Future prophecies intrigue us. But the Bible says there are false and true prophets. It also indicates some prophecy is conditional. What does that mean?
Prophecy. It’s a fascinating subject. It’s also quite scary at times. The prophecies about the end times are hard to read and may frighten the reader.
Many Bible prophecies have already been fulfilled. Yet there are some prophecies that have not been fulfilled, and some that may or may not be carried out, depending on human responses to the prophecies.
Studying fulfilled and failed prophecies, as well as conditional and unconditional prophecies, can give us assurance that God’s promises, and His mercy, never fail.
Once a Bible prophecy has been fulfilled, its full meaning can be understood.
For example, the book of Matthew records several fulfilled prophecies about Jesus Christ’s first coming that were carried out just as God predicted (Matthew 1:22; 2:14-15, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:35). These prophecies were clearer to His followers once they were fulfilled.
For more information about fulfilled prophecies, see “Fulfilled Prophecy Is Evidence of God’s Existence.”
False prophecies fail
One reason prophecies fail is if the prophecies are false. False prophecies are not from God.
Consider the story of the Seekers, who believed the world would be flooded on Dec. 21, 1954. They believed that aliens from the planet Clarion would save them in flying saucers.
On Dec. 17, 1954, they reportedly received a call from “Captain Video” from outer space. A flying saucer would land in the backyard at 4 o’clock to pick them up. But 4 o’clock ticked by without a flying saucer. After some discussion, the Seekers decided that 4 o’clock was a practice session. Over the next few days, several more times and explanations passed without a flying saucer.
Their reasoning was chronicled in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails (by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter), which relied on observers who secretly infiltrated the group. Although the book has been criticized for not being a fully scientific study, it does illustrate how people can be committed to false prophecies.
History is littered with similar failed prophetic dates. Some may lose faith in God because of man’s faulty predictions. But man’s prophecies are different from God’s prophecies. God has the power to guide history and make things happen over time.
God tells us He keeps secrets until His designated time. God gave some prophecies that are sealed until the time of the end (Daniel 12:9).
The exact date of Christ’s return is a secret that God the Father is keeping (Acts 1:7). Jesus Himself said that He and the angels did not know the day or hour (Mark 13:32). God has given us a 1,290-day countdown, but we do not yet know exactly when the countdown will start (Matthew 24:15; Daniel 12:11; see “When Will Jesus Return?”).
False prophets eventually fail
Other false prophets have been successful at deceiving people for a while. These false prophets often tell partial truths, but still are not sent by God (Jeremiah 14:14). Moses addressed the very real possibility that ancient Israel would suffer from false prophets who would give signs and wonders that would come to pass (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
False prophets’ messages have included deceptive visions, not God’s message of repentance from iniquity (Lamentations 2:14). These delusions are intoxicating because they often tell people what they want to hear, such as assuring them that there will be “peace in this place” (Jeremiah 14:13).
Jesus warned of false prophets at the end of the age who will perform great signs and lying wonders (Matthew 24:24). Their power to perform miracles is actually from Satan and is used with the intention to deceive (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
False prophets can appear to be ministers of righteousness, even proclaiming themselves to be apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Like Satan, these ministers often misquote the Bible in order to deceive (Matthew 4:6-7). At the end of the age, some false “Christian” teachers will proclaim that Christ has already returned (Matthew 24:26; 2 Thessalonians 2:2).
False prophecies eventually fail when God destroys the lying prophets (Jeremiah 14:15). Ultimately, these false prophets and their deceptive prophecies will fail when Jesus Christ returns (2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 19:20).
See more about how to recognize false prophets in our article “False Prophets.”
Some prophecies are warnings: the story of Nineveh
God sometimes sends His true prophets to specific people. Jonah was sent to Nineveh with an urgent message to change. After much reluctance and spending time in the belly of a great fish, Jonah agreed to deliver God’s message. He proclaimed that the city of Nineveh would have only 40 days before being overthrown (Jonah 3:4).
Surprisingly, the king of Nineveh actually listened to God, proclaimed a fast and encouraged his people to turn from evil:
“‘Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:8-10, New International Version).
God was relieved that the Ninevites had turned from evil and had pity on them. Over 120,000 people and many animals were saved from destruction (Jonah 4:11).
God does not always know if people will hear the message or refuse to listen (Ezekiel 2:3-5). God hopes that people will listen and forsake their evil ways that lead to death. These warnings tell us about the merciful, forgiving and patient God who wants all to come to repentance. God wants us to choose to live (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
In the case of Jonah’s prophecies for Nineveh, the punishment did not occur, but the prophecies were not idle or ineffective. In that sense they did not fail. The prophesied threats from God successfully saved the great city from destruction at that time.
About 150 years after Jonah, Nahum also prophesied against Nineveh. This time Nineveh did not repent and was destroyed. For more information, see “The Book of Nahum.”
In the case of Nahum’s prophecies against Nineveh, the punishment did happen.
As Jonah and Nahum’s prophecies demonstrate, some of God’s prophecies are conditional and depend on the response of the people who receive God’s message.
Some prophecies are conditional
Consider some other examples of conditional prophecies.
In the eighth century before Christ, the righteous King Hezekiah was instrumental in some great reforms in Jerusalem and Judah. Toward the end of Hezekiah’s life, God sent Isaiah to tell him he was to die. Hezekiah was instructed to set his house in order and to prepare for his death (Isaiah 38:1; 2 Kings 20:1).
Hezekiah’s response to this prophecy was to turn his face to the wall, pray intensely to God, and even shed tears (Isaiah 38:2-3). And the prophecy was not carried out!
Hezekiah did eventually die, but not then. God granted King Hezekiah an additional 15 years of life (Isaiah 38:5-8). He was healed by God, and he went on to lead the nation of Judah through one of its most traumatizing crises, as the bloodthirsty Assyrians attacked and almost conquered the city of Jerusalem.
Hezekiah’s faith in God during those 15 years was essential in the miraculous defeat of the warlike Assyrians under Sennacherib.
Over a century later, the prophet Jeremiah was on the scene just prior to the final fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Under God’s inspiration, he delivered a very important principle to the nations of antiquity—one that is important for us today.
We can be thankful that God’s conditional prophecies show that His mercy never fails, and that His unconditional prophecies demonstrate His sure faithfulness.God declared, “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
In other words, just as Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching, other nations may repent of their sins and cause God to turn away their punishment. In that sense, many prophecies are conditional.
In a similar vein, King Solomon offered a prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, back in the 10th century B.C. He asked God to be willing to forgive and to turn away national punishment in the event of national repentance (2 Chronicles 6:18-42).
God responded to Solomon’s prayer with an assurance of forgiveness when there was national repentance.
He told Solomon, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to prayer made in this place” (2 Chronicles 7:14-15).
The same principle applies today, as God prepares to punish the nations for their sins. The punishment can be averted, if people repent. This is something well worth praying for.
Some prophecies are unconditional
God also gives some key prophecies that are unconditional. God promised to send His Son to die for humanity (Isaiah 53:4-5; Psalm 22:17-18).
The promises of the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God over all kingdoms is certain (Daniel 2:44-45). As with the prophecies of Christ’s first coming, we will understand the prophecies of His return more completely after their fulfillment.
Impact of prophecies
God in His infinite wisdom uses prophecy to grab our interest and draw us toward Him. God knew that people would be fascinated with the puzzle of prophecy when He inspired the Bible.
True prophetic interpretations come from God through His Holy Spirit, not through human reasoning (2 Peter 1:20-21). Just because human reasoning fails does not mean God fails.
False prophets and false prophecies will all eventually fail. We can be thankful that God’s conditional prophecies show that His mercy never fails, and that His unconditional prophecies demonstrate His sure faithfulness.
God gave prophecies to inspire us to study the Bible, to reinforce our trust in God and to solidify our faith. Study this important subject further in our article “Purpose of Prophecy.”