There are predictions made in the Bible. Have all the predictions of the past been fulfilled? If not, what does the failure of some of them to be fulfilled say about the credibility of the Bible?
The biblical prophet Isaiah emphatically states that one of the criteria for distinguishing the true God from idols is God’s foreknowledge, as evidenced by the many prophecies revealed to His servants that have been fulfilled (see Isaiah, chapters 41-48). In the New Testament, Jesus Himself formulates a similar criterion for evaluating His divine nature and mission: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:19).
The stakes are very high for God. The intent of biblical prophecy is directly related to His credibility. So what do the prophecies in the Bible that were never fulfilled tell us about God?
Adherents of naturalism see unfulfilled prophecies as unsurprising evidence that there are no real prophecies and that the future cannot be prophesied. Proponents of open theism argue that God cannot know what each of us will do in the future and, therefore, God must constantly adapt to the unfolding of history—in this scenario, prophecies are probabilistic, statistical predictions that God made in a particular context and under particular conditions.
If the context and conditions subsequently change, then the probabilities also change, and the prophecy is no longer relevant (in the view of open theism, God is not wrong because He is not categorically stating that something will happen, only that it is likely to happen).
At the other end of the spectrum is the view, characteristic of dispensationalism, that every biblical prophecy that comes from God must be fulfilled, and therefore some theologians and Christian believers expect that absolutely every biblical prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled (including those specifically addressed to the ancient people of Israel) will be fulfilled at some point in the future.
In His analysis of the history of God’s people, however, Jesus takes a position which implicitly confirms that the fulfilment of the late Old Testament prophecies which heralded a bright future for the people of Israel and their cities is no longer to be expected.
Jesus goes so far as to say, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43). The reason why the old prophecies are no longer relevant can be deduced from Jesus’ words elsewhere: “You did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you” (see Luke 19:43-44). Human beings play a role in the fulfilment of God’s prophecies. To better understand this idea, it is worth looking at the biblical book of Jonah.
It is surprising to the logical mind that in no passage of the Bible does any author waver from the belief that God is not only the best statistician, but is also omniscient and knows the outcome from the beginning. This lack of hesitation on the part of the biblical writers shows that the problem of unfulfilled prophecy was not an unanswerable one for them.
God prophesied the destruction of the city of Nineveh through Jonah (see Jonah 3:4-5), but in accordance with God’s revelation of His way of working (see Jeremiah 18:7-10), the fate of the city was still in the hands of its inhabitants. If they repented, the city would be spared—which it was. Despite the protests of Jonah, who saw his prophecy destroyed, God’s plan achieved its purpose.
The Nineveh prophecy illustrates a type of biblical prophecy—conditional prophecy—in which the course of events depends on human choice. The case of Nineveh shows that the purpose of the prophecy was to correct the behaviour of those concerned and save them.
Unfortunately, those targeted by biblical prophecy have often failed to respond as the people of Nineveh did. This explains, for example, why the promise to enter Canaan was fulfilled for only two of the Israelites who came out of Egypt (see Exodus 6:6-8). The disobedience of the others nullified the fulfilment of the prophecy for them. In many other cases, the disobedience of the people nullified God’s prophecies altogether (such as the Old Testament prophecies of a glorious Jerusalem that would become the capital of the whole earth).
By studying the context, we can discover that a prophecy is conditional, even if a condition is not explicitly stated in the text. Many of the fulfilled and unfulfilled prophecies of the Bible are conditional. However, not all of them are. Prophecies that reveal the purpose of God’s grace for mankind and, in the grand scheme of things, point to the finality of history are not conditional prophecies.
“I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’” (Isaiah 46:10).
Therefore, unfulfilled prophecies do not speak of deception or self-delusion, nor of a God who cannot see the future, but of a God who is concerned for the salvation of mankind and who uses every means to warn, to awaken and to save. We can rely on God, on His omniscience, on His counsel and His plans for us. God is not wrong and does not deceive us. From one end of Scripture to the other, the biblical writers have expressed this conviction unequivocally.