No matter the language, the culture or the period of time, man always sought to see the future. And information about the future can be obtained in three ways: divine revelation, divination and deduction (anticipation). The first represents a gift from divinity, the second is pure fantasy and the third is an essential part of life, but it tends to become a scientific field.
The claim of seeing the future through divine revelation or divination is called “prophecy” (or “prevision”). The receptor of the prophecy is called “prophet” (or “seer”), and his role is to share the knowledge about the future with the others. Instead, knowing the future through deduction is named “prediction,” and this is the subject of the next point of study. So, prophecy and prediction are two distinct things.
A veritable prophecy is always the outcome (or the effect) of a divine revelation (which, basically, is a miracle). A divine revelation can occur inside the prophet’s being – and in this case only the prophet becomes aware of it through dreams, visions and premonitions inspired by God; or it can occur outside the prophet’s being – when the divinity reveals itself to the prophet through extraordinary sensorial occurrences (angels, signs in the environment or the materialization of supernatural entities) that can be observed by other individuals, non-prophets, as well.
A prophecy is revealed independently from the will of the individual and exclusively due to the divine will. God, for unknown reasons, reveals important information about the future to a man who, in turn, must further transmit this information to other people. The real prophets are in fact channels of communication between God and the world; they are God’s messengers. In the Bible there are numerous examples of prophets and prophecies. Isaiah announces Christ’s incarnation 700 years in advance: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Daniel the prophet speaks about the fate of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek-Macedonian and Roman Empires (Daniel 2; 7-8; 9-12). And John the Apostle experiences divine revelations whereupon he writes the Book of Revelation, which basically is a long line of prophecies.
Divination (Latin: divinare – “to foresee,” “to be inspired by God”) is that part of mysticism that refers to the attempt to achieve knowledge about a past, present or future aspect by using a certain ritual or process. Divination has been practiced since ancient times, constantly evolving. It aims to explain the environment where the rational means failed to do it. Diviners obtain information by reading the signs, by experiencing visions or premonitory events, or through an alleged contact with a supernatural entity. The act of divination is sometimes accompanied by the consumption of hallucinogenic substances or the using of instruments, such as the crystal globe or the pendulum, meant to induce the individual in a sort of a trance, a state of semi-consciousness in which hallucinations blend with reality. The best-known method of divination is, indisputably, astrology (reading the stars), which transcends the temporal, cultural and geographical barriers. Ancient people were obsessed with divination, Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures being populated by a multitude of silly practices such as scatomancy (reading the shape of the excrements), geomancy (reading the shape of the soil), hidromancy (reading the shape of the water), alomancy (reading the shape of the salt) or lampadomancy (reading the movements of the flame).48
In Christianity, as in Judaism, divination has been a delicate issue. In the Old Testament (Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 18:6; 1 Samuel 14:42) the Israelites practiced cleromancy, or casting of lots, while in other parts it is categorically condemned: “neither shall ye use enchantments, nor practise augury. ... Turn ye not unto them that have familiar spirits, nor unto the wizards” (Leviticus 19:26, 31). Hence, theoretically, divination was rejected by Christianity. Practically, however, some methods were rejected, others were tolerated and others were even practiced. After the 5th century, when the Christian religion became a force within Roman society, many methods of divination disappeared from European culture. Others, however, were later invented or imported from Asia. No one can say exactly how many methods of divination have been invented all over the world, but their number exceeds 100. In any case, at the moment divination is rejected by the scientific community for being a mere superstition.
Both the prophet and the diviner (fortune-teller) advance prophecies, but there is a crucial difference between illumination and divination: while the diviner wishes and aims to obtain information about the future, the prophet simply receives it from God. The diviner spends time studying books of magic, the position of the stars, the crystal globe or the environment. He relies on the belief that there is a magical and unknown connection between the different layers of the Universe, dimensions he can explore and from within which he can gather information about the future of the real world. By contrast, the prophet is an ordinary man, with an ordinary occupation. He has no intention in seeing the future, does not use methods to explore unknown dimensions and he is not searching for signs in the environment. Prophets see the future simply because God chose them and illuminated them about his plans.
Most diviners are self-proclaimed prophets or they are wrongly given the status of prophets. Diviners are in fact false prophets. The real prophets and the false prophets can always be distinguished according to their intention. The real prophets never seek to see the future nor do they use interrogation methods on divinity. God is infinitely stronger than man, and therefore the communication between man and God depends solely on the will of the latter. A prophecy is not the result of a prophetic ability, but of an involuntary communication with God. The true prophets do not have a gift (ability) to see the future, but only information about the future that were given to them by God. So, contrary to popular opinion, the so-called “gift of prophecy” (or the “gift of premonition”49) does not exist. The idea that it can be acquired through different methods or practices is an invention of the diviners’ brotherhood. If there is indeed a gift of prophecy, this means that God can be compelled to automatically respond with miracles when man performs a certain ritual, which is simply absurd.
A prophecy is basically a miracle because it cannot happen without direct divine intervention. Likewise, false prophecies are like false miracles, being expressions of heresy, pride and selfishness. The biblical prophets always prophesied after they had been enlightened by God. A true prophet never claims he has the gift of prophecy, does not make prophecies on request and cannot choose the setting (the time and the place) in which he is going to experience prophetic revelations; this is the behavior of the diviner, sorcerer or impostor, who aims to create a certain social impression regarding his own person.
To prophesy about the end of the world or to claim a messianic role most likely involves a significant dose of insanity. An apocalyptic prophecy can be very profitable, but very risky too. A convincing prophecy can bring unimaginable material benefits, followers as slaves, an armed force and power of decision over crowds. On the other hand, depending on the historical period, a failed prophecy was followed by death penalty, excommunication, mockery, lynching, banishment or loss of freedom.
Messiahs and false prophets apparently play the role of mediators between their followers and God. These charismatic personalities claim divine visions, illumination and a divine ability of interpreting the scriptures. They manipulate their followers through truth distortions, filtering information, exaggeration of own virtues to the level of miraculousness, concealment of the shameful past, inhibition of logic and reason to the stage of blind trust, and the setting of an environment of fear and tension. However, as Nephi Morris explains, any false ideological construction inevitably collapses to the test of time:
Time is the supreme test of a prophecy. He who undertakes to foretell events must know that Time in its merciless pursuit will find him out. Of all the pretenses of the false prophet, prophesying is the most hazardous. Religious impostors often display qualities of leadership in controlling the affairs of their followers. The more modest their pretenses, however, the more likely are they to escape detection and exposure. But when spiritual leaders assume to exercise the exalted function of prophecy, and have the courage to publish their prophecies, they place their reputations before the bar of the world, and as the weight of Time presses out the vintage of the centuries they must sink to a deserving oblivion or be exalted to a place in the skies. Time is a foe of Fraud, but the never-failing friend of Truth.50
Aware of this thing, some false prophets developed genuine protection techniques against the reaction of followers or society. Some set the day of the end so far in time that at the moment of truth the oracle will be long dead. Prophesying distant dates is like claiming inner divine illumination; no one can verify if God offered information about future events until the designated time. Others prepare explanations in advance for their prophetic failure. In any case, the enduring followers never discredit the notion; they redefine and reorganize the doctrinal details and with a new confidence they start again to wait for the end.
Another technique of apocalyptic manipulation involves the establishment of a state of euphoria and indefinite expectation within the group. Unlike the prophets who dare to venture in exact dates, there are also those who do not bet on something definite, but they insist on the idea that “the end is near” or “the end is coming soon.” The prophecy is vague and uncertain, but scary enough to create a sense of vulnerability. The terms “soon” and “close” are very nebulous: they can mean tomorrow, next year, or even over a thousand years.
The image of a global end confers a higher meaning to the individual life, because the miraculous finality of history is preferable to an ordinary and personal death. The illusion of grandiosity attracts in this odyssey individuals from all social classes, no matter the social status or wealth. The perfect apocalyptic follower is uneducated, frustrated, timorous, overrun by guilt, overzealous, well-intentioned and never asks questions. Lacking confidence in his own person and God, he desperately seeks a guide to lead him toward certainty and peace of mind. Under the cloak of a wooden religiosity the human mind attempts to create the unreal, to imagine or to claim things that defy any logical argument. The unseen transforms into vision, the imperfect becomes perfect, and the trivial gains the crucial status. As a result, each cult sees the future and the outside world through the eyes of their own saints. The doctrinal definitions, the relationships with society, the degree of isolation – everything is determined by the saint of the system.
The attempt to determine the future by using supernatural methods comes to offer a false sense of certainty and security when the scientific methods failed to provide certain answers. It is interesting that the current technology amazes us through the benefits it offers, but it cannot eradicate the industry of magic, populated by witches, astrologers, horoscopes and prophets. In a vast computing environment the apocalyptic speculations turned into a cultural movement, with individuals, shows, books and pamphlets that promote over and over again the same frightful image of the future. The ultra-specialization of work and knowledge, so necessary to the progress of modern society, allowed mankind to rapidly climb toward heights of power, but left the individual vulnerable in the face of miraculousness. Homo universalis, the Renaissance man whose expertise covers a significant number of subject areas, cannot survive in the current setting. The ultra-specialization deprives the individual of the big picture: he may well have a PhD in chemistry, but at the same time he has no clue about philosophy; certificate of merit in physics, but clueless about the religious phenomenon; expert in literature, but without any idea about mathematics. The lack of the big picture can trigger feelings of spiritual emptiness, depression, uselessness, dispositions toward thrilling activities or the integration in extremist sects. Naturally, the spiritual cost involves a material one. The need to know the future has always been a source of income. From ordinary horoscopes marketed by the media to complex prophecies, knowing the future is a product consumed on an industrial scale, from simple men and stars to the highest authorities.
You might also be interested in:
Shortly after he came to power in 306, Emperor Constantine the Great promoted religious tolerance in order to stop the conflicts within the empire. But Constantine was not prepared to become a Christian; he only converted in 312 and continued to hold the pagan position of Pontifex Maximus (a title discarded by emperors, but later taken by the Papacy: the “Supreme Pontiff”). In the spring of 313 Constantine, together with Licinius...
...Even though he is often brought into question and he is the subject of hundreds of studies, little is known about the life of Nostradamus. Of Jewish origins, Nostradamus was born in 1503 in Southern France, being one of the approximately nine children of Renée de Saint-Rémy and the notary Jaume de Nostredame. Following the trend of the time, Nostradamus was a polymath: he learned several languages, studied history, mathematics...
The Millerite ash was the ideal fertilizer for the rise of several groups generically called “Adventist.” All these groups preserved, more or less, the features of Millerism and have been characterized by the obsession for the end of the world. Of all, the best-known group is the one initiated by Hiram Edson and Joseph Bates, and later completed by James and Ellen White. In January 1845 Joseph Turner tried to explain the Great Disappointment through...