When does a prophet become a false prophet?

You might have assumed the one clear standard is when someone makes a false prophecy. That’s certainly a traditional biblical criteria, rooted in the connection of prophecy to reality and truth. But in our postmodern age, when truth and reality are considered subjective and based more on feelings than on facts, prophets are not so easily shamed. Making false prophecies doesn’t even cause them to question their prophetic abilities.

Consider, for example, Kris Vallotton, a senior associate leader at Bethel Church, a charismatic megachurch in Redding, California. In a video posted on Instagram (which he later removed), Vallotton talks about how he “prophesied” in 2016 that Trump would be president (which was correct) and that he later “prophesied” that Trump would not only not be impeached, but that he would be elected for a second term (which was not correct). Many other self-proclaimed prophets made a similar prediction, but what makes Vallotton unique is that for a brief moment, he appeared to be contrite about his false prophetic claim.

In the video, Vallotton takes full responsibility for being wrong and says, “There was no excuse for it.” Yet he adds, “I think it doesn’t make me a false prophet. But it does create a credibility gap.”

We might be tempted to dismiss false prophets like Vallotton because he’s part of the heretical Bethel Church movement or others (like Paula White) because they preach the prosperity gospel. But in doing so we would miss how widespread this phenomenon is within the evangelical church.

What Makes a Prophet?

Let’s start by considering what it means to be a prophet. Prophets are generally understood to have the gift of prophecy. But what exactly does that mean?

Examining prophecy within the Bible, Richard Blaylock defines the gift of prophecy as follows:

The gift of prophecy is a miraculous act of intelligible communication, rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and empowered by the Holy Spirit, which results in words that can be attributed to any and all Persons of the Godhead and which therefore must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true.

This is the traditional view of prophecy, which includes elements of divine inspiration and authority. God does not lie (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), so if he communicates directly to a person, that information is infallible and authoritative. For this reason, a common test of a prophet was whether he made a claim that could be proven false. “What is spoken by the genuine prophet comes from God,” D. A. Carson says, “What is spoken by the false prophet is nothing but fertile imagination.”

However, a less strict view of prophecy has risen within the American church. For example, Wayne Grudem has proposed an idiosyncratic and non-traditional view of prophecy (one that many people, including me, find difficult to reconcile with Scripture). According to Grudem, “prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human—and sometimes partially mistaken—report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind.” Grudem adds, “We in the church today should consider prophecy to be merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority” (emphasis in original).

Grudem thinks that neo-Pentecostals (like Vallotton) should simply avoid saying “Thus says the Lord” and instead use an expression like, “I think the Lord is putting on my mind that . . .” The problem with this approach is twofold. First, that is not what most Christians throughout history have considered to be prophecy. It also undermines inerrancy. After all, how can we trust the prophets who wrote parts of the Bible were not “sometimes partially mistaken” about what the Holy Spirit brought to their minds? Second, all faithful Christians believe the Holy Spirit has, at some time or another, “put something on their mind” since Jesus told us that the Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Does that mean that all believers have the gift of prophecy?

Evangelical Version of ‘My Truth’

In a sense, that is indeed what many evangelicals believe. Many use phrases like “God told me . . .” in the same way that New Age-types talk about “my truth.” “The phrase ‘my truth’ is usually meant to mean some combination of ‘my opinion’ and ‘my experience.’” Megan Holstein observes. “Unlike either of these phrases, the phrase “my truth” implies an unarguable quality. You can’t contradict me, because this is my truth.” Similarly, when Christians say “God told me,” they are implying that disagreeing or contradicting them would be to take up a dispute with the Trinity.

When challenged, though, they often fall back on a motte-and-bailey argument. In medieval times, a motte-and-bailey castle was made up of two structures: a bailey (a place where people lived most of the time) and a motte (a fortified enclosure one could retreat to when the bailey is not defensible). A motte-and-bailey argument employs two arguments that seem equivalent but are not at all the same. The first claim is difficult to support, and so when people call them out on it, the arguer retreats to a version of the claim that is different and easier to defend position.

For example, when people say “God told me” they truly mean to imply that their information was given to them by God in the traditional sense of being authoritative and divinely inspired. This is their “bailey” argument, because it’s what they really want us to believe and accept as true. But because that would mean their internal revelation is equivalent in authority and inspiration to any verse in the Bible, they fall back on their “motte” argument: while their impression was from God, it’s possible it could be mistaken, either partially or wholly. They can then switch back and forth between the two arguments to suit their needs.

Danger of Postmodern Pseudo-Prophecy

This presents a win-win for self-proclaimed prophets like Vallotton: If their prediction proves correct, it confirms they were speaking for God, and you should consider the utterances to be authoritative; if their prediction proves false, it merely shows they gave a human—and perhaps partially mistaken—report of something the Holy Spirit brought to their mind. This motte-and-bailey approach is the reason pseudo-prophets like Vallotton believe they can make inaccurate claims that supposedly came from God and yet still be credibly considered to have the gift of prophecy.

For those who don’t claim to be full-time prophets, the approach provides a means to shut down criticism and dissent in the same way secularists do: by claiming to be “speaking my truth.” Taken to the extreme, this internal prophetic ability can even be used to deny reality and justify ignoring disconfirming facts or evidence. A prime example occurred at the recent Jericho March when the evangelical author and radio host Eric Metaxas said, “When God gives you a vision, you don’t need to know anything else.”

This view of prophecy is in keeping with the postmodern view of truth. It prioritizes the subjective, internal, and private over the objective, external, and universally accessible. What we feel is true or what we want to be true becomes “my truth.” God has spoken “truth” to an individual that may or may not correspond to reality. How can we know? The result is that the pseudo-prophecies undermine such doctrines as inspiration and special revelation and cause people to question the inerrancy of Scripture.

Even more importantly, postmodern prophecy undermines God’s reputation. As Albert Mohler recently said about the “prophecies” made at the Jericho March, “The issue then and now has to do, first of all, more with God’s own personal honor, since his name has been invoked, then our personal honor. Where they were just all kinds of incredible statements that were made, simply on the basis of some presumed and claimed private revelation.”

“If we really believe in scriptural authority, if we really believe in sola Scriptura,” Mohler adds, “then we certainly don’t believe in the authority of any such extra-biblical revelation, period.”