What Is A Prophecy?

A prophecy is a message that is claimed by a prophet to have been communicated to them by a god. Such messages typically involve inspiration, interpretation, or revelation of divine will concerning the prophet’s social world and events to come (compare divine knowledge). All known ancient cultures had prophets who delivered prophecies.


The English noun “prophecy“, in the sense of “function of a prophet” appeared from about 1225, from Old French profecie (12th century), and from prophetia, Greek propheteia “gift of interpreting the will of God”, from Greek prophetes (see prophet). The related meaning, “thing spoken or written by a prophet”, dates from c. 1300, while the verb “to prophesy” is recorded by 1377.[1]


The revolution of 1831. As prophecied by that learned astrologer General Ikey Wether-Bridge

  • Maimonides suggested that “prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty”.[2]
  • The views of Maimonides closely relate to the definition by Al-Fârâbî, who developed the theory of prophecy in Islam.[3]
  • Much of the activity of Old Testament prophets involved conditional warnings rather than immutable futures.[4] A summary of a standard Old Testament prophetic formula might run: Repent of sin X and turn to righteousness, otherwise consequence Y will occur.
  • Saint Paul emphasizes edification, exhortation and comfort in a definition of prophesying.[5]
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia defines a Christian conception of prophecy as “understood in its strict sense, it means the foreknowledge of future events, though it may sometimes apply to past events of which there is no memory, and to present hidden things which cannot be known by the natural light of reason”.[6]
  • According to Western esotericist Rosemary Guiley, clairvoyance has been used as an adjunct to “divination, prophecy, and magic”.[7]

Modern (Western esoteric) research in prophecy is a pseudoscience. In general, a diviner’s foretelling or a prophetic prediction of the future does not adhere to the scientific method, therefore it is no object of science.[8]

From a skeptical point of view, a Latin maxim exists: “prophecy written after the fact” (vaticinium ex eventu).[9] The Jewish Torah already deals with the topic of the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:20-22).[10]


The Haedong Kosung-jon (Biographies of High Monks) records that King Beopheung of Silla had desired to promulgate Buddhism as the state religion. However, officials in his court opposed him. In the fourteenth year of his reign, Beopheung’s “Grand Secretary”, Ichadon, devised a strategy to overcome court opposition. Ichadon schemed with the king, convincing him to make a proclamation granting Buddhism official state sanction using the royal seal. Ichadon told the king to deny having made such a proclamation when the opposing officials received it and demanded an explanation. Instead, Ichadon would confess and accept the punishment of execution, for what would quickly be seen as a forgery. Ichadon prophesied to the king that at his execution a wonderful miracle would convince the opposing court faction of Buddhism’s power. Ichadon’s scheme went as planned, and the opposing officials took the bait. When Ichadon was executed on the 15th day of the 9th month in 527, his prophecy was fulfilled; the earth shook, the sun was darkened, beautiful flowers rained from the sky, his severed head flew to the sacred Geumgang mountains, and milk instead of blood sprayed 100 feet in the air from his beheaded corpse. The omen was accepted by the opposing court officials as a manifestation of heaven’s approval, and Buddhism was made the state religion in 527.[15]


In ancient Chinese, prophetic texts are known as Chen (谶). The most famous Chinese prophecy is the Tui bei tu (推背圖).


The New Testament refers to prophecy as one of the spiritual gifts given by the indwelling Holy Spirit[Rom 12:6]. From this, many Christians believe that the gift of prophecy is the supernatural ability to receive and convey a message from their God. The purpose of the message may be to “edify, exhort and comfort” the members of the Church. In this context, not all prophecies contain predictions about the future. The Apostle Paul teaches in First Corinthians that prophecy is for the benefit of the whole Church and not just of the individual exercising the gift.[1 Cor. 14:22]

According to Walter Brueggemann, the task of prophetic (Christian) ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture.[16] A recognized form of Christian prophecy is the “prophetic drama” which Frederick Dillistone describes as a “metaphorical conjunction between present situations and future events”.[17]

Later Christianity

In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr argued that prophets were no longer among Israel but were in the Church. The Shepherd of Hermas, written around the mid-2nd century, describes the way prophecy was being used within the church of that time. Irenaeus confirms the existence of such spiritual gifts in his Against Heresies. Although some modern commentators claim that Montanus was rejected because he claimed to be a prophet, a careful examination of history shows that the gift of prophecy was still acknowledged during the time of Montanus, and that he was controversial because of the manner in which he prophesied and the doctrines he propagated.[18]

Prophecy and other spiritual gifts were somewhat rarely acknowledged throughout church history and there are few examples of the prophetic and certain other gifts until the Scottish Covenanters like Prophet Peden and John Wishart. From 1904 to 1906, the Azusa Street Revival occurred in Los Angeles, California and is sometimes considered the birthplace of Pentecostalism. This revival is well known for the “speaking in tongues” that occurred there. Some participants of the Azusa Street Revival are claimed to have prophesied. Pentecostals believe prophecy and certain other gifts are once again being given to Christians. The Charismatic Movement also accepts spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy.

Since 1972, the neo-Pentecostal Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International has expressed a belief in prophecy. The church claims this gift is manifested by one person (the prophesier) laying their hands on another person, who receives an individual message said by the prophesier. Prophesiers are believed to be used by the Holy Ghost as instruments through whom their God expresses his promises, advice and commandments. The church claims people receive messages about their future, in the form of promises given by their God and expected to be fulfilled by divine action.[19]

In 1994, the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement came on the scene, largely due to the influence of the Toronto, Brownsville and Kansas City revivals. Along with the Charismatic Movement’s speaking in tongues and prophecy, the Prophetic Movement distinguished itself from past movements with physical twitching, moaning, sightings of gold dust, “glory clouds” and gems that (allegedly) fell from heaven.[20]

Latter Day Saint movement

The Latter Day Saint movement maintains that its first prophet, Joseph Smith, was visited by God and Jesus Christ in 1820. The Latter Day Saints further claims that God communicated directly with Joseph Smith on many subsequent occasions, and that following the death of Joseph Smith God has continued to speak through subsequent prophets. Joseph Smith claims to have been led by an angel to a large hill in upstate New York, where he was shown an ancient manuscript engraved on plates of gold metal. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated this manuscript into modern English under divine inspiration by the gift and power of God, and the publication of this translation are known as the Book of Mormon.

Following Smith’s murder, there was a succession crisis that resulted in a great schism. The majority of Latter-day Saints believing Brigham Young to be the next prophet and following him out to Utah, while a minority returned to Missouri with Emma Smith, believing Joseph Smith Junior’s son, Joseph Smith III, to be the next legitimate prophet (forming the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now the Community of Christ). Since even before the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, there have been numerous separatist Latter Day Saint sects that have splintered from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. To this day, there are an unknown number of organizations within the Latter Day Saint Movement, each with their own proposed prophet.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is the largest Latter Day Saint body. The current Prophet/President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Russell M. Nelson. The church has, since Joseph Smith’s death on June 27, 1844, held a belief that the president of their church is also a literal prophet of God, and the only true prophet on the earth. The church also maintains that further revelations claimed to have been given through Joseph Smith are published in the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the Standard Works. Additional revelations and prophecies outside the Standard Works, such as Joseph Smith’s “White Horse Prophecy”, concerning a great and final war in the United States before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, can be found in other church published works.


The Arabic term for prophecy nubuwwa (نُبُوَّة‎) occurs five times in the Quran and stems from the term for prophets, nabī (نَبِي‎; pl. anbiyāʼ from nabā “tidings, announcement”) who are lawbringers that Muslims believe were sent by God to every person, bringing God’s message in a language they can understand.[21][22] But there is also the term rasūl (رسول‎ “messenger, apostle”) to classify those who bring a divine revelation (رسالة‎ risālah” message”) via an angel.[21][23] Knowledge of the Islamic prophets is one of the six articles of the Islamic faith,[24] and specifically mentioned in the Quran.[25] Along with Muhammad, many of the prophets in Judaism (such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Elijah, etc.) and prophets of Christianity (Adam, Zechariah the priest, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ) are mentioned by name in the Quran.[21]

In the sense of predicting events, the Quran contains verses believed to have predicted many events years before they happened and that such prophecies are proof of the divine origin of the Qur’an. The Qur’an itself states “For every announcement there is a term, and ye will come to know.” [Quran6:67] Muslims also recognize the validity of some prophecies in other sacred texts like in the Bible; however, they believe that, unlike the Qur’an, some parts of the Bible have been corrupted over the years, and as a result, not all of the prophecies and verses in the Bible are accurate.[26]


David and Saul, detail from an 1878 oil painting, National museum, Stockholm

The Hebrew term for prophet, Navi, literally means “spokesperson”; he speaks to the people as a mouthpiece of their God, and to their god on behalf of the people. “The name prophet, from the Greek meaning “forespeaker” (πρὸ being used in the original local sense), is an equivalent of the Hebrew נבוא, which signifies properly a delegate or mouthpiece of another.” A major theme of the Nevi’im is social justice.[27]

According to Judaism, authentic Nevuah (Heb.: נבואה, “Prophecy”) got withdrawn from the world after the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple.[27] Malachi is acknowledged to have been the last authentic prophet if one accepts the opinion that Nechemyah died in Babylon before 9th Tevet 3448 (313 BCE).[28]

The Torah contains laws concerning the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:20-22). Prophets in Islam like Lot, for example, are false prophets according to Jewish standards.

In the Torah, prophecy often consisted of a conditioned warning by their God of the consequences should the society, specific communities, or their leaders not adhere to Torah’s instructions in the time contemporary with the prophet’s life. Prophecies sometimes included conditioned promises of blessing for obeying their god, and returning to behaviors and laws as written in the Torah. Conditioned warning prophecies feature in all Jewish works of the Tanakh.

Notably Maimonides, philosophically suggested there once were many levels of prophecy, from the highest such as those experienced by Moses, to the lowest where the individuals were able to apprehend the Divine Will, but not respond or even describe this experience to others, citing in example, Shem, Eber and most notably, Noah, who, in biblical narrative, does not issue prophetic declarations.[29]

Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed, outlines twelve modes of prophecy[30] from lesser to greater degree of clarity:

  1. Inspired actions
  2. Inspired words
  3. Allegorical dream revelations
  4. Auditory dream revelations
  5. Audiovisual dream revelations/human speaker
  6. Audiovisual dream revelations/angelic speaker
  7. Audiovisual dream revelations/Divine speaker
  8. Allegorical waking vision
  9. Auditory waking revelation
  10. Audiovisual waking revelation/human speaker
  11. Audiovisual waking revelation/angelic speaker
  12. Audiovisual waking revelation/Divine speaker (that refers implicitly to Moses)

The Tanakh contains prophecies from various Hebrew prophets (55 in total) who communicated messages from God to the nation of Israel, and later the population of Judea and elsewhere. Experience of prophecy in the Torah and the rest of Tanakh was not restricted to Jews. Nor was the prophetic experience restricted to the Hebrew language.

Native American prophecy

There exists a problem in verifying most Native American prophecy, in that they remain primarily an oral tradition, and thus there is no way to cite references of where writings have been committed to paper. In their system, the best reference is an Elder, who acts as a repository of the accumulated wisdom of their tradition.

In another type of example, it is recorded that there are three Dogrib prophets who had claimed to have been divinely inspired to bring the message of Christianity’s God to their people.[31] This prophecy among the Dogrib involves elements such as dances and trance-like states.[32]


The Portrait of Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus), a French Renaissance Medicine & Astrologer, painted by his son César de Nostredame (1553-1630?)

Esoteric prophecy has been claimed for, but not by, Michel de Nostredame, popularly referred to as Nostradamus, who claimed to be a converted Christian. It is known that he suffered several tragedies in his life, and was persecuted to some degree for his cryptic esoteric writings about the future, reportedly derived through a use of a crystal ball. Nostradamus was a French apothecary and reputed seer who published collections of foreknowledge of future events. He is best known for his book Les Propheties (“The Prophecies”), the first edition of which appeared in 1555. Since its publication, Nostradamus has attracted an esoteric following that, along with the popularistic press, credits him with foreseeing world events. His esoteric cryptic foreseeings have in some cases been assimilated to the results of applying the alleged Bible code, as well as to other purported pseudo-prophetic works.

Most reliable academic sources maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus’s quatrains are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power. Moreover, none of the sources listed offers any evidence that anyone has ever interpreted any of Nostradamus’s pseudo-prophetic works specifically enough to allow a clear identification of any event in advance.[33]


Main article: Skepticism

According to skeptics, many apparently fulfilled prophecies can be explained as coincidences (possibly aided by the prophecy’s own vagueness), or that some prophecies were actually invented after the fact to match the circumstances of a past event (“postdiction”).[8][34][35]

Bill Whitcomb in The Magician’s Companion observes,

One point to remember is that the probability of an event changes as soon as a prophecy (or divination) exists. . . . The accuracy or outcome of any prophecy is altered by the desires and attachments of the seer and those who hear the prophecy.[36]

Many prophets make a large number of prophecies. This makes the chances of at least one prophecy being correct much higher by sheer weight of numbers.[37]


The phenomenon of prophecy is not well understood in psychology research literature. Psychiatrist and neurologist Arthur Deikman describes the phenomenon as an “intuitive knowing, a type of perception that bypasses the usual sensory channels and rational intellect.”[38]

“(P)rophecy can be likened to a bridge between the individual ‘mystical self’ and the communal ‘mystical body’,” writes religious sociologist Margaret Poloma.[39] Prophecy seems to involve “the free association that occurred through the workings of the right brain.”[40]

Psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed that this is a temporary accessing of the bicameral mind; that is, a temporary separating of functions, such that the authoritarian part of the mind seems to literally be speaking to the person as if a separate (and external) voice. Jaynes posits that the gods heard as voices in the head were and are organizations of the central nervous system. God speaking through man, according to Jaynes, is a more recent vestige of God speaking to man; the product of a more integrated higher self. When the bicameral mind speaks, there is no introspection. We simply experience the Lord telling us what to do. In earlier times, posits Jaynes, there was additionally a visual component, now lost.[41]

Child development and consciousness author Joseph Chilton Pearce remarked that revelation typically appears in symbolic form and “in a single flash of insight.”[42] He used the metaphor of lightning striking and suggests that the revelation is “a result of a buildup of resonant potential.”[43] Pearce compared it to the earth asking a question and the sky answering it. Focus, he said, feeds into “a unified field of like resonance (and becomes) capable of attracting and receiving the field’s answer when it does form.”[44]

Some cite aspects of cognitive psychology such as pattern forming and attention to the formation of prophecy in modern-day society as well as the declining influence of religion in daily life.[45]


  1.  “Prophecy” in the Online Etymology Dictionary
  2.  Stan Tenen – Meru Foundation. “Meru Foundation Research: Mark R. Sunwall, Rambam Prophecy”.
  3.  The influence of Islamic Philosophy on Maimonides’s thought, Diana Steigerwald Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)Archived 2008-01-18 at the Wayback Machine
  4.  For example: Lemke, Werner E. (1987). “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future”. In Mays, James LutherAchtemeier, Paul J. (eds.). Interpreting the Prophets. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 202. ISBN9781451410471. Retrieved 2018-11-11The Prophet as Watchman […] the watchman’s responsibility was limited or circumscribed. He only had to issue the warning. It was the people’s own responsibility to decide how to respond to it. In similar fashion the Lord has appointed Ezekiel to act as watchman over Israel, just as he had appointed other watchmen over his people in the past (cf. Jer. 6:17).
  5.  Buck, Charles (1823) [1802]. A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms: A Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity : an Impartial Count of All the Principal Denominations which Have Subsisted in the Religious World, from the Birth of Christ to the Present Day : Together with an Accurate Statement of the Most Remarkable Transactions and Events Recorded in Ecclesiastical History. Philadelphia: Edwin T. Scott. p. 491. Retrieved 2018-11-11PROPHECY […] In the Old and New Testaments, the word is not always confined to the foretelling of future events. […] whoever speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort, is by St. Paul called a prophet, 1 Cor. xiv. 3.
  7.  Compare: Guiley, Rosemary (2006). “clairvoyance”The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Infobase Publishing. p. 59. ISBN9781438130002. Retrieved 2015-01-10Clairvoyance has been a valued skill in divination, prophecy, and magic since ancient times.
  8.  Hines, Terence. (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. pp. 66-73. ISBN1-57392-979-4
  9.  “FindArticles.com – CBSi”. Archived from the original on 2012-07-08.
  10.  Schechter, Solomon; Mendelsohn, S. “PROPHET, FALSE”Jewish Encyclopedia. JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  11.  Smith, Peter (2000). “Bahá’u’lláh – Theological Status”. A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 78–79. ISBN1-85168-184-1.
  12.  Hatcher, W.S.; Martin, J.D. (1998). The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 116–123. ISBN0-87743-264-3.
  13.  Smith, Peter (2000). “Bahá’u’lláh – Life”. A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 73. ISBN1-85168-184-1.
  14.  Smith, Peter (2000). “Maid of Heaven”. A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 230. ISBN1-85168-184-1.
  15.  Korea: a religious history, James Huntley Grayson, p. 34
  16.  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978), 13.
  17.  F.W.Dillstone; Christianity and Symbolism; London 1955, p275; referenced in ‘The function of prophetic drama’ in “The place is too small for us”: the Israelite prophets in recent scholarship, by R. P. Gordon, 1995 Eisenbrauns, (cf Galatians 4:24)
  18.  Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, Book V, Chapter 16 & 18Montanus…became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning…. His actions and his teaching show who this new teacher is. This is he who taught the dissolution of marriage; who made laws for fasting; who named Pepuza and Tymion, small towns in Phrygia, Jerusalem, wishing to gather people to them from all directions; who appointed collectors of money; who contrived the receiving of gifts under the name of offerings; who provided salaries for those who preached his doctrine, that its teaching might prevail through gluttony.
  19.  History of the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International (official page)
  20.  Maxwell, Joe (1994). “PLUS: Seminary Women ‘Rewrite Their Stories”, Christianity Today, January 5, 2012.
  21.  Campo, Juan Eduardo (2009). Encyclopedia of Islam. Infobase Publishing. pp. 559–560. ISBN9780816054541. Retrieved 22 June 2015.
  22.  Quran30:47
  23.  Shaatri, A. I. (2007). Nayl al Rajaa’ bisharh’ Safinat an’najaa’. Dar Al Minhaj.
  24.  “BBC – Religions – Islam: Basic articles of faith”Archived from the original on 13 August 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-05.
  25.  Quran2:285
  26.  The Corruption of the Bible – A Fact Attested by the Quran” The True CallArchived 2012-09-04 at the Wayback Machine
  27.  Hirsch, Emil G.; McCurdy, J. Frederic; Jacobs, Joseph. “PROPHETS AND PROPHECY”Jewish Encyclopedia. JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  28.  Gaon, Vilna. “Babylonian Talmud”. San.11a, Yom.9a/Yuch.1.14/Kuz.3.39,65,67/Yuch.1/Mag.Av.O.C.580.6.
  29.  The Guide for the Perplexed /Part II/Chapter XXXIX
  30.  The Guide for the Perplexed (Friedlander)/Part II/Chapters#CHAPTER XLV
  31.  p.27, Helm
  32.  “Dogrib prophecy”.
  33.  Lemesurier, Peter, The Unknown Nostradamus, 2003
  34.  Pickover, Clifford A. (2001). Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction. Prometheus Books. pp. 363-388. ISBN1-57392-895-X
  35.  Forshaw, Mark. (2012). Critical Thinking for Psychology. Wiley. pp. 46-48. ISBN978-1-4051-9118-0
  36.  Whitcomb, Bill. (2004). The Magician’s Companion: A Practical & Encyclopedic Guide to Magical & Religious Symbolism. Llewellyn Publications. pp. 530-531. ISBN0-87542-868-1
  37.  Skeptic report, Prophesies for dummies by Allan Glenn
  38.  Deikman, A. J. (1982). The Observing self: Mysticism and psychotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 21. ISBN0-8070-2950-5.
  39.  Poloma, Margaret (2003). Main street mystics: The Toronto blessing & reviving Pentecostalism. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press. p. 115. ISBN0-7591-0353-4.
  40.  Poloma, M. M. (2003). Main street mystics: The Toronto blessing & reviving Pentecostalism. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press. p. 126. ISBN0-7591-0353-4.
  41.  Jaynes, J. (1976). Main street mystics: The origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 74.
  42.  Pearce, J. C. (2002–2004). The Biology of Transcendence: A blueprint of the human spirit. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. p. 191. ISBN0-89281-990-1.
  43.  Pearce, J. C. The Biology of Transcendence. p. 192.
  44.  Pearce, J. C. The Biology of Transcendence. pp. 194 & 196.
  45.  “Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2011-04-25. Retrieved 2011-04-19.

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