From The Friendly Atheist
In novels, plays, and motion pictures, it’s a well-known trope. From Star Wars to The Matrix, Lord of the Rings to Battlestar Galactica to Harry Potter and even Julius Caesar, there’s a prophecy, and the characters have been holding to it for many years — generations even. The problem is, the prophecy is so vague, no one can agree on its meaning.
Even when the prophecy’s fulfillment is readily apparent to some of the characters, others balk. In the rare cases there’s a general consensus regarding the prophecy’s fulfillment, it’s only post-fulfillment that such agreement arises, thereby rendering the prophecy sterile.
Why do storytellers resort to such flimsy devices? Why are the prophecies so unclear as to be left futile, if not completely useless? Probably because the authors of such works grew up being sold on the idea that prophecies are cryptic, an idea handed down to them from their religious upbringing.
Indeed, when trying to prove the Bible’s divine inspiration, a favorite recourse of fundamentalists is to point to prophecy. Among the more popular examples are: the Old Testament prophesied Jesus’ arrival, Daniel predicted the march of world powers, and Revelation predicts the end of days.
But we’re all rational people here. We know that for a prophecy to have any sort of merit, it must meet four basic requirements. Let’s consider them one by one.
1. The prophecy must have predictive power
No, this is not a tautology. Many Bible-lovers apologetically maintain that some of the prophecies in their book can only be (fully) understood in retrospect. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that “just as the apostles understood many prophecies concerning the Messiah only after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians today understand Bible prophecy in its finest detail only after it has been fulfilled.”
If a prophecy is only understood after the fact — or worse, if it is only discovered after the events it was intended to predict, then any skeptic must ask: What good is it? After all, many prophecies can be retrofitted. Even the Nostradamus apologist website Spiritual-Knowledge.net admits, “not all the prophecies are clear.”
Let’s say that in 1995 I declared: “In the year of great darkness there will be a terrible storm.” What year am I talking about? How will my followers be able to identify and measure greatness? And what about that storm? What qualifies it as terrible? Is it literal, or does it reference some sort of disease, war, or economic disaster?
Returning to 2017, let’s suppose further that my followers argued, “Oh, obviously he was speaking of the year 2004. See, the storm in question was the Indian Ocean tsunami, and he called it ‘the year of great darkness’ because there were two partial solar eclipses that year.” But this only raises more questions. Why did I make the prophecy if it didn’t do any good? Why did I make it so vague? If I could see the future, then why didn’t I say something more along the lines of, “In December 2004, there will be a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean.” That would actually have some value! That would have some predictive power.
Prophecies that only become clear after the events do not predict, they “postdict.” And anyone can do that. (“I, writing in the year 2017, postdict that the Chicago Cubs will win the 2016 World Series.”)
2. The prophecy must be specific
This is the most important of the four.
When the Hebrew prophet Isaiah said “unto us a child is born,” he also predicted that “he will be called Wonderful, Counselor…” This was an essentially useless prophecy (if, indeed, it was even Isaiah that was making the prophecy). Just as someone was sure to eventually challenge the Matrix and henceforth be retrofitted as “The One,” any dynamic leader that would one day rise up to lead Israel could, in retrospect, be described as “Wonderful” or the “Prince of Peace.” It’s akin to that famed prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force. Sure… someone will probably do that someday, and then we can just apply the prophecy to him, her, or it. There were, likewise, several prophecies in the Sacred Scrolls of Battlestar Galactica that, tragically, never seemed to help anyone figure anything out. To the contrary, the squabbling and infighting they caused served to mute any benefit they may have held, such as the oft-cited passage that a dying leader would lead humanity to the promised land.
Again, great. Will the people who are not dying please sit down so that we can figure out who the leader is? And what about the soothsayer’s ominous admonition to Caesar to “beware the Ides of March?” At least Gaius had the advantage of knowing which day warranted special caution, but in retrospect, he probably would’ve appreciated a little more specificity.And then there’s the Book of Revelation. Nearly the entire book is vague and cryptic enough that only an acid-dropper or self-proclaimed mouthpiece of Yahweh could dare hazard a guess as to its interpretations. For example, Revelation 8:7 says, “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth.” One book claims this prophecy was fulfilled “in a notable way at the second historic gathering of God’s people at Cedar Point, Ohio, September 10, 1922.” Um… okay. Why not? Maybe it was also fulfilled by the events of September 11th, or by my recent visit to the dentist’s office. Who knows?
And, of course, anytime a prophecy is so specific that its flaws are obvious, its devotees can (and do) argue that the passage was figurative.
3. The prophecy must be counterintuitive.
Like Requirement #1 above, this one should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. Matthew 24:7 states: “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” This is a prophecy that’s almost always true. When isn’t one nation rising against another? More specifically, Joseph Smith, the original Mormon CEO, predicted that a civil war would emerge in America between the northern and southern states. He made his prophecy in 1832, when the issue of slavery was already rending the nation and dictating the admission of new states into the nation. Anyone who could read a newspaper could’ve made a similar prophecy, especially when we consider that Smith left out the date of fulfillment.
When meteorologists predict, in mid-January, that there will be snow and cold winds tomorrow, no one thinks they’re making some bold prediction, because the forecast is a logical continuation of events already observed. It’s like predicting that there will be a thunderstorm next summer, or that Hollywood will make a sequel to their latest blockbuster, or that the next President of the United States will be from the Democratic or Republican party: such things are almost always true.
4. The prophecy must not be influenced by the prophet
A person may predict when they will get a new job, when they will go on vacation, or even what year they will die. Nostradamus, in fact, correctly predicted the date of his own death. But none of this is spectacular for the simple fact that the person in question is not only the prophet, but also the subject of the prophecy.
Jesus, evidently, predicted all sorts of things about Himself. And the Bible, cobbled together centuries after the events they addressed, makes many predictions that are later fulfilled within its pages. But this isn’t any more amazing than the Star Wars prequels offering up predictions that “later” proved true in Episodes IV through VI. These prophecies were all masterminded by the scriptwriters.
The Harry Potter series, likewise, has amazing predictive prophecies. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sybil Trelawney declares: “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” The prophecy, annoyingly cryptic and useless until it’s nearly too late to do anything about the ominous events it portends, does eventually come true. But we need to give it wide latitude here: its creation, interpretation, and fulfillment were all masterminded by a single author.
Wouldn’t it be great if today’s story spinners branched out from the bland, intuitive, non-predictive, vague convention of “prophecies” and began to use prophetic messages that actually carried some value?
At least in The Lego Movie, Vitruvius’ prophecy — which is spoken with all the doomsday pomp and cryptic phrasing endemic to such scenes — is immediately called out as a “bunch of hippy, dippy, baloney.” The writers ought to be applauded for using a trope, then immediately calling it out as silly. Unlike all the other fictional mystics above, at least Vitruvius had the good sense to admit he made the whole thing up.
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on storytellers who incorporate prophecies into their tales. After all, they’re just entertaining us with a bit of fiction. Just as they did with the Bible.