One of the major concerns I had was with the belief that Jesus Christ’s invisible presence began in the year 1914.
The Bible says nothing about being able to determine an exact year for such an event by means of calculating “seven Gentile times.” Jesus mentions “the appointed times of the nations” (Luke 21:24), but nowhere does he say that there are seven of them, or that the “prophetic rule” of “a day for a year” should be assigned to them so that they last 2,520 years. This doctrine requires one to assign a meaning to specific words or Bible accounts that may or may not exist. In short, it requires a person to want to believe it.
The verses applied to create this doctrine are taken out of their original contexts and put together to mean something that the original authors never intended. They were all writing about distinctly different matters, not about events of the 20th century. For example: Daniel chapter 4 mentions “seven times” that turned Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar into a raving wild animal for a period of time. Upon recovering, he sends out a message that the Most High “is ruler in the kingdom of mankind.” There is nothing mentioned to indicate that this refers to events thousands of years in the future, taking the words for what they actually say. If anything, this account renders the calculation irrelevant, as it proves God continued to rule over the earth even after Jerusalem’s destruction. God’s supremacy triumphs over Satan’s rule even if Jerusalem was trampled on by human kings; God used this situation to demonstrate that point.
“A Day for a Year”
The “prophetic rule” of “a day for a year” found in Numbers 14, shows no indication of being a prophetic rule to be applied to any and every other time period mentioned in scripture. By using this rule an infinite number of conclusions could be reached. In its context, it referred to the fact that the twelve Israelite spies had spied out the Promised Land for 40 days. As a result of their negative report, God chose to punish Israel by applying “a day for a year”; they spied the land for 40 days, so they would be stuck in the wilderness for 40 years. To apply it beyond that application is to take the words beyond their original intention.
“The Appointed Times”
When Jesus mentioned “the appointed times of the nations,” he is speaking about the end of the system of things, not the beginning of the end, but the end of the end – and certainly not the beginning of a time period that has thus far lasted 97 years and counting. In Luke 21, when he mentions Jerusalem being “trampled on by the nations,” Jesus was discussing a specific warning about what the disciples should do when they saw Jerusalem being surrounded, as it was by the Roman armies in 66 A.D. Why then would he suddenly jump to a statement about events 1,900 years in the future? Clearly these “appointed times” would end, but there are no clues given as to how many “times” there are, or if even the term “times” is relevant to determining how long a time period this might be. Again, it requires a person to want to believe that this is a reference to something more – something calculable by man, to go down the road of attempting to guess at its timing.
The calculation of these seven times begins in the year 607 B.C.E., when Jerusalem was, according to Watchtower belief, destroyed by the Babylonians and the land of Judah completely emptied out. However, nowhere in the Bible does it say what year Jerusalem was destroyed, save that it occurred in the eighteenth/nineteenth year of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. (2 Kings 25:8) All historians recognize Jerusalem’s destruction as occurring 20 years later, in 587 B.C. The Watchtower Society, in its defense of the 607 B.C.E. date in the November 1, 2011 issue of The Watchtower, is unable to produce even one historian to quote from who agrees with them.
The reason? The Watchtower Society chooses to count backwards 70 years from the Jews’ release from exile, which they date at 537 B.C.—also a date not mentioned in the Bible—in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies about Judah. However, Jeremiah’s prophecy was about Jerusalem and the surrounding nations. Even a cursory reading of Jeremiah 25 would make clear that the 70 years refers to a period of servitude, of both Jerusalem and the surrounding nations—not a period of complete exile or emptying out of the land.
Jeremiah 52:27-30 gives a list of captives taken from Judah, and it mentions that Nebuchadnezzar took hundreds of captives a few years after Jerusalem was destroyed— an impossible feat if the land had been completely emptied out. Of course, after Gedaliah’s assassination, which was not very long after Jerusalem’s destruction, the rest of the Jews fled to Egypt. Yet, if we assert that the prophecy required the Jews to spend 70 years within Babylon itself, as the New World Translation renders Jeremiah 29:11, it would have proven largely unfulfilled, as only a few thousand are ever spoken of in the Bible as having been taken into exile to Babylon. And to assert that the prophecy applied only to the Jews is to reflect either a lack of basic reading comprehension or a lack of attention to what was actually said in scripture, as Jeremiah 25 specifically refers to many nations that would serve the king of Babylon for 70 years and even names them in detail.
Jeremiah 29:1, 2 indicates that Jews were spoken of as being in exile long before Jerusalem’s destruction—particularly directed at King Jehoiachin, who was taken as a prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar a full ten or eleven years before Jerusalem was destroyed. 2 Kings 24:8-15 actually mentions that Nebuchadnezzar took “into exile all Jerusalem,” at this time. Given that, under both sets of circumstances—before and after Jerusalem’s destruction—the land of Judah had not been completely emptied out, there is no real reason to conclude the 70 years of exile began at the time Jerusalem was destroyed. Jeremiah’s message in Jeremiah 29 shows that he addressed these individuals as already being in exile. (Jer. 29:20) It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that the 70 years had already begun by the time this message was written.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that Jeremiah says that when the 70 years were fulfilled, the king of Babylon would be judged. (Jer. 25:12-14) The destruction of Babylon, not the return of the Jews to the land of Judah, would signal the end of the 70 year period. This happened, as the Watchtower Society itself acknowledges, in 539 B.C., not 537 B.C. (See October 1, 2011 issue of The Watchtower, pages 27-28.) If Jerusalem was destroyed in 607 B.C., then that judgment happened 68 years later, not 70. The complexity of trying to make this prophecy fit precisely with 70 years would either cause one to question its validity, or force one to conclude that “70” is a round number, not a precise one.
Examining Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Calculations
Of course, the main issue with the 1914 belief has more to do with Jesus than Babylonian history. Jesus made clear to his disciples that it did not belong to them to know the Father’s timeline. (Acts 1:7) In examining the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses, both in their own history book, Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, and in literature from the early, mid, and late 20th century (such as articles from The Watchtower from the 1920s and later decades such as the books The Finished Mystery, Millions Now Living Will Never Die! and The Harp of God, I found many references to events that either had happened or were supposedly going to happen in the near future—such as in 1925, 1975 – or about the generation of people born in or around 1914. These would be the Watchtower’s attempts at determining what God’s times and seasons were—in clear disregard for Jesus’ words to his disciples 1,900 years before.
These were statements made with no uncertainty about them, clear declarations about the future made in the name of God and his Word. (See, for example, the May 15, 1984 issue of The Watchtower, on which the cover article given to millions around the world declared “1914—The Generation That Will Not Pass Away”.) In many cases, the statements were carefully phrased so that the reader would both (1) not be 100% sure about them and (2) be sure enough that at least part of him believed it completely, after all, it was coming from the Watchtower, which led him to the truth, so it had to be true. Considering what would happen to a Witness today if he or she stated openly that a similar Watchtower-based prediction about the future was incorrect, it would be hard to imagine a faithful Witness of previous eras merely disregarding the statements made with impunity.
(After all, if these statements were made in the name of men, why would any Christian be reading or studying them? There was no reason given to conclude that these were ideas of human origin at the time they were espoused—only if it was clear that the events predicted were not going to happen or merely as a means of protecting those who wrote the predictions from responsibility for the outcome, and sure enough, any statement made at that time to the effect of “Well, we could be wrong” is pointed to later as proof that nothing was predicted in God’s name. However, they were certainly viewed as more than opinion by the people reading them then. If they were just opinion, then that places the authors of those ideas in a position of presenting human ideas while claiming to represent God. No matter how it works out, it is categorically and unequivocally wrong to do, even more wrong to do repeatedly, and there was no logical reason to do it other than to get attention, like the boy who cried wolf.)
In the end, these statements—about the fall of all other Christian religions, the end of this system of things, the resurrection of Abraham and many others, the coming of the earthly part of the kingdom of God–none of them came true. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not show up on earth in 1925. The end of 6,000 years of human history in 1975 had no meaning at all. The generation of people born in 1914 is mostly deceased, without having seen Armageddon. The other Christian religions, large and small, are still around, with hundreds of millions of adherents. The earth hasn’t been cleansed of wickedness. In hindsight, in the Witnesses’ Proclaimers book, the statements made in the past were clearly being minimized or covered up with a lack of details about the unbelievable falsehoods that were taught at that time, in the 1920s and in every decade thereafter. The way it was presented seemed to me to be quite dishonest or at the very least misleading.
On top of that, the eagerness with which these false messages were spread was praised. On the other hand, a Christian from any other religion spreading a false message would be soundly condemned by Jehovah’s Witnesses, regardless of his zeal or love for God. This attitude struck me as being a double standard.
As I read older issues of The Watchtower, it became clear to me that practically any belief could be proven or disproven using just a few scriptures. I found it unlikely that God meant for the Bible to be used in such a way. Certainly the various rules and regulations that the Watchtower Society makes were not what Jesus intended for his disciples; after all, he was trying to free them from excessive rules and regulations.
I also read, in the Watchtower’s own words, a detailed discussion of propaganda techniques. (See the June 22, 2000 issue of Awake!) I compared that discussion with the articles written about those the Watchtower calls “apostates”. (For example, see the February 15, 1975 issue of The Watchtower, pages 110-111, and the July 15, 2011 issue of The Watchtower, pages 15-16.) I was shocked to see that the very propaganda techniques I read about—name-calling and abusive speech—were being used against those who disagreed with the Governing Body. It was noteworthy that in one article, the Watchtower praises the angels who refused to use abusive speech even against the Devil (see the book Choosing the Best Way of Life, page 155, paragraph 14, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1979), while in another using abusive speech themselves against those who disagree with them.
In my own research, I found clear evidence of academic dishonesty in Watchtower literature—the taking of statements made in scholarly literature and presenting them in a way that the author never intended. That is, quoting the words of others out of context and presenting them in such a way as to appear to have scholarly support for a particular statement or doctrine. I went to the library personally to verify this, and was greatly disturbed by it.
In time, I decided to read two books that greatly changed my life—Crisis of Conscience and In Search of Christian Freedom, both written by the late Raymond Franz, who had for a time served on the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Written with such a spirit of humility and compassion, I was impressed that none of the abusive speech so commonly found in Watchtower articles was being used. Yet, he was able to eloquently voice some of the deepest problems with Jehovah’s Witnesses and their concept of being “Jehovah’s organization”. Much of what he wrote seemed to match what I had already suspected from my own personal experiences and research. He had considerable evidence to back up his statements on doctrine and procedure. I owe a great deal of my approach to scripture to reading his works, though I did not agree with everything he wrote; probably I end up unintentionally repeating things he wrote about as if they were my own thoughts, but not with the intent of plagiarizing him, of course. It was his powerful books that helped me to put the pieces together as far as the contradictions in Watchtower literature.
In my own reading of the Bible, I found that my eyes were opened and I was able to understand so much more when I avoided imposing my preconceived notions on it. Reading verses in their context proved a quick way to dismantle a lot of misconceptions I had once had. I had read the Bible, but only now did I realize that the best way to understand the Bible was, not to study other literature that quoted parts of the Bible, but rather, to read the Bible itself, by itself.
The Witnesses often repeatedly criticize the Catholic Church for its attempts centuries ago to keep the Bible out of the hands of the common man. Yet their Governing Body has found a way to do that without taking the Bible away at all—by merely saying that only they can decide what the Bible really teaches. (See October 1, 1967 issue of The Watchtower, page 587, paragraph 9.) Thus, one is not permitted to understand what he reads in the Bible on his own, and the Watchtower literature takes precedence even over the Bible. While it is viewed by Witnesses as a ‘Bible-based help’, in reality, it is a reassembling—in some cases even rewriting–of the Bible as the Governing Body sees fit.
Worse still is the “theocratic arrangement”—the way one’s life and ministry are regulated and regimented and monitored by the elders in the congregation. Clearly, the fact that Witnesses have to report to the elders about how many hours they spend preaching their message is an indication that there is a real risk of it becoming an act of compulsion rather than an act of love. If this was a truly voluntary preaching work, there would be no need to collect and monitor how much time Witnesses have spent preaching each month.
It calls to mind the warning that Israelite kings were given under the Law, that they were not to count how many troops they had, so as not to boast in military might but rather in God’s power to achieve victory. Of course, early Christians kept track, to a degree, of how many new ones joined their ranks, and they were not bound by the Law in this regard. But to keep track of painstaking details, even to the point of allowing older or disabled Witnesses to count fractions of hours, seems like an extraordinary waste of time. Elders are busy calculating statistics instead of shepherding the flock (not to mention spending time they could be using to preach the good news themselves), and spiritual strength in a congregation is measured empirically rather than by its actual presence. In the end, it serves as a means of boasting in human efforts and attributing said efforts to God, rather than boasting in God’s efforts, in his work on us as individuals.
Really, Witnesses going out in “field service” seems to follow a similar pattern to those who get up in the morning for secular work. They have to keep track of how many hours they worked and how much productivity they had during those hours. They have to observe specific regulations from the Watchtower as to how and when to count those hours, down to extreme levels of detail—making sure that parents cannot count too much time spent teaching their children, for example. These kinds of detailed reports seem more reminiscent to a sales organization, a business, than anything that resembles early Christianity. They certainly have no basis in scripture; no one should be required to report how much time they spent in God’s work. That should be between them and their Father in heaven, who is the only one who gives us, not wages as in a secular work, but a free gift in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Matt. 6:1-4; Rom. 6:23)
Hours = Holiness?
This underlines one major disturbing reality that I found in my time as a Witness—the more hours you spent in the ministry (or the more hours you were publicly known to be spending), the more praise you received from those in the congregation. You were looked up to, given more parts on meetings, more invitations to meet visitors from Watchtower headquarters, and so on. There seemed to be an attitude amongst some Witnesses of what can only be called haughtiness. In the eyes of some, either you were a pioneer, giving 70 hours a month to the ministry or more, or you were the scum of the earth, not spiritual enough. If there is one thing that is the absolute opposite of Christianity, it is the notion that spirituality is quantifiable. This issue alone is a major reason why all of the many works of the Witnesses’ ministry seem to me to be in vain. Because the spirit that accompanies them is often one of superiority, not service. While this may not be what most Witnesses intentionally exude, the organization is designed to sanction that sort of attitude. Ironically so, as the majority of Witnesses are not putting in 70 hours a month. So either a lot of people end up feeling bad about not doing more or they end up burning themselves out to put in more hours as if at a job rather than in a ministry, ultimately believing that they can earn God’s approval by means of it.
Of course there were people I knew who were quite sincere in trying to be good Christians; I believe that most of Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing just that. I simply believe that the organization built to keep them inside is designed with control, uniformity, and order in mind as more important than compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and the deeper things that Jesus tried to show us in his time on earth. I found this ‘theocratic’ mindset, with its focus on ‘the organization’ rather than on the Christ, to be a source of great disappointment in my spiritual life.
Higher Education: Dangerous?
In particular, I felt that some of the thinking promoted by the Watchtower Society was unbalanced and impractical. During the large assemblies and conventions held three times a year, much of the program was often spent warning younger ones against “higher education”, that is, education beyond high school, such as in a university or college setting. I felt that this was outside of the realm of spiritual brothers to decide for anyone else. On one hand, they would say it was a personal decision, but on the other hand, they would repeatedly say that it was unwise or that one would be seeking personal glory, riches or prominence by means of education.
But who has the right to judge for another what his or her motives are for seeking more education? Making a living is a significant challenge; education is the only way any of us can provide for ourselves. Jesus told his disciples before his death that circumstances were about to change for them, that they could not expect others to be hospitable towards them anymore, that they would have to bring their own food and other necessities. (Luke 22:35-37) Since food was not going to fall out of the sky for them, it was clear that they would have to learn how to provide for themselves, take up some sort of skill and work. (2 Thess. 3:6-12) Skills also do not fall out of the sky. We have to learn them. This is why education is important, be it higher or lower.
When we are in need of specialized skills, we seek out those who have (hopefully) had higher education—doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and the like. Witnesses would hardly hesitate to go to the doctor because he or she had to receive higher education; they recognize that such education can be the difference between life and death. Without higher education, medical treatment for Witnesses who do not want blood transfusions in emergency situations would be quite impossible. Clearly, these skills continue to be needed by everyone.
The scriptures themselves contain many examples of very intelligent, well-educated men—some who even received extensive education from those who were not worshippers of God. Paul was an expert in law and probably knew a thing or two about the literature of the Gentiles as well. He was not restricted to Bible knowledge alone, as he was able to quote from a Gentile poet to communicate his message to philosophers in Athens. Luke was a doctor. Matthew was a tax professional. Daniel was a highly placed government official—and received higher education from the Babylonian royal court itself. Joseph was second in authority to the Pharaoh of Egypt and food administrator—also no doubt highly educated in Egyptian culture. Moses was in a similar position in his younger days in Egypt. Solomon was known for extraordinary wisdom, and unless all of it was poured into his brain by God, he probably had to read and learn a few things along the way to gain it. While being educated by those of the nations may not always have been by choice, such education put these individuals in a unique position to provide help to their fellow worshippers when the opportunity presented itself.
Given the number of examples I just mentioned, it is hard to imagine how the Bible can be used to justify limiting one’s education. If anything, it shows how well-educated men can become pillars of faith, wisdom, and in the relative sense, leadership. I felt like the Watchtower Society was afraid of something, afraid of what too many capable of critical thinking might do to its authority, and so needed to warn people against it. I felt like similar warnings about entertainment, grooming, and social occasions also smacked of fear—fear that the only true Christians on earth would stop being such if left to make their own decisions on what to watch, what to wear, and how to have fun. Perhaps, in hindsight, it was because they were conscious of how weak a foundation they were building on in the first place. They were building a foundation in fleshly laws and rules and somehow hoping to finish building in spirit. Paul spent his whole letter to the Galatians trying to sort out the problems such thinking can cause. (Gal. 3:1-5)
I found it sad that it was rare to find people in the congregation with whom a serious spiritual conversation could be had. Too many of the young ones were more interested in the latest gossip about someone I never met and someone else I never met than in the Bible. Even spiritual discussions centered more on what was in Watchtower literature than what was in the Bible itself. It seemed that it was rare to find people who had actually read the entire Bible, even among those taking the lead in the congregation.
On the other hand, I saw no need to feel guilty about discussing things other than the Bible. I gladly discussed things I enjoyed doing with people I felt comfortable talking to. I just imagined that conversations amongst spiritual brothers would be more refreshing than they usually turned out to be. Cursory greetings and small talk were about all I could manage with most people before we were interrupted; conversations with elders seemed more like discussing one’s whereabouts with a police detective who was determined to pin something on someone. You didn’t want to say too little or too much, and you hoped that someone would interrupt so you could slip away.
There were those rare moments, just me and my Bible, when I felt genuinely close to God. I felt that Watchtower literature rarely did much to enliven the power of scripture without telling you how to think about it. I am glad that I made time to read the Bible itself more than anything else, as in the end, that was all the spiritual food I really needed, and always at the proper time.
In my final moments as a Witness, my mother asked me about “apostates”, former Witnesses who disagreed with the religion’s teachings. She said, “Where is their organization?” In this question, she highlighted why I left Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because their organization was doing things that were not in harmony with the Bible, despite all their claims to the contrary. It is and always must be my right to withdraw association from any organization that demands loyalty above even honor, that demands obedience above truth, that demands law above faith. I would rather be part of no organization at all than belong to one that teaches me to disregard my own conscience for the sake of preserving an image of unity. As it is, I stand alone, and content that I have removed myself from a spiritually and emotionally unhealthy situation. That is sufficient for me, and beyond that, I will trust that whatever judgment I receive will be given by He to whom the judging belongs. (John 5:22)
I left Jehovah’s Witnesses because it was the right thing to do. Whatever troubles I may face due to that difficult decision, I can face them with pride, knowing that it was my own conscience that moved me to act. I felt that what I was being taught was wrong and was actually contrary to the message of the Bible.
I left Jehovah’s Witnesses – and it was the best decision I have ever made.
“Christopher” lives on the east coast of the United States and has been connected to Jehovah’s Witnesses since the early 1990s. He still has close relatives who are JWs. He was disfellowshipped in 2010. A prolific writer, he is working on an extended essay called “Papers on Christianity.” This article, the second in a series of three, is adapted from a piece that he originally submitted to Jehovahs-Witness.net in the fall of 2011. You can read part 1 here. Part 3 is in our queue and will be published here very soon. Here is the link to his original post: Why I Left Jehovah’s Witnesses