Books claiming to unlock secret codes embedded in the letters or words of the Bible have returned to the limelight.1-4 Such books are not new; they've appeared many times through the centuries. But the application of advanced computer technology in the search for these "encoded messages" is new. New, too, are the media's "advertising" capabilities. When Oprah Winfrey expresses enthusiastic interest, Time and Newsweek feature full-page reviews, and Warner Brothers executives negotiate film rights, no wonder one of these titles rockets to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.
Calculations demonstrating the statistical improbability of such messages appearing by chance seem impressive. They hint that the message must have a supernatural source. The argument looks the same as my own argument for divine design. But, as journalists covering politics often say, "There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics."
Actually, statistics are not the problem. Abuse of statistics is. Code publicists argue that the probability of finding a complex message within a limited word or letter sequence is so low that chance cannot explain it. Herein lies the statistical fallacy: they claim that their sample size is small and that the number of possible significant messages is one. Neither claim is true.
One author claims that every 50th letter in a certain Bible book produces a brief but deliberately planted message. Let's consider the plausibility of that claim. First, does that message appear in the 50th letter of every language in which that book has been published, or does it just show up in the English, or Greek, or what?
Second, every 50th letter does not represent the only skip sequence that could be searched. Every 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. skip letter sequence could have been searched, as well. The probability of finding a short message in hundreds or thousands of different skip letter sequences is relatively high. And, if we look not only at skip letter sequences but at skip word, skip sentence, and skip paragraph sequences, the probability grows larger yet.
Third, the number of messages searchers are willing to consider significant is not limited to one. The probability for finding one out of a thousand or a million different messages embedded in a skip sequence is far higher than it is for finding one out of one.
Fourth, the Bible contains not one book but many. The probability of finding a short message in a skip sequence in one out of 66 different books is much higher than it is for finding that same message in one book only.
Fifth, if the letters or words in a skip sequence are many compared to the number of letters or words in the embedded message, the probability of finding a message again increases substantially.
Some message can be found in some skip sequence for any book exceeding a few tens of thousands of words. Many Muslims, for instance, insist the Qur'an must be God's holy book because the words in the first 19 letters of the Qur'an appear throughout the Qur'an in multiples of 19.5 Here, again we encounter a statistical fallacy. If a Qur'an-length book were filled with randomly generated letters, the chance of finding some "words" repeated in multiples of some integer would be 100 percent. You may test me on this point by doing a variety of letter or word sequence or repetition searches through a dictionary or an encyclopedia.
This same kind of statistical fallacy has led (or rather misled) Christians through the years. In the seventies and eighties, I saw it in attempts to identify the antichrist, or beast, of Revelation. Some folks fingered Henry Kissinger by converting the letters in his name to their Greek equivalents and then assigning numbers to each. Ronald Reagan was suspected by those who noticed that there were six letters in each of his three names. This kind of end-times mathematical gymnastics has damaged Christians' credibility in our culture.
I must add that well-trained scientists commit statistical fallacies, too. A famous astronomer found stars oriented around common centers in perfect circles. He persuaded his peers, for a time, at least, that huge explosions were producing star births at precise distances out from the center.
The star birth theory quickly (and quietly) burst, however, when a student produced a computer-generated map of two million randomly scattered stars. His map produced as many perfect circles as (or more than) the astronomer had found. Why? The sample size of stars in our galaxy is so enormous (200 billion) that if we seek to transcribe on them perfect circles, squares, triangles, or whatever, we can.
This incident helps explain what's wrong with a couple of books I came across many years ago, attempts to show that the specific elements of the Gospel are depicted in the twelve constellations typically associated with (and wrongly so) astrology." My conclusion is that a person could see it only if he knew the Gospel first, and even then it was an imaginative stretch.
I oppose the search for hidden codes both on a mathematical basis and on a biblical basis. The book of Colossians condemns the pursuit of secret mysteries and esoteric messages. Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself to reading, preaching, and teaching from Scripture.' He warns Timothy and us that "the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.... Instead, they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths." 9 With so much still to learn and understand and apply in the words of the Bible, who can afford to waste time and effort looking past those words?
- Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).
- James Harrison, The Pattern and the Prophecy (Peterborough, Canada: Isaiah Publications, 1995).
- Grant Jeffrey and Yacov Rambsel, The Signature of God (Toronto: Frontier Research Publication, Inc., 1996).
- F. W. Grant, The Witness of Arithmetic to Christ (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers). This is a popular level summary taken from the seven volume series The Numerical Bible put out by the same publisher.
- Rashad Khalifa, The Computer Speaks God's Message to the World (Tucson, AZ: Renaissance Productions, 1989). This argument is also made in Maurice Bucaille's book The Bible, the Qur'an and Science (Indianapolis, IN: American Trust Publications, 1979).
- Joseph R. Seiss, The Gospel in the Stars (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1972).
- Kenneth C. Fleming, God's Voice in the Stars: Zodiac Signs and Bible Truth (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1981).
- Timothy 4:13, The Holy Bible, New International Version.
- Timothy 4:3-4, The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Copyright 1997 Reasons To Believe