Who can predict the future?

 
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Channarongsds—Getty Images

One of my pilot friends, Alan Benn, recently posted a photo on social media of his four-­engine jet with its nose wheels perfectly straddling the parking “tee”. As a pilot myself, I know this is hard to achieve, given that you can’t actually see the wheels or the tee from the flight deck. Alan was pretty pleased with himself for his parking prowess. Of course, his friends on social media were quick to make their remarks. “Marshallers,” quipped one, hinting that helpers with high-vis vests and lighted wands would have been required to accomplish such a feat. “Are you pointing in the wrong direction?” asked another, tongue in cheek. “The force is strong with you,” quoted another friend, invoking Star Wars. “Must have had a good engineer,” offered still another, “or did maintenance just paint new lines around the wheel?”

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In the world of aircraft parking, it’s not expected that an ordinary pilot can align their aircraft so perfectly. Doing something that well without having any kind of special foreknowledge is seen as unbelievable.

A similarly unbelievable situation involves an octopus named Paul. Sports commentators around the world sought him out at his aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, because he had an uncanny knack for predicting the outcomes of soccer matches. At the height of his career, he accurately chose the winners of seven matches in a row in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. His overall success rate of 85.7 per cent caused Paul to be named in a 2018 CNN article as “the greatest of all time” and, even 10 years after his death, he is lovingly remembered by his fans.

We want to know

It seems we humans have long had a desire to predict the future. From weather trends and commodity pricing, to romantic liaisons and end-of-the-world scenarios, we want to know, What’s going to happen? and How will it affect me?

We want to know so we can be prepared. “Forewarned is forearmed,” the old proverb says. Should I take my umbrella when I walk to work? Should I ask her out on a date? Should I take my money out of my super fund? With recent world events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of us are once again wondering what will happen next.

In her 2008 book, End of Days, self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne predicted that “around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again 10 years later, and then disappear completely.” Does this sound familiar? Browne’s prediction recently went viral on social media, with some claiming it as a clear prediction of the corona­virus pandemic.

At first glance, my friend’s parking ability, Paul’s sporting forecasts and Ms Browne’s prophecy hold a certain fascination. A success rate greater than 85 per cent is pretty good for an octopus, and a prediction that includes the exact year and some details involving the human respiratory system is rather uncanny.

Inside information

But here’s something that might surprise you. There’s an ancient text that makes dozens of specific predictions—some of them decades or centuries prior to the events—and the fulfilments are so remarkable that it seems the only way to account for them is to say that the author had some sort of inside information. It’s the biblical book of Isaiah.

For about 2000 years, the Isaiah text was largely assumed to be the work of a single author, written around 700 BC. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, Isaiah’s authorship came into question. In addition, the rise of rationalism saw scholars begin searching for naturalistic explanations for phenomena such as accurate predictions. Critical thinkers like Ewald, Hitzig and others proposed that the ancient prophets must have written their predictions down after the fact, or made predictions that only related to local events of their day. A new feeling grew that the fulfilled predictions of Isaiah were too incredible to be authentic. An alternative explanation was needed, like my pilot friend’s parking job—marshallers, luck or a retroactive paint job.

So, what’s so special about Isaiah’s predictions? Well, unlike Paul the Octopus and Sylvia Browne—both hit and miss to a certain extent—Isaiah hasn’t made any obvious errors. And when we look more carefully at the predictions themselves, it’s clear why critical scholars who deny the possibility of supernatural intervention are troubled. Here are just a few of Isaiah’s predictions:

  • The fall and subsequent restoration of Jerusalem from obscurity to a major city in the Middle East (Isaiah 60). This has occurred as Isaiah described.
  • The disempowerment, but not total destruction, of Egypt (Isaiah 19, 20). Modern history bears this out—Egypt is no longer an empire.
  • The fall and total abandonment of Babylon (Isaiah 13–14). Babylon was abandoned in AD 1000 and, as predicted, remains uninhabited to this day. You can see the ruins about 80 kms south of Baghdad.
  • Nineteen specific details about the coming Messiah, including His family lineage (Isaiah 7:14), Galilean ministry (9:1,2), preparation for His coming (40:3–5), His mistreatment and rejection (50:6, 52:14, 53:1–3), His choice to bear the sins of the world (53:12), the efforts of foreigners to seek Him (11:10) and His burial in a rich man’s tomb (53:9). Each of these details is recorded later in the Bible, and some are also mentioned in other sources.
  • The role of Israel as spiritual conduit for God to reach and bless all nations (Isaiah 54–56). This concept was foreign to the Jews in Isaiah’s day, but now 56 per cent of the world’s population—Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—trace their spiritual roots to the God of Isaiah.

OK, so these predictions may not be false, but could they have been written after the fact, like painting lines around an already-parked aircraft? That’s what some scholars proposed in the early twentieth century. But the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 shed further light on this. A very old and essentially complete copy of the Isaiah scroll was found among the ancient manuscripts. You can see it with your own eyes at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Scholars have used various means to date the scroll, and there is widespread agreement that it dates from somewhere between 300 and 100 BC. This means that all of the events just listed saw fulfilment generations later, long after that ink was dry.

Rodsan18—Wikimedia Commons

That alone is pretty amazing, but there’s more. Besides these historical predictions, Isaiah also wrote something for you and me. Chances are, you’ve heard these words before. They’ve inspired songs by Michael Jackson and Don Henley, they feature in the climax of the Les Misérables musical, they’ve been quoted by three US presidents and are even enshrined in two different locations at the UN’s New York headquarters. Isaiah 2:4 says, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Clearly, this is something humanity has longed for throughout the many centuries since Isaiah’s time—that elusive world peace; a time when weapons will be put away and people will live in harmony. Is this too much to hope for?

Maybe not. I believe it’s worth considering that the book of Isaiah is more than just any book. The track record of fulfilled predictions, written down before the predicted events, makes me wonder how the author got his information. Could it be that Isaiah had a very special “Marshaller”—Someone with more than a high-vis vest and lighted wand; Someone who knew the future, revealed it to Isaiah and then brought it about? Could it be that Isaiah’s message is relevant to us today, and that the record of fulfilled predictions can give us confidence that the rest will likewise be fulfilled? In these days of uncertainty, I want to trust my life to more than a clever pilot or an octopus. I want something solid, something believable—like Isaiah, and the God who inspired him.

 

A qualified pilot and keen student of the Scriptures, Nathan Tasker lives with his family in Maryborough, Queensland.