For over ten years, I’ve been meaning to start an article series entitled, ‘Bible Prophecy for Atheists’ with the tagline, ‘Helping atheists interpret Bible prophecy correctly so they can attempt to refute it intelligently.’ These days, however, I see the need to write an article with the same title–not for Atheists, but for Christians.
The Christian world seems even more divided on Bible prophecy than it is on its regular doctrines, and that’s pretty divided. There are Preterists who believe that prophecy was fulfilled in the past, Futurists who place everything in the future, and Historicists who believe that prophecy was fulfilled throughout history. There are several views regarding the millennium and the tribulation. There are differing opinions regarding Israel and its role. The entire doctrinal framework of a denomination can collapse if these views are tampered with. For Apologetics, where the aim is to present a united front against unbelievers, prophecy seems more trouble than it’s worth. However, I would suggest that ignoring it is to our own detriment.
The Need for Evidence
In many world religions, a request for evidence is perceived as a form of blasphemy. How dare one question the ancient traditions or the holy writings? The praiseworthy devotee is the one who accepts the claims of the religion without question.
In the Bible, however, when Moses returned to his brethren in Egypt, he showed them a series of signs to convince them that God had sent him. A little later, even greater signs were presented to Pharaoh to convince him to let them go. In the New Testament, many miracles and healings were performed confirming the work of Jesus and the apostles.
Today, however, we live in the age of science and reason, in an age where skepticism prevails and evidence is demanded for every claim. And yet, at this most demanding time, it seems that, as Christians, we have been left with far less evidence than those living in biblical times.
The Typical Evidence
Sure, we have the completed Bible with its internal consistency, except when it seems to disagree, as attested to by the myriad of denominations. (I’m saying this from a skeptic’s point of view.) We have the historical support for Scripture, contested at every turn by many historians and archeologists. We have the superior Biblical worldview, which just doesn’t resonate with certain people. And of course, most importantly, we have our own personal experience with God’s providence and His transforming power. But we can’t always expect the skeptics to seek and cry out to a God they don’t yet believe in, so as to gain a similar experience. All in all, it doesn’t seem that what we have to offer carries the same evidential value as some of the signs and miracles done in the past.
The Resurrection of Jesus
I’m pretty sure somewhere over the centuries, Christians began to feel hard-pressed to produce some independent line of evidence that can attest to the truth of Christianity. And for some reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that the resurrection of Jesus had to be it. In any given high-profile debate between Christians and atheists, the typical argument lineup on the Christian side is as follows: Cosmological, Fine Tuning, Morality, and the Resurrection.
But while the resurrection was definitely used in the New Testament as evidence for the gospel, it just doesn’t seem like it was meant to be used that way by our generation. Firstly, if God really did intend for us to use it as evidence, He likely would have done much more to give it evidential value. For example, He would have made sure the resurrected Jesus was seen by more than just His disciples.
Second, and probably the reason why more evidence wasn’t provided, is that even if the event had happened in a way that made it far stronger evidence, it still would not have been sufficient by today’s standards.
The Best Explanation
Because as Christians we already have good reason to believe the biblical narrative, the success of the early church is best explained by an actual resurrection. But to an outside observer, a supernatural occurrence is never the best explanation. We would be equally skeptical if someone from another religion made a similar claim.
To the modern mind, there are hundreds of alternative scenarios that should be considered first before resorting to supernatural explanations. Why? Because, from experience, natural explanations are far more likely than supernatural ones in any given situation. How much more so when dealing with an event from millennia ago regarding which we already have very limited data?
My proposition is that the element in the Bible that was intended by God to be used as independent evidence in the modern era is not the resurrection, but prophecy.
Is This Biblical?
Throughout His ministry, Jesus attempted time and again to prepare His disciples for the tragedy they were to face. Just hours before the crucifixion He tells them:
And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe. (John 14:29)
In Isaiah, God issued a challenge to the gods of other nations:
Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring them forth, and shew us what shall happen: let them shew the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare us things for to come. Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods… (Isaiah 41:21-23)
In Genesis, Abraham was told,
Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again. (Genesis 15:13, 16)
As Joseph was on his death bed, he told his family,
I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. (Genesis 50:24-25)
Thus, for centuries, Joseph’s coffin remained as a witness to the prophecy given to Abraham. When Moses finally delivered the Israelites, we are told,
Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:40-41)
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. (Exodus 13:19)
In the land of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar received the dream that outlined the rise and fall of world empires. After His resurrection, Jesus met a couple of disheartened disciples as they were walking away from Jerusalem. He wanted to relieve their sorrow, to let them know that He was alive; a relatively easy task really, since this would quickly be accomplished if He just showed Himself. But instead, “…beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Finally, speaking of the time when Moses and Elijah were glorified on the mountain alongside Jesus (the Transfiguration), and in contrast to that powerful experience, Peter tells us, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:” 2 Peter 1:19.
This is only a very brief recounting of the prominent role that prophecy has always held in the experience of God’s people. But it seems that prophecy is especially pertinent for us today–first, because we now have thousands of years over which to check the accuracy of God’s predictions, and, second, because we now have access to historical/archeological data that previous generations did not have access to.
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. (Daniel 12:4)
But Is It Logical?
Let’s pretend for a second that we were skeptics or atheists. What kind of evidence should an ancient book like the Bible provide for us to take it seriously? If you think about it, this isn’t an easy question. Just because the book claims to be from God doesn’t mean we have to believe it. Things like internal consistency or historical accuracy are not that impressive; it just means the authors were careful. Claims of miracles or divine intervention are not things we can verify today. And the fact that it has changed people’s lives is no different than what adherents of other religions have testified to. But what could a book written thousands of years ago provide in the way of credentials?
What if this book predicted major world events thousands of years in advance? I have talked to many atheists, and I have yet to meet one who would not consider genuine prophecy a legitimate line of evidence, if such a thing existed. Accurate prophecy would mean that there is someone out there who not only has great insight into the direction of human affairs, but who also has the ability to control human affairs. Moreover, it would mean that such an entity would supersede other supernatural entities, if such existed, since whoever is the most powerful god would have the final say regarding which way the future turns out. The ability to accurately foretell the future is universally recognized as a sign of divinity. The tricky part, however, is finding something that would qualify as legitimate prophecy.
Preterists and Futurists
If prophecy really is this powerful as evidence, and if the Bible does contain genuine prophecy, why is it that we have seen so little of it in apologetics?
The Christian church has held on to some powerful theological traditions that disqualify prophecy from having any real apologetic value. Futurism, for example, has placed the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy (Daniel & Revelation) into the post-rapture future. What this means however, is that the majority of Biblical apocalyptic prophecy has yet to be fulfilled, leaving us with nothing to point the atheist to.
Preterism, on the other hand, by placing the fulfillment of most prophecies in the ancient past, has also robbed prophecy of its evidential value–firstly, because it would be very difficult to prove that the prophecies were not actually written after the fact, and secondly, because people with good insight into human affairs have always had the ability to predict political movements into the near future.
Essentially, bible prophecy would be playing a role that doesn’t require supernatural insight.
The only way prophecy can provide evidence for the Bible’s divine inspiration is if we can conclusively demonstrate that the prophecies have already been fulfilled, but that they were fulfilled throughout history–far enough from the time the Bible was written to qualify as genuine predictions. Thus, the only prophetic school of thought that can be used effectively in apologetics is Historicism, the approach of the early Protestant reformers.
Another reason prophecy has not been used much in apologetics is because it has been controversial. The historicist approach leads to conclusions that many Christians are not comfortable with. This has caused a type of selective pressure moving Protestants towards other schools of thought.
I would argue, however, that this has been to our (Christendom’s) detriment, because prophecy addresses issues that must be addressed if Christianity is to be adequately defended. Moreover, this move has left us without an important line of evidence that we very much need. Its absence has caused a form of cognitive dissonance in apologetics where we keep trying to convince ourselves that arguments like the resurrection have way more evidential value than any reasonable person would rightly assign to them.
All in all, the historicist approach is the one that is most naturally derived from the Scriptural text. It is the one that addresses important questions that must be addressed in apologetics. And it is the only one that carries evidential value, something we definitely need.
What if a sincere, well informed, open-minded skeptic decided to take some time to evaluate the Christian religion: what are some of the concerns they might have?
Well, there’s the, “Why does God allow suffering?” question, which every religion attempts to address to some degree, and for which Christianity has a satisfying answer. There’s also the question of credentials and independent evidence for the Bible that we’re trying to address in this article. There are questions about “contradictions” in the Bible and tougher questions about genocide in the Old Testament that apologists have attempted to address time and time again. But here is another important question that isn’t often addressed. Before leaving His disciples, Jesus promised them that He was going away to prepare a place for them, but would return to take them to His home. From the moment Jesus ascended to heaven, Christians have been waiting for His return. And, a rational outside observer has to ask, how long is it reasonable to wait for a promise like this? Will Christians still wait for Christ’s return if 50,000 more years pass? If not, why exactly does 2000 years seem a reasonable period to wait? Skeptics deserve more than cliché answers such as, “God does everything in His time,” or, “to God, a day is like 1000 years.”
Here is yet another question: When talking with His disciples, Christ promised that on this Rock He would build His church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And yet, looking over the history of the Christian church, the skeptic sees unnumbered atrocities, crusades, inquisitions, the keeping of the western world in poverty, in intellectual and scientific darkness, etc. And, for the outside observer, this creates a major dilemma: on the one hand, is this the church that Christ founded? But if not, then hell did prevail against it. Moreover, how can the church Christ founded be divided into so many thousands of denominations? In my interaction with Christians, I’ve found that they almost never recognize this as a real objection against Christianity. But to outsiders, this is a real problem that deserves some type of coherent explanation.
Problems with The Atheist
While atheists and skeptics do have legitimate concerns, there are also problems with their way of thinking that we need to be aware of. Atheists today have managed to inoculate themselves with some faulty premises that prevent them from judging the value of evidence correctly. We need to be conscious of this as apologists because we’ve been counseled not to throw our pearls before swine.
Most people have had the experience of running their bank account into the negative. So let’s imagine for a second that we have an account that currently has a balance of -$500. We need $1000 to pay the rent so we ask someone to lend us the money. But they write us a check. So now, even though we received sufficient money for rent, to withdraw the check, we have to put it in the bank where half will immediately disappear into the abyss. When all is said and done, we’re still short on rent.
Picture a scale from 1 to 100 where 100 means that God definitely exists, 0 means He definitely doesn’t exist and 50 means that the chance that He exists is equal to the chance He doesn’t exist. Most atheists today locate themselves somewhere close to 0 on this scale. In reality, neither science nor reason can furnish sufficient evidence for them to go much below a 50. So their position is irrational. I’ve written elsewhere regarding how they reach these faulty conclusions, but here, what is important to understand is that unless we fix this deficit first, it doesn’t matter how strong our evidence is, it will still go into an overdrawn account and prove insufficient. Therefore, we should never bring up prophecy in a discussion until we’ve sufficiently hammered away at their faulty foundations and they, or at least the others following the discussion, realize their position is untenable.
Another major problem with atheists is that they want evidence for God that provides near-100% certainty that God exists. What they never consider is that if God wanted to give humanity that high a degree of general evidence, He would have done it a long time ago, and we would not be having this conversation. In essence, God would have just appeared to the human race from the beginning and everyone would have known beyond a doubt that He was real. But this obviously isn’t the setup God chose to go with.
What we are proposing as Christians is different. We believe God provides limited general evidence that He exists, but strong personal evidence. So in essence, God takes a sincere individual who is uncertain one way or the other and asks, “How much objective, general evidence do you require, not to be 100% confident that I exist, but to be sufficiently convinced to start searching for Me directly?” On the other hand, those who would prefer not to find God still have enough room to maintain intellectual integrity in their doubts. When as Christians we say that we have strong confidence that God is real, it is because, beyond the general evidence, God has transformed our own lives and has guided us providentially throughout our Christian experience.
So we understand the evidence for God as a two-part process:
1) Sufficient external evidence to make the ‘God possibility’ likely enough to be taken seriously and,
2) Sufficient internal evidence to confirm that the ‘God possibility’ is true.
Thus, when we engage in discussions with atheists, it must be clear from the start that our evidence is not intended to bring someone to near absolute certainty. Bible prophecy, along with all other objective evidences for God, is only intended to convince people that they have good reason to seek God as individuals in order to experience Him for themselves. This is important because the standard of evidence for this is significantly lower and we have never assumed the evidential burden atheists place on us.