The January 1, 2013 issue of the Watchtower magazine includes an article that addresses the question, “Have Jehovah’s Witnesses Given Incorrect Dates for the End?” (p. 8). The article acknowledges that the answer is yes, but tries to turn this negative into a positive. To do so, it uses an argument that has been a standard for Jehovah’s Witnesses for decades. The article explains:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses have had wrong expectations about when the end would come. Like Jesus’ first-century disciples, we have sometimes looked forward to the fulfillment of prophecy ahead of God’s timetable. (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2).”
The implicit inference for the reader to draw is that if Jesus’ original disciples could make such mistakes, then no blame can be attached to Jehovah’s Witnesses for doing so as well. However, the article glosses over some basic facts concerning the proof texts it cites. Let’s look at each of the three texts.
“As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11; all quotations from the ESV).
Here Jesus’ “first-century disciples” are still ignorant of the basic elements of the Christian faith as those are going to be made clear to them following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover, where one of the disciples will betray Jesus, another will deny him, and the others will abandon him. They really have no idea at this point what God’s plan is, even though Jesus has been revealing it to them piecemeal through his parables and miracles. To cite this verse as precedent for the failed predictions of people who claim to be the only true Christians twenty centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection is simply absurd.
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6).
At this point Jesus has died and risen from the dead, but the Holy Spirit still has not come on the disciples with power to be his witnesses (1:8). They have begun to understand some things but they still are in no position to be teachers. The veil of ignorance is only just beginning to lift. So once again, to cite this text as precedent for the Jehovah’s Witnesses history of failed predictions is a clear misuse of the text.
One should also note that in neither text are the disciples represented as actively teaching their “wrong expectations” to others. They are not evangelizing people with the message that the kingdom was going to be restored to Israel at a particular time. Not only have Jehovah’s Witnesses actively taught their false expectations to others, they have required all members to uphold those false expectations as long as the Society’s publications teach them or risk being disfellowshipped. Only after the Watchtower Society has publicly set aside the false expectations its leaders’ teaching had engendered are members allowed to reject those expectations. Of course, nothing like that was going on with the disciples of Jesus.
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2).
Frankly, this citation is even more shocking in its abuse of Scripture than the previous two. In this text the “first-century disciples” who are adhering to “wrong expectations” are false teachers who claim to be speaking or writing on behalf of the apostles! “Let no one deceive you in any way,” Paul adds (2 Thess. 2:3), still referring to these false teachers. So if Jehovah’s Witnesses want to cite this text as applicable to them, one can only agree in the sense that the text labels them as those who are deceiving people with their false claims.
The Watchtower article then tries to justify their false teachings as evidence of their zeal to obey Jesus’ instruction to bear witness to the coming judgment on all humanity:
“Consider this example: A lookout in a fire tower might see what he thinks is a wisp of smoke on the horizon and sound what proves to be a false alarm. Later, though, his alertness could save lives. Likewise, we have had some wrong expectations about the end. But we are more concerned with obeying Jesus and saving lives than with avoiding criticism. Jesus’ command to ‘give a thorough witness’ compels us to warn others about the end.—Acts 10:42.”
The illustration proves counterproductive to the Jehovah’s Witness argument, however, when one considers the fact that the organization has repeatedly sounded “false alarms” throughout its history. False predictions were made concerning the years 1914, 1918, 1925, and 1975, to name just the most egregious and clear-cut examples. Imagine the example of a lookout who repeatedly sounds what prove each time to be a false alarm. His doing so would more likely lead to people being less alert to the possibility of fires because the failure of repeated fire alarms would desensitize them to any future alarm.
Now add the idea that the lookout insists that anyone who disputes his fire alarms must be run out of town—and that only he may announce that a particular alarm was inaccurate!
During the past two centuries, there have been many such false alarms about the Second Coming or other eschatological events, from Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Branch Davidians, and the Children of God, to name just some of the more notable such groups. Full disclosure and fairness require me to mention, unfortunately, that various teachers on the fringes of Protestant Christianity such as Hal Lindsey, Edgar Whisenant, Lester Sumrall, and Harold Camping have also made such false predictions. Although most of these individual teachers haven’t claimed that only their faithful followers are true Christians, their false predictions render them at least unreliable teachers who should not be given any credence (or money!). The nearly constant trumpeting of some religious teacher or other claiming that a fast-approaching date is the date of the end cannot be justified as faithful believers zealously sounding the alarm to keep everyone alert to the coming Judgment Day. Such rationalization won’t work for Harold Camping and it won’t work for the Watchtower Society’s leaders.