As I look back and try to explain my childhood to people, I do realize how bizarre it all sounds. My entire worldview including the purpose of religious community, my understanding of the nature of God, and the way I related to other human beings outside my church was quite literally sociopathic.
The matter-of-fact way that we talked about the impending wholesale death and destruction of billions of people who didn’t accept our doctrine would be chilling if it weren’t for Jehovah’s Witnesses’ staunch pacifism. We were happy to leave the killing up to The Lord— our job was simply to kindly and politely point out to everyone on the planet that The End was coming and if they wanted to avoid being murdered by King Jesus and his Angel Army, they’d better hop in ‘Noah’s Ark’ with us.
Despite this grisly world view, however, our community was not as ‘doom-and-gloom’ as your might imagine. In fact, our congregations were full of people who were good-hearted, humble and kind. They genuinely believed what they were teaching, and wanted to help as many people as possible be saved before The End would come. This was a serious business. We were doing God’s work — an earthly organization carrying out the separation of ‘sheep and goats’ so that every person on earth would have a chance to hear The Truth and accept or reject it.
Yes, we all feared God’s wrath, but our focus was always on ‘His promise’ to save the obedient of humankind and us a ‘second chance’. So while we lived in a state of constant preparedness for The End, the real motivation for us was always The Paradise, otherwise known as The New System.
According to our theology, God and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to live as immortals and instructed them to ‘be fruitful and become many and fill the earth’. Only after they chose a life of sin did they pass on death and misery to mankind. They had ‘broken the template’ with sin, and like a mold with a crack in it, any offspring they produced thereafter would bear the mark of sin. Adam and Eve had lost their shot at eternal life in a beautiful garden world, and now all of us were subject to illness and death.
We believed that all of biblical history, including the ministry of Jesus, was God’s way of helping humans return to the Garden of Eden. Jesus had come to earth as a perfect human ransom sacrifice to pay for Adam’s original sin. We didn’t believe in ‘the good go to heaven when they die’, but believed that only 144,000 chosen people in human history would join God in heaven after they died and spend their afterlife in heaven (Revelation 14:1).
The rest of us JW’s were going to live forever on a paradise earth — which, again, was God’s purpose for humans from the beginning. Those who died faithful before The End would be resurrected to join us in The Paradise once Armageddon had cleansed the earth.
Those who died unfaithful would simply no longer exist. Ever again. There was no concept of hell. Just eternal death.
Based on Matthew 24:14, we believed that once the message of God’s Kingdom was shared throughout the earth: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (NIV) God would take action and restore the earth to His original purpose — a beautiful parklike garden planet full of perfect humans (and devoid of evil), living in harmony with His creation.
Yes, yes, that would mean that God would have to destroy all wickedness once and for all, and most of the people on earth would be killed. But He was giving us plenty of time to save ourselves and others so that when the destruction came, only those who consciously rejected truth were destroyed.
But we were going back to Eden, in perfect health, forever and ever. Amen.
For every scene of Armageddon’s death and destruction in one of our publications, there were three scenes of a glorious paradise that was inhabited by people of every color enjoying a peaceful existence with one another. Children played with lions and tigers; and beautiful, healthful, youthful adults beamed at one another in their parklike surroundings. It was this promise of a world cleansed from wickedness, and an eternal life of peace that drew my parents to their new religion — and millions of others like them.
The 1960s had been full of war and civil strife. Many young people had turned on, tuned in and dropped out of society during their teenager years; they had envisioned a utopia where war, racism, and corruption were no more; racism was eradicated; and the ailing environment was restored. But as the 1970s dawned, that utopian vision slowly crumbled. Those who abandoned the counterculture were desperate to find something else that let them live out their ideals.
In the years leading up to “The End”, The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society saw exponential growth in converts. In 1970 the organization claimed 1,384,782 active members worldwide. In 1975, due to their end times predictions and heavy proselytizing, the number had grown to 2,062,449. Many of these converts were young people who had been ready for a new world for more than a decade. Where youth culture had failed them, the bible surly would not.
But after the originally prophesied date for Armageddon came and went without incident, these youthful optimists — most of whom had settled into congregations and cut ties with their ‘worldly’ friends and families in anticipation of The End — were faced with a choice: either give up their utopian religious world view, or go along with the new ‘revelation’ from Watchtower leadership and continue to wait for The End to come. The community of Witnesses and the intoxicating promise of a beautiful paradise future was more simply important to us than prophetic accuracy.
And so, as the 1970s drew to a close, we huddled together like Noah and his family in our figurative ‘ark’ waiting for the the destruction of The World, venturing out to save souls in our door-to-door ministry. There was no political activism. No social justice work. Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically agnostic. My parents never voted (or were registered to vote) the entire time I was growing up. We didn’t volunteer ‘outside’ the organization — most of the work we did was self-supporting, helping members of our own congregations. While we went to work and public school, the oft quoted verse about ‘being no part of the world’ was used to create a bubble wherein we felt safe, and righteous.
I grew up with a healthy distrust of government and political machinations. We believed that Jesus was our King, and that we lived under a literal theocratic government within the confines of our respective modern-day societies. That is, while we were citizens of the United States, our primary allegiance was to God first.
Even still, we were supposed to be model citizens, paying our taxes and following the law… up until the point that it conflicted with The Truth. (For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are conscientious objectors; they voluntarily take prison time over enlisting during a draft. Killing people on behalf of a worldly government, they reasoned, was a direct conflict to God’s Law to not kill people as much as committing murder. So they’d rather take the punishment of prison than go against their commitment to God’s Will.)
Needless to say there were lots of people for whom this kind of ‘separate from the world’ behavior did not sit well. We certainly met lots of angry people who accused us of being un-Christian, un-Patriotic, and even cultish. That, however, only reinforced our understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” — John 15:19 (NIV)