The term "prophet" has several definitions and is based on issues of faith and belief. Loosely, it is used to describe a person who experiences one of two things:
- He or she receives a direct message from the divine, which is meant to be communicated to others.
- He or she is able to somehow tap into divine knowledge and make predictions about the future of the world or about individuals.
This latter definition could also be termed a seer or psychic. People who do not believe in a divine being would likely define a prophet as a person who falsely believes he has communicated with a god or gods. Even adherents to particular religions make the distinction between real and false prophets. This definition will focus primarily on the term as those who believe in some version of a creator or an intelligent presence view it.
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, people believed that prophecy was once not uncommon. Prophets that these religions share in common include Noah, Abraham (called Ibrahim by people of Islamic faith), and Moses. Both Christians and Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, having direct contact with God’s words. Further, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the final prophet, who speaks directly of how God should be worshiped, although Imams in the Shi’a faith are the representations of how the Qur’an must be read and interpreted.
Jesus, in Islamic faith is considered a prophet, but not, as in Christian faith, the Son of God. Some Christians also feel that accounts of Noah are more metaphor than actual stories of a real person, and are more likely to take the words of Moses, and the later prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah, with greater seriousness. As the number of sects of Christianity have increased, other prophets have been influential in the formation of these sects.
The Mormons, for example, view Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as a prophet. Seventh Day Adventists believe that Ellen White, who co-founded the church, was able to prophesy. Jehovah’s Witnesses view the entire organization of their religion as being one that is prophetic and is meant to guide all people into the right interpretation of Christianity.
These three religions are not the only ones that believe in prophets. In Ancient Greece, oracles or seers were meant to interpret the words of the Greek Gods and had the ability to see the future. In modern times, many founders of ancient religions are considered prophetic, though they may not have claimed the title for themselves.
Modern people with messages of peace and harmony might earn the title as well. In general, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Gandhi, Black Elk, and even more modern figures like Martin Luther King Jr. are considered to be prophets by some. To many of different faiths, these religious or revolutionary leaders are considered led by the divine to continue the message of God’s existence and the need to live cooperatively and peacefully in the world.
Non-religious prophetic figures include many of the great psychics, like Nostradamus and Madame Blavatsky. The term then runs into a rather sticky area, however, and some people claim to be prophets in order to start religions or cults that may ultimately harm or exploit others. In this definition, the word could refer to someone like David Koresh, Reverend Moon, or even Charles Manson. All claim, or claimed, to have access to God’s true word, and all have either been accused or proven to have at the very least exploited people, and in worst cases have caused the deaths of numerous innocent lives.