“In his classic study When Prophecy Fails (1956), Leon Festinger argued that people who are deeply committed to a belief and its related courses of action won’t lose this belief when events falsify its assertions, as when a prophesied event fails to occur. On the contrary, they will experience a deepened conviction, and start to proselytize in order to receive further confirmation of their belief. The more people embrace their belief, the truer this belief must be– or so their thinking goes. However, Festinger adds, in most cases there comes a moment when the disconfirming evidence has mounted to a degree that obstinate doubt creeps in. That doubt, as it grows, eventually causes the belief to be rejected– unless, that is, the believers succeed in a solid institutionalization, as has been the case with Christianity. The dissolution of apocalyptic movements is more likely when a precise date for the end of the world has been given (and has passed). Sooner or later, after this date has expired without any apocalyptic disaster having occurred, such a movement generally collapses (though one must not overlook the capacity of human beings to deny disconfirming evidence).”
It seems evident that Festinger (I have not read his book) sees primitive Christianity as teaching an immediate form of apocalypticism, but eventually was able to deal with the fact that Christ did not quickly return. As one who holds to Scriptural authority, I don’t see it quite that way. To me, the statements and narratives of the Apostles (Paul, Luke, and John) that questioned a quick return are as authoritative as statements that COULD be interpreted as a quick return of Christ. As such, both must be seen with each other rather than one being a cautious reappraisal and reinterpretation.
However, it did get me thinking. There has been a lot of noise from the “prophets” and date-setters in the last few years. Consider the quote above
1. Harold Camping came up with a date for Christ’s return. He did not come. Camping came up with a second, and then a third. Christ did not come. It would seem pretty reasonable for people to discount Camping the first time. After all, he was using a numerological method for coming up with the date that is more akin to the occult than sound Biblical hermeneutics. Certainly after the first date was proven false, those that grabbed hold of the date should have rejected Camping and his methodology. But many many did not… it wasn’t until after the 2nd failure that people seemed more willing to question Camping. However, I am not convinced that there is a thoughtful consideration of his methods, nor a thoughtful review of what the Bible teaches about date setting. Of course, some groups, like the Jehovah’s Witness religion, has come up with numerous dates, yet has managed to survive and sometimes prosper by redefining their predictions after the fact. The problem we see with these examples is that even when a prophecy is proven false, often the prophet is not rejected… or the underlying assumptions from which the predictions are drawn.
2. There is a tendency to reverse engineer prophecy and “spiritual battles.” Peter Wagner’s group “New Apostoloic Reformation” has done some curious activities in this area. First coming up with a curious Christianized theological paganism (territorial demons and the stuff you read in Frank Perretti’s fictions), they go to to places “spiritually mapped” as supposed centers of some sort of demon or power or other. Then they pray and pray and pray, built on the assumption that doing such will bring down or weaken the evil power emanating from that location. The general lack of Biblical support for this method of Christian ministry (as well as the underlying theology) is troublesome. One might assume their methods could at least be tested to see if it is effective. The problem is that it is hard to imagine what empirical facts could attack the underlying beliefs of the group. Reading some of their “successes” seems to be little more than grabbing newspapers for the next few months and circling all of the stuff they like and ignoring the stuff they don’t like. Using the circled items as proof of their method is hardly impressive to an outsider of the group (shouldn’t the uncircled items be considered as evidence against their beliefs and methods?). However, to a strong believer, the circled items are proof of their activity, while the non-circled show that they must continue what they are doing but with even more vigor.
3. Here in the Philippines, national prophecies have been popular. When we arrived in the 2004, people were telling about an American “prophet” who talked about how the Philippines was going to be a great and powerful light of God in the world (wish I could remember the exact quote). It was curious some of the people who were quoting this person, since many of these people would not share much of anything of the theological beliefs of this person. Why believe the prophecy then? Because they wanted it to be true. Cindy Jacobs has made a prophecy for Eddie Villanueva that he will be president of the Philippines. She was clever enough to add a caveat in case it doesn’t come true (his poll results have been absolutely dismal the first two times he ran). A look at that prophecy with commentary is at Tinubos. In this case, the failure of prophecy is covered by the caveat (if he wasn’t elected, it is the hearers fault, not the “prophet”), and if not elected this time… maybe in 6 years, 12 years, … . Looking at a website of a church here in the Philippines, they note lots of prophecies like Prophet Robert Misst who prophesied that the Philippines is destined to be a “Prince Nation to Asia in the millennium.” Dr. Chuck Pierce prophesied that the “Philippines is a dragon slayer of seven headed dragon”. In these cases the prophecies tickle the ears of the hearer without actually saying anything particularly meaningful.
So we see that in some cases,
- prophecies that fail may eventually discredit the individual but fail to undermine the underlying belief structure. Or
- caveats are added to protect the “prophet” while potentially blaming the hearer. Or
- selective analysis of events can be reverse engineered into fulfillment of vague prophecies. Or
- prophecies can be so desirable to the hearer that they will be accepted regardless of their veracity.
Why does this matter to me? First, bad theology tends to lead to bad results, so I am not comfortable with methods that are used that come from bad theology, and am even more concerned when the bad results don’t lead to reevaluation of the theology and methods. Second, as Festinger noted above (as quoted by Berger and Zijderveld), eventually a point may be reached where obstinate doubt pops up and adherents toggle from Belief to Disbelief. Third, related to the second point, since often these questionable beliefs are described as being Christian and inseparable from Christianity, toggling from belief to disbelief may not just involve a specific theology or method, but make them doubt the Christian faith as a whole.
I believe we should be better at teaching our confidence in Christ, but with
healthy doubt of his follower