If I predict an event and it happens, there are several possible explanations. The first explanation is pure chance, it will either happen or it won’t, I have a 50/ 50 chance of getting it right. It could also be because I caused it to happen. “The garage shall be clean today!” and then I cleaned it. Another possibility is that I just follow a logical course. The sun has risen every day of my life so I can safely predict that it will rise tomorrow. Perhaps the most commonly used explanation is that I’ve tapped into a supernatural, universal information source; God, spirits, demons or what have you.
There have been many people, throughout human history, who have claimed the ability to predict future events, with varying degrees of accuracy. Most have predicted disasters and other bad stuff but even when they’ve gotten it right, what good does it do?
Nostradamus is one of the most famous. He wrote cryptic little four line poems, (quatrains) which, he claimed, predicted future disasters. Despite their publication and wide distribution, he refuted the idea that he was a prophet, and though much has been made of his writings, they are too vague to be concretely proven. Many have seen connections between his ambiguous descriptions and events that have already occurred, but what good is a prophecy that has passed?
From a secular perspective, knowledge of future events can help us prepare and make decisions that will ensure the best possible outcome, that’s why we have meteorologists. They predict tornadoes, hurricanes, sunny days and severe storms but they’re not prophets, are they? They study trends and patterns and make educated guesses based on past events. Financial planners and consultants do pretty much the same thing, studying markets and consumer behavior and giving advice based on their best guesses. Neither profession has a perfect track record, but we still listen to them because they are our best hope for having the information we need when the bad (and good) happens.
Smart humans generally try to avoid bad stuff so it’s quite helpful if you can see it coming. Psychics, soothsayers and fortunetellers have been more than willing to provide this information, for a fee. Charlatans and fakirs have shown up to take advantage of the gullible. People seek their advice, mostly about wealth, relationships and health in the hope of making the right decisions. They take the advice with the added benefit of having someone else to blame if things don’t work out. I can’t discount the possibility that some people might have a spiritual gift, but the odds are hardly better than just guessing. And how can you know what source they’ve tapped into for their info?
As we live our lives, our experience teaches us that certain behaviors produce specific outcomes. An understanding of that concept helps to protect us from injury; physical and emotional. Some behaviors have a range of possible consequences and not all of them are guaranteed to happen but as we accumulate experience, we begin to recognize patterns. When we do, we can adjust behavior to avoid undesirable outcomes and promote auspicious ones. It’s sort of an if/ then prophecy.
In a religious context, prophecy has a different purpose with several possible benefits. For the purposes of this essay, I will assume that religious prophets are attempting to speak for God, so that we may consider God’s purposes in telling us what will happen, probably will happen or might happen.
After Jonah’s experiences with the disappointed fish, he prophesied the destruction of Nineveh. (Jonah 3:4) When the Ninevites heard the prophecy, they changed their behavior and God changed his mind. (Jonah 3: 10) Which really ticked off Jonah. (Jonah 4:1) So was Jonah a false prophet? Was his prophecy false? Or does this just give us some insight into the purpose of prophecy? There are plenty of predictions of destruction that were carried out in scripture but, in this case, the prophecy seemed to be more of a heads-up for Nineveh.
Many prophets also predicted the birth and life of Jesus Christ. Since his contributions are central to the directives of Christianity, prophecies about him make a little more sense. Beyond offering hope for believers, prophecies about Christ taught the principles he would teach, long before he physically arrived on the planet.
Most of the prophecies of the modern dispensation were given early in the organization process of the Church. They are very similar to prophecies found in other scripture, predicting the return of Christ and the attending events. This type of prophecy seems to be designed to encourage believers to remain faithful.
The Word of Wisdom is a prophecy of sorts, predicting certain health benefits and even the future behavior of “conspiring men” and their “evil designs”. However, it’s another if/ then prophecy, predicting the consequences of certain behavior, kind of like a Patriarchal blessing.
The most recent prophecy in my memory came from President Hinckley in an October 2005 conference address. His talk is titled “If Ye Are Prepared, Ye Shall Not Fear.” In his talk, he recalls several disasters including the Asian Tsunami and hurricane Katrina, which had happened two months prior. He recounted the response from the Church and local members and reassured us that the Church is temporally prepared. As he closed his remarks he said:
“Let us never lose sight of the dream of Pharaoh concerning the fat cattle and the lean, the full ears of corn and the blasted ears; the meaning of which was interpreted by Joseph to indicate years of plenty and years of scarcity.”
His statement was tempered with the comment:
“Now what I have said should not occasion a run on the grocery store or anything of that kind. I am saying nothing that has not been said for a very long time.”
But his meaning was clear and we observed what followed in the succeeding years. This sort of prophecy reveals a compassionate God who is concerned with our temporal well being as well as our spiritual progress.
The term Prophet in modern Mormonism has acquired a different meaning than “one who predicts the future”. It is more of a convenient title for the leader of the Church and though our leaders don’t have much occasion to outline future events beyond what’s already recorded, President Hinckley demonstrated that they can, and in a way that is neither alarmist nor hysterical. For people who choose to pay attention, prophecies can serve to: Give us opportunities to change our behavior, give us a heads-up to prepare for trouble, give us hope that things are going according to plan and provide evidence of a compassionate God, should we choose to accept it.