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Note very carefully that LaHaye and Jenkins only summarize the supposed prophecy from Ezekiel, and do not quote the text directly.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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://intrinsicallyknotted.wordpress.com Susan B.

    It’s funny that even in fiction, they still have to twist the prophecy around to fit the story. Even when they have the freedom to make up whatever they want, no matter how unrealistic, they can’t get modern events to fit properly.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Hmm, I’m not so concerned with selective manipulation of supposedly literal texts as I am with the utter crapitude of the writing in this passage. It takes religion to make people buy such poorly-written books.

    Left Behind = low quality religious fanfic.

  • mikespeir

    I’m with you, King Aardvark. I just finished writing my eighth novel. I haven’t published a one, because, frankly, I don’t think any of them are good enough. But, dang, after reading these excerpts I’m not sure anymore. If Ebon’s quotes are any indication, this stuff is tripe!

  • velkyn

    wow. Never realized just how badly those books were written. Exactly why would there be more than one “great machine of war” over one city? One medium sized ICBM would take out most any city. I guess “more” makes it extra believable. I’m also amused when other “TrueChristians” find that these ones are just “totally wrong”. Like any of them are “right”.;P

    love your comment, King Aardvark. Bad fanfic indeed!

  • random guy

    MiG fighters can’t even be nuclear equipped, and the idea that you would send both fighters and ICBM’s is just plain stupid. Yeah lets kill our own guys over a target of no strategic value to us.

    They might as well have had the US attack the Canary Islands, it would have made just as much sense and their audience would have believed it anyways.

  • Rowen

    Random, in the book, Israel has developed a “formula” that you can apply to barren lands to make it fertile. And Israel isn’t sharing it’s secret, and has enough free space and farmers to suddenly make it a major exporter of food. So, all these other countries are jealous and Russia decides that it’s going to “scare” Israel into sharing it’s formula.

    . . . by blasting both the country and the formula out of existence.

    Of course, this is the same book in which Muslims are totally ok with just moving the Dome of the Rock to another location so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple. Reading these has been like talking to someone who’s never interacted with another human being before. And I haven’t even started talking about how they take every utterance in the bible that isn’t completely mundane (and some that are) and act like it’s a divine prophecy about the end times.

  • lpetrich

    That magic fertilizer is another implausibility, because the real limiter for crop plants in arid climates is lack of water and the often-excessive salinity of the water that is present.

    So what one really needs to do is to produce crop-plant varieties that are salt-tolerant. So far, that has been difficult, though it may eventually be possible to genetically engineer salt tolerance.

  • Polly

    I remember reading a book about prophecy where the author actally speculates about the dire fate of the USA because prophecy doesn’t include a role for the USA in any of the action.

    Russia is not going to attack Israel! It’s China and the “Kings of the East” now that are supposed to attack Israel, oh and the EU. No wait, that was in the 90s. I think Hawaii gets into the action at some point, right? Oh wait, not that was Alaska where the believers will have a safe haven to flee to, that’s right.

    Off-topic:

    I haven’t published a one, because, frankly, I don’t think any of them are good enough. But, dang, after reading these excerpts I’m not sure anymore.

    I don’t know you or your writing. Let me just say that, in my limited experience, we are often far more critical and judgmental of ourselves than warranted.
    Have you at least passed the ‘scripts around to family or friends? Sent them out to publishers? I bet editors still have to do a lot of work on books that do “make it.” Surely, if it was worth the effort to write 8 of them they may be worth trying to publish?

  • mikespeir

    I don’t know you or your writing. Let me just say that, in my limited experience, we are often far more critical and judgmental of ourselves than warranted.
    Have you at least passed the ‘scripts around to family or friends? Sent them out to publishers? I bet editors still have to do a lot of work on books that do “make it.” Surely, if it was worth the effort to write 8 of them they may be worth trying to publish?

    Actually, I did self-publish one, just for the egotistical thrill of holding one of my books in my hands. Sure, I’ve been encouraged by family. I just know they’re biased. But, who knows? I might send one off someday.

    In any case, thanks for the encouragement

  • Joffan

    You can’t have a post to Left Behind (the World’s Worst Book, per dollar income) with linking to Slacktivist’s brilliant series of articles which have destroyed the worldview and writing style of this book. He started in 2003 and has just finished systematically tearing this book to shreds once a week (Fridays) for most of that time.

  • Alex Weaver

    this prophecy could only refer to past events, and that any possibility for its future fulfillment has long since disappeared.

    Technically, that’s not quite true if, say, Einstein’s predictions about World War 4 are accurate, but even so, it’s far-fetched.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Sorry Sorry! I know I’m way too late with this comment but… Oh and, I guess I should have actually read some of this stuff but…THIS IS NOT EVEN LITERATE let alone literature. For heaven’s sake :) who cares how they interprate this stuff, anybody prepared to waste a valuable life reading it is hardly worth the effort. All this demonstrates to me is that the religious “wrong” are only interested in confusing and indoctrinating those who can’t discern fact from fiction.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    This to second Joffan’s shout-out to Slacktivist’s series. Brilliant stuff.

  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    Think LeHaye and Jenkins are bad writers? Try Rick Warren. I’m sure many eighth graders could show him up.

  • John

    It’s just a novel for chrissake. It’s all about money. Doomsday books sell – doomsday movies are well attended.

  • valhar2000

    [...]indoctrinating those who can’t discern fact from fiction.

    Well, that is how the religious right perpetuates itself.

  • Eric

    400kt is a typical high-end yeild for an ICBM. One would be enough, but I think the usual plan is to send a few into any major target area just to make sure. You have to time them pretty far apart as rising hot air will fry later warheads if they come in too fast. And the MIGs with nukes is plausible enough. The US once had short range nuke AGMs that were deployed as recently as the early 90s.

    I’ve never read the Left Behind books, but I have seen _A thief in the Night_ and other end-times movies. I’ve also read Slacktavist’s excellent reviews of the Left Behind books. I agree with Slack that most of these books and films depict the post-Rapture world as too similar to our own.

    Slack pointed out that you can still sign leases, rent cars, get cell phones just like you do today in a world where all children under the age of accountability have vanished and a good chunk of the adult population in some countries has disappeared. How could things ever be so normal.

    If the Rapture were to come, I would cease to be an athiest. However, I would throw my lot in with the antichrist.

  • velkyn

    “It’s just a novel for chrissake. It’s all about money. Doomsday books sell – doomsday movies are well attended.”

    So, John, if this book is just a novel, just what does that say about the Bible?

  • bestonnet

    Deployed nuclear weapons peaked around 10 Mt (aka the City Busters) although increased accuracy has allowed for downsizing (the early bombs were big because they had to be to ensure that they’d destroy what they aimed at).

    Fighter-bombers could become nuclear bombers without much in the way of modification although the Russians would be more likely to send an actual bomber in (say a Tu-160) if they needed to do that. The US still has nuclear weapons that can be dropped by fighter-bombers and actually gives them to other NATO countries (though still under US control).

    Eric:

    If the Rapture were to come, I would cease to be an athiest. However, I would throw my lot in with the antichrist.

    Same here, if the Christian god existed I’d become a misotheist (and maltheist or dystheist as well).

  • rob

    That magic fertilizer is another implausibility, because the real limiter for crop plants in arid climates is lack of water and the often-excessive salinity of the water that is present.

    So what one really needs to do is to produce crop-plant varieties that are salt-tolerant. So far, that has been difficult, though it may eventually be possible to genetically engineer salt tolerance.

    Maybe the magic formula allows you to turn salt water into drinking water. Can you imagine what that would mean to the starving people of the world? You’d have enough salt to last forever.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    MiG fighters can’t even be nuclear equipped, and the idea that you would send both fighters and ICBM’s is just plain stupid. Yeah lets kill our own guys over a target of no strategic value to us.

    Oh, it gets better than that – according to LB, Russia launches its entire nuclear arsenal at Israel. As in, every single ICBM it has. According to some calculations in Slacktivist’s LB Friday thread, this means that every square kilometer of the country would get hit with 122 kilotons.

  • Eric

    Bestonnet, Thanks for the link on misotheism. If events like the Raptre were to happen which convinced me the Christian God existed I would fight God to the death and eventual eternal torment of my immortal soul

    The Bible itself gives some evedence we might succeed in fighting God. He sees not to be omniscient, and His Spirit can be turned away by iron chariots. Perhaps we have a chance, maybe God’s bluffing us. This Antichrist dude may have the answers. Maybe God has weakened his mana with the Rapture and relies on the prayeres of the unraptured converts to restore his mana. The antichrist has a good plan then to starve the converts to death with his Mark, and I’d be willing to accept a bit of mass murder at this point

  • Virginia

    Though I am not new to the kind of flip/flopping interpretation approach by Chritians, the things described in this article still left me speechless — because of sheer annoyance. I am quite sensitive to this kind of stuff because recently my friend’s ex-girlfriend becomes a Christian — though we persistently point out problematic verses in the Bible (e.g. the Genesis account of Creation), she always finds way to re-interpret the scripture, retrofit it again and again every time there’s a section that her current framework cannot defend.

    Not to mention, those “Left Behind” series and apologetic series.

  • Brad

    Perhaps we have a chance, maybe God’s bluffing us. This Antichrist dude may have the answers.

    SHHH!! Whisper! We aren’t supposed to speak of the eAc!

  • doctorbighands

    Does anyone else see the hilarious irony in the main character’s name being “Buck”? Freud, ftw!

  • andrew

    Thats why you dont trust Lahay for eschetology.