Changes to the Generation Teaching
“Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.”
The Watchtower has promoted six different and contradictory explanations of what “this generation” refers to. Many Witnesses based their life choices on the generation doctrine that Armageddon would arrive before all those born prior to 1914 had died. Can an organization that makes such critical errors rightfully claim they alone are directed by God?
At the 2010 annual meeting, John Barr presented the latest understanding of the generation. 97 year old Barr was an apt choice to deliver this talk, being the last of the Governing Body born before 1914. He explained the generation is now to include 2 groups whose lives “overlap” since 1914:
“John Barr … twice read the comment: “Jesus evidently meant that the lives of the anointed ones who were on hand when the sign began to be evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of the other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation.” We do not know the exact length of “this generation,” but it includes these two groups whose lives overlap. Even though the anointed vary in age, those in the two groups constituting the generation are contemporaries during the part of the last days. How comforting it is to know that the younger anointed contemporaries of those older anointed ones who discerned the sign when it became evident beginning in 1914 will not die off before the great tribulation starts!” Watchtower 2010 June 15 p.5
There is no Scriptural reason to believe a generation referred to two overlapping groups, other than wishful thinking and a need to prop up the 1914 teaching as still relevant. Can any credence be given to this explanation? The following review of the history of contradictory generation teachings shows there can be no doubt that these teachings are neither directed by holy spirit nor Scripturally sound.
The Watchtower understanding of “this generation” has changed constantly through the entirety of Watchtower history; both regarding who it has been applied to and the timeframe. It is a classic example of the Watchtower’s Eisegesis approach to interpretation – forcing a meaning that does not exist. With four different contradictory and sometimes regressive teachings between 1995 and 2010, this subject nullifies any reason to believe the Watchtower excuse for changes as their light getting brighter
A key factor to the growth of the Watchtower Society is the promise that this system will end at any moment. The shorter the expected time left, the higher the growth. (Immediately prior to dates the end was specifically expected, such as 1914, 1925 and 1975, growth increased to as high as 20 %.) When there has been no specific date set, the concept that “this generation will by no means pass away” has been used to stimulate urgency. Looking retrospectively, it is remarkable to see the number of changes to the “generation” teaching, in order to make each decade in the 1900’s appear to be the decade Armageddon would come.
The commencement of Jesus’ heavenly rulership in 1914 is key to Watchtower theology, the foundation for many other teachings. Unseen and hence unproven, Witnesses expected proof in their own lifetime by means of the arrival of Armageddon – based on the generation teaching that some people born prior to 1914 would never die.
“The countdown that has proceeded for some six millenniums now nears its zero hour. So close is it that people who were alive in 1914, and who are now well along in years, will not all pass off the scene before the thrilling events marking the vindication of Jehovah’s sovereignty come to pass” The early members of this group are now in their 60’s or 70’s or older. Jehovah did not allow the ingathering of this group to begin too soon. The “great crowd,” including many of the earliest members thereof, will survive into the “new earth.” Survival into a New Earth (1984) p.184-185
“Prophetic information in the Bible about our day details the following: …The survival of at least some of the generation that saw the beginning of “the conclusion of the system of things.” True Peace And Security (1986) p.70
“Some who saw the events of 1914 will also see the complete destruction of the present wicked world.” Reasoning from the Scriptures (1989) p.200
When this was changed in 1995 with an article explaining that a generation could extend for multiple lifetimes, many Witnesses saw this as indication the Governing Body had lost faith, no longer confident that Armageddon is close at hand. Since 1995, the growth rate of Jehovah’s Witnesses has fallen dramatically. In 2010 the teaching changed back to say that it will be within 2 overlapping lifetimes, so it will be interesting to see if this can be used to try to turn around the declining growth rates.
Who the Generation Applies to
The Watchtower has swung between whether generation has a positive connotation that applies to the Anointed, or has a negative connotation applying to worldly contemporaries. It has also varied on whether the period was over an unspecified time frame or was a fixed period. In brief, the changes have been as follows:
1897 - A group of contemporary people
“Other uses of this Greek word (genea) prove that it is not used with the significance of race, but in reference to people living contemporaneously…. In other words, the signs mentioned will occur within a generation – epoch in the close of the age.” Studies in the Scriptures Vol 4 pp.602,603
1927 - The anointed
”The irresistible conclusion therefore is that Jesus referred to the new creation [the anointed] when he said: This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled. This then would be a strong indication that some members of the new creation will be on the earth at the time of Armageddon.” Watchtower 1927 Feb 15 p.62
1951 - A fixed period of time from 1914 applied to worldly people
“The actual meaning of these words is, beyond question, that which takes a generation in the ordinary sense, as at Mark 8:12 and Acts 13:36, or for those who are living at the given period. So it was on this generation that the accumulated judgments were to fall. (Matt. 23:36) This therefore means that from 1914 a generation shall not pass till all is fulfilled, and amidst a great time of trouble.” Watchtower 1951 Jul 1 p.404
1995 - A group of contemporary worldly people
“Jesus was not departing from his established use of the term this generation, which he consistently applied to the contemporary masses with their blind guides who together made up the Jewish nation. … Jesus refers principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics.” Watchtower 1995 Nov 1 pp.14,20
2008 - The anointed
“As a class, these anointed ones make up the modern-day “generation” of contemporaries that will not pass away “until all these things occur.” This suggests that some who are Christ’s anointed brothers will still be alive on earth when the foretold great tribulation begins.” Watchtower 2008 Feb 15 p.24
2010 - A fixed period from 1914 applied to the anointed
“He evidently meant that the lives of the anointed who were on hand when the sign began to become evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation.” Watchtower 2010 April 15 p.10
In what follows, each of these explanations is presented in more detail.
Russell applied the generation to mankind in general – “people living contemporaneously” (Studies Vol IV p.602) He had a two way bet, explaining that the start year for the generation may have been 1780, extending for a period of 100 years to 1880, with the fulfilling of all the signs. He then went on to say it may instead refer to the 36 ½ year period from 1878 to 1914.
“A “generation” might be reckoned as equivalent to a century (practically the present limit) or one hundred and twenty years, Moses’ lifetime and the Scripture limit. (Gen. 6:3.) Reckoning a hundred years from 1780, the date of the first sign, the limit would reach to 1880 Or, since the Master said, “When ye shall see all these things,” and since “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven,” and the budding fig tree, and the gathering of “the elect” are counted among the signs, it would not be inconsistent to reckon the “generation” from 1878 to 1914–36 1/2 years— about the average of human life today.” Studies in the Scriptures – The Day of Vengeance 1897 ed. pp.604, 605
The world did not end as expected in 1914 so Russell’s concept of the generation proved false. For more than a decade Watchtower publications were silent as to whom the generation applied
In 1927, Rutherford changed the application of the generation from mankind in general to the Anointed. Rather than a short period of time, it incorporated the entire period from the time of Jesus till Armageddon, in excess of 1900 years.
“The irresistible conclusion therefore is that Jesus referred to the new creation [the anointed] when he said: This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled. This then would be a strong indication that some members of the new creation will be on the earth at the time of Armageddon.” Watchtower 1927 Feb 15 p.62
In 1951, during the time of Knorr, application of the generation reverted from the anointed back to worldly people upon whom judgement would fall. The starting point of the generation now became 1914.
“He shows the beginning of this time and how the troubles increase, and mentions some of the sorrows to fall on the world, during the time of trouble. The length of time is indicated by him when he said, “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” (Matt. 24:34) The actual meaning of these words is, beyond question, that which takes a “generation” in the ordinary sense, as at Mark 8:12 and Acts 13:36, or for those who are living at the given period. So it was on this generation that the accumulated judgments were to fall. (Matt. 23:36) This therefore means that from 1914 a generation shall not pass till all is fulfilled, and amidst a great time of trouble.” Watchtower 1951 Jul 1 p.404
The most important aspect of this change was that Armageddon must come within the lifetime of people alive in 1914. From 1951 to 1995 the number of years that a generation can constitute changed numerous times in an effort to make the end imminent at the time of writing. One thing remained constant; some people born prior to 1914 would live through Armageddon, never to die.
To end around 1951: 37 year generation
In order to make it appear that in 1951 Armageddon was about to occur, the length of time for a generation was said to be 36 ½ years (37 years). With 1914 as the start date this indicated the end was due in 1951, the time of writing of the new generation concept.
“By keeping the people ignorant they led them into having Jesus killed on a torture stake at Calvary. Thirty-seven years later this willfully cultivated ignorance led to its fatal consequences, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem with an enormous loss of human lives, just as Jesus had predicted, and the breaking up of the Jewish nation till this day. And now in this “time of the end” the revived nation of Israel with capital at the modern city of Jerusalem chooses to go on in the steps of its forefathers …” Watchtower 1950 Sep 1 p.277
“Counting from the end of the “appointed times of the nations” in 1914, we are 37 years into the “time of the end” of this world. (Luke 21:24, Dan. 12:4) During these crucial years Jehovah’s witnesses have sought shelter and strength in him, and they can confess for themselves that he is a “well-proved help in trouble”. If it were not for this, they would not be here today nor increasing in numbers. But we are entering the most serious and trialsome years of this “time of the end”. The final conflict of Armageddon draws near.” Watchtower 1951 Feb 15 p.179
To end 1960’s – 70 Year Generation
After 1951 drew to a close without incidence a generation was extended to be possibly up to 70 or 80 years.
“The Bible does speak of a man’s days as being threescore and ten or fourscore years; but it assigns no specific number of years to a generation.-Ps. 90:10. Some persons living A.D. 1914 when the series of foretold events began will also be living when the series ends with Armageddon. All the events will come within the span of a generation. There are hundreds of millions of persons living now that were living in 1914, and many millions of these persons could yet live a score or more years. Just when the lives of the majority of them will be cut short by Armageddon we cannot say.” Watchtower 1952 Sep 1 pp.542-543
To coincide with 1975
In 1968 it was said that a person as young as 15 could “discern” the beginning of the time of the end. Add 70 or 80 years to a person born in 1899 and the generation was to end in the mid 1970’s.
“Some of the generation that discerned the beginning of the time of the end in 1914 will still be alive on earth to witness the end of this present wicked system of things at the battle of Armageddon.-Rev. 16:14, 16.” Watchtower 1968 May 1 p.272 (also Dec 1 p.715)
“Jesus was obviously speaking about those who were old enough to witness with understanding what took place when the ‘last days’ began. … Even if we presume that youngsters 15 years of age would be perceptive enough to realize the import of what happened in 1914, it would still make the youngest of ‘this generation’ nearly 70 years old today.” Awake! 1968 Oct 8 p.13
The Awake! 1968 October 8 also made the following assertions;
By revising the age of discernment down to 10, but excluding babies, the Watchtower led a reader to the realisation that in the 1980’s those of the generation were between “70 or 80 years old”. (Ps 80:10)
“Thus, when it comes to the application in our time, the “generation” logically would not apply to babies born during World War I. It applies to Christ’s followers and others who were able to observe that war and the other things that have occurred in fulfillment of Jesus’ composite “sign.”” Watchtower 1978 Oct 1 p.31
“As indicated by an article on page 56 of U.S. News & World Report of January 14, 1980, “If you assume that 10 is the age at which an event creates a lasting impression on a person’s memory,” then there are today more than 13 million Americans who have a “recollection of World War I.” And if the wicked system of this world survived until the turn of the century, which is highly improbable in view of world trends and the fulfillment of Bible prophecy, there would still be survivors of the World War I generation. However, the fact that their number is dwindling is one more indication that “the conclusion of the system of things” is moving fast toward its end.” Watchtower 1980 Oct 15 p.31
“In Jesus’ day, some of the disciples who heard his words, and others of his contemporaries, survived to live through the final “tribulation” on the Jewish system of things. They were the “generation” of Jesus’ time. At this writing, in the United States alone there are more than 10,000,000 persons still living who were old enough to observe “a beginning of pangs of distress” in 1914-1918. Some of these may still survive quite a number of years. Yet Jesus assures us that, before “this generation” passes away, he will come as “Son of man” to execute judgment on Satan’s system of things. (Matthew 24:8, 21, 37-39)” “Let Your Kingdom Come” (1981) p.140
Detailed information was provided to prove how quickly the remaining ones of the 1914 era would die out.
“According to available statistics, in 1980 approximately 250,000,000 of those who were alive in 1914 were still living. That generation is not yet gone. Interestingly, however, of those born in 1900 or earlier, figures published by the United Nations indicate that only an estimated 35,316,000 were still alive in 1980. So the number drops quickly as individuals reach their seventies and eighties. When considered along with all the details of Jesus’ prophetic sign, these facts strongly indicate that the end is near.” Survival into a New Earth (1984) p.28 How Long Will the Present System Last?
Christianity Today ran an article on the expectation of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the end would arrive 2nd October 1984, 70 years from Jesus enthronement.
“Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Still Hold To Their 1984 Doomsday Deadline? … The Witnesses’ Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society teaches that Jesus assumed his throne in heaven in 1914. It is a key point in Witness doctrine that at least some of those alive at that time will live to see the destruction of all the nations and most of their inhabitants. Formerly it was taught that a generation was limited to 70 years. It is debatable whether most Witnesses still hold to the 1984 deadline. … But while the cult’s public pronouncements are more cautious today, Botting says the 1984 deadline remains a powerful device in holding members in line. In recent years, large numbers of formerly inactive Witnesses have become active. Membership rolls swelled in the past year by 6.8 percent, the biggest increase since 1975.” Christianity Today 1984 Sep 21 p.66
In 1984 discernment was no longer a criteria and babies started to be included in the generation, meaning that the generation were once again between 70 and 80.
“If Jesus used “generation” in that sense and we apply it to 1914, then the babies of that generation are now 70 years old or older. And others alive in 1914 are in their 80’s or 90’s, a few even having reached a hundred. There are still many millions of that generation alive.” Watchtower 1984 May 15 p.5
In 1988 an expert was used to prove a generation is 75 years. A baby born in 1914 would be 75 in 1989, leading the reader to the conclusion that the end was imminent.
“J. A. Bengel states in his New Testament Word Studies: “The Hebrews . . . reckon seventy-five years as one generation, and the words, shall not pass away, intimate that the greater part of that generation [of Jesus’ day] indeed, but not the whole of it, should have passed away before all should be fulfilled.” This became true by the year 70 C.E. when Jerusalem was destroyed.
Likewise today, most of the generation of 1914 has passed away. However, there are still millions on earth who were born in that year or prior to it. And although their numbers are dwindling, Jesus’ words will come true, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This is yet another reason for believing that Jehovah’s thieflike day is imminent.” Awake! 1988 Apr 8 p.14
Early 2000’s – within lifespan of baby born in 1914
Eventually the generation was given no age limit; the only proviso was that some people born in 1914 would still be alive at Armageddon.
“Remember, Jesus said of those living through the last days, starting in 1914: “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” (Matthew 24:34) Yes, peace will really come within this generation but not through the nations’ efforts.” Watchtower 1991 Apr 15 p.7
In 1993, while at Bethel, I started to wonder what would happen if the end did not come before the generation had all died. I had begun to have the inkling that the Watchtower Society was not directed by God. Here was an Organization in control of billions of dollars. Would it be given back to the members once the truth had been proven untrue? No, that could not happen. The alternative would be to adjust the teachings. Maybe Jesus invisible presence would be changed to have started at the end of the 6,000 years, in 1975. Or maybe the meaning of the generation could be changed. These were vague ideas as there seemed no need for changes for at least another decade. Other people were having similar ideas. Since 607 is an incorrect date the Watchtower could use 587 B.C.E. and start the generation at 1934. Maybe a generation would include that last person to die at the age of 120. Or, maybe the generation started in 1957 when the last sign, the space race, started. The problem with all these ideas is that sooner or later a time would pass when they could once again be proved wrong.
Needless to say, despite expecting it, I was deeply affected when the teaching of a generation was changed in 1995. The Faithful and Discreet Slave had clearly seen it necessary to introduce this new teaching to prevent a mass exodus of members if the end did not appear by the early 2000’s. It was at that point that I knew that Watchtower teachings are not directed by Holy Spirit.
The 1995 teaching was simple to understand, but presented in unspecific terms to hide the controversy. Put simply, the end may arrive after every person born in 1914 has died out. The people born in 1914 form a collective generation with those born in following generations. Sometime in the future this ongoing generation will see the end. This could be tomorrow but it could also be in 200 years time. Clearly this teaching had been introduced to protect the organization from the very specific, wrong teaching of the last hundred years.
“Eager to see the end of this evil system, Jehovah’s people have at times speculated about the time when the “great tribulation” would break out, even tying this to calculations of what is the lifetime of a generation since 1914. However, we “bring a heart of wisdom in,” not by speculating about how many years or days make up a generation, but by thinking about how we “count our days” in bringing joyful praise to Jehovah. (Psalm 90:12) Rather than provide a rule for measuring time, the term “generation” as used by Jesus refers principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics. In line with the above, professor of history Robert Wohl wrote in his book The Generation of 1914: “A historical generation is not defined by its chronological limits . . . It is not a zone of dates.”
Therefore, in the final fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy today, “this generation” apparently refers to the peoples of earth who see the sign of Christ’s presence but fail to mend their ways. …
Is anything to be gained, then, by looking for dates or by speculating about the literal lifetime of a “generation”?… Does our more precise viewpoint on “this generation” mean that Armageddon is further away than we had thought? Not at all! Though we at no time have known the “day and hour,” Jehovah God has always known it, and he does not change. (Malachi 3:6) Obviously, the world is sinking further and further toward terminal ruination. The need to keep awake is more critical than it has ever been. Jehovah has revealed to us “the things that must shortly take place,” and we should respond with an absorbing sense of urgency.” Watchtower 1995 Nov 1 p.20
“In the final fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy at Matthew 24:34-39, to what does the expression “this generation” refer? Jesus apparently refers to the peoples on earth who see the sign of Christ’s presence but fail to mend their ways.” Watchtower 1995 Dec 15 p.30
Rather than saying that Jehovah’s Organization or the Governing Body incorrectly promoted a wrong teaching, the 1995 Watchtower states ‘people’ made the false assumption. This allows the reader to assume that the followers misunderstood or wrongly speculated, shifting blame from the leaders that promoted the teaching. Also the term ‘speculated’ is an understatement, a more honest term would be ‘strongly emphasised’ that ‘millions now living will never die”. A third incorrect statement is that it is a ‘more precise viewpoint’. It was the opposite. It had been precisely stated that people born before 1914 would never die, now it is vaguely implied that this generation could last even hundreds of years.
Even the masthead of the Awake! changed with this new teaching. Until 1995, it said: “This magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 pass away.”
This was changed in November 1995 to: “This magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world that is about to replace the present wicked, lawless system of things.”
Further clarification of the new doctrine appeared in 1997.
“In that statement, Peter was clearly not being precise as to any fixed age or length of time, nor was he tying the “generation” to any certain date. He did not say that people should get saved from the generation that was born in the same year Jesus was or the generation that was born in 29 C.E. Peter was speaking about the unbelieving Jews of that period-some perhaps being rather young, others being older-who had been exposed to Jesus’ teaching, had seen or heard of his miracles, and had not accepted him as Messiah.
It must be acknowledged that we have not always taken Jesus’ words in that sense. There is a tendency for imperfect humans to want to be specific about the date when the end will come. Recall that even the apostles sought more specifics, asking: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”-Acts 1:6.
So the recent information in The Watchtower about “this generation” did not change our understanding of what occurred in 1914. But it did give us a clearer grasp of Jesus’ use of the term “generation,” helping us to see that his usage was no basis for calculating-counting from 1914-how close to the end we are.” Watchtower 1997 Jun 1 p.28
The 1995 change was significant, as the generation teaching allowed “this generation” to extend for an unlimited period of time. The generation was still applied to worldly people, however, the time constraints were removed, so that a generation included people alive in 1914, and anyone born after 1914, up until the end came. Basically, the end could drag on indefinitely. The change was a result of necessity, but taking away a definitive time frame took away any sense of urgency and so had a detrimental affect on the growth of the organisation.
The concept was senseless, as it removed any meaning from Matthew 24:34. If “generation” refers to people of an ongoing period of time, there was no point saying “this generation will by no means pass away”.
This was the first change of consequence for many Witnesses active in 1995. It prompted some to question the ability and right for the Organization to dogmatically direct their steps, concluding that these changes signify Watchtower teachings do not result from God’s direction. For many years prior to 1995 the global growth rate of publishers was around 6%. Within the next 3 years it had dropped to 2% per annum. The growth rate of educated countries has been even more deeply affected. In 1991, 24 countries had zero or negative growth; in 2005 this had risen to over 50 countries. Whereas 30 years ago every 1,500 hours of witnessing resulted in one extra publisher, by 2000 it took over 5,000 hours. (See Watchtower Statistics)
For over 70 years, the Watchtower has claimed that all 144,000 Anointed rulers were chosen prior to 1935, at which time the calling was closed.
“Logically, the calling of the little flock would draw to a close when the number was nearing completion, and the evidence is that the general gathering of these specially blessed ones ended in 1935.” Watchtower 1995 Feb 15 p.19
“Hence especially after 1966 it was believed that the heavenly calling ceased in 1935. Thereafter, any called to the heavenly hope were believed to be replacements for anointed Christians who had proved unfaithful.” Watchtower 2007 May 1 pp.30-31
In 2007, the 1935 teaching was changed with a simple admission:
“Thus it appears that we can not set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.” Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.31
Subtle as it may appear, this is of significance, as it was to pave the way for yet another generation doctrinal change in 2008.
“Previously, this journal has explained that in the first century, “this generation” mentioned at Matthew 24:34 meant “the contemporaneous generation of unbelieving Jews.”* That explanation seemed reasonable because all other recorded uses that Jesus made of the term “generation” had a negative connotation, and in most cases, Jesus used a negative adjective, such as “wicked,” to describe the generation. (Matt. 12:39; 17: 17; Mark 8:38) Thus, it was felt that in the modern-day fulfillment, Jesus was referring to the wicked “generation” of unbelievers who would see both the features that would characterize “the conclusion of the system of things” (syn-te’lei-a) and the system’s end (te’/os).
“It is true that when Jesus used the word “generation” negatively, he was speaking to or about the wicked people of his day. But was that necessarily true of his statement recorded at Matthew 24:34? Recall that four of Jesus’ disciples had approached him “privately.” (Matt. 24:3) Since Jesus did not use negative qualifiers when speaking to them about “this generation,” the apostles would no doubt have understood that they and their fellow disciples were to be part of the “generation” that would not pass away “until all these things [would] occur.”
“On the other hand, Christ’s faithful anointed brothers, the modern-day John class, have recognized this sign as if it were a flash of lightning and have understood its true meaning. As a class, these anointed ones make up the modern-day “generation” of contemporaries that will not pass away “until all these things occur.”* This suggests that some who are Christ’s anointed brothers will still be alive on earth when the foretold great tribulation begins.” Watchtower 2008 Feb 15 pp.23-24
The generation was no longer said to refer to the unbelievers, but to Anointed believers. However, this does not bring Armageddon any closer. Since it was said that the calling of heavenly ones may not have closed, and with no suggestion for when this may occur, there was no limit to when “this generation” will die out.
Interestingly, Raymond Franz showed that Schroeder had proposed applying the generation solely to the Anointed in the 1970’s.
“The leadership had made numerous adjustments and now had few remaining options. There was the 1957 starting date for “this generation” proposed by members Schroeder, Klein and Suiter, but that seemed an unlikely choice. There was Albert Schroeder’s idea of applying the phrase to the “anointed” class (an idea that had been floating around the organization for many, many years) which offered certain advantages – there are always additional persons (some fairly young) who each year decide for the first time that they are of the “anointed” class.” Crisis of Conscience p.265
With 2008 Watchtower doctrine, “generation” could no longer be used as a limiting word; it could extend infinitum; applied to the overlapping lives of contemporaries. There are a number of reasons why the view was of dubious merit.
- The New Testament applies the word generation consistently to evildoers in a negative connotation, yet the Watchtower applies this term on this specific occasion to the righteous anointed.
- Jesus statement that the generation would “by no means pass away” applied to a group that saw both his ministry and the destruction of Jerusalem. The term generation and statement that they will “by no means pass away” have becomes all but meaningless with current Watchtower doctrine.
- When Jesus made this statement there were no Anointed, as the Holy Spirit was not poured out until after his death at Pentecost 33A.D. Jesus is claimed to be applying the term “this generation” to a class that at the time of the statement did not even exist.
This understanding would no doubt result in further changes. It had long been illogical to claim that between 33 A.D. and 1935 there have only been 144,000 true Christians (76 a year), especially when considering there were over 50,000 memorial takers in 1935 alone. As the terminology referring to the 144,000 at Revelation 7:1-8 and 14:1-5 is almost entirely figurative, at some point in time it is likely the Watchtower will be forced to concede the 144,000 is not a literal number.
In similar vein, the concept that the Great Crowd started to be gathered from 1935 becomes equally irrelevant. The Great Crowd are specifically described in Watchtower theology as people that survive Armageddon (as compared to Other Sheep that include those worshippers that die prior to Armageddon).
“Jehovah did not allow the ingathering of this group to begin too soon. The “great crowd,” including many of the earliest members thereof, will survive into the “new earth”.” Survival into a New Earth p.185
It will not be long before the last one baptised in 1935 will have passed away, meaning that no one baptised in 1935 will be able to be considered part of the Great Crowd.
How many generations?
In 2010, the April 15th Watchtower introduced another change to the generation doctrine in an attempt to reignite urgency. Similar to the pre-1995 teaching of a generation being a finite period of time since 1914, now it became an “overlapping” generation that can extend two life times. This is nothing more than a definition of convenience, as the important difference of an overlap has no Scriptural basis.
The introduction of the 2010 Watchtower article explained that holy spirit is using the Slave to dispense increased light; ironic considering it is a contradictory merging of old light.
“13 Third, holy spirit is at work in bringing Bible truths to light. (Prov. 4:18) This magazine has long been used by the faithful and discreet slaveas the primary channel for dispensing increased light. (Matt. 24:45) For example, consider our understanding of those who make up this generation mentioned by Jesus. (Read Matthew 24:32-34.) To what generation did Jesus refer? The article Christs Presence What Does It Mean to You? explained that Jesus was referring, not to the wicked, but to his disciples, who were soon to be anointed with holy spirit. Jesus anointed followers, both in the first century and in our day, would be the ones who would not only see the sign but also discern its meaning that Jesus is near at the doors.
“14 What does this explanation mean to us? Although we cannot measure the exact length of this generation, we do well to keep in mind several things about the word generation: It usually refers to people of varying ages whose lives overlap during a particular time period; it is not excessively long; and it has an end. (Ex. 1:6) How, then, are we to understand Jesus words about this generation? He evidently meant that the lives of the anointed who were on hand when the sign began to become evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation. That generation had a beginning, and it surely will have an end. The fulfillment of the various features of the sign clearly indicate that the tribulation must be near. By maintaining your sense of urgency and keeping on the watch, you show that you are keeping up with advancing light and following the leadings of holy spirit.Mark 13:37.”
Watchtower 2010 Apr 15 p.10 Holy Spirits Role in the Outworking of Jehovahs Purpose
“John Barr made clear that the gathering would not continue indefinitely. He referred to Matthew 24:34, which says: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” He twice read the comment: “Jesus evidently meant that the lives of the anointed ones who were on hand when the sign began to be evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of the other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation.” We do not know the exact length of “this generation,” but it includes these two groups whose lives overlap. Even though the anointed vary in age, those in the two groups constituting the generation are contemporaries during the part of the last days. How comforting it is to know that the younger anointed contemporaries of those older anointed ones who discerned the sign when it became evident beginning in 1914 will not die off before the great tribulation starts!”
“”The sons of the kingdom” eagerly await their heavenly reward, but all of us must remain faithful, shining brightly to the end. What a privilege we have to see the collecting of the “wheat” in our time.”
Watchtower 2010 Jun 15 p.5
The following is from the outline for the 2010 District Convention discussing the latest generation teaching.
“… the “generation” referred to at Matthew 24:34 comprises of two groups of anointed Christians. The first group was on hand in 1914 when “the sign” of Christ’s presence began to be observed (Mt 24:3) The second group, made up of those who were anointed later, are for a time contemporaries of the older group; …”
2011 District Convention talk explaining overlap theory
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“We understand that in mentioning “this generation,” Jesus was referring to two groups of annointed Christians. … They were anointed with holy spirit during the time that those of the first group were still on earth. … Today, those in this second group are themselves advancing in years. Yet, Jesus’ words at Matthew 24:34 give us confidence that at least some of “this generation will by no means pass away” before seeing the start of the great tribulation.” Watchtower 2014 Jan 15 p.31
The 2014 book God’s Kingdom Rules! attempts to put a time limit on this overlapping generation by excluding from the generation any anointed after the death of the last one anointed before 1914. With a history of changing the generation teaching once any such time frame fails to be met, no doubt this caveat too will change in time.
“The generation consists of two overlapping groups of anointed ones-the first is made up of anointed ones who saw the beginning of the fulfillment of the sign in 1914 and the second, anointed ones who for a time were contemporaries of the first group. At least some of those in the second group will live to see the beginning of the coming tribulation. The two groups form one generation because their lives as anointed Christians overlapped for a time. 
 Anyone who was anointed after the death of the last of the anointed ones in the first group-that is, after those who witnessed the “beginning of pangs of distress” in 1914-would not be part of “this generation.”-Matt.24:8.”
Since the Watchtower holds to a first fulfilment of this Scripture in the first century, it has created 3 groups – first century Christians, the 1914 anointed and the overlapping anointed alive today. The concept of an overlap is nonsense. Since there was no overlap for the first century group there is no basis that there would be today.
The Watchtower tries to make the overlap concept appear valid by comparing Jesus’ words with the Old Testament example of Joseph. This is stretching the point, and few would disagree that if I talk about “my generation” it means the time I lived in. Of course, there is an overlap as some of my generation will die before I die, and some people will be born during the time I am alive, but my generation does not include a time long after everyone born the year I was born have died. After every single person born prior to 1914 has died, that generation no longer exists.
The overlap generation amounts to a complete revocation of the 1995 teaching, as once more it sets a time frame, and no longer included the wicked, but rather the anointed. It is an attempt to bring back the urgency of the pre-1995 teaching, but without setting any definable end date by which to be proven incorrect. The assumption is encouraged that the end will be shortly, within in the life of an anointed that was a contemporary of an anointed alive in 1914. If Armageddon does not arrive in that timeframe, it can then be extended to an anointed who knew an anointed who knew an anointed alive in 1914 – serial overlapping.
After so many revisions to this doctrine, it is farcical to claim this latest change is “advancing light” and “leadings of holy spirit.” Anyone who was deceived into thinking the 1995 explanation was truth would do well to ask themselves if they can really trust that the 2010 incarnation is any less the rantings of men.
The Watchtower generally admits a generation is a short period of time. For example, Insight on the Scriptures explains:
“A generation commonly refers to all persons who were born about the same time. (Ex 1:6; Mt 11:16). Associated with this is the meaning “contemporaries”.” Insight on the Scriptures – Vol 1 p.917
This is also the common meaning in English.
Random House Dictionary
1. the entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time: the postwar generation.
2. the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
Up until introducing the 2010 concept that overlapping lifespans constitute a single generation, the Watchtower has shown that overlapping lifespans are separate generations.
“Three or even four generations may be living at the same time, their lives overlapping. (Ps. 78:4; 145:4)” Watchtower 1952 Sep 1 p.542
“The Israelites were well received in Egypt in the days of Jacob’s son Joseph. The Egyptians later subjected them to brutal slave labor, but true to God’s promise, within a period of four overlapping generations from the time they entered Egypt, these descendants of Abraham were liberated from Egyptian bondage.” Watchtower 2004 Jan 15 p.5
The 2010 position of a multi-century overlapping generation has only been drawn upon to manipulate its interpretation of Matthew 24.
The Watchtower uses Hebrew Scriptural parallels in an attempt to justify its different generation stances, but to understand what Jesus meant by the generation a reader should look at what the Greek word “genea” meant to the author of Matthew. Strong’s Concordance gives the following for genea:
- fathered, birth, nativity
- that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
- the several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
- metaph. a group of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character
1) esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation
- the whole multitude of men living at the same time
- an age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied be each successive generation), a space of 30 – 33 years
Throughout Matthew, definitions 2a (successive members of a genealogy) and 3 (the whole multitude of men living at the same time) are used.
Matthew 1:17 “So all the generations from Abraham to David [are] fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon [are] fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ [are] fourteen generations.”
Matthew 23:36 “Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.”
The context of Matthew 24 shows Jesus was saying the group of people living around 33 A.D. would be alive at 70 A.D. It is dubious to think Jesus had a second fulfilment for our time, and completely unsupported to say the generation will last so long it requires an overlap.
“If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the “last days” in 1914, Jesus foretold: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” Awake! 1969 May 22 p.15 – Click here for scan
A generation is generally regarded to be a group of people that live together at the same time, or about 30 years – the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. When Jesus made his statement regarding the generation, he meant the group that saw the signs would see the destruction of Jerusalem. The Governing Body has misapplied this statement, setting false expectations for many generations of Watchtower followers.
I was born in 1969 and during my life as a Witness was led to believe that I would never die. The generation teaching proved that I was unlikely to ever leave school and it was impossible that I would grow old. During primary school I prayed that the end would be fulfilled so that I would not have to go to high school. Later in my teens, I would sun bake with my cousins smeared in Johnson’s Baby Oil, laughing that we didn’t have to worry about skin cancer; we would never get that old.
Witnesses are encouraged to keep a short term focus and for over 100 years Witnesses have been discouraged from having children, getting married and going to University. The Watchtower 1938 November 1 p.324 advised not to have children because the end was so near. Most of these followers have since passed away without the joy of rearing children and grandchildren.
I was condemned by a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses for doing a university accounting degree in the late 1980’s, because “the end is so close and in the new system we will need builders, not accountants.” This short-sightedness has been encouraged by changing the generation and end teachings in the late 1800’s, the early 1900’s, the 1920’s, the 1940’s, the 1950’s, the 1960’s, the 1970’s and the 1980’s.
By any logical definition, the 1914 generation is all but gone. This means either the generation teaching does not have a secondary fulfilment for our day, the Watchtower doctrine about 1914 is wrong, or they are wrong on both counts. As 1914 is the fundamental doctrine of the Watchtower, it does not bide well for the Watchtower’s future interpretations. The Governing Body has alleviated proof its generation doctrine is wrong by removing any fixed time frame. But with the year 1914 quickly fading into obscure irrelevance, one must wonder when this core doctrine too will be discarded.
Originally published June 2005, last update July 2014
Paul Grundy 2005 – 2014