Intellectual honesty will never reveal Jesus to a person, but its absence creates an obstacle to thinking people. If a Christian claim or argument is simplistic, pretentious, sub-rational, or dishonest, it deserves rebuttal. Of course, not everyone will agree that my contentions are valid. If everyone did agree, this page would disappear. Let the polemics begin.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” (Matthew 22:37)
By “prophetic probability,” I refer to a line of argument expressed in two short videos that a friend recently recommended. Both of the videos (embedded below) attempt to prove the authenticity of Jesus by calculating the odds of anyone fulfilling the numerous prophesies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. The assumption is that if the fulfillment of a prophecy is highly improbable, but occurs, this fulfillment provides irrefutable grounds for faith.
First, I’m troubled by the idea of obtaining proof that one’s faith is valid. If you believe as the result of an argument, you may later doubt as the result of a better argument. Second, calculating the odds regarding human actions is tricky business, slippery even, as the first video demonstrates. Third, demonstrating that the prophecy is being interpreted correctly and that its fulfillment has been correctly identified are both areas of debate. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time had memorized the prophesies yet didn’t recognize their fulfillment by one they could see and touch. Fourth, some prophecies were deliberately fulfilled, such as Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The probability of this type of fulfillment is 100% (whether by Christ or a shyster). In the words of Shakespeare, the “enterprise is sick.”
Before proceeding, let me be clear that I’m not disputing that the prophecies were fulfilled by Christ. In my case, I first believed in Jesus after hearing the good news and, later, by inference, assumed he fulfilled all the prophecies. This approach differs from the two videos that basically state, “Once we prove how improbable it was for Jesus to fulfill the prophecies, you’ll just have to believe in him.”
I’m disputing that prophetic fulfillment can be converted into an argument-by-probability and that this argument can then incontrovertibly prove that Jesus is the Messiah. I’m concluding that when one relies on proofs for one’s faith, one’s faith is in proofs instead of being in God.
“300 Prophecies that Jesus Fulfilled,” the first video, selects eight prophecies and begins to show how Jesus fulfilled them, calculating the odds in the process. The formula for probability is provided from the outset: 1 in 10 men is bald (hypothetically), and 1 in 100 men is missing a finger. One in one thousand men would be bald and have a missing finger (10*100=1,000).
The prophecies are:
- The king will enter Jerusalem on a donkey (prophesied in Zechariah 9, fulfilled in Matthew 16)
- And here I must point out a flaw that pervades the video. In order to get a numerical figure, one of the presenters asks, “How many men who are kings out of all history rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?” Perhaps knowing the argument is already fragile, the presenter assigns an arbitrarily high probability of 1 out of 100. This is not the only arbitrary number provided in the video.
- Here, also, is a second flaw regarding this particular prophecy: the kingship of Jesus was (and is) a matter of great debate, something the video ignores, proceeding as if every skeptic will concede his kingship from the outset.
- The ruler of Israel shall be born in Bethlehem (prophesied in Micah 5, fulfilled in Matthew 2)
- That the Suffering Servant (which has been interpreted collectively as the suffering Jews and prophetically as the suffering Messiah) would remain silent as he was led to the slaughter (prophesied in Isaiah 53, fulfilled in Mark 15)
At this point, the video skips the rest of the prophesies and presents the final probability: 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000 or 1 in 1017. Perhaps there’s a longer version of the video that at least explains all eight prophesies. After all, the presenters claim they are basing the video on a book that shows the (im)probability of around 300 prophesies. For me, neither additional zeros nor additional prophesies would make the argument any more convincing. They would only demonstrate more extensively the fundamental flaws in the project.
“Is Jesus as Reliable as a fingerprint,” the second video, presents six prophecies, claiming that the Christ shall be…
- Born in Bethlehem
- A descendant of Abraham, Judah, and David
- And here, I must point out that whatever number is assigned to the chances of being born in Bethlehem, one needs to take into account that chances are almost 100% that he is a descendant of Abraham, the odds are not unlikely that he is also a descendant of Judah, one of Abraham’s great-grandchildren, and the odds are still not surprising if he was part of the lineage of David, an obvious survivor of the family Abraham started; this is an example of how nuances are sidestepped in this video
- Was alive during the second temple period (586 B.C. to 70 A.D.)
- Was hailed by the crowd as Messiah in 33 A.D.
- Was wounded and pierced before his death
- And here, I must point out that this treatment strikes me as all too common in Roman times—isn’t that what crucifixion entails?
- And was assigned a grave with criminals
- Again, it seems highly likely that a victim of capital punishment would be assigned a grave with criminals—so I’m not sure where the argument is headed
I never find out how the argument unfolds because suddenly, without showing any calculations, the video concludes there is a 1 in 68 billion chance that Jesus fulfilled these six prophecies. Because, according to a 19th century calculation, there is a 1 in 64 billion chance that two fingerprints are identical, the audience is informed, “If you trust a fingerprint as proof, THEN YOU SHOULD TRUST JESUS TOO.”
Even if the video were persuasive, the petty equation between trusting a fingerprint (to what? get you into your phone?) and trusting your life to someone claiming to be the son of God reduces faith a crap shoot.
The Problem with Probability
There may be better versions of the probability-of-prophecy argument out there. They would likely avoid the hidden calculations of the second video. But I don’t see how they could avoid selecting arbitrary numbers (where we have no data) as do both videos. Nor how they could move beyond the far-fetched premise that any kind of mathematical proof compels genuine faith in Christ.
The premise that one can calculate the probability of any person existing, Christ or otherwise, is flawed. We are all improbable and yet we fulfill history by existing. What are the chances that I was born in Los Alamos? On the Fourth of July? With a father born in Denver? With blue eyes? From a mother who was a Denver Post reporter? While my father’s friend was flying his plane over the nearby mountains? The same year Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting where she belonged on a bus? While, on the other side of the country, Disney Land opened? Inconceivable, as Princess Bride‘s Vizzini would say. And yet here I am.
The point is that everything is improbable until it happens, and once it happens, it is incontrovertible:
It is immensely improbable beforehand that a pebble dropped from the stratosphere over London will hit any given spot or that any one particular person will win a large lottery. But the report that the pebble has landed outside such and such a shop or that Mr So-and-So has won the lottery is not at all incredible. (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)
I assume those who make the probability-of-prophecy argument would (and should) be quick to say: but that doesn’t prove you or anyone else is the Christ. True, that. But neither do great, if artificially obtained, odds prove that Jesus is the Christ. They prove—to me at least—that parts of Christendom desperately want to recruit people to their beliefs at the expense of intellectual honesty.
Even if the probabilities could be calculated with precision and without ignoring important interpretive nuances, the entire exercise strikes me as intriguing at best, and as a distraction from true faith at worst.
The Intrigue of Prophecy
These videos achieved one positive thing: they piqued my interest in Biblical prophesies. Once the pipe dream of proof-by-improbability is put to bed, the role of prophecies in the Bible comes alive, no longer encumbered by pseudoscience.
Take, for example, the third prophecy in the first video, a prophecy written about six-hundred years before Christ, stating that the ruler of Israel shall be born in Bethlehem (prophesied in Micah 5, fulfilled in Matthew 2):
The relevant passage from Micah 5 is as follows:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
To the Christian, these are truly wonderful words. The reference to Bethlehem is perhaps the least sensational. More catching is the “until the time when she who is in labor bears a son.” Add to that, “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” and “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…”—and you have clear grounds for suspecting the prophet was onto something. It’s not proof, it’s a sign. And all signs invite interpretation. The person who already believes in Jesus will take it as a signifying him. The skeptic can, no doubt, come up with alternative theories.
The Embedded Videos
 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16)
 Faith, we are told in Hebrews, is its own kind of evidence: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). We are also told in James that simply believing in God is in no way meritorious (even the demons believe and tremble). It’s helpful to put some definition on the kind of God one believes in (something statistical arguments miss altogether). I like Abraham’s version: “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Romans 4). This is the God of miraculous hope. It’s not just the existence of God that requires faith, but also the character of that God: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV).
 As something intriguing, it reminds me of the proof that Shakespeare helped translate the King James Bible (1611). He could have: he was alive then, in London, and knew how to write English, apparently. The proof is that if, in Psalm 46, you count 46 words forward, you find “shake.” And if you count 46 words from the end of the psalm, you find the word “spear.” It’s possibly a hidden signature—such games were played. But it sheds no light on the King James Version and no light on Shakespeare’s great tragedies, all of which had been written before 1611.
Try it yourself:
Psalm 46, King James Version
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; 3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah. 4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. 5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early. 6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. 8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth. 9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire. 10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. 11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.