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The Future’s Not Ours to See

While our cousins in the animal kingdom are more concerned about the immediate future—such as the availability of their next meal or the evasion of predators—humans are characterized by their apprehension about the more distant future. Anxiety about the future has meant that all human cultures, ancient and modern, have sought solace in predictions about the future. The result of this is that seers, fortune tellers, and astrologers continue to make a good living even to this day. From the Roman emperor Tiberius’ use of Thrasyllus of Mendes, right up to Ronald Reagan[1], even those yielding great power have been known to make important political decisions after seeking counsel from those who have claimed to foresee the future.

Perhaps the most famous secular seer is Michele de Nostradamus, who was active in France during the 16th century. Books and articles extolling the alleged accuracy of his prophecies are still printed today, even by otherwise respectworthy publications such as the International Business Times and the UK online newspaper The Independent (under such sensationalized titles as “11 Shockingly Accurate Predictions From Nostradamus”).[2] I will mention more of him later. Similarly, a popular source of evidence put forward for the veracity and divine provenance of religious texts, such as the Bible, is that they have often been shown to have told the future with an impressive degree of precision.

who says of Cyrus, ‘He is and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”

Isaiah 44:28

A 2018 edition of the Jehovah’s Witness’ Watchtower magazine is devoted to the issue of telling the future.[3] While unequivocally critical of human attempts at foretelling, it also contains an article titled “Prophecies that have Come True,” which refers to the above passage as an example of the exactness with which the Bible was able to predict the future. It states that “about 200 years in advance—long before the king was born—the Hebrew prophet Isaiah mentioned Cyrus by name and described how he would conquer the mighty city of Babylon.” Cyrus did indeed conquer Babylon and allow Jews back to Jerusalem so that they might rebuild it after they had been exiled by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE.

The way that the Watchtower article describes the prophecy does make it sound impressive, particularly when the name of the Persian king is allegedly given over two centuries prior to his reign. However, many biblical scholars have noticed differences between the first 39 chapters of Isaiah and those that appear after them. The earlier chapters can be convincingly dated to the 8th century BCE and the legendary prophet Isaiah. From chapter 40 onwards, however, there is a noticeable shift in the tone of the language used. For example, the earlier chapters are full of judgment, while the later ones are more comforting. Moreover, Hebrew words used frequently in the early chapters do not appear at all later on. Consequently, the text from chapter 40 onward has been dubbed ‘Deutero-Isaiah,’ a reference to the 6th-century era that saw many Old Testament books written, such as the Book of Deuteronomy.

The above reference to Cyrus is an example of what has been called ‘postdiction’ or ‘postshadowing.’ This is the process where the prophecy of an event is created after it has already happened, and then backdated to a prior time. An author writing sometime after Cyrus conquered Babylon had his words added to those of Isaiah. One can also see examples of postdiction in the New Testament. Writing several decades after Jesus’ death, the Gospel writers were able to have Jesus predict his betrayal by Judas (e.g., Mark 14:18-21 and John 13:21-30), the manner of his untimely death by crucifixion (Matthew 20:17-19), and his supposed resurrection (Mark 8:31), knowing that these words would be fulfilled in their later chapters.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
(Zechariah 9:9)

Another way that a prophecy can seemingly be fulfilled is if a narrative is embellished with fictional events in a way that is mindful of prophecies that have been made. The master of this technique was the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, such that one can almost imagine him consulting Old Testament scriptures to consider what prophecy he was going to fulfill next. In some cases, he takes an isolated part of the Old Testament, reinterprets it as prophecy of the coming Messiah, and then inserts a detail into his Gospel narrative to see it fulfilled. He also takes passages that were generally seen as examples of Messianic prophecy, such as the one above, which predicts the arrival of the Messiah as a humble ‘man of the people’ riding a donkey.

One of the techniques used in Old Testament poetry is ‘parallelism,’ where—when referring to a singular item—multiple descriptions are given. A helpful but somewhat crude analogy would be the example of someone saying in English, “I am going to meet Jim—my friend and coworker.” Here only one person is being spoken of, but he is described in two ways. In the quotation above Zechariah is only referring to one animal, but describes it in two ways—as “a donkey” and as “a colt.” In his zeal to see this prophecy fulfilled to the letter, and demonstrating his ignorance of parallelism, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus riding two animals simultaneously (see Matthew 21:1-7). The other Gospels have Jesus riding a solitary animal to see this prophecy fulfilled (see Luke 19:28-35, Mark 11:1-7, and John 12:12-15).

The best way to predict the future is to create it.
(Proverb, often erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln.)

While it is overwhelmingly likely that the Gospel writers had Zechariah’s prophecy in mind when composing their Gospels, some (such as Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln[4]) have also made the suggestion that Jesus himself may have consciously arranged for this prophecy to be fulfilled. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke all describe Jesus instructing two unnamed disciples to go to Bethany to fetch an animal (or, in Matthew’s case, animals) that they will find there. Baigent and colleagues suggest that this may have been prearranged by Jesus in order to create a scene to fulfill Zechariah’s words. However, the notion of a Jewish preacher riding through Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the highly tense time of the Passover feast, while crowds proclaim him as a king, is historically implausible, and would have certainly hastened his early execution. It is more likely that this detail in the story of Jesus’ final week was invented.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence for such a conscious fulfilment of prophecy in the curious case of Onias IV, a Jewish priest who fled Jerusalem to Egypt in the 2nd century BCE to escape the Seleucid occupation of Palestine.

In that day there shall be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the LORD of hosts; one shall be called the city of the sun. In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 19:18-19)

The above prophecy comes from what is called ‘First Isaiah,’ the chapters that are said to come from the prophet active in the 8th century BCE, and envisages Jewish domination in certain parts of Egypt. Onias sought to consciously bring about the prophecy of “an altar to the Lord” in the land of Egypt. In a letter to Ptolemy VI, the king of Egypt at this time, Onias requested consent to build a Jewish temple in Egypt specifically so that Isaiah’s prophecy could be fulfilled. As the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus reported, Onias asked for such permission “for the prophet Isaiah foretold that there should be an altar in Egypt to the Lord God; and many other such things did he prophesy relating to that place”[5]. Although Onias seems to have put some effort into creating a mini-Jerusalem-Temple in Egypt, complete with an altar for sacrifices, it seemed to be insignificant enough to escape the attention of Philo of Alexandria, an Egyptian Jew who wrote prolifically about Jewish matters in Egypt at this time. The Temple was eventually destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century CE. Nevertheless, Onias’ temple is often touted as proof of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the small Jewish communities in various parts of Egypt that would have used Hebrew is often touted as evidence of the five cities that “speak the language of Canaan.” Onias also chose as the location for his project ‘Iwnw,’ the ancient Egyptian city famous for its reverence of the sun god Ra, with Isaiah’s words regarding the “city of the sun” no doubt at the forefront of his mind.

The blood of the just shall be wanting in London
Burnt by the thunderbolts of twenty three the six
The ancient dame shall fall from her high place.
Of the same sect many shall be killed.
(Nostradamus, “Les Prophetes,” 1557)

In the quotation immediately above, Nostradamus is likely writing about the persecution of Protestant Christians at the time of the staunchly Catholic Mary I of England. The “thunderbolts” refer to the explosives that were wrapped to the body of Protestants who were subsequently set on fire in sixes. Queen Mary, rumored to be senile and in ill health at the time, was the “ancient dame” due to “fall from the high place” of her queenship. In his fourth line, Nostradamus was giving a prediction of more Protestant bloodshed under Mary, which was to go on until her death a year later.

Nostradamus enthusiasts have since reinterpreted the above verses as a prediction of the Great Fire of London, which occurred over a hundred years later in 1666. One of the main motivations for doing so was their realization that if they were to place an “and” between “twenty” and “three,” they could arrive at an approximation of the year that it took place. (It is unclear what Nostradamus actually meant by “twenty three the six.” His characteristically arcane verses are said by some to be influenced by the proliferation of the alcoholic beverage absinthe in France at the time that he wrote, and to which he may have been partial[6].)

Subsequently, the French for “thunderbolts” (“les foudres”) was altered in Nostradamus’ original words to fire (“le feu”). Nostradamists had to be more creative in their interpretation of the third line. The ancient dame is said to be a statue or icon of the Virgin Mary that fell from the top of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was gutted in the fire; but no evidence of such a feature has ever been found. Nostradamists tend to not bother with applying the last verse of Nostradamus’ quatrain to the Great Fire; the death toll was said to be surprisingly low.

I have read what you wrote concerning the ring, but I didn’t understand it at all. Could you be more clear? (Letter to Nostradamus by François Bérard, 1562)

If anything, the fact that Nostradamus’ predictions can be applied to both Mary’s persecution of Protestants, as well as to a fire taking place over a hundred years later, testifies to how vague many prophecies tend to be. Likewise, the Book of Revelation’s descriptions of the antichrist that will appear at the end of time are opaque enough that, at various stages in history, they have been applied to an impressively disparate set of candidates, such as Peter the Great, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachov, and virtually every single President of the United States. Even credit cards and electronic barcodes used to scan items in shops have all been touted as possibilities!

Where prophecies are more specific and unambiguous, the success rate is questionable, such as in the case of the prophecy that Egypt would become a desolate wasteland (Ezekiel 29:9), that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer Egypt (Ezekiel 30:10—he did try and fail), and that the Davidic monarchy, which ended with King Zedekiah in about 586 BCE, would reign in perpetuity (2 Samuel 7:13). Believers can reconcile such prophecies with reality in one of two ways. One way is to claim that the prophecy has been fulfilled in some metaphorical/nonliteral way. While Jesus had no temporal earthly power, the Davidic monarchy continues today, so it is argued, with Jesus of Nazareth as the ruler of a cosmic ‘Kingdom of God’ that sees that Samuel’s prediction continues to be met. The assertion that Jesus was a descendant of David is itself an invention of the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in order to fulfill prophecies that the Messiah would come from the Davidic line (Isaiah 11:1 and Jeremiah 23:5-6). The genealogies that they provide as evidence are multiply contradictory (see Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38).

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2)

This ruse is also used by those who seek to identify Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, but need to reconcile this idea with prophecies that such a person would restore the Jerusalem Temple to its former glory, such as the one quoted above from ‘First Isaiah.’ They claim that Jesus, as he removed the need for the inadequate sacrificial system of the ancient Jerusalem Temple through his sacrifice on the cross, is himself that ‘improved temple.’ The countries of the world with Christian communities are those nations that “stream to it.”

A 20th-century example of such a metaphorical reinterpretation of prophecy can be seen in the development of Rastafarianism. In the 1920s the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey foretold that a black ‘Messiah’ would emerge in Africa. Rastafarians saw the fulfilment of Garvey’s words in the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The expectation arose that he would lead the descendants of Africans misplaced by the slave trade back to an East African ancestral homeland like some latter-day Moses. Following the Rastafarian community’s reluctant acceptance of Selassie’s death in 1975, many Rastafarians would refer to their belief in ‘I and I’—the unity of God and all humans. It became a widespread belief that Selassie’s spirit was present in all humans and would therefore continue to inspire them beyond his physical death to achieve their objectives to return to their promised land.[7]

Another way to respond to seemingly unsuccessful predictions is to suggest that they have not yet seen their fulfillment. The prophecies of a cataclysmic apocalypse, which Jesus seems to have suggested would happen within the lifetime of the people he addressed in 1st-century Judea (Matthew 16:28), will in reality happen in the next few decades according to books written by the likes of Pastor John Hagee[8]—the latest in a very long line of people who claim that “the end of the world is nigh.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers, the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus. And this system shall be called The Internet. (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006)

One can plausibly give accurate predictions about what will happen in the very near future, such as giving the final score of a soccer match ten seconds before it is due to end. Similarly, we can give very safe forecasts about the distant future provided that they are sufficiently general. For example, I am likely to be right if I foretell that on a particular day five years in the future, the Earth will rotate once with respect to the Sun. However, giving very specific predictions about the distant future is scientifically impossible, as it would require perfect knowledge of a virtually infinite number of variables and exactly how they will act. Chaos theory suggests that even very minute fluctuations in variables such as wind speed and temperature can lead to massively differing outcomes; think of the famous example of the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and causing a tornado in Texas. Those who claim to predict the future therefore often claim to have a supernatural skill, as in the case of Nostradamus, or the guidance of an omniscient entity, as in the case of religious texts. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, neuroscientist Sam Harris invites his readers to imagine a book written by a truly supreme intelligence that is genuinely omniscient about the past, present, and future. He convincingly argues that the quality and unambiguous accuracy of the prophecies that would appear therein would resemble the imagined one from Harris quoted above. The comparison between his example and those of the Bible and Nostradamus is stark, to say the least.


[1] President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, revealed the Reagan administration’s reliance on astrologer Joan Quigley for advice. See: Donald Regan, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Trade Publishers, 1988).

[2] Christina Sterbenz & Robert Johnson, “11 Shockingly Accurate Predictions From Nostradamus.” The Independent (December 14, 2015). <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/11-shockingly-accurate-predictions-from-nostradamus-a6772736.html>

[3] Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Prophecies that have Come True.” The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, Vol. 139, No. 6 (May/June): 6-7. <https://download-a.akamaihd.net/files/media_periodical/1c/wp_E_201805.pdf>

[4] Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (London, UK: Jonathan Cape, 1982).

[5] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. (Originally written 93-94 CE).

[6] James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993).

[7] The belief in their imminent return to Ethiopia seems to have subsided among modern-day Rastafarians. While having much reverence for this part of Africa, many are content to practice their faith in the countries of their birth.

[8] John Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World (Lake Mary, FL: Frontline, 2006).