Jehovah's Witnesses have very specific beliefs about the end of the world.
“Armageddon will be the worst thing ever to hit the earth within the history of man. . . . That war is unavoidable. The facts of modern history prove we are in the ‘day of God the Almighty’ and his war is near.”Nathan Knorr, president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Governing Body1
With over six million members around the world, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown from an American sect to a worldwide religious movement. They are known for their unique practices, such as the prohibition of holiday celebrations and blood transfusions. But perhaps their most prominent trait is their focus on the end of the world.
Witnesses have many specific views on how the world will end, which are, in part, derived from the Bible. Revelation, the last book of the Bible, focuses on the end times. The book contains a series of allegorical images that describe God’s sovereignty over all other powers.
Over the centuries, Christians have differed on interpretations of these passages. Drawing on a handful of images taken primarily from Revelation, Jehovah’s Witnesses take a different route altogether.
Throughout their history, Witnesses have shifted their statements regarding the end of the world. They have claimed that the world would end on five specific occasions. They have also introduced “New Light”—new teachings that override failed prophecies.2
Many Jehovah’s Witness teachings are based on their concept of history. Founder C. T. Russell taught there would be six thousand years from the creation of Adam until Jesus would return and begin his reign on earth.3 Initially, Russell predicted the end of the world in 1914.
When this prophecy failed, his successor, Joseph Rutherford, announced a recalculation of the original creation of Adam, moving the date up to 1925.4 Three other specific dates for the end of the world have come and gone. Since November 1995, Witnesses have ceased to predict particular dates but insist “vehemently that they have never made any false prophecies.”5
Revelation 16:14–16 mentions a cataclysmic battle between world rulers that takes place in a location called the valley of Armageddon. Witnesses believe this is a description of a great final battle that will result in the end of the world. It is considered a global battle between the forces of good and evil, and the final result will be a cleansing of all things evil.
The imminence of Armageddon is used to encourage conversion since “those who respond favorably to the good news can survive Armageddon and live forever in perfection on a paradise earth.”6 This message has defined much of the Witnesses’ actions and publications over the years. Although the world will end, “millions now living will never die!” they proclaim. Those millions are, of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Two Groups
Witnesses also place a large emphasis on the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, this number has had two distinct meanings.
In the early 1920s, Rutherford instituted the practice of door-to-door visitation. Witnesses were instructed to tell their neighbors that only 144,000 would make it into heaven after the battle of Armageddon, which was then predicted to happen in 1925. However, by the late 1920s, there were already over 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses committed to the religion, and the battle had yet to come.
The leaders announced New Light, which taught that “everyone who had become a Jehovah’s Witness before 1935 would go to heaven (the ‘little flock’), while everyone who came after 1935 would be among the ‘great crowd’ who would . . . look forward to living on Earth in a new paradise.”7
In Revelation 20:1–6, we find mention of the millennial reign of Jesus. Again, Witnesses have a specific set of beliefs that grows out of this concept.
Having won the battle of Armageddon, Jesus will set up a government with the help of the 144,000. At this time, the world will be restored to perfect conditions. There will be no death, plenty of food, and lasting peace.8 Those who survive the battle of Armageddon, as well as any righteous person from Abel onward, will receive a second chance in the new world.9
At the end of one thousand years, Satan will be released to test the remnants of mankind. After this test, Jesus will step down from leadership and Jehovah will live with his people and reign forever.
Historians note that the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, C. T. Russell, had specific difficulty with the concept of hell as a place of eternal torment.10 Witnesses teach that those who die outside of the organization are annihilated and completely cease to exist. Those who die in Armageddon will be annihilated immediately. Those who fail the test of Satan at the end of the Millennium will also be annihilated.
Christians may differ on their understanding of the afterlife, but Witnesses stand out for their willingness to describe man’s eternal state with such specificity.
No One Knows
When referring to great moments of judgment, such as the fall of governments and the eventual end of the world, even Jesus was reticent: “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”11
In their short existence, Witnesses have calculated and recalculated the end of the world. They have made precise statements about how the world will end, as well as what will happen afterward. They have even described levels of the afterlife and the specific numbers of people who will enjoy each level.
Death and the end of the world as we know it are scary, enigmatic prospects, so it is easy to understand why we want to define them. The solution for the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been to create specific dogmas that address those fears. Yet again and again, they have had to readjust their statements.
In describing the afterlife, the Apostle Paul stated, “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” The future will always have an element of mystery. This is, in part, because we do not currently have the faculties to comprehend what will come.
Some matters of faith will remain just that—matters of faith.