Wednesday, September 16, 2020

How To Argue For Prophecy Fulfillment

In a post last year, I outlined how I think we should address issues of prophecy fulfillment by starting with the common ground we have with skeptics. Begin with fulfillments that are accepted by both sides. You could also grant much of what critics say about a prophecy for the sake of argument, such as that the passage isn't Messianic in its original context, but argue that Jesus' alignment with the passage in a typological or secondary manner is evidentially significant. And much of Jesus' alignment with the relevant passages comes from facts widely accepted even among non-Christians. I cited Isaiah's Servant Songs as an example of a good place to start. What I want to do here is discuss another approach that can be taken within the same framework.

Instead of using passages, like the Servant Songs, organize your material around topics. That allows you to appeal to material from more than one passage or series of passages. It's also easier in some ways for people to understand and remember the material involved if you take a topical approach. Here are some examples of the topics that could be used:

- The timing of Jesus' life. See my post on Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy, for instance.

- The events surrounding Jesus' death. As I mentioned in my post last year, you don't have to initially argue that his death actually made atonement for sin or that he actually rose from the dead. Even most non-Christians will acknowledge that Jesus' death was perceived to have made atonement and that he was perceived to have risen from the dead. That's significant in light of what we see in passages like Isaiah 53 and the passage in Daniel referenced above. You could also cite other details surrounding Jesus' death, like what I discuss in my articles on the Servant Songs.

- His reception among the Jewish people. The articles I just referred to concerning the Servant Songs discuss some of the relevant issues. And the article linked at the start of this post addresses other relevant material, like Romans 11. Not only do critics grant much of what these passages say about Jewish rejection of the figure in question, but they often use the Jewish rejection of Jesus as an argument against Christianity.

- His reception among the Gentiles. Again, my material on the Servant Songs addresses some of the issues that are relevant. Few critics, if any, are going to deny that Jesus not only has become highly popular among the Gentiles, but has even become highly influential among the rulers of Gentile nations as well. And keep in mind the point I made in the article linked at the start of this post concerning the long history of antisemitic, anti-Judaism, and anti-Israel sentiment in the world. Jesus' influence on the Gentiles is more significant accordingly.

These are just a few examples of how you could organize prophecy fulfillment into topical categories. You can find other categories in my article linked at the beginning of this post. You could then go on to analyze the fulfillments by the criteria I outlined in a recent post on how to evaluate prophecy.

It's highly unlikely that it would just happen that the fulfillment events under consideration would align so well with the prophecies (e.g., Jesus just happened to die at a time that's in line with Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy). A much better skeptical argument would be that some portion of the prophecies was fulfilled in a natural rather than supernatural manner by means of Christians setting out to fulfill the prophecies.

But so much of the fulfillment in question wasn't controlled by Christians in any significant way. Christians haven't had any substantial control over the fact that some non-Christians thought they saw Jesus risen from the dead (e.g., James, Paul), non-Christian corroboration of the empty tomb, the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the ongoing Jewish rejection of Jesus, the reemergence of Israel as a nation, the prominence of Jerusalem in modern times, hostility toward the Jewish people and Jerusalem like what's referred to in the closing chapters of Zechariah (e.g., the lack of Christian control over hostility toward the Jewish people and Israel among certain groups, like Muslims), etc.

And those fulfillments were unlikely to have happened. You wouldn't expect any opponents of the messianic movement in question (Christianity) to think they saw the messianic figure in question risen from the dead, and it's even more unlikely that there would be multiple such opponents. You wouldn't expect opponents of the messianic movement to acknowledge that the messianic figure's tomb was found empty shortly after the body was placed there. Though it would be plausible for the Romans or somebody else to destroy Jerusalem and the temple together in the relevant timeframe, it's not something you could consider likely, or even something that had an equal chance of happening or not happening, ahead of time. We could easily have seen a scenario, instead, in which only Jerusalem was destroyed, only the temple was destroyed, neither was, or the destruction took place earlier than suggested by Daniel's prophecy. Once Jesus had become so widely accepted among the Gentiles, a majority of Jews could have become Christians, so that there wouldn't have been the persistence in Jewish rejection of Jesus that we've seen. And so on.

Even where one or more Christians had significant control over the events in question, why think they had sufficient motive to influence the events in a relevant way? Consider all of the trouble Jesus and others would have to have gone through in order to try to bring about a fulfillment of the relevant prophecies by normal means. How likely was it that there would be people in the relevant contexts who would have the ability and willingness to go to that trouble?

Let's say that Jesus knew there was a decree to rebuild Jerusalem in 445 B.C. and figured out which sabbatical cycle it occurred under. He then calculated the timeframe in which he would need to get himself executed in order to die in line with Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy. But if he went to all that trouble, he probably would have also realized that the prophecy included other details he didn't have that sort of control over (e.g., that his death or something else relevant would be perceived as making a final atonement for sin, that Rome or some other source would destroy both Jerusalem and the temple). Why would he go through with getting himself killed in the relevant timeframe if he knew that doing so would only partially fulfill the passage and that so much else involved would be out of his control to such a large extent? Notice the series of unlikelihoods involved. You need to have Jesus recognizing by normal means the relevant details in Daniel's passage, which is unlikely for reasons I outlined in a previous post linked here. Then you need the unlikelihood of his being willing to go to so much trouble to bring about by normal means what he knew would be only a partial fulfillment of the passage. Whatever traits somebody wants to attribute to Jesus to explain how he supposedly did all these things (unusual intelligence, unusual commitment, unusual courage, mental illness, etc.), notice that there are multiple unusual attributes involved. You'd have to propose that somebody with that combination of attributes was in the right place at the right time.

Or consider Jesus' acceptance among the Gentiles. Yes, the early Christians probably were motivated to some extent by Old Testament passages about the conversion of the Gentile world. So, they had that motivation to try to bring about the conversion by normal means. But we're talking about conversion here, which involves two parties. The Gentile world didn't share early Jewish Christian interest in the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies. You can cite all sorts of explanations for why so many Gentiles converted: Christian appeals to the lowly in society, Christian charity work, a belief that Christians were performing miracles, etc. But I would return to what I said earlier. We have to push the question back a step to ask how the relevant prophetic sources would have known that there would be people willing to put forward such efforts in the relevant contexts. Movements typically don't grow the way Christianity has, especially if they start out with a despised group among a despised people, led by a crucified felon.

I could go on, but I'll stop here and reiterate my overarching point. It's highly unlikely that the series of prophecies in question was fulfilled by one or more individuals deliberately trying to fulfill the prophecies by normal means.

Even if a critic were to reject the conclusion that the series of fulfillments under consideration is supernatural, we should go on to ask about other issues that are related. For example, it's common for people to allege that there's no significant difference between the evidence for Christianity and the evidence for other religious belief systems. So, even if you don't think the type of prophecy fulfillment I'm focused on here is likely to be supernatural, where is there anything comparable or greater in, say, Islam or Hinduism? Or if Christians are as gullible as critics often allege, and if Christians don't have anything that even comes close to being good evidence for their belief in Christianity, then do you deny that this argument from prophecy I'm addressing rises above that low evidential standard attributed to Christians? And critics often deny that Jesus held a high view of himself. But if your explanation for something like his fulfillment of Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy requires that he held a high view of himself accordingly, then something has to give.


  1. Great post, Jason.

    By the way, Mike Winger has done a lot of work in this regard too. For example, see his playlists here and here.