This is another one where I think it’s helpful to define our terms up front so we’re all using the same working meanings as we discuss the topic. Dictionary.com provides three definitions that are useful for this discussion:
- the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
- something that is declared by a prophet, especially a divinely inspired prediction, instruction, or exhortation.
- a divinely inspired utterance or revelation: oracular prophecies.
What most people seem to (at least colloquially) mean when they say prophesy is the first definition–that is, a prediction of future events. While these may be attributed to divine inspiration, that would require its own evidence and most people do not seem to mean “anything said by someone labeled a prophet.” That definition would be particularly troublesome for Christians as it would mean they would have to accept everything Muhammad said as prophecy. So let’s stick with the first definition for now.
How would we tell the difference between a prediction of what is to come based on evidence and experience versus one based on some supernatural cause? In other words, to borrow from Matt Dillahunty, “If I order a steak medium rare and it arrives medium rare, is that prophecy?” I think most of us would agree that it’s not. So it would seem that there’s an additional condition that the prophecy is not the result of an action taken by the prophet (either directly or indirectly). If we don’t add that caveat, then there’s no functional difference between a prophecy and a goal.
What about fulfilling a prophecy? How do we determine whether it’s come true? Ideally, your prophecy would be constructed in such a way as to ensure that there is a clear indication that it has come to pass. If I say, for example, “in the future, there will be human suffering,” then I am certain to be correct. How would we tell if that was prophecy or just a bit of inductive reasoning? It would much more compelling if the prophecy was more detailed and less open to wide interpretation. Something like, “in the year 2039, California will suffer a devastating earthquake resulting in massive loss of life.” It’s dire, more specific, but still possible that I could simply be lucky and with the number of earthquakes that occur in California I might be right. Now if instead I made the number of predictions about earthquakes in California that Christian scholars attribute to Jesus (somewhere between 200 and 400 according to about-jesus.org) I’m almost guaranteed to get some of those right.
So we need specificity to distinguish a prophecy from an educated (or just lucky) guess as well. So we have to add another condition to the definition.
Prophecy: the foretelling or prediction of what is to come, limited to a specific time and place, with circumstances that could not easily be attributed to coincidence, and that no agent took direct or indirect action to cause.
That is pretty strict but we would expect that God should be able to meet these criteria easily. Unfortunately, we see precisely zero examples of this in the bible. If the bible said, “in the year 3761 (Jewish calendar) a baby will be born and named Jesus who will work miracles and be crucified for the sins of the world” that would be a much more compelling prophecy than hundreds that don’t mention a year, a name, a specific action, and so on. Even with such a specific prophecy, you would have to ensure that no Jewish mother named her son Jesus in the year 3761 and tried to help him fulfill the prophecy. It’s not a prophecy if people actively work to make it come about. Again, that’s just goal setting.
There are no examples of fulfilled prophecy in the bible that would meet this definition and even the prophecies that Christians claim are fulfilled do not meet any reasonable definition of supernatural prophecy.