Those Jehovah’s Witnesses

 by John Wijngaards, The Tablet , 1 May 1999, p. 587.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for going from door to door seeking to spread their doctrine. The director of the Housetop centre in London, which specialises in Christian communication, looks critically at their beliefs but admires their zeal.

THE Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the news again in the United States, this time because a 55-year-old woman in Los Angeles refused a blood transfusion after being hit by a car. She died. The driver responsible for the accident pleaded that she caused her own death by refusing life-saving treatment. To no avail. He was convicted of manslaughter and sen­tenced to 10 years in prison. Was the woman’s death a case of martyrdom for reli­gious conviction?

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe so. Like the persecuted Christians in early Rome, they see themselves as a brave little band prepar­ing for God’s final judgement on a hostile and doomed society. Christ has already returned to earth, invisibly, in 1914. The “end time” after the “time of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24) has begun. Armageddon (Ez. 38,39) looms near. This is the time of salva­tion (Rom. 13:11).

Although the year 2000 does not carry doctrinal significance for Jehovah’s Witness­es, a marked increase in their activity is evi­dent as they cash in on millennium fever. After all, the movement arose from the agi­tated spirituality of millennial groups in the last century. Charles Taze Russell’s The Mil­lennial Dawn, the first volumes of which were published in the run-up to 1900, is con­sidered by many as the real beginning of Witness doctrine. The numbering of days till the cataclysmic end has been an anxious pre­occupation ever since.

Christian splinter groups who believe that God’s judgement on the world is imminent generally recruit followers by instilling fear. The days of God’s wrath are near and hor­rendous; eternal torture awaits those who refuse a last chance to repent. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, the pressure arises not from anxiety about hell, which, they say, does not exist, but from their belief that the offer of salvation is restricted.

Denying the existence of hell is, actually, a neat solution, from a theological point of view. Witnesses take literally the Old Testa­ment text, “the person who sins shall die” (Ez. 18:20), and believe that those unworthy of eternal life simply perish: they are annihi­lated by God. No need then to square God’s mercy with the everlasting torture in store for evil-doers according to traditional Chris­tian ideas.

Among the saved, according to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the spiritual Kremlin of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, there are two classes. A small group of 144,000 elect (Rev. 14:1),will rise to eternal life. Only these will reign with Christ in heaven, and for ever. A second group, “the large crowd” (Rev. 7:9), will be saved in a paradise on earth. Much spiritual energy is spent on unravelling the inspired clues hidden by God in coded Scripture texts. After all, few belong to the “little flock” (Lk. 12:32) who can count themselves among the 144,000. They are the most faithful servants of “God Jehovah”, a privileged core of lead­ers, ancestors, scripture scholars. Only these may presume to take part in the Eucharist in the Lord’s Memorial (1 Cor. 11:26-32). The ordinary lehovah’s Witnesses can look for­ward to being among “the other sheep” (In 10:16), the clan of “Jonadab” (Jer. 35:1-19), the “meek” who will only inherit the earth (Mt. 5:4). First they will still need to undergo a thousand years of trial, during the millen­nium. If they pass the test, Jehovah will reward them by allowing them to survive Armageddon, the final battle. Then he will settle them in a paradise on earth, in a “new world” (Rev. 21:1). They will live in this earthly paradise for ever, but they will never be granted entrance to heaven.

This two-tier doctrine of salvation is unique among Christians. It rests on a doe­trinalinterpretation imposed as binding in 1935 by the Watchtower governing body in Brooklyn.

The difficulty the 12-member body set themselves to solve was that Jehovah’s Wit­nesses had, in the beginning, not been so numerous. They could easily be fitted into a heaven which Witness doctrine restricted to 144,000 seats. But when the numbers of Witnesses increased and began to run into mil­lions, a solution had to be found for their sal­vation. Thus they invented the “other sheep”, a second class of saved, who lack the privileges of being reborn with Christ and of reigning in heaven. The inside story was revealed in a public letter dated 22 January 1981 by Randall Watters, who had worked in the Brooklyn headquarters at the time.

“The greatest insult to Jesus Christ”, Watters wrote, “comes from your telling millions that they cannot receive God’s spirit to become his spiritual sons, You know very well that this undeserved kindness is offered to all who read the word of God; and just because you thought that the number that could fit into heaven was filled, first in 1881, then in 1918 and later in 1935, you tell others that they will live on the earth and that it will take 1,000 years to make them perfect. New­comers are intimidated from partaking in the Lord’s memorial. You do not even admit that the ‘other people’ are technically Chris­tians, as you did before.”

A pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses on our doorstep fills most of us with a mixture of admiration and embarrassment. Speaking up for God in public seems such an anachro­nism in a time when secular dogma pre­scribes privacy of belief. What is more, in common with our contemporaries, we total­ly lack the sense of urgency which seems to drive these witnesses of “the end of time”. Could there perhaps be a better response on our part than our routine refusal to invite them in for dialogue? And yet I have consis­tently found discussion useless and an invita­tion to join in prayer drives Witnesses to a hasty retreat.

I am grateful that God’s love has not in fact put any limit on those joining his pres­ence. The enormous crowd, too large to count, from every race, tribe, nation and lan­guage, that will stand in front of God’s throne is obviously in heaven (Rev. 7:9). But I wonder, all the same, whether we mainstream Christians would not benefit. from a heightened sense of concern about salvation.