Jehovah’s Witnesses are sincere people genuinely striving to do God’s will in their lives. Like us, they go about their daily routines, struggle with life’s concerns, and engage in spiritual activities. Like us, they trust their religious leaders for spiritual guidance, doctrinal instruction, and help in interpreting the Bible. A group of men known as the Governing Body heads the Watch Tower Society (WTS), the “mother organization” of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The WTS was incorporated in 1884, and its principal publication is The Watchtower (WT), which began circulation in 1879.
Since its inception, the WTS has claimed to be the only organization that speaks on behalf of God (whom they call “Jehovah”). It has called itself God’s “divinely appointed and organized channel of communication” (WT, May 15, 1955, 314), and even “the ark of salvation” (WT, Jun. 1, 1950, 176). Typical of what the WTS has said about itself for more than a century are statements like these: “The facts show that during this time and up to the present hour the ‘slave’ class [Jehovah’s Witnesses] has served as God’s sole collective channel for the flow of Biblical truth to men on earth” (WT, Jul. 15, 1960, 439) and “There is no other organization that is doing the divine will or that is educating people for life everlasting” (WT, Jul. 1, 1973, 404).
Truth-seeking Christians are obliged to ask if the Watch Tower Society is a reliable spiritual guide. Does it really speak on God’s behalf? Are its official teachings objectively true?
If it is worthy of credibility, the WTS should facilitate the spiritual and moral growth of its followers, possess sound teaching, and show development of beliefs while maintaining doctrinal continuity.
Unfortunately, the failings of the WTS are numerous, varied, and extensive. Three areas are especially noteworthy: erroneous expectations for Armageddon, false Bible interpretations, and vacillating and contradictory doctrines.
Armageddon All over Again
The teachings about Armageddon are what the WTS is most known for by non-Jehovah’s Witnesses. The fear of Armageddon is the single driving force behind the pressure the WTS puts upon its followers to conduct door-to-door preaching and to distribute Society-produced literature so that unsuspecting people can be warned of the impending calamity and join “God’s organization” to escape doom.
The WTS has formally identified at least five dates for Armageddon: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, and 1975. Other times have been strongly “suggested,” including the 1940s and the year 2000. Each date has been attended by a sense of urgency and has proved to be false.
The threat of Armageddon is looms over virtually everything Jehovah’s Witnesses do, as former members attest. Descriptions of Armageddon, which abound in WTS literature, include global terror, the collapse of political and governmental systems, the destruction of structures and buildings, fire falling from the sky, angels coming to administer God’s justice, and the earth being littered with the corpses of the unrighteous. Artwork graphically depicting chaos, destruction, and death often accompany these articles. The faithful are led to believe that preparations for Armageddon must supercede everything else. In concrete terms, this means that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been advised:
- not to marry: “We can well defer our marriage until lasting peace comes to earth. Now we must add nothing to our burdens, but be free and equipped to serve the Lord. When THE THEOCRACY is in full sway, it will not be burdensome to have a family” (Children, 1941, 366).
- not to have children: “Children born before Armageddon are brought into the world while Satan’s wicked, oppressive organization affects the lives of all on the earth. . . . It would therefore appear that there is no reasonable or Scriptural injunction to bring children into the world immediately before Armageddon, where we now are” (Salvation, 1939, 337).
- to put off college: “Many schools now have student counselors who encourage one to pursue higher education after high school. . . . Do not be influenced by them. . . . This world has very little time left! . . . Make pioneer service, the full-time ministry, with the possibility of Bethel [Jehovah’s Witness headquarters] or missionary service your goal” (WT, Mar. 15, 1969, 171).
- to neglect careers: “In view of the short time left, a decision to pursue a career in this system of things is not only unwise but extremely dangerous” (Kingdom Ministry, June 1969, 3).
- to liquidate assets: “Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.—1 John 2:17” (Our Kingdom Ministry, May 1974, p. 3).
- to spend more time going door-to-door: “Yes, the end of this system is so very near! Is that not reason to increase our activity?” (Our Kingdom Ministry, May 1974, p. 3).
It is difficult to know how many Jehovah’s Witnesses postponed or bypassed major life events, and how many of them were able to reconstruct their lives in the aftermath. But the WTS has asserted that it had only “suggested” dates for Armageddon and that individual Jehovah’s Witnesses were to blame for any “false expectations” they had.
For instance, for years the WTS focused on 1975 as the year when Armageddon would occur. As far back as 1966, when the WTS book Life Everlasting: In Freedom of the Sons of God was released at a Jehovah’s Witness convention, 1975 was a central feature: “It did not take the brothers very long to find the chart beginning on page 31, showing that 6,000 years of man’s existence end in 1975. Discussion of 1975 overshadowed about everything else” (WT, Oct. 15, 1966, 628–29). In 1968 a Watchtower article focused on 1975, beginning with the heading “Why Are You Looking Forward to 1975?” (Aug. 15, 1968, 494). That same year Kingdom Ministry noted that “there are only about ninety months left before 6,000 years of man’s existence on Earth is completed” (Kingdom Ministry, Mar. 1968, 4).
But as 1975 got closer, the WTS began to backpedal: “These publications have never said that the world’s end would come then” (WT, Oct. 15, 1974, 635). When 1975 came and passed without incident, the WTS had this to say: “It is not advisable for us to set our sights on a certain date, neglecting everyday things we would ordinarily care for as Christians, such as things that we and our families really need” (WT, July 15, 1976, 441).
The WTS later added that other statements “implied that such realization of hopes by that year was more of a probability than a mere possibility. It is to be regretted that these latter statements apparently overshadowed the cautionary ones and contributed to a buildup of the expectation already initiated” (WT, Mar. 15, 1980, 17).
Over time, the WTS has changed some doctrines dramatically, and today’s truth has become tomorrow’s heresy.
The WTS claims that its Bible interpretations originate from God himself: “The Lord gives interpretation to his prophecies and causes the same to be published. . . . As certain as the Lord has caused these truths to be published in The Watchtower ” (WT, Mar. 1, 1936, 72–73). The problem is that some of the “truths” given by God through the WT conflict with each other.
For example, the date of Christ’s second coming is the cornerstone upon which the entire WTS theological edifice rests. For the first few decades of its existence the WTS taught that Christ returned invisibly in 1874: “Our Lord, the appointed King, is now present, since October 1874, A.D.” (Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 4, 1886, 621). The WTS assured its followers that there was “overwhelming proof . . . physical facts . . . fulfilled prophecy” that proved “beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Lord is present” (The Harp of God, 1921, 250). But when the WTS’s “Bible-based” timetable of events (starting with Christ’s Second Coming) didn’t pan out, the leadership had to “adjust” it, and it was subsequently taught that Christ returned invisibly forty years later, in 1914: “In this way Christ Jesus came to the Kingdom in A.D. 1914, but unseen to men” (The Truth Shall Make You Free, 1943, 300). “Bible chronology pinpoints the year 1914 as the time that Christ arrived and began ruling in the midst of his enemies” (WT, Oct. 15, 1961, 632). The date of 1914 is still held as true.
If this date was wrong, then other crucial doctrines were also wrong—including Jesus coming to the temple for judgment, being enthroned as King, and the onset of Armageddon itself. How do Jehovah’s Witnesses know that the same will not prove true for 1914? The WTS says that the generation of people who “witnessed the events of 1914” will live to see Christ defeat evil at Armageddon, but it has already made recent major changes in its teachings, because that generation is rapidly dying out.
There is a lengthy catalogue of the WTS’s faulty exegesis, but consider one more example. The WTS wrongly predicted that the patriarchs would return to earth and that God’s kingdom would be established: “Therefore we may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the faithful prophets of old, particularly those named by the Apostle in Hebrews chapter 11, to the condition of human perfection” (Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1920, 89). “The date 1925 is even more distinctly indicated by the Scriptures because it is fixed by the law God gave to Israel” (WT, Sep. 1, 1922, 262). The WTS was so convinced this would occur that it bought a mansion in San Diego that was held in trust for the patriarchs to occupy when they materialized on earth. Years later the WTS quietly sold the property and closed this embarrassing chapter of its history. Decades later, in a moment of candor, the WTS reported in a footnote contained in a Watchtower article years after the death of Judge Rutherford (the Society’s second president) that Rutherford said about this debacle, “I made an ass of myself” (WT, Oct. 1, 1984, 24).
If the WTS could be wrong about such important issues in the past, why should its followers trust its interpretations now? The WTS itself advises: “If we learn that our religion is teaching what is not right, we should let go of that religion” (WT, Feb. 15, 1955, 124).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a doctrine known as the “increase of light.” It is based on Proverbs 4:18, which in their New World Translation of the Bible reads, “But the path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established.” Witnesses understand this passage to mean that God reveals to them a progressively greater understanding of the Bible, known as “light.” Over the course of time, then, the WTS is becoming more accurate in its interpretation of the Bible and in its prophecies, as the “light” shines more brightly.
While Catholics agree with the idea of doctrinal development, that is not the process actually taking place within the WTS. When a teaching or belief genuinely develops, its essence remains intact as expanded layers of understanding are added to it. In fact, the first president of the WTS, Charles Taze Russell, said: “A new light of truth can never contradict a former truth. ‘New light’ never extinguishes older ‘light,’ but adds to it” (WT, Feb. 1881, 3).
When we examine the history of the WTS teachings, though, we see a very different reality. Many WTS doctrines are contradictory or have been reversed, abandoned, or flip-flopped back and forth between interpretations. As Jehovah’s Witnesses became increasingly aware of this, the WTS had to account for it and so compared its doctrinal changes to a ship tacking in the wind (WT, Dec. 1, 1981, 27). A drawing accompanying the article shows a sailboat zig-zagging toward its destination. The reader is assured that the boat ultimately gets where it is headed. This explanation may satisfy some, but to others it is an attempt to cover up a history of doctrinal confusion.
Here are some examples of the WTS extinguishing one “light” for another:
The Great Pyramid of Giza is “God’s stone witness” detailing his plan for humanity (Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 3, 1890, 313) and later a “monument of demonism” (WT, Nov. 15, 1955, 697).
Jesus should be worshiped (WT, Jul. 15, 1898, 216); then he should receive only “relative worship” (WT, Jan. 15, 1992, 23); then relative worship is forbidden (Make Sure of All Things, 1965 edition, 249); finally, he should not be worshiped (WT, Nov. 1, 1964, 671).
The sower of the seed in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32), is Satan (Man’s Salvation Out of World Distress Is at Hand, 1975, 208), and, in the same year, it is Jesus (WT, Oct. 1, 1975, 600).
The men of Sodom and Gomorrah are to be resurrected (The Harp of God, 1921, 344), then not resurrected (WT, Jun. 1, 1952, 338), then resurrected (WT, Aug. 1, 1965, 479), then not resurrected (WT, Jun. 1, 1988, 30–31).
The “higher authorities” of Romans 13:1 are earthly governments (Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 2, 1889, 81), then Jesus and Jehovah (WT, Jun. 1, 1929, 165), then the commercial and political elements of Satan’s organization (Preparation, 1933, 127), then Jehovah and Jesus (Salvation, 1939, 58), then human governments once again (WT, Nov. 15, 1962, 686).
The WTS has said: “It is a serious matter to present God and Christ in one way, then find that our understanding of the major teachings and fundamental doctrines of the scriptures were in error, and then after that, to go back to the very doctrines that, by years of study, we have thoroughly determined to be in error. Christians cannot be vacillating—wishy-washy—about such fundamental teachings” (WT, May 15, 1976, 298).
The article went on to ask, “What confidence can one put in the sincerity or judgment of such persons?” This is a point to ponder seriously when assessing the reliability of the Watch Tower Society as a spiritual guide.