Are Scientific Predictions Like Biblical Prophecy?

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?”—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. 
—Deuteronomy 18:20–22, ESV

What is a prophet?

I imagine that when asked this question, most people conjure up an image of a mysterious old man wearing a cloak who foretells future events. I also doubt that anyone would think that scientists wearing white lab coats would qualify as prophets, but in many respects they do. 

“How so?” you might ask.

The connection between biblical prophecy and science becomes more apparent when we examine how both prophets and scientists serve as arbiters of truth.

Biblical Prophets 
The biblical role of a prophet is more expansive than just functioning as a seer. It’s true that biblical prophets did foretell future events but, first and foremost, they spoke on behalf of God, admonishing and encouraging his people. In the Old Testament, prophets brought God’s Word to Israel and exhorted the Israelites to conform their lives to his will. 

But how were the people to know if a prophet truly spoke for God? They were instructed to test the prophet’s words and prognostications. If they didn’t match Scripture or come to pass, the prophet was considered a false prophet. But, if the prophet’s proclamations came to be, then he truly was God’s mouthpiece. 

Prophecies were also part of the early church and the idea of testing appears in the New Testament. Both the apostles Paul and John encouraged those in the early church to not just test prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20–22), but also scriptural teachings (Acts 17:11), and the spirits (1 John 4:1). 

In other words, testing serves an indispensable role for people of faith as they seek to discern truth.

Prophecy and Science
So, what’s the connection between biblical prophecy and science? Some scholars argue that the biblical ideal of testing influenced the development of the scientific method, contributing to the birth and flourishing of modern science in “Christianized” Western Europe. Others claim that the origin of the scientific method has a richer and more varied history that arose independent of Christian influences. Perhaps. Regardless, the biblical practice of validating spiritual claims through testing reflects the heart of the scientific enterprise and provides an important bridge between Christian faith practices and science. The biblical call to test spiritual claims aligns with the approach scientists use to evaluate scientific proposals about how the world works.

To understand the world and its processes, scientists formulate hypotheses, theories, and models. (I’m going to treat these as roughly synonymous terms.) Scientific proposals have consequences that lead to predictions about future scientific observations and experimental findings. If the predictions that flow from a scientific hypothesis, theory, or model are satisfied by future scientific insights, then the scientific claims associated with the model are regarded as valid. If not, then the theory is either discarded as false or revised to accommodate the new insights. 

Scientific Predictions
While the biblical prophets’ predictions focused only on future events, scientific predictions can be made retrospectively. The predictions that flow out of scientific hypotheses, theories, and models are logical entailments and consequences of these scientific ideas. This means that some scientific predictions—retrodictions, if you will—can be evaluated immediately, as soon as scientists advance their proposal based on what we already know. Testing doesn’t need to wait for future scientific investigations. 

Another way scientists refer to successful retrodictions is to say that a hypothesis, theory, or model accounts for the information we already know, or it explains the available data. So, when scientists make these types of statements, they are really saying that the theory makes successful retrodictions. 

Scientists as Prophets
Unlike biblical prophets who are labeled false prophets—and put to death—if their predictions aren’t realized, scientists celebrate when the predictions associated with scientific proposals come up short. Scientists are even applauded if they provide the means to overturn their own ideas. Ideally, scientists’ chief objective is to falsify their own models and invite others to do the same. If they can’t falsify the predictions that flow out of their model, it indicates that their theory has scientific merit.

Scientists prize failed predictions. These failures help scientists to abandon flawed ideas or force them to revise and refine those models showing promise. Each time, the scientific community moves a little closer to understanding the truth about the world. Those scientific proposals that withstand the rigors of testing (or those that can be salvaged by revising them) are regarded as approximating reality. Each iteration of scientific testing moves them closer to a truer understanding of the world. 

Science serves as a tool to discover truth, with scientific predictions functioning as a barometer for the credibility of scientific ideas. Likewise, testing the words of a prophet becomes the means available to Bible believers to determine if proclamations made on behalf of God are to be trusted. Again, testing becomes the means to uncover truth. When both spiritual and scientific claims are made, believers and scientists alike have an obligation to test them. It is unacceptable to receive either prophecy or scientific ideas on faith alone. 

The difference between established scientific and spiritual truths is that the former are discovered, and the latter are revealed. This means that scientifically discovered truths are provisional. On the other hand, confirmed spiritual truths are unchanging.

The Creation Accounts as a Type of “Biblical Prophecy”
The Old and New Testaments contain passages that speak about God’s work as Creator. Few theological experts would regard these passages as prophetic. The primary purpose of the creation passages is theological, declaring that God the Redeemer is also God the Creator, the maker of all things in the heavens and on the earth. Everything we see is his handiwork and has been made as he intended. A subset of these passages teaches that God made us, too, as human beings. We were made to bear his image, which grounds our unique relationship with God. 

So, while communicating theological truths, the creation accounts also give glimpses into the origin, history, and features of the universe, earth, life, and humanity. Today, questions of origins also fall into the domain of modern-day science. Scientists actively investigate questions about the origin, history, and features of the cosmos, our solar system, our planet, life, and humanity. Along the way, they propose hypotheses, theories, and models about each of these aspects of nature.

Because of the overlap between the creation accounts and the interests of many in the scientific community, it’s feasible to test the creation accounts in the same way that we would test scientific ideas. That is, are they credible in light of modern science? Yet, a growing number of scholars and laypeople alike question if the creation accounts have any connection to the discoveries of modern science. They often argue that the creation accounts were written in a prescientific age, with the author and the immediate audience possessing no inkling about the modern-day insights we possess, thanks to science. Accordingly, if anything, the creation accounts reflect the erroneous “science” of the ancient Near East (ANE). The Bible’s creation accounts, they assert, were shaped by ANE mythology and share much in common with these myths. If so, they are mythical, devoid of any historical or scientific content. Instead, they merely communicate theological truths. 

This perspective leaves little room for the divine inspiration of the biblical texts. What if the biblical authors who wrote the creation accounts were, indeed, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Wouldn’t it make sense that these passages were written in a way that would have been accessible to the original audience? Wouldn’t the texts describe the world in terms they could apprehend, yet, at the same time, convey historical and scientific concepts and ideas in ways that are true and that anticipate future scientific discoveries? 

If so, then it’s proper to regard the creation accounts as prescient, maybe even prophetic.

These claims about the creation passages may make some uncomfortable. Most people understand biblical prophecy to be centered around foretelling Israel’s future and the coming of the Messiah. Accordingly, some of these prophecies have already been fulfilled, and some have been partially fulfilled. Others have yet to be fulfilled. Because many prophecies have successfully transpired, Christians confidently trust that those unfulfilled prophecies will soon come to pass. 

A special group of prophecies have double fulfillment, meaning that they successfully foretell events close to the time the prophecy was delivered by the prophet and also anticipate events much further in the future. The idea that some prophecies will be fulfilled twice provides the basis to think that the creation accounts have a prophetic (already/not yet) nature to them—foretelling future scientific discoveries while communicating theological truths to the original audience. The creation accounts communicated to their original audience in terms they would understand, while at the same time they communicate to us today in terms that we understand.

Just as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy gives us confidence in Scripture and inspires hope that unfulfilled prophecies will soon transpire, testing the creation accounts for their scientific validity also has the potential to elevate our confidence in Scripture. This is especially so because of the foundational role that the creation accounts serve in the story that unfolds in the Bible.

The prophetic aspects of the creation accounts function as the undergirding for the creation model approach we use at Reasons to Believe. Through this approach, we put our understanding of the creation accounts in harm’s way by seeking to determine if they can withstand the ongoing scrutiny of scientific testing.

Our creation model is a scientific theory for biblical creation. It operates as a bona fide scientific model, replete with predictions about scientific discoveries.

The Creation Model Approach
Our creation model bridges biblical hermeneutics and the scientific method. To build our model, we:

  • collate all creation accounts and passages that describe God’s creative works
  • interpret each of these scriptural passages in their immediate context using sound exegetical techniques
  • check our interpretations against interpretations of other relevant passages, spiraling toward a consistent reading of the collected passages
  • integrate the passages into a comprehensive and coherent description of God’s creative acts
  • recast this description in the form of a scientific model,
  • and from this model develop predictions about what scientists should discover

While the biblical texts constrain our model and define its framework, as is true for any scientific model, considerable freedom exists to adjust and fine-tune our model as scientists and theologians make new discoveries about nature and gain new insights on Scripture. Our creation model is dynamic, like any other scientific model. We also recognize that for some biblical passages, a range of valid interpretations exists. These possibilities mean that there can be variants of our creation model.

Yet, our model does have constraints. Out of those constraints arise core, inviolable predictions. Like biblical prophecy, these predictions are nonnegotiable and must be fulfilled for any reasonable version of our model to be valid. If any of these core predictions fail, then our model is invalid. In this sense, the core predictions of our creation model—predictions that arise out of a robust interpretation of the creation passages found in Scripture—are like the predictions associated with biblical prophecy. It is all or nothing.

To date, none of the core predictions of our creation model have been falsified. In fact, many of these predictions have been satisfied in spectacular fashion, producing a confidence in the scientific integrity of the biblical creation accounts.

Some Key Biblical Predictions Satisfied by Scientific Advance
To illustrate this testing process, I’ve included 12 key predictions of our creation model. These predictions have survived the gauntlet of scientific testing.

The universe has a beginning. Genesis 1:1 and Hebrews 11:3 teach that the creation had a beginning, formed at God’s command. This scriptural claim finds support in big bang cosmology and the discovery that the universe had a beginning about 13.8 billion years ago.

Time has a beginning. According to 1 Corinthians 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Titus 1:2, God’s plan for redemption was put in place before time began. The biblical notion that time has a beginning finds fulfillment in the space-time theorems of general relativity, which indicate that time had a beginning that coincides with the beginning of matter, energy, and space.

The laws of nature are constant. Jeremiah 33:19-26 describes the unwavering regularity of natural processes. This regularity implies that there’s a constancy to the laws of nature, an idea that is a key assumption of modern science. This assumption has been borne out by countless observations and is an integral part of the theory of relativity.

The universe undergoes decay. Romans 8:20 teaches that the creation has been subjected to decay. This aspect of biblical cosmology anticipates the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics, and the idea that the universe continues to inexorably experience an increase in its entropy.

The universe has been designed for life. Romans 1:20 teaches that we should expect to see evidence for God’s fingerprints in nature. We also learn from Psalm 19, for example, that the heavens declare God’s glory. These concepts have been affirmed by the discovery of the cosmological anthropic principle—the idea that the constants and numerical parameters that define the universe must assume exacting values for life to exist. If even one of these numerical values deviates from its current value—in some cases, imperceptibly—life simply couldn’t exist in the universe. The fine-tuning of the constants of physics reveals the design of the universe for a purpose—the advent of life.

The earth has been designed to harbor life. According to Isaiah 45:18, the Creator intended Earth to be filled with life. Astronomers have learned that hundreds of features of Earth, the Moon, Sun, solar system, and the Milky Way Galaxy must be just-right for Earth to be a life support planet. The likelihood of all these just-right features coinciding is so remote that it appears as if Earth is rare, perhaps unique, in its capacity to support life—an idea called the Rare Earth Hypothesis. The just-right conditions needed for life implies that Earth was designed so that it could be filled with life.

Earth began as a water world with continents appearing much later. Genesis 1:2 describes Earth in its primordial state. As part of this description, Earth is depicted as a water world. The Genesis 1 text doesn’t describe the appearance of land until the third creation day. Planetary scientists now recognize that Earth’s entire surface was covered with oceans in its early history and that continents appeared about 1 billion years after Earth formed.

The early conditions of Earth were desolate. Genesis 1:2 also teaches that the earth was formless and empty. In the original Hebrew, this expression implies that early Earth was a desolate wasteland. Planetary scientists have discovered that early Earth was pummeled by impactors that would have rendered the planet a magma ocean—a place of desolation that would be inhospitable to life.

Animal life in the oceans appeared after continents formed. In the Genesis 1 creation account, animal life in the oceans wasn’t created until the fifth day, after the creation of land. Paleontologists have discovered that animal life didn’t appear in the earth’s oceans until around 540 million years ago, after continents had formed.

Humans and animals share biological similarities. Genesis 2:7 and Genesis 2:19, which teach that both humans and animals were made from the dust of the earth, implies that humans and other animals should have similar biological makeup. These passages anticipate the anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarity that anthropologists have discovered for humans and chimpanzees.

Humanity started from an original pair. Genesis 2 teaches that humanity started from two people created by God. While current population estimates suggest that humanity began from a population of several thousand individuals, not two, this prediction of our model hasn’t been falsified. These population numbers are time-average values, meaning that even though the average population for humanity may have been a few thousand people within the time window corresponding to humanity’s first appearance on Earth, there could easily be points of time—say, at the beginning of the time window—when humanity’s population was two and then rapidly increased in number as implied by Genesis 1–11.

Human beings are unique and exceptional. Genesis 1:26–27 teaches that human beings are uniquely made in God’s image. This concept aligns with a growing recognition among anthropologists that humans are exceptional.

This list is by no means complete. There are many more features and predictions of our creation model—and there will be more to come as we continue to develop our model. Yet this sampling should be sufficient to illustrate how the creation accounts in Scripture can be reformulated into a scientific model. The core predictions presented here are logical entailments of our model, flowing naturally from the teachings of Scripture. These predictions have been satisfied, meeting both the criteria of biblical prophecy and science.

The fulfilled predictions of our creation model, like the fulfilled predictions of a biblical prophet, gives us confidence that Scripture is indeed God’s Word to us.