5.1. THE ETERNAL ARMAGEDDON OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES
Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the last monstrous progeny of the American religious orgies. Founded in the second part of the 19th century by Charles Taze Russell, the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses rose from the Millerite ash on the theory that the expected event was just, but the date was erroneously calculated. A charismatic figure, Russell never claimed that he had divine revelations. Instead, he believed that God had endowed him with wisdom to correctly interpret the Bible. Between 1870 and 1875 the Russell family, together with the Adventist pastors George Storrs and George Stetson, intensively studied the Bible and the history of Christianity. Following this intellectual effort, the group came to the conclusion that they gained a better understanding of the Bible and that they found significant errors in the foundations of the contemporary Christian doctrine. The entire group rebaptized in 1874.
In parallel with Russell, the former Millerite Nelson Barbour began a new round of biblical and prophetic study. In 1873 he launched the Herald of the Morning magazine, in which he advanced a possible return of Christ in 1874. One year later Russell found a copy of Nelson’s work and contacted him to establish a meeting and to compare the notes. They both agreed that Parousia took place indeed in 1874, but in an invisible way, and it would become visible in 1878. In this period of four years the return of Christ could be known only by the true believers. This is how the association between Barbour and Russell began. The latter was so impressed by the conclusions they had reached, that he decided to sell his clothing stores and to invest the money in conferences, brochures, magazines and books for spreading the new doctrine.
The enthusiasm turned quickly into humiliation. The year 1878 was a prophetic failure that profoundly disappointed the two and their associates. Both Barbour and Russell began to search for explanations for the failure of the initial theories. After almost one year and a half of sterile debates, the two came to blame each other for the failure. This embarrassing schism made Barbour recant some ideas initially shared with Russell, including the support on prophetic chronology. Barbour founded the Church of the Strangers in the same year and continued to publish Herald of the Morning. Russell on the other hand retracted the financial support and started his own periodical, Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, with the first edition in July 1879. And in 1881 he founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, to distribute books, postcards and pamphlets with his religious views.1170
Russell’s followers gathered as autonomous congregations of biblical study. Russell rejected the formal concept of organization for him and his adepts and he declared that he kept no records regarding the names or the beliefs of the members. But his followers willingly left the original churches and they entirely dedicated themselves to the system of ideas promoted by Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society. The movement became known by the name of “Bible Students.”1171 And, as their number increased, institutionalization was inevitable. In 1931 the movement took the official name of “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” taken from Isaiah 43:10, 12: “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: … therefore ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I am God.”
Right from the start Russell’s group adopted an extremist attitude of isolation in relation to the apostate world, proclaimed its spiritual superiority and identified itself with the faithful servant of God from Matthew 24:44-47:
Therefore be ye also ready; for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath set over his household, to give them their food in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, that he will set him over all that he hath.
The servant from Jesus’s parable is generally seen as a symbol of the Christian man, who does the will of God no matter the circumstances. The faith in Jesus is demanded of every Christian until the end of the world or until the individual’s death (Revelation 2:10; 22:12). Instead, Jehovah’s Witnesses see in the “faithful servant” an office, a title granted by God to a special category of people. They see themselves having the divine task of leading the many on the right path until the coming of Jesus Christ.
Charles Taze Russell was not a prophet, but a man who was destined to discover the true faith, the key to all biblical mysteries and the invisible presence of Christ among people. Hence, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not led by a single opinion, but by a group of people who are behind all the biblical interpretations, important decisions and material editing. The Witnesses say that God most of the time communicated with the world through a group of people, the people of Israel, and not through a single individual. Concurrently, they avoid the mistake of the Catholic Church of having a pope who replaces God on the earth. The body of government and its legal instrument, renamed “Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society” in 1896, have the role of channel of communication between God and people: “The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society is the greatest corporation in the world, because from the time of its organization until now the Lord has used it as his channel through which to make known the glad tidings to many thousands.”1172
The common members are taught that God manifests himself on the earth through the organization and outside it there is no salvation or divine favor. Admitting the divine authority of the organization is one of the requirements for baptism. Its body of government is not only a group of worshipers, but also a group divinely authorized to interpret, to distribute or to transmit the instructions received directly from God to the rest of his approved servants. God has no independent connection with individual persons outside this channel of communication. Through publications and representatives, the body of government offers regular and detailed guidance to the thousands of congregations around the world.
Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be called “Christians” because they deny the Trinity and Jesus’s divinity. Instead, they say that there is only one God and his name is “Jehovah” – a name that comes from the Romanization and vocalization of the Hebrew word “YHWH” (Iahve, Yahve, Yahweh). Jehovah can be identified with God the Father or the God of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ was only a messenger of Jehovah. Jesus is a (ordinary) son of God, not the Son of God. The title of “Son of God” mentioned by Jesus is in fact a higher level of spiritual existence. All the miracles of the Savior, including the resurrection of his own body, were made through the power and with the help of Jehovah. Jesus was a model for mankind in order to prove that through the right path every person has the possibility to become son of Jehovah and gain the power of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). The Witnesses also believe that the references to Michael the Archangel, Apollyon, Abaddon (Revelation 9:11) and the Word – they all refer to Jesus.1173
The eschatology of Jehovah’s Witnesses is divided into two large periods: the period between the years 1874 and 1914, and the period after the year 1914. At the beginning of the movement Russell simply “stripped” the Millerite year of 1844 of its eschatological significance and assigned it to the year 1874. Through chronological calculations, biblical and historical analyses and the use of pyramidology1174 Russell concluded that the year 1874 marks 6,000 from the banishment of the first people from Paradise and the establishment of the Millennium. Until Russell’s death every publication of the Zion’s Watch Tower magazine indicated the year of the world’s age alongside the year of the present era. But after 1874 passed uneventfully, Russell, instead of admitting he was wrong, conveniently said that his calculations were accurate and the return of Christ was invisible. The early Witnesses saw Parousia as an event that unfolds over a long period of time, of dozens of years, according to a plan in two stages.
The first stage consisted of three phases. The first phase of the first stage occurred in the heavenly realm in the year 1874, when Jesus Christ cleansed the heavenly sanctuary of all that was evil and he threw Lucifer and the fallen angels down to the earth (Revelation 12:7-9). In the second phase Jesus was crowned king of the world and Jehovah gave him power. The heavenly sanctuary was cleansed with a purpose: to serve as a place of existence for the chosen ones during the Millennium. And in the third phase Jesus invisibly descended on Earth to search for people with a pure soul to reign with him in Heaven for 1,000 years. Jesus’s examination of the world was about to take place for 40 years, until 1914, during which time only the true believers could be aware of his invisible presence.
The second stage of Parousia was the one described in Revelation and gospels, when Jesus had to gloriously appear on the clouds of heaven, 40 years after his invisible coming, in 1914: “we present proofs that the setting up of the Kingdom of God is already begun … the ‘battle of the great day of God Almighty’ (Rev. 16:14) which will end in A.D. 1914 with the complete overthrow of earth’s present rulership, is already commenced.”1175 The year 1914 was based on the “seven times” from Daniel 4:16. Russell interpreted each of these times (periods) as being equal to 360 days, which, if added, give a total period of 2,520 days. This number was further interpreted as signifying 2,520 years, measured from 607 BC. And so the year 1914 turned into a candidate for the visible return of Christ.1176
Whether or not 1874 marked six millennia from the Creation, the eschatological message of the Witnesses brutally violates important biblical verses. First, the King sits in (inside) the “inner chambers” of their organization; you have to convert to the cult to receive his latest instructions. Jesus clearly warned about these frauds: “Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is the Christ, or, Here; believe [it] not. … If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the wilderness; go not forth: Behold, he is in the inner chambers; believe [it] not” (Matthew 24:23, 26). Second, the invisible presence of Christ and the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary are nothing but cheap speculations, as in the case of Seventh-day Adventists. The Witnesses say that Christ sits in a parallel and invisible dimension, but none of them actually saw him appearing and disappearing, as nobody saw him entering the heavenly sanctuary. They once again ignore the biblical text where the Savior says that Parousia will be instantaneous, visible and global: “For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:27).
So, for the first generation of Jehovah’s Witnesses the years 1874-1914 represented the period of trial of the cult, followed by the visible coming of Christ and the beginning of the Millennium. Coincidentally, in 1914 the First World War erupted. While the world was entering one of its darkest periods, Jehovah’s Witnesses were cheerfully waiting for Armageddon and the collapse of civilization. But in 1916 the enthusiasm was cut by the death of Charles Taze Russell. It was the first major shock received by the group. The New York Watchman-Examiner magazine saluted the event with an acid characterization:
When Charles T. Russell, who styled himself ‘Pastor’ Russell, died, a remarkable man passed out of the world. We should unhesitatingly place him in a class with Alexander Dowie, and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Keen-witted, eloquent and a master dialectician, he played the mountebank so successfully that he gathered multitudes of followers, in many instances deceiving even God’s elect. He built around him a great organization of men and women, who responded to his leadership as the Mormons obey the commands of the prophet. A stream of gold poured into his coffers, and was used in a world-wide advertising propaganda. He was without training, and was never ordained to the ministry, and yet he spoke to unnumbered multitudes by voice and pen, and won to his erratic views many from all denominations. This success came despite the fact that his own life was a reproach to Christianity. It still seems to be true that men like to be fooled, and ‘Pastor’ Russell fooled multitudes.1177
Russell was accused both by contemporaries and former followers of being a tyrant, fraud, plagiarist, predator, sexually obsessed and even a member of Freemasonry. The early publications were filled with Masonic symbols. Likewise, his organization was depicted more as a vile scheme of extortion than as a religious cult.1178
Then, in 1918, the group received a second shock, when First World War was followed by peace. And despite the fact that the 1918 flu pandemic erupted, killing more than 50 million persons worldwide, it was clear that Russell’s calculations failed miserably. This caused convulsions, mass desertions, an accelerated decline, ideological chaos and endless debates. The organization was on the brink of ceasing its existence. In 1920 the new leader Joseph Rutherford published the work Millions Now Living Will Never Die, in which he boldly stated that his generation would come to see Christ’s return and the resurrection of the most important biblical prophets in 1925: “we may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return [from the dead] of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the faithful prophets of old.”1179 But Abraham, Isaac or Jacob stubbornly refused to rise from the dead at the time set. Desperate to save the organization, the body of government shamelessly shifted the entire apocalyptic scenario: Jesus did not return in 1874, but in 1914, and this time also in an invisible manner. Now, the year 1874 no longer marked the invisible coming of Christ among people, but the beginning of the period in which his invisible coming for the year 1914 was announced:
Russell and his associates quickly understood that Christ’s presence would be invisible. They disassociated themselves from other groups and, in 1879, began publishing spiritual food in Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. From its first year of publication, this magazine pointed forward, by sound Scriptural reckoning, to the date 1914 as an epoch-making date in Bible chronology. So when Christ’s invisible presence began in 1914, happy were these Christians to have been found watching!1180
Until the beginning of the 21st century the year 1914 signified …
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