The 100% Challenge

As a pastor, I often made reference in my sermons to the “astounding prophecies of the Bible,” which I believed proved the deity of Christ and the divine inspiration of Scripture beyond a reasonable doubt. It was my sincere conviction that if an unbeliever examined, for example, the Messianic prophecies embedded in the Old Testament with an open mind, he would walk away a convert to Christ. How many prophecies are we talking about here? Well, that depends on who you ask. Jews for Jesus point to several dozen Messianic prophecies, while Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict claims “over 300 references to the messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus.” According to ChristianAnswers.Net, “The probability that Jesus of Nazareth could have fulfilled even eight such prophecies would be only 1 in 1017” (that's 10 to the power of 17).

For decades, I accepted this standard defense of the Christian faith without question. It was not until a Bible class earlier this year that serious doubts about the Messianic prophecies began to bubble to the surface. I was teaching through John's Gospel, verse by verse, when the class came to chapter 19 and verse 36 ("These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: Not one of his bones will be broken"). Someone asked me about the original prophecy, so I followed my index finger to the handy-dandy cross reference and arrived at Psalm 34:20. Ah, here I would be able to show the class one of the "astounding" prophecies of Scripture that "proves beyond a doubt" that Jesus was the Christ. What I discovered was, shall we say, underwhelming:

19 A righteous man may have many troubles,
but the LORD delivers him from them all;

20 he protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken.

This is certainly an inspiring verse of Scripture, but you would have to be a fool to take it as a prophecy of the Messiah. I was left in the truly awkward position of explaining to the class why John took a verse like this and wrenched it so violently from its original context (something I've preached against for years). As we went along, I noticed other misquoted passages the Gospel writer applied to Jesus. I was quite embarrassed--not for myself, but for the apostle John! This got me to wondering--how many other claims of prophetic fulfillment are not just a little bit off, but way off?

Here's why this question is so important to evangelical Christianity: if the Messianic prophecies fail, the entire Christian foundation erodes away with it (see Deut. 18:22). The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) recognizes this: “How do you respond to someone's claim that the Bible is not inspired? Is there a way to prove inspiration or, at least, intelligently present evidence for its inspiration? The answer is, ‘Yes!’ One of the best ways to prove inspiration is by examining prophecy.”

Got that? Christians say that you can evaluate the Bible’s claims of divine inspiration by whether or not it accurately records actual instances of fulfilled prophecy. CARM continues: “If just one prophecy failed, then we would know that God is not the true God, because the creator of all things, which includes time, would not be wrong about predicting the future.”

So, does everyone understand the rules of the game? If we can find just one bogus prophecy—one instance where the Bible says something is going to happen a certain way and it doesn’t pan out—this is all a reasonable person needs to demonstrate the Bible is human, not divine, in origin. Put another way, if there were 100 Bible prophecies and 99 were shown to be right on the money, 1 wrong prophecy would be enough to spoil a 100% perfect record. If the Messianic prophecies are shady in any way, then the Bible is not the perfect product of a perfect God (as millions believe today). Perhaps most significant, without 100% accuracy of the Messianic passages, Jesus cannot be the One sent from heaven to redeem the world.

Now that we have our challenge, can we find one bogus prophecy? Well, here's where it gets tough: choosing just one! Let’s start in Matthew, who is prolific in his quotation Old Testament prophecies and his application of them to Jesus. Should we build our case on a passage like Matthew 2:23? It says of Jesus, “And he came and dwelt in the city called Nazareth , that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.’” I'm sad to say that in my 20 years as a Christian, I never realized that Matthew makes reference to a prophecy that doesn’t even exist! Try as you may, you will nowhere find a place in the Old Testament where it unambiguously declares the Messiah would be a Nazarene.

How about the (in)famous example of Isaiah 7:14? Matthew uses this prophecy as the cornerstone of his Gospel, quoting Isaiah as saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child.” However, the word Matthew translates "virgin" would be more accurately translated “young woman.” The Jews had a very specific word for virgin (bethulah), but it was not the word Isaiah chose (ha-almah). Holy disappearing virgin, Batman! Further examination of the chapter reveals that the promised child of Isaiah 7:14 was to be a sign to Ahaz, a Judean king who lived centuries before Jesus was even born!

Or how about this one: Matthew’s claim that King Herod slaughtered “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and its vicinity, from two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). Every Sunday school student knows this story (one Bible class lesson titles this episode, “Babies Give Their Lives for Jesus”). As a minister, I searched desperately to substantiate this story with the Jewish histories of Josephus or with any secular historian of that era--only to realize that there is not a shred of historical or archaeological evidence behind it. To add insult to injury, Matthew (or whoever wrote under his name) would have us believe that this fanciful tale was also a fulfillment of ancient prophecy. He quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” Once again, a careful reading of the entire chapter in its context reveals that Jeremiah is talking about a situation far removed from Bethlehem, Herod, and the Magi. He is describing the struggles of the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity. The few verses after verse 15 bear this out:

15 This is what the LORD says:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because her children are no more."

16 This is what the LORD says:
"Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,"
declares the LORD.
"They will return from the land of the enemy.

17 So there is hope for your future,"
declares the LORD.
"Your children will return to their own land.”

Clearly the Gospel writer was stretching it a bit (read: a lot)!

No doubt, I will hear from outraged Christians who cannot understand how a minister so in-tune with the Bible, from a conservative Christian denomination, can question these prophecies. Well, please understand that there are fair-minded, rational people out there who do have trouble with them. The man whose question sparked this search was not a skeptic, but a respected deacon of my church.

That having been said, I’m interested in what Christians perusing this forum see as so irrefutable about the so-called Messianic prophecies about Jesus. If the standard for prophecy is 100% accuracy—no misses—then (as Ricky Ricardo would say) "someone’s got some 'splaining to do!"