Talking 'Bout My Generation
A key teaching of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is that Armageddon will come before the passing of the "generation of 1914." Jehovah's Witnesses have long watched the aging of members who were alive in the year 1914, increasingly expecting Armageddon to occur as the elderly Witnesses pass away.
Unfortunately for these faithful Jehovah's Witnesses, the passing years have necessitated the Society's frequent redefinition of the year 1914.2 A brief chronology of some of these changes can be found below:
1889 - Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Society, teaches that Armageddon would occur in 1914.3Objective readers may wonder how Jehovah's Witnesses can accept the validity of such widely varying doctrinal development. The Witnesses accept such changes because of the Society's emphasis on "new light."
1950 - The Watchtower teaches that Christ returned to earth invisibly in 1914.4
1950 - The Watchtower emphasizes that the thirty-six years between 1914 and 1950 have drawn the world closer to Armageddon occurring before the generation alive in 1914 pass away.5
1961 - The Society states, "The foretold events having begun A.D. 1914, the generation of mankind that is still alive from that year is the generation meant by Christ."6
1967 - The Society changes the meaning of "generation" to include only those individuals who were alive in 1914 and able to view the events with understanding.7
1968 - The Society specifies that the age of understanding is 15 or older, meaning that Armageddon will occur before all those who were 15 or older in 1914 have passed away.8
1984 - The Society extends the "generation of 1914" to include all individuals who were babies during that year.9
1988 - The Society states that a biblical generation consists of 75 years.10 Thus, 75 years from 1914 comes to 1989, marking the potential end of that generation.
1988 - Later in 1988, the Society revises its definition of generation, referring to a range of 70-80 years. Thus, the "generation of 1914" could be extended until 1994.11
1995 - The Society redefines the term "generation of 1914" to refer to anyone who is alive at any time who can understand the spiritual significance of the date.12 The "generation of 1914" can thus be extended indefinitely into the future.
Be in the LightJehovah's Witnesses attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance from the Society's contradictory teachings by believing in the revelatory stages of "new light"and "old light." David Reed, a former Jehovah's Witness, describes new light as "a revised teaching that replaces previously held ideas,"13 while old light is "a former teaching abandoned in favor of a new doctrinal viewpoint."14
Needless to say, Jehovah's Witnesses do not understand the terms quite so clearly. They do, however, believe that new light replaces old light without any inadequacy in the previous teaching. The December 1, 1981 issue of The Watchtower makes frequent references to "increasing [i.e., new] light," claiming that seeming doctrinal changes are simply a case of Jehovah continually illuminating the path to salvation. This teaching clearly underlies an analogy made by the Society to the nautical practice of tacking:
"It may have seemed to some as though [the theological path taken by the Watchtower Society] has not always gone straightforward. At times explanations given by Jehovah's visible organization have shown adjustments, seemingly to previous points of view. But this has not actually been the case. This might be compared to what is known in navigational circles as 'tacking.' By maneuvering the sails the sailors can cause a ship to go from right to left, back and forth, but all the time making progress toward their destination in spite of contrary winds. And that goal in view for Jehovah's servants is the 'new heavens and a new earth' of God's promise."15
In case any Witnesses should fail to be convinced by this analogy, the Society reinforces its right to change teachings by claiming,
Jehovah God has also provided his visible organization, his 'faithful and discreet slave,' made up of spirit-anointed ones, to help Christians in all nations to understand and apply properly the Bible in their lives. Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using, we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.16In other words, Christians who want to be saved must be faithful Jehovah's Witnesses, believing everything they are taught by Jehovah's "channel of communication."
Blinded by the LightThe turmoil that Jehovah's Witnesses can experience by following the changing teachings of the Watchtower Society is clearly illustrated by the contradictory teachings currently contained on the Society's web site.17 The publications "God's Purpose Soon to be Realized"18 and "Education for Entering Paradise,"19 when contrasted with statements regarding 1914 in the May 1, 1999 issue of The Watchtower, contain clear examples of new light and old light being presented simultaneously as valid Watchtower teachings.
"God's Purpose Soon to be Realized" states regarding the "generation of 1914:"
Jesus said regarding the era that would experience 'the beginning of pangs of distress' from 1914 onward: 'This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.' Thus, all the features of the last days must take place within the lifetime of one generation, the generation of 1914. So some people who were alive in 1914 will still be alive when this system comes to its end. That generation of people is now very advanced in years, indicating that there is not much time left before God brings this present system of things to an end."20"Education for Entering Paradise" reiterates this point:
You will be thrilled to know that when Jesus spoke of today's troubled system and 'the sign' of its approaching destruction, he added, 'This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur. 'Some, at least, of the generation that saw the 'beginning of the pangs of distress' in 1914 will live to see Paradise restored on earth.21Both publications clearly restate the pre-1995 position of the Society: Armageddon will occur before all those who were alive in 1914 have died.
The May 1, 1999 issue of The Watchtower, however, clearly advocates the position first stated in 1995:
When would the end come? What did Jesus mean when he said: 'This generation [Greek, ge.ne.a'] will not pass away'? Jesus had often called the contemporaneous mass of opposing Jews, including religious leaders, 'a wicked, adulterous generation.' So when, on the Mount of Olives, he again spoke of 'this generation,' he evidently did not mean the entire race of Jews throughout history; nor did he mean his followers, even though they were 'a chosen race.' Neither was Jesus saying that 'this generation' is a period of time.22The position from this recent publication is clear: "the generation of 1914" refers to one's attitude toward the message of the Watchtower Society, and not to the age of Society followers.
Blowing in the WindIt is clear that the Watchtower Society is not leading the Jehovah's Witnesses into ever-increasing light. Instead, to use the Society's "tacking" metaphor, the ship in which they are sailing is too frequently being dashed against the rocks. Paul clearly warned against following the changing teachings of false religious teachers when he advocated the Ephesians to "henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive."23
It is important to show Jehovah's Witnesses that Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever," and Christians should thus not "be carried about by divers and strange doctrines."24 God Himself declares that He does not change,25 and Christians should avoid those whose teachings and practices do continually change.26
1 The author thanks Randall Waters of FreeMinds, Inc., for a news release notifying individuals about the conflicting definitions of 1914 on the Watchtower Society's web site.
2 For more information on these changes, see James K. Walker, "A Watchtower History of 1914," The Watchman Expositor, 13.1(1996), pp. 4-7, 21.
3 Charles Taze Russell, Thy Time is at Hand,vol. 2 of Studies in the Scriptures (Allegheny, Pa: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1889), pp. 76-78, 98-99. The date 1914 was changed to 1915 in later editions.
4 "Who Will Share in the Final Witness?" The Watchtower, January 15 (1950), p. 22.
5 "Use the Remaining Time Wisely," The Watchtower, November 15 (1950), p. 419.
6 "Hope of Survival Faces the Problem," The Watchtower, April 15 (1961), p. 236.
7 "Where are We According to God's Timetable?" The Watchtower, May 1 (1967), p. 262.
8 Awake! October 8 (1968), pp. 13-14.
9 "1914 - The Generation that will not Pass Away," The Watchtower, May 15 (1984), p. 5.
10 "The Last Days - What's Next?" Awake! April 8 (1988), p. 14.
11 Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 1, (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1988), pp.917-18.
12 "A Time to Keep Awake," The Watchtower, November 1 (1995), p. 19.
13 David A. Reed, Jehovah-Talk: The Mind-Control Language of Jehovah's Witnesses, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House,1997), p. 98, 100.
14 "The Path of the Righteous Does Keep Getting Brighter,"The Watchtower, December 1 (1981), p. 27.
21 "'These Things Must Take Place,'" The Watchtower, May 1 (1999), p. 11.
22 Ephesians 4:14.
23 Hebrews 13:8-9.
24 Malachi 3:6.
25 Proverbs 24:21-22.