Michael W. Campbell, PhD, is director of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland, United States.

The story made national news. A self-proclaimed seer, or purveyor of end-time prophetic warning, placed an ad in a Tennessee newspaper predicting a nuclear attack on Nashville, Tennessee, USA, on July 18, 2020, claiming he had been inspired by Ellen White. Needless to say, all this prognostication did was embarrass the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which had nothing to do with this prediction or the person who made it.1

Unfortunately, this is not the only time since the death of Ellen White that people have made all sorts of predictions that have not come true. About 100 individuals within Adventism have claimed the prophetic mantle. Especially during the past decade, from Puerto Rico to Thailand, many self-proclaimed “seers” have made startling claims, including the one mentioned above.

The promise of the true prophetic gift, particularly as predicted in Revelation 14:12 and 19:10, is often claimed by these false prophets. Jesus specifically warned: “Beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15 , KJV). Thus, we can expect, along with the true, the false. This reality goes back to December 1844, when Ellen Harmon (later White) received her first vision. At that time, at least 50 other visionaries were claiming the prophetic mantle.

How, then, do we tell the difference between true and false prophets?

New prophets

In 1923, only eight years after Ellen White’s death, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald’s editor, F. M. Wilcox, reported: “Since the death of Sister E. G. White, a number have claimed to have the spirit of prophecy and to be appointed to take her place. In different sections of the country, we find some man or some woman who claims to have divine revelations.”2 Wilcox reminded readers that those claiming the prophetic gift must be tested by what has already been revealed—most importantly, by the Bible. “We need to be on our guard,” he added. “The Word is our guide.”3

Seven months later, F. M. Wilcox observed that his office continued to receive “many inquiries from the field as to whether any one [sic] would succeed to the place that Sister White so long occupied. To all such inquiries we have been compelled to state frankly and unequivocally that we do not know. This is a question which only the Lord Himself can answer, and so far as we know He has not given any one any intimation of His will in the matter.”4

I have met several who claim the prophetic gift. The most recent stopped by my office at Southwestern Adventist University to declare not only his prophetic mantle but that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was in apostasy. Upon his denouncement of the Trinity, I pointed out that Ellen White affirmed all Three Members of the Godhead as existing from eternity. He then dismissed Ellen White as a modern-day Jezebel and left, but not before predicting my doom and destruction with fire from heaven.

What these experiences point to is the need to know principles regarding the prophetic gift.

Principle 1: According to Scripture

The most tangible test is to make sure that their message is in harmony with the Bible. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20, KJV). This test offers a guiding principle that has existed throughout salvation history. Among the Old Testament prophets, those who came later were evaluated by those who had come before. Similarly, when Jesus opened on the road to Emmaus things concerning Himself “in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27, NIV), He no doubt was referencing the Old Testament. All later prophetic revelations must be evaluated in this way also. And in this case, the 66 books of the Bible are the primary litmus test of genuine divine revelation.

Though clear that Scripture warns about tampering with or sabotaging the words of Scripture, the Bible is equally clear that in the latter days, “your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28, KJV). In other words, it is because Adventists take the Bible seriously that they also believe that the prophetic gift should be expected as the eschaton draws near.

Principle 2: Prophetic predictions fulfilled

The next most obvious test of a true prophet is whether their prophetic predictions come true. “When the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him” (Jer. 28:9, KJV). Examples of fulfilled prophecy include the children of Israel, who were in Egyptian captivity but were led to the Promised Land by the prophet Moses (Exod. 3:7–10; 12:40). Some biblical prophecies, naturally, are conditional, such as when Jonah warned the Ninevites to repent, which they did, thereby averting judgment (Jon. 1:2; 3:1–10).

Ultimately, the most important prophetic predictions centered on the coming of the Messiah. The great emphasis throughout salvation history has been the story of Jesus Christ—His birth, His life and ministry, and His death. For example, the Messiah would be born of a woman (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 1:20), in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4–6), born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:22, 23; Luke 1:26–31), come from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10; Luke 3:33; Heb. 7:14), spend time in Egypt (Hosea 11:1; Matt. 2:14, 15), and be rejected by His own people (Ps. 69:8; John 1:11; 7:5).

We should expect this same consistency. While the first advent of Christ was the great hope of the plan of redemption, the second advent of Christ will conclude this earth’s history. Many false prophets will, therefore, concentrate their efforts on trying to predict the precise moment. Jesus specifically warns: “ ‘At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Messiah!” or, “Look, there he is!” do not believe it’ ” (Mark 13:21, NIV). Jesus furthermore warns that “ ‘no one knows about that day or hour’ ” (Matt. 24:36, NIrV). He instead offers a series of signs to show that the end is near (Matt. 24:1–35).

Principle 3: The orchard test

A significant test of a true prophet is that their life should reflect a genuine relationship with Jesus. “ ‘By their fruits you will know them’ ” (Matt. 7:20, NKJV). Prophets do not have to be morally perfect, but they should manifest over their lives a self-evident authenticity and genuineness.

In some instances, God can overrule the best intentions of a genuine prophet, and this act does not somehow make the prophet morally suspect. One example is Nathan, who meets with David to hear him share his plans about building a house of worship (2 Sam. 7:2). Initially, Nathan affirms David’s plans (v. 3), but later, God corrects these good intentions with a message that He has different plans for the temple (vv. 4–13). Not all intentions, however, are good.

With televangelists and media personalities persuading people to part with hard-earned money and feed their lavish lifestyles, it can be easy to become cynical. The Bible showcases, instead, a prophetic path that often leads in the opposite direction, such as seen in the life of John the Baptist. The biblical depiction of a prophet is not one that takes advantage of others but one who serves and witnesses to others.

Principle 4: Lifting up Jesus

The last and most important test of a prophet is that they should point others to Jesus. “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2, KJV). Through the testimony of the divine-human nature of Christ, the Incarnation itself (which is truly a mystery), we have the God-man, Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all prophecy. It is Jesus who must be lifted up. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32, KJV).

There is a consistent pattern among false prophets: they love to be the center of attention. They make startling prophecies to draw attention to themselves rather than to Jesus. False prophets like Balaam are more interested in what they get paid than the particular message they are supposed to give. Yet even in Balaam’s case, God was able to overrule so that Balaam could not prophesy against God’s people (Num. 22–24).

Prophetic perspective

As the father of two children, I love to see how my children have nourished their own interests and possible careers. When my son was quite young, one day after family worship, he exclaimed: “Dad, I know what I want to be when I grow up! I want to be a prophet!” I had to dissuade him gently of this notion, reminding him that there is no degree for prophecy. A person does not choose to be a prophet; God does the choosing.

To be chosen as God’s prophetic messenger is a humbling as well as terrifying experience. The prophet Isaiah, upon meeting the angelic messenger, exclaimed: “ ‘Woe to me!’ . . . ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’ ” (Isa. 6:5, NIV). When a person recognizes how truly good God is, it results in a corresponding recognition of our human unworthiness.

A true prophet of God uplifts Scripture, has predictions that come true, lives a genuine Christian life, and most important of all, points people to Jesus. If one tried to “walk in the shoes” of a prophet for just a moment—recognizing just how truly incredible and difficult this role is as shown throughout salvation history—no one would desire such a responsibility. Prophets do not achieve power, wealth, or fame but rather bear forth the Word of the Lord, showing the way to God’s kingdom often against the most fervent opposition.

  1. Bob Smietana, “Tennessean Editor Eenounces ‘Horrific’ Nashville Islam Nuclear Prophecy Advertisement,” Religion News Service, June 21, 2020, https://religionnews.com/2020/06/21/tennessean-editor-denounces-horrific-nashville-islam-nuclear-prophecy-ad-which-ran-in-its-sunday-edition/.
  2. F. M. Wilcox, “Impressions and Dreams,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 15, 1923, 7.
  3. Wilcox, 7.
  4. F. M. Wilcox, “Prophetic Succession,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 6, 1923, 3.

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Michael W. Campbell, PhD, is director of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland, United States.

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