The Conditional Nature of Bible Prophecy
by Dan Appel
Every verse of the sometimes psychedelic, Technicolor world of the book of Revelation seems to teem with creatures and terrain straight out of Tolkien. Its poetic language whips back and forth between symbol and reality, its perspective at times jerking from present to future and back again like a midway roller coaster ride. As we travel through this intriguing book, several principles need to be kept in mind. One of these is the conditional nature of prophecy.
Prophets are peculiar people. Sometimes they are speaking to their day in vivid jeremiads; other times they are looking far off into the future, their minds and prophetic eyes guided by the Spirit of God. At various times they may confront, cajole and exhort the people in their present day even as they predict events far in advance. They are always living and speaking out their message in words that can be both clear and obtuse at the same time.
We must keep in mind the principle that all Bible prophecy, except prophecy directly related to salvation, is conditional. It is conditional either because God changes his mind when circumstances change, or because people change the circumstances for which the prophecy was given.
Several commentators express this principle very clearly (emphasis added by column writer):
“The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional.”1 E.G. White, Evangelism, p. 695
“The principle of conditionality is not a hermeneutical gimmick contrived by Seventh-day Adventists . . . . Conditional prophecy, or controlled uncertainty, is a biblical principle applied to the statements of a predictive nature that concern or involve the response of men and women. Whenever an unfolding of events depends upon human choice, certain aspects of prophetic fulfillment are necessarily conditional . . . .” (The author then goes on to quote Deuteronomy 28:1,2,15.) Herbert Douglass, The End, page 58.
“The Scriptures teach that all of the prophecies, covenants, promises and threats found in the Scriptures are conditional whether or not a condition is stated; their fulfillment is contingent upon man’s response to God’s commands.” Tim Crosby, Ministry, August 1986
“In the King James, the Hebrew word “niphal” is translated “repent” 38 times. The majority of these instances refer to God's repentance, not man's . . . Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin. Yet the Scriptures inform us that God repents (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 32:14; Judges 2:18; 1 Samuel 15:11, et al.), i.e., he relents or changes his dealings with men according to his sovereign purposes. On the surface, such language seems inconsistent, if not contradictory, with certain passages which affirm God's immutability . . . i.e., 1 Samuel 15:11, 29; Psalm 110:4. When (repent) is used of God, however, the expression is anthropopathic and there is not ultimate tension. From man's limited, earthly, finite perspective it only appears that God's purposes have changed. Thus the OT states that God "repented" of the judgments or "evil" which he had planned to carry out. (1 Chronicles 21:15; Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3,19; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:10). [This] certainly is a striking reminder that from God's perspective, most prophecy (excluding messianic predictions) is conditional upon the response of men. In this regard, A. J. Heschel (The Prophets, p. 194) has said, "No word is God's final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man's conduct brings about a change in God's judgment." Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.
““. . . God has been pleased to give us a key (see Jeremiah 18) which opens all difficulties and furnishes us with a general comment on his own providence. God is absolute master of his own ways; and as he has made man a free agent, whatever concerns him in reference to futurity, on which God is pleased to express his mind in the way of prophecy, there is a condition generally implied or expressed. As this is but seldom attended to by partial interpreters, who wish by their doctrine of fatalism to bind even God himself, many contradictory sentiments are put in the mouths of his prophets.” Adam Clarke's Commentary
“In a word, is it the characteristic of prophecy to make known certainly and conclusively what is to come to pass? Or, are its revelations to some extent conditional, depending on the line of conduct that may meanwhile be pursued by those to whom they are addressed? . . . In this last case the word might assuredly be expected to take effect, in so far as the relations contemplated in the prophecy continued; but in the event of a change entering in the one respect, then a corresponding change in the other might reasonably be looked for.” Patrick Fairbairn, Prophecy, 1874, pp. 70-71
Fairburn went on to recognize two different categories of prophecies: The unconditional, which “disclose God’s purpose of grace to men and indicate in its grander outlines their appointed course of development,”2 and the conditional, which were the rest of Bible prophecy.
“Except where a promise is confirmed by God’s oath (Genesis 22:16; Psalm 105:9; Hebrews 6:13) we are safe in concluding that every statement of God about the future has some element of the conditional in it, something ancient Israel was as unwilling to believe as we are.” Ezekiel H.L. Ellison, The Man and His Message, 1956, p. 103
Something that is very difficult for us to understand and appreciate, but which we must if we are going to adequately understand Bible prophecy, is that what while we are often most concerned with the minutiae of predicted events and circumstances, because that is where we live on a daily basis, God’s focus is on the big picture. Specific circumstances may unfold very differently, individual players may change, and whole predicted acts in the drama of the ages may be re-written on the fly as conditions unfold in a fluid manner. Regardless of such changes, God will accomplish his larger end, which is the triumph of the kingdom of light over the kingdom of darkness.
Tim Crosby describes this principle well when he writes that: “Properly understood, the concept of conditional prophecy does not imply that God is changeable or wishy-washy in relation to man. God's very unchangeableness in His essential nature and attitude toward sin requires Him to change His tactics when His people change their attitude toward Him.” Tim Crosby, Ministry, August, 1986
“The Lord has said that when conditions change He will act differently, either for reward or punishment . . . .What makes the difference? Why is one man whose prediction is not fulfilled called a false prophet, and another true? The answer is this: God has explained to us a principle governing all prophecy in which men's decisions and attitudes are involved. We understand on the basis of the Jeremiah 18 statement that all of God's promises of blessing or threatenings of punishment are made on condition, whether the conditions are stated or not, because their fulfillment depends upon man's relationship to God. This understanding in no wise applies to the portions of God's plan that are not subject to modification by the decisions of men. For instance, Jesus Christ is going to return to this earth to gather the faithful and destroy the wicked. This is a part of God's unalterable purpose, and it will come to pass despite any decision that might be made by any individual or group. (On the other hand), Peter says that it is possible for us to hasten the day of His coming (2 Peter 3:12—see the margin, which in this case is the preferable rendering), and conversely, it is possible for us to delay the coming through the slowness of our preparation; but we cannot alter the fact that He is coming.” T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You, pages 107, 109
“Bible prophecy, then, is more akin to a living chess game where God predicts the outcome and suggests the probable moves in advance, even at times predicting whole probable sequences of moves, but where those moves are dependent on the often unpredictable moves of his antagonist and his mercurial followers as well as the often capricious and unpredictable moves of his own players.” Herbert Douglass, in this quotation, calls this the principle of “controlled uncertainty.”
While most of us who are followers of God are comfortable with the idea of the conditional nature of prophecy to explain Bible promises or threats that did not materialize as God through his prophets predicted they would, we have a much harder time when it concerns our favorite prophecies concerning the future. We are all made uncomfortable with that kind of uncertainty, but it is the only one which allows for God’s involvement in the affairs of humankind while preserving free choice. It calls for a brand of faith based not on trust in God’s ability to outline the future in minute detail, but for a faith based on the character and person of a God who will be there with us for every detail as it unfolds and who will lead us through every circumstance if we will let him.
This kind of faith becomes a daily adventure of trust in a world that is constantly in flux rather than a diorama set in stone, in which we are painted players playing out a predetermined script.
1A fairly lengthy discussion that expands this principle when it comes to Ellen White’s view can be found on the Ellen White website: https://www.whiteestate.org/books/mol/Chapt3.html
2 i.e., those which, for instance, predict the ultimate triumph of the woman’s seed over the tempter, and God’s promise to bless all of the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham