Predicting the future

November 4th, 2020

I’m writing this issue approximately two weeks before Election Day, and it feels impossible to predict what the Sunday after the election might look like. While polls remain fairly steady, it still seems like anything could happen either on Election Day itself or in the days that follow. Journalists have written at length about potential post-election scenarios, and anything from a commanding landslide to a contested result seems possible. By the time you read this, you’ll know which direction things are heading. But could you have known before it happened? 

Like many things in 2020, the outcome and the aftermath of this election feel uniquely difficult to predict. In addition to the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, our nation’s experience from the unexpected result of the 2016 election also colors our views. The cognitive phenomenon known as recency bias means that we naturally privilege more recent events over historic ones when trying to depict the future. Thus, despite polling that indicates otherwise, the surprise result of the 2016 election has primed many of us to distrust the predictive ability of polls in this election. Similarly, the pandemic caught many of us by surprise precisely because past concerns about pandemics had turned out to be less than they were made out to be. As a result, we expected this one would fizzle out too. 

Usually, we make plans for the future under the assumption that we can take certain things for granted. But 2020 has challenged that feeling of stability for many of us. For example, many vacations, weddings and other large gatherings were planned years in advance under the assumption that travel would be safe and large gatherings would not put attendees at risk of a deadly virus. In the public sphere, governments, companies and organizations made budgetary decisions and profit goals with the working understanding that this year would broadly unfold much like previous years. The coronavirus — coupled with civil unrest across the nation, natural disasters and economic downturn — has revealed the instability of things we thought we could rely on, causing quite a bit of anxiety. Due to this upheaval, it is difficult to plan for the future, and as we close in on 2021, it feels like we are taking a shot in the dark when we try to figure out what will happen next.

How we predict the future 

Humans are remarkably bad at predicting the future, and yet we continue to do it. For the purposes of this discussion, let us consider “predicting the future” as a rather broad category that encompasses everything from whether it might rain tomorrow to whether the world will end in 2460. Some general rules of thumb do help us predict the future better. First, it’s easier to predict short-term events than the long-term future. Another good tip is that we’re more effective at predicting the future when we look to the past and our habits. For example, there is a very high likelihood that I will drive my car to and from work tomorrow because I have done that same thing every day for years. It is much harder to accurately predict that we will have human colonies living on the moon in 20 years. 

There is also big money to be made in predicting the future or, at least, predicting the likelihood that particular events might happen. Actuarial tables used by insurance companies, futures sold on the stock market and weather forecasts are all modern methods we use to try and see into the future to determine whether to approve or deny, buy or sell, and plant or reap. 

From ancient times, humans have consulted the stars, the clouds, even flocks of birds. In Mesopotamia and classical Greece, animals were sacrificed and omens sought from their internal organs, usually the liver. Divination is the practice of seeking knowledge about the future via supernatural means and includes practices like reading tea leaves, astrology and consulting fortune-tellers and mystics to determine the direction of one’s love life or financial prospects. 

For Christians, divination is broadly associated with sorcery and is generally condemned by the church. You might even use forms of divination without thinking about it, such as flipping a coin to make a decision or opening the Bible to a random verse for guidance.

The benefits of embracing uncertainty 

Whether we are looking to either the supernatural or science to tell us what the future brings, we do so because uncertainty breeds fear. Lacking knowledge means we don’t know what we need to do to protect ourselves, which leads to a lack of control over our health and safety. We want to have control over our fate, so we attempt to limit things that are out of our control, but we’re also not very good at analyzing risk. For example, people are 100 times more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, but people report higher levels of fear with flying than they do driving. This is true in part because we are not in control of the plane. 

There is no escaping the fact that uncertain times lead to a lot of fear and anxiety about the future. However, there can be some benefits to embracing that uncertainty. Throughout history, major shifts in governance, creativity and religion have come after tumultuous and traumatic eras — for instance, the creativity of the Renaissance came on the heels of the Black Death. When “the way we’ve always done it” is no longer working, we are freed to try new things and come up with new strategies. For all our flaws, humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient, and dealing with an uncertain future helps highlight that. 

As Christians, we have the added benefit of taking comfort in God’s promises to us. While storms may rage around us, we know that God is not only present with us in the turmoil but God is drawing the world ever closer. Though we may not be able to predict what the world will be like in a year or two or ten, we are confident that God’s ultimate plan is one of flourishing and justice.


A history of the end of the world 

Predictions of the end of the world or, at least, the end of human life on earth have long been a popular area of prognostication. From Mayan calendars and early church theologians to Y2K and climate scientists, the end of the world has always been just around the bend. However, since you’re reading this, none of those predictions have come true, at least, not yet. While Christians might lean on conceptions of the end of the world like the Second Coming or the Great Judgment, in secular circles, the more likely causes of global annihilation seem to be nuclear war, climate catastrophe or even a pandemic. 

Like those who came before us, we are constantly revising our predictions. In A.D. 1000, various Christian clerics, including Pope Sylvester II, predicted that the new year would herald the start of the Millennium or “Golden Age” prior to the Final Judgment. When nothing happened, they revised their prediction to one thousand years after Jesus’ death or A.D. 1033. Mathematical calculations and important numbers also factor prominently in end-times predictions, like the one predicted by Pope Innocent III. In an act of overt anti-Islamic sentiment, he predicted the world would end in 1284 or 666 years after the rise of Islam in 618. 

Despite our desire to know the future, ultimately, we must return to Jesus’ own words: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36).

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