The Science of Probability and Messianic Prophecy

 

Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me? Jer 32:27

 

The reason why prophecy is an indication of the divine authorship of the Scriptures, and hence a testimony to the trustworthiness of the message of the Scriptures, is because of the minute probability of fulfillment. Anyone can make predictions, for that is simple. However, having prophecies fulfilled is vastly different. In fact, the more statements made about the future, and the more the detail, then the less likely the precise fulfillment will be.

 

For example, what is the likelihood of a person predicting today the exact city in which the birth of a future leader would take place, well into the 21st century? This is indeed what the prophet Micah did 700 years before the Messiah. Further, what is the likelihood of predicting the precise manner of death that a new, unknown religious leader would experience, a thousand years from now – a manner of death presently unknown, and to remain unknown for hundreds of years? Yet, this is indeed what David did in 1000 B.C.   Again, what is the likelihood of predicting the specific date of the appearance of some great future leader, hundreds of years in advance? Yet, this is indeed what Daniel did, 530 years before Christ. If one were to conceive 50 specific prophecies about a person in the future, who one would never meet, just what is the likelihood that this person will fulfill all 50 of the predictions? How much less would this likelihood be if 25 of these predictions were about what other people would do to him, and were completely beyond his control? For example, how does someone “arrange” to be born in a specific family? How does one “arrange” to be born in a specified city, in which their parents do not actually live? How does one “arrange” their own death – and specifically by crucifixion, with two others, and then “arrange” to have their executioners gamble for their clothing? How does one “arrange” to be betrayed in advance? How does one “arrange” to have the executioners carry out the regular practice of breaking the legs of the two victims on either side, but not their own? Finally, how does one “arrange” to be God? How does one escape from a grave and appear to people after having been killed?

 

Indeed, it may be possible for someone to fake one or two of the Messianic prophecies, but it would be impossible for any one person to arrange and fulfill all of these prophecies.  David Greenglass was a World War II traitor. He gave atomic secrets to the Russians and then fled to Mexico after the war. His conspirators arranged to help him by planning a meeting with the secretary of the Russian ambassador in Mexico City. Proper identification for both parties became vital. Greenglass was to identify himself with six prearranged signs. These instructions had been given to both the secretary and Greenglass so there would be no possibility of making a mistake. They were : (1) once in Mexico City Greenglass was to write a note to the secretary, signing his name as “I. Jackson”; (2) after three days he was to go to the Plaza de Colon in Mexico City and (3) stand before the statue of Columbus, (4) with his middle finger placed in a guide book. In addition, (5) when he was approached, he was to say it was a magnificent statue and that he was from Oklahoma. (6) The secretary was to then give him a passport. The six prearranged signs worked. Why? With six identifying characteristics it was impossible for the secretary not to identify Greenglass as the proper contact.  How true, then, it must be that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah if He had 456 identifying characteristics well in advance, and fulfilled them all!

 

In fact, what does the science of probability make of this? The science of probability attempts to determine the chance that a given event will occur. The value and accuracy of the science of probability has been well established beyond doubt – for example, insurance rates are fixed according to statistical probabilities. Professor Emeritus of Science at Westmont College, Peter Stoner, has calculated the probability of one man fulfilling the major prophecies made concerning the Messiah. The estimates were worked out by twelve different classes, representing some 600 college students. The students carefully weighed all the factors, discussed each prophecy at length, and examined the various circumstances which might indicate that men had conspired together to fulfill a particular prophecy. They made their estimates conservative enough so that there was finally unanimous agreement even among the most skeptical students. However, then Professor Stoner took their estimates and made them even more conservative. He also encouraged other skeptics or scientists to make their own estimates to see if his conclusions were more than fair. Finally, he submitted his figures for review to a Committee of the American Scientific Affiliation. Upon examination, they verified that his calculations were dependable and accurate in regard to the scientific material presented (Peter Stoner, Science Speaks, Chicago: Moody Press, 1969, 4). For example, concerning Micah 5:2, where it states the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, Stoner and his students determined the average population of Bethlehem from the time of Micah to the present; then they divided it by the average population of the earth during the same period. They concluded that the chance of one man being born in Bethlehem was one in 2.8 x 10^5 – or rounded, one in 300,000. After examining only eight different prophecies (Idem, 106), they conservatively estimated that the chance of one man fulfilling all eight prophecies was one in 10^17. To illustrate how large the number 10^17 is (a figure with 17 zeros), Stoner gave this illustration : If you mark one of ten tickets, and place all the tickets in a hat, and thoroughly stir them, and then ask a blindfolded man to draw one, his chance of getting the right ticket is one in ten. Suppose that we take 10^17 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote them in their own wisdom (Idem, 106-107).

 

In financial terms, is there anyone who would not invest in a financial venture if the chance of failure were only one in 10^17? This is the kind of sure investment we are offered by God for belief in His Messiah. Professor Stoner, from these figures, draws the conclusion the fulfillment of these eight prophecies alone proves that God inspired the writing of the prophecies (Idem, 107) – the likelihood of mere chance is only one in 10^17! Another way of saying this is that any person who minimizes or ignores the significance of the Biblical identifying signs concerning the Messiah would be foolish. But, of course, there are many more than eight prophecies. In another calculation, Stoner used 48 prophecies (Idem, 109) (even though he could have used Edersheim’s 456) and arrived at the extremely conservative estimate that the probability of 48 prophecies being fulfilled in one person is the incredible number 10^157.

 

How large is the number one in 10^157? 10^157 contains 157 zeros! Stoner gives an illustration of this number using electrons. Electrons are very small objects. They are smaller than atoms. It would take 2.5 times 10^15 of them, laid side by side, to make one inch. Even if we counted 250 of these electrons each minute and counted day and night, it would still take 19 million years just to count a line of electrons one-inch long (Stoner, op. cit., 109). With this introduction, let us go back to our chance of 1 in 10^157. Let us suppose that we are taking this number of electrons, marking one, and thoroughly stirring it into the whole mass, then blindfolding a man and letting him try to find the right one. What chance has he of finding the right one? What kind of a pile will this number of electrons make? They make an inconceivably large volume. The distance from our system of stars, or galaxy, to the next nearest one is nearly 1,500,000 light years; that is the distance that light will travel in 1,500,000 years going 186,000 miles each and every second. This distance is so great that if every man, woman and child in the United States, 200,000,000 of them, had a library of 65,000 volumes, and you collected every book in all of these libraries and then started on this journey of 1,500,000 light-years, and decided to place one letter from one of the books on each mile (e.g., if “the” was the first word in the first book you would put “t” on the first mile, “h” on the second mile, and “e” on the third mile; then leave a mile blank without a letter and start the next word in the same manner, etc.), before you complete your journey you will use up every letter in every book of every one of the libraries and have to call for more (Idem, 110). This is the result from considering a mere 48 prophecies! Obviously, the probability that 456 prophecies would be fulfilled in one man by chance is vastly smaller. According to Emile Borel, once one goes past one chance in 10^50, the probabilities are so small that it is impossible to think that they will ever occur.. As Stoner concludes, “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world (Stoner, op. cit., 112).”

 

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