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.


  1. Uriah is certainly not your typical Jehovah's Witness.

  2. Uriah is certainly not your typical Jehovah's Witness. [2]