These are boom times for doomsday predictions. Some folks view Trump as the Chosen One. A survey from earlier this year found that 35 percent of Americans think we are entering the end times. Only 37 percent disagree. And this week, Pat Robertson predicted Trump would be reelected but that an asteroid would destroy the earth.
These prophecies are laughable. But people apparently believe this stuff. So let’s take a critical look at Robertson’s prophecy in order to see why this kind of thing is nonsense.
The first problem is that while Robertson says Trump will win the election, he also encourages his viewers to vote. But if God has revealed that Trump is going to win, then why bother to get out the vote? The very idea of prophecy undermines free will and agency.
After Trump is sworn in, Robertson says the country will be torn apart by civic unrest. Robertson predicts five years of subsequent peace and final death by asteroid. But don’t these predictions give us a reason not to vote for Trump? Could we avert the unrest and the asteroid by voting for Biden?
Proactive prevention is not on the prophet’s table. Indeed, the prophets of doom seem to have a kind of malevolent hope (as I discussed in another column). They appear to look forward to the chaos and to the end.
Now let’s turn to the tortured Bible interpretation that grounds this prophecy. Robertson cites snippets of text from Ezekiel, Isaiah, Thessalonians, and Matthew. This textual cherry-picking is silly. The prophecy jumps through the Bible, extracts a few ominous texts, and offers a wild and anachronistic interpretation.
If you study the Bible critically, this approach is absurd (see my What Would Jesus Really Do?). Critical Bible study undermines the idea that there is a hidden message in the texts. These texts were created by human beings. They evolved over time in response to historical forces.
Scholars suggest, for example, that Isaiah was written by more than one author (this may be true of Ezekiel as well). These texts were written for an ancient Jewish audience during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon. Paul’s letter to Thessalonians is written centuries later and addressed to a newly formed Christian church. Matthew was written a generation later for an audience who had witnessed the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The meaning of these texts is grounded in these contexts. It is absurd to believe that ancient authors wrote these texts as a warning to people in 2020. If anything, we should heed Matthew’s warning against false prophets (Matthew 7:15) and Paul’s suggestion that we test prophecy and hold fast to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
And now, about that asteroid. Ancient people feared objects being flung from the sky by angry gods. But today, we know that there are no gods up there to do the flinging. We understand that planets and space rocks orbit the sun at high speeds and sometimes cross paths. We know that the universe is billions of years old. Species have come and gone. Some have been destroyed by asteroid impacts.
But none of this was known to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul, or Jesus. Nor did these ancient prophets know there were continents on the far side of the world. So why should we believe that they made predictions about contemporary American life?
And why should we believe that God is the kind of being that gets angry and destroys His own creation? The theological assumptions of prophetic Christianity turn God into a petulant bully.
The theological critique of this kind of thing has been around for a long time. One clear statement of the idea comes from Thomas Paine, whose thinking about religion and political life inspired the American Revolution. Paine criticized “the prophecy-mongers.” He said, “belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
Of course, in the American system, people are free to believe what they want. But critical thinkers are also free to criticize the absurdities of prophecy. That’s the way enlightenment works. It is a slow process of sifting and winnowing. Enlightenment is not an asteroid that strikes like a thief in the night. It is critical activity that requires daylight and human agency.