Recognizing a False Prophet

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The world as we know it will end on October 21st of this year. That’s the newest claim by Christian broadcaster, Harold Camping. Camping earned his 15-minutes of fame when he predicted the rapture of believers and end of the world would take place on May 21st. Of course, we’re still here. Mr. Camping’s word failed to be fulfilled, so he moved on to a new date for his spurious claim.

Most people familiar with the scriptures can easily refute Camping’s doomsday claims by quoting a short, straightforward passage of scripture: Matthew 24:36, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” However, many people, possibly thousands, were taken in by Camping’s claims to know the end of days. Why did they fall into such a spiritual trap when they had the basics before them in the Bible? In fact, why do people follow cult leaders or organizations at all? What is it about people like Harold Camping, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, and so many others that people fall under their influence? Certainly lack of Bible knowledge plays a roll. Just because you call yourself a Christian and own a Bible doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what it really says. So how do you recognize the characteristics of such charismatic leaders? How do you know they are what the Bible refers to as “false prophets?”In addition to the guide written in Deuteronomy 18:20-22, here’s a seven-part test to help you recognize a modern-day false prophet.

  1. A false prophet’s words contradict the plain meaning of scripture. Did you take the time to read Camping’s online essay on why the world was supposed to end on May 21st? His uncomfortably long diatribe seemed to go on forever giving what he believed were solid evidences for the return of Christ last week. Yet all of his evidences were refuted by a single, plain-meaning passage of scripture (just quoted above). For most scripture the correct meaning is self-evident. A false prophet always tries to explain away the basic meaning of the Bible’s text.
  2. A false prophet changes the plain meaning of scripture or adds to scripture with his or her own “authoritative” writings. A great example of this is the Watchtower organization—better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower has its own version of the Bible that for the most part reads like any other—except for certain passages where Jesus makes his claim to deity. Those portions of text are rewritten, contrary to the source text (Greek), to give the reader a meaning that is completely foreign to the original writings. Mormonism does something similar. It adds to the Bible by placing it’s own writings, including the Book of Mormon, on a higher level that traditional scripture. Mormonism even takes words and concepts used in orthodox and evangelical Christianity and defines them to mean something completely different than what they’ve meant for the last two thousand years.
  3. A false prophet’s teachings contradict those of the church at large. Harold Camping’s claims are a great example of this. Camping’s claims contradicted the understanding of pastors, scholars, Christian professors, and everyday believers. The church at large had the issue of the return of Christ settled many centuries ago—no one knows the day of his return. II Timothy 4:3 speaks to why this is important: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Where do you stand with this scripture? Are you always looking to the next big thing or are the words of scripture for the last 2,000 years enough for you?
  4. Just like a narcissist, false prophets are unable to grasp the truth even when confronted with it. Camping is another great example of this truth. In interviews and confrontations he was challenged about his interpretations. He read the scriptures for himself and saw the challenge before him, but it did no good. False prophets are buried so deep in their own agenda that they cannot grasp the truth of the matter though it is plain as day before their eyes. This is true spiritual blindness.
  5. False prophets are hyper-exclusive with the claims of Christ. Cult leaders and false prophets claim to have a special knowledge not available to others, or they teach that only those who fall under their authority or the authority of their group are truly saved or “enlightened.” When you run into such a group, turn around and run the other way.
  6. Like a narcissist, false prophets don’t take responsibility when their words or agenda fails. Camping is a great example of this truth as well. After realizing that his doomsday prophecy had failed, Camping retreated to a motel to hide out then popped up again days later telling people that only his math was wrong, but not the prediction itself. Instead of taking responsibility and admitting his full error, Camping has given his prediction a new twist.
  7. A false prophet’s movement or organization is often gathered around one personality who becomes the defacto authority on God’s revelation.

Recognizing a False Prophet

How do you know you are part of an aberrant or heretical group? Check yourself against the seven traits above. Be honest and open with yourself. Prepare to be humble. It’s a hard thing to discover that what or who you may have believed in may be wrong. It can be embarrassing. Sometimes that shame involved can be more difficult that staying with the group. But take courage! Re-orienting your thinking may be difficult, but it will set a person straight and help ensure that your relationship with Christ is not in vain.

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