Distinctive Beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses
The Watchtower Observer - An Eye On The Jehovah's Witnesses
MISSING THE TARGET FOR 118 YEARS
History and Techniques of the Jehovah's Witnesses
If you walk through the downtown area of a large city, you see them standing in pairs on street corners, usually not smiling. They hold up copies of Awake! or The Watchtower magazines. They're the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Fifty years ago they numbered fewer than 100,000. Now there are several million of them around the world. They don't have churches; they have "Kingdom Halls" instead. Their congregations are uniformly small, usually numbering less than two hundred. Most Witnesses used to be Catholics or Protestants. Let's look a little at their history, because that will help us understand their unique doctrines.
The sect now known as the Jehovah's Witnesses was started by Charles Taze Russell, who was born in 1852 and worked in Pittsburgh as a haberdasher. He was raised a Congregationalist, but. at the age of seventeen he tried to convert an atheist to Christianity and ended up being converted instead--not to outright atheism, but to agnosticism. Some years later he went to an Adventist meeting, was told that Jesus would be back at any time, and got interested in the Bible.
The leading light of Adventism had been William Miller, a flamboyant preacher who predicted that the world would end in 1843. When it didn't, he "discovered" an arithmetical error in his eschatological calculations and said it would end in 1844. When his prediction again failed, many people became frustrated and withdrew from the Adventist movement, but a remnant, led by Ellen G. White, went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
It was this diminished Adventism which influenced Russell, who took the title "Pastor" even though he never got through high school. In 1879, he began the Watch Tower--what would later be known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the teaching organ of the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1908 he moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, where it has remained ever since.
Before he got his religious career well underway, Russell promoted what he called "miracle wheat," which he sold at sixty dollars per bushel. He claimed it would grow five times as well as regular wheat. In fact, it grew slightly less well than regular wheat, as was established in court when Russell was sued. Later he marketed a fake cancer cure and what he termed a "millennial bean" (which a wag has said probably got that name because it took a thousand years to sprout).
Russell taught his followers included the non-existence of hell and the annihilation of unsaved people (a doctrine he picked up from the Adventists), the non-existence of the Trinity (only the Father, Jehovah, is God), the identification of Jesus with Michael the Archangel, the reduction of the Holy Spirit from a Person to a force, the mortality (not immortality) of the soul, and the return of Jesus in 1914.
When 1914 had come and gone, with no Jesus in sight, Russell modified his teachings and claimed Jesus had, in fact, returned to Earth, but that his return was invisible. His visible return would come later, but still very soon.
Russell died in 1916 and was succeeded by "Judge" Joseph R. Rutherford. Rutherford, born in 1869, had been brought up as a Baptist and became the legal adviser to the Watch Tower. He never was a real judge, but took the title because, as an attorney, he substituted at least once for an absent judge.
At one time he claimed Russell was next to St. Paul as an expounder of the Gospel, but later, in an effort to have his writing supplant Russell's, he let Russell's books go out of print.
It was Rutherford who coined the slogan, "Millions now living will never die." By it he meant that some people alive in 1914 would still be alive when Armageddon came and the world was restored to a paradisaical state.
In 1931 he changed the name of the sect to the Jehovah's Witnesses. As an organizer, he equipped missionaries with portable phonographs, which they took door to door along with records of Rutherford. They didn't have to say much when they came calling; all they had to do was put on Rutherford's record. He displayed a marked hatred for Catholicism on his radio program and in the pamphlets he wrote. Later his successors tempered the sect's anti-Catholicism, but Awake! and The Watchtower still carry anti-Catholic articles every few issues, though the tone is subtle, instead of lurid, as in Rutherford's day.
Rutherford said that in 1925 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets would return to Earth, and for them he prepared a mansion named Beth Sarim in San Diego. He moved into this mansion (where he died in 1942) and bought an automobile with which to drive the resurrected patriarchs around.
Rutherford was succeeded by Nathan Homer Knorr, who was born in 1905 and died in 1977. Knorr joined the movement as a teenager, working his way up through the ranks. He got rid of the phonographs and insisted that the missionaries attend courses and be trained in door-to-door evangelism techniques. The Witnesses now have a reputation as skillful deliverers of "personal testimonies."
Since the Bible, as preserved through the centuries, did not support the peculiar doctrines of the Witnesses, Knorr chose an anonymous committee to produce the New World Translation, which is used by no sect other than the Witnesses. It buttresses their beliefs through obscure or inaccurate renderings. For example, to prove that Jesus was only a creature, not God, the New World Translation's rendering of John 1:1 concludes this way: "and the Word was a god" [italics added]. Every other translation, Catholic and Protestant--not to mention the Greek original--has "and the Word was God."
Knorr was succeeded as head of the Jehovah's Witnesses, by Frederick Franz. He had been the Witnesses' leading theologian, and his services were often called upon. For some years the sect's magazines had been predicting that Armageddon would occur in 1975. When it didn't, Franz had to find an explanation.
Witnesses believe that Adam was created in 4026 B.C. and that human beings have been allotted 6000 years of existence until Armageddon and the beginning of the millennium. Simple arithmetic gives 1975 as the year Armageddon would arrive.
Franz explained that Armageddon would actually come 6000 years after Eve's creation. We don't know how long after Adam's creation she came on the scene, said Franz--maybe it was several years. In any case, we'll just have to wait, knowing the end is right around the corner.
When the final battle does occur--remember, it will be during the lifetime of "millions" of people alive in 1914, which means it can't be too far off--Jehovah will defeat Satan and the elect will go to heaven. But only 144,000 are among the elect. They will go to heaven as spirit persons (without resurrected bodies). The remaining faithful (Jehovah's Witnesses) will live forever on a renewed Earth in resurrected bodies. The unsaved will cease to exist at all.
Jehovah's Witnesses live under a strict regimen. They may be "disfellowshipped" for a variety of reasons, such as attending a Catholic or Protestant church or receiving a blood transfusion. Disfellowshipping is the sect's equivalent of excommunication. A disfellowshipped Witness may attend Kingdom Hall, but he is not allowed to speak to anyone, and no one may speak to him. The others are to act as though he no longer exists. This applies even to his family, who may only communicate with him as much as absolutely necessary. Franz was succeeded as president of the Watchtower in 1993 by Milton Henschel, who has continued the aggressive evangelization tactics of his predecessors.
Most religions welcome converts, and the Witnesses' very reason for existence is to make them. To accomplish this they follow several steps.
First they try to get a copy of one of their magazines into the hands of a prospective convert. They lead off with a question such as, "How would you like to live in a world without sickness, war, poverty, or any other problem?" If the prospect is willing to speak with them, they arrange what's known as a "back call"--that is, they return in a week or so for more discussions. This can be kept up indefinitely.
At some point the missionaries invite the prospect to a Bible study. This is not the usual sort of Bible study, which may resemble a free-for-all. The Bible study is given in the home of a Jehovah's Witness and is directed along lines mandated by the officials in Brooklyn. The prospect is there to learn, not to teach. If he progresses well, he's invited to a larger Bible study, which may be held at a Kingdom Hall.
About this time he's invited to attend a Sunday service. The service is quite unlike the standard Protestant service, which consists of hymn singing, prayers, and a sermon. At the Kingdom Hall, which resembles not so much as church as a small lecture hall, the prospect hears a Witness discuss a few verses of Scripture and how those verses can be explained to non-Witnesses.
The prospective convert gets still more of this if he proceeds to the next step, which consists of going to meetings on Wednesday or Thursday nights. At those meetings Witnesses trade stories, explaining how they've done that week in going door to door, giving advice to one another, figuring out better ways to get the message across, logging their hours. (Each month each Kingdom Hall mails to Brooklyn a detailed log of hours spent proselytizing and number of converts made.)
If the prospect goes through all these steps, he's ready for admission to the sect. That involves baptism by immersion and agreeing to work actively as a missionary. Many missionaries take only part-time jobs so they can devote more time to their evangelizing work. It's not uncommon for a Witness to log more than 150 hours monthly in house calls.
Although not every Witness can put in so many hours, every Witness is expected to do what he can by way of missionary work. The Witnesses believe, following Luther's version of the universal priesthood of believers, that each of them is a minister, and they act on this belief.
There is no separate, ordained ministry as is found in Protestant churches. Their main task is to enlarge the rolls. Their sect operates no hospitals, sanitariums, orphanages, schools, colleges, or social welfare agencies. Why bother, since it will all disappear in a few years anyway?
They recognize the legitimacy of no governmental authority, since all earthly authority is of Satan. They will not serve in the military, salute the flag, say the Pledge of Allegiance, vote, run for office, or serve as officials of labor unions. Everything they do is focused on the imminent end of Satan's rule and the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on Earth.
No matter how peculiar their doctrines, they deserve to be complimented on their determination and single-minded zeal. However, as Paul might have said concerning them, ""I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge (Rom. 10:2, NIV).
The Jehovah's Witnesses are quite forthcoming about their religious beliefs. Their religion, unlike Mormonism, isn't an esoteric one with secret doctrines known only to an initiated few.
When Mormons come to your door, they don't tell you that they believe in many gods, that Jesus and Lucifer were "spirit brothers," and that dark skin (in the case of Blacks, Indians, and Hispanics) is supposedly a curse from God in punishment for wickedness. If they told you such things up front, you'd close the door immediately. Such teachings are saved for initiates. Thus, Mormonism is an esoteric religion (Webster: "esoteric: designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone").
The religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, is exoteric (Webster: "suitable to be imparted to the public"). They're happy to tell you up front exactly what they believe, and they tell you not just when at your door, but in their publications.
In Jehovah's Witnesses in the Twentieth Century, for example, may be found a chart titled "What Jehovah's Witnesses Believe." This chart list beliefs and the supposed scriptural authority for them. Let's examine some of the beliefs which are peculiar to the Jehovah's Witnesses.
(In this tract we give scriptural passages from the Revised Standard Version, a sound Bible translation that is recognized by Catholics and Protestants alike as one of the most accurate and dignified English translations of Scripture. Bear in mind that the Witnesses' use their own "in-house" Bible called The New World Translation, though it is regarded by Greek and Hebrew scholars as an extraordinarily poor and highly inaccurate translation. There are many places where it is not faithful to the Hebrew and Greek, especially where the text in the original languages fails to support--and often openly contradict--the Witnesses' peculiar doctrines.)
1. "Christ is God's Son and is inferior to him." Given in support of this position are these verses: "And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Matt. 3:17). "I proceeded and came forth from God" (John 8:42). "If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20:17). "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor. 11:3). "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one" (1 Cor. 15:28).
At first glance these citations seem imposing. It does seem that Christ is inferior to God the Father in some sense. But what about John 10:30: "I and the Father are one"? Or, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9)? Or, "All that the Father has is mine" (John 16:15). Or, "The Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18)? Or, "[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:6). These seem to contradict the other verses.
How to we make sense of all this? By keeping in mind that Jesus is both God and man. Some verses, such as these last four, refer exclusively to his Godhead. Others refer to his humanity. So far as he is God, Jesus is equal to the Father. Christ's human nature is created and is inferior to he is inferior to the Father, but to focus on this aspect of Christ to the exclusion of his divine nature is a gross misunderstanding of who and what the Bible says Jesus Christ is. Other verses cited by the Witnesses, such as Matthew 3:17, show merely that Christ is God's Son, not that he is inferior (in fact, John 5:18 shows that being God's Son is being equal to God).
2. "Christ was the first of God's creations." Verses cited by Witnesses in support are this claim: "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation" (Col. 1:15). "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: '`The words of the Amen [Christ], the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation" (Rev. 3:14).
You see what's being argued in the first of the two verses: that "first-born" implies succession and inferiority. But the title "first-born" refers to Christ's place as the chief and unique Son of God (cf. Rom. 8:29). Further, the Greek preposition translated "of" in this verse can also be translated "over." Thus the New International Version of the Bible describes Jesus in this verse as "the firstborn over all creation."
And what about the second verse, from Revelation? Frankly, it's hard to see how it helps the Witnesses at all. It merely says Christ was the source of creation. This implies Christ is divine, since God created everything.
The fact that there was no time when the Son did not exist is indicated in John 1:1-3, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." This passage also shows that the Son is not a creature because all created things were made through him, and no created things were made except through him.
3. "Wicked will be eternally destroyed" (that is, no hell, just annihilation). Verses given in support: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:41, 46). "They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" (2 Thess. 1:9).
You can see for yourself that these verses actually prove the opposite of what the Witnesses teach--that is, they prove the existence of hell. This is compounded when Revelation says of the damned: "And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name" (Rev. 14:11). If they are not given any rest, day or night, then obviously they are still around to experience torment.
4. "Taking blood into the body through mouth or veins violates God's laws." The Jehovah's Witnesses are perhaps best known to other Americans as people who won't allow themselves or their children to have blood transfusions. They support this notion with these verses: "Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Gen. 9:4). "You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood" (Lev. 17:14). "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary thing that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity" (Acts 15:28, 29).
But there is a great difference between eating blood and receiving a life-giving blood transfusion. The thing that was wrong with eating blood was that it profaned the life of the animal. But for a person to willingly share his blood intravenously in order to share life with someone does not profane anything. Indeed, even ultra-orthodox Jews, who strictly observe the Old Testament kosher laws, recognize that blood transfusions are not prohibited by the command not to eat blood.
The Witnesses must avoid other problematic passages that deal with God's prohibition of eating blood because these passages include a prohibition against eating fat. Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe eating fat is wrong, and would see no problem at all with someone munching on fried pork rinds (i.e. deep-fried pieces of pig fat) or sitting down to dinner and enjoying a nice fatty cut of prime rib. But their vehement opposition to eating blood, when contrasted with their approval of eating fat, presents a serious problem for them. Why? Because Leviticus, the book they go to in order to substantiate their prohibition of eating (and receiving transfusions of) blood, contains, in the same passages, prohibitions against eating fat.
Consider these examples: "It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood" (Lev. 3:17).
"The LORD said to Moses, 'Say to the people of Israel, You shall eat no fat, of ox, or sheep, or goat. The fat of an animal that dies of itself, and the fat of one that is torn by beasts, may be put to any other use, but on no account shall you eat it. For every person who eats of the fat of an animal of which an offering by fire is made to the Lord shall be cut off from his people. Moreover you shall eat no blood whatever, whether of fowl or of animal, in any of your dwellings. Whoever eats any blood, that person shall be cut off from his people'" (Lev 7:22-27).
These verses and others like them are difficult for Witnesses to explain, given that they lean heavily on the prohibitions against eating blood. It's totally consistent to insist that God's "perpetual statute" against eating blood must be observed, while his "perpetual statute" (that appears in the very same context) against eating fat can be safely ignored! On this subject, as on many others, the Witnesses are highly selective and must ignore much of the Bible in order to make their odd beliefs seem "biblical."
And remember, the Old Testament dietary laws simply don't apply to Christians today (cf. Col. 2:16-17, 22), and the ones given at the Council of Jerusalem passed into disuse as Jewish conversions to Christianity become uncommon toward the end of the first century and the Church became mainly Gentile. They weren't immutable doctrines, but disciplinary rules.
5. "A clergy class and special titles are improper." In support of this position, Jehovah's Witnesses refer to these verses: "I will not show partiality to any person or use flattery toward any man" (Job 32:21). "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ" (Matt. 23:8-10). "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave" (Matt. 20:25-27).
Matthew 23:9 is used also by Fundamentalists when they argue against the priesthood. "How can you call your priests 'Father'? This is a violation of Scripture?" Briefly, our Lord was saying we shouldn't give to men credit for what really comes to us from God the Father. But Jesus shouldn't be understood in a crassly literal way. If Matthew 23:9 were taken that way, you'd have trouble finding a title for the man who married your mother.
Furthermore, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul called himself the father of the church he founded in Corinth: "For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15). He also referred, under divine inspiration, to Timothy as "my son" (1 Tim. 1:18, 2 Tim. 2:1), but if he could call Timothy "my son" then Timothy could call him "my father"--so long as he didn't confuse Paul's fatherhood with the kind of Fatherhood God has (Matt. 23:9).
The Witnesses also ignore Scripture's teaching concerning the authority of Church leaders and the appropriate honor that's due them because of their office: "Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and . . . esteem them very highly in love because of their work" (1 Thess. 5:12-13), "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor . . . " (1 Tim. 5:17), and "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).