In “Bad Year For Astrologers: Hardly Any Predictions Came True,” Wolfgang Polzer offered an amusing look at the woeful state of astrological predictions:
It was a bad year for astrologers. The Society for Scientific Research of Para-Sciences in Rossdorf near Darmstadt, Germany, examined 90 predictions about the year 2004; none of them came true. One astrologer predicted in 2003 that US-President George W. Bush would be assassinated. Los Angeles was due to be destroyed by asteroids. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder should have handed in his resignation and would have been replaced by opposition leader Angela Merkel according to astrological forecasts.
“Clairvoyants usually turn out to be failures,” says mathematician Michael Kunkel of the Society. He recalls that astrologer Patricia Bahrani predicted a terror attack on Berlin and Anton Tewes even a nuclear attack on New York. Some predictions are so general that they may be interpreted either way. Others are incomprehensible to normal human beings. Astrologer Rosalinde Haller, for instance, foresaw “serial vibrations in Southern Australia”. She did not even bother to explain what she meant, commented Kunkel.
If you are a Christian, this should be sobering. Why? Because prophecies that don't come true, are so general they may be interpreted either way, or are incomprehensible to normal human beings have become the norm in the Christian prophecy circuit as well.
I have no interest in judging the intent, sincerity or character of the people attempting prophecy. I do, however, believe all of us should have an interest in making sure the reputation of God and his church is not diminished by those offering attempts at prophecy deserving of the same critique that Mr. Polzer offered astrologers in 2004.
To differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate prophets or prophecy, we need to ask at least four important questions.
First, does the prophet speak truth that aligns with biblical revelation? If you can’t find something in the Bible that provides a foundation for what a ‘prophet’ says, I would suggest you don’t invest too much time in listening to the message. If someone want to be considered a prophet, he or she had better handle God's truth well. If something goes beyond biblical revelation, be cautious. If it contradicts it, bail.
Second, does the prophet offend people (and more specifically, God's people)? Show me a prophet in the Bible whom people loved because they felt good during the message. Yes, they offered hope that God would remain faithful, but that part was compelling because they first chronicled the judgment coming because of sin. They did not make people feel good about themselves, and they certainly didn't offer vague, happy platitudes. They tended to be loners who lived in deserts while scavenging for locusts and honey. If you find a self-described prophet who lives in great comfort and has an adoring crowed following him or her, you have not found a prophet. You have found someone who is good at telling people what they want to hear.
Third, is the prophecy specific? Unlike horoscopes, which state general probabilities almost guaranteed to apply to the majority of people, legitimate prophecy must be detailed. Nostradamus, one of the most famous non-biblical prophets, offered some very poetic and incredibly obscure prophecies. None of them made sense beforehand, and few even came close to making sense in hindsight without severe linguistic gymnastics. Unfortunately, what I am seeing in some Christian circles so far this year is pretty similar. I can summarize all of the prophecies I saw last week in the following paragraph:
“God revealed to me that something new will happen though it may look like an old thing; some of it will be good and some bad. Youth and maybe even older people will be energized in some fashion for something. Leaders will rise and/or fall. Nations will fight and/or make treaties or just generally get along. Extreme weather will happen in unusual places, or close to unusual places, or connected to unusual places in some fashion, and it will be because of a sin that will vary depending on where this weather hits. Worship will be loud and/or quiet because God is calling us to be boisterous or contemplative this year. People will fall away except for those God is refining. The church will grow either in numbers or in spiritual depth, except where it diminishes because of numbers or apostasy. You - YOU - will flourish this year, and all your enemies will be cursed in some fashion that may not be readily apparent but will be given enough time.”
If you want my opinion – and you might not by this point - ignore this kind of prophetic claim. It can apply to almost anything, and in so doing applies to nothing.
Fourth, is the prophecy verifiably true? The Bible’s standard for someone who says they are speaking on behalf of God is that what they say has to be true. It’s one thing to talk about a strong feeling or say you have been studying current events and think there are patterns that point toward particular outcomes. That’s usually accompanied by something along the lines of, “I think this is wisdom, but I could be wrong.” That's a good mix of humility and boldness. But when someone says, “Thus says the Lord” and offers a verbatim quote, or says, "God revealed this to me" and gives a direct teaching, it must be specific, spot on and provable. Those prophets have raised the bar; they must hurdle it.
If someone says their prophecy was actually fulfilled only in the spiritual realm where nobody can see it, or that their prophecy about a date in which Jesus was supposed to return was not actually about that day but about anything that follows after that day or that might have started during it, I call foul. If you think I am making too big of a deal about this, your issue is with the Bible, not me. I'm just paraphrasing the biblical standard from Deuteronomy 18:21-22:
“And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen, that is a thing which the LORD has not spoken, but the prophet has spoken it: don’t be afraid of him.”
Pretty clear. It happens or it doesn’t. And by “it happens,” I mean the person says something substantive that can be verified. William Branham, for example, had a fairly significant track record of prophesying things that did not come true. Seeing how he is in many ways the father of the modern prophecy movement, that ought to give one pause. More recently, the prophecies concerning the Blood Moons garnered a lot of interest while woefully lacking in accuracy.
I know it's popular to say that modern prophets must practice and hone their gifts, but I see no biblical precedent to think that's true. If that's actually what's happening - if they are saying an equivalent of "thus says the Lord" while even they think the message will probably be flawed - then they are in desperate need of understanding what it means to fear the Lord.
If a specific prophecy given in the name of the Lord and under the mantle of special revelation doesn’t come true, you are not listening to a prophet. You are listening to someone who has the audacity to say they are speaking directly for God when they are not.