Above is the harbor of Tyre. Since Ezekiel 26:14 says that Tyre shall never be rebuilt, atheists have the opportunity to claim a failed prophecy—which they do with all the regularity and gusto of a people whose worldview entails that nothing matters.
Before answering the objection directly, I want to point out rather forcefully how amazingly audacious it is to pick the destruction of Tyre, of all things, as an example of prophetic failure. Regardless of any allegedly discrepant details, we have to first acknowledge that this is a paradigm case of fulfilled prophecy: [Steve Hays summarizes the situation well in Steve Hays, Tyre and Babylon in Bible prophecy (June 2016).]
…therefore thus says Yahweh God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares Yahweh God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am Yahweh.
[He then goes on to describe Nebuchadnezzar coming from the north to raise siegeworks and destroy the city, before concluding:] Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. Ezekiel 26:1–12
Tyre was an interesting place; it was actually two cities: a settlement on the coast, and the city proper on a nearby island. Ezekiel’s depiction of siege warfare makes sense for the former, but is inexplicable for the latter because you can’t lay siege to an island. Yet in verses 4–5 we see clearly that it isn’t just the coastal city that is going to cop it: the island city is also in view, since it will become a “bare rock” in the “midst of the sea.”
Put most simply, the fulfillment of this prophecy is in two parts. [For a more nuanced exporation, see Steve Hays, Viewing the future (February 2013).] First, Nebuchadnezzar did indeed besiege mainland Tyre for 13 years (586–573 BC). He was able to destroy the coastal city and villages, and everyone fled to the island city—which he wasn’t able to capture. Ezekiel explicitly acknowledges this in chapter 29:18: he states that Nebuchadnezzar had not achieved the destruction of Tyre which God himself had decreed. He had only destroyed the mainland city, and the island remained out of reach.
Reading chapter 26 in light of this, and knowing that prophecy often works by an immediate and then a later fulfillment, we would expect the island city to be destroyed at a later time—which is exactly what happened, and exactly as Ezekiel said. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great used the rubble of mainland Tyre to build a causeway to the island city. He literally cast the stones and timber into the sea: the city was covered by the waters, as Ezekiel had prophesied. This rubble Alexander used as a road to the supposedly impregnable island city. He was then able to mount a siege against it, also as Ezekiel had depicted—despite that depiction seeming to make no sense to his audience at the time.
But it was rebuilt!
OK, so what of this?
Suppose the prophecy appears to get this wrong. Does this do anything to mitigate how naturalistically inexplicable the rest of the fulfillment is? Of course not. You can’t make the elephant in the room disappear by pointing out that one of his tusks looks to be missing. Again, the entire appeal to Tyre is thoroughly foot-shooting for an atheist, even if one detail appears to end up being wrong. As Steve Hays observes:
Alexander’s destruction of Tyre was totally unexpected, precisely because Alexander was able to adapt siege warfare to a fortified island. No one thought of doing that before. It was his tactical genius that made it possible. He had a wide causeway built, connecting Tyre to the mainland, which enabled Alexander to ramp up the battering rams against Tyre’s defensive walls.
How could anyone anticipate that eventuality? Short of inspiration, how could Ezekiel see that coming, centuries later? Viewed in retrospect, Ezekiel’s incongruous oracle, coupled with Alexander’s ingenuity, literally fulfills the prophecy in a completely unexpected way. A way that was naturally unforeseeable. Far from casting doubt on his inspired foresight, this is a confirmation made all the more remarkable by the natural barriers to its realization. Hays, Viewing the future.
Apropos (1), given the remarkable accuracy of the prophecy as a whole, Ezekiel has completely earned the benefit of the doubt on this one detail—so it would behoove us to examine the text more carefully before concluding that it’s mistaken. That just isn’t the most reasonable conclusion to draw in light of how Ezekiel plainly predicted the future. We should assume that if he was able to see so much correctly, he was able to see it all correctly. So even if we can’t explain this apparent error, that doesn’t necessarily give us warrant to conclude that it is an error in view of the case as a whole.
Apropos (2), there are at least two totally plausible ways to understand the language about Tyre never being rebuilt, which don’t make Ezekiel wrong. The atheist has no reason to accept at least one of these, on pain of obviously rank prejudice:
- The prophecy is referencing the Phoenician city of Tyre. This never was rebuilt. Later cities certainly were built in the same location, because it was strategically significant and had one of the best harbors in the Mediterranean (still does). But if the prophecy is about Phoenician Tyre, and Phoenicia itself was finished off during the period that Tyre was destroyed, then the prophecy is accurate.
- Hyperbole is characteristic of Hebrew discourse, so Tyre being rebuilt long after it was destroyed actually seems perfectly consistent with the language Ezekiel uses. Compare for instance the stark, definitive claims in 1 John that, if taken as woodenly literal rather than hyperbolic, would make John obviously contradict himself in stupid ways. What reason do we have to think that Ezekiel, writing apocalyptic discourse that is notoriously symbolic, is not doing the same kind of thing? It is completely within the bounds of the natural meaning of his words for Tyre to be rebuilt later, because the point is not to spell out Tyre’s future exhaustively, but rather to declare how complete its destruction will be within the events described. [For more examples taken from apocalyptic literature, see D. Bnonn Tennant, What is the kingdom of God? Part 5: when God began retaking Adam’s kingdom from Satan (March 2017).] And that destruction was complete.
TL;DR: it is only if we read the Bible like a newspaper that we might be convinced this prophecy is in error. Perhaps the atheist would like to give a justification for reading the Bible like a newspaper—and, while he is at it, acknowledge that there’s no way in hell Ezekiel could have so accurately predicted how Tyre actually was destroyed?