So much in our world is changing so quickly that we find ourselves asking, What does the future hold? Is it possible for us to get a glimpse of tomorrow?
Future scenarios can be frightening:
Out-of-control artificial intelligence destroys the human race. World War III finally erupts, annihilating much of humanity. Continued climate change brings with it catastrophic floods, droughts and famines. The central banks and currencies of the West collapse, and the world is left in shambles.
Many of us, at one time or another, have asked ourselves whether one or more of these scenarios is possible. And most of us have wondered, What does the future hold?
Thinking about the future
Throughout history, people have sought answers to their questions about the future from soothsayers, fortune tellers, mediums and prophets. Some people are so desperate to know that they set aside their better judgment, accepting for truth what they want to hear.
Today’s mediums and fortune tellers take advantage of this self-induced gullibility. Once illegal in much of the Western world, these parasites often prey on the weak and vulnerable in society.
Helping drive this renewed interest are movies and television programs that excite the imagination. They portray the prophecies of historic seers and mystics as spectacularly accurate. But is that true?
Prophecies of Nostradamus
One such example is the 16th-century Nostradamus. Described by Britannica.com as “the most widely read seer of the Renaissance,” the French prophet wrote his predictions in enigmatic quatrains, or four-line poetic stanzas.
These short quatrains lend themselves to a wide array of interpretations. Devoted believers interpret them—after the fact—to fit actual historic events, thus bestowing on Nostradamus the appearance of credibility.
However, when we closely and honestly examine the recorded visions and prophecies of mystics such as Nostradamus, we see that there is no substance to them. They are intentionally vague. The result is wording that can be stretched to accommodate a range of interpretations.
Furthermore, when we look into the inspiration for these so-called prophets, we are confronted with a disturbing reality: they often rely on the occult. This was true of Nostradamus, who studied both astrology and the occult in his efforts to see into the future. (See more in our online article “Nostradamus.”)
God recognizes the human desire to know what the future holds, but He specifically forbids seeking answers from anyone or anything other than His prophets and His revelation: “And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 20:6).
Why we want to know the future
So why is it that humans are sometimes so desperate to know what the future holds?
Maintaining a degree of control over our lives in the midst of an unpredictable and chaotic world is probably a major factor. We want to make good choices in life, and that means having some understanding of what will happen in the near future.
This is a good thing. The Bible counsels us to embrace wisdom, and that means planning and working for our individual futures.
To make appropriate plans, we have to look ahead and consider what the future holds. We save for the future and make plans for education, weddings, children, home ownership, retirement and many other stages of life. This is good, and this is wise.
But the desire to plan for our individual futures can transform itself into a broader and sometimes unhealthy yearning to fully know future events that are beyond our control.
Does God want us to know what the future holds?
According to some estimates, biblical prophecy accounts for as much as a third of the Bible. Does that mean God wants us to know what the future holds?
Yes and no.
God has revealed future events—including some amazingly detailed prophecies that have already been fulfilled—throughout Scripture, but He often does so in broad brushstrokes. He certainly wants us to know some things about the future, but we cannot discern all of the specifics from biblical prophecy.
And revealing the future may not even be the most important purpose of biblical prophecy.
Prophecy should motivate us to examine our own lives, determining whether we have the kind of relationship with God that we should have.One major purpose is to reveal God’s hand in history. He knows that much of humanity will not heed His prophetic warnings, but He also intends that when any prophesied event “comes to pass . . . then they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33).
Prophecy, in effect, is a way to demonstrate that the major sweep of history has not been left to happenstance. It is not an accident. God is in control, and He will eventually establish His Kingdom on this earth.
Other purposes of prophecy
Another important reason for prophecy is to bring about repentance. If repentance takes place, God may choose not to fulfill some prophesied events.
That was the case with the Assyrian city of Nineveh. When Jonah proclaimed that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days (Jonah 3:4), the king commanded a public fast (verses 7-9). As a result, “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them” (verse 10).
A third purpose of prophecy is to encourage God’s people living in difficult times. This purpose is particularly true of what is called apocalyptic prophecy, such as the book of Revelation.
Apocalyptic prophecy focuses on the final outcome of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. It lets us know that in the end, God will prevail, and if we remain faithful to Him, we will too!
When we look at prophecy, we must keep these thoughts in mind. God is not only providing the basic outline of future events, He is also showing His hand in history, working to bring about repentance and encouraging His elect through their struggles in this evil age.
Prophecies of the future
As noted above, God does reveal future events, though usually in broad brushstrokes. He wants us to be prepared for the future, which is why He “does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).
Those same prophets recorded God’s “secrets” for us. We can and should study prophecy so that we can know the general outline of what is to come. In the process, it should be a sobering reminder of the consequences of disobedience as well as a word of encouragement for God’s faithful.
However, when our interest in biblical prophecy consumes all of our time for studying the Bible, then we are on the wrong track. Prophecy is not there to excite us, but to teach us.
It is also important to remember, as the apostle Peter wrote, that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). To understand prophecy, we should seek God’s guidance and study it in context. That requires understanding not only the biblical passage in which the prophecy is found, but also the history, geography and culture behind it.
That is not always easy, even for supposed experts.
False prophetic hopes in the time of Christ
One of the best examples of widespread prophetic misunderstanding occurred during the life of Jesus. Many people were looking for and expecting the appearance of the long-awaited Messiah, but they were expecting a conquering warrior, not a Savior dying on a cross.
This anticipation of the coming Messiah, based on Old Testament prophecies, had begun more than a century earlier. Whether they were deluded individuals or opportunists, according to JewishEncyclopedia.com, “pseudo-Messiahs begin to appear with the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, when Rome commenced its work of crushing the independence of Judea.”
By the time of Jesus, the Romans had already defeated a number of false messiahs, but the hope and belief persisted. Jesus had to address this issue while on the way to Jerusalem.
According to Luke, Jesus told the parable of the minas “because He was near Jerusalem and because they [the crowds listening to Him] thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately” (Luke 19:11).
Even the disciples did not really understand. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27), Peter boldly identified Jesus as the Christ (verse 29).
Almost immediately, though, Peter revealed his ignorance regarding the nature of Jesus’ first-century mission. As Jesus went on to explain that He would suffer, die and be resurrected, Peter impetuously rebuked Jesus, leading to Christ’s famous command: “Get behind Me, Satan” (verses 31-33).
Clearly, even people quite familiar with the Scriptures make assumptions that lead to incorrect understandings regarding prophecy.
How should we study prophecy?
When we study prophecy, we should do so recognizing that God has not provided all the details about what the future holds or how specific prophecies will be fulfilled. There are many details of prophecy that we know will happen, but the factors that lead up to their fulfillment are not clear. And since He hasn’t provided all the details, it’s not important for us to know them right now.
What is important, however, is what we do with the knowledge God does give us. He has given us those broad brushstrokes so that we can look forward to His coming Kingdom and be encouraged as we enter “perilous times” (2 Timothy 3:1).
He has also given us those broad brushstrokes so that we will consider the ultimate consequences of sin. Prophecy should motivate us to examine our own lives, determining whether we have the kind of relationship with God that we should have.
Then we can know what the future ultimately holds for us: “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son” (Revelation 21:7).
Study further in our free booklet How to Understand Prophecy.