I have thought for some time that it would be fun to make a tongue-in-cheek series of posts titled “How To Be a Convincing False Prophet 101” in which I list common techniques of Non-Prophets or S.A.P.’s (Self-Appointed Prophets) to appear powerfully predictive and prophetic when, in reality, they are absolutely not in any way.
However, I have been trying to reign in that impulse to be tongue-in-cheek so often. It isn’t an evil impulse in and of itself, but it does risk spraining the tongue and bruising the cheek if done too often. But the information about the techniques such Non-Prophets use is still worthwhile, so today I list one: “Arbitrage through Tautology.”
In my studies as an actuary, arbitrage opportunities in investment were one of the elements we examined, looking at how a perfect theoretical market allows no arbitrage. Arbitrage is essentially a risk-free profit opportunity. It should never exist in a perfect market, because there is supposed to be an inviolable relationship between risk and reward: No risk = no reward; greater risk = greater potential reward (or failure). Wikipedia (“Always right, except when it’s not!”™) describes arbitrage very simply: “the possibility of a risk-free profit at zero cost” In that way, the name fits the technique I am about to mention perfectly: Non-prophet arbitrage is the possibility of risk-free “prophecy” at zero cost. (Except the cost isn’t truly zero, since it destroys your credibility among those who are paying attention…)
Consider the following statement — a mercifully paraphrased version of a statement actually seen in the wild: “The next pope will either be the final antichrist, help pave the way for the final antichrist, or will resist the antichrist.”
Wow! Sounds powerful and prophetic! Except that it is neither powerful nor prophetic. It is actually contains virtually no information whatsoever and is a risk-free pronouncement since it is virtually a tautology — that is, a statement that must be true and cannot be false. In rhetoric, a tautology is a statement that is constructed in such a way that it appears to be saying something when, in the end, it really says nothing. For instance, had someone said last year, “I can tell you one thing, either President Obama will win in 2012 or else he won’t,” he would, in the end, be saying exactly nothing. Of course the President will either win the election or he won’t. In the late 80s, the proper response to such a statement was, “No duh.” (And I note that James Taranto of the WSJ’s “Best of the Web Today” feature consistently mocks such statements in the news under his regular “Out on a Limb” feature.)
This explains why statements about the pope such as that one are neither powerful nor prophetic in any way. They are, instead, what experts call “super-duper wimpy” (a technical theological term).
Let’s look at it: “The next pope will either be the final antichrist, help pave the way for the final antichrist, or will resist the final antichrist.”
Given that the pope is in charge of the Roman Catholic Church, this statement is virtually a tautology — a statement that cannot be false in any way. For instance, consider the universe of possibilities:
1) The next pope is the final antichrist. Done! Non-prophet is “proven” correct.
2) The next pope is not the final antichrist. Is still correct! Look at possibilities:
2A) The next pope continues Catholic teachings as they are. Done! Time moves forward, the stage continues to be set for the final antichrist, and the way continues to be paved! Non-prophet is “proven” correct.
2B) The next pope changes things. Well, if he changes them in a way that would make things more like what one would picture concerning the final antichrist: Done! The way continues to be paved, only faster. But, if he changes them in a way that would seem to resist the sort of arrangement that the future final antichrist would want: Still done! His actions resist the direction of the final antichrist. In both cases, non-prophet is “proven” correct.
Really, how can such a statement be false? It can’t be. No matter what happens, the “statement” is correct. It’s risk-free and completely non-prophetic. It’s a gutless statement that makes a mockery of the biblical office of Prophet.
Now, it isn’t that statements such as that don’t have a function in instruction, such as in clarifying the universe of choices for a person in terms they can understand. I do it all the time with my kids. But when it comes to prophecy, they are pointless. One might as well go to Disneyland, point at the guy wearing the Mickey suit and say, “If he lives long enough, Mickey Mouse either will be the final antichrist, will support the final antichrist, or will be against the final antichrist.” Given that in the context of biblical prophecy, neutrality is not an option, such a statement is going to be true no matter what happens in the future. And when a pronouncement is just as true of Mickey Mouse as it is the pope, you don’t have a Prophet in your midst.
And, importantly, when someone makes such a statement and then points back to it (“See, I said that the next pope might pave the way for the final antichrist!”), they are making no substantive claim whatsoever. Though claiming prophecy-proving fruits, in reality they are making no claim at all. Their previous comment was completely devoid of information, so they were making a risk-free statement: Creating a cost-free, risk-free arbitrage opportunity for themselves. Not exactly the biblical model for prophetic statements. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s neither prophecy nor even carnal “prediction” — it’s just wasted words.
Yet, as I mentioned, it isn’t truly cost-free. When such statements are made, those who are thinking will notice and will understand the spirit that motivates them, and it isn’t a “prophetic” one. And the Non-Prophet will lose credibility. At least, we should hope so.
I’ll consider posting more such deceptive techniques in the future, and regrettably “Arbitrage through Tautology” is only one of many. The Bible says that there would be many false prophets in the end times seeking to deceive God’s people and coming in Christ’s name (e.g., Matt. 7:15-20; 24:4-5, 11; 2 Peter 2:1; et al.), and they may be sincere — not just deceiving, but self-deceived, as well (cf. 2 Tim. 3:13), since Jeremiah 17:9 applies to all of us — but as Mr. Armstrong frequently said, one can be sincere but sincerely wrong. Frankly, such wishy-washy, risk-free tautologies aren’t necessarily crafted by people out to deceive in many cases — often the statement is simply an outgrown of the person’s own inner doubts and the fact that they are not, actually, a prophet. So in expressing all the possibilities they need to express in order to ensure they will be correct, the result is a tautology that never will be — the only kind of guaranteed “prophecy” a plain old, human, carnal mind can come up with.
Making statements and pronouncements that sound impressive but, in reality, are wishy-washy and cannot truly ever be false because they cover every realistic possibility does not a Prophet make. But for a Non-Prophet wanting to look prophetic, they do great.