[Original publication date: March 12, 2004]
Summary: In early November 1995 Jehovah’s Witnesses made newspaper headlines around the world. This time it was not a record crowd at a stadium convention or even a controversial blood transfusion case that attracted international attention, but the postponement of “the End.” One headline read “Armageddon Not Coming.” The related article stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses had announced that “Armageddon [had] been delayed and [that] the end of the world [was] no longer nigh.”
ARMAGEDDON NOT COMING?
Why would the international news media focus on what appeared to be a minor change in the eschatology (end-times teaching) of a religious sect?
Aside from the fact that the secular press has an almost natural penchant for ridiculing those they deem to be “irrational fundamentalists,” remember that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a small, unimportant sect. Witnesses are found in over two hundred countries worldwide, with membership [in 2001] topping five million – along with another seven million actively interested in their teachings. Nor is the recent alteration in doctrine minor. Instead, the change has far-reaching psychological implications for Witnesses, not to mention the impact the move may have on their membership and style of preaching.
The important announcement from the leadership of the Jehovah’s Witness organization came in the 1 November 1995 Watchtower magazine; but before we consider the announcement, it will be helpful to outline the history of Watch Tower end-time predictions.
EARLY WATCH TOWER END-TIMES CALCULATIONS
The founder of the Watch Tower movement, “Pastor” Charles Taze Russell, emerged out of an Adventist background in the late nineteenth century. An earlier prominent Adventist, William Miller, had predicted the return of Christ first in 1843 and then in 1844. Although these dates obviously proved to be wrong, many spiritual descendants of Miller did not give up on such apocalyptic date settings.
Charles Taze Russell was no exception. After the disillusionment over the 1843 and 1844 failures, many Second Adventists turned to 1874 as the new date of Christ’s return. Some argued that 1874 marked the end of six thousand years of human history, after which the millennium would begin. When Christ once again failed to return as scheduled by the apocalyptic speculators, further disillusionment inevitably
Shortly after the failure of the 1874 date, however, a development in end-times teaching occurred that was to have lasting impact to our own day. A contributor to the Second Adventist magazine Herald of the
Morning (edited by N.H. Barbour) offered a way out of the prophetic disappointment. The contributor, B.W. Keith, suggested that Christ had in fact returned on time in 1874, but that this return had been “invisible.”
Keith based his idea on the fact that The Emphatic Diaglott (an 1860s translation of the New Testament produced by Benjamin Wilson) translated the Greek word parousia as “presence.”
Although most translations use the word “coming” to reflect the meaning of parousia – which implies a physical presence – Keith argued that the translation “presence” pointed to an invisible “presence” or “return” of Christ. This is, of course, a very difficult idea to prove or disprove. Yet Russell picked up the concept, as tenuous as it was, and it has been part of Watch Tower teaching ever since.
Yet, it must also be stressed that although virtually no Jehovah’s Witnesses until the early 1990s knew this, Russell taught that Christ returned in heavenly power in 1874 until the day he died in 1916, two years after 1914. That Russell maintained the 1874 date is demonstrated by the following passage from one of his prophetic works:
Now call to mind the steps, well founded in the “sure word of prophecy,” by which we
have come to this heart-cheering and soul-stirring knowledge. Behind us are all the prophetic landmarks which point to this time as the most wonderful period in all the history of the world. They have shown us that since 1873 we have been living in the seventh millennium; that the lease of Gentile dominion, “The Times of the Gentiles,” will expire with the year 1914; and that the advent of him whose right it is to take the dominion was due in 1874 … We have marked with special delight the 1,335 days, pointing, as they do, to 1874, as the exact date of our Lord’s return; and we have since that time experienced the very blessedness promised-through the clearer unfoldings of the wonderful mysteries of the divine plan.
Interestingly, as further evidence of Russell’s teaching, the Dawn Bible Students, a Watch Tower break-off group that holds only to his writings, still teach that Christ returned in 1874. In 1921, seven years after 1914, Russell’s successor “Judge” J. F. Rutherford was still teaching that “[t]he time of the Lord’s second presence” dates from 1874. In fact, as late as 1929 official Watch Tower publications still taught that Christ returned invisibly in 1874, even though many Witnesses today will claim that members of their organization in 1914 clearly “saw” the return with “eyes of faith” in that very year. But the question needs to be asked: If the return was so obvious, why did it take them a decade and a half to notice it?
Since the 1930s (the decade the movement took the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) official Watch Tower publications began to teach that Christ had in fact returned in 1914, while references to the original 1874 date were quietly dropped. Watch Tower advocates still continued to speculate about when Armageddon would occur and when the Kingdom would “have full sway,” just as they had when they believed Christ had returned in 1874. For example, the year 1925 was touted in the early 1920s as the date when this would occur, with the usual ensuing disappointment when that expectation also proved to be premature. Another date put forward by the Watch Tower organization was 1975. When the expected events did not come to pass as predicted, mass disillusionment followed and the movement lost hundreds of thousands of members. The Watch Tower hierarchy responded by blaming Witnesses for “being too zealous with their speculation on the date.” Watchtower leaders promoted this idea even though it was Watch Tower publications that brought the date forward in the first place!
WATCH TOWER TEACHING ON “THIS GENERATION”
In time, and especially from the 1960s, Witness publications began to teach that the end would come within the lifetime of the generation that saw the events of 1914 transpire. The Watch Tower organization based this idea on such passages as Matthew 24:34; “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur”(NWT).
It will be helpful to consider the Watch Tower teaching about “this generation” by examining relevant passages from their own publications. This is a necessary exercise that will establish the exact nature of the original teaching on this crucial issue.
First, we will consider the following statements from the organization’s widely disseminated “Truth” book:
The Bible speaks of the time in which we are living as the “last days” or the “time of the end.” (2 Timothy 3:1; Daniel 11:40) The facts show that this is a limited period that has a definite beginning and a definite end. It began in 1914 when Jesus Christ was enthroned as king in the heavens. It will end when God destroys this present wicked system of things. What a relief it will be when the organizations and persons that cheat and oppress, and all who endanger the security of their fellowman, are gone!
How soon will that be? God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, gives the answer. After drawing attention to the many things that mark the period from 1914 onward as the “time of the end,” Jesus said: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” (Matthew 24:24) Which generation did he mean?
Jesus had just referred to persons who would “see all these things.” “These things” are the events that have taken place since 1914 and those yet to occur down to the end of this wicked system. (Matthew 24:33) Persons born even as much as fifty years ago could not see “all these things.” They came on the scene after the foretold events were already under way. But there are people still living who were alive in 1914 and saw what was happening then and who were old enough that they still remember those events. This generation is getting up in years now. A great number of them have already passed away in death. Yet Jesus very pointedly said: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” Some of them will still be alive to see the end of this wicked system. This means that only a short time is left before the end comes! (Psalm 90:10 [89: 10, Dy]) So now is the time to take urgent action if you do not want to be swept away with this wicked system.
When one considers that distribution of The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, first published in May 1968, had reached 107,073,279 copies in 117 languages by April 1991 (a record to which Witnesses themselves are fond of alluding), one can get a sense of the profound and far-reaching influence of the above-cited Watch Tower teaching on “this generation.”
In the book Is this Life all There Is? first published in 1974, the Witness leaders are explicit that the generation alive in 1914 would see the end:
How short is that period of time remaining to the Kingdom’s adversary? Jesus Christ revealed that the time of his coming in Kingdom glory and the removal of the ungodly system of things would fall within the lifetime of one generation of people. He said: “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.”-Matthew 24:3-42.
Hence, some of the generation alive in 1914 C.E. must be among the people to witness Jesus’ completing his conquest and taking full control of earth’s affairs.
The book goes on to offer the hope to those then living that they might not ever have to die:
The Bible clearly pinpoints the generation alive in 1914 C.E. as the one that will yet witness the ushering in of Kingdom rule free from Satanic interference. Hence, many living today will have the opportunity never to die. They will survive the destruction of the present ungodly system and thereafter gradually be freed from sin and brought to human perfection.
One thinks of the large numbers of people – old and perhaps dying – who clung to this hope.
The 1977 publication Incoming World Government provides some interesting material on the teaching of “this generation” – material that appears to have been written by long-time Watch Tower adherents.
Those of the “chosen ones” alive today who witnessed the outbreak of World War I in 1914 can recall how we all rejoiced because we saw “these things start to occur.” We knew that the newly enthroned Christ was “near at the doors” for his executional work against this wicked “system of things.” We exulted because the “kingdom of God is near” for taking over full world control and functioning as a world government. We have not grown tired of being reminded over and over again during these past sixty years and more that the Messianic kingdom of God is “near at the doors.” This reminding of us has not grown stale and lost its potency and soul-stirring force toward us. We know that we are of the “generation” that saw the start of these things in 1914 at the close of the Gentile Times, and we believe Jesus’ assurance that this same “generation” of ours will see the finish of these significant things, all this culminating in the total take-over by the triumphant Kingdom of all human affairs.
The language of this passage may be more revealing than it had originally appeared to Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time, for one can detect a vague and veiled admission that by this late date, the teaching on “this generation” was already beginning to stretch thin.
The book Let Your Kingdom Come, which appeared in 1981, has the following to say under the heading “THIS GENERATION” WHICH?
In his great prophecy on the “sign,” Jesus assures us: “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” (Matthew 24:34) Since he does not apply any specific length of time to a generation, what are we to understand by “this generation”?
In Jesus’ day, some of the disciples who heard his words, and others of his contemporaries, survived to live through the final tribulation on the Jewish system of things. They were the “generation” of Jesus’ time. At this writing, in the United States alone there are more than 10,000,000 persons still living who were old enough to observe “a beginning of pangs of distress” in 1914-1918. Some of these may still survive quite a number of years. Yet Jesus assures us that, before “this generation” passes away he will come as “Son of man” to execute judgment on Satan’s system of things. (Matthew 24:8, 21, 37-3 9) We should keep awake, expectant of that ‘coming of the kingdom.”-Luke 21:31-36.
Here we see the Watch Tower hierarchy reassuring doubting Witnesses with hard statistics.
In 1982 the Watch Tower organization in Brooklyn published You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. This book replaced the “Truth Book” as the primary publication used in preaching and was used into the early 1990s.
Again, we see a repetition of the by then standard teaching:
After drawing attention to the many things that have marked the period from 1914 onward, Jesus said: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [including the end of this system] occur.” (Matthew 24:34, 14) Which generation did Jesus mean? He meant the generation of people who were living in 1914. Those persons yet remaining of that generation are now very old. However, some of them will still be alive to see the end of this wicked system. So of this we can be certain: Shortly now there will be a sudden end to all wickedness and wicked people at Armageddon.
Only two years later, however, evidence of the difficulty Witnesses were experiencing with the teaching appeared in the book Survival into a New Earth:
But does not now the passing of 70 years since 1914 indicate that there may be some doubt about whether we really have been in “the last days” since that year and whether Christ’s coming as executioner is near? Not at all! Regarding those who would see the fulfilment of “the sign” from its beginning, starting with 1914, Jesus said. “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen.” (Mark 13:30) Members of that generation are still here, though rapidly decreasing in number.
It is true that statistics indicate that the average life expectancy on a global basis is now only 60 years, but millions of persons live beyond that age. According to available statistics, in 1980 approximately 250,000,000 of those who were alive in 1914 were still living. That generation is not yet gone. Interestingly, however, of those born in 1900 or earlier, figures published by the United Nations indicate that only an estimated 35,316,000 were still alive in 1980. So the number drops quickly as individuals reach their seventies and eighties. When considered along with all the details of Jesus’ prophetic sign, these facts strongly indicate that the end is near.-Luke 21:28.
Once again, impressive sounding statistics are cited to bolster the flagging faith of Witnesses. Yet, at the same time, by introducing these statistics the organization was digging its own grave. By limiting the time and insisting that the numbers showed that the end had to be near, they were backing themselves into a difficult situation from which they would not be able to extricate themselves as the years ticked off and became a decade. As it stood, the teaching allowed no flexibility to adapt to a failure in the prediction; thus,it was only a matter of time before the increasing strain of a tenuous theory caused the teaching to collapse.
“THE “END” COMES IN 1995
Thus it was that the “end” came in 1995-not to “this system of things,” but to the long-standing Watch Tower teaching that the generation that saw the events of 1914 would see the battle of Armageddon and
the final realization of the Kingdom. By 1995 very, very few of those of mature age in 1914 were still alive. It would stretch credulity to impossible lengths to push the doctrine any further into the future. Thus, the Watch Tower hierarchy clearly decided to avoid complete embarrassment and make a preëmptive strike to eliminate their traditional view of “this generation” before the last of the aging and steadily diminishing generation of 1914 passed from the scene.
Although experts on the Witness movement had predicted that Watch Tower teaching on the “end-times” was long overdue for a thorough overhaul, the announcement came without any apparent warning (but see below) in the 1 November 1995 edition of The Watchtower. The abruptness of the change needs to
be emphasized. Since its 8 March 1988 issue, the Watchtower magazine’s sister publication Awake! had proclaimed in its mission statement on page four that “this magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 passes
away.” This statement can be found in Awake! magazines from 1988 until the 25 October 1995 issue; then, in the very first Awake! magazine published since the 1 November 1995 announcement, the wording was changed, quietly and without fanfare, to: “this magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world that is about to replace the present wicked, lawless system of things.”
Thus the organization had moved from “confidence” in the teaching of “this generation” on 25 October 1995, to completely abandoning the idea in the following week.
At the same time, while the official change in teaching came suddenly in the 1 November 1995 Watchtower, it is obvious that the leadership in Brooklyn had been planning the alteration since at least early 1995. This is made evident from the successor to the “Paradise” book, the new chief preaching publication, “Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life.” Although this new book, first released in the summer of 1995, contains two chapters that deal specifically with end-times teaching (chapter 10, “God’s Kingdom Rules,”and chapter 11, “These Are the Last Days!”), the subject of “this generation” is avoided altogether.
The chapters do contain the standard teaching on the parousia of 1914, but speak of the end only in general terms and do not link it to the generation of 1914 in any way. Since the two predecessors to the “Knowledge” book, the “Truth” and “Paradise” books, include explicit articulations of the teaching that the generation of 1914 would definitely not pass away before the end, the omission in the 1995 publication is striking.
The reason for the omission, however, is now apparent. To avoid the need for a recall or a supplement to a book whose first English edition saw a printing of six million copies, the material on the end times in the “Knowledge” book was left ambiguous, anticipating the changes to come in November 1995. This reveals the long-range planning of headquarters in Brooklyn. We will now look at the November 1995 changes in more detail.
A series of three articles in the 1 November 1995 Watchtower magazine established two major shifts in teaching, while at the same time arguing that the end was still near. The first alteration is seen in their new interpretation of the term “generation” as used in such passages as Matthew 24:34. Using respected Bible lexicons and dictionaries, the 1 November 1995 Watchtower argued that the Greek phrase “this generation” (he genea haute) referred to those descended from a common ancestor, a race of people (such as the Jews), or in an even more generic sense, “the whole multitude of men living at the same time.”
This they summarized as showing that Jesus used the term “generation” to refer “principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics.”
This was a complete reversal from prior Watch Tower teaching in which a generation was seen to refer to a biological cycle or human lifespan. In fact, a footnote on Matthew 24:34 in the Witness New World Translation clearly implies that the Greek word “genea” does not mean race.
The November 1995 articles make a couple of attempts to deflect the severity of this sudden shift in teaching. First, they characterize the lexical evidence to support their more recent views as “current” scholarship, perhaps as an attempt to imply that their new teaching is based on recent, ground-breaking research by non-Witnesses.
Actually, none of the cited sources is more recent than 1979, and most are several decades old, with one having been in print for almost a century. Thus, the new teaching was not brought on by new, innovative exegetical evidence; rather, the change was forced on the organization by the chronological
limitations of its own predictions. Second, a footnote to the above-cited summary of their new view on the meaning of “generation” refers to the 1988 Witness encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures, seemingly implying that this earlier publication actually supported the new view. On the contrary, when one turns to the cited reference in Insight on the Scriptures (which is part of the encyclopedia’s entry on “generation”), one finds the standard old view on “this generation,” complete with a reference to Psalm 90:10 (which speaks of the lifespan of man in terms of seventy to eighty years). Instead of citing Psalm 90:10, the 1995 articles allude to the less specific verse in Psalm 90:12, which encourages people to number their days.
The second major revelation in the 1 November 1995 Watchtower is presented, seemingly unpretentiously, in the following passage:
Eager to see the end of this evil system, Jehovah’s people have at times speculated about the time when the “great tribulation” would break- out, even tying this to calculation of what is the lifetime of a generation since 1914. However, we “bring a heart of wisdom in,” not by speculating about how many years or days make up a generation, but by thinking about how we “count our days” in bringing joyful praise to Jehovah. (Psalm 90:12) Rather than provide a rule for measuring time, the term “generation” as used by Jesus refers principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics.
This is an abrupt departure from the traditional teaching of the organization. The importance of our exercise of examining the long-standing Watch Tower view on ‘this generation’ should now be evident. It should first be pointed out that the magazine attempts to camouflage the sweeping nature of the doctrinal change by burying the above crucial passage in a series of articles, as if it was only a minor adjustment in their teachings.
Furthermore, the wording of the passage is very deceitful. The teaching on “this generation” was not a sporadic phenomenon, raised “at times” we have just seen that it was the continual, consistent teaching of Witness publications from the 1960s. Nor is it at all fair to say that the teaching was presented as mere speculation; rather, the certainty of the teaching in the minds of the hierarchy is clearly evident from the above-cited passages.
But the most duplicitous and callous aspect of the November 1995 passage is the inference that the supposed speculation was due to the overzealousness of “Jehovah’s people” thus implicitly putting the blame on ordinary rank and file Witnesses. Of course, we have just seen that nothing could be further
from the truth: the teaching came straight from headquarters in Brooklyn, and any of “Jehovah’s people” who questioned the important doctrine would have been in jeopardy of being disfellowshipped. Prophetic date-setting is nothing new; many misguided individual Bible believers from different backgrounds have set dates for Christ’s return and Armageddon. And all Bible believers need to recognize the folly of dogmatic pronouncements on end-times chronology. But in the case of the Watch Tower organization, the human toll of their institutionalized date-setting is profound and far-reaching. Yet, because of their faceless hierarchical structure, no-one among the organization’s leadership is ever held accountable for the apocalyptic errors.
Like other authoritarian religious movements, apologies are rare from the top. Instead, it is the average, sincere Witness who pays the price. And so, as in the 1975 fiasco, the organization has shifted the blame of what is, after all, a major prophetic failure, onto ordinary members. Sadly, as in 1975, the emotional and psychological consequences for many Jehovah’s Witnesses will be staggering.
Prophetic date-setting is nothing new; many misguided individual Bible believers from different backgrounds have set dates for Christ’s return and Armageddon. And all Bible believers need to recognize the folly of dogmatic pronouncements on end-times chronology. But in the case of the Watch Tower organization, the human toll of their institutionalized date-setting is profound and far-reaching. Yet, because of their faceless hierarchical structure, no-one among the organization’s leadership is ever held accountable for the apocalyptic errors. Like other authoritarian religious movements, apologies are rare from the top. Instead, it is the average, sincere Witness who pays the price. And so, as in the 1975 fiasco, the organization has shifted the blame of what is, after all, a major prophetic failure, onto ordinary members. Sadly, as in 1975, the emotional and psychological consequences for many Jehovah’s Witnesses will be staggering.
Witnesses everywhere are encouraged to read the Bible for themselves without Watch Tower publications at their side to provide the interpretation. As God’s inspired Word itself assures us, the Scriptures alone contain the unchanging truth and knowledge that leads to everlasting life (2 Timothy 3:15-17).