Who are the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Over the past century and a half, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have become one of the most significant cults in the world. As of 2019, an estimated 8.7 million people adhere to the teaching and practice of this false religion worldwide.1
When did it begin?
In the late 1870s, Charles Taze Russell—a Restoration movement minister—began publishing his heretical doctrine in a periodical titled Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. Russell grew up in a religious home, attending both Presbyterian and Congregational churches. As a teenager, however, he started questioning several essential Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and eternal punishment. Having been a follower of the Adventist movement, an umbrella term for those influenced by nineteenth-century American preacher William Miller and his false prediction of Christ’s return in 1843, Russell insisted that Christ returned in nonvisible form in 1874. When his prediction that Christians would be resurrected in 1878 failed, Russell distanced himself from the Adventist movement. Russell started his own publishing company in 1881 called the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which published as many as sixteen million copies of his books and pamphlets by the time of his death in 1916.
Who are the key figures?
In 1916, J.F. Rutherford was elected the second president of the organization. Though considerably less prolific as a writer than Russell, Rutherford took on the role as the unofficial infallible prophet for the organization. When Rutherford died in 1942, N.H. Knorr became the president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among the most famous Jehovah’s Witness of our day are the late musician Prince and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. Michael Jackson and Dwight D. Eisenhower also grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What are the main beliefs?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are most well known for denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of eternal punishment. Their false teaching on these subjects can be summarized under two main headings:
- The Father alone is God. The Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to the sole deity of the Father on the basis that Jehovah (a frequently used English rendering of God’s covenant name in Hebrew) is represented as the only God in Scripture. Denying classical Trinitarian doctrine, the Jehovah’s Witnesses adamantly reject the idea that there are three persons in the Godhead. In their attack on historic Christian doctrine, the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that a belief in three persons in the Godhead is equivalent to a belief in three gods.
Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the triune God, they teach that Jesus is a created being—specifically, He is the archangel Michael. Although they refer to Him as “the only begotten of God,” Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that Jesus is the first of the created beings of God. They teach that Jesus agreed to be placed in the womb of the Virgin Mary in order to be a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus’ death propitiated the eternal wrath of God, since they do not believe in the deity of Jesus or in eternal punishment.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Holy Spirit is not a person, let alone God. Rather, the Spirit is merely an emanating and active force of God.
- No eternal punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that there is no eternal torment for unbelievers in the afterlife. In Jehovah’s Witness theology, the body and the soul are inseparable, so the soul dies with the body. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that physical death was the only thing Adam suffered when he fell in the garden. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is no immortal soul.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4 are 144,000 faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses who will go to heaven. The remainder of faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses will be resurrected and live forever on earth. Those who die without hearing of Christ or knowing God’s will in the Bible will be raised in the resurrection of the unrighteous and will have a second chance to believe in the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and obey God and to be included in the final inheritance of eternal life on earth. Anyone who does not attain to the eternal inheritance by failing to believe and obey the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses will be annihilated.
Why do people believe this form of false teaching?
The Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that Scripture is the only source of divine revelation. This leads to the faulty conclusion that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are simply teaching the Bible. However, the organization also publishes and distributes millions of copies of The Watchtower magazine, which they treat as the infallible interpreter of Scripture, as well as other publications. Proselytizing is the central feature of their religion; the organization equips and sends all its members out into the world to make converts. The Jehovah’s Witnesses offer people a moralistic, monotheistic religion. Presenting a picture of morally clean families, good health, and upright behavior, the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to false teaching that can feed a self-righteous spirit. Additionally, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a multiethnic organization, a characteristic that is often lacking in other religious groups.
How does it hold up against biblical Christianity?
- The triune God is the true and living God. Scripture consistently teaches that there are three persons in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The Father is God (Isa. 63:16; Luke 11:2; John 4:23). The Son is God (John 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Col. 1:15–16; Heb. 1:3). The Holy Spirit is also God (Acts 5:3–4). The three persons of the Godhead are not three gods but three persons subsisting in the one God.
The Son of God is fully God. Jesus reveals Himself to be Jehovah (Ex. 3:14; John 8:58). Jesus claimed equality with the Father in the Godhead (John 8:58; 10:30). The Bible teaches that Jesus is God in every way that God is defined as God (Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:5–6). Scripture reveals that “all things” were made through the Son (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is impossible for “all things” to be created by Him if He Himself was created. Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit is a communicative divine person, the personal agent of supernatural revelation. David said, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me” (2 Sam. 23:2). Jesus affirmed the Spirit’s personal inspiration of Scripture when He cited Psalm 110, saying, “David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord” (Matt. 22:43). The writer of Hebrews appealed to the Spirit’s divine authorship of Psalm 95 when he wrote, “As the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice’” (Heb. 3:7). The Apostle Peter acknowledged the deity of the Spirit when he confronted Ananias, saying: “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? . . . You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3–4).
The Nicene Creed (the early Christian statement of faith from AD 325) declares what Scripture teaches about the deity of Christ in relationship to the Trinity over against all early church heresies on the Trinity.
- Eternal death is the destination of the wicked. Scripture teaches that God created man in His image with an immortal soul (Gen. 1:26; Eccl. 12:5–7). God’s judgment against man’s sin in the garden was eternal death. By his disobedience, Adam brought spiritual, physical, and eternal death on himself and his natural-born descendants (Rom. 5:12–21). Scripture uses the adjective “eternal” to qualify the nature of the punishment due to man for his sin (Jer. 20:11; Matt. 18:8; 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 6–7; see also Dan. 12:2; Mark 9:44). The idea that God annihilates the souls of men is contrary to the biblical teaching on the eternal justice of God. God the Son became incarnate to propitiate (satisfy) the eternal wrath of God for His people by His death on the cross. Jesus came to give eternal life to all those who trust Him for salvation (John 3:15–18). All sinners deserve eternal death—everlasting punishment—but Jesus rescues from this end everyone who trusts in Him alone.
How can I share the gospel with those who hold to this false teaching?
Focus on what the Bible teaches about the deity of Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own highly inaccurate translation of Scripture—the New World Translation—that empties God’s Word of its many references to the deity of Christ. However, there are still several passages in it that are translated properly that attribute deity to the Son. You can take a Jehovah’s Witness to Isaiah 9:6 in the New World Translation and point out that the name of the promised Messiah is “Mighty God.” The New World Translation has also sought to change the wording of Hebrews 1, since it clearly attributes deity to Christ. However, in Hebrews 1:8, God the Father addresses the Son by the name Jehovah, citing Psalm 102:25–26. This is biblical evidence that Jesus is Jehovah. Finally, although the Jehovah’s Witnesses have attempted to strip from the Bible its many clear references to Jesus’ receiving worship from His disciples, Luke 24:52 is one passage they cannot avoid. Only God is to be worshiped. Jesus received worship; therefore, Jesus is God. However, while every English translation of Scripture rightly reads “they worshiped him” in Luke 24:52, the New World Translation reads “they did obeisance to him.”
Focus on the scriptural teaching about the just punishment for sin. Scripture teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Physical death leads to eternal death for those under the wrath and curse of God. Jesus and the Apostles taught that the just penalty for sin is “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46; see also 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7). God is infinite and eternal; therefore, one sin against the infinite and eternal God deserves infinite and eternal punishment. Coming to terms with what our sin deserves is essential to seeing our need for the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Conversely, if there is no eternal punishment, men should simply desire to live their lives for possessions and pleasure (1 Cor. 15:32).
This article is part of the Field Guide on False Teaching collection.