Perhaps you have had the experience of being home on the weekend when the doorbell rings, and after peering through the curtains you figure that the two people on your doorstep likely may be Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) ready to instruct you in the doctrines of the Watch Tower Society (WTS), their leadership organization. Perhaps you then turned off the lights and pretended you weren’t home.
It’s perfectly understandable why some people would not want to give their time to strangers who are trying to proselytize them. At the same time, perhaps some people feign absence because they are not sufficiently familiar with the beliefs of JWs and are conscious of the fact that the doorstep dialogue, even though it’s on the “home court,” would put them at a disadvantage.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize the reader with the most notable errors in WTS doctrines. Please note that while I have loosely ranked these errors in the order of their theological significance, all of them touch upon critical doctrines; hence, some readers might assign a different order to them. I began the list with the WTS teachings on the nature of God himself.
Also take note that all of these errors in one way or another are grounded in a distortion of Scripture, a fact that underscores the need for an infallible guide to interpret it for us. This is precisely why Jesus gave us the Magisterium of his Catholic Church.
1.Only the Father is God Almighty.
The WTS has consistently rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and its understanding of the second and third Persons of the Trinity is radically different from our own. It claims that the Trinity doctrine had its origins in paganism and hence must be vehemently rejected by Christians. In its literature, the WTS often makes an emotive appeal that is based on a misrepresentation of the Trinity, such as “Can you imagine a freakish-looking, three-headed god?”
Naturally, such caricatures of the Trinity are not helpful, but JWs sometimes get traction from them with otherwise unsuspecting Christians who might not be as familiar with the doctrine of the Trinity as they should be, especially considering that it is the foundational belief of the Christian faith.
JWs maintain that only the Father is “Almighty God,” and thus only he is divine (in our sense of the word) and only he possesses divine attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and virtues in perfection. For JWs, Jesus is the first being God created, and while they do afford him a place in creation second only to the Father, he nonetheless does not share the Father’s nature and thus ranks as a “mighty god” (as opposed to Almighty God) in their translation of the Bible and in their literature.
Also, it’s important to realize that JWs use the words divine and God/god differently than we do. To them, the Father, Jesus, and the angels are all divine, but Catholics maintain there is a difference in nature between angels and God (creatures versus Creator) and a sameness of nature between the Father and Jesus (both are God).
Also, JWs use the word god (lowercase “g”) in reference to Jesus, effectively meaning he is godlike but not equal in status and nature to the Father, who alone is referred to as “God” (capital “G”). When we use the word god, we are typically using it in the context of mythology wherein the story refers to deities.
We understand that such beings are not true God by nature, and hence why St. Paul says, “Indeed, even though there are so-called gods in heaven and on earth (there are, to be sure, many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’)” (1 Cor. 8:5). In these instances, the beings in question are given the title “god” or “lord,” but they are not truly God. So, what JWs have effectively done is diminish Jesus’ status to that of the deities of pagan myths.
2. Jesus is Michael the Archangel.
Through a convolution of several Scripture passages—references to Michael in the book of Daniel and to an archangel (singular) in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Jude 1:9—JWs conclude that Michael is actually Jesus in his prehuman existence:
This term [“arch-angel”] signifies chief-messenger, and occurs but twice, Jude 9, 1 Thess. 4:16. It is never used in the plural, and altogether seems to teach that there is but one chief-messenger of Jehovah. While we are not directly told who is Jehovah’s chief-messenger, except that his name was called Michael, the thought suggests itself, Can it be that he who was called Michael—Jehovah’s chief-messenger—was none other than our Lord in his pre-human condition?” (Zion’s Watch Tower, June 1883, inter pp. 2-3; Watchtower Reprints, 490).
Doing so effectively relegates Jesus to the status of a creature—however exalted they might consider him to be—and not God himself. Catholics, on the other hand, identify Michael as one of seven archangels, three of whom are explicitly mentioned in the Bible—the other two being Raphael and Gabriel.
JWs have had an equally convoluted history of their approach to Jesus/Michael in terms of whether or not he should be worshiped. In their earliest days JWs were taught that Jesus should be worshiped, but since then the WTS —as it is wont to do—has jumped back and forth on its teachings, resulting in the following subsequent doctrinal positions: Jesus should only receive “relative” worship (that is, the worship of Jehovah through Jesus), relative worship is forbidden, and finally that Jesus should flat out not be worshiped at all.
3. The Holy Spirit is God’s active force.
A natural consequence of the WTS rejection of the Trinity is that the Holy Spirit also is downgraded from the orthodox position of being eternal God, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Holy Spirit fares even worse than Jesus does; while Jesus is a personal entity who is godlike, the “holy spirit” (in WTS publications) is not even a person. Instead, “it” is an “active force” that motivates believers to do God’s will.
The WTS teaching on the Holy Spirit is aptly summed up in this excerpt:
The holy spirit, therefore, was the specific means employed not only at Pentecost but also in all cases of inspiration. God’s holy spirit is his active force and is not a personality. It is God’s energizing force which he uses to produce visible results and to accomplish his purposes. It is manifested in many ways, that is, it produces different visible results, yet it is all the one and same active force originating from God (The Watchtower, April 15, 1952, 244).
Interestingly enough, the doctrines JWs held in their earliest days (late 1800s) bore a closer resemblance to orthodoxy than in later times, and consequently you will find early WTS publications referring to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him” and ascribing personal attributes to him. About twenty-five to thirty years later, WTS theology changed, and “he” became an “it” that has since been referred to as God’s “invisible power” and which has been compared to electricity as an activating or empowering force.
4. Christ did not die on a cross.
As with masculine/personal references to the Holy Spirit, one can also find plenty of references to “the cross” in earlier WTS publications. In fact, for at least fifty years this was the case. Starting around 1936 (the exact reason for which is obscure, though it was probably rooted in the personal beliefs of the second WTS president, Joseph Rutherford), WTS publications began to refute the traditional shape of the instrument of Jesus’ death.
Jesus, they claim, did not die on two wooden beams placed at right angles to each other; rather, He was nailed with His arms over His head to a single, upright piece of wood that WTS publications refer to as the “torture stake.” You can still find occasional references to the cross in post-1936 publications, but they are rare.
The WTS from that time on further asserts that the Catholic use of the cross (or crucifix) was borrowed from paganism, and hence to use it in any worship or devotional setting is an offense to God. Worse still, in their eyes, is the Catholic practice of wearing a crucifix: “If someone murdered your family member with a gun, you wouldn’t put a small gun on a chain and wear it around your neck, would you?”
Of course, such thinking is inaccurate and misguided. There is an abundance of biblical, historical, archaeological, and patristic evidence that demonstrates clearly that Jesus died on a cross-shaped device, and JWs seem to misunderstand that Catholics are venerating the cross or crucifix as a reminder of what Christ endured for their salvation.
5. Hell doesn’t exist.
The idea that eternal torment awaits those who knowingly reject God through mortal sin is a doctrine clearly taught in the Bible, but JWs find it untenable. They assert it is unreasonable, repugnant to justice, inconsistent with a loving God, unscriptural, and that the doctrine is a lie foisted upon Christians by Satan as part of his master plot to deceive them.
JWs insist the Greek words used in the New Testament to denote places of punishment after death refer either to humanity’s common grave or “everlasting destruction” (i.e., annihilation).
It is true that all who have died from Adam until now have gone to hell. But hell does not mean a place of conscious torture. Wherever the word hell occurs in the Bible, it means the condition of death. Hell is not a place, but a condition. Those who go into the grave are not conscious there; but they have gone into the death condition (The Harp of God, 1921, 51).
In all places where hell is translated from the Greek word Gehenna it means everlasting destruction or extinction (Let God Be True, 1946, 77).
Yet even Jesus himself spoke about hell on several occasions to warn us (e.g., Matt. 5:22, 25:41; Luke 16:24), thus confirming its existence and making it a serious consideration. Emotional aversion to hell based on our own flawed sense of love and justice notwithstanding, God will not redeem us against our will, and it is precisely his perfect justice and respect for our free will that demand the existence of hell. If we choose to reject God, he will honor that request; and since the offense is against an eternal God, the punishment is of eternal duration.
6. The soul is not immortal.
Going hand in hand with the previous error is the WTS denial of the soul’s immortality. After all, if the soul is not immortal, then there’s no corresponding need for a place of unending torment. Rejecting the Catholic understanding of human nature as comprising a physical component (body) and a spiritual component (soul), JWs instead claim a human being does not have a soul but is a soul.
They base this idea in part on Genesis 2:7, which states that after God breathed life into Adam he became “a living soul” (“a living being” in some Bible versions). JWs fail to realize that Scripture sometimes refers to an object—in this case, a man—by means of its principle component—in this case, his soul. Even in our own colloquial speech, for example, we will say that a certain number of “souls” perished in a shipwreck.
JWs also fail to acknowledge the Bible passages that speak of conscious existence after death (they explain them away), which is only possible if humans possess an attribute of their nature that survives beyond death (i.e., is immortal).
7. Only the New World Translation of the Bible is valid.
JWs formerly used any number of Bible translations in their preaching work, but since 1950, when the first portion of their own New World Translation (NWT) was released (subsequent portions were issued in the following years), things have changed. It would be rare today for a JW not to use the NWT.
The problem is, the NWT is a biased translation that mangles some key doctrinal passages to fit WTS theology. To illustrate, one example occurs at John 1:1, where the third clause of this verse in the NWT reads “and the Word was a god” (showing that Jesus is not Almighty God) as opposed to “and the Word was God” in mainline Christian versions (showing that he is).
The NWT’s problems are compounded by the fact that the members of its translating committee were never identified by the WTS because it “wanted the glory to go to Jehovah alone.” This anonymity prevents anyone from ascertaining if the translators had the requisite credentials to do such important work.
Some relatively high-ranking JWs who knew the inner WTS workings but who have left the organization claim to know who those members were, and they have identified five men who worked in the WTS headquarters in Brooklyn. Of these five men, only one—Frederick Franz, the fourth WTS president—had any education at all in Greek (the language of the New Testament), but not in biblical Greek and for only two years.
What this means is the translation committee was woefully ill-equipped for its task, and it explains how the WTS doctrines were able to sneak into the NWT.
8. God’s true name is “Jehovah.”
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of JWs is their insistence on “using God’s name,” which they claim is “Jehovah.” From their perspective, failure to use God’s name shows a lack of respect and indicates ignorance on the part of believers, since God’s name is readily knowable and should be used.
The problem is, “Jehovah” is not God’s name, and, in a twist of irony, the name was the result of an error made by a thirteenth-century Catholic monk—ironic because Catholics are perceived by JWs as particularly misguided.
In the original Hebrew language, God’s name as revealed to Moses at the burning bush is rendered as YHWH—or Yahweh, meaning “I Am.” Ancient Hebrew was a consonantal language (no vowels). Out of reverence for God, faithful Jews would not even speak his name, so when YHWH was written in the biblical scrolls, the scribes would write the markings for the vowel sounds a-o-a for the word adonai (“Lord”) directly over YHWH so that anyone reading the scroll would know to say adonai rather than Yahweh. Along comes our monk and, seeing the vowel markings over YHWH, thought they were part of the actual spelling of God’s name and thus combined YHWH with a-o-a, making YaHoWaH, which eventually became “Jehovah.” So every time JWs insist on the use of God’s name, they are actually promoting a corrupted form of it.
9. The timing of Armageddon can be predicted.
Another characteristic of the WTS is its penchant for predicting dates for Armageddon, the final battle between the forces of good and evil that will occur at the end of human history. Throughout its entire existence the WTS has placed a primary emphasis in its publications—and hence in the JWs’ door-to-door preaching—that Armageddon is imminent. It would seem that JWs are bent on getting converts by scaring them into their Kingdom Halls in order to avoid Armageddon.
At its inception in 1879, the WTS’s main magazine (then called Zion’s Watch Tower) began by speaking of Armageddon as being “already in progress.” Naturally this wasn’t true, and Armageddon has ever since been referred to as being “at the door,” “impending,” “in the very near future,” and “at hand.”
The WTS formally declared Armageddon would occur in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, and 1975, and it implied it would occur in 2000. Clearly there was a reason why Jesus spoke of the futility of attempting to know the exact time for the end of the world (see Matthew 24, especially verse 36), because this piece of information is just not available to us, and for his own good reasons the Father chose not to reveal it to humanity.
10. Increasing ‘light’ justifies doctrinal changes.
If anything is consistent about the WTS, it’s the changing nature of its doctrines.
In JW parlance, “light” refers to God’s truths, and in a bizarre twist of Proverbs 4:18 (“But the path of the just is like shining light that grows in brilliance till perfect day” [New American Bible]), the WTS has mistaken the just person’s path, or course of his or her life that improves over time as he or she continues to walk rightly with God, for God’s truth itself. Though the path is compared to an increasingly bright light, it is we who change, not the degree of truth in God’s word.
On the basis of this passage alone, the WTS has foisted countless doctrinal and interpretive changes upon its followers, all in the name of “increasing light”—that is, its alleged gradual improvements in Bible understanding. It has compared this dynamic to a sailboat tacking in the wind—zig-zagging back and forth, but ultimately reaching its destination.
The WTS’s predicament is that its doctrinal history has been all over the map: changes, reversals, novelties, and eliminations. Even a cursory examination of WTS teachings over time will show its proverbial sailboat to be lost at sea, carried by shifting winds and capricious currents.
When JWs Show Up at Your Doorstep
Now that you have a working familiarity with what JWs believe, what should you do the next time they show up on your doorstep? I recommend three simple responses:
1. Don’t slam the door in their faces. They have been taught to expect that response, so when you do that it only confirms in their minds what the WTS has taught them.
2. Thank them for their time and concern for your spiritual well-being. Always be charitable. Let them know, however, that you already have a belief system that you know to be the truth. To help them grasp the reality of your statement, you might ask them, “If I attempted to convince you to leave the WTS, would you?”
3. Pray for them after they leave. Ask the Holy Spirit to break through the WTS conditioning and indoctrination to which they have been subjected.