Most of you have probably seen the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie, weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) gets stuck in a time loop where he repeatedly relives the same day — Groundhog Day. Over the course of this weird experience, he falls in love with his producer Rita (played by Andie MacDowell). In trying to level with Rita about this phenomena, he has to demonstrate to her that he’s inexplicably reliving the same day over and over again.
So how does Phil prove such an extraordinary claim? Through some uncanny foresight.
Phil reveals personal particulars about the locals in the coffee shop. He then tells her about multiple, minute details about what’s going to happen in just a few moments, like someone dropping a tray of dishes or what one of his co-workers is going to say next. He even makes a theological point when he says to Rita saying, “Maybe God isn’t omniscient. Maybe he has just been around a long time and knows everything.”
OK, so omniscience doesn’t work that way on the Christian view. But when someone is able to accurately predict the future down to small details, it should be a sign to us that something rather spooky is going on.
In Isaiah, God repeatedly challenges Israel’s idols by saying only he can accurately predict the future and their lame idols can’t. Here’s Isaiah 44:7: “Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come— yes, let them foretell what will come.” If God’s prophets can repeatedly and accurately predict the future, then like Rita, we ought to at least be curious about what else he has to say to us.
Is prophecy verifiable?
But how can we really test this out? Christian philosophers Robert Newman, Hugh Gauch, and John Bloom propose that we could use scientific control of a sort. What do I mean by that? For starters, we can see what the Bible has to say about ancient cities. To explain, here’s Newman, Gauch, and Bloom:
“We can take two cities that might be paired because they were in the same nation or region, or were of similar size and importance. The only significant difference between the pair is that the predicted fate of one city differs substantially from that of the other. Since merely switching city names would result in a decidedly different prediction, such “twin city” pairs provide an excellent test of the predictive accuracy of biblical prophets.”Public Theology And Prophecy Data: Factual Evidence That Counts for The Biblical World View, Robert C. Newman, John A. Bloom, And Hugh G. Gauch
When we do these “twin city” pairings and then reverse the names and see if they could still be accurate, this takes things out of the realm of just some really good guesswork. Borrowing heavily from Newman, Bloom, and Gauch (hey, that sounds like a law firm), I’ll look at three “twin city” pairings. The control concept lets us compare the prophetic descriptions of these modern cities today.
1. Babylon and Ninevah
Babylon used to be the cultural and political center of the world for centuries. It was the size of modern-day Chicago. While the Bible writers spoke of Babylon with contempt, they didn’t underestimate her power and influence. And ancient writers outside the Bible spoke of Babylon in tones of awe. Herodotus, for example, writes:
“The city stands on a broad plain and is an exact square, a hundred and twenty stadia in length each way so that the entire circuit is four hundred and eighty stadia. While such is its size, in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. It is surrounded, in the first place, by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width and two hundred in height.”
By inspiration, Isaiah made a stunning prediction: “It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there; no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there. But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats will dance. Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged.” (Isaiah 13:20-22)
The prophet Jeremiah also chimed in: “No stone shall be taken from you for a corner and no stone for a foundation, but you shall be a perpetual waste, declares the Lord.” (Jer 51:26)
The traditional dates for both of these two prophets range from 750-550 BC. By 150 BC Babylon was in a steep state of decline. Most of the population moved 20 miles to the newer city of Seleucia. The famous Greek geographer Strabo, writing during the time of Jesus, jokingly remarked that “the great city is a great desert.” (Geography 16.1.5)
What about today? Here’s how David Roos of HowStuffWorks.com describes modern-day Babylon:
“Two millennia of looting and warfare reduced Babylon to the barest of ruins. In the early 20th century, German archeologists recovered remnants of the Processional Way and reconstructed its blue-glazed tile murals at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It was Saddam Hussein who took up Nebuchadnezzar’s mantle and tried to reconstruct some of Babylon’s former glory, but ended up with what art historians decried as “Disney for a despot.” … Babylon itself is mainly a ruin…”
The Euphrates River used to flow through the heart of the city has eroded away the ruins that may have been on its western bank. Moreover, the river has changed its main course since ancient times, leaving a swampy area in its place where no sheep can graze.
For our control, now let’s take a look at Ninevah, the former capital of the great Assyrian Empire. Here’s what the prophet Zephaniah predicted about Ninevah in around 609 to 640 BC:
“And he will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert. Herds shall lie down in her midst, all kinds of beasts; even the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals; a voice shall hoot in the window; devastation will be on the threshold; for her cedar work will be laid bare. This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist.” (Zephaniah 2:13-15)
Bloom’s following comments point out a very interesting contrast:
“Today the ruins of Nineveh, which are across the river from Mosul, Iraq, include on-site museums and some parts are threatened by suburban growth. Strikingly, the largest mound of the site bears the old Arabic name Kuyunjiq, which means “many sheep.” Irrigation and rainfall are generally plentiful enough that the plains around the mound are cultivated, and the ruins in this area are grazed during the rainy season. Note the contrast between the prophecies made against these two former world capitals: One will be desolate forever, unoccupied, not even useful for grazing. The other will be desolate for an unspecified time but will be grazed. Had the city names been reversed, neither picture of desolation would be accurate.”
2. Memphis and Thebes
Ezekiel 30:14 says: “Thus says the Lord God: “I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis; there shall no longer be a prince from the land of Egypt; so I will put fear in the land of Egypt.”
For centuries Egypt was well-known for its idols, and these were two capital cities and religious centers for Egypt’s upper and lower kingdom. So Ezekiel making such a prophecy was a brassy move. At the time of Christ, Strabo said that the city was still a great religious center for the Egyptians and was as large as Alexandria. He described it as having many gods, temples, and statues occupying it. (Strabo, Geography, 19.1.31-32)
Fast-forward to the 7th-century and Egypt was conquered by Muslims. The army headquarters of Fustat eventually became Cairo, and the population of Memphis eventually drifted 15 miles in that direction. Memphis became a quarry. The idols and images of Memphis were destroyed to build the new city of Cairo. One of the few major remains is a colossal statue of Ramses II. All other discoveries of monuments to ancient gods have come through much excavation.
Interestingly, the prophet also mentioned there would be no more princes. After nearly 2,800 years of “princes”, the last native Pharaoh (Nectanebo II) died in 342 BC.
Ezekiel also had some harsh words for the city of Thebes, which was the largest city in southern Egypt: “I will…inflict punishment on Thebes. I will…wipe out the hordes of Thebes. I will set fire to Egypt;…Thebes will be taken by storm.” (Ezek. 30:14-16)
Thebes was attacked repeatedly. Nebuchadnezzar and Cambyses captured and burned the city, but it recovered. Ptolemy Lathyrus (Cleopatra’s grandfather) burned the city in 92 BC, yet Thebes recovered once again. Finally in 29 BC, Cornelius Gallus led a campaign to subdue a revolt in Thebes and laid waste to it. Thebes is now the modern-day city of Luxor, which has a population of 500,000. Notice that Ezekiel said the hordes would be cut off, but it wouldn’t just lay in ruin like Babylon or Ninevah.
The ruins of Thebes still stand and it’s a big tourist attraction. Luxor has frequently been characterized as the “world’s greatest open-air museum”, as the ruins of the temple complexes stand within the modern city. So again, if you reverse the names of these prophecies for these twin cities, they wouldn’t be fulfilled.
3. Tyre and Sidon
Tyre and Sidon are another pair of twin cities that have some striking prophecies made against them. Tyre and Sidon were the modern-day equivalent of Boston and New York in terms of population and commerce.
In 587 BC, Ezekiel foretold their fall. Here’s what he said about Tyre: “thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword…They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters…I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the Lord; I have spoken, declares the Lord God.” (Ezek 26:4-5,12,14)
Note that verse 3 says that ‘many nations’ will attack Tyre. In 586 BC it was attacked by Babylon. One could say this was just a good guess by the prophet and that would be a fair complaint. But in 332 BC Alexander the Great led an onslaught against Tyre once again. In Ezekiel 26:6-11 we read that Tyre’s coastal suburbs will also be razed in a specific manner — their stones and timber and soil would be cast into the waters. This is exactly what Alexander the Great did centuries later.
“The refusal of the Tyrians to surrender led Alexander to connect the isle to the mainland with the construction of a causeway, one of the most difficult marine engineering tasks of that era…The stones of the fresh ruins of ancient Tyre (previously destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar), together with trees limbs, were drawn into the water, and stones and sand were placed on top of them in order to build the mole.”Yaacov Nir, “The City of Tyre, Lebanon and its Semi-artificial Tombolo”
Those are some pretty crazy accurate details that happened over 200 years later. Tyre was annihilated as Ezekiel foretold. Now some skeptics say this isn’t true, people do live in Tyre today. But they are confusing Phoenician Tyre with Alexandrian Tyre. Alexander didn’t rename the city, but he did replace it. The empire was erased and her structures were demolished. v. 4-5 says that people would live there again, but it would be reduced to a smaller fishing town, not the majestic city that it once was. Alexander replaced the population by a colony of Greeks and Carians and allowed a few Phoenician sympathizers.
This would be like if in some alternative universe Hitler destroyed New York City and kept the same name, but NYC would be reduced from a booming metropolis to the size of Portland, Maine and then populated it with Nazi Germans and Nazi sympathizers. Furthermore, the Mamelukes destroyed Alexandrian Tyre in 1291 AD. Not until 1930 did it again become repopulated.
Now let’s look at Tyre’s sister city Sidon as a control. Ezekiel predicts (Ezek 28:22-23) that Sidon would experience war, plague, and famine. But he ignores their fate long-term. All our records show that Sidon wasn’t abandoned for centuries as Tyre was. If Ezekiel or some later editor came along and switched the names of these two cities in their predictions, neither would’ve come to pass.
The Bible contains real prophecies
That these major cities would be destroyed eventually might be an easy guess. But that some of these sites would remain desolate for thousands of years defies the odds, especially given the varying details for each city. And it’s eyebrow-raising how the outcomes of Thebes and Memphis differ so strikingly. The idols were destroyed or buried in Memphis, but Thebes is a giant drive-thru museum. That these prophetic words could come to pass with such accurateness should arrest our attention. And again, if we just switch the details with the twin cities, they wouldn’t be precise.
Sorry for another 90s movie reference, but it’s like Biff Tannen getting all his sports bets correct. After a while, we should get suspicious about where he got all his knowledge from. No one is that good.
God knows the future better than we know the past. These prophetic signs aren’t based on eyewitness testimony like miracles are, we can actually read the history books and look into these things first-hand. These prophecies demonstrate the inspiration of the Scriptures and should want to make us read more about what God says to us.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.