try to fulfill the prophecy and would leave traces of it in the historical record; the lack of evidence of anybody interpreting the prophecy in the manner in question during the relevant timeframe; Jesus' lack of control over whether he would be executed and when; the lack of any evidence, in the gospels or elsewhere, that Jesus tried to persuade people to interpret the passage in the way in question; see below for more problems). But what happens when the critic appeals to this sort of explanation of prophecy fulfillment multiple times? It becomes increasingly difficult to argue that Jesus had the willingness to go to so much trouble to arrange prophecy fulfillments in a normal manner. And when the fulfillments involve something like being rejected by your own nation, being tortured, or being executed, it's more difficult accordingly to argue that deliberate fulfillment by normal means is involved. Any appeal to mental illness on Jesus' part would raise a series of other problems.

Or think of the cumulative effect of the number and variety of prophets involved. Fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies, for example, is one thing. But what if there also are fulfillments of prophecies from Moses, David, Daniel, Paul, etc.? The cumulative effect suggests a more powerful paranormal entity behind those prophecies accordingly. There also are implications for the connections among figures of the Old and New Testament eras. The harmony among so many figures from so many timeframes and other differing contexts adds some weight to the case for the harmony of the Bible, the harmony of pre-Christian Judaism and Christianity, etc.

- And I should raise another principle at this point that I've brought up when discussing other subjects. If critics are going to break up books like Isaiah and Daniel, claiming different authors for different portions of the books, then they need to address some implications that go against their position. If Jesus fulfilled prophecies in three passages in Isaiah, for example, and you attribute those passages to three different authors, then the cumulative effect I've referred to above is more significant accordingly.

- Don't get too focused on one aspect of a prophecy or group of prophecies to the neglect of other factors. I mentioned Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy above, which provides a good example of what I have in mind. Discussions of the passage often focus on the timing of Jesus' life. But the passage addresses other issues as well (that there would be a final atonement made for sin; that there would be a bringing in of eternal righteousness; that there would be a sequence of events in which both Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed rather than just one being destroyed; etc.). Any skeptical explanation of the passage that addresses the timing of Jesus' life, but doesn't address the other relevant issues, is insufficient if the skeptic holds the position that there's nothing supernatural about the passage. Skeptics of that sort are at a disadvantage here, partly for a reason I'll get into below. For now, I'll summarize by saying that a Christian would only need to argue that one portion of the passage is supernatural in order to overturn that kind of skepticism. But not only in that sort of context, but also more broadly, we need to avoid getting too focused on certain portions of a passage while neglecting others. Some passages are well known for one thing or one group of characteristics, and people can neglect other aspects of a passage as a result.

- I've often noted that atheists are only a small percentage of the population. Christians give them too much attention. But when we do respond to them, it should be noted that traditional Christianity isn't the only alternative to atheism. That's significant in general and specifically in the context of Biblical prophecy fulfillment. I've argued, as have others at this blog, that Christianity is true. But when we're considering alternatives to Christianity, it's worth noting that many make more sense than atheism. And that's a significant point to keep in mind when evaluating prophecy. Let's say we were to conclude that though some Biblical prophecies have been supernaturally fulfilled, others have been shown to be false. Or we were to conclude that there's only adequate evidence to believe that certain prophecies were fulfilled in a supernatural way, but that the prophecies in question are inadequate to make it probable that Christianity is true. Still, it would be significant that there's something paranormal going on. I would argue, and have argued, that you should go on to conclude that all of the prophecies are accurate and that traditional Christianity is true. But even if you were to just take that earlier step of concluding that something supernatural is going on, but that it falls short of traditional Christianity, that would at least be a step in the right direction. The position that nothing paranormal is involved in these prophecies is deeply problematic. We should recognize how irrational it is to not only reject a traditional Christian view of the prophecies, but to also reject various alternatives that are less problematic than the atheistic position in question. I think people often underestimate just how unreasonable the atheistic position is, not just on these prophecy issues, but also more broadly.

1 comment:

  1. Materialism/naturalism is an untenable worldview for many reasons. But people don't seem to mind or care if their chosen worldviews are in conflict with their personal experiences, or even if their worldview is internally inconsistent or contradictory.

    Of course I can see this as a direct result of the Fall and mankind's resultant depravity, but I wonder how the materialist/naturalist reconciles these problems in their quiet moments alone.