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An Unfalsifiable Prediction does not a Prophet Make: Pat Robertson, the Signs of the Times, and the

Whenever I begin to think we might have finally learned our lesson with the whole bet-I-can-predict-the-end-of-the-world bit, someone comes along and proves me wrong. After the triply-failed prediction of Harold Camping, you would think people might just get out of the prediction business. Guess not. 

Earlier this week, Pat Robertson made the statement that the recent Washington DC earthquake “means that we’re closer to the coming of the Lord.” He went on to say:

“It seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it… Is that sign from the Lord? … You judge. It seems to me symbolic.”

Three things: First, Robertson’s statement that we are closer to the coming of the Lord is true regardless of whether or not there was an earthquake in DC. Every day that passes puts us one day closer to the coming of the Lord, whether that day is one week from now, one year, or ten thousand years. The earthquake in DC has no precise link to the timing of Jesus’ coming again. If the quake had not happened, it would have had no effect on the date of his return. Sometimes, on people’s birthdays, I like to say: “Well, you’re older than you’ve ever been.” I get a kick out of it, because, while it seems like an appropriate thing to say, the fact that it’s their birthday doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that they are older than they’ve ever been. That’s true all the time. We’re closer to the second coming of Jesus is true all the time also, earthquake or not. I will say that Robertson has learned a lesson that Harold Camping apparently never did. That is, vague and unverifiable predictions can’t be used against you by the media when they don’t come true. Nevertheless, an unfalsifiable prediction does not a prophet make.

Second, it seems to me that we easily see symbols where we want to see them. Are there cracks in the pavement outside the capitol building? Does that mean that the nation’s power is crumbling before our eyes? You be the judge!  The crack in the monument may perhaps function as a somber parable reminding us that we are not invincible, but it seems a far stretch to me that it is a sign of our coming doom and the Lord’s return. Are there not many other much more clear signs warning us to change our ways? An unsustainable economy that values the radical consumption of goods, perhaps?

Third, these sorts of predictions often come from very, very, very unhelpful readings of texts like Matthew 24. I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into a full-blown discussion of this text right now; I will say that Matthew 24 is apocalyptic literature, and apocalyptic literature should never be read as if it were the newspaper. And if Matthew 24 is all about something that is coming in our future, then why did Jesus tell his original hearers not to waste time going back for their jackets (Matt 24:18)?

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