August 26, 2011

An Unfalsifiable Prediction does not a Prophet Make: Pat Robertson, the Signs of the Times, and the DC Quake

Whenever I begin to think we might have finally learned our lesson with the whole bet-I-can-predict-the-end-of-the-world bit, someone comes along and proves me wrong. After the triply-failed prediction of Harold Camping, you would think people might just get out of the prediction business. Guess not. 

Earlier this week, Pat Robertson made the statement that the recent Washington DC earthquake "means that we're closer to the coming of the Lord." He went on to say:
“It seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it... Is that sign from the Lord? ... You judge. It seems to me symbolic.”
Three things: First, Robertson's statement that we are closer to the coming of the Lord is true regardless of whether or not there was an earthquake in DC. Every day that passes puts us one day closer to the coming of the Lord, whether that day is one week from now, one year, or ten thousand years. The earthquake in DC has no precise link to the timing of Jesus' coming again. If the quake had not happened, it would have had no effect on the date of his return. Sometimes, on people's birthdays, I like to say: "Well, you're older than you've ever been." I get a kick out of it, because, while it seems like an appropriate thing to say, the fact that it's their birthday doesn't really have anything to do with the fact that they are older than they've ever been. That's true all the time. We're closer to the second coming of Jesus is true all the time also, earthquake or not. I will say that Robertson has learned a lesson that Harold Camping apparently never did. That is, vague and unverifiable predictions can't be used against you by the media when they don't come true. Nevertheless, an unfalsifiable prediction does not a prophet make.

Second, it seems to me that we easily see symbols where we want to see them. Are there cracks in the pavement outside the capitol building? Does that mean that the nation's power is crumbling before our eyes? You be the judge!  The crack in the monument may perhaps function as a somber parable reminding us that we are not invincible, but it seems a far stretch to me that it is a sign of our coming doom and the Lord's return. Are there not many other much more clear signs warning us to change our ways? An unsustainable economy that values the radical consumption of goods, perhaps?

Third, these sorts of predictions often come from very, very, very unhelpful readings of texts like Matthew 24. I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into a full-blown discussion of this text right now; I will say that Matthew 24 is apocalyptic literature, and apocalyptic literature should never be read as if it were the newspaper. And if Matthew 24 is all about something that is coming in our future, then why did Jesus tell his original hearers not to waste time going back for their jackets (Matt 24:18)?

2 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, although your 'bemusement' (if we can call it that) of false prophets, is justified, and understandable, it poses three questions:

1. From [Luke 12:54-56] we see that Jesus considered it hypocrisy for people to attempt to gauge the weather, but make no effort to attempt to recognise the {prophetic significance} of their 'present time':

Q1. Would you argue that this hypocrisy was only hypocrisy during His 'present time' (in other words, His ministry) rather than their 'present time' (or ours)? This is another way of asking: Were those He addressed hypocrites because they failed to appreciate the bridegroom was with them, but we're exempt from the accusation because He isn't? Were only those living during His time, expected to exercise this type of discernment, but we are not?

2. We see from from [Isaiah 21] two prophecies; one near term [Isa 21:16] and one prophetic vision of 'Babylon' (verse 9) further into the future [Isa 21:1-15], along with an apparent command to do with the prophecy. The 'physical Babylon' (Neo-Babylonian Empire - 626-539 BC) preceded the Persian Empire (Achaemenid - 558-330 BC), but the 'spiritual Babylon' (spoken of in [Rev 14:8][Rev 16:19][John 18:2-10,21]) was still future to John and came after the Medo-Persian Empire (by quite a bit). Therefore, we discern whether Isaiah's 'Babylon' (mentioned in [Isa 21:9]) was the 'physical Babylon' or the 'spiritual Babylon' by gauging if it came before or after the Medo-Persian Empire. We can do this because Isaiah appears to reference to the Medo-Persian Empire in [Isa 21:2].

Verse ([Isa 21:2]) seems to reference the Elamite revolt in the Persian Empire (Elam was a Persian province) that Darius conquered. Darius' actions ended the Elamite revolt within the Persian Empire, and obtained power for the Medes by wresting it away from the Persians. Since Isaiah's Babylon ([Isa 21:9]) is after the Elamite revolt and Mede control, Isaiah's 'Babylon' could not be the physical Empire that existed before, but the spiritual one described after. (Notice also how [Rev 14:8] cites [Isa 21:9g])

Regardless, in this prophecy where God is speaking the future through Isaiah He also commands (in [Isa 21:6-7] that 'watchmen' be established to watch, and to listen for this prophecy's fulfillment. He further commands the watchmen, who presumably have open eyes and hearing ears, to announce what they see (in [Isa 21:6]) and 'cry out' (in [Isa 21:8-9]) their vision - seen and heard.

Q2. Whether this prophecy is future to John, or only future to Isaiah, and given that it suggest the need to be understood by faithful contemporary to its fulfilment, do you think this requirement is only true of 'this prophecy' in particular, or prophecy in general?

3. In the NT, [2 Peter 1:19-21] treats prophecy as something worthy of our attention [2 Peter 1:19], and whose interpretation is to be understood through sharing and discussion.

Q3. Given that few modern believers seem to possess discernment enough to appear to have eyes that see or ears that hear, or exhibit convincing understanding (since their interpretations fail to convince), how can prophecy possibly be something still worthy of our attention? Though Peter's letter shows that prophecy which pointed to Christ was evident, doesn't [1 Peter 1:19] seem to suggest that prophecy itself continues to be a tool in our arsenal (since [2 Peter 1] was written after Christ's ascension). If so, How so, given the clear abundance of false prophets today and the apparent lack of true ones?

Your post doesn't say so explicitly, but it seems to suggest that though God has seen the end from the beginning, His writing about it - ceased with Christ [Mic 7:4]. Is this true? Are there no more watchmen?

ἐκκλησία said...

[1 Peter 1:19] above, should have read [2 Peters 1:19]. 2 Peter was being quoted here, not 1 Peter.