Faith and False Prophets

A rational person, in view of the innumerable contradictions emerging from religious spokesmen, will conclude that false prophets indisputably exist. And one wonders: if one’s personal encounters are primarily with such false prophets, can faith still be activated, and operate constructively?  Of course, even the worst charlatans can be catalysts to further exploration for “seekers,” but social pressures, cultural norms, and dogmatic incrustations can offer obstacles to such exploration.  And the obstacles are formidable.

So it is important to be able to recognize true prophets, if they exist, and avoid the false ones.  Do we have guidelines for this?

A thought-experiment is in order: An extraordinary charismatic individual comes on the scene, claiming to have visions and revelations, with what seem to be lofty messages, and claiming to start a new religion or give a new direction and new life to an established religion.  We hear his/her messages, and, along with others, face the choice of placing faith in this person, or not.  What should be our criterion?  Should we look for miraculous signs?  Or focus on personal morals, integrity, absence of personality disorders?  Or check for consistency of the messages with prior revelations to which we have given credence in the past?

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At the minimum, we might insist on the personal fidelity of the prima-facie divine messenger to the primary natural laws. (I discussed the natural-law relevance in a 2009 article in the Heythrop Review.)   But obviously something more would be required to certify someone as a bona fide prophet sent by God.

In the New Testament, Jesus offers some criteria to his disciples for avoiding false prophets:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.  By their fruits you will know them.  Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit (Matthew 7:15-18).

If we would ask for further clarification about how to discern which prophets fit into the category of “ravenous wolves,” and/or what is the “bad fruit” that we should watch out for, the revered prophets of the Old Testament, dealing with the false prophets of their own milieu, go into considerable detail about who and what to look for:  The false prophets characteristically lie about being sent by God (Isaiah 23:32; Jeremiah 14:14, 28:15); they promote their own visions and predictions of the future (Jeremiah 23:16; Ezekiel 13:2-4); they often plagiarize the ideas and expressions of true prophets, in order to get credence from their hearers (Isaiah 23:30; Jeremiah 23:30-31); they are personally immoral, and condone immorality in their followers (Isaiah 23:17: Jeremiah 23:14); and/or they use religion greedily to increase their own wealth (Ezekiel 22:25).

Possibly the best modern example of plagiarizing by a reputed prophet is the creation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in the 19th century.  Smith claimed to receive golden plates at the hands of the angel Moroni, from which he translated the Book of Mormon, with the help of two “seer stones,” later called Urim and Thummin.  The Book of Mormon on publication was replete with passages from the King James version of the Bible used at that time, including the mistranslations and misspellings that have been later discovered and corrected.  These passages were used to develop  a history of Hebrew tribes who, in spite of a complete lack of anthropological evidence, came to America under the leadership of Jesus Christ, after the Christian church founded by Jesus “apostatized” soon after the era of the Apostles.

Fantastically imaginative tales are another production of false prophets. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, offers us an egregious example of this idiosyncratic creativity.   According to Muhammad, blacks came into existence trillions of years ago, attained tremendous progress, but were obstructed by a mad black scientist, Mr. Yakub, who created the white race, the members of which would reign for six thousand years, until blacks finally regained their rightful place in the year 2000.

Unbridled sexual desires have been the hallmark of numerous “prophetic” personalities.  Joseph Smith, advocating polygamy and promising eternal salvation to “celestial” wives who were married to him, took approximately 48 wives in addition to his first wife, Emma, who was often unaware of the other liaisons.  David Koresh, prophetic leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed that he was divinely entitled to 60 wives, but was joined to only 20, including some teenagers, before the tragic assault of the FBI on the Waco headquarters of the sect in 1993.  Elijah Muhammad had thirteen children by seven different mistresses, and also exemplified a lavish and greedy lifestyle, traveling around in a private jet, wearing a jeweled fez, and emptying the coffers of the Nation of Islam in prodigal gift-giving to his own family.

The personal characteristics and teachings of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam—if they had been known by the prophets of Israel—would have set off a series of “flashing red warning-lights.”  According to his 8th-century biographer, Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad participated in 27 battles and 38 raiding parties. Various verses in the Qur’an sanctified the taking of booty and slaves (8:41, 8:69), and decreed that one-fifth of the booty should be given to himself for distribution as he sees fit (8:41).  Allowing his followers to have four wives, he received a divine exception to this rule (33:50), and maintained a harem of 15 wives, including a child-bride, Aisha; and Zaynab, the wife of his adopted son, Zayd, to whom he was attracted (Zayd, in response to Muhammad’s perceived interest, divorced Zaynab, and Muhammad subsequently received special permission from Allah for the new arrangement [33:37]).  Special permission was also granted by Allah for Muhammad’s relationship with an Egyptian slave girl, Mary the Copt, after some of Muhammad’s other wives had protested (66:1-3).  Lying, in order to avoid physical or mental injury, and to preserve the faith, is allowed to Muslims, according to the principle of taqiyya (dissimulation) (2:22, 3:28, 5:89, 16:106); and, according to the precedent of Hudaybiyya (named after a battle with that name), Muslims can break treaties with unbelievers, if and when they are strong enough to prevail against them (2:217).  The messages and patterns of behavior of Muhammad differ so radically from the guidelines given by the prophets of Israel, that the traditional meaning of “prophet” and “prophecy” is completely abrogated.

But seduction by false prophets is not necessarily a dead-end road.  In psychology and the social sciences, studies are sometimes conducted of “invulnerables”—underprivileged children or adolescents who have been raised in oppressive or abusive environments, and nevertheless not only survive but excel, thus challenging the predictive powers of social scientists who assess probable influences of environments.  It is estimated that “invulnerables” are found in about 10% of such difficult situations.

If the case of people of faith under the spell, or the jurisdiction, or the social pressures, of a false prophet, is somewhat analogous to such dysfunctional spiritual environments, we may speculate that a percentage even higher than 10%, in spite of all prima-facie obstacles to spiritual development from self-absorbed or perverted “prophets,” can rise to the level of true faith. In pursuit of salvation, they can utilize the elements of spirituality and transcendence existing in every religion, and assiduously follow the dictates of conscience—i.e., respecting life and the rights of others, furthering human and humane interests, and seeking the truth about God and salvation at all costs.  This is a well-worn ladder that has been providentially provided for well-intentioned seekers even under the influence of charlatans.

Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from Dr. Kainz’s recent book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (Associated University Presses, 2011). The image above is of Joseph Smith painted by an unknown artist in 1842.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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