t was late afternoon when I arrived at my destination—a quiet old cemetery on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I walked up a small hill to a stone pyramid about six feet high. Each of the four sides had a carved image of an open book surmounted by a cross and crown. Nearby was a headstone with this inscription: “Charles T. Russell . . . The Laodicean Messenger.”
I had journeyed several hours just to see this grave of a man considered by many to be an end-time prophet of God.
Who was Charles Russell? Born in 1852, he began as a Pittsburgh haberdasher (men’s clothing salesman). He would become famous as a religious leader. He attended both Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches as a child, but rejected much of their teaching. As a youth he came under the influence of Adventism and accepted their concept of “soul sleep”—that is, the soul is not immortal and ceases to exist at death. Consequently, hell is simply the grave. Having an intense fear of an eternal hell, Russell wholeheartedly accepted this idea.
About 1870 he began to meet with a group to study the Scriptures. They called themselves simply “Bible Students.” Russell had no formal religious education, but being a charismatic figure, the group soon appointed him their pastor. He would be known as “Pastor Russell” for the rest of his life.
Russell taught these Bible Students his views on the soul and hell. He also emphasized his belief that Christ’s second coming was imminent, although it would not be physical. Instead, he predicted that Christ would return invisibly and spiritually in 1874. In addition to Adventism, he was influenced by other religious and mystical disciplines. This included a study of occult significance in measurements of the Great Pyramid in Egypt (hence the monument to his memory).
Within a few years, Russell established the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which came to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. By the time of his death in 1916, he had a substantial following.
Based on the teachings of Russell and subsequent Watchtower leaders, the Jehovah’s Witnesses developed a number of distinctive beliefs. Foremost among these is the idea that God’s end-time prophet is the ultimate authority for all spiritual truth. Originally, this was Russell himself. Later, the Watchtower Society was accorded this status. For this reason, any teaching that comes from the society is viewed as the authoritative truth of God. Everything a Jehovah’s Witness believes is based completely on the society’s view of the Bible. Tragically, this has resulted in the acceptance of many false doctrines.
One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses most grievous errors is a categorical rejection of the Trinity—which they view as a satanic and pagan idea. They also reject the Trinity because they consider it contrary to reason. Such a rationalistic approach to theology helps explain why Watchtower teaching appeals to many. People tend to like simple answers to tough questions.
For the Witnesses, Jehovah is the only person in the Godhead. Of course, this raises the question of who Jesus is. The Watchtower teaches that Jesus is a divine being, but not the Almighty God. Instead, he is the first and greatest creation of Jehovah. Before coming to earth, Jesus existed as the archangel Michael. Then as a man, he died as a ransom for sin. He did this by giving his life on the “ransom stake” (a singular upright pole, not a cross).
Belief in Christ’s ransom sacrifice is necessary for salvation, the Witnesses believe. However, good works are also necessary. (In actuality, the Watchtower view of salvation is very much works-oriented.) After Christ offered his life on a torture stake, he was resurrected, but not in a physical body. Rather, he returned to his previous angelic nature as a “spirit creature.”
The Holy Spirit, according to the Watchtower, is an impersonal it—the active power of God at work. He is not even a “he.”
Many people are fascinated by prophecy and the last days, which also explains the appeal of the Watchtower Society. Anticipation of the coming kingdom of God is a great motivating force in the life of a Witness. They believe Christ invisibly and spiritually returned to earth in 1914, thus initiating the end times. (Note the change from Russell’s original date of 1874).
Ever conscious of this idea, the Witnesses diligently labor to tell the world about God’s kingdom. That is the reason they work so hard at witnessing. They must prove to God their worth as his followers. This is also their only hope to escape Armageddon, the final showdown between good and evil. This is the event when God will destroy Babylon the Great, the great spiritual harlot which is comprised of all “counterfeit churches”—Roman Catholic and Protestant.
The Watchtower’s rejection of essential Biblical teaching has historically caused them many problems. Though they claim Biblical authority for their doctrine, it is clearly contradicted by the Scriptures. However, such contradictions were largely resolved for them with the completion in 1961 of their own Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT). The NWT is not a genuine translation. Instead, it is a wholesale revision of the Bible. Anywhere the Watchtower found verses or passages that contradicted their beliefs, they changed the text.
How does a Bible-believing Christian respond to the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
First, stress the confidence you have in your own salvation experience. I recall one conversation I had with an elder of a local Kingdom Hall. I testified to him that I am a born-again believer in Jesus, and have complete assurance that I will go to heaven when I die.
His response to me was interesting: “That cannot be true—you are too young!” I understood what he meant by this. The Watchtower claims that only 144,000 people will be born again and comprise the bride of Christ. In the mind of this elder, I was “too young” because the limited membership of the “little flock” had been reached many years ago. Because of this teaching, the average Witness has no assurance of eternal life.
Also, let them know about the peace and joy you have in Christ. They do not have anything like this. Theirs is largely a fear-based religion. Watchtower teaching demands that they earn their salvation through their own efforts, but this perpetual striving to please God is a hopeless task.
In addition, the Witnesses view Jehovah as an angry deity, full of judgment. It is their terror at Jehovah’s impending wrath that compels them to labor so hard for the kingdom of God. This very fear can be your opportunity. Share with them the promise of God’s grace and the free gift of salvation provided in Christ’s completed work.
When you listen to a Jehovah’s Witness, you may think they know the Bible well. Yet, this is likely not true. What they do know well is Watchtower literature, rather than the actual Biblical text. Remember, their faith in the Watchtower is virtually absolute. To counter this, you must emphasize what the Holy Scriptures teach about the Trinity, Christ’s deity, and salvation. Take them to the verses, and have them read those verses in context. Point out the contradictions between Watchtower teaching and Biblical truth. Yet, be sure you do this with a gentle spirit.
Finally, love them. This may seem obvious and simple. Yet, it is so important. They are taught that those who disagree with them are “opposers” of the Watchtower. Don’t act like an “opposer.” Instead, be kind and caring. It is difficult to reject someone who demonstrates true Christian love. Be a friend—then a witness to them.
Victor Morris is discipleship pastor at Commonwealth Christian Community in Crozert, Virginia. [email protected]