Bible Prophecy for Atheists, Part 3: Prophecy 101

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Bible Prophecy for Atheists, Part 3: Prophecy 101

Prophecy 101 – Daniel Chapter 2

Because this article is only intended to be a brief introduction to Biblical prophecy in apologetics, it is far outside the present scope to cover the topic of Biblical prophecy in its entirety, a task which would require hundreds of pages. We will, however, briefly discuss chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel, as well as point out some links between Daniel and Revelation.

The easiest apocalyptic prophecy we will look at is the prophecy in Daniel 2. Here, the interpretation is almost entirely provided for us, so all we have to do is compare its predictions with history. As mentioned, earlier prophecies in a sequence are simpler in their prophetic content, but have the primary role of establishing the framework on which later, more complex prophecies are interpreted.

 

Since this article is written primarily for Christians, I will assume the reader is already familiar with the context of chapters 1 and 2, as well as the contents of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: a statute with a head of gold, chest of silver, thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay, which is then destroyed by a great stone. Daniel further provides the interpretation for the dream:

 

Thou, O king [Nebuchadnezzar], art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory… Thou art this head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. (Daniel 2:37-44)

 

So based on this simple prophecy we can deduce several things:

1) The timeframe for the prophecy starts in the time of Daniel, and ends at the Second Coming of Christ.

 

2) Since at that point Daniel was still in Babylon, time is broken into 6 phases:

  • Kingdom 1 – Babylon
  • Kingdom 2
  • Kingdom 3
  • Kingdom 4
  • The divided fourth kingdom
  • The Second Coming of Christ.

 

3) During this period of division, there is a weak element symbolized by the clay which holds the strong elements together, even though they’re unable to reunite into a fifth kingdom. Since this prophecy provides its own interpretation and this interpretation is straight forward, we can now compare the prophecy with history to see if it lines up. And history tells us that, in fact, from the time of Daniel there was Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. Rome was divided into the nations of Europe, and has remained divided to this day despite numerous efforts to reunite.

The Structure of Daniel

This initial prophecy provides the structure on which we can now interpret the rest of the book of Daniel, as we have learned from Joseph’s dreams. We have several more visions in chapters 7-12, and the 6-phase structure described above will help us to make sense of these later visions. Chapters 7 and 8, followed by chapters 10-12, each cover the same time period from Daniel’s day to the second coming, following the same 4 kingdom/divided kingdom structure of Daniel 2. With each new vision, additional information is provided, and the prophecies become more specific. The only anomaly to the 4 kingdom/divided kingdom pattern is chapter 9, which probably indicates that this chapter should be interpreted as part of one of the other visions.

 

This ‘repetition-addition’ principle derived from Joseph prevents us from assigning arbitrary meaning to later prophecies that don’t provide sufficient interpretation clues when taken on their own. We are thus kept from robbing Bible prophecy of its evidential value.

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Daniel Chapter 7

Just as with Joseph’s dreams, the symbolism changes in Daniel 7, but the overall structure remains. Here, instead of four metals, we have four ferocious animals, which, we are told, represent four kings or kingdoms: “These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth” (Daniel 7:17).

 

For the skeptic still uncertain regarding the interpretation of these kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, the next chapter spells it out for us using that chapter’s analogous animals: “The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia. And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king” (Daniel 8:20-21).

 

As with each vision, we expect to see additional details not provided in Daniel 2. This chapter’s primary focus seems to be to further explain the ‘clay’ element holding the feet together in chapter 2.

 

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D., several powerful nations arose in Europe (France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, etc.), none of which were strong enough to conquer the others and reestablish the empire.

 

Chapter 7, however, recasts the clay holding these nations together as a ‘little horn’ that not only rises above these kingdoms, but is also a persecuting power that harasses God’s people. The chapter provides us with a long list of identifying marks for this little horn:

  1. It arose out of the fourth beast, Rome.
  2. It came up among the ten horns, Western Europe.
  3. It came up after the ten horns, post-460 A.D.
  4. It was to uproot three horns.
  5. It was to be greater than the others.
  6. It was to be different than the others.
  7. It was to have eyes like the eyes of a man, and speak great words against God.
  8. It was to make war on God’s saints.
  9. It would think to change times and laws.
  10. The saints were to be handed over to it for a time, times and half a time.

 

Before identifying the little horn we need to first decode point number 10. 

Time, Times and Half a Time

The word ‘time’ here should be translated as a year. Time, times and half a time therefore means 1 year + 2 years + half a year (or three and a half years in total). The Hebrew year had 360 days (30 days in a month) and therefore this period equals 1260 days. But since in prophecy, as previously mentioned, each day represents a year, this period comes out to 1260 years. This time period actually appears seven different times throughout Daniel and Revelation (in different formats), something that generally means that God is going out of His way to bring it to our attention:

  • Daniel 7:25: He shall speak great words against the most high, and shall wear out the saints of the most high, and think to change times and laws — and they shall be given into his hands until a time and times and the dividing of a time.
  • Daniel 12:7: It shall be for a time, times, and half a time that he can scatter the power of the holy people.
  • Revelation 11:2: The holy city they tread under foot forty and two months.
  • Revelation 11:3: And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophecy a thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.
  • Revelation 12:6: And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and sixty days.
  • Revelation 12:14: And the woman was given wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
  • Revelation 13:5: And there was given to the beast a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given to him to continue forty and two months. 

Identifying the Little Horn

There is an extraordinary amount of information provided for us to help us correctly identify this little horn (there’s even more in Revelation). And, the only power that fits all these characteristics, by far, is the religio-political power of the Church of Rome:

  1. It rose out of the Roman Empire
  2. It came up among the nations of Western Europe
  3. It came up after them
  4. It uprooted three Arian powers
  5. It became more powerful than the nations of Europe
  6. It was very different from them
  7. The Protestant reformers have catalogued its blasphemous claims in detail
  8. It has had a long history as a persecuting power
  9. It has come up with its own laws and obligations
  10. It held control over Europe from the 5th century to the late 18th century; about 1260 years

 

Moreover, it also fits very well with chapter two’s description of a weak element (the clay) holding the powerful nations of Europe together. Consider also the deep similarities between this chapter and the words of Paul in the New Testament:

 

Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-10)

 

Daniel and Revelation

The Book of Revelation also has its own unique framework going from the time of John to the second coming. It is divided into seven parts: seven churches, seven seals and seven trumpets. Starting in chapter 13, however, the structure changes, and there is an obvious link with the prophecies of Daniel. The first animal portrayed in this chapter has the characteristic features of all four animals in Daniel chapter 7. Not just this, but, as mentioned earlier, the timeframes (1260 years) match as well. So evidently, the book of Revelation takes what we’ve learned in Daniel, and continues to add to the puzzle. The prophecy provides insight not only into things that have already happened, but also into events which are going to take place in the future. This gives us the ability as apologists not only to point to already fulfilled prophecy, but also to make testable predictions by which the accuracy of our interpretation may be later evaluated.

 

It is outside the scope of this article to go further into Revelation but this obvious connection can be used as a springboard for further study:

 

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns [10 toes/10 horns of Daniel 2 and 7], and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy [blasphemous power of Daniel]. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard [Greece], and his feet were as the feet of a bear [Medo-Persia], and his mouth as the mouth of a lion [Babylon]: and the dragon [Rome] gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. (Revelation 13:1-2)

 

In Conclusion

As hurt as many of our Catholic friends will be if Bible prophecy begins to be used in apologetics, they will have to realize that God’s issue is not with the individual members but with the religio-political system. The Bible makes this identification undeniable, as any unbiased third party looking over the evidence will agree. And, as the Protestant Reformers recognized a long time ago, the biggest problem with this system has been the cloaking of the Biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith.

From an apologetics standpoint, the historicist approach to Bible prophecy is invaluable. While the prophecy of Daniel 2 itself makes some stunning predictions, the detailed account of Daniel 7 should leave any atheist baffled. As far as independent lines of evidence go, this chapter far surpasses the bar. And this is only the beginning.

 

But more than this, Daniel 7 helps us makes sense of a major dilemma for Christian apologetics: the fall of the Christian church. While we are not here told why God allowed the church that Christ founded to degenerate so much, the fact that this falling away was predicted many centuries in advance robs the critics of major ammunition (similar to when Peter took a coin from a fish’s belly to pay the tax collectors).

 

The fact that God’s people were scattered for such a long time by this persecuting power also helps explain to some degree why there are so many denominations today. Individual congregations sprung up over the centuries in isolation from other groups, developing their own perspectives and traditions. It also took much effort on the part of the Reformers to try to distinguish between Biblical Christianity and the traditions developed by the church over the centuries.

 

Finally, the historicist perspective helps us to anchor ourselves in time. The fact that the Bible predicted the reign of the little horn all the way up till the 19th century means that we, as Christians, are not simply waiting haphazardly for a 2000-year-old promise to be fulfilled. As far as God’s timetable goes, everything is pretty much still exactly on schedule. And we have good reason to believe that Christ’s second coming is really just around the corner.

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Mike Manea has a masters of divinity degree from Andrews and La Sierra, an undergraduate degree in Biology and is currently working towards a doctorate from Andrews. He is the pastor of three churches under the Gulf States Conference and is the co-founder of Intelligent Adventist.