Every worldview has to answer three important questions. First, “How did we get here”? This question is obviously foundational to how we see the world around us and how we understand our role in the world. Secondly, “How did things get so messed up?” All of us know there is something broken about the world and our worldview helps us to understand what has been broken. Finally, “How can we fix it?” This last question is the culmination and conclusion of our worldview. We begin with an idea related to how we got here, but ultimately find ourselves answering the most important questions of life. The Jehovah’s Witness worldview offers answers to these three worldview questions. Let’s examine these answers to see if they are cohesive and relate to the world as we know it.
A Short History of the Jehovah’s Witness Religion
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded by Charles Russell, a Pennsylvania businessman, in 1869. He was only 18 years old when he first began holding bible studies on his own. He was frustrated with his personal experiences in the traditional Christian church of his day and he was particularly upset about what Christianity taught about the nature of hell. He was attracted to the Seventh Day Adventist movement. He eventually disassociated himself from this movement, however, on the basis of false predictions of Christ’s second coming.
Russell was a gifted communicator and writer. In 1879 he began his own magazine called the Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, which today is simply known as Watchtower (it is presently written by anonymous authors within the church). With the publication of the magazine, 30 congregations formed within a year. Russell next founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society as a religious corporation in 1884. In 1886, he wrote what is viewed as sacred text, called Studies of the Scriptures. In 1896, he renamed the group “Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society”, and this remains as the church’s official name today. The church is head-quartered in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to founding the church, Russell made a number of important predictions, including the prediction 1914 would be the beginning of the millennial age and the return of Jesus. When this did not occur (and the world instead witnessed a series of terrible events, including the beginning of World War I), Russell had to adjust his prediction. He died in 1916, never seeing the fulfillment of any of his predictions about the Millennium.
Joseph Rutherford became the next president of the church and began an important expansion. Rutherford wrote extensively (approximately a book a year) and started a magazine called The Golden Age. Today, this magazine continues to be published as Awake. Rutherford began using the radio as a means of broadcasting Bible lectures, growing his audience to 403 radio stations by 1933. Rutherford also initiated the door-to-door visitation program. Under his leadership, Rutherford renamed the group Jehovah’s Witnesses, to distinguish themselves from other Christians. Rutherford died in 1942 and Nathan Knorr became the next president.
Under Knorr’s leadership, the Watchtower proclaimed itself to be the Word of God, and Knorr affirmed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses alone represented God as his spokesman on earth:
“The Watchtower is a magazine without equal on earth and is conceded this rank by all that have been faithful readers thereof during its more than sixty years of publication… This is not giving any credit to the magazine’s publishers, but is due to the great Author of the Bible with its truth and prophecies, and who now interprets its prophecies. He it is that makes possible the material that is published in the columns of this magazine and who gives promise that it shall continue to publish the advancing truths as long as it continues to exist for the service of the interests of the Theocratic Government.” (Watchtower, April 15, 1943, pg.127)
During this period of their history, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to encounter legal trouble due to their restrictions on the military involvement of their members (they are in essence a pacifist organization). The Jehovah’s Witnesses won 36 cases before the Supreme Court, successful defending the rights of their members to refuse to serve in the military. In addition, Knorr oversaw the translation of The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in 1960, and this is still the main sacred text of the church. Under Knorr’s leadership a missionary school was also established to advance worldwide exposure. Membership in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion grew from 115,000 members in 1942 to over 2 million members in 1977 when Knorr died. He was replaced by Frederick Franz.
Franz also affirmed the Jehovah’s Witness claim their religion alone spoke for God (and the claim God’s words could be found in the Watchtower Magazine). In fact, Franz testified in court on October 15th, 1931 that “Jehovah God” was the editor of the Watchtower. But during this period of church history, Franz also predicted the world would end in 1975. After this failed to happen, there was confusion and reaction within the church. Eventually the presidency was replaced with a “Governing Body” of eighteen men. Presently, local meeting places are called Kingdom Halls and members are either “Publishers” (part-time missionaries) or “Pioneers” (full-time missionaries). Members must meet 5 times a week and keep full records of their missionary activities. It is of primary importance to Jehovah’s Witnesses they gain members and grow the body of believers. Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained to approach people, sell literature, teach people with proof texts and follow up with them. They work extremely hard and devote countless hours to evangelism.
According to church officials, there are approximately 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 232 countries and it is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Only 40% of its membership is in the West, with its most dramatic growth in Latin America. They affirm the full divine inspiration of the Bible, but only accept the New World Translation as the correct translation of the text. They are most famous for their refusal to participate in any holiday and birthday celebrations (which they see as pagan), their refusal to receive blood transfusions and their refusal to participate in the government or military.
How Jehovah’s Witnesses Answer the Question:
“How Did We Get Here?” (What’s the Nature of God and Creation?)
Unlike some world religions or theistic worldviews, Jehovah’s Witnesses rely on many of the foundational principles and historical truths of the Christian Worldview to begin making its case. It is, in fact, a Christian cult. But while it may have initiated from Christian understandings of the nature of God, creation and salvation, it quickly changed the important definitions from classic, historic, orthodox Christianity. The first and perhaps most important deviation from Christianity is found in the Jehovah’s Witness definition of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there is one God with one name, Jehovah. They reject the idea Jesus is God, and therefore reject the idea of the Trinity.
From the Jehovah’s Witness perspective, Jesus Christ is God’s only literal creation (and he is also known as Michael the Archangel). He existed as a being in pre-human form as God’s spokesman (the Word). As the first created being, Jesus then created everything else. In this way, Jesus is the creator of all that we see and understand in this world, without being God. Jesus later came to earth as a human through the virgin birth.
From the Jehovah’s Witness perspective, the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force from God which moves His servants to do His will. The Holy Spirit is simply “God’s active force” and is not a distinct person within the Godhead as orthodox Christianity describes Him
How Jehovah’s Witnesses Answer the Question:
“How Did It Get So Messed Up?” (What Separates Man from God?)
In some ways, Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with orthodox Christians about the nature of the problem facing us. Jehovah’s Witnesses would also identify sin (falling short of God’s perfection) as the problem. They believe our current condition is the result of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden and their disobedience caused death to enter the world. They also believe this was against God’s plan to make the entire earth a paradise. They recognize death and evil have entered the world and this world will eventually end. In fact, they are focused on end times to a much greater degree than most orthodox Christians. They expect the immanent arrival of Armageddon and the end of the world.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the existence of Hell, and they don’t emphasize the spiritual consequence of Adam’s sin on humanity. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe we, as humans, have souls that live between the point of our physical death and our eventual resurrection. They believe the soul dies when we die and those who are saved will have their souls recreated at the point of the resurrection. Those who are not believers will simply stay in their state of material and non-material death forever.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the purpose of life is to earn the right to participate in the future Kingdom of God. They also want to help others to be able to participate in this Kingdom. For this reason, Jehovah’s Witnesses focus on living a moral, acceptable life before God and then witnessing about this faith to others in this world
How Jehovah’s Witnesses Answer the Question:
“How Do We Fix It?” (How Can We Be Reunited with God?)
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe God has an answer to the death and evil plaguing us. Like orthodox Christians, they expect the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. But when Charles Russell’s 1914 prediction related to the Millennial Reign of Christ failed to materialize, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to argue Jesus did return invisibly. They now believe Satan and his demons were expelled from heaven in 1914 and were sent to earth, resulting in the increased evil, suffering and wars seen at the time. They believe we are in the “last days”, a period of time initiated in 1914.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus alone saves them from the coming judgment of God. They recognize Jesus died at the crucifixion, but they reject the bodily resurrection. Instead, they believe God raised Jesus from the dead “as a spirit creature” and Jesus then returned to his home in heaven (even though he was not made King until 1914). From the Jehovah’s Witness perspective, Jesus came to earth in order (1) to teach the truth about God; (2) to provide a model of a perfect life we could all follow; and (3) to sacrifice his life to pay the ransom for Adam’s sin. For the Jehovah’s Witness, Jesus’ death was not a payment for our sin but was instead a ransom sacrifice for Adam’s sin. This is a fundamental deviation from orthodox Christianity, because the death of Jesus does not pay for our sins in this life. We are still responsible to live a life worthy of God and we will not be reunited with God unless we work to earn our salvation.
Eternal life requires more than faith in Jesus. It comes from “learning about Jehovah and obeying his requirements,” and working hard to be a loyal Subject of Jehovah, listening to the Kingdom message and acting on it. According to the Watchtower Organization (as printed in the Watchtower Magazine, February 15th, 1983 on page 12), there are four requirements for salvation:
1. Jesus Christ identified a first requirement when he said in prayer to his Father: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3) Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ includes knowledge of God’s purposes regarding the earth and of Christ’s role as earth’s new King. Will you take in such knowledge by studying the Bible?
2. Many have found the second requirement more difficult. It is to obey God’s laws, yes, to conform one’s life to the moral requirements set out in the Bible. This includes refraining from a debauched, immoral way of life. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; 1 Peter 4:3, 4.
3. A third requirement is that we be associated with God’s channel, his organization. God has always used an organization. For example, only those in the ark in Noah’s day survived the Flood, and only those associated with the Christian congregation in the first century had God’s favor. (Acts 4:12) Similarly, Jehovah is using only one organization today to accomplish his will. To receive everlasting life in the earthly Paradise we must identify that organization and serve God as part of it.
4. The fourth requirement is connected with loyalty. God requires that prospective subjects of his Kingdom support his government by loyally advocating his Kingdom rule to others. Jesus Christ explained: “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth.” (Matthew 24:14) Will you meet this requirement by telling others about God’s Kingdom?
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe salvation comes through the Jehovah’s Witness organization alone, and it is earned by good works and witnessing to non-believers. It is not a free gift of grace. There are two classes of Jehovah’s Witnesses:
The ‘Anointed Class’
This group is comprised of 144,000 people (the number is derived from Revelation 7:4) who were either first century believers, were “Witness-like” Christians from the 2nd through the 19th centuries, were Charles Russell’s bible students, or are among a small number of Witnesses who have lived since then. Of course, Charles Russell is included in this anointed class, but beyond Russell, no one can have certainty about who is in this class of believers. The “anointed Class’ will live with God in Heaven and will reign over the ‘Great Crowd’
The ‘Great Crowd’
This group is comprised of all the Jehovah’s Witnesses who make it through Armageddon who are not part of the “Anointed Class”. They will be resurrected and live in paradise on earth forever, but they will not have the same status as the “Anointed Class” and they will not reign over others.
So, Could This Be True?
The Jehovah’s Witness worldview answers three important worldview questions, but is it accurate and consistent? Every worldview has to be both internally consistent (measure up against itself) and externally consistent (measure up against the world it proposes to describe). The challenge for the Jehovah’s Witness religion appears to exist at both levels. There are a number of philosophical questions (and Biblical Questions for that matter) we could ask to expose the internal contradictions of the Jehovah’s Witness worldview. We’ll begin asking these questions in tomorrow’s post.