Christians' "first task" in sharing the Gospel with Jehovah's Witnesses is helping them "put away and then deal with the Bible alone," Robert Stewart, professor of philosophy and theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. "What we need is evidence -- evidence that the Watchtower Society has been wrong."
The anniversary of a failed prediction may be an opportunity to present such evidence to approximately eight million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, Stewart said.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus is not equal to God the Father, but the first created being. They deny the Trinity, envision the Holy Spirit as merely a force and believe that salvation comes through a strict moral code and commitment to the Watchtower Society. They use the New World Translation of Scripture, a version that alters the meaning of key passages on Christ's deity like John 1:1.
Founded by Charles Taze Russell in the late 19th century, the Watchtower Society initially taught that the invisible, spiritual presence of Jesus returned to earth in 1874. The battle of Armageddon would follow in 1914, they said, ending human history and overthrowing the kingdom of the world.
An "anointed class" of 144,000 people would go to heaven as spirits without bodies after they died, Jehovah's Witnesses said. A secondary group of saved people would live forever in paradise on earth following Armageddon.
"We consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished by the end of A.D. 1914," Russell said.
An 1894 Jehovah's Witness publication added, "Our readers are writing to know if there may not be a mistake in the 1914 date. They say that they do not see how present conditions can last so long under the strain. We see no reason for changing the figures -- nor could we change them if we would. They are, we believe, God's dates not ours."
But before 1914 ended, the Watchtower Society began to change its prediction -- first to 1918, then 1925. The year 1914 in fact was the beginning of Christ's invisible, spiritual presence on earth rather than the end of history, they said, a revision from the previous date of 1874 for the invisible presence. Also, 1914 marked the beginning of the "last generation" before Armageddon, the Watchtower Society said.
By 1924, the Watchtower Society felt confident enough to announce, "The year 1925 is a date definitely and clearly marked in the Scriptures, even more clearly than that of 1914."
A prediction that the "1914 generation" was history's last also had to be modified. First, the Watchtower Society said those alive "with understanding" in 1914 would live to see the end of history. Later it said babies born in 1914 were the ones who would see the end. Finally, it said the "generation of 1914" meant only that the end of history would come a relatively short time after 1914 compared with the thousands of years in human history that elapsed previously.
The failed predictions were a serious matter, Stewart said, in part because they ruined people's lives.
"In their official resources that they use to train their leadership, they've encouraged their people to do things like sell their homes and quit their jobs so that they can spend more time out going door to door, because after all the world is going to come to an end," he said of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Even more importantly, the false doctrine leads its adherents to eternal separation from God in hell, Stewart said. He recommended several tactics for sharing the Gospel with Jehovah's Witnesses. Among them:
-- Without affirming the content of their faith, commend their religious commitment in order to build goodwill.
-- Communicate facts about wrong predictions of the Watchtower Society. This will help Jehovah's Witnesses begin to question their sources of religious authority.
-- Point them to Internet resources like Watchman Fellowship (www.watchman.org), a group that focuses on ministry to new religious groups, cults and the New Age movement. Reading material online that is critical of their faith prevents Jehovah's Witnesses from getting in trouble with their leaders for having critical books or tracts lying around, Stewart said.
-- Explain salvation by grace through faith in Jesus -- who is fully God and fully human.
In the same vein, the North American Mission Board's 4truth.net website presents a detailed account of Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs and recommends Bible passages to use in explaining that Jesus is a member of the Trinity, co-equal with God the Father.
A kind and informed witness to Jehovah's Witnesses on the 100th anniversary of the famous 1914 prediction could change their eternal destiny, NAMB said in the material. Stewart added that believers who invite Jehovah's Witnesses into their homes should be skilled in both Christian theology and Jehovah's Witness theology.
"Jehovah's Witnesses are very sincere about their beliefs and well-versed in them. When they come to your door, invite them in. Be cordial and patient. Remember Peter's instruction 'but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence' (1 Peter 3:15)," the NAMB material stated.
"Unfortunately, most of the Christians encounter are unprepared and become extremely defensive and unpleasant with them. This just encourages the to believe they are on the correct path. Why would they change unless someone soundly shows them their error? That someone may be you. Dare to be different by having a response, which is both biblically sound and loving."
David Roach is Baptist Press' chief national correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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