When prophecy comes true
Right now, the world is reeling from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And some Christadelphians are excited about it. Just like so many times before. Prophecy is unfolding before their eyes. The end times are here, and the return of Jesus is just around the corner. It’s the fulfilment of God’s great plan, and anyone who happens to be hurt by it is just unfortunate collateral damage.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about prophecy that really does come true.
Our source (and a spoiler alert)
The main source for today’s prophecies is Good Omens:
A Narrative of Certain Events occurring in the last eleven years of human history, in strict accordance as shall be shewn with:
The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter
Compiled and edited, with Footnotes of an Educational Nature and Precepts for the Wise, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
So consider yourself warned: If you haven’t read this (highly recommended!) book or seen the (also excellent) Amazon TV series, I prophesy that this post will contain some spoilers.
Introducing our guest prophet
Agnes Nutter was, shall we say, an interesting character:
One of the early entries in The Nice and Accurate Prophecies concerned Agnes Nutter’s own death.
A howling mob, reduced to utter fury by her habit of going around being intelligent and curing people, arrived at her house one April evening to find her sitting with her coat on, waiting for them.
‘Ye’re tardie,’ she said to them. ‘I shoulde have beene aflame ten minutes since.’
‘Gather ye ryte close, goode people. Come close untyl the fire near scorch ye, for I charge ye that alle must see how thee last true wytch in England dies. For wytch I am, for soe I am judgéd, yette I knoe not what my true Cryme may be. And therefore let myne deathe be a messuage to the worlde. Gather ye ryte close, I saye, and marke well the fate of alle who meddle with suche as theye do none understande.’
Thirty seconds later an explosion took out the village green, scythed the valley clean of every living thing, and was seen as far away as Halifax.
There was much subsequent debate as to whether this had been sent by God or by Satan, but a note later found in Agnes Nutter’s cottage indicated that any divine or devilish intervention had been materially helped by the contents of Agnes’s petticoats, wherein she had with some foresight concealed eighty pounds of gunpowder and forty pounds of roofing nails.
But how accurate was she, really?
I must admit, being able to predict your own death with that accuracy and then accept it so calmly and methodically is impressive. But there have been many apocalyptic prophets through the years. How can we be sure that she was the one?
Well, for a start, it’s hard to argue with this testimonial:
[The] manuscript they had been sent was the sole prophetic work in all of human history to consist entirely of completely correct predictions concerning the following three hundred and forty odd years, being a precise and accurate description of the events that would culminate in Armageddon. It was on the money in every single detail.
Of course, it’s one thing to make accurate predictions, and another thing completely to make predictions that can be understood in advance. As even Anathema Device, her descendant and greatest interpreter, acknowledged:
‘She managed to come up with the kind of predictions that you can only understand after the thing has happened,’ said Anathema. ‘Like “Do Notte Buye Betamacks”. That was a prediction for 1972.’
Still, it’s a good prediction, and very clear after the event.
Introducing a demon
Given that we’re dealing with the end times here, it shouldn’t be surprising that the forces of good and evil are out in force. That includes the demon Crowley, originally the serpent “Crawly” of Eden, who is finding the twentieth century more to his taste:
Crowley was currently doing 110 mph somewhere east of Slough. Nothing about him looked particularly demonic, at least by classical standards. No horns, no wings. Admittedly he was listening to a Best of Queen tape, but no conclusions should be drawn from this because all tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.
The car he was driving was a 1926 black Bentley, one owner from new, and that owner had been Crowley. He’d looked after it.
And, while good Christadelphians may be shocked at the very existence of demons (counter to their carefully worked out theology), it can’t be helped: If the good Lord needs demons to bring about his ineffable plan, who are his humble servants the Christadelphians to gain-say it?
My favourite footnote
That brings me to my favourite of the “Footnotes of an Educational Nature”.
In a perfectly normal end of the world event, Crowley is trying to get to the scene of the final denouement, and his Bentley spontaneously combusts:
The leather seatcovers began to smoke. Staring ahead of him, Crowley fumbled left-handed on the passenger seat for Agnes Nutter’s Nice and Accurate Prophecies, moved it to the safety of his lap. He wished she’d prophecied this.
Seems like an innocent event so far? Here’s the footnote:
She had. It read:
A street of light will screem, the black chariot of the Serpente will flayme, and a Queene wille sing quickfilveres songes no moar.
Most of the family had gone along with Gelatly Device, who wrote a brief monograph in the 1830s explaining it as a metaphor for the banishment of Weishaupt’s Illuminati from Bavaria in 1785.
I love this prophecy because it fits so perfectly, and yet is so very obscure and prone to misinterpretation. It shows the power of the prophet, but also the distinct fallibility of the interpreters of the prophet.
As I’m sure I’ve said in previous Bible prophecy posts, I was never part of a congregation that focused heavily on prophecy - but I did interact with congregations that did. And this prophecy particularly reminds me of “continuous historic” interpretations of Revelation. Basically, that means that any particular Seal or Vial or Dramatic Scene in Revelation is supposed to correspond clearly with events in a particular year sometime in the nearly 2,000 years between when Revelation is written and now. Two interpreters may well have different ideas about which events match which parts of the vision, but they are both confident that the vision is continuous historic and their interpretation is not just right but obvious and a proof of God’s divine hand inspiring the book. And to someone like me who wasn’t brought up with that kind of prophecy interpretation, it sounds no more credible than the interpretation of Gelatly Device.
So what’s this got to do with Ukraine?
Many Christadelphians who watch “The Signs of the Times” (including people I know well) seem confident that the current invasion of Ukraine is just a stepping stone towards Armageddon and the return of Jesus to rule the world.
This poster from NZ is a more public assertion of it:
And I don’t intend to go into it in great depth, because I think a lot of it would end up a reprise of what I wrote about Brexit - the last time I recall Christadelphians getting really excited about a prophetic non-event.
As I understand it, the predictions are largely based on the combination of separate prophecies in Ezekiel 38 and Daniel 11. And, like with Brexit, Christadelphians are making a prophecy that’s not in the original text. Both those prophecies are about invasions of Israel. What these Christadelphians are really getting excited about is that the current war potentially sets up one of the pre-conditions for the fulfilment of that prophecy. Or, to put it another way, removes an obstacle in the fulfilment of the Divine Plan as they see it.
Unlike Agnes Nutter’s prophecies, these two prophecies are written by different prophets. That means that we need to have good reason to trust both prophets, and also means we need a way to make sure they are both talking about the same thing.
One is a prophecy about Gog, of the land of Magog. The other is a prophecy about “the King of the North” (and there’s also a “king of the south”). They could be about completely different times.
No Biblical prophecy has ever said “The King of the North (whose name happens to be Gog) will invade Israel”. It’s an interpretation of the two prophecies - and, arguably, a very bad one. Like I said in the Brexit post, Christadelphian interpretations of it have changed over the years as different countries and individuals have been in power. Once it was Imperial Russia that was going to fulfil it, then it was the USSR. Now it’s Putin’s Russia.
And even if they were both prophecies of the same future invasion of Israel, it’s a big jump to go from an invasion of Ukraine to an invasion of Israel.
So, how could Agnes Nutter prophesy so accurately?
In Agnes’ nice and accurate prophecies, every word matters. The same is true, as I’ve commented before, of the prophecies in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
What unites those two works? They’re both works of fiction. The authors are able to adjust both the prophecies and the events in the book to make them fit together. Every word matters because the authors make sure they matter.
And in other works of fiction, prophecies can even be self-fulfilling: The very act of trying to prevent the prophesied outcome is what makes it happen. That makes for a great story, and is completely in the hand of the author.
Real life isn’t like this. Yes, people can and do make predictions, and particularly in the short to medium term some of them will be educated guesses that are much more likely to come true. But we shouldn’t expect that an obscure prophecy written a couple of thousand years ago in a different language will apply to our time. (let alone that it will do so in such a way that every single word matters!)
Making Bible prophecy accurate
Much of Daniel 11 is a very accurate description of the events leading up to and during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. Supposedly it is written hundreds of years before that time, which would make it a disconcertingly accurate prophecy. However, it seems likely that that pedigree was fictionalised, and those “prophecies” were actually written after the events they described. Then at the end of the chapter it shifts into actual prophesying and gets it hopelessly wrong: Rather than predicting the Maccabee uprising which over-threw the Seleucid rule, it predicts an apocalyptic end times battle in which evil is overthrown for the last time.
Imagine I had a “prophecy” written in 1913 but claiming to be written by, say, John Dee in 1602. The prophesy covers the history of the Romanovs in convincing detail up till 1913, then finishes with an apocalyptic ending (that isn’t WW1 or the Russian Revolution), with the Tsar perishing and God taking control of the world. Clearly, the prophecy was meant to apply to Nicholas II, and clearly it was proven false.
And if that had happened, the prophecy might have given hope to its audience. It might even have inspired them to participate in the Russian Revolution. But it would be ridiculous to now take that prophecy and cast, say, Putin as the latter day Tsar in the final battle before God takes over. And yet that’s exactly the kind of thing Christadelphian interpreters are doing with Daniel 11.
This also explains how the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus can be “so accurate”: Whether or not there was a “historical Jesus”, the tales in the gospels show clear signs of legendary development. That gives the authors control of their protagonist, and so they can make him do things that fulfil prophecy (for example, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s behind the tales of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in fulfilment of prophecy). The authors are also at liberty to say particular parts of the story were intended to fulfil a particular prophecy - whether or not the claim stands up to scrutiny.
They wouldn’t have that liberty with a completely historical figure. If you want accurate prophecy with every detail matching, fiction is your best bet.
What would a convincing prophecy look like?
I answered this question for Brexit, but with Agnes Nutter in mind, I tried to come up with one that would be somewhat obscure beforehand but would also apply to today’s situation.
A secryt police offycer shall rayn, and the nation of the trydent shall he attack. In the streets shall parade instruments of deth from the nukleus, and many shall feer.
Not very good, perhaps, but I do wonder what the likes of Gelatly Device would make of it.
Christadelphian interpreters can be very confident in their interpretation, but I think that usually shows that they’ve got so lost in the arcana they don’t realise it’s not so clear to the average observer.
Being excited about human misery
I’ve seen and heard people I know say that the events in Ukraine are “exciting”. And no, that’s not a typo.
Yes, I understand that it’s supposed to be a step towards the return of Jesus, and that’s supposed to be a time of world peace and harmony. And I understand that it can be frustrating when the return of Jesus is “just round the corner” and stays round the corner for a lifetime.
However, I say the same as I said about the idea of weather affecting the Brexit vote: I have serious problems with the idea of a god who would deliberately disrupt the lives of millions to achieve a minor point in his oh-so-perfect plan. After all, remember: This isn’t even a direct fulfilment of prophecy - it’s just (possibly) setting up one of the pre-conditions for the eventual fulfilment of that prophecy.
And, unlike with the Brexit vote, this isn’t just about bad weather and some flooding. This is an invasion. It’s people living in fear. It’s people having to leave their homes and flee to other countries for safety. It’s civilians dying, including young children. And it’s undoubtedly a legacy of trauma for those who survive, whatever the outcome is.
This too has its parallel in Good Omens (for reference, Adam Young is the Antichrist, and Aziraphale is an angel):
‘Now then, Adam Young,’ said the Metatron, ‘while we can of course appreciate your assistance at this point, we must add that Armageddon should take place now. There may be some temporary inconvenience, but that should hardly stand in the way of the ultimate good.’
‘Ah,’ whispered Crowley to Aziraphale, ‘what he means is, we have to destroy the world in order to save it.’
Christadelphians who are finding events in Ukraine exciting because they may just lead to Armageddon and the return of Christ can certainly sound like they think any impacts of it are a “temporary inconvenience” on the path to some “ultimate good”.
But it’s written!
I suspect, if put to it, many such Christadelphians would say that it wasn’t particularly relevant whether they liked or disliked what was happening in Ukraine. It was just God’s will, and that was that. They don’t have control of the plan, they are merely humble servants trying to interpret the plan. They’ve been given the command to “watch”, and that’s what they’re going to do.
Good Omens handles that, too:
‘It’s not given to us to understand the ineffable Plan,’ said the Metatron, ‘but of course the Great Plan—’
‘But the Great Plan can only be a tiny part of the overall ineffability,’ said Crowley. ‘You can’t be certain that what’s happening right now isn’t exactly right, from an ineffable point of view.’
‘It izz written!’ bellowed Beelzebub.
‘But it might be written differently somewhere else,’ said Crowley. ‘Where you can’t read it.’
‘In bigger letters,’ said Aziraphale.
‘Underlined,’ Crowley added.
‘Twice,’ suggested Aziraphale.
‘Perhaps this isn’t just a test of the world,’ said Crowley. ‘It might be a test of you people, too. Hmm?’
‘God does not play games with His loyal servants,’ said the Metatron, but in a worried tone of voice.
‘Whooo-eee,’ said Crowley. ‘Where have you been? ’
Personally, I don’t think the prophecy-loving Christadelphians have as much of a handle on what’s really going on as they think they do.
We are not pawns in a divine plan
In fiction, the characters can be pawns in a divine plan. The authors have complete control of the world, so they get to write both the characters and the divinities.
But I think Adam Young’s words ring true in our world:
‘I don’t see why it matters what is written. Not when it’s about people. It can always be crossed out.’
I don’t believe we’re pawns in a divine plan, helplessly moved around to reach some outcome that God has planned and which is good because he says it’s good. We have agency in our own story, and that includes the ability to do both good and evil.
Putin is not being led into an invasion of Ukraine by an angel or a demon or to fulfil the plan of a god. Nor, for that matter, are those politicians and soldiers who are speaking against or resisting the invasion.
We make our own choices, both as individuals and collectively. Those choices have consequences radiating out, many of which are either partly or completely out of our individual control (for example, like it or not, I think there’s very little that I can do to change this particular situation). But the actions of many individuals and governments over the coming days and weeks and months and even years will affect the final outcome. And the actions of a supernatural realm won’t.
I’m not going to try and predict what will happen next in Ukraine. But what I can be confident of is that it won’t bring the return of Jesus. It won’t even be a small step toward the eventual return of Jesus. There is no Jesus waiting to return.
Jesus’ future return is a story. It’s a story that has the power to motivate a lot of people. It’s a story that leads some people to go to great length to discover the secret meanings in it. And it’s also a story that can make people fatalistically leave it up to “the will of God” or to view the return of Jesus as the only thing that can fix the world. But that doesn’t make it true.
As Adam Young also says:
‘Anyway, if you stopped tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.
Authors can certainly change their characters’ actions and so make them “fulfil” prophecies. But in the same way we’re able to change our own actions. This is what I think Adam Young is getting at in both quotes: Rather than trying to understand obscure prophecies of the future, we have the ability to change the future by our actions and our choices.
We can make plans and work towards specific goals and achieve them. We can try and leave the world a better place rather than a worse one. And yes, it won’t always work out as we plan - but surely those plans achieved are more useful “true prophecies” than the supposedly divinely inspired words of a 2,000+ year old, human written book?