The Bible includes false prophets and true prophets whose words turn out to be false.
Prophecy is saying what God says, which is more often about forthtelling than about foretelling.
Sometimes, however, prophecies do predict the future. In late October, Pat Robertson declared that he had heard from the Lord: “Without question, Trump is going to win the election.” To Robertson’s credit, Trump did far better than expected. With Donald Trump’s 70 million votes, reportedly the second-highest total in US history, we might think that Robertson indeed heard something. But did he get the whole story?
In some elections, prophecies are more than 50/50 guesses. In 2016, Jeremiah Johnson, a pastor and prophet, accurately predicted Trump’s first term even before he emerged as a leader in the Republican primaries. Robertson was not alone in seeing another victory for the president in 2020. Most public prophecies, including those by Johnson, sided with Trump, sometimes mentioning a disputed election.
But even some who voted for Trump felt like God was saying that Biden would win this time. Ron Cantor, a Messianic leader based in Israel, said he twice heard from God that Biden would win because of the church’s idolization of Trump. He told followers, “Even if a miracle happened and [Trump] was, in fact, reelected, which seems less likely with each passing hour, proving the other prophets true, the warning here remains the same.”
If the election results hold despite recounts and court challenges, were all those others who predicted Trump’s victory false prophets?
Mistakes in prophecy do not make everyone who’s mistaken a false prophet, any more than mistakes in teaching make everyone who’s mistaken a false teacher. But false prophets exist—even cessationists, who do not believe that the genuine gift of prophecy is for today, agree that they do.
Whether from false prophets or not, very public mistaken prophecies risk great dishonor to God’s name and must be treated especially seriously. People already apt to mock Christians can find more grounds for ridicule. Deuteronomy 18 warns against mistaken prophecy, albeit prophesying “presumptuously”; the Hebrew word typically involves insolent rebellion (such as in Deuteronomy 1:43 and 17:13).
“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken,” reads Deuteronomy 18:22. “That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”
Hearing from God
Yet even true prophecy can be messier than many of us would like. In the Bible, true prophets often acted in ways that other people considered eccentric (Jer. 19:10; Acts 21:11), and their contemporaries sometimes deemed them mentally unstable (2 Kings 9:11; Jer. 29:26; John 10:20).
In contrast to prophecies about God’s long-range purposes, most prophecies in the Bible about his short-range purposes are conditional, whether stated as such or not. Thus Jonah’s “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4) was not fulfilled in Jonah’s generation because Nineveh repented.
Jeremiah explains this process plainly: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it” (Jer. 18:7–10). Perspectives on how conditional prophecy works vary. My own opinion is that God foreknows human choices or final outcomes, but he also accommodates time-bound people within time.
Similarly, God sometimes deferred promised outcomes. Elijah prophesied the destruction of Ahab’s line (1 Kings 21:20–24). Yet after Ahab humbled himself, God told Elijah privately that because Ahab humbled himself. I won’t bring this disaster while he is alive. Instead, I’ll bring it on his household in the time of his son (21:29). Likewise, God commissioned Elijah with three tasks (1 Kings 19:15–16). Elijah fulfilled directly one of these—calling Elisha. The other two were fulfilled by Elisha and by a prophet whom he in turn commissioned. Most of the mission was fulfilled by somebody else.
Often, biblical prophecies indicate more about what than about when. For example, the first two chapters of Joel depict an imminent locust invasion in terms of the day of the Lord, God’s time for judging. The last chapter, however, seems to depict a real invasion in an ultimate day of God’s judgment (3:9–17, especially verse 14). That is, in prophecies, nearer events may foreshadow later ones, without bothering to specify the time in between. Christians see Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s coming this way: No one recognized in advance that Jesus would come twice.
But were most prophecies about the US election conditional? Or were they simply wrong? After all, anybody can say, “The outcome of the election will be such-and-such—provided enough people vote for so-and-so.” (Given the odds against Trump, though, prophecies of his election were rather daring.)
Hearing our own echoes
But even godly people can sometimes misinterpret what they hear. Not everyone always hears God as clearly as Moses did, face to face (Num. 12:6–8). Nathan had to correct the assurance he had given to David after the Lord spoke to him (2 Sam. 7:3–5). Even godly court prophets like Nathan can make wrong assumptions in times of favor.
This problem is not, however, limited to court prophets. When John the Baptist heard that Jesus was healing people, he questioned his identity (Matt. 11:2–3; Luke 7:18–20). Probably John did so because he earlier heard from God that the coming one would baptize in the Spirit and in fire (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16). So far as John could tell, Jesus was not baptizing anybody in fire. What John heard from God was right, but John’s inference was wrong because he, like all prophets, had only a piece of the larger picture.
Not only are all prophecies partial, but, more dangerously, sometimes we may confuse our wrong interpretation with God’s message. Some of us might remember times of praying for the right spouse or job; the more emotionally involved we are personally in a decision, the harder it often is to think and hear clearly.
That may be why Luke refrains from calling the Spirit-led speech in Acts 21:4 “prophecy.” Paul’s friends told him “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem. Yet God had already told Paul himself to go to Jerusalem (the probable meaning of Acts 19:21). Paul’s friends rightly heard that he would suffer in Jerusalem (20:23; 21:11) but wrongly inferred from this information that he should not go there (21:12–14; see also 2 Kings 2:3–5, 16–18). Subjectivity is messy, but so long as we need wisdom from the Lord, we have to live with some subjectivity.
This is the case because all prophecy is “in part,” just as teachers “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). Until Jesus returns, our knowing is limited and partial (vv. 9–12). Saying that all the prophecies that made it into the Bible are perfect doesn’t mean that none of God’s servants ever uttered imperfect prophecies. That’s why Paul insists that each prophecy must be evaluated (1 Cor. 14:29). He warns us not to quench the Spirit or despise prophecies; instead, we are to test them, keeping what is good and rejecting what is evil (1 Thess. 5:19–22).
Certain popular teachings have made many contemporary prophecies even more problematic. I believe that excesses in “positive confession” teaching have introduced a major source of potential error into prophesying. Even many circles today that repudiate “name it and claim it” theology now engage in “prophetic declarations.” Some of these declarations are intended as affirmations of faith. Jesus, after all, does invite us to command even mountains by our faith (Mark 11:23). But faith is only as good as its object, which Jesus in the previous verse specifies as God (v. 22). Prophetic “declarations” are empty unless authorized and led by God. As Lamentations says, “Who can command and have it done, if the Lord has not ordained it?” (Lam. 3:37, NRSV).
Hearing different things
The most prominent people who claim to speak for God are not always right, but that does not mean that God does not speak. In 2008, an Ethiopian minister who did not know anything about me prophesied accurately about my son and that I was writing two big books. What confused me was that he said that my second book would be larger than the first. I expected my Acts commentary to come out first; it turned out to be over 4,000 pages. Though partly impressed, I thought Mesfin had to be wrong about a larger book. But my miracles book, which turned out to be just 1,100 pages, ended up coming out before my Acts commentary. Mesfin was right, and I was wrong.
This year, many Christians have listened to leaders prophesy that Trump would again win the election. Some, such as Jeremiah Johnson, have continued to affirm that their prophecy will turn out to be true in the end. Others, such as Kris Vallotton, have publicly apologized. For now, many will decide that the prophecy was contingent, mistimed or, more likely, mistaken.
Although I have not been a Trump supporter, I’m someone who wants to see godly prophecies proven true and can understand the disappointment.
I am not a prophet, but my own dreams gave me misgivings. For example, in March 2016, eight months before the election, I dreamed that Trump could be like the biblical Jehu (2 Kings 10:28–31) and needed repentance. In May 2016 I dreamed that God was angry about Trump’s (future) mistreatment of refugee children. Later I dreamed about his words provoking race riots. After the 2016 election, I wrote in my journal, “I wonder why, when I have had these nightmare dreams about him, many others are not seeing the same thing.” The next year I dreamed that I was warning Trump supporters about a coming backlash: “You have sown the wind and you will reap the whirlwind” (from Hosea 8:7).
I was unable to shake those dreams, even though many people I respected supported the president, and for reasons that I understood. Sometimes my own perspective has vacillated, since I am pro-life and appreciate the president’s respect for evangelicals. In August this year, I dreamed that Trump lost the 2020 election. It was just a dream. I have all sorts of dreams, and even when some seem significant, I am not always sure how to interpret them. Some are probably influenced by surveying BBC news before I go to bed. The dreams do motivate me, at least, to pray.
Perspectives differ, and we each have just a piece of the larger puzzle. We can be sure of one thing: The Lord remains in control of history, and we can live by his certain Word in Scripture no matter what else happens.
If, against all odds, Trump suddenly does become president, the prophecies will draw public attention to God’s work. Otherwise, it may instead be that God is drawing attention to needed housecleaning in many charismatic circles. The Spirit’s encouragement does not always translate in the words we want to hear; “prophetic declarations” can dull us to what God is really saying; and depending on what others say God has said can be risky business (see 1 Kings 13:11–32).
As a charismatic Christian myself, I like to see prophecies come true. But prophecies need to be evaluated. Whenever possible, before they go public. And, when necessary, afterward.
Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Christobiography: Memories, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, which won a 2020 CT Book Award.