The failed prophecies of Donald Trump’s reelection may have damaged the credibility of the US independent Charismatic wing of evangelicalism more than any event since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. They have led some outsiders to criticize Christianity itself and rightly call us to introspection.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m Charismatic myself, and the majority of Pentecostal and Charismatic pastors I know were not paying attention to such prophecies. Millions of online views and shares, though, show that many people were.
The first step toward correcting mistakes is admitting that we have made them. As we approach the inauguration of President Joe Biden, some who prophesied Trump’s reelection remain adamant that they were correct. Perhaps the election was stolen or will be overturned, or in some mystical realm Trump is actually spiritually president. Some just change the subject. Unfortunately, their hardcore followers may settle for that.
Others acknowledge that prophecy must be tested and, by affirming Biden’s win, now tacitly concede that they were wrong. Yet certain prophets have drawn the attention of Charismatics and non-Charismatics alike by publicly confessing that their prophecies were indeed mistaken and extending their apologies.
R. Loren Sandford, Jeremiah Johnson, and Kris Vallotton have recently expressed contrition and even repentance for incorrectly prophesying that Trump would win again in 2020. All three urge us to pray for and work respectfully with the new administration.
Their explanations for how they may have initially misheard God’s voice may help in guarding against similar errors in the future. Meanwhile, those of us who might be tempted to tell them, “I told you so” ought to remember that God requires the same humility from us (Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:19–20).
Their confessions, along the examples of prophets throughout Scripture, offer some useful cautions about the influence of peer pressure, pride, and presumption—and the need for Christians to remain cautious about predictions and open to correction when their interpretations prove false.
Prophets and Peer Pressure
Sandford, who has an MDiv from Fuller, is the only one of the prophetic voices circulating today of whom I knew several years ago. He has a pretty good track record. I am a witness that, by the beginning of President Trump’s first term, he predicted that an economic crisis caused by circumstances outside the US would shake Trump’s fourth year and that subsequent events depended partly on Trump learning to control his divisive rhetoric.
Yet Sandford eventually fell in line with the prophetic chorus announcing the president’s reelection. He now confesses that he allowed the consensus of other prophets to sway his own heart.
“Up until now, I have always sought the Lord on my own, gotten the word first from him and then, and only then, have I compared it with what others were saying,” he wrote in a public apology last week. “My first confession is therefore that I departed from that discipline. I allowed myself to be caught up in a prevailing stream and to be carried along by it. In doing that, I actually compromised what the Lord had already told me years before.”
Peer pressure can be considerable; a messenger urged Micaiah, “the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your words agree with theirs, and speak favorably” (1 Kings 22:13). Micaiah stood alone in proclaiming the truth and was jailed for it. (In the US today he would simply lose his market share of social media attention.) Jeremiah was confused because his message contradicted that of all the other prophets (Jer. 14:13).
Peer review has its place; in the church in Corinth, where few converts had been believers more than a couple years, those who prophesied needed to evaluate one another’s words (1 Cor. 14:29); the Spirit enables evaluation (1 Cor. 2:13–16). But it is possible to depend too much on a peer-review safety net: “‘Therefore,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me’” (Jer. 23:30).
Prophets and Pride
All believers hear from God: At the very least, his Spirit testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:16). Some are gifted to hear God in clearer ways than others; God has measured out faith for different gifts, and some thus prophesy—hear from and speak for God—more fully (Rom. 12:3, 6).
Unfortunately, if we grow overconfident in our gift, we may speak beyond the measure granted to us. (That is a temptation to which we who have the gift of teaching also may succumb; certainly those with the “gift” of commenting online often do.) Pride can mislead us: We humans have a temptation to take credit for God’s work or gift and make it about us. A gift—whether prophecy, teaching, giving, or the like—does not make us better than anyone else; by definition, it’s something we receive, not based on our merit (1 Cor. 4:7).
Not everyone who hears from God does so on the same level: Visions and dreams are often like riddles that require interpretation, as opposed to God speaking in person as he did with Moses (Num. 12:6–8). Most of us will experience that face-to-face knowing only when we see Jesus at his return (1 Cor. 13:8–12). Impressions and even fairly fluent prophecy still flow through frail vessels. The Lord’s assurance that everything will be all right does not always mean that the outcome will be the only scenario that we suppose “all right” must mean.
The humblest prophets who were wrong have apologized. Even when we speak initially, we must remain humble and frame our opinions carefully where we lack certainty.
Prophets and Presumption
Sometimes we may want to hear one thing from the Lord when he has something different to tell us. Sandford laments that he fell prey partly to “the tendency we have to hear what we want to hear.”
Sometimes we can be tempted to speak simply because people expect our voice, but that can risk drawing on the vaguest of impressions or inclinations, thus filling in with “visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16). “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings” (Jer. 23:21-22, NRSV).
Julian Adams, who prophesied specifically and accurately to my wife and me, also told me that people were expecting him to prophesy about certain coming events. He says that he resisted because the Lord simply hadn’t told him anything about them. He did not prophesy the election outcome. No surprise: The Lord did not show everything supernaturally even to Elisha (2 Kings 4:27).
Although overlap is possible, futurists aren’t prophets. Biblical prophecy is about declaring the word of the Lord, which is more a matter of revealing God’s heart (forthtelling) than about prediction (foretelling). Being a competent futurist—someone who predicts trends based on current events and significant information—has value for planning, but it is not identical with the biblical gift of prophecy. And even futurists are liable to give lopsided predictions when they get their news from only one source, whether on the Right or on the Left.
We also need to be flexible in applying what we believe we have heard. Jeremiah Johnson offered many accurate predictions, including Trump’s 2016 election even when he was a longshot candidate early in the Republican primaries. In his apology, however, he confesses that he read too much into some of what he heard earlier. Because God shows us a purpose for a season does not mean that this will remain his purpose.
Jonah was angry when God withdrew his promised judgment against the Ninevites (Jonah 3:4–4:3), but the Lord reminded Jeremiah that repentance or apostasy would affect outcomes (Jer. 18:6–11). God had his purpose in having Samuel anoint Saul as king over Israel. But Samuel didn’t assume that his earlier instruction meant that God planned for Saul to serve another term if Saul did not mature in his calling.
Elijah prophesied the obliteration of Ahab’s dynasty, but God told him afterward that because of Ahab’s repentance the judgment would be delayed (1 Kings 21:28–29). My theologian friends hold a range of views on how to explain this; my personal understanding is that though God foreknows the outcomes, he often speaks to us just what we need for the moment. We need to be ready to change course as needed.
Prophets and Public Platforms
Wicked kings tended to give platforms to false prophets or to corrupt them through political favor (1 Kings 18:22; 22:6–7; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Pet. 2:15). But who gives platforms to prophets, true or false, today?
Local accountability has warded off some errors and facilitated the process of introspection for those who have publicly repented of public errors. Acts 13 shows us prophets and teachers leading the church community in Antioch. Even when the visiting prophet Agabus predicted a global famine (which apparently hit different parts of the eastern Roman Empire at different times), believers in Antioch had to decide how to respond (Acts 11:27–30). Those listening for God’s voice should be tested and get their practice in small groups (analogous to ancient house churches) and other less potentially harmful local levels before obtaining the national stage.
Unfortunately, social media makes it next to impossible to control the national stage, and consumeristic North American Christians tend to gravitate toward what they’re inclined to hear (2 Tim. 4:3–4). It’s not the fault of true prophets and teachers if false ones often get higher view counts. Times when the prophetic voice is silent in the land are desperate times or even times of judgment (1 Sam. 3:1; Ps. 74:9; Isa. 29:10–12), but times when false prophecy dominates are worse (Jer. 37:19; Zech. 13:1–6).
This means that the law of supply and demand can affect religious media: When people do not want true prophecy, they will get what is false. People say “to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isa. 30:10). “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jer. 5:31 NRSV).
If consumers of a particular political or other bent want to hear prophecies that support their desires, prophets who meet those felt needs will become most popular. Recent history suggests that some of them will maintain most of their audiences even when their prophecies fail.
Especially in difficult times, most prophets tell people what they want to hear (Jer. 6:14; 8:11; 14:13), making things all the harder for true prophets (15:10, 15–18; 20:7–18). But God reveals the burden of proof: “From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jer. 28:8–9).
Pouring Out the Bath Water?
At the other extreme from inflexible defenders of prophecies are those who are tempted to throw out prophecy altogether, neglecting the baby in that bath water. When Paul urges us to examine everything, he also warns us not to despise prophecy (1 Thess. 5:19–22). When he exhorts us to evaluate prophecies (1 Cor. 14:29), he also urges us to pursue the gift (1 Cor. 14:1, 39).
What may be the Bible’s most sustained denunciation of false prophets (Jer. 23) is delivered through a true prophet, Jeremiah. “‘Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:28).
Three obscure persons, who did not know each other or me, independently prophesied to Médine Moussounga in Congo that someday she would marry a white man with an important ministry. There aren’t many white men in Congo. Yet Médine and I have been married now for about 19 years.
I am a Bible professor who gets to spend most of my time learning more about Scripture. Those we call prophets and teachers have much to learn from each other; prophets may offer insight in how Scripture applies to our generation (note Huldah in 2 Kings 22:11–20). But neither prophets nor teachers are writing Scripture today.
Whereas prophecies and spiritual intuitions must be tested, Scripture comes to us already having passed the test; there are good reasons why Jeremiah’s words are in our canon whereas those of the failed prophets of his day aren’t. Scripture offers a secure foundation.
Still, even Scripture must be interpreted, and diverse interpretations (and political biases) surface in teaching also. Those of us who exercise the gift of teaching deal with God’s Word in a far more explicit form, yet even we often differ on our interpretations. When we teachers say, “The Bible says,” but we are wrong, our interpretation is false. Teachers will be judged strictly (James 3:1), so we too must be humble and open to correction.
If we judged teachers as harshly as some judge prophets—one wrong interpretation and you’re out—we probably would not have any teachers today. (Based on the context, I do differ from the one-strike-out interpretation from Deuteronomy that many give prophecy today, but that is another subject.) But Scripture usually reserves titles of false prophecy and false teaching for the most serious of errors. If that means that our commentaries or classes must correctly explain every verse we engage, most of us would file for early retirement right now!
Persecution or Purification?
We have a mess to clean up on our US Christian landscape today. After Congress certified President Biden’s win, Johnson publicly repented for prophesying Trump’s reelection. To his astonishment, some professed Christians denounced him, cursed him, and even threatened his life. While we should avoid conspiracy theories, priests and prophets devised real conspiracies to kill the biblical Jeremiah for his unpatriotic prophecies (Jer. 11:21; 26:11). Diehard defenders of falsehoods can prove inflexible.
Instead of persecuting the repentant, we might do better to join them. While still believing that Trump would have been the better choice, Johnson lamented that many Christians put their hope in him. No president and no political party, right or left, can take the place of Jesus. It is not just the prophets who need repentance.
Christians may disagree among ourselves, but where we have divided from one another by putting politics over the one body that Christ died for, repentance is in order. The repentant prophets show us a way forward. If we seek revival, then repentance and humility are a good place to start.
If the Lord has humbled us, he has also given us an opportunity to learn. May we embrace this opportunity and take the steps necessary, bringing together different gifts in the body of Christ and—above all—humility.
Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Christobiography: Memories, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, which won a 2020 CT Book Award.
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