Friday, February 26, 2010

LDS Lesson #11

So today I met with the missionaries outside the local pizza place where we'd had our previous meeting. Upon reflection, I had decided that the place was too noisy inside for me to hear clearly enough what was going on, so I decided that future meetings would be in secluded spots on campus. Rather than try to give directions by phone - reception is notoriously bad around here, and I got disconnected several times during even a brief phone conversation with Demophon - we decided to just meet there and walk over. I had extra free time because all classes were cancelled on the grounds of ridiculously inclement weather. And so I found myself at the shop early to grab a bit of food as a 'light' lunch (actually, it was vastly more filling than I'd imagined), and eventually I glimpsed Demophon approaching with his new partner. Sthenelos, you see, had been transferred just a day or so after I met him; and so I now met a Californian elder (born in Minnesota, though) whom I'll call "Kallinos". We took the trek back to campus, despite the utterly horrid wintery weather, and I showed them to the chapel. (They initially thought that the local art gallery, which used to be a church, was the building in question.) After leading them to the relatively comfortable lounge in the chapel basement and exchanging some chit-chat, one of the missionaries opened with a brief word of prayer.

So first I got to know Kallinos a bit better; he has a rather low and quiet voice, so it wasn't always easy to make out what he was saying. One thing I found is that he really likes to read... a lot. (As he remarked at one point, "I devour books.") Which, of course, really connected to me--I'm the exact same way. He's done mostly fiction, but since going on his mission he's realized how valuable some religious non-fiction could be, so he's excited to have time after his mission to really dive into that. On his mission, he's been mostly restricted to reading the Standard Works, although he did recently read Stephen R. Covey's Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. He said, though, that at times he does tire of reading just the scriptures; he compared it to being made to eat chocolate cake all day, every day--good stuff, but maybe some less rich stuff for contrast would be nice. (Of course, being allergic to chocolate and not at all a fan of its flavor or its aroma, which itself can make me feel ill, I suppose some of that was lost on me.) He's an English major, and he hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in the field and teach at the university level.

Kallinos and Demophon agreed, however, that if they read too much theology--even LDS theology--while on their mission, they might get distracted from the main purpose of their calling, which is to "teach repentance". Demophon then checked if missionaries had ever talked to me about things like the law of tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and a couple other topics; I said yes, since I've been as far through the missionary discussions as a non-convert can get. Kallinos asked if I "understand it all pretty well"; my answer was, "I think so". I am quite sure that I grasp the meaning of what the missionaries provided, but I'm usually relatively hesitant to say that I understand something, because I don't want to be presumptuous or to exclude the possibility (however distant it may be) that I'm completely off-base. Blame my personality type:

A major concern for INTPs is the haunting sense of impending failure. They spend considerable time second-guessing themselves. The open-endedness (from Perceiving) conjoined with the need for competence (NT) is expressed in a sense that one's conclusion may well be met by an equally plausible alternative solution, and that, after all, one may very well overlooked some critical bit of data.
Anyway, they asked if I've "applied what they [Creon and Orestes] taught [me]", and I said yes, because I do strive to live by many of the same general principles as Latter-day Saints do (even if I don't consider tithing a law and don't necessarily consider the Word of Wisdom to always be the required option, or anything like that). They then asked if I've been reading and praying, and if I've come to church; I said that I have been continuing to work through the Book of Mormon and pray for wisdom and enlightenment from God, but that I haven't been to an LDS church yet, but would like to. We're going to see about arranging for me to visit the nearest one on 14 March 2010.

They then asked me "how [my] prayers have been going", which is always a perplexing question for me. I view prayer as communication with God, communication with a real being who listens; asking how prayer has been going is like asking how a phone conversation has been going. It's not necessarily a nonsensical question, but a peculiar one nonetheless. At any rate, I said that regarding the whole Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith thing, I "haven't heard an answer back yet", but I intend to continue persevering in prayer and entrusting myself to God. They then asked me "what [I] usually pray for when [I] pray", and I answered, "I pray that God would grant me wisdom, that he would enlighten my mind, that he would move in me to accomplish his will, whatsoe'er it may be." One of the missionaries asked me whether I "get into specifics at all", and I replied that "I also pray that he would, you know, reveal to me whether or not the Book of Mormon is true, whether or not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church, whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God".

Demophon then decided to ask me more about "the feelings that [I] receive from reading the Book of Mormon", to describe them. Another unexpected question, and one that made me pause to think. In light of my pause, one of the missionaries said he's pretty sure it couldn't have just been emptiness, there had to be some feeling there. Anyway, I said that when I read the Book of Mormon, I generally have a positive feeling, but nothing "out of the ordinary"; I also said that "I do really enjoy reading the Book of Mormon, I learn a lot from it". In retrospect I'm not entirely sure how true that is; I'd probably enjoy the Book of Mormon a whole lot more if it weren't written in an affected archaic style to imitate the King James Version, which I also don't especially enjoy reading, to be perfectly honest. Demophon then asked "what it is [I'm] expecting", and I said that all I would expect from God as an answer to my prayer, assuming that he does wish to communicate to me that the Book of Mormon is true, would be "really anything that would let me know that it is God revealing it to me. It doesn't have to be, you know, exceptionally flashy or anything like that, just simply the 'still, small voice' of God saying, 'This is me, here I am.'" The missionaries seemed to accept that answer.

The missionaries then wanted to go over a few passages of Scripture with me, starting with Galatians 5:22-25. I read them aloud for us, and then Demophon wanted to turn to Doctrine and Covenants 46:7-26. We spent quite a bit of time on this one, going a few verses and then talking about it for a bit. (I was actually somewhat surprised at how fluently I was able to read my parts, since I'm not terribly used to the rhythm and style of the wording.) The section from the D&C was basically about the distribution of spiritual gifts, and I admit that spiritual gifts has been a topic of at least some interest for me lately.

(Perhaps I should interject an anecdote. As I may have mentioned, my roommate Childeric is heavily into the charismatic movement. Very... very heavily into the charismatic movement, in what I consider to be a perhaps unhealthy degree. I have no grievance against charismatic believers, save when there's an obviously problematic excess or imbalance. And my roommate really is a great guy, and very passionate for the Lord. Still, I've heard him speak in tongues roughly 10,000% more than I've heard him discuss the gospel, which has been more on the order of... well, I'm not actually sure if he'd have an answer besides "spiritual gifts" if I asked him what the gospel is. Whenever I say that the center of my faith is Christ crucified and risen from the dead, he actually seems to get a bit uncomfortable and try to shift the topic back to the gifts of healing, prophecy, and personal revelation in the contemporary Christian life. He generally intersperses this with remarks about how much more spiritually enlightened he is than anyone else around here. Anyway, he runs a Sunday morning worship service on campus this semester, and this past Sunday I attended. There were only a few people there. During the service, the speaker's wife said that someone present needed to be healed from back pain; I suffer from chronic back pain, probably largely due to scoliosis and all-around terrible joints, so I raised my hand. (It caught me especially off-guard because on the way to the service, I'd thought to myself that the one thing that would convince me beyond doubt of my roommate's radical position was if he and his friends were to heal my back...) Before I knew it, there was plenty of laying on of hands and praying in tongues - often, I'll add, in ways that are in apparent defiance of Paul's admonitions on the subject - for my healing. Because I'd been caught off-guard, I succeeded in persuading myself that I was healed, which actually did remove the pain for perhaps a day or so, by and large; now that the euphoria has worn off, of course, my back is no better than it was a month ago, although I certainly did strive to follow through humbly and boldly on every bit of advice I was given. The power of suggestion is, I suppose, a powerful thing indeed. A fascinating lesson nonetheless.)

So anyway, we discussed that passage for a while, not really saying much; neither of the missionaries seemed to be totally sure what the phrase "differences of administration" (D&C 46:15) was supposed to mean. The student manual that Latter-day Saints use quoted Sidney B. Sperry's Doctrine and Covenants Compendium (p. 196) as saying on the topic:

What is meant by differences of administration? By referring to 1 Corinthians 12:5, where the Apostle Paul is speaking about the same thing, we may get a suitable answer. Apparently by 'differences of administration' is meant the distinctive varieties of service and ministration by which things are accomplished in the Church. The Lord seems to be saying (vs. 15) that while there are diversities of services and ministers or agents, such as Apostles, High Priests, Seventies, and the like in the Church, they all depend on the same Lord and Savior, who is the head of the whole Church. One who has the gift by the Holy Ghost to know differences of administration is one who discerns correctly the services and agencies by which the Lord works. (quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, p. 100)
Anyway, after Kallinos told a story about his father and how this gift has played a role in his life, Demophon remarked that this is something important that they wanted to discuss with me because "when [I] do become a member of the Church, [I] will be asked to do things, but when we serve [...] our Heavenly Father, we're blessed and we grow". So from there we continued to work through that portion of the Doctrine and Covenants. I believe that at one point the missionaries asked me what knowledge has done in my life, and I explained that it helps me approach the Scriptures more richly and take from them a greater wealth of practical guidance for living, as well as beholding the truth itself more clearly and thus coming to understand God better. Something like that, anyway. They also asked if I've seen it impact those around me; after I said yes, Kallinos noted that the reason God gives us gifts is for the benefit of those around us. Demophon then referred to 1 Kings 3:11-14, talking about the value of wisdom for Solomon.

Kallinos eventually came to ask me, "How much have you looked into why we do things?" A bit perplexed by the question, I asked him to clarify the relevant universe of discourse. (In layman's terms, I asked him whether he was using "we" as people in general, "we" as believers in God, "we" as LDS missionaries, or whatever.) Upon finding agreement to "humans in general", I answered that a lot of things can motivate us, and that while it's often selfishness, but also by the desire to serve God and others. As I said, "we're motivated by how we mentally rank things", how we prioritize our worlds. The highest form of motivation, of course, is do act sheerly from love of God, which expands also to love of others for the sake of the God who is Love. Kallinos then expounded on the Book of Mormon definition of "charity" as the "pure love of Christ", noting that because we have this love of Christ through love for Christ, we do everything for the sake of the other, and only incidentally for ourselves.

When you show God that you want to do everything you do for the benefit of his children, then he's going to help you do it. If you do it for a selfish cause, like-- there are even people within our Church that try to live the gospel of Jesus Christ for themselves, for the benefit of, you know, receiving their own salvation, receiving their own eternal reward or whatever it is. But the highest form of motivation comes not for serving yourself but for serving others.
He then turned to Moroni 7:5-11 and read it, and then discussed it briefly. Commenting on the statement that praying apart from "real intent" is counted by God as an evil, Kallinos said:

It's like, it says that it is accounted evil unto a man if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart. If you are praying, if you're trying to communicate your desires to God, and it's not with real intent of heart if your motivation isn't sincere, it's not real, then it's counted nothing towards you. You need to make sure that your motivations are pure, that they're-- that they're what God wants. [...] It's like, um, Cain and Abel, you know? They both offered sacrifices. Cain offered the fruit of the ground; Abel offered the firstlings of his flock. It was in the motivation... Cain offered it because it was just what he was required to give, you know, just the fruit of the ground. Abel did it because he wanted to, and so he gave his best, you know? Everything good comes from God, and everything evil comes from the devil. If what we do is good, then it's gonna be inspired of God; if what we do is bad, it's the devil. A little bit where I'm trying to go with this is that we need to make sure that our motivations are pure if we're gonna get what we're asking for from God. If you want an answer to your prayers, you need to make sure that your motivations are pure. It can't be for intellectual gain, it can't be for some selfish desire or anything like that, it's got to be because you want to follow Christ and you want to know that this comes from Christ.
(My cellphone rang while he was talking, but I ignored it. It was odd because I'm not used to people desiring to contact me.) He then went on to talk about how in his own life before he went on his mission, the gospel was basically just "a lot of mental Tinkertoys" for him, not any real devotion. He did things because he was told to, but not because of any deep desire; he would, on the other hand, "look into the deep doctrines of the faith because they were cool and fun and interesting", but "it really wasn't heartfelt, it really wasn't meaningful to me, it had no practical application to my life". Only when his heart was "softened" and he "got down on [his] knees and prayed", "really pleading with the Lord if it is true", did God give him the affirmative answer he sought. Then, of course, came the relatively standard testimony-bearing to the effect that he knew that the experience he had (he described it as "a baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost") could only come from God, and couldn't possibly have arisen from within himself. (I can't speak for others, but I generally don't have a positive reaction to testimony-bearing of this sort, since it largely serves as a discussion stopper. Basically, I don't regard it as one of the more effective ways for a Latter-day Saint to reach a person like me, I'm in good company. I deem it particularly ineffective insofar as it reminds me that many Latter-day Saints hold a view of religious epistemology that I generally consider wrongheaded.) Then came a brief conversation that might not have been the most judicious on their part:

Kallinos: Um, I don't know, you say you've been praying. But have you really prayed? Like, have you really gotten on your knees, and poured out your whole soul into your prayer, and pled with the Lord that he would answer your prayer?

JB: I would say yes. And I shall do so again.

Kallinos: Okay.

At this point, Kallinos wanted to turn to Moroni 7:45-48, which naturally we did. It struck me as a pretty clear borrowing from Paul. Demophon said that this passage amply illustrates "what truly motivates us". After some of Demophon's pontificating on the value of having an other-centered live, Kallinos added that he didn't come on his mission for himself, but rather to benefit others like me.

Demophon at last asked whether or not I had any questions. Now, I had thought a little bit about some of the questions I'd previously posed to Creon and Orestes, but because Demophon and Kallinos had taken far more time for their own things than I had anticipated, I really didn't want to launch into a deep discussion of any sort in the time remaining, and I definitely didn't want things to run over the scheduled time limit, since I had other things to do today. For that reason, after contemplating it for a little bit, I said that I'd think more about my questions and try asking them next time. Demophon asked whether the questions were scriptural, theological, or historical, and I answered that I had some of all three; he said that they'd definitely be willing to do any homework they needed to in order to answer the questions. I think that Kallinos is the one who chimed in with the comment, "I do know that all questions can be answered with the power of the Holy Ghost." Well, then, I may just have to hold them to that. Demophon started saying something about "if [I] come to accept that the Book of Mormon is true", but caught himself very quickly and changed the "if" to "when". They're very confident.

Anyway, we wrapped things up in prayer, and we parted in the chapel narthex; they went out one set of doors, and I went out the other direction. By way of reflection, I will say that I don't enjoy meeting with these missionaries nearly as much as I did with the ones I knew in Greece. Creon and Orestes were more... perhaps laid-back. I suppose I just don't feel the same actual sense of warmth from Demophon and Kallinos. But, time will tell, I suppose.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Special Talk

This will require a fair bit of background information. Over a year ago, I persuaded some friends of mine to join me in founding a campus organization at my college. We called it 'Mars Hill' after the site in Athens where Paul interacted with the philosophers of his day, and I can do no better to explain what we do than to quote the purpose statement from our constitution in full:
Mars Hill shall sponsor events, including but not limited to formal debates, open discussions, panel discussions, lectures, media screenings, and joint discussions/events with other groups, with the goal(s) of benefiting the campus community and furthering the educational mission of [this college] by: (i) edifying and enriching the Christian community, (ii) advancing Christian outreach, (iii) fostering civil and intellectually honest interfaith dialogue, and (iv) promoting critical engagement and exploration concerning both the fundamental questions of religion and culturally relevant topics.
We've had a number of excellent events in the past, dealing with subjects as diverse as religion and politics, abortion, violence in the media, Judaism, Eucharistic theology, euthanasia, eschatology, Protestantism and Catholicism, and many others; in the works are events dealing with religion and drug use, religion and homosexuality, and the theology of hymns about the crucifixion and the resurrection. I think it's safe to say that we're very active and keep ourselves quite busy. Tonight, however, we had something somewhat peculiar. I invited Uriah to deliver a talk on campus and then answer questions; here's the flyer that I'd made for the event (edited to protect the guilty; as usual, I prefer to assign pseudonyms wherever possible):

Tonight at around 7:25 PM, as I was sitting in the chapel sanctuary, Uriah arrived with a friend, whom I'll call 'Eitan'. Eitan actually has the same surname as I do, and his late brother had virtually the same name as I. I originally met Eitan at the 2009 district convention, though I didn't mention him in my account of it because we didn't have any highly significant conversations then. After I prepared the room, I showed them to Chapel 101, one of the few true lecture halls on campus. They set out at the side of the stage a number of publications they'd brought for those who might want them. I then spent the next half hour or so chatting with them on and off, mostly with Eitan; Uriah mentioned that a number of Jehovah's Witnesses must have noticed the fliers, because he'd received two phone calls about it already.

Eventually, the room actually started filling up, perhaps because several professors had agreed to give extra credit to students for attending and writing a brief reflection on it. By our estimates, there were perhaps 35-40 people there, including a total of four Jehovah's Witnesses. The third, whom I'll call 'Liron', was from the local Kingdom Hall; Uriah had the foresight to invite him in case any students were so interested in what they heard that they'd have interest in getting more plugged in with the local JW community. The fourth Jehovah's Witness was a fellow who actually works at the college in the athletic department. Watching the clock on the back wall and the somewhat steady flow of more and more people into the lecture hall (including my mother and my former associate pastor, as well as one professor and several friends of mine), I stood at the lectern to thank everyone for having come, to introduce the event (and, naturally, give a plug or two for Mars Hill), and to introduce Uriah. After some opening applause by the audience, Uriah then delivered what I considered to be a quite well-prepared talk about what Jehovah's Witnesses believe and why:

Thank you very much. I had to come out on a night like this to find out from [JB] that I'm cool; I didn't know that before. What I'd like to do is explain to you what Jehovah's Witnesses believe. Most people do not agree with us. I'm going to explain to you what we believe and give you enough scriptures hopefully that you can understand why we believe it. First thing I'd like to do is quote a couple misconceptions. We are not affiliated with the Mormons. We are not affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventists. In our door-to-door work, people often confuse us with those groups. We have nothing whatsoever to do with them. We are Jehovah's Witnesses [...] a religion, by itself, with its own organization. We also are a group that has a lot of conflicting falsehoods rumored about it. Two of the ones that I usually get a kick out of is, people believe that we are a secret closed society because we meet in buildings without windows; that way you can't see what we're doing in there. The other rumor is that we go door-to-door trying to invite everybody to those meetings. Both can't be true; either we're secret, or we're not. We are not secret. The reason for no windows in the building usually disappoints people when they find out the reason: the insurance is cheaper, heating and air conditioning is cheaper. It's as simple as that. Not a spiritual reason at all.

So, who are Jehovah's Witnesses? If you look around your area, you won't be able to pick them out unless they're knocking on your door or going to a kingdom hall, because they're just normal people, imperfect people, trying their very best to sincerely be obedient to their belief in God and Jesus Christ. In accord with 2 Timothy 3:16, they believe that all Scripture is inspired by God, and they believe all Scripture. They don't feel that parts of it have become antiquated or don't apply anymore; they view the entire Bible. Their beliefs are found in their understanding of the Bible. Every one of the beliefs that Jehovah's Witnesses has [sic], they can go to a scripture and tell you why they believe in it. Whether you agree with that or not is absolutely up to you; each person has their own choice to make. But that is what they use as a basis, the Bible itself.

So, why the name "Jehovah's Witnesses"? Again, let me tell you what we're not. We are not "Millennial Dawnists", we are not "No-Hellers", and we are not "Russellites". That was a falsehood that was spread in the beginning of the twentieth century by uninformed opposers. They felt that, just like followers of Menno Simon are named Mennonites, followers of Martin Luther are named Lutherans, because Charles Russell was the first president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, they felt that we must be Russellites--and that has never been true. The organization has always had a group of men, spirit-appointed men, who operated it and run it; it was never led by a man. It has always been led by the organization's understanding of the Bible. We do not have any man-made historical traditions that we go by. Like I said earlier, everything that we believe - whether you agree with us or not - we base on our understanding of the Bible. Prior to 1931, Jehovah's Witnesses were known as International Bible Students. Even those in the organization referred to themselves as that. It was in 1931 that we adopted the name "Jehovah's Witnesses". As God himself used the term, it's in Isaiah chapter 43 and verse 10... It says, "'YOU are my witnesses', is the utterance of Jehovah, 'even my servant whom I have chosen, in order that YOU may know and have faith in me.'" Now the Tetragrammaton signifying God's name, Jehovah, appeared over seven thousand times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some scholars prefer the pronunciation "Yahweh". Either one is correct, we have no absolute sure way of saying it is "Jehovah" or "Yahweh", but both are acceptable in the English language. Now, because it appeared over seven thousand times, we believe - since the Scriptures are inspired by God - that it is important to God for us to know his name. One of the examples can be found in the book of Psalms, chapter 83... Psalms 83, and verse 18--this, this is true also with the older King James Version, it reads the same way--it says that "people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over the earth". And Jesus himself expressed many times the importance of using the divine name. So following Jesus' example, Jehovah's Witnesses use it too. Now, as for the "Witness" part, as an organization we acknowledge the responsibility of Isaiah 43:10--also as individuals. Each one of us that gets baptized as one of Jehovah's peoples-- people-- we acknowledge that responsibility that we take on to witness. The thought behind Isaiah 43:10 and the assignment that Jesus Christ gave all Christians at Matthew 28:19-20 tells us that we must go out and witness. It is our belief that Jehovah God and Jesus Christ require us to witness.

So how many of us are there? We talk to people sometimes and they think that [...] a little cult here or there [...] small town. I brought with me some numbers, we just got our new Yearbook so these are pretty fresh as of last year [...] how many of us there are. Worldwide, there are 7,046,419 Jehovah's Witnesses. That number changed since the book came out a couple weeks ago, we'll find out why in a minute here. There's 1,154,275 Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States alone, and we have, as an organization we have 105,296 congregations worldwide. We are in 236 lands where we actively preach and publish. We print in over 450 different languages; we have 392 languages available to you on our public website--which, by the way, is a very useful tool for information or research, there's search engines on there of questions and answers that are available to anybody; that proper address is There's a lot of different ones out there, that is the official one, that is the one that our organization puts out. Now there's an interesting fact with all these numbers that we've been talking about that I came across. Every year, as an organization, Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide observe the sacrifice that Jesus Christ provided for all mankind. We call this the memorial of the last supper. Now Jesus instructed his followers to do this at Luke 22:19. And every year at this memorial, there's many more people than there are Jehovah's Witnesses. By "many more", I mean more than twice as many. Like I said, there's seven-million-some-odd Jehovah's Witnesses in the world; last year at the memorial of Jesus' sacrifice, there was 18,168,323 people. Again, more than twice as many Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide.

A little bit about our activity. Most people know us as the people who come and knock on their doors, and more than likely they're not usually happy to see us. I'll tell you how some of this is shaping up and how it works: last year we spent 1,557,788,344 hours conducting Bible studies and preaching door-to-door. Last year, every month, for the monthly average we had 7,619,270 Bible studies conducted each month. Now that's not that many Bible studies, that's an average for each month; a Bible study with us lasts six months to a year depending on a person's schedule and how much time they have to devote to it. And it boils down-- and I'll just go on with some more numbers-- last year, 276,233 people worldwide were baptized as Jehovah's Witnesses. That's an average of 756 a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

One of the other things people are concerned about--you see it especially in our area of Pennsylvania, people are a little conservative and concerned--how is the work financed? Where does the money come from? At our meetings, no collections are taken. There's contribution boxes on the back wall; people donate as their heart leads them to. There's no record of who gave what. No one will ever know. That's between you and God, what you gave. We also collect voluntary donations from people at their doors when we drop off magazines or books. People understand that printing isn't free--the magazines are free, but the printing of it is not free--so some people enjoy donating that-- to us that way. Those are the only two sources we have other than the organization itself and its members supporting it. It's always enough. We just spent millions of dollars already in Haiti in relief funds. And the money is always there.

One of the hot questions people usually want to know about Jehovah's Witnesses is, do they go door-to-door trying to convert people to their religion? The answer is no, we do not, not directly. What we do do is try to fulfill the assignment that Jesus gave us. I mentioned Matthew 28 before, I'm gonna read that. Matthew chapter 28, verses 19 and 20... when Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door, this is what they're doing... this is a command from Jesus; he said, "Go therefore and make disciples of people of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded YOU. And, look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things." What we do is try to teach people the Bible. We want people to be able to make informed decisions. The decision is always theirs. We can't force anyone to do anything. Jesus didn't force people, and we certainly wouldn't try. Now, we also realize, because most people--and I should say, all people--have been given the gift of free choice, free will, by God himself, we can't take that away. We know that most people will not be interested in what the Bible has to say; they will not be interested in what we have to say to them. They will certainly not be interested in learning about Jehovah God. Now, why can I say that? Why would I say such a negative thing about something we spend so much time doing? Based on a scripture that Jesus himself said, in Matthew chapter 7... Matthew chapter 7, verses 13 and 14... it says, "Go in to the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it." So again, even though we understand that most people will not be interested, we do not take that as a reason to excuse us from our responsibility to try and help people and to teach them.

Do Jehovah's Witnesses have their own Bible? As an organization, until 1955, Jehovah's Witnesses used the King James Version. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society did appoint a translation committee who remain unanimous [sic], and they translated the Bible. So they translated it. We do print the Bible, millions of them every year. But we did not write the Bible, and we did not change the Bible. Now this can be proven by looking at two of our basic thoughts, our basic beliefs. In 2 Timothy, chapter 3, verses 16 and 17... and there it says, "All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work." The point I want you to remember from that is, where it starts off and says, "All Scripture is inspired of God". Now we take that thought and go back to Revelation, chapter 22, verses 18 and 19... it's very clear, it says, "I am bearing witness to everyone that hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll. If anyone makes an addition to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this scroll, and if anyone takes anything away from the words of this scroll, this prophecy, I will take his portion away from the trees of life out of the holy city"... These are two fair warnings given by God himself. He says, "Do not add anything to it; do not take anything away from it." In Timothy we read that "inspired by God"; there's no way to improve on something that's inspired by God. So even though as an organization we print millions of Bibles a year, we have not changed it. We are not permitted to change it. Now, most of Jehovah's Witnesses do use several translations in their personal study, and The Watchtower magazine itself frequently quotes from different-- different versions. Most of us use the New World Translation, which is printed by the Watchtower Society. We like this translation because we believe it is accurate; it has restored Jehovah's name to places where it originally belonged, appeared; and it is written in understandable modern language. It's not only easier for us to understand; when you're going to a Bible lesson with someone who may or may not be all that familiar with the Bible, it's easy for them to understand too.

Now, what do we believe? I'm going to have to throw a lot of scriptures at you, because that's what we believe. I want to teach-- I want to show you that each thing that we believe has a scripture-- at least a scripture that it is based on. I thought I'd start at the beginning, in Genesis, Genesis chapter 1 and verse 27... there it simply says, "And God proceeded to create the man in his image. In God's image he created him; male and female he created them." Jehovah's Witnesses believe that God created people, created humans, and put them on the earth. We do not believe in evolution, we do not believe in the Big Bang Theory, we simply believe what the Bible tells us about creation. Genesis chapter 3 and verse 3... and it's where Eve is answering the serpent, it says, "As for eating of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'YOU must not eat from it, no, YOU must not touch it, that YOU do not die.'" So we believe that everlasting life was available to human beings, and that hinged on our-- or their-- obedience to God. Now, most of us know that they didn't follow through with that. So, we go back to Romans chapter 5... Romans chapter 5 and verse 12 explains the situation that we're in today, and it says, "That is why, just as through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned". We believe that the sin and the death that we are all dealing with today, many of the problems, spread from Adam's disobedience, from the imperfection that we've all inherited from him, because Adam chose to live outside of Jehovah's power and guidance.

Now, we also don't believe that it's permanent. We believe that it was not God's will for us to live seventy or eighty years, get sick, and die. We believe that he had an antidote to that problem that-- that Adam caused for us. We believe that Jehovah [made this sure (?)] when he made a promise to Abraham in Genesis chapter 22... Genesis, chapter 22, and you read verses 17 and 18... where God's saying-- saying to Abraham, "I shall surely bless you, and I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the grains of sand that are on the seashore; and your seed will take possession of the gate of his enemies. And by means of your seed all nations of the earth will certainly bless themselves due to the fact that you have listened to my name [sic--should be 'voice']." The fact that this was-- this promise was fulfilled by God is recorded for us in Matthew chapter 1 and verses 1 through 16, where we can read that Jesus did descend from Ad-- from Abraham's family. Now, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ came to earth to die for their sins. We get that from Matthew chapter 20 and verse 28... we read that the reason Jesus came to earth, like he himself says in that verse, is to declare the kingdom of God and to give his soul a ransom for many, all human-- human beings. Now, if we look at 1 Corinthians chapter 15... 1 Corinthians chapter 15 and verse 22... there it tells us, "For just as in Adam all are dying, so also in the Christ all will be made alive." We believe that the perfect creation with free will, Adam, chose to disobey God and put all his descendants into the problem that we're in. We also believe that the perfect man Jesus was faithful to God and will buy us out of that problem. We believe that faith in Jesus Christ is our only opportunity to be reconciled with God.

Now, do Jehovah's Witnesses believe that only they will benefit from Jesus' sacrifice? Absolutely not. We do not believe that. Romans 6:23 tells us that "the wage of sin is death". Those who have died have paid for their sins. The wage of sin was death. Jesus' sacrifice will buy their lives back for them. Jesus Christ himself explained this in John chapter 5 when he said that "all those in memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out". And the apostle Paul expressed his belief in this in Acts 24 and verse 15, where Paul says, "And I have this hope toward God, which hope these men themselves also entertain, that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous."

So, resurrected to where? Jesus, remember, referred to all those in the memorial tombs. So let's keep that thought in mind when we get a point here from Ecclesiastes... Ecclesiastes chapter 9, I'm going to read verses 5 and 10. It says, "For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten." And verse 10: "All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol"--or the grave--"the place to which you are going." The principles stated in those verses are-- are a sampling of the principles that Jehovah's Witnesses use that we do not believe in a burning, tormenting hell. They believe that if someone was not conscious of anything, they had no knowledge, no wisdom, they didn't know what was going on around them, it would be impossible to torture them.

The Bible, though, does teach us of two different resurrections. We can read about that again in the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 15 and verse 35. There it says, "Nevertheless, someone will say, 'How are the dead to be raised up? Yes, with what sort of body are they coming?'" Let's go on to verse 40. It says, "And there are heavenly bodies, and there are earthly bodies; but the glory of the heavenly bodies is one sort, and that of the earthly bodies is a different sort." The two different kinds of resurrection. I believe that this is one of the beliefs that Jehovah's Witnesses-- that Jehovah's Witnesses have, that 144,000 will be resurrected to heaven. Now, that's the one resurrection. That belief is based on Revelation chapter 15-- Revelation chapter 14, I'm sorry, 14:1-3. There it said that "I saw, and, look! the Lamb standing upon the Mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand having his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound out of heaven as the sound of many waters and as the sound of loud thunder; and the sound that I heard was as of singers who accompany themselves on the harp playing on their harps, and they are singing as if a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one was able to learn master the song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who have been bought from the earth." That's a resurrection, they've been bought from the earth. Now, let's go back to Revelation chapter 5... and I'll read verses 9 and 10. You remember we dropped off where they were singing the new song. It says, "And they sing a new song, saying: 'You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slaughtered and with your blood you bought persons for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and you made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are to rule as kings over the earth." We believe that if these hundred and forty-four thousand are going to rule as kings over the earth, it only makes sense there has to be someone on earth to rule over. To see who that is, we can go back to the book of Psalms... Psalms chapter 37 and verse 29, and it says, "The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it." So Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the earth will be populated forever by humans, flesh-and-blood humans. When we stop for a minute and think about it, isn't that what God had in mind in the first place? Human beings living on an earthly paradise ruled by heaven. This fits in perfectly with another belief we have that that's found in Ezekiel... Ezekiel chapter 18, verse 4. It says, "Look, all the souls--to me they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son--to me they belong." Now here's the point: it says, "The soul that is sinning--it itself will die." We do not believe that the teaching of the immortal soul is a Bible teaching. Again, we believe that God is capable of correcting what Satan has caused, and can have the earthly paradise living and inhabited by flesh-and-blood human beings.

We believe that Jesus Christ is God's Son, but not God himself. Again, our belief is based on some scriptures, and these are scriptures that Jesus himself explained. In the book of John, chapter 8 and verse 42... John chapter 8 and verse 42, Jesus is speaking, it says, "Jesus said to them, 'If God were YOUR Father, YOU would love me, for from God I came forth and am here. Neither have I come of my own initiative at all, but that One that sent me forth." So Jesus is saying he didn't do according to his will, but according to his God's will. And if we go back a couple of pages to chapter 14 and verse 28, again it's Jesus speaking, he says, "YOU heard that I said to YOU, I am going away, and I am coming back to YOU. If YOU loved me, YOU would rejoice that I am going my way to the Father, for the Father is greater than I am." As an organization, Jehovah's Witnesses understand the relationship between Jehovah God and Jesus Christ as that of a father and son, an obedient son, rather than a Godhead or a Trinity.

We also believe that the war described in Revelation chapter 12 occurred in 1914. We read that, in Revelation 12--it fits in very nicely with what we now know as recorded history. Revelation 12, I'm going to read 7, 8, and 12. "And war broke out in heaven, Michael and his angels battled with the dragon, and the dragon and its angels battled but it did not prevail, neither was there found a place for them any longer in heaven. So down the great dragon was hurled, the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, who is misleading the entire inhabited earth; he was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him." And drop down to 12, "On this account be glad, YOU heavens and YOU who reside in them! Woe for the earth and for the sea, because the devil has come down to YOU, having great anger, knowing he has a short period of time." Now this year, this year that he was cast down to heaven [sic] according to our beliefs, is 1914. Happens to be the same year as the very first world war. When it says he was misleading the entire earth, that's the first time the entire earth went into battle. Now, many non-Witness politicians, economists, and historians all agree--they've written many books on the subject--that something monumental, something global, happened in 1914. They don't agree with our belief, of course, but they believe that something happened that mankind changed and has never been able to achieve the peace they had prior to 1914. If you're interested in the timeline of those events, I brought some books along here--about fifteen of them--that explain to you, it's about page 215, I think, there's a real nice diagram of the timeline that you can do the math yourself. [Note: the diagram is on page 216 of What Does the Bible Really Teach?]

Now, we believe that we are currently living in this short period of time where Satan is so frantic. We believe that we can see this stream of course by the fulfillment of such prophecies as 2 Timothy chapter 3, verses 1-4. It says, "But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of the-- for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderous, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God." We take a scripture like that and fit it with Matthew chapter 24... unfortunately you don't have to do a whole lot of research on this because it's been in the news, if you've seen it on the paper and on television lately... Matthew 24:7, Jesus again is speaking, he says, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another." According to the numbers provided by the United Nations, during this talk, the about 35 minutes we're going to spend together, 87 people will starve to death worldwide. That's a food shortage. The world wars--there's always been little skirmishes and battles and wars here and there in different countries; it's never been global before. The earthquake, I don't have to tell you about; you've been reading about that yourselves.

In short, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that God is willing and able to correct all the damage that Satan has caused on earth and to mankind. We believe that he has empowered his Son, Jesus Christ, to restore the earth back to the paradise conditions that it originally had, and also to restore obedient humans back to the everlasting life and the perfect health that they originally had available to them. We believe that the not-too-distant future is described for all of us in Revelation 21, verse 4, where it says, "And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away." Now, we accept this assignment, we know that most people will not be able-- will not be willing to listen to us. But again, as an organization we don't take that as an excuse why we don't do it. We feel, according to our beliefs, that we have the obligation to help people find that narrow road that Jesus talked about before it is too late. Thank you.

After Uriah had finished and the audience had given him another round of applause for coming to talk to us, it was time for the question-and-answer session, and I did not foresee the passion. It was very intense, very probing, and very non-stop. The first question came from a student near the back whom I didn't know, and that question was, If Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in altering the Bible, why do they print their own version of it? Uriah answered that the purpose of the New World Translation is just to offer a translation in relatively modern language, because it's difficult to have Bible studies with someone when you have to introduce them not only to biblical concepts, but also to the archaic language of, e.g., the King James Version. The second came from a friend of mine and fellow member of Mars Hill. She asked what the difference was, then, between the New World Translation and the New International Version, if both are just translations into contemporary language. Uriah's answer surprised me a bit. He said that most Jehovah's Witnesses use several different translations in their personal study, not just the New World Translation, and that The Watchtower probably quotes from the NIV several times per year. In his own opinion, other than the whole 'divine name' issue, the NIV is a pretty good translation, and that "people can learn what God wants out of the NIV".

The third exchange was initiated by a red-headed bloke in the center section (I'll be calling him 'Sweyn'), and he'd prove to pose a number of very penetrating questions to Uriah. Sweyn asked who Jehovah's Witnesses think that Jesus is, and how they read John 1:1. So Uriah read that verse from the New World Translation (which renders it in a radically different and rather unsatisfactory way, compared to many of the more mainstream translations), and his interlocutor queried why the "a" appears in the New World Translation, but not in other translations. Uriah said that he doesn't know much about the details because he finds grammar boring, but said that in one of the publications he'd brought, we could find information about "the Hebrew [sic] manuscripts" and how they support the JW rendering. (In point of fact, the JW grammatical case for their interpretation of John 1:1c ignores the context, both historical and literary, and also is seriously undermined by a number of the sources they cite in favor of it. The fact of the matter is that while the standard English translation isn't ideal because it's potentially open to a confused modalistic view that the Greek text excludes, the NWT's rendering is far worse because it explicitly perverts the text to make it more amenable to an Arian or polytheistic view that the Greek text also excludes, when viewed in proper context.)

Still in the same discussion with Sweyn, Uriah then made the mistake, perhaps, of raising Colossians 1:15 and noting that only Jesus could have been the ideal sacrifice, because whereas "God himself can't die", Jesus is the highest created being through whom all else was created, and so was the most precious created thing. Sweyn then asked how Jesus could have created all things if he himself were created. Uriah could have shed more light on the matter by reading the NWT's rendering of the verse, which inserts the word "other" several times (illicitly, I think); Uriah instead just repeated several times that it isn't that hard to understand. Finally, Sweyn explained that in Jewish culture, 'firstborn' had certain connotations of rights and privileges; Uriah said that he agreed entirely but didn't see it as undercutting the JW interpretation of the verse--though it does, I think, undercut the rationale for the JW interpretation of the verse, which implicitly glosses "firstborn" as "first-created".

Finally, we moved on to the fourth exchange with a question posed by my best friend Daniel. To summarize his question, he noted that the Society seems to have a rather hierarchical, top-down structure, and that interpretation is done by the upper echelons and then transmitted authoritatively (and in authoritarian fashion) to the rank-and-file membership; however, a group can also have a ground-up way of working, such that the rank-and-file search the scriptures, discuss it, and then seek to come to an agreement such that the leadership in effect echoes what the group as a whole has already reached as a consensus. The question, then, was why Jehovah's Witnesses choose the first model over the second. Uriah's reply was that their organization did follow the first model, as the example of the Allegheny Bible Students shows, and he also said that if someone doesn't believe what the Society is teaching, then that person shouldn't join.

The fifth exchange... alright, so it's time to introduce another character, an older fellow whom I'll call 'Aethelbald' (if I'm going to use Hebrew names for Jehovah's Witnesses and Greek names for Latter-day Saints, why not Anglo-Saxon and other European pseudonyms for everybody else?) who used to take a number of classes on campus; he was a fellow student of mine in one of my courses last year, and he really enjoys coming to Mars Hill events, so when he saw a flier for this one in the community, he knew he'd enjoy it. However, he sometimes has a tendency to ask lots and lots and lots and lots of questions. Often they're good questions. But in this sort of venue, it typically poses problems when it comes to budgeting time. So his initial question was whether the New World Translation (which seemed to be a focal point of interest here) was rendered from the original languages; Uriah answered that yes, it was a word-for-word translation into twentieth-century English grammar. Aethelbald then changed tacks somewhat and asked, why 144,000? Uriah replied that that's what Revelation says and so he believes it, and when Daniel jumped in to help clarify Aethelbald's somewhat muddled question, Uriah explained that there is everlasting life on earth for the 144,000.

The sixth exchange - I don't remember which student posed it - concerned the issue of what the difference between Jehovah's Witnesses and non-Jehovah's Witnesses in the new world will be, and why we should study and labor now if everyone gets saved. (In the talk, Uriah had come across with somewhat universalist tendencies.) Uriah answered that while only the 144,000 go to heaven, everyone else has a chance to be resurrected to the paradise earth, where they can potentially remain if they are obedient. He said that if someone perishes in the impending Armageddon, however, there's no cleansing of sin for them - because, after all, if God personally destroys someone at that final conflict, it wouldn't make much sense for him to immediately resurrect them and give them a second change, or otherwise what would the purpose of their destruction be? When asked about the fate of people like serial killers and Hitler, Uriah replied that it's a matter for God's judgment, not ours, as to whether or not perhaps they'll be saved in the end.

Aethelbald had the next exchange, again, and asked about people who lived before Jesus or who never heard. Uriah stressed in reply that we're all born imperfect, and that they'd get their chance to hear the message in the resurrection to paradise earth.

The next two questions came from a fellow in my political philosophy class (I'll call him 'Mieszko') and Aethelbald yet again. The first bloke turned his attention to the issue of 1914, noting that there had been a number of previous global skirmishes, and that most Christians tie Revelation 12 (the war in heaven) to Genesis; in short, they see it as protological rather than eschatological. Aethelbald added that many countries abstained from World War I, and so if by "world war" we mean a war that involved the entirety of the world, World War I actually doesn't qualify. Uriah's answer was essentially along the line that historians agree that World War I was in fact a true world war of a sort different than anything that had come before it, and that all countries were affected somehow, in some capacity or another. (The same, of course, could be said for a number of earlier wars, perhaps, given the wide sense of "affect" that Uriah used; but he didn't deal with that.)

Finally I had a chance to pose a question, and so I asked Uriah to explain disfellowshipping to us. I figured that since it hadn't come up yet, it might be good for the audience to be aware of that process and its perils. Uriah explained that if someone sins within the congregation, they're not disfellowshipped immediately for that, but rather are given a number of opportunities to repent; only those who refuse to repent throughout this process will be disfellowshipped, which entails no social contact with Jehovah's Witnesses other than an annual visit from the elders. He explained two purposes for disfellowshipping. The first was to cut unrepentant sinners off in the hopes of using the pain of that process to goad them into repentance. (In short, he essentially conceded that disfellowshipping is a way of using extreme social pressures as a means for maintaining control over dissidents and enforcing conformity.) The second is to protect the congregation from contaminated by bad association. Thus, the first function is for the good of the person disfellowshipped, and the second function is for the good of everyone else.

The eleventh question was posed by another friend and member of Mars Hill; I'll call her 'Ealhswith'. Noting that Uriah had said that in JW interpretation, Satan wasn't cast down to earth until 1914, Ealhswith asked what the explanation was for evil prior to that. He answered that while Satan wasn't confined to earth prior to 1914, he was involved and had free rein to travel between heaven and earth up until that time, as is seen in the prologue of the Book of Job. In 1914, however, Jesus was enthroned as king in heaven and promptly cast Satan down to earth. When he was asked why Jesus wasn't enthroned as king at the resurrection, Uriah didn't really have an answer for that, to my recollection.

The twelfth issue was posed by my former associate pastor, whom I'll call 'Harthacanute'. He noted that even if the word isn't used in the Bible, the concept of the Trinity is present. Uriah of course disagreed, and cited John 17:15-26 and John 14:28. He then asked the familiar canards about Jesus praying to himself. This goes to show that Uriah hasn't been paying very good attention to what I've told him about the actual doctrine of the Trinity. Unfortunately, I may need to have the same talk with Harthacanute, because he said that yes, Jesus was praying to himself. For the information of any readers, no, the doctrine of the Trinity does not require that Jesus pray to himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is that one God exists eternally as three divine persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son; but all are capable of having relationships between them. Thus, Jesus praying is the Son praying to the Father; this is a case of God praying to God, but not of one god praying to another god, nor of one person praying to himself. There's also nothing wrong, from a Trinitarian point of view, with any of the verses that Uriah referenced. John 17 states that the goal is the unity of the Trinity to be reflected in the unity of the Church; while the sort of maximal ontological unity in the Trinity is impossible to reduplicate in the Church, the Trinity remains the model of unity for the Church in the way that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit enact all things together with total cooperation and ever-flowing love. John 14:28 asserts that the Father is of higher status than the Son (at least in the incarnation), but even eternal functional subordination is entirely compatible with eternal ontological equality. Anyone who cites John 14:28 as an anti-Trinitarian prooftext--at least without a whole lot of supporting discussion--is simply uninformed at best. Uriah, in posing these question, showed that he doesn't understand the orthodox teaching on the Trinity; unfortunately, the majority of professing orthodox Christians are in the same boat, which is a real shame and a serious blemish on Christian education in much of the contemporary church.

Aethelbald jumped in again for the thirteenth exchange, which degenerated into ridiculousness. His first question was what Jehovah's Witnesses teach about the Holy Spirit. Uriah explained that the holy spirit is "God's active force to get things done". When Aethelbald noted that the Holy Spirit is often mentioned alongside the Father and the Son, Uriah replied that the eleven apostles are also listed together in the Bible, but that this doesn't make them one being. Aethelbald then launched into a series of other questions, such as the origin of the name "Watchtower" (taken from the defenses of Jerusalem), the name "Kingdom Hall" (a hall to discuss the kingdom of God), and even why Jehovah's Witnesses build Kingdom Halls without windows. Uriah had clearly addressed this very explicitly in his talk (even though I've never seen the big deal), which shows that Aethelbald hadn't been paying attention at that point. When Uriah reiterated the explanation, Aethelbald went on to extol the virtues of having windows, such as letting light in and seeing the beauty of God's creation. Uriah pointed out that Jehovah's Witnesses do see the beauty of God's creation--when they go outside, which they do often.

The fourteenth question came from Mieszko again, who brought up an issue that I figured would come up eventually. Mieszko asked how Jehovah's Witnesses deal with things like dinosaurs and the fossil record; since Jehovah's Witnesses are very vocal anti-evolutionists, this is a pretty good question to pose. Uriah answered that Jehovah's Witnesses believe that dinosaurs and other creatures in the fossil record definitely existed, and that they did so during the 6000-year days of creation, but that we're presently in the seventh created day. The fifteenth question came from someone I don't know, and was about what Jehovah's Witnesses think of all the hoopla surrounding the year 2012. Uriah said that he's looking forward to the movie, and that's about it, because he doesn't buy into the craze. His touch of humor drew a few laughs from the crowd.

Harthacanute provided the sixteenth exchange, asking about the distinction between a disfellowshipped person and a sinner. Harthacanute explained that he's undergone the equivalent of disfellowshipping, and being shunned didn't help him at all; rather, grace did, and having people reach out to him did. Uriah said that he drove here tonight with a sinner, since we're all sinners; disfellowshipping is reserved for those who refuse to repent, which is the key issue. Uriah also said that disfellowshipping is done only after very careful consideration, and Jehovah's Witnesses are always willing to welcome back disfellowshipped people once they repent. While he himself has never been disfellowshipped, Uriah said that he knows a number of returned disfellowshipped persons who can testify that disfellowshipping "works beautifully".

I'm not totally sure who launched the seventeenth exchange, but it might've been the same fellow as the third, Sweyn. The question was what salvation is and how we're saved. Uriah said that salvation is being rectified to God and obedient to Christ, which requires having faith in him alone. When asked why someone should become one of Jehovah's Witnesses, Uriah responded that everyone should join the religion that they truly believe in. (This response could have been better; I imagine that Sweyn was asking if there would be any practical difference between being a JW or a non-JW, even assuming that Jehovah's Witnesses are correct.)

Daniel asked the eighteenth question. He noted that when dealing with biblical authority, Jehovah's Witnesses and others often appeal to biblical passages that talk about biblical authority. This being circular if used as an ultimate justification, however, Daniel wanted to know why Jehovah's Witnesses believe in the Bible, apart from what the Bible claims for itself. Uriah's reply was that no other book in the world is so well attested by prophecy fulfilled so much later than when it was given.

I posed the nineteenth question, hoping to expose some more controversial points of Jehovah's Witness doctrine, by asking what sort of body Christ had when he was raised from the dead. Since Uriah is a tad idiosyncratic here, I should've seen it coming: his answer was that Christ was raised from the dead in a physical body, as seen in the encounters that the disciples had with the risen Christ. I should note, however, that Uriah's ideas about the resurrection of Christ are in tension with the historic view of Jehovah's Witnesses. For example, they believe that "on the third day after Jesus died, his heavenly Father resurrected him back to spirit life", that "on the third day after Jesus died, Jehovah raised him back to spirit life" (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, pp. 46, 51), which appears to exclude the idea that he was intially given a physical resurrection and later either exchanged or transformed his physical body for a non-physical existence. Their founder, Charles T. Russell, notoriously went so far as to declare that Jesus' "human body was, however, supernaturally removed from the tomb; because had it remained there it would have been an insurmountable obstacle to the faith of the disciples" and that "whether [Jesus' physical body] was dissolved into gases or whether it is still preserved somewhere as the grand memorial of God's love, of Christ's obedience, and of our redemption, no one knows" (The Time is at Hand, p. 129), and he also went so far to affirm just several pages later to denounce the view that Jesus was raised in a tangible human body as being unbiblical, as reducing Jesus to an eternal servant, and as preventing him from ever seeing his Father (The Time is at Hand, p. 132)--which is, of course, ridiculous. I had a follow-up question, but I got cut off by - you guessed it - Aethelbald. He wanted to know who makes decisions among Jehovah's Witnesses, and Uriah's answer was that Jesus does, because all policies are based on the Bible and the assemblies arrive corporately at the truth.

The twenty-first question came from Ealhswith, who wanted to know what sort of holidays Jehovah's Witnesses celebrate. Uriah answered that when it comes to Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, and other things like that, Jehovah's Witnesses never participate, and that the reason for this was their clear pagan origins. Uriah also said that it never fails to amaze him that other professing Christians do celebrate those holidays, since their pagan origins are so well-documented by the newspapers every year. Many people, he said, just seem not to care, because practical considerations are more important to them than doing what God wants. (One of their complaints about Easter is that the name is of pagan extraction; but, as I mentioned to several of my friends after the event, Jehovah's Witnesses have no problem referring to the days of the week by names that dedicate those days to pagan deities; many of the early Christians did have objections to that practice.)

Sweyn jumped back in with the twenty-second question. Turning to Revelation 7:9, Sweyn said that it seemed to him that the 'great crowd' spoken of in this verse was stationed before the throne of God; but it seemed to him, opined Sweyn, that this would place the great crowd in heaven, rather than on earth, which is contrary to Jehovah's Witness teaching. Uriah said that this 'great crowd' in heaven is actually a crowd of angels, and that if Sweyn would like, Uriah could pass along a copy of Revelation--Its Grand Climax at Hand! for him through me.

I should note that what Uriah said here is most definitely not the official Jehovah's Witness understanding of that passage. Uriah was quite incorrect on that point. In fact, the very book he recommended teaches the exact opposite:

Yes, the holding back of the four winds allows for the salvation of another group besides the 144,000 members of spiritual Israel: a multi-language, international great crowd.--Revelation 7:1. (Revelation--Its Grand Climax at Hand!, p. 119)

J. F. Rutherford, who at that time took the lead in the worldwide preaching work, gave Scriptural proof that the modern-day other sheep are identical with that great crowd of Revelation 7:9. [...] How can we state so positively that the great crowd is this modern-day group of dedicated Christians who hope to live forever on God's earth? Previously, John had seen in vision the heavenly group "bought . . . for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9, 10) The great crowd have a similar origin but a different destiny. Unlike the Israel of God, their number is not predetermined. (Revelation--Its Grand Climax at Hand!, p. 122)

Aethelbald had the twenty-third question, which concerned ecumenism. Uriah answered that Jehovah's Witnesses eschew that because they believe that they have the one true religion, and so interfaith efforts would be a compromise of that belief. Finally, I had an opportunity to ask my follow-up question. I asked Uriah what sort of body he believes the risen Christ has now, and he answered that it's spiritual rather than physical; I then asked what he means by 'spiritual body', and he replied that he has no clue what exactly a spiritual body is, and that if any of us ever figure it out, he'd love to know. (Of course, Uriah could have been more forthright by also mentioning that he definitely believes that the 'body' Jesus now has is without a doubt numerically distinct from the body in which he died--which is, in my opinion, about as unbiblical a statement as could be made.)

Finally, Aethelbald had a few other questions/statements, but by this point I along with most of the crowd were rather tired of hearing them. All I have written in my notes from the evening is that "[Aethelbald] rambles more (25) . . . .". Might've been a good question or two, I'm not sure. In the meantime, Daniel and I had been quietly conferring throughout the last several questions about the need to wrap things up, and so as soon as I perceived even the slightest pause in Uriah's discussion with Aethelbald, I stood to my feet and announced the need for the official discussion to end, but also invited everyone to feel free to stay and discuss things further.

And that's how the event officially came to a close. I breathed a sigh of relief, and perhaps over half the people stayed around for a while to talk to one another about a wide range of things. A number of people went up to collect some Jehovah's Witness publications of interest, while Liron attempted to give me an impromptu lesson on why the Trinity is unbiblical (which is interesting, since I never mentioned the Trinity during the event or at any other time to him). He mostly took me to several passages in the Gospel of John and in Revelation, continually laying stress on passages that talk about worshipping only God and passages that refer to the Father as Jesus' God. I repeatedly said to him that if it were the case that Jesus were not, in fact, God, then yes, it would be idolatry to worship him. I wasn't really in the mood to correct all the many things incorrect with Liron's reasoning, but fortunately Daniel was there to engage him in discussion, allowing me to excuse myself and see some of my friends and meet a few new people. Daniel's a very smart fellow with a solid grounding in the Scriptures and a good capacity for reason, so I know that Liron was in good hands.

After bidding farewell to a number of people who had to leave, including my mother and Harthacanute (and, eventually, the Jehovah's Witnesses), and sharing with some people about upcoming Mars Hill events, I stayed to talk to a smaller group of perhaps 6-7 people for a while about some of the issues raised at the event before we all parted ways and I returned to my dormitory, with a flier from the event taped to my chest for fun.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

LDS Lesson #10

Another meeting with LDS missionaries... in America? You betcha. When I left Greece, Creon and Orestes agreed to forward my contact information onward to the mission president of my area. (Turns out to be a fairly large mission, apparently.) So after playing a fair bit of 'e-mail tag' with that guy for a while, I eventually succeeded in getting in touch with a pair of missionaries from the ward under which my college would fall. I'll be calling these guys 'Sthenelos' and 'Demophon'. (Think those are terrible choices? Deal with it.) So today I had a meeting with them at the local pizza joint. They had a dinner scheduled for after that, so all we really got was perhaps a soda or cup or water for Demophon before I got there - if I was going to be the only one eating, I can save money and just use the campus meal plan for lower quality food.

At any rate, as I walked around the building from behind to the sound of helicopters overhead, I caught a glimpse of the missionaries in the side window and smiled at them. I think they knew I must be the one they were looking for. Finally entering and sitting down, we struck up a chat with some brief introductions, and they asked how my day had been, what I study (religion, philosophy, and math - the third is a minor, not a major), why I picked religion as a field of study, etc.

The next part really caught me by surprise. Sthenelos asked me if I'd met Creon when I was in Greece, and I said that I had. He was surprised to find that Creon was one of the missionaries I'd studied with there... and I was surprised to learn that Sthenelos and Creon had been college roommates at Brigham Young University! We were all absolutely amazed at the idea that the missionaries I'd meet here back at home should have such a close connection to the ones I met in Greece - the elders of course ascribed this to divine providence. Anyway, we spent some time sharing some stories, and I filled in Sthenelos on how Creon's been doing over there, and told him that Creon had been transferred from Athens to Thessaloniki a month or so ago, and all that. Creon really is a great guy, and I could tell that I'd also get along with Sthenelos and Demophon. I agreed to help Sthenelos get in touch with Creon again.

Also, they asked where I'd met the missionaries in Greece, and I mentioned that I'd met them in Mars Hill in Athens. Demophon asked if that was a cafe of some sort (he thought he'd been to one in NYC), and I replied that no, it was where Paul preached when he was in Athens, and then Demophon felt somewhat silly. They also asked if I had been able to attend church over there, and I said that while I'd been to some functions at the LDS Church, I hadn't attended any actual 'services', though I had gone to an evangelical church in Athens. I did say that I'd like to attend one sometime, though, so we'll see if we can work that out. I won't be able to attend as soon as I'd like because I agreed to attend a service that my interesting roommate 'Childeric' is organizing on campus.

Anyway, we basically got to know each other better, and they asked how far I'd gotten in my discussions with the missionaries in Greece; they were a bit surprised to know that I'd gotten basically all the way through. They also asked what interested me in their church, which has always been a difficult question for me to answer, but I basically said that the range of opinions present there that aren't common in other Christian groups really interested me--which I think is the reason why I'm so fascinated with the field of Mormon studies; I told them the story of how I got my first copy of the Book of Mormon. Also, somewhere in all of this, the missionaries presented me with, not just a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants, but a full-scale triple combination. That's the Book of Mormon, the D&C, and the Pearl of Great Price, all in a single volume. Cool!

They also asked if I had any questions to throw at them, which kind of caught me off-guard. For some reason, when I envisioned this meeting, it never occurred to me to think of that. So I didn't have any, for once, but I said that I'd try to think about it until next time. And they also asked me whether, if I came to believe in their church and all that, if I'd be willing to be baptized; my reply was that "if God tells me it's the truth, then I'm going with it", and when asked about the First Vision, I also said that if it was indeed a real occurrence and was indeed from God, then it's undoubtedly significant. I could tell that they weren't really used to finding people who are passionately willing to act on those sorts of things; they said basically as much themselves, and said that when most people come across the First Vision, they don't seem to get what the fuss is about.

Anyway, I don't recall everything that happened at our meeting, but I do remember being asked about the atonement and explaining how grateful I am for what Christ did for us, and the missionaries essentially said several times that they were very confident that if I kept praying sincerely as they recognized that I currently am and would persist in my determination, God would reveal the truth to me. Also, I don't recall either of them explicitly bearing testimony ("I KNOW that this Church is true", etc., etc.)

The last thing I remember inside the restaurant (after setting up a next meeting) was them asking if there was anything they could do for me, and my answer was simple: "Pray for me." After that, we left, and we got to walk to the corner down the street together while chatting before we had to part ways, and I headed up to the cafeteria where I had a decent light dinner with a number of my friends from the campus gay rights group.

A Reply to Mark Hunter

On 12 February 2010, I received a comment under the Frequently Asked Questions section. The remarks were offered by Mark Hunter, a former Jehovah's Witness elder who, having converted from their group to orthodox Christianity, is now affiliated with FreeMinds and blogs on their site at Watchtower Teachings; he tells a few elements of his personal exit narrative here. I hope he posts more soon; he hasn't done so since this past August, and I enjoy reading his material. His comment here contained a number of points deserving response, and now that I have the opportunity, I'd like to offer a reply. I'll quote the entirety of his comment first:

I wonder if you really see what the problem with the Watch Tower Society actually is?

They claim to be chosen by God and that they alone speak for Him on earth. All other Christians are branded as "so called" and are slurred in Watch Tower publications as being "false" and "evil doers".

At communion everyone is encouraged to refuse the sacraments.

Jesus is reduced to a mere created messenger boy.

What I find surprising in your blog is the number of times you find their teaching unobjectionable. You also found the Memorial enjoyable.

I know you've researched Russell and Rutherford. Surely you can see the demonic influence these men were under when they came up with their "unique teachings". The Watch Tower Society is a Christ-denying, high control religious group who claims to speak for God. I'm sure you know about the lives that have been lost due to the prohibitions of vaccines, organ transplants, and blood transfusions.

Our battle isn't against flesh and blood. The Kingdom is not a matter of talk. Scoring points against JWs intellectually helps no one. They need prayer and the breakthrough of the Holy Spirit, not theological debates.

While I've found your blog interesting, sadly I'm disappointed that you don't talk more about praying for the JWs. You mention you pray before they arrive. What do you pray for? Their salvation or your ability to show off your theological knowledge?

And now to the response, which I'll strive to offer in an irenic manner. To a great extent, I concur wholeheartedly with what he's said. One of the greatest problems with the Watch Tower Society is their strong sectarian attitude, their claim to uniquely be Jehovah's chosen people to the exclusion of all other Christians, who are dismissed as being unfaithful to God. And that is a serious problem, not something trivial. Their take on communion reflects a class system in which only the 'elite', the 144,000, are in the New Covenant--and that is not only a grave theological error, but a spiritual trainwreck, because all Christians are in the New Covenant, without exception. Only in the context of that grave error is their approach to the eucharist even intelligible; and to encourage any Christian to abstain from the table of the Lord for any reason other than being spiritually unprepared (i.e., having unrepented sin) is absolutely outrageous. And while describing the Jehovah's Witness view of Jesus as a "mere [...] messenger boy" is a bit of a caricature, Jehovah's Witnesses do not do justice to the honor that Christ deserves, as their boast about minimizing songs devoted to him shows quite clearly. It does no good to 'damn with faint praise', as it were, by extolling Christ as the highest created thing, the instrumental cause of the cosmos, and the ruler of God's theocratic domain; Jesus is no less than the almighty and uncreated God the Son, the efficient cause of the cosmos, and the absolute Lord of heaven and earth. To quote three verses from one of my favorite Wesleyan hymns:

See there! The newborn Savior see,
By faith discern the great I AM;
'Tis he! The eternal God! 'Tis he
That bears the mild Immanuel's name.
The Prince of Peace on earth is found,
The child is born, the son is given;
Tell it to all the nations round,
Jehovah is come down from heaven!
Jehovah is come to raise
Dying creatures from their fall,
And all may now receive the grace
Which brings eternal life to all.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, regardless of how much they get right (when contrasted with, e.g., the Islamic repudiation of Jesus as the unique Son of God or as the ultimate and final self-revelation of God to mankind), profoundly fail to do adequate justice to Christ.

Now, Mark next expresses a note of surprise at "the number of times [I] find [JW] teaching unobjectionable", and that I even "found the Memorial enjoyable". And I can see the reason for this surprise. However, one of my goals when engaging in interfaith dialogue is to be as charitable as reasonably possible. I want to understand Jehovah's Witnesses on their terms, not merely my own, and to appreciate everything that can be said in their defense. And so I seek to be generous. (Besides, I have to note that many of the criticisms I have of their group - other than their heresies and the authoritarian hierarchy - are valid criticisms of a number of evangelical groups.) Much of what they teach is unobjectionable. (And, I will add for the sake of making myself perfectly clear, a great deal of what remains is dangerous heresy.) I suppose that it would make for a more productive dialogue about the topic if Mark were to point out an instance in which I found something unobjectionable where, in his opinion, I should have objected. As for my enjoyment of the Memorial service, yes, I did enjoy it, as I mention in my account of the eighteenth 'study' meeting. Mostly, however, this was the enjoyment of an observer studying a religious movement from the outside. The spiritual significance I derived from it was only because communion itself is such a moving thing; however, because of the manner in which Jehovah's Witnesses have perverted it, that power was remarkably blunted, as I noted in my account of the Memorial.

Mark next says that "surely [I] can see the demonic influence [Russell and Rutherford] were under when they came up with their 'unique teachings'". "Demonic influence"? Possibly. I'm not one inclined to see demonic involvement in most places (Todd Bentley excepted...). A number of the "unique teachings" of Jehovah's Witnesses that originated in the Russell era were derived from streams of thought present within sectarian Anglo-American Protestantism, as thoroughly documented by M. James Penton in his Apocalypse Delayed. A number came from George Storrs; as Penton notes:
An examination of the Bible Examiner indicates clearly that Russell earned the doctrines of the ransom atonement of Christ and the restitution of mankind to a paradise earth directly from Storrs and his associates plus, of course, the doctrine of conditionalism. It is evident, too, that the practice of celebrating the Memorial of the Lord's Supper once a year on the supposed date of the Jewish Passover, 14 Nisan, as is done by Jehovah's Witnesses today, was learned by Russell from the editor of the Bible Examiner. Then, finally, Russell's negative feelings towards churches and religious organizations may have come directly from Storrs. (Penton, Apocalypse Delayed, pp. 16-17)
Russell's heretical deviation from the physical resurrection of Christ most likely came from Joseph Seiss, a Lutheran minister from Philadelphia, whose Prophetic Times was very prominent in the millenarian milieu in which Russell's theology was formed; and Russell took his understanding of the parousia of Christ from the Emphatic Diaglott, while some of his early thought on Revelation was rooted in interpretations by Adam Clarke and Isaac Newton. Russell's chronological speculation came largely from Nelson Barbour, who himself modified a great deal of it from John Brown's 1823 book Even-Tide, which put the fall of Judah in 604 BC and hence calculated that the end of the Gentile times would occur in AD 1917, which Barbour pushed back to 1914. And, of course, Russell's anti-Trinitarianism is hardly anything new; such movements have been around for quite some time, and Unitarianism has had a sadly important role in the history of American religious thought. Perhaps Russell and Rutherford were under demonic influence; I would hesitate to pronounce a verdict either way. But it is clear that they, as flawed men, adopted many errors from their predecessors in Anglo-American millenarianism and added further errors unto them. And while calling the Watch Tower Society "Christ-denying" might be a bit strong, there's no doubt that the Watch Tower Society has serious problems and has, through their pronouncements on various medical issues, caused untold death and suffering among its followers. Whether this is proportionately greater than similar issues in various orthodox Christian ecclesial bodies, I don't know, but the blood transfusion issue is founded on a ridiculous misunderstanding on their part, while the vaccine and organ transplant issues are merely further nails in the coffin of the Watch Tower Society's credibility.

Mark finally ends with a few paragraphs challenging me, suggesting that perhaps I value "scoring points against JWs intellectually" over their salvation. Allow me to dispel that notion quickly. I must first, of course, add the caveat that I don't think that all Jehovah's Witnesses are outside of the body of Christ; or, at least, I see no reason that their heresies should of necessity exclude them from salvation. Nevertheless, the Watch Tower Society is more of an obstacle than a help for them, and they profoundly need the truth of God. And I do pray before I meet with them--not a prayer that I'd trounce them or have a rhetorical advantage or anything of the sort, but that God would send his Spirit to work in their hearts and to open their eyes to the truth of the faith delivered once for all to the saints, and that they would if at all possible be led out of their heretical sect and into the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. It's not about me or anything that I can do; it's all about God and what he can do in their lives, if they'll not harden their hearts against him and if they'll show a willingness to abandon their teachings in exchange for the pure truth of the Scriptures. True, I don't usually go into the details of my prayers before they arrive, though I may try to do so a bit more often now. The reason is mostly that it would be about the same on every occasion, and since it also transpires before they arrive, I generally omit it from the account, which I typically begin with their arrival.

Let there be no mistake: Jehovah's Witnesses do need prayer. Not prayer for a merely human triumph, as though they were the opponent, but prayer for their deliverance from grave error and instead turn more fully to Christ. And I hope that this response to Mark Hunter has both been seasoned with grace and dealt with his concerns about what he's read here; and, of course, I thank him for his counsel.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

JW Study Meeting #32

Today at 2:00 PM, the Jehovah's Witnesses caught me just a little bit off-guard. I had lost myself in some genealogical research (one of my other hobbies), and the time had passed by quite quickly. So as I let them in, I said a silent prayer in my mind that their minds would be enlightened with the truth of God and that they would come to know God as he truly is. Uriah stepped in, and he had with him another Jehovah's Witness, whom I'll call "Raanan", who had some profoundly noticeable borborygmi throughout the meeting. We showed Uriah a nice, useful site that can help him save some money on eating out (this led to some discussions of various restaurants in the area), and Uriah also approved a flier I'd made for something coming up. (Stay tuned!)

Then Uriah asked what I'd thought of the circuit assembly, and I replied that I enjoyed it. (This is true, though with the caveat that I enjoyed it as an observer, but I have difficulty imagining reaping actual spiritual benefit from it.) We talked about assemblies for a while longer; Uriah remarked once again on how much more comfortable the seats are there, and Uriah and Raanan both talked for a while about some experiences they had when assemblies/conventions were held at more outdoor venues. Uriah had never gotten hit with any rain, but there was some light mist on one occasion; Raanan hadn't been so fortunate. We also spoke a bit of Ithamar's family, and I mentioned how much I really enjoyed talking to Talya (and, as it turns out, I'm not alone in having difficulty making out what she's saying). They also told a few other stories; Raanan related one about his grandson's friend's family moving to the Philippines. He had another interesting story about how a school had invited people of several faith traditions (a Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and himself as a Jehovah's Witness) to explain to some sixth-graders what their respective groups believe; the rabbi was a no-show and the Lutheran barely gave five minutes, so Raanan had to fill up most of the time, and then a number of the kids asked really intelligent questions. Later in the conversation, Uriah asked me how my girlfriend has been doing, and so I told him about her current quest for a more "solid" teaching position, and how she's currently substituting whenever she has the chance.

We finally got to the 'Bible study', turning to Chapter 10 of What Does the Bible Really Teach?, pp. 96-105; today we'd be getting through the first nine paragraphs on pp. 96-100. Before Uriah had me read the first paragraph, he asked me the three opening questions:

Uriah: Surprise, it's your turn to read. [*laughs*] Before you do that, "do angels help people?"

JB: Yep.

Uriah: You think so, okay. "How have wicked spirits influenced humans?"

JB: By suggesting horrible ideas, by tempting towards sin, by diverse manners, one might say.

Uriah: Okay. "Do we need to fear wicked spirits?"

JB: No.

Uriah: Okay--

JB: Be wary, but not fear.

Uriah: Okay! Okay, good, very good. Very good! Now you may read, sir.

With that, I launched into the first paragraph, which dealt asserted that it's important to learn about the angels--to study biblical angelology, in other words--because "getting to know Jehovah God includes becoming better acquainted with his angelic family", and the question for the paragraph was, "Why should we want to learn about angels?" Well, only an absolute dunce would fail to see the answer they were seeking, so I fleshed it out by referring to the angels as part of the great crowd of witnesses watching us contend for the faith on earth, and as part of the companionship we'll have in the age to come. Uriah, as is customary, added his own question:

Uriah: If a Christian is trying to teach God's truth to a non-Christian, a person who
didn't have an opportunity to believe or whatever, do you think the angels have
any feelings about that?

JB: I believe that they will be working alongside the Christian.

Uriah: Okay, good. Okay.

Raanan read the second paragraph, which.... well, here it is:
The Bible refers to angels hundreds of times. Let us consider a few of these references to learn more about angels. Where did angels come from? Colossians 1:16 says: "By means of him [Jesus Christ] all other things were created in the heavens and upon the earth." Hence, all the spirit creatures called angels were individually created by Jehovah God through his firstborn Son. How many angels are there? The Bible indicates that hundreds of millions of angels were created, and all of them are powerful.--Psalm 103:20.
Uriah then read the question ("Where did angels come from, and how many are there?"), and so I essentially returned the content of the paragraph, which--aside from the underlying sense of Jesus as merely the instrumental cause of their creation, rather than participating in the divine activity as efficient cause (although in a somewhat more instrumental fashion, with comparison to the Father)--was relatively unobjectionable, from a biblical standpoint. When I mentioned that the angels were created through/by Christ, Uriah asked whether that meant that there were no angels before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and I made clear that the angels antedate the earth. The third paragraph, which I then read, states this explicitly and also adds that Job 38:4-7 "shows that angels have feelings, for it says that they 'joyfully cried out together.' Note that 'all the sons of God' rejoiced together. At that time, all the angels were part of a united family serving Jehovah God." Again, nothing terribly controversial, save perhaps to an ardent Thomist. No difficulty in summarizing it to answer the associated question: "What does Job 38:4-7 tell us about angels?" (Seriously, if the level of difficulty in JW study questions is at all indicative of the level of intelligence of the average American, I weep for my country.) In giving my answer (which Uriah said was "excellent"), I mentioned that the unison of the angels would be disrupted later, and so he asked me to recap that further, to which I replied that "we know that there was the war in heaven, we know that Satan drew away about a third of the angels into his rebellion with him and thus broke the harmony that had once existed among the angelic sons of God".

We moved to the next section, titled "Angelic Support and Protection", comprised of paragraphs 4-6. Again, from a biblical standpoint, nothing especially objectionable, not unless we're going to delve into real minutiae. (But, as will become clear later in this account, I have nothing against such delving...) The fourth paragraph talks about the angels becoming sad/happy in response to our (dis)obedience to God, and the question was, "How does the Bible show that faithful angels are interested in human activities?" When I answered, I tossed in the bonus remark that it makes perfect sense for the angels to care, since "the human story is basically the centerpiece of God's creation, it's the narrative that it's all about, in one sense, then naturally the angels are going to be fascinated by it because they know that this is what God is truly interested in". (Uriah liked this answer and then brought up the God's-will-being-done-in-heaven thing, and then had to explain to Raanan that we have different views on that clause in the Lord's Prayer.) The fifth paragraph gave a number of examples of angelic intervention: saving Lot, rescuing Daniel, freeing Peter from prison, and strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane. The related question was, "What examples of angelic support do we find in the Bible?" (Hint: I just listed the ones they listed.)

The sixth paragraph stated that, while "angels no longer appear visibly to God's people on earth", they still protect us from spiritual harm, i.e., from the influence of evil spirits, rather than physical harm. There were two questions for this one. The first was, "How do angels protect God's people today?" After I gave the answer, Uriah asked if I believe that as well, and I said that I did; he asked if it was safe to say that I've never personally seen an angel, and I said, "Not that I know of." Laughing, he remarked, "Good! I don't always get that answer!" The second question for the sixth paragraph was, "What questions will we now consider?"--a pretty easy one, considering that the paragraph ended with three such questions. This whole section was fairly uneventful, but after the fifth paragraph, Uriah tried tossing me a little surprise bonus question:

Uriah: What about the times where we see that an angel came to strengthen Jesus? A couple paragraphs ago, we read that Jesus created the angels--or, Jehovah created them through Jesus. So how does that make sense, if he needed them to strengthen him?

JB: Well, of course, when Jesus became human, he took upon himself things like human weakness, physical weakness, the need to eat, the capacity to be profoundly disturbed, all sorts of things--conditions that would at times be greatly allieved by assistance.

Initially, I figured that Uriah was going to be tossing this out there as sort of a challenge to belief in the full deity of Christ, which he knows I believe quite deeply. However, when he phrases it as a problem to reconcile this biblical passage with a statement found earlier in the Bible Teach book, it becomes clear, at least to me, that this was another sort of test case designed to let us work on a problem shared by both of our positions, not something unique to Trinitarians like myself. Uriah found my answer quite acceptable.

The seventh paragraph was also not too objectionable; it spoke of Satan's great success in corrupting the antediluvian world, noting that Abel, Enoch, and Noah stood as three of the very few who remained faithful to God. The question was, "To what extent did Satan succeed in turning people away from God?" Like I said, aside from maybe a quibble as to the historicity of the 'antediluvian world' depicted in Genesis 1-6, nothing objectionable, at least not from a biblical standpoint. Uriah added the question, "Who did he not turn away--and I don't mean names, I mean as a group." The answer, as we both agreed, was those who refused to surrender to temptation and who instead insisted upon remaining loyal to Jehovah. The eighth paragraph stirred up some more controversy, mostly because I felt like being annoying. The text read:
In Noah's day, other angels rebelled against Jehovah. They left their place in God's heavenly family, came down to the earth, and took on fleshly bodies. Why? We read at Genesis 6:2: "The sons of the true God began to notice the daughters of men, that they were good-looking; and they went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose." But Jehovah God did not allow the actions of these angels and the resulting corruption of mankind to go on. He brought upon the earth a global flood that swept away all wicked humans and preserved only his faithful servants. (Genesis 7:17, 23) Thus, the rebellious angels, or demons, were forced to abandon their fleshly bodies and return to heaven as spirit creatures. They put themselves on the side of the Devil, who became "the ruler of the humans."--Matthew 9:34.
Before I'd deal with the question, I had a counter-question. This part of the text explicitly identifies the "rebellious angels" and the "demons", and I wanted to know if they had any explicit biblical backing for that statement. I let Uriah sort of fumble around for a while trying to figure out exactly what I was getting at, and then finally I said that the reason I was asking is because a number of Jewish and Christian exegetes from around the time of Jesus, give or take a couple centuries on either side, identified the demons with the Nephilim rather than their parents, the "sons of God". (I chose not to call into question the identification of the "sons of God" in this passage as angels, although one major traditional interpretation is that the "sons of God" are merely human, perhaps rulers; mostly, I didn't raise that issue because I'm inclined to favor the more traditional angelic view of the passage.)

This part included lots of silence and thumbing through Bibles. Basically, they stumbled around for a while, and the closest they came to offering a Scripture citation was Genesis 6:1-2 again, which of course never uses the term "demon" or anything like it; Uriah had originally considered trying to reference something in Revelation, but realized that it wouldn't do the trick, and so he eventually conceded that he'd never heard that question before (as I reminded him, I like to keep things surprising), and he agreed to see if he could find an answer for me. Later on, Uriah did indeed e-mail me the entry under "demons" from the JW two-volume publication Insight into the Scriptures. Needless to say, the article never actually provided an answer to the question, since the most it could do was insinuate that since the rebellious angels are wicked spirit creatures who want to subvert God's plan, and the demons are wicked spirit creatures who want to subvert God's plan, they're just obviously one and the same.

Anyway, the closest that Raanan came to giving a good reason to reject the Nephilim interpretation is that it would require the Nephilim to have an immaterial component to their being, and I agree. Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe that anything has such a component, but Uriah informed Raanan that I'm not convinced by their anthropological monism as of yet. And, as I added, even if one did accept that humans do not generally have immaterial aspects that endure beyond the death of the body, such a person could readily posit that the Nephilim, being the (hybrid?) offspring of angels and humans, might have a different ontological make-up that would include such an element. (I also made sure to mention that I'm not personally committed to the view that identifies the demons with the Nephilim; I mostly just wanted to see if they could come up with an answer, especially considering how proud they are of deriving all their beliefs exclusively from Scripture apart from "interpretation".)

We also discussed their opinion (shared, I think, with some early Christian thinkers) that the story of the Nephilim is related to the stories of Greek and Roman demigods. (Also, somewhere in here Uriah gave me the latest issues of The Watchtower and Awake!, as well as a print-out of an article about the pagan origins of Valentine's Day in the orgiastic festival of Lupercalia; when Uriah mentioned orgies, I made the comment, "Or as some people I know would call them, the good ol' days", which got a few laughs.) We also had a brief discussion of Greek food, and I mused with nostalgia about the way gyros are made in Greece.

At any rate, we agreed to deal with the 'demon' thing further later. When I suggested that perhaps I'd find the quotes of the aforementioned early exegetes of the passage, Uriah flippantly said something to the effect that Mark 7:7 ("It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach as doctrines commands of men") renders it irrelevant. (This brings me to another mini-rant: one highly disappointing thing about Jehovah's Witnesses is that absolutely zero consideration is given, at least where not obviously convenient, to anything not written by them or contained in the Bible. It's sola scriptura extremis of the worst sort, and it's little wonder that the result is a often-subtle perversion of the Scriptures.) I gave qualified answers to the questions for the eighth and ninth paragraphs: "How did some angels become demons?", "To survive the Flood of Noah's day, what did the demons have to do?", "What happened to the demons when they returned to heaven?", and "We will consider what with regard to the demons?" Again, working within the framework they've established, the questions and their intended answers aren't so much unbiblical as largely irrelevant. Uriah also asked why demons feel the need to mislead people, and Raanan and I both had the same thought: "Misery loves company." As to why they use people in this way, my answer was that since God himself is unassailable, the worst they can do is to hurt those God loves--namely, us.

That brought us to the end of what we'd intended to get through today, and my mother and Uriah had a conversation about how my grandparents had been good friends of Atarah's parents; this, of course, led to a conversation of many of the bars in the area, since my mother had been in them since she was small enough to walk under the tables; the conversation eventually turned to dogs biting people. So, at last, I bade the Jehovah's Witnesses farewell until 22 February, and after giving us some advice on some home repair stuff (the pipes between the floors of the house have issues, and now the ceiling is falling apart... again....) they trekked down to their car; they'd had to park quite a distance away because the sides of the streets were packed with tremendous quantities of snow from the blizzard.