If someone’s prediction doesn’t come true, are they a false prophet?

Our church believes that the gift of prophecy is still available today. There’s one man in the church who recently predicted something that didn’t happen.  The Bible says in Deuteronomy that if a prophet’s words don’t come true, they’re not genuine.  I mean, we’re not going to kill this guy or anything (as it also says to do in Deuteronomy), but is he a false prophet?

I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule to the question of whether someone who speaks prophetically is genuine.  The book of Deuteronomy offers us more than one test of a false prophet.  One is that their predictions don’t come true.  But another is that even if their predictions do come true, if they then say “let us go after other gods,” they are false prophets and are not to be trusted. The fulfilled prediction is a test of faith for believers.  So we aren’t supposed to go exclusively by outcomes, but by whether a prophet’s words and actions point us to the true God.

Since prophecy is a spiritual gift, we should expect that for budding prophets, there will be a “learning curve.”  As they learn to use their gift, they will become sharper and more accurate in their prophecies.  The corollary is that those who feel called to develop a prophetic gift and calling should be more restrained at the outset, until they develop confidence in their gifting.  That’s why I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule in every case.  To me the main test is whether the prophet is calling people faithfully to obedience.

That much said, I have to admit that I lost confidence in a man I had considered a prophet, who made much of the fact that “God had told him” everything he was predicting, when several of his predictions in a row didn’t come true.  So there is still something to this test of accuracy.

Another thing to consider is that only a small percentage of prophecy in the Bible is predictive, or “fore-telling.” The rest is exhortation or “forth-telling,” a description of God’s perspective on how the community is conducting itself, rather than a prediction of what God plans to do, whether in mercy or judgment.  I would therefore add that a (mature) true prophet will probably come close to these proportions in his or her words to the community.
DeuteronomyHebrews
(A guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews is available in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series.)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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