One of the repeating sensational topics for “histotainment” channels like the History Channel to air are programs about prophecy and the end of the world. Among those who are non-religious or nominally religious, the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they stack up to the Bible are interesting to say the least. So, how do they stack up? What do they say?
Nostradamus was an intelligent man born into a world that was shifting dramatically due to the discovery and colonization of the new world. The protestant reformation was in full swing. Throughout this period of change there was a surge of interest in divination and prophecy. Nostradamus was also interested in these things, and so he included some extra prophetic bits in an almanac he wrote which ended up being a run-away best seller. With this success under his belt he then began to compose a book of poetic prophecy. After composing his first hundred (he called them a century) stanzas (called quatrains, because they had four lines each), he assembled them in a book, adding an introduction in which he explained that it is his goal to make his predictions a little murky so that they could only be understood after he was gone because he was afraid of what people would do once they interpreted them.
When he published Les Propheties (The Prophecies), it was like he published Harry Potter. It was an amazing hit that propelled him to star-author status. He was eventually brought into the court of Catherine DeMedici, the wife of Henry II, as one of the seers in her divination court.
Before we get into the famous ones, we are going to look at a typical quatrain to discover the common features. Keep in mind that these were originally written in French and have been translated into English by people far more intelligent than I.
Venus Neptune will pursue the undertaking.
You will be thoughtful (masculine) trouble the opponents.
A tumult [trumpet blast] in Adrie a city near the Thames,
The quarter noise wounds the night of the sleeping ones.
Obvious, right? I hardly can believe anyone would have to explain such clarity! At first glance, you might assume that the first two terms refer to the Roman gods or even the two planets, but the verb that follows the two terms confounds that assumption. That is because the verb is singular. The singular verb implies that there is a singular person, place, or thing that is named Venus Neptune. There is no record of anyone named Venus Neptune which brings us to a dead end with the first line.
The trouble in the second line is not the verb, but that there is something missing. Not just any something, a key something. It could be anything really. The opponents are just as likely to be troubling you as you are them.
The next line speaks of a tumult (think trumpet blast) in a place called Adrie. Some will take Adrie, and say it means Hadrian, and then change Hadrian to Hitler or make it a city or not.
The last line is probably one of the most well written lines. It suggests that at some point someone will be awoken by a loud noise in the night while they are sleeping. That is definitely what happened. In fact, it has happened to me last night when my son slammed the door after getting some water at 2 a.m.
Though it can be fun to be skeptical about this, the trouble here is clear. There are words missing. Word references are unclear. It is, to use Nostradamus word, murky.
Nostradamus and 9/11
Now to a more famous bit. Some say that Nostradamus predicted 9/11. Here are the two quatrains that are said to have predicted this horrific event:
At forty-five degrees shall burn the sky,
Fire to approach the new grand city thence;
Instantly great scattered flames will arise,
When one shall seek the Normans’ evidence.
Garden of the world near the new city,
In the pathway of cavernous mountains,
Seized and plunged into a cauldron shall be,
Forced to drink water that’s sulfur-poisoned.
(VI:97 and X:49)
As you hopefully remember from junior high geography, latitude is measured in degrees. If you get on the web and look up the latitude for ground zero you get 40.7116°, or about 41°. There are many who count this as a miss, but in my book, if Nostradamus was channeling latitudinal coordinates for a world crisis at the distance of several centuries, 4.2884° off seems like as close to a dead on hit as one could hope for.
Moving to the second line, you would have to look hard to find someone who could not imagine “grand” as in the realm of accurate adjectives to describe New York.
The third line could be the most troubling of them all because of the horrific images it brings to the minds of anyone who witnessed the event. I have no idea how a person who had never seen a skyscraper, ridden in an airplane, or traveled to this grand city would describe the image of the planes colliding into the towers, but as a person who has done all of the above, “scattered flames” seems pretty accurate.
The fourth line is totally unclear in regards to this historic event which brings us to line five. There was a large open area in front of the World Trade Center. It’s not necessarily a garden, but one of the most unique aspects of Manhattan is its huge garden.
Those who try and explain the next line about cavernous mountains, suggest that the only thing of this size in Nostradamus’ time were mountains. Unlike mountains, these structures are not solid; rather, they are hollow so that people can work inside them. One might even call them cavernous.
One of the most disturbing images after the disaster was the giant hole that was left when the debris was clear. The World Trade Center was sitting atop a huge parking deck that was carved out of the ground below. In a sense it plunged into that hole which provides the link for “plunged into a cauldron shall be” in line seven. The quatrains end with a bit of a disappointment as no plausible connections have been suggested for the final line.
You can take take these quatrains, and with a little creativity and effort create a pretty “wow” moment. However, before 911 there were a variety of equally plausible interpretations of this passage like it referring to a tidal wave of water infected by chemical warfare.
Prophetic Problems and Biblical Solutions
That brings us to the two main problems with Nostradamus’ prophecies. First, they are unclear. It goes beyond the missing words. There is no real story or narrative that seems to connect the fragments and phrases.
The second problem is that nothing that he has written has ever been proven predictive before an event has actually happened. It is always in the rear-view mirror that people are able to make connections with his quatrains.
It is in this second critique that the connection exists between Revelation and Nostradamus. Revelation has never been shown (beforehand) to predict an event that would happen in the future. There is a whole method of understanding the book of Revelation that shows how all of its prophecies were fulfilled by 70 CE, but even that method of understanding the prophecies was not developed until a couple centuries later.
The most popular way to look at the book of Revelation today says that the majority of the prophecies in the book of Revelation are talking about events that are in the future. This does not, of course, fix our problem as the claims of this interpretive scheme are currently can’t be proved since they haven’t yet happened.
Where Nostradamus and Revelation begin to diverge is when you look at their composition. The book of Revelation has complete sentences and correct grammar. More than that, Revelation has a story. It has a narrative, however odd it may be, that you can follow as the prophet and beast conspire to have the world worship the dragon.
In fact, there is a whole school of thought that believes that the book of Revelation is a work meant to be instructive to the believer now. The unified message of Revelation when seen through this lens of being an instructive epic is one which says that those people who follow after God will be triumphant in the end and will get to spend eternity connecting with God
Now we get to the biggest question of all: Why does this matter when I wake up tomorrow morning? There is a common message across apocalyptic literature. Nostradamus, the book of Revelation and all of the apocalyptic tales told since our brains were at the point that they could think about the future tell us one story: there will be an end. Just like everything else has its end, there will be an end to the world.
The message (or at least the application) that I think the book of Revelation and Nostradamus share is: The end will come… who do you want to be when it gets here? You can spend your life, money, time, and resources on whatever you choose. You can spend all of your years on something, and one day the end will come for you. Maybe it won’t be at the hands of the antichrist, but it will come as it does for all humanity. Who do you want to be? What do you want to have spent your life on?
The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter
Sources for Nostradamus translation and interpretation:
The Skeptical Inquireer: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/nostradamus_a_new_look_at_an_old_seer/
Newman, Sharan (2010-04-02). The Real History of the End of the World Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.