The figurative fallacy means “either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language.”
The Watchtower has committed this error many times throughout its history. I will discuss two topics: (1) degrees of salvation and (2) the meaning of Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
I’ll discuss the first one this week and the second one next week.
Degrees of salvation
The Finished Mystery (1917) is probably the strangest book ever published by the Watchtower. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses today are totally unaware of what it contains, and they would probably condemn most of it as nonsense if they didn’t know its source.
The Watchtower currently teaches that there are two classes of believers—one heavenly class and one earthly class. The heavenly class consists of 144,000 Christians (chosen by God from the first century to today). The earthly class consists of everyone else whom God will consider worthy of a resurrection into Christ’s millennial kingdom on earth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses would be shocked to learn that the Watchtower used to teach that there are two heavenly classes and two earthly classes. Here is what The Finished Mystery said in its commentary on Revelation 7:9 (pp. 177-178), along with the reasoning behind this teaching:
Instead of teaching that the saved of our race will all be saved to the same thing, the Scriptures show two degrees or kinds of Heavenly salvation, and two degrees or kinds of earthly salvation. In the second chapter of Genesis the stream which went forth from the Garden of Eden was divided into four parts. This is a Scriptural recognition of the fact that from Adam, the original fountain of life, will flow four streams: The Little Flock, who are to sit down with Christ in His Throne; the Great Company, who are to stand before the Throne, having the palms of martyrdom but without the crowns of glory; the Ancient Worthies, the Jewish fathers, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Daniel, etc., who are to be made princes in all the earth; and the world of mankind, who will constitute the subjects of the Kingdom over which the Ancient Worthies will rule. The same lesson is taught in the division of the Levites into four camps, each located on a different side of the Tabernacle. (Num. 3:15; F. 128, 129.) It is also taught in the Apostle’s statement in 2 Tim. 2:20, that in God’s great House there will ultimately be found four classes of vessels to His praise.”
The substitution of figurative meaning for literal should be evident here:
- Genesis 2:10-14 lists the four “streams” which flowed from Eden: the Pishon, the Gihan, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Given that these are actual rivers described in a narrative portion of the Bible, there is no justification for interpreting them as degrees of salvation.
- Likewise, a narrative portion of Numbers describes the assignment of the Levite groups to the four sides of the Tabernacle doesn’t constitute grounds for claiming anything about distinctions between groups of saved people.
- When Paul describes vessels of gold, silver, wood, and clay, there’s no doubt he’s using figurative language, but he isn’t describing four different levels of salvation. The next verse, 2 Timothy 2:21, explains his meaning: “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”
Combatting This Error
The best way to show Jehovah’s Witnesses this error is to give them an example like this, one they will readily see as fanciful.
Then take the next step by asking them what is wrong with the method of Bible interpretation that produced it.
It should soon become evident that by this type of creative “interpretation,” the Bible (or any book) can be made to teach almost anything.
1 . Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, James W. Sire (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1980), p. 157