PROPHECY AND FORTUNE-TELLING
In the previous chapter we examined precognition, which is the alleged ability to be able to foresee events psychically before they occur. We shall now turn our attention to other means of knowing the future besides those that have to do with ESP. Our examination of ESP claims of precognition revealed that all such claims are highly suspect or downright bogus. But are there other means of divining the future that are genuine?
As a Christian, I have to admit that there are. Scripture tells us of various people throughout history who have been given the gift of prophecy, and I do believe the Bible. The ability to see into the future against the obstacle of time is a well-attested fact in Scripture, and I do not discount these claims in any fashion. But I do think it important to note some significant differences between biblical accounts of future-telling with many modern-day claims. Let us examine some of these differences.
When we read the books of prophecy in the Old Testament we find a consistent claim running through them all. Summarized succinctly, that claim is “The word of the Lord came” (cf. Isaiah 1:2, Jeremiah 1:2, Ezekiel 1:3, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Obadiah 1, Jonah 1:1, Micah 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, Haggai 1:3, Zechariah 1:1). Biblical prophecy is generally defined as a foretelling of future events by means of divine revelation. That means the prophet knew of future events because God revealed them to him in some way. There is no claim by any of the biblical prophets that they possessed any particular gift of their own. This is made particularly clear in Daniel 2:27-30 where Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar that while he himself is unable to divine the king’s message, “There is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets.” Such claims are repeated over and over by the Old Testament prophets. They laid no claim to having any special “gift” but in all cases said it was God who revealed these things to them. They did not resort to magic or any “secret knowledge” hidden from the common man. In Daniel’s case it was the Chaldeans who claimed such superior abilities for themselves, but they were unable to discern either the king’s dream or its interpretation. The ability (if we want to call it that) came directly from God and only as He ordained. Even God’s prophets could know nothing of the future unless He revealed it to them.
How does this differ from those today who claim the gift of precognition? Those who claim to possess ESP which allows them to see the future believe their special ability comes from within themselves. While some profess to have the talent as a gift from God, they usually do not say that God actually tells them these things beforehand or that God speaks to them in any divine way. The prophets of old did.
But what of those today who do claim the same type of prophecy for themselves as those found in Scripture? Let’s first look at the criteria Scripture lays down for a prophet. Deuteronomy 13:1-4 says, “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.” Deuteronomy 18:21-22 offer a further criterion: “And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken, when a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.”
These are the two main criteria Scripture gives for determining whether a person who claims to be a prophet of God is genuine. The first is that the true prophet will not lead the people to serve other gods. In this case, even if what he says comes true, if he subsequently leads his hearers away from God he is a false prophet. (We might cite the example of Jeane Dixon who claimed to be a modern-day prophet. Some of her predictions — though relatively few — were in fact accurate, and she gained many followers during her lifetime. But she led many of her followers into astrology and occultism, violating the first sign of a true prophet.) The second criterion is that whenever a prophet predicts an event that does not come to pass, then he is a false prophet. This would not simply include the “general” predictions which nearly anyone could foresee (such as “a famous movie star will come out of the closet this year”), but would mean that he should be able to predict something precisely and accurately. And according to this criterion, what should be the prophet’s prediction rate? The latter passage does not say that the prophet should be believed if 50% of what his predictions come true, or if 80% or even 99% of his prophecies are validated. It is a blanket statement. All of his predictions must be accurate — 100%. If his accuracy rate falls below that standard, he is not to be feared or believed. For a modern-day prophet to be determined genuine, he must first never lead anyone away from God and must furthermore be 100% correct in every prophecy he utters. Many “professional psychics” are hailed for their ability to have a 75% accuracy rate (and factored into those are statements like the one above which anyone could make). As Christians, our standard is much higher.
But throughout history there have been many other ways people have tried to divine the future without laying claim either to special psychic powers or revelations from God. These methods rely on occult or magical techniques, and we will now turn our attention to some of those and will examine them briefly.
Astrology is probably the most common fortune-telling technique employed by many people today. Astrologists determine one’s horoscope based on the alignment of the planets at one’s birth and on any given day, and these are published in nearly every newspaper in the United States on a daily basis. Many thousands if not millions of people take astrology seriously and read their horoscopes faith-fully each day. In 1981 (the last year for which I have data) 170 daily newspapers in the U.S. ran horoscopes, and there were about 25,000 astrologers working full-time throughout the world. Those numbers are probably even higher today. A study as late as 1973 found that about 18% of all college juniors and seniors believed in astrology.
In a nutshell, astrology is a system of beliefs that teaches that the position of the stars and planets determines a person’s life and destiny. Some astrologers think the influence is only such as will affect the general direction of a person’s life or will have only a small bearing on one’s personality. Others believe the influence is overwhelming and that a person is foreordained by the position of the stars and planets to fulfill certain things in life. The majority of believers in astrology fall somewhere between the two, believing that the stars and planets have enough effect that one’s basic personality is predetermined and that a broad course is outlined for one’s life, but that one is not forced to follow that outline. However, they believe that if one knows what that plan is for his life (which can be discovered by having a horoscope drawn up), he will be better off and more in control of his own destiny.
Sadly, there are even many Christians who believe in astrology, despite the fact that it is based in a pagan belief system (it originated in ancient Babylonia) and that its claims have been proved unreliable and even false in study after study. (I recommend reading Objections to Astrology by Bart J. Bok for a fuller exposé.) Astrology’s biggest attraction (other than its claim to allow one to see into the future) lies in the fact that upon first examination it appears to be scientific rather than a magical art. The method is based loosely on astronomy and math-ematics and is quite detailed and complex to anyone unfamiliar with it. However, there is absolutely no scientific basis to astrology whatever, and it has been carefully observed for thousands of years. It was originally based on a false notion of astronomy (that the earth is the center of the universe), but in spite of the fact that we now know that not to be true, nearly all astrologers’ mathematical formulae are still based on this erroneous assumption.
Astrology was practiced even in biblical times, so what does Scripture have to say of it? One passage alone will suffice for our answer: “Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prog-nosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee. Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame” (Isaiah 47:13-14).
(N.B. Rather than making detailed refutations of each of the following fortunetelling techniques, we shall simply mention briefly what each is or claims to be. They all have been studied and investigated carefully and, as with astrology, have been found to be dubious and unsupportable by scientific analysis.)
Numerology is a rather wide “science” that claims the ability not only to foresee the future but also the ability to discover one’s basic personality and destiny. It is roughly a form of astrology which uses the influence of numbers in a person’s life rather than the positions of the planets and stars. The significant life numbers are a person’s birthdate and name. Just as astrology claims that certain planetary signs have certain personality types associated with them, numerology says that certain numbers represent personality types and that given number pairs are compatible while others are not. While people with incompatible Zodiacal signs should not marry, numerology likewise says that two people with incompatible life numbers also should not.
Graphology is also sometimes called “handwriting analysis.” There is actually a legitimate form of graphology that is employed in criminal investigation, but it has nothing to do with fortune-telling or personality analysis. The legitimate branch of graphology simply analyzes writing characteristics in order to determine whether the same hand wrote two or more signatures or documents. It is used, for example, to determine whether certain documents are forgeries or to determine whether a threatening note is written by a particular suspect. Nothing more is read into the handwriting beyond the characteristics of writing style.
The “dark side” of graphology claims to be able to determine a person’s basic personality by the way he writes, and some graphologists claim also to be able to tell one’s future in the same manner. In truth, the only thing handwriting reveals is writing habits and nothing more. No correlation between writing habits and personality or fortune-telling has been convincingly established.
Cartomancy is fortune-telling with cards, most often with Tarot cards but sometimes also with regular playing cards. The theory is that if an individual shuffles the cards some “mystic power” will arrange the cards in a specific order to reveal one’s life and future. Certain cards are given specific meanings, such as the seven of hearts which is supposed to mean love, the ten of hearts a wish fulfilled, the ten of spades good luck, and so on. Again, there is no reliable study to give credence to these beliefs.
Most of us have heard of palm-reading. Allegedly the lines in the palm of the hand are supposed to have special meanings and reveal one’s personality and entire life. A person trained or gifted in reading these lines supposedly can tell much about someone’s future by studying them. (There is an allied technique called phrenology which makes similar claims regarding the shape of one’s head.) There is no scientific basis for these theories.
More commonly known as divining with rod and pendulum, rhabdomancy is a technique used for a wide assortment of things from telling the future to locating a lost object. Some use it also to discover the cause of illnesses. Using rods (or sticks) and some kind of pendulum, practitioners believe the answers to their questions are given by the way he pendulum swings or the way the rods move or point as they are held. Some people believe not everyone is capable of performing rhabdomancy, even if they know how. They believe in something called radiaesthesis, or the belief that the rod or other objects emit certain vibrations which only a person attuned to them can perceive.
“Water witching” is sometimes grouped with this, though there seems to be some evidence that this practice is legitimate. Some people show a remarkable degree of success locating underground water with this method, though it is probably going to be shown to have a scientific explanation at some point (likely having to do with a chemical or electromagnetic reaction) rather than relying on any kind of extrasensory or occult component. So far, however, no concrete scientific explanation has been established.
Scrying or “mirror mantic” includes all types of fortune-telling using mirrors, crystal balls, or other reflective surfaces (including water). This is a very old technique in which it is believed that one is able, usually through magical means, to see into the future by gazing into a reflective surface or into the crystal ball. Supposedly visions of what is to come in the future form on the surface or within the orb. Scrying also is used by some for remote viewing. As with most of the other techniques described here, there is no evidence that it actually works, either for remote viewing or for fortune-telling.
Psychometry holds that people with certain powers can learn about another person’s personality and sometimes even predict his future by handling objects associated with that person.
Glass moving is a technique that uses a smooth board and a glass pointer, most often a Ouija board. This method calls for the participant(s) to ask questions and, while lightly touching the glass pointer, allow the pointer move to various numbers or letters on the board which spell out the answers. Those who believe this method works (and there is no evidence to indicate that it does) think either that spirits are causing the pointer to move or that some other intelligent force as yet not unknown and mysterious provides the results.
Tasseography is the formal name for the practice of reading tea leaves or coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup from which someone has drunk. Supposedly the same mysterious force that causes cards to fall into a prescribed order in cartomancy also causes the leaves or grounds to arrange themselves into a given pattern as the subject swishes them about in the cup. A trained tasseographer allegedly can interpret the configuration to tell much about a person and his future. Again, there is no objective evidence for this.
What are we to make of all these claims of the modern-day fortune-tellers? Certainly we believe the prophets of old could know the future — but only when God revealed it to them. It is inappropriate to compare these modern methods of fortune-telling with the prophetic utterances of biblical prophets.
The fact is there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that today’s fortune-tellers (referred to as “diviners” in the King James Bible) have any more ability to see into the future than anyone else. Just as we saw with the psychic claims discussed in the last chapter, the claims of modern-day fortune-tellers are totally unfounded and undocumented. There is no evidence to support a belief in their purported talents.
Fortune-telling is an ancient art. Since the beginning of civilization there have been people who claimed to be able to see into the future. It was practiced in both Old Testament and New Testament times, and Scripture has a good deal to say on the subject (cf. Leviticus 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; I Chronicles 10:13; Jeremiah 29:8-9). From these passages alone (and there are many others) we may conclude with Kurt Koch in Between Christ and Satan that “at no period in the history of the children of Israel were fortune-tellers recognized. From the earliest history to the time of Christ and on into the time of the Apostles, fortune-telling in all its forms was rejected.”
Compare also what is said about prophecy in Genesis 41:14-15 and 25, and Daniel 2:28-29a. Here the point is twofold: (a) no “wise man” can know the unknown by himself; and (b) God alone reveals the future and only to whom and in the manner He chooses to do so.
Why does God want His people to stay away from fortune-telling? Why is He displeased when we try to divine the future? After all, if we really could discover what the future holds, wouldn’t that better help us to prepare for it?
I believe the primary reason God does not want us involving ourselves in these things is because He doesn’t want us trusting in magic — that is, trusting in something that is false. He wants us to place our complete and total trust in Him (cf. Psalms 16:1-2; 37:3; 56:4; 31:14-15a). Jesus told us not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:34). We are not to concern ourselves with things that are hidden but are to trust in God and His Son. Fortune-telling leads us away from God and places our trust in various magical formulae and occult techniques.
But if we accept that fortune-telling isn’t real anyway, is there still any harm in dabbling with it, making it into a kind of game? Wasn’t it wrong in biblical times only because the people believed it was true? If we acknowledge that it doesn’t really work, is there any harm involved in making it into a form of entertainment?
I believe engaging in fortune-telling even as a means of entertainment can still be harmful. In the first place, there is the power of suggestion to consider. Even though one may deny the reality of fortune-telling, when one has the experience of a few oddmatches even the skeptic can be subconsciously influenced by certain readings. For example, even if one completely disbelieves in fortune-telling, would it not be just a little disturbing for them to hear someone predict they were going to die very soon in a tragic accident? And if it would make even the disbeliever a bit shaky, consider what effect it might have on someone who is uncertain or is a firm believer.
There is a term you might look up in a dictionary: thanatomania. This word means, literally, scared to death. Voodoo societies sometimes will pronounce death upon an individual, and without anyone lifting a hand the cursed person often does die shortly thereafter. Since they believe they are going to die, their mind literally wills them to die. In other instances their subconscious works out a destructive pattern that eventually leads to death.
But apart from any physical dangers involved in this “harmless fun,” we yet have some very strict biblical prohibitions against participating in any of these activities. Arguing against that is similar to the arguments of those who say, “But sex is just harmless fun as long as we take the necessary precautions against pregnancy and disease.” Pre- and extra-marital sex are clearly prohibited in Scripture, and Scripture just as clearly condemns dabbling in the occult, innocent as it may appear to be on the surface. As Christians we also do not believe in pagan gods and goddesses, but that does not mean it would be permissible for us to “play at” pagan worship. Perhaps there would be no real, observable harm in such activity. But these things nonetheless call us away from God, asking us to trust to some degree in something other than our Lord Christ. That alone should suffice to lead us forever to leave such practices behind us.
So if it is harmful to engage in these things and to try to know the future, why did God sometimes reveal the future through His prophets? First of all, it was never done simply to satisfy human curiosity. God’s reasons for revealing the future are much deeper than that. I can think of three reasons why God has chosen on occasion to reveal the future:
1. To warn people who have gone astray so that they can avoid disaster by turning back to Him.
2. To show that the people should listen to other things the prophet had to say. For instance, if the prophet could accurately predict the future, then that would give evidence that the prophet really had received the word of God and that people should listen to and follow his words. The prophecy confirms the words of the prophet.
3. To give hope to a despairing generation. When the early church, for example, looked as though it would be utterly destroyed by severe Roman persecutions, St. John was shown the great victory of the Church over all the powers of darkness. Such knowledge instilled (and continues to instill to this day) great hope and confidence in the Church’s eventual triumph over evil.
In summary, all attempts to gain inside knowledge about the future through fortune-telling techniques or occult means are strictly prohibited by Scripture. We are called to put our trust in God. Christ Himself said that we are not to concern ourselves with the future but to live for today. God has revealed to His chosen people of this age only one future event: the eventual victory of the Church over the powers of darkness. In that prediction (which is assured to be 100% accurate) we take great hope, even when things appear hopeless to us here on earth. Beyond that, we need not concern ourselves with knowing what is to come.
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