When it comes to so-called “prophetic people,” I’ve seen and heard pretty much everything. I used to believe in it myself and I know loads of incredibly intelligent people who still do. The problem is prophets are incredibly convincing people. They are in the same category as psychics, magicians, and mentalists. Not that I want to label all such people as frauds, of course. Magicians are playing make-believe with us: we all know that it’s an illusion but we are delighted at how the magician leaves us wondering “how the hell did they do that?!” Others – perhaps some psychics – are simply deluded, thinking they have some otherworldly power when in fact they’ve just picked up a few techniques. Many are, of course, frauds. I’ve witnessed “prophets” who (I think) genuinely believed in their ministry, and others who seemed quite clearly to be scam artists.
When I’m engaged in a debate about modern prophecy, I’m typically presented with some scenario in which the person witnessed a prophet give an uncannily accurate prophetic word, and then I’m challenged with “so, how do you explain that?!” The correct answer is always: “I don’t know because I never witnessed the phenomenon and I don’t know anything about the so-called prophet in question.” In fact, as a theist, I have no a priori commitment to the notion that God cannot give supernatural knowledge to a person. However, before we jump to the idea that some prophet has a hot line to heaven, we do well to remind ourselves of the many techniques and tricks that deluded and false prophets are known to use.
(1) Hot Reading
Hot reading takes many different forms but fundamentally it involves the prophet finding out information beforehand or using information he or she already knows about someone and passing it off as prophetically bestowed. Sometimes the prophet will have a number of people travelling with them and during proceedings they will call them out in front of the gathering and “reveal” all manner of things about the person. To the congregation it looks like an amazing case of divinely bestowed knowledge. Others have used assistants who mingle with a congregation beforehand to glean information that can be used during the service. Sometimes it’s more blatant: people are asked to fill out a “prayer card” before the service which provides the prophet with a wealth of information that he or she can use to amaze. In these days of the internet people put a crazy amount of personal information online, such that if a prophet is going to some church it won’t be difficult to find out who the regular attenders are and what’s currently going on in their lives.
(2) Warm Reading
A prophet who lacks information about a person beforehand can still engage in warm reading. Warm reading is when the prophet tailors their pronouncements to a person on the basis of the demographic to which that person belongs. One well-known charismatic author speaks of a prophecy in which he was told that he had issues with his father, and that he had unrealised athletic ability. Of course, these kinds of things would be pretty common amongst middle-aged men, and provide a good illustration of warm reading. Warm reading can also involve what psychologists refer to as “Barnum statements” – phrases that sound incredibly specific but could apply to loads of people. We might like to think we are unique, but in reality we are very much like others, and prophets can exploit that fact to deceive.
(3) Cold Reading
Cold reading is a much subtler technique and involves a person being responsive to the prophet’s words by feeding information back to the prophet, often without even knowing. A prophet who has mastered this technique can make it look like the information was in fact supernaturally revealed. The information given to the prophet is often unnoticed by most other members of the congregation – a simple nod or shake of the head, for example.
Churches tend to be medium-large gatherings of people. The chances of there being someone called John, or someone with arthritis, or someone who has recently experienced a bereavement, is high enough that a prophet can address a prophecy to the entire congregation and manage to get a hit. It looks impressive, especially to the average person who has little grasp of probability.
The more vague a prophecy the less chance of its being proven false. “God’s going to bless you this year with a wonderful gift,” could be interpreted to mean many different things. Being precise ties a prophet down. It’s really quite rare to hear a prophet give a future prophecy that is so specific it could be conclusively proven or falsified.
(6) Infallible Questions
This technique involves asking questions of people in such a way that no matter how they respond it can be presented as supernatural knowledge on the part of the prophet. Suppose he or she says “I don’t suppose you’re interested in mission trips?” No matter what the reply is the prophet can pass it off as supernatural knowledge: “no, because I felt God saying you had a heart for your local community,” or “yes, the Spirit was testifying to me that you have a heart to win the lost in distant places.”
(7) Ambiguous Pictures
Here the prophet presents a person – or group of people – with a picture, maybe even an incredibly surreal one. Such pictures invite the listener to run all manner of searches through their past experiences to see if they can find a match for the picture that the prophet has presented. I once heard a prophet claim to have been given the picture of a racing car going gradually faster round and round a track. The picture was then interpreted to mean the church and it’s four elders. Just as the car needs its 4 tires, so this church would need its 4 elders working together to help it drive forward on its mission. But, really, with a bit of imagination we could interpret it to mean 101 other things if we wanted it to.
(8) Punt to the Future
Often a prophet gets it wrong. Sometimes he addresses the wrong person with information meant for someone else. Sometimes he misreads someone entirely, perhaps taking them for being wealthy when they are in fact poor, and gives a prophetic word to them that seems a million miles away from where they are. No problem here: just say something like, “This sounds crazy to you now, but God will bring this about in your life. Nothing is impossible with God. Just keep trusting him.” It’s fool-proof.
(9) Stories of Past Glories
Here the prophet spends a considerable amount of time telling stories of amazing feats that God worked in their ministry somewhere else in the world. If he or she tells enough of these stories then people will talk about the events as if they actually witnessed them first-hand. It all helps to build the reputation of the prophet, and of course encourages people to dig deep in their pockets to support such a God-anointed global ministry.
(10) Thees and Thous
At a certain Pentecostal church I used to attend there was a point in the services when a prophet would stand up and deliver a message directly from God – in the first person: “And I, your God, sayest unto thee…” Speaking directly from God is a risky business, but it can lend a certain gravitas and authority to your words, such that even if you say something way off people are less likely to question it because “God said.”
So, next time you hear a charismatic prophet in full swing, keep in mind that it might well be little more than smoke and mirrors.
Stephen J Graham