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10 Observations About Jehovah's Witnesses and the Book of Revelation

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The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society's "Revelation: Its Grand Climax at Hand!" is a fairly substantial commentary of John's Apocalypse (319 pages) that claims wide distribution, with apparently 16.6 million copies in its various incarnations printed in 51 languages by the time of the 1988 edition in my possession (2). Despite this wide circulation, however, few nonmembers ever see this book because of the organization's reclusive nature (on which see a few earlier notes). For those curious about distinctive approaches to Revelation, I highlight here a few salient features of this intriguing commentary (henceforth RGCH).

1. Commentary as Religious Authority

If we define sacred text or Scripture as writings presenting a way of looking at the world and a tool for answering questions about the meaning of life and death, morality and justice, and perceived progress or regress in the world as a whole, RGCH is a kind of scripture. There is no identification of an author or authors, an absence that perhaps enhances its authoritative tone. Added to this are recurring doubts about the integrity or acumen of Bible interpreters outside the organization, which effectively encourages trust in the commentary itself and those responsible for it. Revelation itself reinforces this need to trust official interpretations of the Bible. According to the commentary, the elders in "Jehovah's anointed" congregations are the "angels" referred to in the seven letters of Revelation 2-3 (RGCH 28-29).

2. Suspicions About Alternative Readings and the Absence of Ambiguity

Further to the first point, RGCH sets itself in strong opposition to other interpretations of Revelation. Academic biblical scholars are deemed "Worldly commentators" (120) even though, oddly, there are occasional appeals to scholarly resources (e.g., 13, 191, 175, 151, 187, 188). Various mainstream (though usually quite dated) books are cited including James B. Pritchard's "Ancient Near Eastern Texts" (1950, 1955, 1969 [13]), Henry Barclay Swete's "Commentary on Revelation" (1906, 1907 [151]), Joseph Thayer's "The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament" (first published 1885 [294]), and Guenter Lewy's "The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany" (first published 1964 [270]).

There is no dialogue with contemporary biblical scholarship and from the point of view of this commentary there is no need to do so because there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about the meaning of Revelation. We find here the bold assertion that, "The entire book of Revelation is explained in this publication" (5). Though RGCH makes no claim to infallibility (9) this commentary assumes that no uncertainties about the meaning of Revelation remain. This is carefully qualified because clarity of understanding is contingent on God's illumination and progressive revelation. This means doctrinal positions are subject to adjustment over time (8-9). The book begins with a rehearsal of the organization's history of formal study of the Book of Revelation beginning in 1917. Variations in this tradition of interpretation occur for two primary reasons, namely the unfolding of world events and continual but gradual revelation from Jehovah (8).

3. The Book of Revelation Is Comprehensible to the Faithful

RGCH insists biblical literature is accessible and comprehensible to true believers. It is argued repeatedly that only Jehovah's Witnesses are truly faithful to God and so they are uniquely situated to understand the contents of John's apocalypse: "The mysteries locked up in the book of Revelation have for long baffled sincere students of the Bible. In God's due time, those secrets had to be unlocked, but how, when, and to whom? ... Those sacred secrets would be revealed to God's zealous slaves on earth" (9). Presumably these faithful slaves are synonymous with the 144,000 "integrity keepers" mentioned in the near context, a select group among the Jehovah's Witnesses distinct from other members (cf. e.g., "sheep class" [120]). The principle method used for interpretation is harmonizing of biblical texts and observations of correspondences with current events: "we firmly believe that explanations set forth herein harmonize with the Bible in its entirety, showing how remarkably divine prophecy has been fulfilled in the world events of our catastrophic times" (9). If Jehovah's Witnesses are the only true readers, it follows that alternative interpretations of biblical literature are vilified. Non-members are identified with the villains in Revelation while the Witnesses are aligned with God and his emissaries. Questioning the RGCH interpretation thus raises the specter of one's allegiance to God.

4. Readers as Participants in Revelation

The reading strategy used in RGCH involves repeated connections between (a) John's visions, (b) selected historical events of the twentieth century and (c) the organization's past experiences. This creates a reading experience that is in some sense self-fulfilling: if Revelation accurately describes our past it must also be concerned with our present while predicting our future. Jehovah's Witnesses are part of the story John tells since the book is largely concerned with the 20th century: "Most of the prophecies in Revelation were to be fulfilled after John's time" (24). Sympathetic readers therefore find their own story in RGCH -- it is a first-person plural ("we") reading experience that announces this community's ultimate vindication and the demise of its detractors. To give but one example, the commentary understands the great multitude of Revelation 7:10 to refer to Jehovah's Witnesses because they alone are reaching out to "all people of earth with one united message" through their enormous publication program (123). This great crowd of Revelation 7:10 is distinguished from the 144,000 of Revelation 7:4-8, incidentally. The latter refers to a literal 144,000 anointed Christians who make up spiritual Israel (118).

5. Revelation and the Organization's History

Another interesting example of synchronizing the movement's history and the Apocalypse occurs in the reading of Revelation 8:6-11:19. Here the seven angels blowing seven trumpets refer to the organization's activities between 1919-1922. During this time the public ministry was restructured by the "revitalized John class," and distribution of the magazine The Golden Age (renamed Awake!) commenced, a publication credited with "exposing false religion's political involvements" (132). The "John class" is a recurring group of characters in the book (16, 35-36, 120-22, 132, 150-51, 184, 198, etc.) that appear to represent God's anointed who were active during "the Lord's day" (which refers to the year 1914 [198]). Just as God used the prophet John to communicate in the first century so too God uses these earthly messengers -- the John class -- to do the same in a later century. God speaks through these messengers thus "unlocking the meaning of the prophecy" (16). They are identified with the literal 144,000 thousand who will be in heaven, distinct from the great multitude who will live in paradise on earth.

This paralleling of the movement's history and Revelation continues with the commentary's explanation of the seven trumpets that refer to seven Watch Tower conventions held between 1922 and 1928. There is an insert with the heading "Highlights of Jehovah's Trumpetlike Judgment Proclamations" (173). Very specific links are made between these conventions and this part of John's vision. For example: "When the sounding of the seven trumpets got under way in 1922, the Bible Students' convention at Cedar Point, Ohio, featured a talk by the president of the Watch Tower Society, J. F. Rutherford ... The trumpet blast of the seventh angel was reflected in highlights of the Bible Students' convention in Detroit, Michigan, July 30-August 6, 1928" (172).

6. The Beast and Religious Opponents

The Jehovah's Witnesses go to great lengths to distance themselves from other expressions of Christian faith, and symbols associated with traditional Christianity are described as marks of the beast. New Testament announcements of a coming apostasy are invoked (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 2 Peter 3:1- 3; 2 John 7-11) and subsequent church history is cited as proof that it has come. Evidence of this great apostasy is found in the church's supposed substitution of the terms Lord and God for Jehovah, the fourth-century development of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the idea of an immortal soul (30). There are frequent references to the evils of Christian symbols such as crosses (cf. the illustration depicting Jesus' crucifixion on a post without cross beam [294]), Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter are rejected (cf. 197), and there are numerous negative assertions about traditional Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism (e.g., 30-31, 70, 197, 134, 139-41, 154, 208, 262). Indeed, anti-Christian statements are found on most pages of the book with particular disdain shown toward Roman Catholicism and the pope (e.g., 91, 107, 136, 139, 184-86, 270). There is, of course, nothing new about identifying opponents with the evil figures in Revelation. The history of interpretation is riddled with examples of this practice (for other examples, see 195, 247-48, 254). Among many visible incarnations of impiety among the enemies of God, RGCH mentions ecumenical gatherings that do not pray to "Jehovah" (249).

7. Persecution

The enemies of God are not exclusively religious in nature. The United States and Britain are likened to the biblical Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome as great but evil powers (252-53). In fact, one is struck by the viciousness of this commentary's polemics when discussing those identified as the beast's associates (e.g., the British Empire and the United States as the seventh head of the beast in Revelation 13 [188] and the United Nations as the "eighth king" of Revelation 17:11 [253- 54]). Even though Jehovah's Witnesses are pacifists (e.g., 39), the sympathetic reader is permitted, it would appear, to indulge in a little Schadenfreude, knowing others will experience eschatological suffering. This comment is based on the frequency of violent pictures scattered throughout the book that suggest a fixation with the torments of the wicked.

A recurring theme in Watch Tower discourse is the conviction that Jehovah's Witnesses are under attack by satanic forces, usually embodied as the state, the United Nations (e.g., 247), other (therefore false) religions, or a fallen, godless society that rejects the truth and the Witnesses themselves. The latter is not entirely unfounded. Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced maltreatment at points of their history. Because they understand John 17:14 -- disciples are to have "no part of the world" (New World Translation) -- as an injunction against patriotism in any form, they were conscientious objectors during the First and Second World Wars. As a result, the Witnesses were viewed with suspicion during wartime on all sides of the conflict, a situation frequently mentioned in RGCH (e.g., 39, 197). Their belief in the sacredness of blood introduces another point of contention between Witnesses and the state. Their refusal to accept blood transfusions -- especially when minors are involved -- often involves legal challenges. In RGCH it is argued that the AIDS epidemic justifies the Jehovah's Witnesses' position on this matter: "How thankful Jehovah's people are that the wise counsel of his Word keeps them away from fornication and misuse of blood, through which so many diseases are transmitted today!" (97).

These confrontations are interpreted as satanic attacks on the true people of God. The faithful are encouraged to keep their distance from political and social institutions that represent this evil. In addition to all signs of patriotism (e.g., 196), certain social functions have similarly been viewed as involving conformity with a godless system such as the celebration of birthdays and holidays (197).

8. Artwork, Literalism and Stereotyping

There are many pictures in the commentary and they usually involve very literal representations of the text, even in places where the language is clearly symbolic (e.g., pictures of an actual "lamb" when the term applies to Jesus [Revelation 14:4-5]; cf. 202). These images also introduce an emotive force to the commentary with several representations of grotesque monsters intended to frighten, and others that are sentimental, such as reunions with deceased loved ones (e.g., 299; this picture shows children running away from gravestones and tearful embraces with their parents).

Stereotyping is a regular feature of the pictures in this book. Representations of villains, for instance, are riddled with clichés. Among them we find the seductress with long flowing hair and makeup (e.g., 49, 182, 197, 239, 242, 245, 256, 268, 275), military figures (e.g., 182, 196, 231, 242, 245, 255), religious leaders with distinctive clothing (e.g., 182, 184, 213, 242, 249), rulers/kings (e.g., 184, 213, 242, 255), those who smoke (e.g., 197, 213, 268 [two times]), and of course those who spurn overtures from Jehovah's Witnesses and refuse to hear the Gospel (e.g., 160). The clothing and hairstyles of the faithful are contrasted with the appearance of the wicked (e.g., the temptress on 197 with cigarette, beer can, and loose, flowing hair who attempts to lead astray a short-haired, young, male Witness). Though there are clear exceptions in the book, some pictures appear to favor whites, males, heterosexuals (couples with children), westerners (indicated by clothing) and the middle class. When God's face is visible, it is white as are the faces of Jewish male authority figures in the text (Jesus, John, the patriarchs; see e.g., 7, 16, 70, 213, 301). Other figures, like angels and the 24 elders, are also white. The interpretation of Revelation 11 illustrates this tendency to construct the ideal figure as a white, western male. Ezekiel's story of the dry bones is invoked as part of the explanation for the two witnesses rising from the dead in Revelation 11. These two passages are identified as prophetic utterances that had "their striking modern-day fulfillment in 1919, when Jehovah restored his 'deceased' witnesses to vibrant life" (169; i.e., the early days of the organization's history [as Bible Students]). The picture on page 169 depicts the death of bearded and robed Jewish males and presents a background of dusty bones. An inset shows the "resurrection" of these bones as two white males, with short haircuts, suits and ties that represent the rebirth and the "modern-day preaching work" of the Bible Students/Jehovah's Witnesses.

Those inhabiting heaven are not consistently represented. In some cases they are uniformly white, heterosexual and western (e.g., 316). At other times those in glory are robed in white, youthful but without children (121). Pictures of senior citizens are often used in representations of faithful believers (e.g., 26, 62, 316). Some scenes are culturally diverse with equal representation of gender and age (e.g., 308-09).

9. Aesthetics and Representations of the Divine

With respect to aesthetics, the pictures are not at all appealing, by any standard of evaluation. Literal depictions of God and the devil, angels and beasts, torments and blessings remove all sense of mystery from John's imagery. Two possible reasons for this kind of representation come to mind. First, it seems plausible that the pictures are intended for children who would likely find them compelling and frightening. This would suggest a pedagogical intention for the book and an attempt to evoke emotional responses. Second, aesthetics is not a concern for the Jehovah's Witnesses. As far as I know, their assembly halls do not have icons or stained glass, and they regularly criticize the visual symbols of traditional Christianity. Perhaps the avoidance of "real" art is linked to this general pattern of thought that likely goes back to biblical injunctions against representations of the divinity (Exodus 20:4; though God is frequently depicted in diagrams, e.g., 86, 121, 179, 302). If the fear of art is linked to the possible temptation of substituting beautiful things for God, these simplistic and unpleasant diagrams pose no threat. Religious iconography and art is linked to idolatry and sinful behavior throughout this book. On a few occasions, "real" religious art is ridiculed as is the descriptions of Buddhist and Hindu statues: "Revolting sexual corruption is portrayed to this day in the war-damaged Buddhist sculptures at Angkor Wat in Kampuchea and in the temples at Khajuraho, India, which show the Hindu god Vishnu surrounded by disgusting erotic scenes" (262). It is interesting to note, however, that representations of sexuality are described as revolting and disgusting but depictions of violence are not, if the dozens of graphic pictures in RGCH are any indication.

10. Reading Revelation as Part of an Interpretive Community

The approach to Scripture modeled by the Jehovah's Witnesses involves group interpretation as opposed to individual study. If meaning resides in the Bible alone there would be no need to rely on either God's unfolding revelation or the unique insights of the "John class" (e.g., 221). There could also be less emphasis on formal and official group Bible study and more emphasis on private, individual reflections on the text. As proof that "The activity of the Jehovah's Witnesses is wholehearted," RGCH includes a record of the number of Bible studies conducted between 1918 and 1987. In 1987 there was an average of 3,005,048 Bible studies conducted each month (65). The author of Revelation (John the Seer) is also downplayed; since he wrote of events that would occur long after his death, there is little need to contextualize his writing to any great extent.