Left Behind and Selective Literalism

In “The Rapture and the Fig Tree“, I wrote about how end-times believers are always looking to reconstruct the past, seeking to force-fit the present into a framework of scripture written to apply to events in long-gone times. Given that many of these verses apply to people and places that no longer exist, a major part of this contrived exegesis is what I call “selective literalism”: interpreting one verse literally and another one metaphorically, or even interpreting different parts of the same verse as literal or metaphor, in any way needed to make the passage apply to current or future events.

The first book of the Left Behind series shows how this works. The book’s opening pages tell of a massive Russian surprise attack on Israel, which is LaHaye and Jenkins’ interpretation of the “Battle of Gog and Magog” in the book of Ezekiel. Here’s how they describe it, as reported by the protagonist Buck Williams:

“Frustrated at their inability to profit from Israel’s fortune and determined to dominate and occupy the Holy Land, the Russians had launched an attack against Israel in the middle of the night… The Russians sent intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-equipped MiG fighter-bombers into the region. The number of aircraft and warheads made it clear their mission was annihilation.”

    “[Buck] stood in stark terror and amazement as the great machines of war plummeted to the earth all over the city, crashing and burning.”

    “Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel. Otherwise Buck might have believed some mysterious malfunction had caused missile and plane to destroy each other. But witnesses reported that it had been a firestorm, along with rain and hail and an earthquake, that consumed the entire offensive effort.”

    “Among the ruins, the Israelis found combustible material that would serve as fuel and preserve their natural resources for more than six years.”

    “Buck was stunned when he read Ezekiel 38 and 39 about a great enemy from the north invading Israel with the help of Persia, Libya, and Ethiopia. More stark was that the Scriptures foretold of weapons of war used as fire fuel and enemy soldiers eaten by birds or buried in a common grave.”

Note very carefully that LaHaye and Jenkins only summarize the supposed prophecy from Ezekiel, and do not quote the text directly. Now, compare their description to the actual text of the book:

“And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords: Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet.”

—Ezekiel 38:4-5

“And they that dwell in the cities of Israel shall go forth, and shall set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and the bucklers, the bows and the arrows, and the handstaves, and the spears, and they shall burn them with fire seven years. So that they shall take no wood out of the field, neither cut down any out of the forests; for they shall burn the weapons with fire: and they shall spoil those that spoiled them, and rob those that robbed them, saith the Lord God.”

—Ezekiel 39:9-10

The Book of Ezekiel does predict a battle, but it says clearly that the attackers will be horsemen wielding swords and shields – not jet fighters and ICBMs. That this is not just a metaphor is confirmed by the second passage, which says that the victorious Israelites will burn their enemies’ weapons for firewood, and will not have to gather dead wood from the fields or cut down trees from the forest. There is no indication from the text that any of this is meant metaphorically. Needless to say, this is not at all the same thing as extracting oil or gasoline from wrecked war machines.

LaHaye and Jenkins, by not quoting the passage directly, are practicing the most deceitful kind of selective literalism: claiming that Ezekiel’s prophecy refers to a real event in the future, yet freely changing and rewriting sections of that prophecy to make it fit with the details of what they believe will happen. By so doing, they are attempting to cover up the fact that this prophecy could only refer to past events, and that any possibility for its future fulfillment has long since disappeared.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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