The Jehovah Witness & The Problem of Failed Prophecy

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The Watch Tower society claims to be the only true Christian church and true representatives of God (1). They believe that God has selected them to fulfill specific tasks, such as prophecy. Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the movement, believed that he was the “mouthpiece” for God, and himself made numerous prophecies about events expected to take place from his reading of the Bible.

Accordingly, the Watch Tower Society promotes the idea that God uses Witnesses to not only declare his will but also reveal his intent to inaugurate Armageddon and the establishment of his kingdom (2). They believe they receive special insight from God (3). However, the Watch Tower society’s numerous prophecies of future events has had little success. According to sociologist Andrew Holden,

“the movement has had a chequered evolution caused mainly (though by no means exclusively), by a series of embarrassing prophecy failures. The years of 1874, 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975 were all earmarked, to a greater or lesser extent, as times for the Second Coming of Christ, yet all brought disappointment” (4).

Russell, for example, made numerous predictions. He prophesied that in 1878 Jesus, in an invisible form, would begin gathering his flock during which saints would be translated into spirit form (5). This prophesy did not occur and in 1881 Russell revised his prediction by extending it to a new date (6). This prediction too did not manifest and for the first time crisis arose within the ranks of Russell’s students. In effort to escape the situation Russell claimed that 1881 rather signified the time when “death became a blessing.” He meant that any saint who died would be immediately changed into a spirit being, and death was seen as a way to undergo this translation (7). Russell made another prediction, and proposed that 1914 would see the end of human rulership and the beginning of Christ’s millennial reign. This date would be the end “of the times of the Gentiles,” and a time in which “all present governments will be overthrown,” and “Christendom” would be no more (8).

Expectant, Russell’s followers awaited the immediate “translation of the saints” to reign with the revealed Christ, were expecting Christ to defeat Satan in battle, collect his saints into heaven, and that the advent of the millennium would commence. So convinced, a number of Russell’s Bible students left their jobs and distributed their possessions. As before, the prediction did not come to be. Nonetheless, Russell saw the commencement of WW1 as the start of Armageddon. He explained that,

“the present great war in Europe is the beginning of the Armageddon of the Scriptures Rev 19:16-20. It will eventuate in the complete overthrow of all the systems of error which have so long oppressed the people of God and deluded the world. We believe the present war cannot last much longer until revolutions shall break out” (9).

Russell suggested that the harvest of saints would take place in 1918, another year that resulted in no such fulfillment (10). In 1925, J.F. Rutherford, the movement’s chief theologian, predicted that that the ancient patriarchs and prophets, “the faithful ones of old”, would be resurrected to earthly life in 1925 (11). This resurrection would function as prelude to a general physical resurrection of the faithful followers of God. However, this prediction also failed, and the Watch Tower Society prohibited issuing prophecies centered on a specific date (12).

Witnesses believe that in the Armageddon, God’s kingdom would launch in two distinct phases. On one hand there was the predicted destructive phase in which human institutions would be overthrown during a period entitled the “Battle of Armageddon,” a view held by witnesses since 1925. Armageddon, a war waged by God, would result in the slaughter of the unfaithful (13). A second phase of reconstruction would follow during which God will remove sickness, pain, and death (14). Witnesses believed that this would occur in 1975. It did not, which resulted in havoc in the society’s leadership who blamed the failed prophecy on a misunderstanding and misreading of the Bible (15).

These failed prophecies possess significant theological implications beyond just the bad reputation naturally accompanying repeated failed predictions. On one hand, Witnesses possess similar views of the Bible in terms of inspiration and inerrancy to that of many Christians (16). For example, they believe that God inspired the biblical texts and that they do not make any errors, historical or scientific. This naturally leads to the question of how they view Deuteronomy 18:22’s message of how to identify a false prophet. According to 18:22,

“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

The verse is unambiguous in that if an individual claiming to be a prophet of God makes a false prophecy then they are false prophets and are not to be listened to. Witnesses have to rationalize this verse for their view of inspiration does not allow them to merely reject it. Their rationalization is that they have never claimed to be inspired prophets of God. In fact, to their credit, they have been rather open concerning their mistakes. According to A. H. Macmillan, they ought to “admit our mistakes and continue searching God’s Word for more enlightenment” (17). Similarly, the society suggests that “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not claim to be inspired prophets. They have made mistakes“ (18). However, this denial appears difficult to marry with the Watch Tower society’s claims to speak for God. In his 1925 prophecy that the dead would be raised, Rutherford claimed that “this chronology is not of man, but of God. … the addition of more proofs removes it entirely from the realm of chance into that of proven certainty. … the chronology of present truth [is]… not of human origin” (19).

The Watch Tower believes that they have been “commissioned to serve as the mouthpiece and active agent of Jehovah … commission to speak as a prophet in the name of Jehovah…” (20). Also importantly, in this text the society identifies the office of prophet as someone who warns of dangers and “declare(s) things to come.” This is important for the society says that being a prophet has nothing to do with predicting the future but rather means one who speaks for another, especially for God.

Thus, consistently applied, Deuteronomy 18:22 strongly suggests that the Watch Tower society should not be trusted and at the very least be rejected as receiving special insight from God or being God’s true representatives on Earth. Given the succession of failed prophecies it should cause one to contemplate whether or not it’s worth trusting the organization, especially in our contemporary ideological climate in which competing worldviews clash over proposed truth. Why should anyone put their trust in the Watch Tower society when they’ve proven themselves incorrect on successive occasions? Why, if God really was guiding the Watch Tower society, would he allow his organization to lead so many people into error about the end of the world? In this respect it must be concluded that no satisfactory evidence exists to show God actively directs the Watch Tower society. Ironic it then is that the Watch Tower society has criticized other religious and political organizations for being false prophets. According to the society,

“True, there have been those in times past who predicted an “end to the world,” even announcing a specific date. Yet nothing happened. The “end” did not come. They were guilty of false prophesying. Why? What was missing? … Missing from such people were God’s truths and the evidence that he was guiding and using them” (Awake! 1968. p.23).

However, given the society’s own unfulfilled prophecies they ought caution concerning who they criticize for missing “God’s truths.” After all, it might well be the Watch Tower society who is missing them.

References.

1. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. 1971. “The Nations Shall Know that I am Jehovah” – How? p. 58

2. Watch Tower Online Library. Staying Awake with the “Faithful and Discreet Slave.” Available.

3. Stone, J. 2000. Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. p. 13-15.

4. Holden, A. 2002. Cavorting With the Devil: Jehovah’s Witnesses Who Abandon Their Faith. Available.

5. Barbour, N. & Russell, C. 1877. Three Worlds and the Harvest of This World. p. 36-48.

6. Zygmunt, J. 1970. Prophetic Failure and Chiliastic Identity: The Case of Jehovah’s Witnesses. American Journal of Sociology. 75 (6).

7. Zion’s Watch Tower. 1881. “The Blessed Dying.”

8. Chryssides, G. 2010. How Prophecy Succeeds: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Prophetic Expectations. International Journal for the Study of New Religions. 1 (1): 27-48

9. Russell, C. Pastor Russell’s Sermons. p. 676.

10. Zygmunt, J. 1970. Ibid.

11. Rutherford, J. 1920. Millions Now Living Will Never Die. p. 105.

12. Chryssides, G. 2010. Ibid.

13. Rogerson, A. 1969. Millions Now Living Will Never Die: A Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. p. 47.

14. Stone, J. Ibid. p. 194.

15. Watch Tower Online Library. A Solid Basis for Confidence. Available.

16. Licona, M. n.d. What to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Available.

17. Watch Tower Online Library. Doing God’s Will Has Been My Delight. Available.

18. Watch Tower Online Library. False Prophets. Available.

19. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. 1971. Ibid. p. 58

20. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. 1971. Ibid. p. 58.

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