Part of a series: The WTS and the End of the World
- Part 1: Why So Many False Alarms?
- Part 2: The Orwellian Thinking of JWs
- Part 3: Unassailable Proofs
- Part 4: More Unassailable Proofs
- Part 5: Sanitizing the Past
- Part 6: Later Effects of the Society’s False Predictions
“One deceit needs many others, and so the whole house is built in the air and must soon come to the ground.” — Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom
The second article in the March 22 Awake! series is entitled “A Composite Sign of Many Parts” and begins on page 5:
A fable from India tells of six blind men from Indostan who went to see an elephant. The first one touched its side and said: “Bless me! but the elephant is very like a wall!” The second one touched its tusk and said: “An elephant is very like a spear!” The third touched its trunk and said: “The elephant is very like a snake!” The fourth reached out and felt its knee and said: “Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree!” The fifth touched its ear and said: “This marvel of an elephant is very like a fan!” The sixth seized its tail and said: “I see the elephant is very like a rope!” The six blind men disputed long and loud about what an elephant was like, but no one gave a correct description. Incomplete information did not give a complete picture.
A similar problem arises when it comes to identifying the sign of Christ’s return. In response to his disciples’ question: “What will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?” Jesus answered: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be great earthquakes, and in one place after another pestilences and food shortages.” (Matthew 24:3; Luke 21:10, 11) But when only these things are cited as proof that Christ returned in 1914, people object: “Oh, we’ve always had wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes!” And they are right.
Right off the bat this paragraph neglects many important points. First, Jehovah’s Witnesses and related sects are the only ones who claim that the Greek word parousia means “presence” rather than coming.1Second, in the Society’s usual fashion the writer quotes Matthew 24 verses 3 and 7 but neglects to mention verses 4 through 6, which say:
And in answer Jesus said to them: “Look out that nobody misleads you; for many will come on the basis of my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. You are going to hear of wars and reports of wars; see that you are not terrified. For these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation ….
So the context of Matthew 24 indicates exactly the opposite of what the Society claims. In response to the question: “What will be the sign of your presence….?” Jesus answered: “Look out that nobody misleads you…. You are going to hear of wars and reports of wars…. For these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation….” So Jesus was warning his disciples not to be misled by events such as wars, and he gave this warning before he answered their question about the sign. Verses 7 through 12, which the Society interprets as being part of Jesus’ description of the sign of his coming, are logically and textually part of his warning about things that could mislead the disciples, and contain descriptions of potentially misleading events that would occur before the end. Only after this warning and description, during which Jesus says nothing about a sign, does he say in verse 14, “and then the end will come.” It is not until verse 30 that Jesus actually describes the sign the disciples asked about. So Matthew 24:4-12 is not Jesus’ statement of how to recognize the “sign,” but of how not to be misled about things some might be inclined to think of as a “sign.”
Jesus’ explanation might be rephrased thus: “Since wars, famines, earthquakes and other troubles will regularly characterize man’s history in the future, as they have in the past, such things should not be understood as signs of my coming and of the end of the age.” He probably said this because of the Jewish apocalyptic writers of his day, who were predicting the Messiah’s advent along with many calamities, signs and portents including war, famine, pestilence and earthquakes. The disciples may have had such things in mind when they asked Jesus about the “sign,” and he attempted to straighten out their thinking.
This is the opinion of many Bible commentators today, and is well summarized by several statements from early Watch Towers. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses would be surprised to know that C. T. Russell held exactly the opposite opinion to what the society he founded holds today. Russell based his time prophecies on his interpretation of bible chronology, not on the accounts in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. The March, 1884 Watch Tower (p. 7; p. 605 Reprints) printed a reader’s question and Russell’s answer:
Does Matt. 24:6 teach that “Wars and rumors of wars” are a sign of the end of the Gospel Age?
A. No; we think not. Wars and rumors of wars have characterized earth’s history, with varying frequency and cruelty, ever since the fall of man. But the Scriptures assure us that the time of the end of the Gospel Age, or end of the dominion of the “prince of this world,” will witness a more general and widespread warfare than was ever known before, involving all the powers of earth….
So also famines and pestilences and earthquakes are not to be regarded specially as signs of the end. Though they will doubtless be frequent, and perhaps more so in the time of the end, like wars have been a part of Satan’s policy from the first.
An article in the September, 1884 Watch Tower (p. 3; p. 661 Reprints) said:
Now consider the subject of the signs of the times. Remarks on this subject are too often made which betray a want of intelligent comprehension of the nature of the signs that are according to Scripture to indicate the “time of the end.” A careless reading of our Lord’s prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives seems to be the cause of much of this misapprehension. His predictions of wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, are quoted as if they and such like things were to be the signs of the end of the age. A little accurate attention to the order of his statements would at once show that, so far from this being the case, he mentions these as the characteristic and common events of the entire interval prior to his coming. Wars and calamities, persecution and apostasy, martyrdom, treachery, abounding iniquity, Gospel preaching, the fall of Jerusalem, the great tribulation of Israel, which has, as we know, extended over 1,800 years; all these things were to fill the interval, not to be signs of the immediate proximity of the second advent. How could things of common, constant occurrence be in themselves signs of any uncommon and unique crisis?
What commoner all through the ages than wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes? These, as marking the course of the age, can never indicate its close….
…. No, there was nothing special to alarm the antediluvians before the day that Noah entered into the ark; nothing special to startle the men of Sodom ere the fire from heaven fell; and like as it was in those days, so will it be in these. All going on just as usual, no single sign to attract the world’s attention. “None of the wicked shall understand” the true state of affairs, only the “wise” enlightened by the word of prophecy.
Even after 1914, Russell, and therefore the Watchtower Society, kept to this view. In the 1916 edition of Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. 4, The Battle of Armageddon, page 566, he said:
Thus briefly did our Lord summarize secular history and teach the disciples not to expect very soon his second coming and glorious kingdom. And how aptly: surely the world’s history is just this, an account of wars, intrigues, famines and pestilences — little else.
It was only after World War I ended, thus not fulfilling the Society’s prediction that it would turn into Armageddon by 1918 that the process of spiritualizing all the unfulfilled expectations began. This included reinterpreting the Gospel accounts of Christ’s return in a way opposite to Russell’s understanding, so that the signs the Society had said were “the characteristic and common events of the entire interval prior” to Christ’s parousia now became diagnostic of the parousia itself.
But it should be clear that if such signs are capable of such flexible interpretations and applications as the Society and others have given, certainly they cannot be used to prove that Christ has been invisibly present since 1914 and that the “time of the end” began at that time.
These things become much clearer when one reads the parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21, especially in a Bible other than the New World Translation. Let’s see how the New American Standard version renders these:
And as He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings! And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.” And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled? And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” (Mark 13:1-8)
And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” And they questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, when therefore will these things be? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And He said, “See to it that you be not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is at hand’;2 do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.” Then He continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:5-11)
These parallel accounts illustrate the importance of the point that when the disciples asked their question they were not asking about some far-off future event. Rather, they were asking about the destruction of the temple, and they did not have in mind some invisible presence, but a visible advent. Jesus took no steps to change their understanding. This is verified by the way the account in Mark 13 frames their question about the “sign,” which clearly refers to the destruction of the temple only. It certainly is impossible to think that they needed some “sign” to convince them that the temple had been destroyed or that its destruction was taking place. They wanted some indication in advance of that event. The New English Bible shows clearly this is the intent in its rendering of Mark 13:4:
‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen? What will be the sign when the fulfillment of all this is at hand?’
Most English bibles render Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7 something like “what will be the sign when these things are about to occur.”
The Watchtower Society considers this a very important point, because it has taken pains to render Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7 in the New World Translation consistently with its doctrine of Christ’s “presence,” but different from virtually all other translations. These read respectively:
Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion? — Mark 13:4.
Teacher, when will these things actually be, and what will be the sign when these things are destined to occur? — Luke 21:7.
The Society’s rendering, “what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion,” implies that the “sign” would be some sort of a guarantee that the things spoken of would occur. Precisely when they would occur is not implied, and the sense of time, especially the immediacy, the sense that the things are on the point of occurring, is lost. This causes the reader to interpret the verses consistently with the Society’s view of Christ’s “presence” — that there would be a first coming in 1914 at the end of the Gentile times, and later, “the end” would come. The disciples who asked the question already had Jesus’ word as the guarantee that “these things” would be done. Therefore they did not need a future “sign” as an additional guarantee. In light of this argument, the Society’s rendering does not make sense, and should be rejected on that basis alone. This goes along with the point that, since the disciples did not know in advance that Jesus’ parousia would be invisible, they could not have been asking about a sign that would allow recognition of such an invisible presence. They wanted a sign of when things were about to occur.
Contextually the Society’s rendering of these scriptures makes no sense. But even textually the New World Translation has little justification for its rendering. This can be easily seen by comparing Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7 with Rev. 10:7 in the Society’s Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures. In the New World Translation they read:
Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?
Teacher, when will these things actually be, and what will be the sign when these things are destined to occur?
in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel, when he is about to blow his trumpet
Now compare these to the rendering from the 1985 Kingdom Interlinear:
whenever may-be-about these-(things) to-be-concluded
whenever may-be-about these-(things) to-be-occurring
whenever he-may-be-about to-be-trumpeting
It is evident that the New World Translation is inconsistent in rendering the Greek expression. It is even inconsistent with the renderings in all the other Bible translations the Society has ever sold or quoted in support of its doctrine of Christ’s “presence.” Contrast this with how the Society boasts how consistent it is in rendering parousia as “presence” in every occurrence. The textual difficulties discussed here are an indication of why the Society hardly ever quotes Mark 13:4 or Luke 21:7 directly, but instead quotes Matt. 24:3 and uses the first two only as supporting references.
Returning now to Awake!, we see that the writer, having thoroughly misunderstood Matthew, is off to a bad start start and unable to argue sensibly. Continuing on page 5:
These few things — although creating heretofore unequaled distress — are not for many people sufficient to mark Christ’s return; more is needed to make the sign complete, unmistakable. When proclamations that the world’s end is at hand are made on skimpy evidence, on just one or a few of the parts of the sign that are seen, false alarms are the result. What is needed are all the features Jesus gave relative to his return, not just one or a few. What he gave to mark his presence was a composite sign, one made up of enough features to make the sign certain, a combination of several different parts that, taken all together, make it unmistakable.
As an example of a composite sign, consider the one that is given in the Bible to identify Jesus as the Messiah at the time of his first coming. It involved many events relative to the Messiah that were given in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus had told his disciples about some of these texts, but they had not understood their import. The disciples, like the Jews generally, wanted a Messiah who would overthrow Rome and rule the world with them as associates. So when he died, they were confused and devastated. After Jesus was resurrected, he met with them and said: “‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened up their minds fully to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures.” — Luke 24:44, 45.
According to the Kingdom Interlinear translation of verse 45, Jesus did this by “putting together the Scriptures” from the Hebrew portion of the Bible that foretold the events and circumstances of the life of the promised Messiah who was to come, and he placed them alongside the events of Jesus’ life that had fulfilled them. Later on, the apostle Paul used this same method when “explaining and proving by references” that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 17:3) Again, it is the Kingdom Interlinear that clarifies the process by saying that he did so by “opening up thoroughly and putting alongside” the Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures the events of Jesus’ life that fulfilled them. The accompanying box gives the substance of many of these Hebrew prophecies that were fulfilled by the events of Jesus’ life and that proved that he was the foretold Messiah. It illustrates what constitutes a composite sign.
A sidebox was presented on page 7 that showed many prophecies given in the Hebrew Scriptures that were fulfilled by Jesus. It should be noted that, in contrast to the Society’s notion of a “composite sign,” the basic prophetic interpretations were made by the inspired Bible writers or by Jesus himself.
Next in Awake! is a subsection on page 5 entitled “The Composite Sign of Christ’s Presence”:
It is just such a composite sign that marks the time of Jesus’ second coming, or, more accurately, his presence. The Greek word parousi’a that many translations render “coming” at Matthew 24:3 does not mean a time when he would come or arrive but means that he has already arrived and is on hand, is present. In Jesus’ case it means that he is invisibly present as Jehovah’s enthroned King and is reigning from heaven. This is in keeping with Jesus’ statement at John 14:19: “A little longer and the world will behold me no more.” Since he would not be physically visible, he gave a sign that would indicate his return and invisible presence as Jehovah’s reigning King.
The writer gives no evidence substantiating his claim about the meaning of parousia. The quotation of John 14:19 gets into an area where words can be bandied about endlessly with no resolution. There is simply no proof in the Bible about any particular interpretation of precisely how Jesus would be seen or not be seen after his death and resurrection, but at least we can check for consistency with other verses. To illustrate, Matt. 24:30 says:
And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
See also Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27 and Rev. 1:7. The Society reasonably points out that people will see “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” with the eye of discernment (Revelation — Its Grand Climax At Hand, pp. 19-20), but there is wide latitude in just what “discernment” may mean. When Jesus appears in such a manner as to cause “all the tribes of the earth” to “beat themselves in lamentation,” it will take little discernment to “see” him, even though he might not be seen in the flesh. Therefore, John 14:19 has no bearing on Christ’s parousia. In fact, if we accept the idea that Christ will be seen with the “eye of discernment,” the physical visibility of Christ has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether parousia means “coming” or “presence.”
Awake! continues on page 5:
The sign he gave did not have just one feature or a few features. It had many that were to be taken together as a composite sign, just as was the case with the composite sign at the time of his first coming as Messiah. Thus, with many features or events, he unmistakably signifies his invisible presence at this time as Jehovah’s reigning King enthroned in heaven but extending his power and influence to the affairs of earth. False alarms may result when only one or two of these features are stressed rather than the many features that make up the composite sign. It is like the six blind men from Indostan, each one of whom jumped to a wrong conclusion because of feeling only one part of the elephant’s anatomy.
Awake! seems to be implying that when the Watchtower Society made false end-of-the-world predictions it had not been considering all the evidence, and had only been stressing “one or two of these features.” But more likely, Awake! is trying to distance the Society from these false predictions in the mind of the reader. Continuing:
The fulfillment of this composite sign given by Jesus, plus some additional conditions given by three of the apostles, began in a remarkable way from 1914 onward. A digest of these various features along with their fulfillments follows.
Awake! here explicitly states that all of the following features of the “composite sign” began in 1914. To prove that any particular supposed “feature” is not a feature it will suffice to show that the feature is the same after 1914 as it was before 1914. We will do this for nearly every “sign,” and show that there is an excellent basis for the objection that Awake! stated above: “But when only these things are cited as proof that Christ returned in 1914, people object: ‘Oh, we’ve always had wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes!’ And they are right.”
Note, in the list of “features” about to be given by Awake!, that the ones attributed to Jesus include those he warned against being misled by. Note also that the “additional conditions given by three of the apostles” must somehow be tied in with Jesus’ prophecies. Awake! accomplishes this by simple assertion.
It is extremely significant that in these articles Awake! does not emphasize that the various features are far worse than in times past. Most of the descriptions of individual signs imply it, but Awake! nowhere states it. The closest Awake! comes is to say on page 8 that “their magnitude also adds weight.” This is a major break with many past discussions of the “composite sign,” where claims for earthquakes such as, “in comparison with the previous 2,000 years, the average per year has been 20 times as great since 1914,” have been made.3 The Society has surely begun grasping at straws.
Interestingly, the Society began to tone down its claims about the severity of the features of the “composite sign” after about 1985. For example, the January 15, 1987 Watchtower, page 21-2, acknowledged that “many seismologists believe that earthquakes are no greater or more frequent now than they were in the past….4 Records of earthquakes before 1914 are not complete, however. And earlier generations did not have scientific means of measurement that would permit us reliably to compare the magnitudes of earthquakes past and present.” Then followed a discussion that tried to make “earthquake distress” be the focal point of the supposed increase. The October 15, 1988 Watchtower, page 3, claimed that, according to data listed in two books (the data was acknowledged to be incomplete), earthquakes have been much worse since 1914, but “even granting that records from past centuries are incomplete, we cannot escape the conclusion that in our time mankind has been greatly affected by earthquakes.” An April 8, 1988 Awake!article, on page 4, was very significant in that it made no mention at all that earthquakes are more severe than in earlier times. In fact, with respect to all the features of the “sign:”
Let us remember that while Jesus’ prophecy indicates a climax in man’s history as all these events come together in the same generation, they do not require that they be greater in number or magnitude than in any previous generation, even though that might be so.
However, the April 1, 1991 Watchtower (p. 6) reverted to the previous position.
The different features of the composite sign foretold by Jesus have never before been fulfilled all together in such a short period of time with such intensity and with such far-reaching consequences.
Of course, no data was provided in support. The effect of this vagueness about claims of the intensity of various features of the “sign” is that no one can say for sure whether what is being claimed is true or not. If a particular feature is claimed to be intense, but subsequent research shows that it is the same as it has always been, it can still be claimed in support of the feature. This means that the claims cannot be falsified, because they are true independent of any data. This makes such arguments logically valueless.
The tendency for the Society to drift toward vagueness and to shift the focus of discussion when hard data has proven its position untenable is painfully evident in the article “Natural Disasters — A Sign of the Times?” in the December 1, 1993 Watchtower. Finally admitting that earthquake frequency has always been the same,5 the article buries this admission in an avalanche of arguments that try to show that natural disasters of all sorts, even ones Jesus never mentioned, are on the increase. Presenting almost no data to support its contention that these are increasing, the article does little more than quote a few sources that say such disasters have been increasing since the 1960s. Interestingly, the article makes no claim that such things have increased since 1914. The arguments reduce to simple assertions that an increase in population-related disasters along with a heightened perception of them fulfills Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24:3-14. It claims without any supporting data whatsoever that natural disasters are increasing above and beyond what might be expected due to an increased population alone. The closest it comes to providing supporting data is to compare the earthquake death rate in Japan with that in Peru from 1960 to 1981. It never compares the death rate due to earthquakes in our own time with that in any other period, because such a comparison shows that the rate in the 20th century is statistically indistinguishable from any other, as shown below in the discussion on earthquakes. Clearly, the Society has replaced substantive discussion with chasing after the wind.
Let us look at a recent example of a “natural disaster” and see if it can be made to fit Jesus’ words in Matthew 24. During October and November 1993, many wildfires burned thousands of acres of California housing developments. A few decades earlier there were no homes in those areas. Can it reasonably be argued that poor planning — building in areas where wildfires normally occur — and its results are a fulfillment of the “sign of the last days”? It seems clear that only someone grasping at straws would do so. Likewise with most of the other supposed signs.
“Negotiating with de Valera… is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.” — Earl Lloyd-George, Eamon de Valera
Many Unassailable Proofs:
On page 6 Awake! begins to list features of the “composite sign:”
“Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:7) World War I began in 1914 with 28 nations involved, 14 million people killed. World War II followed with 59 nations involved, 50 million people killed.
As shown above, this is a misapplication of Jesus’ words, because he was warning against precisely this interpretation of events. The Society has often said that Matthew 24:7 points especially to world war. That the scripture does not do so can be seen by considering verse 6 together with verse 7: “You are going to hear of wars and reports of wars…. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” Since, as the May 1, 1975 Watchtower said on page 274, “Jesus’ expression ‘nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom’ also had a first-century application, so it is not limited to world wars,” the verses apply equally well to all wars. Therefore the Society cannot say that Jesus predicted world wars, although he may have had it in mind. As stated earlier, understanding Jesus’ words of verse 4, “Look out that nobody misleads you” as a warning not to interpret the common misfortunes of humanity as a sign of his coming, avoids these difficulties.
As to the war of 1914-1918 being the first “world war,” note what several historians say. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) was “the first that can be called a ‘world war,’ because it involved the overseas world together with the leading powers of Europe.” The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) “was to a greater degree than the War of the Austrian Succession [1740-1748] a world war” which “came to embrace all the four continents of the world and all the great oceans.” The American War of Independence (1775-1783) turned into a general global conflict:
…. what had started as an American revolution against England had exploded into a worldwide war. French and Spanish fleets fought the British in the English Channel, the West Indies and Gibraltar. The Spanish captured West Florida. Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia joined to break England’s blockade on France and Spain. Holland, too, ran naval stores to France, and supplied America so abundantly from the West Indies that England declared war on her. Their two navies fought to a standstill in the North Sea. England’s line of ships and men was now stretched thin to circle the globe. [Irving Stone, Those Who Love, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1965, pp. 311-2]
The Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) began right after the French Revolution and comprised the fourth world war that began in the 18th century. One world history book said:
It is convenient to think of the fighting from 1792 to 1814 as a ‘world war,’ as indeed it was, affecting not only all of Europe but places as remote as Spanish America, where the wars of independence began, or the interior of North America, where the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803 and attempted a conquest of Canada in 1812. [Palmer & Colton, A History of the Modern World to 1815,fifth edition, New York, 1978, pp. 382-3]
With regard to the wars that followed the Napoleonic wars another historian said:
None of these, however, was a world war of the type of those of the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century [the Napoleonic wars during 1801-1815] which had involved not only all Europe but in a lesser degree every continent of the globe. [Cyril Falls, A Hundred Years of War, London, 1953, p. 161]
From the above quotations it is evident there is leeway in saying just what a “world war” is. The wars described involved mostly Europe whereas other areas were ancillary. World War I was similar:
However, all in all, it can be said that the war in theatres outside Europe was of minor strategical importance. The 1914/18 war was essentially a European war. It came later to be called a ‘world war’ because contingents from many parts of the British empire served in Europe, and because the United States joined the Entente Powers in 1917. But in reality, since the role of sea power was mostly passive, this was less a ‘world war’ than some previous conflicts such as the Seven Years’ War…. Whereas the 1914/18 war could hardly be called a world conflict, there can be no such thought about the war brought on by Hitler in 1939. [Viscount Montgomery, A History of Warfare, pp. 470, 497]
With regard to the actual number of countries involved in World War I, the most that can be said to have been involved in some way is 33, not the 28 Awake! stated. But many of these played only a minor role, so the number of active participants is more like fifteen.
What about the death toll from World War I? Did it exceed that from any previous wars? The answer depends on what is included. Are only soldiers counted, or civilians as well? What about auxiliary things like disease related to war? Awake!’s figure of 14 million appears to include 9 million direct battle related deaths plus 5 million civilian casualties, and is reasonable. As to whether this exceeded the death toll of previous wars, note the following historical information:
The conquest of Northern China in 1211-1218 by Genghis Khan is estimated to have cost 18 million Chinese lives. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was an international conflict involving about 10 nations and is estimated to have killed about 2-3 million soldiers. However, in Germany alone, some 7-8 million civilians were killed, and figures are not available for civilians killed elsewhere. In 1644 the Manchus invaded China and in the ensuing conflict an estimated 25 million were killed. In the Napoleonic Wars some 5-6 million died. The Taiping Rebellion in China (1850-1864) was a civil war in which anywhere from 20 to 40 million died. The higher figure is given in the March 22, 1982 Awake!, page 7.
What is the point? This: The war which has come to be called World War I was neither greater nor more destructive than many previous wars. That honor goes to World War II, so any claims about great wars ought to consider 1939 or 1945 as being special, not 1914. Of course, the Society will have none of that.
The most that can be said is that World War I was the most destructive “world war” up to that time in terms of raw numbers of deaths. However, on a percentage basis, some previous world wars were equal or greater. Assuming 14 million killed in World War I and a world population of 1.8 billion, we get a death rate of about 780 per hundred thousand of total population. With a world population of about 900 million around 1810, the death rate of the Napoleonic Wars works out to about 600 per hundred thousand. Assuming an equal number killed outside Germany in the Thirty Years’ War, and a world population of 500 million in the 17th century (see Awake!, Sept. 8, 1967, p. 4), the death rate is about 4000 per hundred thousand. Which of these should be considered the “greatest” war?
So, World War II was the most destructive war of all time by any measure, and World War I was about equal to the most destructive wars up to then. Other data show that overall, wars in the 20th century are comparable to those in the 17th through 19th centuries, and so there has been no particular change, certainly not since 1914. Two statements by historians of war indicate this:
We must be careful to remember that this hypothesis has not really been confirmed, and that there may actually be no trend at all. Unlikely as it sounds, there may have been no significant change over time in the incidence of peace and war and in the casualties of violence. Peace and war may occur about as frequently and last as long as they ever did; casualties may also be very comparable to what they have always been. [Francis Beer, How Much War in History: Definitions, Estimates, Extrapolations and Trends, Beverly Hills, 1974, pp. 46-7]
Is war on the increase, as many scholars as well as laymen of our generation have been inclined to believe? The answer would seem to be a very unambiguous negative. Whether we look at the number of wars, their severity or magnitude, there is no significant trend upward or down over the past 150 years. Even if we examine their intensities, we find that later wars are by and large no different from those of earlier periods. [J. David Singer and Melvin Small, The Wages of War 1816-1965, New York, 1972, p. 201]
Whatever claims or counterclaims may be made, one thing is clear: Jesus’ statement about wars has been fulfilled — but not just in the 20th century or just since 1914. It has come true in every generation since his day and up through the present. He made a simple statement that there would be wars and rumors of wars, with nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom. This has happened repeatedly throughout human history. Adding anything to Jesus’ words is pure speculation. The Watchtower Society’s attempts to limit Jesus’ words to only the 20th century are a failure, because its claims are contradicted by the overwhelming evidence of history.
Awake! continues on page 7:
“In one place after another pestilences.” (Luke 21:11) As World War I ended, some 21 million people were felled by the Spanish flu. Since then, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, and other pestilences have killed hundreds of millions. [g93 3/22 7]
“And no bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.'” — An Italian chronicler writing on the effects of the Black Death in the 14th century. [quoted in April 8, 1988 Awake! p. 3]
Note that Awake! includes heart disease and cancer among the pestilences of our time. But this is grasping at straws because heart disease and cancer are not “pestilences.” The use of any word depends on its generally accepted meaning. In English, “pestilence” implies a rapidly spreading epidemic disease such as smallpox or bubonic plague. The Greek word loimos, translated in Luke 21:11 as “pestilence,” means a “deadly infectious malady” according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. The Society’s Bible dictionary Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, page 617, gives the definition of “pestilence” as: “Any rapidly spreading infectious disease capable of attaining epidemic proportions and of causing death.” The Bible uses other words when speaking of diseases in general as opposed to pestilences.
Obviously, cancer and heart disease are not pestilences, even according to the Society’s own Bible dictionary, so Awake! is dishonest in claiming they are. The argument is grasping at straws because the writer is reduced to claiming diseases that used to be those of old age are “pestilences.” The main reason cancer and heart disease are prevalent today is that the advances of medicine since the end of the 19th century have reduced “pestilences” so greatly that many more people live to be old enough to die from age related diseases rather than infectious diseases. This is shown by the drastic decrease in child mortality in the more developed countries in the 20th century.
It can even be argued that by calling cancer and heart disease “pestilences,” the writer of Awake! shows he knows very well that true pestilences have decreased since 1914. This is true because if all diseases can also be termed pestilences, then any change in what diseases people generally die from will have almost no effect on the death rate due to disease. This is simply because if people do not die of a pestilence in youth they will die of another disease in old age. Cancer and heart disease tend to be diseases of old age. Therefore, interpreting Jesus’ statement about pestilence as referring to disease in general results in nothing measurable and is of no value as a sign.
The fact is that, because of medical advances, epidemic disease plays a minor role in the 20th century compared to what it did in earlier times. While AIDS has become notorious in the 1980s, even it doesn’t very well fit the definition of pestilence since it mostly attacks people who engage in avoidable forms of behavior. Pestilence in the Biblical sense strikes everyone equally and without warning, and AIDS has certainly not been evident for most of the 20th century. Some other true “pestilences” have lately been increasing, but most epidemic diseases are simply not something the average person lives in fear of.
This contrasts greatly with times past. In 542-543 the “plague of Justinian” killed some 100 million people. In the 14th century the Black Death killed an estimated 75 to 125 million people in six years — about one-sixth to one-fourth the population of the known world. Some cities and villages were virtually depopulated. Because so many were killed, many historians have called the Black Death the most lethal disaster in recorded history short of the Flood. One historian noted:
The impact of the Black Death, the greatest ecological upheaval, has been compared to that of the two world wars of the twentieth century. To a degree this is true. But the Black Death… wrought even more essential change…. The effects of this natural and human disaster changed Europe profoundly, perhaps more so than any other series of events. For this reason, alone, the Black Death should be ranked as the greatest biological-environmental event in history, and one of the major turning points of Western Civilization. [Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death, 1983, p. 163]
Nothing even remotely like these plagues has occurred in the 20th century. While the Spanish flu killed some 21 million people in 1918, that was only about one-hundredth the world’s population. If the Society’s claims about pestilence were correct, surely we would now see the worst pestilences of all time and live in constant fear of them.
Now back to Awake!:
“There will be food shortages.” (Matthew 24:7) The greatest famine in all history struck after World War I. Another terrible one followed World War II, and now malnutrition affects one fifth of the world’s population. Annually, some 14 million children die from malnutrition. [g93 3/22 7]
The greatest recorded famine of all time… struck China between 1878 and 1879…. Estimates of the number of Chinese who died in that famine vary from 9 to 13 million. [The Watchtower, April 15, 1983, page 3]
It seems as if the left hand does not know what the right is doing in the Society’s writing department. The question begs to be asked, Does either hand know what it’s doing at all? But, even the 1983 Watchtower is incorrect. The Chinese famine of 1849 took nearly 14 million lives, and the famine that struck India in 1769-1770 may have killed tens of millions.
It should be noted that there is a great difference between the gross food shortages, or famine, implied by the Bible writer, and malnutrition. There are very many people earthwide who are malnourished in the sense they don’t receive enough of the right type of food, but there are far fewer that are actually starving and fit the term used by Matthew. In times past nearly everyone was malnourished in some way. Vitamin deficiencies such as caused ricketts and scurvy were nearly universal, and this situation has been rectified only in the more developed nations. This is clearly not what the Bible writer referred to. Rather, he was talking about acute catastrophes of famine. This sort of famine has occurred all throughout human history, so the point is whether acute famine is much worse in the 20th century than in previous ones.
As with the claim of pestilence, it is not difficult to show that famines have decreased greatly in the 20th century compared to prior ones. Four famines struck China in 1810, 1811, 1846 and 1849, and killed at least 45 million. Cannibalism was reported to be rampant. All told, some 100 million people starved to death in China alone in the 19th century. What about the 20th century? In 1958-1961 a severe famine struck China, in which anywhere from 8 to 30 million died. Perhaps another 5 million in China have died in the 20th century. So China, whose population in the 20th century is more than double what it was in the 19th, has experienced significantly less famine in both absolute and relative terms in the 20th century. In almost every country of Europe and the Americas, famine became almost unknown by the mid-20th century. In much of the rest of the world it is the same as it has always been. The most severe famines in nearly every part of the world occurred before 1914. While malnutrition is certainly a problem and famines still occur, the situation was well described in 1975 by one food expert: “We might be inclined to deduce from the pictorial evidence of famine that we have seen recently on television, in newspapers, and in magazines that the world is more prone to famine now than it used to be. But the evidence is clearly to the contrary…. There has been a rather substantial reduction in the incidence of famine during the past century.” For this reason, when famine does strike it is big news.
1 Parousia primarily means “presence” (literally, “a being alongside”) or “appearing,” but it is well established today that at the time of Jesus it was also used in a technical sense. Nearly all Bible translators use “coming,” “advent,” “arrival” or similar terms, despite the fact the primary meaning is “presence.” Most early Greek-Latin translators, for whom both languages were living, used the Latin adventus (“advent” or “coming”). Translators for other languages used similar terms. The reason is well expressed by the 19th century scholar Adolf Deissmann, who was instrumental in collating the 19th century discoveries of ancient Greek manuscripts that showed the New Testament was written in koine or common Greek:
“Yet another of the central ideas of the oldest Christian worship receives light from the new texts, viz. parousia [parousia], ‘advent, coming,’ a word expressive of the most ardent hopes of a St. Paul. We now may say that the best interpretation of the Primitive Christian hope of the Parousia is the old Advent text, ‘Behold, thy King cometh unto thee.’ [Matthew 21:5] From the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd cent. A.D. we are able to trace the word in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or the visit of the king or the emperor.” [Light from the Ancient East, Baker Book House, 1978, p. 368]
The point is that the technical sense embodies both an arrival and a subsequent presence, with emphasis on “arrival.” The arrival of Christ in Kingdom power will certainly be the “arrival or the visit of the king,” and the general consensus among modern scholars is that the New Testament uses parousia in this way with reference to the second coming of Christ, as any modern Greek lexicon will show.
The context of Matt. 24 indicates that the disciples asked for a sign of Jesus’ visible coming, not of an invisible presence. The Sept. 15, 1964 Watchtower, p. 576, said the disciples “had no idea that he would rule as a glorious spirit from the heavens and therefore did not know that his second presence would be invisible.” Therefore they were asking about a visible appearance. Furthermore, if the appearance was visible, then they were not asking for a sign that the appearance had already taken place, for the appearance itself would be sign enough, but that it was about to take place. This is consistent with Jesus’ illustration of the fig tree in Matt. 24:32, 33: “Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and it puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near [or, “about to arrive” — not “is invisibly present”]. Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.”
It is clear the Society has no biblical textual basis for claiming Jesus has been in Kingdom power since 1914, as his parousia has not yet occurred.
2 C. T. Russell’s second book was entitled The Time Is At Hand. Apparently he took the title from the rendering of Luke 21:8 by the Revised Standard Version or the American Standard Version.
3 Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985, p. 236; Life — How Did It Get Here? By Evolution Or By Creation?, 1985, p. 225; Awake!, Oct. 22, 1984, p. 6.
4 The article also said: “Conversely, others conclude that our generation has experienced earthquakes more frequently than did previous ones. Based on available records, the 20th century does significantly overshadow the past in seismic activity. Publications of the Watch Tower Society have repeatedly called attention to this, highlighting the Biblical significance of earthquakes occurring since 1914.”
No references or data were offered to back up these claims. A request made to the Watchtower Society for this information was never answered. See the rest of our discussion for more information.
5 “The earth and its dynamic forces have more or less remained the same throughout the ages.” — p. 6.
(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see The Sign of the Last Days — When? by Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst.)