For over ten years now I’ve been meaning to start an article series called, ‘Bible Prophecy for Atheists’ with the tagline, ‘Helping atheists interpret bible prophecy correctly so they can attempt to refute it intelligently.’ These days however I see the need rather to write an article with the same title, not for Atheists but for Christians.
The Christian world seems even more divided on Bible Prophecy than it is on its regular doctrines; and that’s pretty divided. There are Preterists who think prophecy was fulfilled in the past, Futurists who place everything in the future and Historicists who believe prophecy was fulfilled throughout history. There are several views regarding the millennium and the tribulation. There are differing opinions regarding Israel and its role. The entire doctrinal framework of a denomination can collapse if these views are tampered with. For Apologetics, where the aim is to present a united front against unbelievers, prophecy seems more trouble than it’s worth. But I would suggest that ignoring it is to our own detriment.
The Need for Evidence
In many world religions, a request for evidence is perceived as a form of blasphemy. How dare one question the ancient traditions or the holy writings? The praiseworthy devotee is the one who accepts the claims of the religion without question.
In the Bible however, when Moses returned to his brethren in Egypt, he showed them a series of signs to convince them that God had sent him. A little later, even greater signs were presented to Pharaoh to convince him to let them go. In the New Testament, many miracles and healings were performed confirming the work of Jesus and the apostles.
Today however we live in the age of science and reason, in an age where skepticism prevails and evidence is demanded for every claim. And yet, at this most demanding time, it seems that as Christians, we have been left with far less evidence than those living in biblical times had.
The Typical Evidence
Sure, we have the completed Bible, with its internal consistency, except when it seems to disagree, as attested to by the myriad of denominations (I’m saying this from the point of view of the skeptic.) We have the historical support for scripture, contested at every turn by many historians and archeologists. We have the superior Biblical worldview, which just doesn’t resonate with certain people. And of course, most importantly, we have our own personal experience with God’s providence and His transforming power. But we can’t always expect the skeptics to seek and cry out to a God they don’t yet believe in, so as to also gain a similar experience. All in all, it just doesn’t seem today that what we have to offer carries the same evidential value as some of the signs and miracles did in the past.
The Resurrection of Jesus
I’m pretty sure somewhere over the centuries, Christians began to feel hard-pressed to produce some independent line of evidence that can attest to the truth of Christianity. And, for some reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that the resurrection of Jesus had to be it. In any given high-profile debate between Christians and atheists, the typical argument lineup on the Christian side is, Cosmological, Fine Tuning, Moral and the Resurrection.
But while the resurrection was definitely used in the New Testament as evidence for the gospel, it just doesn’t seem like it was meant to be used that way by our generation. First, because if God really did intend for us to use it as evidence, He likely would have done much more to give it evidential value. For example, He would have made sure the resurrected Jesus was seen by more than just His disciples.
Second, and probably the reason why more evidence wasn’t provided, is that even if the event had happened in a way that made it far stronger evidence, it still would not have been sufficient by today’s standards.
The Best Explanation
Because as Christians we already have good reason to believe the biblical narrative, the success of the early church is best explained by an actual resurrection. But to an outside observer, a supernatural occurrence is never the best explanation. We would be equally skeptical if someone from another religion made a similar claim.
To the modern mind, there are hundreds of alternative scenarios that should be considered first before resorting to supernatural explanations. Why? Because, from experience, natural explanation are far more likely than supernatural ones in any given situation. How much more so when dealing with an event from millennia ago regarding which we already have very limited data?
My proposition is that the element in the Bible that was intended by God to be used as independent evidence in the modern era is not the resurrection but Prophecy.
Is This Biblical?
Throughout His ministry, Jesus attempted time and again to prepare His disciples for the tragedy they were to face. Just hours before the crucifixion He tells them:
“And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe.” John 14:29
In Isaiah, God issued a challenge to the gods of other nations:
“Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring them forth, and shew us what shall happen: let them shew the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare us things for to come. Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods..” Isaiah 41:21-23
In Genesis, Abraham was told,
“Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again.” Genesis 15:13, 16
As Joseph was on his death bed, he told his family,
“I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” Genesis 50:24-25
Thus, for centuries, Joseph’s coffin remained as a witness to the prophecy given to Abraham. When Moses finally delivered the people, we are told,
“Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.” Exodus 12:40-41
“And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.” Exodus 13:19
In the land of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar received the dream that outlined the rise and fall of world empires.
After His resurrection, Jesus met a couple of disheartened disciples as they were walking away from Jerusalem. He wanted to relieve their sorrow, to let them now that He was alive; a relatively easy task really, since this would quickly be accomplished if He just showed Himself. But instead,
“..beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:27
Finally, speaking of the time when Moses and Elijah were glorified on the mountain alongside Jesus, and in contrast to that powerful experience, Peter tells us,
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:” 2 Peter 1:19
This is only a very brief list of the prominent role that prophecy has always held in the experience of God’s people. But it seems that prophecy is especially pertinent for us today. First, because we now have thousands of years over which to check the accuracy of God’s predictions, and, second, because we now have access to historical/archeological data that previous generations did not have access to.
“But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Daniel 12:4
But Is It Logical?
Let’s pretend for a second that we were skeptics or atheists. What kind of evidence should an ancient book like the Bible provide, for us to take it seriously? If you think about it, this isn’t an easy question. Just because the book claims to be from God doesn’t mean we have to believe it. Things like internal consistency or historical accuracy are not that impressive; it just means the authors were careful. Claims of miracles or divine intervention are not things we can verify today. And, the fact that it has changed people’s lives is no different than what adherents of other religions have testified to. But what could a book written thousands of years ago provide in the way of credentials?
What if this book predicted major world events thousands of years in advance? I have talked to many atheists and I have yet to meet one who would not consider genuine prophecy a legitimate line of evidence, if such a thing existed. Accurate prophecy would mean that there is someone out there who not only has great insight into the direction of human affairs but who also has the ability to control human affairs. Moreover, it would mean that such an entity would supersede other supernatural entities, if such existed. Since, whoever is the most powerful god would have the final say regarding which way the future turns out. The ability to accurately tell the future is universally recognized as a sign of divinity. The tricky part however is finding something that would qualify as legitimate prophecy.
Preterists and Futurists
If prophecy really is this powerful an evidence and, if the Bible does contain genuine prophecy, why is it that we have seen so little of it in apologetics?
The Christian church has held on to some powerful theological traditions that disqualify prophecy from having any real apologetic value. Futurism, for example, has placed the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy (Daniel & Revelation) into the post-rapture future. What this means however, is that no prophecy has been fulfilled yet, leaving us with nothing to point the atheist to.
Preterism, on the other hand, by placing the fulfillment of most prophecies in the past, has also robbed prophecy of its evidential value. First, because it would be very difficult to prove that the prophecies were not actually written after the fact, and second, because people with good insight into human affairs have always had the ability to predict political movements into the near future. Essentially, bible prophecy would be playing a role that doesn’t require supernatural insight.
The only way prophecy can provide evidence for the Bible’s divine inspiration is if we can show that the prophecies have already been fulfilled, but that they were fulfilled throughout history: far enough from the time the Bible was written to qualify as genuine predictions. Thus, the only prophetic school of thought that can be used effectively in apologetics is Historicism; the approach of the early Protestant reformers.
Another reason prophecy has not been used much in apologetics is because it has been controversial. The historicist approach leads to conclusions that many Christians are not comfortable with. This has caused a type of selective pressure moving Protestants towards other schools of thought.
I would argue however, that this has been to our detriment because prophecy addresses issues that must be addressed if Christianity is to be adequately defended. Moreover, this move has left us without an important line of evidence that we very much need. Its absence has caused a type of cognitive dissonance in apologetics where we keep trying to convince ourselves that arguments like the resurrection have way more evidential value than any reasonable person would rightly assign to them.
All in all, the historicist approach is the one that is most naturally derived from the Scriptural text. It is the one that addresses important questions that must be addressed in apologetics. And, it is the only one that carries evidential value, something we definitely do need.
What if a sincere, well informed, open-minded skeptic decided to take some time to evaluate the Christian religion: what are some of the concerns they might have?
Well, there’s the, ‘why does God allow suffering’ question, which every religion attempts to address to some degree, and for which Christianity does have a satisfying answer. There’s also the question of credentials and independent evidence for the bible that we’re trying to address in this article. There are questions about ‘contradictions’ in the Bible and tougher questions about genocide in the Old Testament that apologists have attempted to address time and time again. But here is another important question that isn’t often addressed: Before leaving His disciples, Jesus promised them that He was going away to prepare a place for them, but would return to take them to His home. From the moment Jesus ascended to heaven, Christians have been waiting. And, a rational outside observer has to ask, how long is it reasonable to wait for a promise like this? Will Christians still wait for Christ’s return if 50,000 more years pass? If not, why exactly does 2000 years seem a reasonable period to wait? Skeptics deserve more than cliché answers like, God does everything in His time, or, to God a day is like 1000 years.
Here is yet another question: When talking to His disciples, Christ promised that on this Rock He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And yet, looking over the history of the Christian church, the skeptic sees unnumbered atrocities, crusades, inquisitions, the keeping of the western world in poverty, in intellectual and scientific darkness, etc. And, for the outside observer, this creates a major dilemma: on the one hand, is this the church that Christ founded? But if not, then hell did prevail against it. Moreover, how can the church Christ founded be divided into so many thousands of denominations? In my interaction with Christians I’ve found that they almost never recognize this as a real objection against Christianity. But to outsiders, this is a real problem that deserves some type of coherent explanation.
Problems with The Atheist
While atheists and skeptics do have legitimate concerns, there are also problems with their way of thinking that we need to be aware of. Atheists today have managed to inoculate themselves with some faulty premises that prevent them from judging the value of evidence correctly. We need to be conscious of this as apologists because we’ve been told not to throw our pearls before swine.
Most people have had the experience of running their bank account into the negative. So let’s imagine for a second that we have an account that currently has a balance of -$500. We need $1000 to pay the rent so we ask someone to lend us the money. But they write us a check. So now, even though we received sufficient money for rent, to withdraw the check, we have to put it in the bank where half will immediately disappear into the abyss. When all is said and done, we’re still short on rent.
Picture a scale from 1 to 100 where 100 means that God definitely exists, 0 means He definitely doesn’t exist and 50 means that the chance that He exists is equal to the chance He doesn’t exist. Most atheists today locate themselves somewhere close to 0 on this scale. In reality, neither science nor reason can furnish sufficient evidence for them to go much below a 50. So their position is irrational. I’ve written elsewhere regarding how they reach these faulty conclusions but here, what is important to understand, is that unless we fix this deficit first, it doesn’t matter how strong our evidence is, it will still go into an overdrawn account and prove insufficient. Therefore, we should never bring up prophecy in a discussion until we’ve sufficiently hammered away at their faulty foundations and they, or at least the others following the discussion, realize their position is untenable.
Another major problem with atheists is that they want evidence for God that provides near-100% certainty that God exists. What they never stop to think about is that if God wanted to give humanity that high a degree of general evidence, He would have done it a long time ago, and we would not be having this conversation. In essence, God would have just appeared to the human race from the beginning and everyone would have known beyond doubt that He was real. But this obviously isn’t the setup God chose to go with.
What we are proposing as Christians is different. We believe God provides limited general evidence that He exists but strong personal evidence. So in essence, God takes a sincere individual who is uncertain one way or the other and asks, ‘how much objective, general evidence do you require, not to be 100% confident that I exist, but to be sufficiently convinced to start searching for Me directly?’ On the other hand, those who would prefer not to find God, still have enough room to maintain intellectual integrity in their doubts. When as Christians we say that we have strong confidence that God is real, it is because, beyond the general evidence, God has transformed our own lives and has guided us providentially throughout our Christian experience.
So we understand the evidence for God as a two-part process:
1) Sufficient external evidence to make the God possibility likely enough to be taken seriously and,
2) Sufficient internal evidence to confirm that the God possibility is true.
Thus, when we engage in discussions with atheists, it must be clear from the start that our evidence is not intended to bring someone to near absolute certainty. Bible prophecy, along with all other objective evidences for God, is only intended to convince people that they have good reason to seek God as individuals in order to experience Him for themselves. This is important because the standard of evidence for this is significantly lower and we have never assumed the evidential burden atheists place on us.
Atheists and Prophecy
Now that we’ve addressed some of the flaws on the part of atheists, we need to take a look at some legitimate concerns that atheists have specifically with prophecy. Imagine a book written several thousand years ago that outlines important world events in advance. Let’s say the book claims that, at some point in history, nation X will conquer nation Y. What then is to prevent nation Y from reading this prophecy and making sure they obliterate nation X centuries in advance before they become a military threat, thus altering the timeline? On the other hand, if God chooses to force circumstances such that the prophetic timeline is fulfilled anyway, this places God in the strange position of having to actively force individuals and nations to perform tasks they consciously don’t want to do.
One way to avoid this conundrum is to write a prophecy in a book and then have the book hidden until after the fact. This however is not an option with the Bible since its pages contain far more crucial information for the Christian than just prophecies about the future. What the Bible does instead is it codifies its prophecies using symbols that have to be unlocked to be understood. So while the prophecies that were given specifically for the nation of Israel are generally pretty straight forward in Scripture, those prophecies that stretch out into the Christian era are usually codified using various symbols.
Prophets vs Psychics
But the fact that biblical prophecy is codified in symbols creates additional difficulties from the atheist’s point of view.
Imagine for a second that a psychic makes the following prediction:
‘In the future, a powerful nation will go to war against four other nations at the same time.’
This prophecy is of such a nature that sooner or later it is likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t happen in the psychic’s lifetime, 500 years down the line, a nation might go to war against four other, and, naive people will say, wow, that psychic was right after all.
Such a prophecy would have zero value when it comes to providing support for a book like the bible. The presence of symbols in prophecy however makes this hard to avoid. Since, all we really need to do is look at history and then interpret the symbols in a way that lines up. Not just this, but we can interpret them in a way that’s relevant to current events: 40 years ago the prophecies applied to the communists, today they apply to the middle east etc. Of course, no atheist will take such a process seriously.
For symbolic prophecy to be taken seriously, we must be able to show that our interpretation method is also derived from Scripture, that it is reasonable, and that we are applying it consistently across the board, before consulting with history. Someone without any knowledge of history should be able to learn the method and arrive at the same interpretation.
Let’s say that I sent you the following encoded message:
What does it mean? Well, you can always guess and say something like, the message has five letters, so it must be a five letter word, so it’s probably PIZZA, cause I’m kinda hungry. But you’re much better off looking instead for a key. So here it is:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Once you have the key, you can interpret the message as accurately as if it had not been encoded at all.
So in essence, the evidential value of symbolic prophecy can be retained if and only if we can show that the bible provides a clear set of keys, that we’ve applied these keys consistently in our decoding process, and that the arrived at interpretation lines up with history.
Early Symbolic Prophecy
As early as Adam and Eve’s sin in Eden, God prophesied that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head. To Abraham the prophecy was given that after 400 years, his descendants would return to Canaan.
But the first time an encoded prophecy appears in Scripture is when Joseph had his dreams regarding his brothers:
“And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: …behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?” Genesis 37:5-8
His brothers instantly recognized that this wasn’t a dream about sheaves of grain. A little later he had another dream:
“…behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” Genesis 37:9-10
Years later, while in an Egyptian jail, two of his cell mates came to him wanting an interpretation for their own dreams:
“And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; And in the vine were three branches: and it was as though it budded, and her blossoms shot forth; and the clusters thereof brought forth ripe grapes: And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand: and I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. And Joseph said unto him, This is the interpretation of it: The three branches are three days: Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place: and thou shalt deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.” Genesis 40:9-13
Then, the other wanted answers as well:
“…I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head: And in the uppermost basket there was of all manner of bakemeats for Pharaoh; and the birds did eat them out of the basket upon my head. And Joseph answered and said, This is the interpretation thereof: The three baskets are three days: Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.” Genesis 40:16-19
Some more time passed and Pharaoh himself had some dreams:
“And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.” Genesis 41:1-7
To this, Joseph gave the following interpretation:
“The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine. This is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharaoh: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; And the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine following; for it shall be very grievous.” Genesis 41:25-31
We can gather from these primitive visions some key lessons about how God communicates through symbols:
First, obviously, the symbols are representative; God isn’t intending that people get fixated on baskets, grain, vines, cows etc.
Second, the same prophecy is communicated multiple times using a different set of symbols. Remember back in algebra when you were asked to solve an equation like 2x + 4y = 20? What did you need in order to figure out X and Y? Another equation, like x – y = 4 (answer is x=6, y=2 btw). In the Bible, prophecies are given in parallel so that, by setting them side by side, we can figure out the unknowns in each. Also, the repetition is God’s way of showing that the prophecies are certain and established. Joseph tells Pharaoh, “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.” Genesis 41:32
Third, the dreams have a structure that helps synchronize them with each other. For example, the jail dreams had the three baskets and the three vines, while Pharaoh’s dreams the seven cows and heads of corn.
Fourth, repetitions provide additional details. For example, Joseph’s second dream included the sun and moon representing his father and mother besides the twelve brothers of the earlier vision. Earlier prophecies in a set have fewer details but more information that helps determine the structure, while later prophecies spend less time on structure and more time on detail. If we isolate these later prophecies and interpret them independently, there is not enough information about where they fit so we will inevitably interpret them arbitrarily.
Finally, this structure also places the events in time. For example, the butler and the baker dreamed of three branches and three baskets respectively. These both symbolized three days. Even though the events described in the dreams were different, they were tied together by the fact that they were going to happen over the same period of time. In the same way, pharaoh dreamed of seven cows and seven ears of corn representing seven years. Had this numeric element not been present in both dreams it would have been hard to tie them together as the subject matter was different.
These early examples of encoded prophecy set a precedent that helps us makes sense of the more complex prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
Time in Prophecy
Before finally delving into the actual prophecies, there is one last decoding element we need to consider: prophetic time. Throughout the books of Daniel and Revelation we often see time periods mentioned alongside the symbolic elements. However, as they are, the time periods don’t seem to fit very well with the events being described. A great example of this, and the solution to this question, can be found in the messianic prophecy of Daniel chapter 9.
Here we are told that, between the command to rebuild Jerusalem (which is dated somewhere in the 5th century B.C.) and the Messiah, ’70 weeks’ will pass. A week has seven days and therefore 70 weeks would amount to 490 days, about a year and a half. In reality, it wasn’t 490 days that passed between the command to rebuild Jerusalem and the time of Jesus but 490 years. This day-year application, is not unusual for Scripture as days have been used to symbolize years on other occasions as well:
“After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise.” Numbers 14:34
“Lie thou also upon thy left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon it thou shalt bear their iniquity. For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year.” Ezekiel 4:4-6
Even Jesus uses this formula when He describes His three year ministry:
“The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.” Luke 13:31-33
Therefore, another important key in interpreting prophecy is that prophetic days are meant to be interpreted as literal years. This allows us to further anchor events in time within the greater framework already established by the sequence of prophetic visions.
Prophecy 101 – Daniel Chapter Two
Because this article is only intended to be a brief introduction to biblical prophecy in apologetics, it is way outside the present scope to cover the topic of biblical prophecy in its entirety; a task that would require hundreds of pages. We will however briefly discuss chapters 2 and 7 in Daniel as well as point out some links between Daniel and Revelation.
The easiest apocalyptic prophecy we will look at is the prophecy of Daniel 2. Here, the interpretation is almost entirely provided for us so all we have to do is compare its predictions with history. As mentioned, earlier prophecies in a sequence are simpler in their prophetic content but have the primary role of establishing the framework based on which later, more complex prophecies are interpreted.
Since this article is written primarily for Christians, I will assume the reader is already familiar with the context of chapters 1 and 2 and the with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: a statute with a head of gold, chest of silver, thighs of brass, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay, which is then destroyed by a great stone. Daniel further provides the interpretation for the dream:
“Thou, O king [Nebuchadnezzar], art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory… Thou art this head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” Daniel 2:37-44
So based on this simple prophecy we can deduce several things:
1) The timeframe for the prophecy starts in the time of Daniel and ends at the second coming of Christ.
2) Since at that point Daniel was still in Babylon, time is broken into 6 phases:
i. Kingdom 1 – Babylon
ii. Kingdom 2
iii. Kingdom 3
iv. Kingdom 4
v. The divided fourth kingdom
vi. The second coming.
3) During this period of division, there is a weak element symbolized by the clay which holds the strong elements together, even though they’re unable to reunite into a fifth kingdom.
Since this prophecy provides its own interpretation and this interpretation is straight forward, we can now compare the prophecy with history to see if it lines up. And, history tells us that in fact, from the time of Daniel there was Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. Rome was divided into the nations of Europe and has remained divided to this day in spite of numerous efforts to reunite.
The Structure of Daniel
This initial prophecy provides the structure based on which we can now interpret the rest of the book of Daniel, as we have learned from Joseph’s dreams. We have several more visions in chapters 7-12 and the 6-phase structure described above will help us to make sense of these visions as well. Chapters 7, 8 and then together chapters 10-12, each cover the same time period from Daniel’s day to the second coming, following the same 4 kingdom/divided kingdom structure of Daniel 2. With each new vision, additional information is provided and the prophecies become more specific. The only anomaly to the 4 kingdom/divided kingdom pattern is chapter 9, which probably indicates that this chapter should be interpreted as part of one of the other visions.
This ‘repetition-addition’ principle derived from Joseph prevents us from assigning arbitrary meaning to later prophecies that don’t provide sufficient interpretation clues when taken on their own. And, we are thus kept from robbing bible prophecy of its evidential value.
Daniel Chapter 7
Just like with Jospeh’s dreams, the symbolism changes in Daniel 7 but the overall structure remains. Here, instead of four metals, we have four ferocious animals which we are told, represent four kings or kingdoms:
“These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.” Daniel 7:17
For the skeptic who is still uncertain regarding the interpretation of these kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, the next chapter spells it out for us using that chapter’s analogous animals:
“The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia. And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king.” Daniel 8:20-21
As with each vision we expect to see additional details not provided in Daniel 2, this chapter’s primary focus seems to be to further explain the ‘clay’ element holding the feet together in chapter 2.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., several powerful nations arose in Europe (France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, etc.), none of which were strong enough to conquer the others and reestablish the Empire.
Chapter 7 however, recasts the clay holding these nations together as a ‘little horn’ that not only rises above these kingdoms but is also a persecuting power that harasses God’s people. The chapter provides us with a long list of identifying marks for this little horn.
1. It arose out of the fourth beast, Rome.
2. It came up among the ten horns, Western Europe.
3. It came up after the ten horns, post 460 A.D.
4. It was to uproot three horns.
5. It was to be greater than the others.
6. It was to be different than the others.
7. It was to have eyes like the eyes of a man and speak great words against God.
8. It was to make war on God’s saints.
9. It would think to change times and laws.
10.The saints were to be handed over to it for a time and times and half a time.
Before identifying the little horn we need to first decode point number 10.
Time, Times and Half a Time
The word ‘time’ here should be translated as a year. Time, times and half a time therefore means, 1 year + 2 years + half a year or three and a half years. The Hebrew year had 360 days (30 days in a month) and therefore this period equals 1260 days. But, since as previously mentioned, in prophecy each day represents a year, this period comes out to 1260 years. This time period actually appears seven different times throughout Daniel and Revelation (in different formats), something which generally means that God is going out of His way to bring it to our attention:
– Daniel 7:25 He shall speak great words against the most high, and shall wear out the saints of the most high, and think to change times and laws — and they shall be given into his hands until a time and times and the dividing of a time.
– Daniel 12:7 It shall be for a time, times, and half a time that he can scatter the power of the holy people.
– Revelation 11:2 The holy city they tread under foot forty and two months.
– Revelation 11:3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophecy a thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.
– Revelation 12:6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and sixty days.
– Revelation 12:14 And the woman was given wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
– Revelation 13:5 And there was given to the beast a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given to him to continue fourty and two months.
Identifying the Little Horn
There is an out of the ordinary amount of information provided for us to help us correctly identify this little horn (there’s actually even more in Revelation). And, the only power that fits all these characteristics, by far, is the religio-political power of the Church of Rome:
1) It rose out of the Roman Empire
2) It came up among the nations of Western Europe
3) It came up AFTER them
4) It uprooted three Arian powers
5) It became more powerful than the nations of Europe
6) It was very different from them
7) The Protestant reformers have catalogued its blasphemous claims in detail
8) It has had a long history as a persecuting power
9) It has come up with its own laws and obligations
10) And, it has had control over Europe from the 5th century to the late 18th century; about 1260 years
Moreover, it also fits very well with chapter two’s description of a weak element (the clay) holding the powerful nations of Europe together.
Consider also the deep similarities between this chapter and the words of Paul in the New Testament:
“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10
Daniel and Revelation
The Book of Revelation also has its own unique framework going from the time of John up to the second coming. It is divided into seven parts: seven churches, seven seals and seven trumpets. Starting in chapter 13 however, the structure changes and there is an obvious link with the prophecies of Daniel. The animal portrayed in this chapter has the characteristic features of all four animals of Daniel chapter 7. Not just this, but, as mentioned earlier, the timeframes (1260 years) match as well. So evidently, the book of Revelation takes what we’ve learned in Daniel and continues to add to the puzzle. The prophecy provides insight not only into things that have already happened but also into events that are going to take place in the future. This gives us the ability as apologists not only to point to already fulfilled prophecy, but also to make testable predictions by which the accuracy of our interpretation can be later evaluated.
It is outside the scope of this article to go further into Revelation but this obvious connection can be used as a springboard for further study:
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns [10 toes/10 horns of Daniel 2 & 7], and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy [blasphemous power of Daniel]. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard [Greece], and his feet were as the feet of a bear [Medo-Persia], and his mouth as the mouth of a lion [Babylon]: and the dragon [Rome] gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” Revelation 13:1-2
As hurt as many of our Catholic friends will be if Bible Prophecy begins to be used in apologetics, they will have to realize that God’s issue is not with the individual members but with the religio-political system. The Bible makes this identification undeniable as any unbiased third party looking over the evidence will agree. And, as the Protestant reformers recognized a long time ago, the biggest problem with this system has been the cloaking of the Biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith.
From an apologetics standpoint, the historicist approach to Bible prophecy is invaluable. While the prophecy of Daniel 2 itself makes some stunning predictions, the detailed account of Daniel 7 should leave any atheist baffled. As far as independent lines of evidence go, this chapter far surpasses the bar. And, this is only the beginning.
But more than this, this chapter helps us makes sense of a major dilemma for Christian apologetics: the fall of the Christian church. While we are not here told why God allowed the Church that Christ founded to degenerate so much, the fact that this falling away was predicted many centuries in advance, robs the critics of major ammunition (sort of like when Peter took a coin from a fish’s belly to pay the tax collectors).
The fact that God’s people were scattered for such a long time by this persecuting power also helps explain to some degree why there are so many denominations today. Individual congregations sprung up over the centuries in isolation from other groups, developing their own perspectives and traditions. It also took much effort on the part of the reformers to try to distinguish between Biblical Christianity and the traditions developed by the church over centuries.
Finally, the historicist perspective helps us to anchor ourselves in time. The fact that the Bible predicted the reign of the little horn all the way up to the 19th century means that we’re not as Christians waiting haphazardly for a 2000 year old promise to be fulfilled. As far as God’s time-table goes, everything is pretty much still exactly on schedule. And, we have good reason to believe that now in fact, Christ’s second coming really is just around the corner.