Sects Positions: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the End of the World
What practices, beliefs, and people qualify as Christian? How broad is the umbrella of Christianity? How might orthodox Christians learn from, even submit to, the wisdom of deviant “Christian” traditions? Within a new series of articles, what I’m calling “Sects Positions,” I’m going to examine these questions while looking at the beliefs of the fringes of Christianity, groups that many would not consider true Christians. In particular, I will be engaging with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, two religions that believe themselves to be the proclaimers of the true gospel, the fullest expression of prophecy and revelation, and the restorers of God’s church. When most mainstream Christians encounter these peculiar traditions, they are quick to denounce them as cults and heretics, hoping to create as much distance between them and orthodox Christianity (just do a quick google search, the apologetics websites are endless). What I am hoping to do in this series, however, is to examine precisely where these traditions differ from mainstream Christianity, and to see these critiques as opportunities for mainstream Christianity to clarify itself, revealing what Christianity Today calls a “beautiful orthodoxy.”1
Over the course of this series, I will begin by examining the fascinating history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses failed attempts to predict the exact date of Christ’s return, and then over the course of a few articles move into an extended review and discussion of Dr. Terryl L. Givens’s recently released Wrestling the Angel , considered “The most comprehensive account of the development of Mormon thought ever written.” Though some may believe a detailed, even sometimes sympathetic, discussion of an unorthodox tradition to be foolish, I hope this series promotes understanding and dialogue, rather than diatribe.
The current organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was born out of charismatic personalities, a time of expectation of the imminent return of Christ, and intense small group bible study. In the late 1870, a man by the name of Charles Taze Russell started a bible study to examine traditional Christian doctrine, the group coming to the realization that the trinity and eternal torment of the damned were not supported by the Bible (today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses also reject the divinity of Jesus). Hoping to spread his views to a wider audience, Russell started the Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society, a precursor to the modern Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the “governing body” of all Jehovah’s Witnesses that considers itself the “faithful and discreet slave” of Matthew 24. This Society proliferated, through the medium of the newspaper, millions of his sermons, books on Christian living, and systematic dispensationalist treatments of the scriptures. He believed, using pyramidology, that Christ had returned invisibly in 1874, and had started ruling in heaven in 1878.2
The key date for Russell was to come in 1914, in which the “Gentile times” would come to a close, Armageddon would end, and paradise would exist on earth.3 Unfortunately for him, Russell’s prediction did not come true, and he and his prophecies perished soon thereafter. Joseph Franklin Rutherford was then elected the next president of the Watch Tower Society, soon reorganizing the prophecies of Russell around 1925 as the new end of the world, and 1914 as the beginning of the last days, the “start of Christ’s invisible presence,” and the start of his kingly rule in heaven. “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” was the cry of Rutherford and his faithful followers.4 Again, unfortunately for Rutherford, this did not come true, and the Watch Tower again downplayed the importance of the prediction and reformed its theology. The authoritative magazine of the church, The Watchtower, contains a litany of prophecies between the years of 1925 and 1975. These include the prediction in 1935 by certain elected elders that God would “overthrow Christendom”, the proclamation in September of 1941 that that we are only a precious few “remaining months before Armageddon”, and the promotion of the idea that just as Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, thirty-seven years after the death of Christ, that 1951 (thirty-seven years after 1914) would be the year of God’s destruction of apostate Christendom.5
The most important of the Jehovah’s Witnesses failed (or true? One can never tell) prophecies was in the ripe year of 1975. According to one Witness’s writing, humankind was created in 4026 B.C., the first six thousand years of mankind will end in 1975, and we will then enter into the seventh day, a thousand year “Sabbath period of rest and release.” A District Overseer told the masses at a District Convention, “[Jehovah] has held up for us a new goal, a new year. Something to reach out for, and it just seems it has given us so much more energy and power in a final burst of speed to the finish line. And that’s the year 1975. As one brother put it, “Stay Alive to ’75.” Though this prophecy eventually floundered (and growth rates of the religion plummeted), in between 1975 and 2000, there were numerous suggestions that the “day of Jehovah” would “be completed in our 20th century.”6
I don’t know about you, but I find this theology of the end times very attractive. Christian eschatology too often feels dry and distant, devoid of day-to-day significance, lacking in “energy and power” for the long and arduous race to the finish line. Uncertainty ubiquitously fills our finite life, and God seems so hidden in the midst of it. All of these difficult and seemingly worthless work weeks, random wars going on in foreign nations, injustices continuing in our communities, parents and grandparents are dying or on the brink of death, is God really coming to rescue and restore this world?
I think that Jehovah’s Witnesses tradition of prophecies, though deeply flawed, have a grip on some of the deepest longings of the human heart. I want a Sabbath rest in which God takes care of the brokenness of the world, who places me in a paradise that is utterly unlike the world in which we currently inhabit. I want a new goal and a new year, energy and power that I can grasp onto to keep me physically, mentally, and emotionally engaged. I want a book of scriptures, a display of miracles, and a loving God that can tell me rest is to come, that I get to be a part on a restored Earth, and that a savior is about to return for me.
And these longings are true and beautiful. The failed prophecies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe, should not primarily be regarded as falsehoods awaiting historical rebuttal, but as a magnifying glass on beautiful orthodoxy’s response to our situation as human beings. Fortunately for the church catholic, our future doesn’t depend on fallible human prophecy, but on a person who promises that our longings are to be fulfilled in him. The assurance of God’s work in the world comes not from humanity’s ascent to know when God will return, but in the truth and beauty of God’s descent into human history. It seems that the Jehovah’s Witnesses incessant cry to know the timing of Christ’s return (a time in which Jesus himself said “You will neither know the day or hour) reveals a number of (sometimes unsettling) paradoxes within the Christian faith. God is hidden in his invisibility and otherness, yet revealed in creation, covenant, and the coming of Christ. The Scriptures are silent on the exact hour of God’s restoration of all things to himself, yet we believe Jesus will one day wipe away every tear, dealing away justly with sin and death. God’s people are continually in a state of waiting for what is to come next, yet resting in the salvation of the cross and the victory of the resurrection that has come before us. In this time of the year when the true church calendar becomes most serious and reflective, let us learn from the longings within the failed calendar of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, knowing that Christ has come and will come again.
View Sources 1. Katelyn Beaty, “Why We Need a Beautiful Orthodoxy,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/januaryfebruary/why-we-need-beautiful-orthodoxy.html 2. You’ll have to forgive me for utilizing second-hand resources in this article, the websites used cite the primary sources 3. Paul Grundy, “1914: The Failed Watchtower Prophecy,” http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/failed-1914-predictions.php 4. Paul Grundy, “1925 – “Millions Now Living Will Never Die””, http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/1925.php 5. Paul Grundy, “Changed Dates :: Failed Predictions,” http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/1800s.php 6. Paul Grundy, “1975 – Watchtower Quotes,” http://jwfacts.com/watchtower/1975.php Image of “Jehovah’s Witness Art” taken from Chris Dorward at https://www.flickr.com/photos/listingslab/597853275/
1. Katelyn Beaty, “Why We Need a Beautiful Orthodoxy,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/januaryfebruary/why-we-need-beautiful-orthodoxy.html
2. You’ll have to forgive me for utilizing second-hand resources in this article, the websites used cite the primary sources
3. Paul Grundy, “1914: The Failed Watchtower Prophecy,” http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/failed-1914-predictions.php
4. Paul Grundy, “1925 – “Millions Now Living Will Never Die””, http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/1925.php
5. Paul Grundy, “Changed Dates :: Failed Predictions,” http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/1800s.php
6. Paul Grundy, “1975 – Watchtower Quotes,” http://jwfacts.com/watchtower/1975.php
Image of “Jehovah’s Witness Art” taken from Chris Dorward at https://www.flickr.com/photos/listingslab/597853275/