Anything but traditional, Jehovah's Witnesses hold a variety of distinctive beliefs.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and handed out door to door by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Awake! magazine and its companion, The Watchtower, are the two most distributed publications in the world.1 The tagline of Awake!—“Millions now living will never die!”—conveyed one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fundamental (though now abandoned) beliefs that the end of the world is something that can be predicted and understood.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a people committed to rationality.2 They treat the Bible almost as a code to unravel and then follow. This commitment has led to the development of many doctrines that set this unique religious group apart from orthodox Christianity and the broader culture.
Key to understanding the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the concept of theocracy. Theocracy is an approach to government in which state officials claim to receive direct and immediate divine guidance.
The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has unquestioned power. Members reveal new truths, such as revisions to previous claims about the end of the world, and have organizational power, such as choosing elders in local congregations.3 Former members have compared the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ theocratic approach to the authoritarian regime of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.4 Independent thinking is prohibited, and strict behavioral codes are enforced.5
2. The Trinity
The key teaching that separates the Jehovah’s Witnesses from orthodox Christianity is the Trinity. Orthodox Christians believe that although one being, God is made up of three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jehovah’s Witnesses point out that the word “trinity” cannot be found in the Bible. They link the concept instead to pagan doctrines, such as the Hindu Trimurti.6 They do not think of Jesus as God, and they teach that the Holy Spirit is simply God’s "active force."7
3. God’s Name
The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was taken as the moniker for the religious group in 1931. It draws on Isaiah 43:10, which reads: “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord.” The word “Jehovah” is a transliteration of the Hebrew name for God, YHWH. In the Witnesses’ translation of the Bible (the New World Translation of the Scriptures), the word “Jehovah” is inserted into the New Testament 237 times.8
Witnesses have a different view of Jesus than that of Orthodox Christians. They insist on a strict monotheism. In the New World Translation of the Bible, they change specific texts to reflect this belief. For instance, the Gospel of John refers to Jesus in its opening lines by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”9 This has been altered to read, “the Word was a god.”10
So who is Jesus, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses? They believe that though he “might be called a ‘mighty god’ . . . he [is] not Almighty God—Jehovah himself.”11 Instead, he was the first of Jehovah’s creations, and subsequently created everything else. Before coming to earth, Jesus was the Archangel Michael. He was executed on a torture stake, not crucified. Rather than experiencing a bodily resurrection, Jesus was raised as a spirit, becoming the Archangel Michael again.12 Finally, Jesus returned to earth in an invisible form in the year 1914.13
Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps most famous for their predictions of Armageddon. The teaching rests on their belief that each of the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis represents seven thousand years. The battle of Armageddon will take place in the 6,000th year. All governments will be destroyed, the majority of mankind will die, and those left will reign with Jesus for the final one thousand years.14 For years, Witnesses used the threat of imminent death in the proselytizing efforts.
Witnesses have officially predicted Armageddon on three separate occasions: 1914, 1925, and 1975. In 1995, they backed off of specific predictions and “began to teach that the time of the kingdom cannot be predicted by any human measure.”15
6. The Millennium
After Armageddon comes Jesus’ millennial reign. Those who survived the battle—along with those believers who are resurrected from previous generations—will live on earth under Jesus’ reign for one thousand years. This is what Witnesses are referring to when they state, “Millions now living will never die!”16
A discomfort with traditional teachings about hell was a large part of what inspired Charles Taze Russell to establish the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses teach that non-adherents are annihilated and completely cease to exist. Those who survive Armageddon are divided into a two-class structure: the Anointed Class—144,000 people who will reign eternally with Jesus—and the “great crowd,” who will continue to live on earth during the millennial reign.17
Aside from their teachings about cosmology and theology, Jehovah’s Witnesses are also known for a number of unique practices that separate them from the culture at large. For example, Witnesses do not celebrate any holidays, including birthdays. They note that many of the celebrations that are a part of the Christian calendar have their roots in pagan festivals.18
Jehovah’s Witnesses are officially neutral in all political matters, which has had wide-ranging practical consequences. In the United States and other countries, they refuse to make statements pledging allegiance or to participate in military service. This has resulted in numerous court cases. During World War II, Witnesses were sent to German concentration camps for their refusal to participate.19
10. Blood Transfusions
One of the most controversial practices of the religion is the prohibition of blood transfusions. Citing biblical condemnations of eating certain meats that contain blood, Witnesses refuse to receive transfusions, “even if considered medically necessary.”20 Still today, hospital ethics committees and national courts continue to question the rights of a parent “to refuse transfusions for their children or of a pregnant woman to refuse a transfusion that might save her life.”21
Clarity at a Cost
In their attempts to make life and spirituality completely rational, Jehovah’s Witnesses have developed a complex set of beliefs and practices that are sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend. But this has not slowed them down.
Andrew Holden, the author of major sociological studies on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, notes that as “paradoxical as it may seem, the Witnesses are flourishing because of the so-called freedom of the modern world. Liberty and freedom produce questioning and uncertainty, and from this prospective, the Witnesses’ version of truth is the answer to modern doubt.”22