Many religions and new religious movements use foretelling as a staple part of both their justification and often their religious practice. I’ve had Christians tell me that the chance of Jesus fulfilling all the prophecies he fulfilled, just by chance, would be equivalent to throwing ten thousand coins and them all landing heads. I’ve read spiritualist testimony of receiving detailed foretelling of 9/11 and the London 7/7 bombings. The coming of the Prophet Mohammed is traced by some Muslims into the Vedas, right down to the Sanskrit translation of his name and specific details of his biography. Bahá’í likewise believe that Bahá’u'lláh was foretold in many different contexts, tracing prophecies of his arrival into the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, and into Buddhist writings. It is a very common, almost ubiquitous, feature of religious justification, and is particularly strong in religious movements with a messianic figure.
I’ll use the terms ‘prophecy’ and ‘foretelling’ to mean the same thing here. I’m aware that ‘prophecy’ in technical theological terms means something a little different (so most foretelling is prophecy, but the opposite is not necessarily true). But for the duration of this post, I’ll use it in the less formal sense.
So how does this foretelling work?
It turns out the process is pretty consistent across religions, large and small. There are a few tricks to it.
1. Vagueries — Prophecies are often vague. A vague prophecy is one that could be matched to a number of different events. Believers will, of course, argue that the prophecy isn’t as vague as it is. They will normally do so by pointing to specific interpretations of specific details in the prophecy (using a combination of this and technique 5, below). The interpretation of vague prophecies is easy to show in an experiment, however. Give a prophecy to someone unfamiliar with the prophecy in question, give them the proposed fulfilment, and a number of carefully selected other events from history, worded to maximise their fulfilment, and see how they classify which are hits and which are not.
2. Setting Concrete — You will notice that the vast majority of the details of what any prophecy means are first recorded after the prophecy is considered to have been fulfilled. Thus “a man will come from the East” might become “Blessed leader John was born in Hong Kong, but taught mostly in Europe”. The prophecy will never say “A leader named John will be born in Hong Kong, but teach mostly in Europe.” Sometimes the details will be written back into the prophecy, but invariably the first confirmed record of the detail will be post-hoc. The fingerprint of this technique is that the correct interpretation of the prophecy was not the consensus interpretation until after it was fulfilled.
3. Self-Fulfilment — The most striking prophecy fulfilments are those that are specifically engineered to be fulfilled. Any time people involved with the fulfilment are aware of the prophecy, they may consciously or subconsciously conform their behaviour to the prophecy. This is very common with new religious movements that trace their existence to prophecies in the scripture of major world religions. The ‘prophecies’ of the book of Revelation are popular source material. As are the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Thus Jesus’s Son of Man claims (assuming they are claims made by the historical Jesus, of course), have to be tempered by the fact he would have had access to their source in Daniel.
4. Revising History — An example shows this the best. A large number of Christians I’ve asked about this say they know that during Crucifixion a person’s shoulders, elbows and wrists are dislocated. Yet we have no historical records for this, we have scant historical records for how Roman crucifixion was performed, in detail, and the forms of crucifixion we do know of do not normally result in dislocation of the limbs. The source of this information is Psalm 22, where it says “all my bones are out of joint”, which is taken as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. Ancient prophecies can come to be fulfilled, simply by virtue of becoming the source material for their own fulfilment. When pressed, those who make these claims will often use a variant of “well, it isn’t impossible that Jesus’s bones were dislocated”. Which, of course, it isn’t, but that isn’t a fulfilment of prophecy.
5. Hit Counter — Prophecies are often drawn from large works: whether the Vedas, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Revelation, or the Quran and Hadiths. In each case there is a lot of source material. Some of it is interpreted as highly accurate (via the methods above), the rest of it is interpreted as not relevant. So Psalm 22 (as noted above) is clearly messianic prophecy, but Psalm 21 is clearly not a messianic prophecy. How do we know? Because it doesn’t seem to contain anything recognizable in the life of Jesus. Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of Jesus’s birth (“behold a virgin has conceived…”), but Isaiah 7:16 isn’t a prophecy of his early life (some Christians do have very creative ways to interpret all this passage as being about Jesus, but only by hypothesizing history for the purpose of being fulfilled). So you count the passages that work, and ignore the rest, even if (as in the Isaiah case) they are part of the same passage.
6. Go Metaphysical — When a prophecy that really should fit doesn’t, it can be interpreted as being about the spiritual or supernatural realm. This is particularly crucial for prophecies made before the fact. For example, the famous “Great Disappointment” in 1844, the date William Miller had foretold the second coming. Nothing appeared to have happened (as usual), any many were disillusioned. But others claimed the prophecy had been fulfilled, Christ had come again, but in the supernatural realm. His return couldn’t be seen, but could be experienced in a believer’s heart. From that even come fringe Christian groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, who maintain that prophecy was fulfilled that day. (Other Christians maintain that the second coming happened at other points, such as at Pentecost, or at the appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road). Interestingly there is a teaching in the Bahá’í faith that the second coming did occur around the time Miller said, in the descending of the spirit upon the Báb, the first key figure in the emergence of the Bahá’í faith.
7. Go Future — Another approach to conspicuously unfulfilled prophecy is to say it has not yet been fulfilled. So for those Christians who believe the second coming has not occurred, it must be in the future. Thus ultimately, few prophecies are ever falsifiable. Even those that appear to give a date (such as Jesus describing his second coming as within the generation of those listening), the prophecy can be reinterpreted to extend the date, so that it can remain not-yet-fulfilled, rather than unfulfilled.
8. Quantity not Quality Faced with a detailed analysis of a particular prophecy, religious believers may concede it has multiple interpretations, or that it was only recognized as a prophecy post-hoc, or that it sits among non-prophetic content. But they may claim that the sheet quantity of prophecies fulfilled makes up for the fact that no particular prophecy is watertight. All those prophecies can’t be wrong: even if each one were 50/50, the chance of them all being wrong is billions-to-one. In practice, each prophecy is not fulfilled independently, so it is as simple to create a thousand prophetic fulfilments with these techniques as it is one. And most prophetically minded faiths tend to have large quantities of fulfilment claims.
9. Sure Things (h/t Shane) We all have a relatively poor sense of probability. We tend to estimate that things are less likely than they really are, and we have a very poor understanding of repeated-trials: when something can happen in very many ways, even if each one is unlikely, the overall chance of it happening is good. These cognitive biases converge to make some foretellings appear to be impressive, when in fact they are almost certain. Shane uses the example of a particular city being destroyed by war. In iron-age times this was very common, and really only a matter of time. A more contemporary example might be the occurrence of a huge natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
10. Unverifiable (h/t Bob Moore) This is the general form of number 4, above. If there is no evidence that a fulfilment didn’t happen, then one can simply claim that it did. In the best cases this claim will then get remembered as historical, and we’re at number 4; if not, then it is still difficult to prove that something didn’t happen, and if said with enough conviction, those predisposed to believe will accept that it did.
11. After the Fact (h/t Malcolm) If you take number 1 to its extreme, you have a prophecy that only arises after the fact, but is claimed to have been made further back in time, before the thing it refers to. This is a particularly important kind of prophecy for dating ancient texts. A text telling the story of a prior figure will describe them as having prophesied a later event. We use this as evidence that the text was composed no earlier than that event.
So here are several tried and tested ways to make prophecies work. If you happen to believe in the prophecies of your own religious tradition, then you’ll probably agree that these approaches (or others like them) account for prophetic fulfilment in other religions. But you’ll think your religion is special. The same goes for believers in each religion of course.
In my experience, when prophecy is met with due skepticism (the kind of skepticism anyone would apply to another person’s religion) it is interpreted as hostility. There is something quite primal, personal, and precious about the belief that one’s belief rest on a basis of miraculous foretelling.
Please suggest additions to this list, or suggest ways to demonstrate that the prophecies you believe do not fall into these categories. Both will help compile a more complete list.