Orthodox Eschatology

June 29, 2012

By Fr. Vassilios Papavassiliou

Eschatology is the area of theology that deals with the ‘last things’, the ‘eschata’. Unfortunately, the ‘last things’ has come to be viewed in very narrow terms: the antichrist, judgement day, heaven and hell. But as an area of theology it is much more profound than this. It is unfortunate that eschatology is often viewed purely in terms of hell and judgement – when ultimately it is positive: it is, after all, the fulfilment of God’s promises and as such, it is what all Christians are to look forward to.

To understand eschatology we must begin not with the ‘last things’, but with the past. If eschatology is ultimately the coming of the Kingdom of God, then we must begin with the gospels, in which Christ proclaims that the Kingdom has arrived. This is illustrated in the miracles and exorcisms which Christ wrought. The kingdom of death and sickness was overthrown. And yet, Christ also speaks of a kingdom to come. He speaks also of His second coming and the last judgement. Herein lies the paradox of the Church in its eschatological dimension: the Kingdom of God has already arrived, and still it is yet to come. This is the basis of our understanding of the Church, of the Kingdom of God, of heaven and hell.

The Church is, in the words of Fr George Florovsky, “the image of eternity in time”. Thus it lives both in this age and in the age to come. The “eschatological” dimension of the Church begins with Christ’s Resurrection. This was the beginning of the end. The early Christians spoke of their living in “the last days”, not because they simply got it wrong, but because they understood that the age to come had already broken through in this present age because Christ had already raised human nature into the heights of heaven by His Resurrection and Ascension, and promised to return in glory.

Eternal heaven and eternal hell are the consummation of our relationship with God here and now. Thus heaven and hell are not two different places. They instead signify two different ways of experiencing the “uncreated energies” of God. Or, more precisely, they are the same experience, except that they are perceived differently by man, depending on man’s internal state. From the moment of His Second Coming, through eternity, all people will be seeing Christ in His uncreated light. As we read in the Gospels, “The hour is coming, and now is the time, when all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. On 5:28-29). In the presence of Christ, mankind will be separated as sheep are separated from the goats, to His right and His left. In other words, they will be discerned in two separate groups: those who will be looking upon Christ as Paradise and those who will be looking upon Christ as hell.

This is what is depicted in some icons of the Second Coming. From Christ a river flows forth: it is radiant like a golden light at the upper end of it, where the saints are. At its lower end, the same river is fiery, and it is in that part of the river that the demons and the unrepentant are depicted. This is why in Luke 2:34 we read that Christ stands as the fall and the rising (resurrection) of many. Christ becomes the resurrection into eternal life, for those who accepted Him and who followed the suggested means of healing the heart; and to those who rejected Him, He becomes their demise and their hell. There exist numerous patristic testimonies: St. John of the Ladder says that the uncreated light of Christ is “an all-consuming fire and an illuminating light.” St. Gregory Palamas observes: “Thus, it is said, He will baptize you by the Holy Spirit and by fire: in other words, by illumination and punishment, depending on each person’s predisposition, which will bring upon him that which he deserves.” Elsewhere, The light  of Christ, “albeit one and accessible to all, is not partaken of uniformly, but differently.”

Heaven and hell are thus different experiences of God’s glory and indeed, of His love. This is beautifully expressed by St Isaac the Syrian:

St Isaac the Syrian

“Those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful. That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse”

Consequently, Paradise and hell are not a reward or a punishment, but the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart. God does not punish in essence, although, for educative purposes, the Scripture does mention punishment. We must bear in mind that in scripture Christ and the authors of the scriptures use allegories and images to convey things that are otherwise incomprehensible. Thus we have images of fire, of light, of torment. But these are not to be taken too literally. These are simply the means by which we can grasp the incredible joy or incredible pain of the realities of heaven and hell.

The notion of hell is something that many people, including some Christians, reject as incompatible with Christian belief in a loving and forgiving God. But this displays a perilous confusion of thought. Love is free, and since we are free to love God or to hate Him, the realities of this choice must also exist, and those realities we call heaven and hell. To reject hell is to reject the belief that we are free to choose whether to love God, or at best, it is to reject that hating God has any consequences: all the benefits of religion and none of the cost. Is the rejection of hell not the greatest example of wishful thinking the world has ever seen? If it is true that God is the source of eternal life, then is the rejection of God not eternal death? But if it is true that heaven and hell are not, as in paganism, simply places of reward or punishment, but the experience of the one eternal God, then surely heaven and hell must be eternal, for heaven and hell are in fact God Himself. This is why we believe in eternal hell: it is not because we relish in the thought of eternal punishment. After all, however evil people may be, eternal punishment far outweighs the crime! But it is precisely this idea of punishment that we must get away from. Heaven and hell are eternal relationships with God. Since God has no end, then heaven and hell can have no end.

Now, if heaven and hell are two different experiences of God’s love, then it is no coincidence that the criterion for our ‘judgement’ is also love. On Meatfare Sunday, we hear Christ tell us how we will be judged: by whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned, welcomed strangers. Christ says that inasmuch as you showed love to others, you showed love to me. Here we see the principle of God’s co-suffering love. Christ identifies Himself with every human being. If we treat others badly, we treat Christ badly; if we treat others well, we treat Christ well. Another parable of the judgement is given again in the gospels in the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus. The rich man lives sumptuously and ignores the poor Lazarus living on the street, starving and suffering. Both die, and the rich man ends up in hell, and Lazarus in heaven. The rich man too would have been where Lazarus is not by being poor, but by sharing his wealth with the poor. What happens in the day of judgement is all our sins will be revealed and we will perceive within us the real nature of our deeds and the condition of our heart. It is as though, if we are today living blissfully unaware of just what rotten people we are, all of a sudden we will recognise what we are really like and what we have really done, and the pain of that realisation is our hell. This is why the Church teaches that there is no salvation without repentance. It is only by acknowledging our true selves and all the sins that separate us from God and turning to Him for forgiveness that we can be spared the horror of finally meeting the brilliant radiance of God’s goodness face to face. People speak as though meeting God, meeting absolute goodness, would be a lovely thing. They need to think again. To meet the ultimate good only to find that we are His enemy, that we have hated Him, that we have rejected Him, would be terror. St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain explained this by describing God as fire. To those who approach the fire with fear, love and respect, it gives light and warmth; but to those who approach it carelessly, it is a scorching flame.

Thus it stands to reason that the Church teaches that there is no repentance after death. As I said, heaven and hell are the consummation, fulfilment and realisation of our love or lack of love for God and neighbour. Surely, on the day of judgement or in hell, repentance would be all too easy. Who would not admit he was wrong before the glory of God Himself or in the midst of hellish torments? But again this is to think in childish and simplified terms. The unrepentant heart cannot experience God’s love as anything else other than a tormenting presence that it wants to escape from but cannot, because God is everywhere and everlasting. Repentance is not a case of admitting you were wrong because now God is here in front of you and showed you the reality you ignored all your life, as though repentance is simply a way of escaping the unpleasant reality of hell. Love is not about happiness or misery, and so we cannot repent simply because we want to be happy or do not want to be miserable. Love is about truly wanting the person we are with, and their presence and embrace being the source of our joy. For those who hate God, this eternal and omnipresent embrace of God is torture, and thus they will experience that love as eternal torment.

Consequently, the fire of hell has nothing in common with the Roman Catholic doctrine of “purgatory,” – it is not a created fire, nor is it a purifying one which people must go through to ‘atone’ for their sins. This view has been utterly rejected by Orthodoxy. Hell is God Himself no less than Heaven is God Himself, and whether we experience the one or the other depends on whether we want God’s love or hate it.

But I have spoken too much of hell. I said that we should not view eschatology in negative terms, and that eschatology is the consummation and fulfilment of God’s promises. This fulfilment and consummation is described in the last two chapters of the bible. It is a pity that so many people are too afraid to read the last book of the bible, because it is in this book that we are given a glimpse into the very thing that Christians are waiting for: the fullness of the Kingdom of God and the renewal of all creation. Too often modern Christians forget that the Church is not just an institution, but the Kingdom of God that is here but is still to come. The Church is described as the Bride of Christ. We are betrothed to Christ. The second coming is the wedding day and the final consummation. Therefore, we live this present life in two dimensions: as saved and yet hoping for salvation; as betrothed to Christ and yet in anticipation and anxiety for the consummation of the marriage; as joyful and yet penitent; as having everything and yet possessing nothing; as living in this world and yet “having here no continuing city”; as in the world yet not of the world; as being members of Christ’s Church, receiving the new life of baptism and eternal life in the Eucharist; and yet as striving to be made worthy of the Kingdom to come. This double character of Christian life is absolutely essential to the Church’s spirituality and role within society. Awaiting the Kingdom of God by no means amounts to being disinterested in the present world, but the exact opposite. It is this present world that is the stage on which the history of salvation is taking place. This life is the history of eternity. The present world and the world to come cannot be separated. So permit me to end with some passages from the last two chapters of the bible, which describe this coming of God’s kingdom to earth, and the happy ending that we Christians wait for with eager anticipation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
One of the seven angels… came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
“Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Blog readers may be interested in Fr. Vassilios’ lecture series entitled “Lessons in Orthodox Faith & Theology” which can be listened to here.

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The Whole Earth Keeps Silence Because the King is Asleep

April 14, 2012

Today, the Church sings at the Vespers of Holy Pascha:

Today, Hades groaning cries out, “It would have been better for me if I had not received the One born of Mary, for He came upon me and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass and the souls which I held captive of old He resurrected as God.” Glory, O Lord, to Your Cross and Your Resurrection!

More on this “Harrowing of Hell” can be seen in the following homily attributed to St Epiphanius of Cyprus (AD 320-403) which describes Holy Saturday — the time between Good Friday and the Resurrection:

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

‘For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

‘See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

‘I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in Paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

‘Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly Paradise. I will not restore you to that Paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The Bridal Chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.’

Text from here.

For further reading:

Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev


Metropolitan Kallistos: For the Peace from Above…

December 15, 2011

For the Peace from Above: the Understanding of Peace in the New Testament and the Orthodox Liturgy. Lecture by  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware from the University of Oxford, given Nov. 14, 2011 at The Academic Forum for Peace, Poland 2011, held by Wrocław University and Institute for the Study of Islam.


Seeds of Doubt for Jehovah’s Witnesses: The 144,000 — Part Two

November 27, 2011

Regular readers of the blog know I write occasionally on subjects related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses due to my background. This continues an earlier article which discusses the Witness teaching that only 144,000 people will go to heaven to be with Christ. The earlier article presents a couple of questions that can be asked to show the inconsistency of the JW interpretation about the 144,000. Still, what if the Witness you are discussing with wants to know what the 144,000 in the book of Revelation refers to?

I suggest these thoughts by James Kallas in Revelation: God & Satan in the Apocalypse:

To take the number [144,000] literally is to come to the exact opposite conclusion that John the author is trying to get across.

How many tribes in ancient Israel? Twelve. And how many disciples did Jesus choose as the basis of the new Israel, the Church? Twelve. And what is 12 x 12? 144! Now, before we go any further we must remind ourselves of how the ancient Jews thought, of a characteristic of their mental patterns, for John was a Jew. How did the Jew express infinity, a large and endless number? By simply multiplying the number by ten! When Peter asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother, seven times?”, Jesus answers him “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22). What does Jesus mean? Is he to be taken literally? Is Peter to walk about with a pad of papyrus and a pen in his hand, marking down the number or times he forgives his fellow man, and when he arrives at 490 times he can stop forgiving? Of course not! Jesus is not to be taken literally here. He is speaking concretely, as a good Jew would. He is simply trying to get across the idea of infinity, of an endless series, of a continuing never ending act of forgiveness, by multiplying by ten.

And that is what Rev. 14:1 and 14:3 are attempting to say. How many will be saved? A specific limited number confined to a mere and literally understood 144,000? Not at all! What John is saying, to a discouraged and persecuted people, on the brink of despair, tempted to believe that all is lost and God will not be able to deliver his people, is that not a one shall be lost. That God’s power is sufficient to deliver all who call on his name. That all the sons of the old covenant, the remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel, and all the followers of the new Israel, adherents to the teachings of the twelve apostles, that all of them, 12 x 12 = 144 x 10 x 10 x 10 [which would equal 144,000], that all of them shall be rescued by the redemptive power of God! To take the number literally, to limit it, is to come to exactly the opposite conclusion intended by John. He is speaking of the unlimited power of God.

Witnesses will sometimes counter that the number 144,000 must be literal because in Revelation chapter 7 they are mentioned before a vision of a “great crowd” or “great multitude” which could not be numbered. To understand the relationship of the 144,000 and the “great multitude” in Revelation, chapter 7, it’s necessary to look at the text. At Revelation 7:1-9, John says:

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,

from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,

[12,000 are sealed from each tribe]

9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (pp. 60-61)

John says he heard the number of those sealed: 144,000. What he saw after he heard the number was the “great multitude” in heaven. He heard about this group before he saw them. John elsewhere in Revelation uses the same method when he describes Christ in an earlier chapter. First he is told about the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and next he sees “a Lamb as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:5-6). John Francis Coffey explains that

the great multitude “which no man could number” is not a group distinct from the 144,000, but rather, it is the same group. John is explaining one group by the other. “After this”, that is, after John “heard” the number of the sealed, he was granted a vision of the whole company of the elect. The definite number of the elect signified completeness:

All the tribes had their required number; none were missing (cf. Jn 17:12). Nor should God’s chosen people be understood as being only a tiny group, for the members were so many that John could not count them himself, he “heard” the number of those sealed – 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1,000). In apocalyptic imagery, the number 12, like the number 7 symbolizes perfection or totality. The second 12 corresponds to the tribes of Israel or the people of God. And the 1,000 indicates an immense number. In other words, the 144,000 symbolizes the great multitude of the elect whose exact number is known only to God. (The Gospel According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 119)

For further reading:

Is Your Hope Bible-Based? Questions and Reflections for Jehovah’s Witnesses

Do the Old Testament Saints Receive a Heavenly Reward?


Critiquing the Watchtower’s Latest Defense of their 607 BCE Chronology — Part Two

October 18, 2011

Jehovah's Witness Leaders claim that in 1919 they were appointed over the Christian Congregation

Last month, I shared research by my friend Doug Mason which debunks the first part of the Watchtower Society’s (the publishing agent for Jehovah’s Witnesses) latest attempt to shore up their unique Old Testament chronology which puts ancient Jerusalem’s conquest by the Babylonians at 607 BCE, instead of the commonly accepted date of 587 BCE. At first glance, this seems like an inconsequential squabble and in one sense it is. But, for the Jehovah’s Witness leaders, everything depends on the 607 BCE date as it serves as the focal point of their doctrines relating to the year 1914:

  • That 607 BCE is the beginning of a prophetic interpretation supposedly pointing to 1914
  • That Christ returned invisibly in 1914 and was enthroned as earth’s king in heaven
  • That in 1914 Christ began an inspection of his followers and this led to Watchtower leaders receiving a divine appointment over the Christian congregation in 1919
  • That the generation which saw the events of 1914 would not pass away until the final battle of Armageddon (now interpreted as one generation nearly 100 years long with two overlapping parts)

Two recent issues of the Watchtower magazine gave new defenses in support of their 607 BCE chronology. These are the October 1, 2011 and November 1, 2011 issues. The series is entitled “When Was Ancient Jerusalem Destroyed?” The Watchtower’s Society’s arguments in the October Watchtower were discussed at this earlier post with a refutation provided by Doug Mason.

Doug has now completed research on the November 1, 2011 Watchtower, which has the subtitle: “What the Clay Documents Really Show.” Amazingly, in that article, the Watchtower Society publishes its own interpretation of documents that have been researched by scholars in the study of Neo-Babylonian history. The Watchtower Society gives its own novel interpretation, citing no scholarly studies on the subject in support, of crucial data that historians have used to fix the chronology of the period.

I’ll let Doug introduce his latest research which demonstrates the psuedo-scholarship used by Witness leaders, who are desperately holding onto the 607 BCE date because they know that if that date falls, their claim to spiritual authority over Jehovah’s Witnesses would also fall. In the body of Doug’s article below, you can download the refutation of the November 1, 2011 Watchtower article as he has graciously given permission for us to share it here.

Refuting the November 1, 2011 Watchtower article: “What the Clay Documents Really Show?”

By Doug Mason

While every scholar dates the destruction of Jerusalem at 587 BCE, the Watchtower Society alone says it was destroyed 20 years earlier, in 607 BCE. To arrive at this date, the Watchtower Society needs to either lengthen the reign of one or more known neo-Babylonian kings or it needs to insert additional, currently unknown kings.

Thousands of ancient cuneiform tablets exist from the Neo-Babylonian era

The Watchtower article classifies the neo-Babylonian tablets as: Chronicles, Business tablets, and Astronomical tablets. The  article denigrates the Chronicles and the Business Tablets as unreliable. However, the article does agree that business tablets exist for every known neo-Babylonian king and that with those tablets, the date of 587 BCE for Jerusalem’s destruction is reached.

The article uses Business tablets to suggest an interval between some kings’ reigns. Analysis however shows the tablets indicate overlaps, not gaps.

When it considers the Astronomical tablets, the article considers only one, dated to Nebuchadnezzar’s 37th year. However, the Watchtower discounts the planetary readings and it ignores the Lunar Three measurements. When it deals with the tablet’s record of a lunar eclipse, the Watchtower creates its own calendar for 588 BCE. And without providing any substantiating evidence, the article claims that the data on the tablet fits its date for Nebuchadnezzar’s 37th year.

Astronomical diary VAT 4956 which the November 1, 2011 Watchtower attempts to re-interpret to support its unique chronology

The critique provides statistical evidence that this eclipse took place in 568 BCE and could not have taken place in 588 BCE. The Critique also shows that the Lunar Three measurements on the tablet confirm Nebuchadnezzar’s 37th year as 568/567 BCE.

The critique shows that the Watchtower article employs several unacceptable practices:

  • misrepresents its sources;
  • fails to provide the contexts of the sources it cites;
  • does not describe the methods it uses or the outputs from its calculations;
  • exhibits gross inconsistencies, such as accepting information from sources but rejecting the way that those sources arrived at their conclusions;
  • does not provide all the necessary statistics;
  • ignores critical data, such as the many witnesses that show the Lunar Three measurements prove Nebuchadnezzar’s 37th year equated to 568 BCE;
  • reasons from innuendo and from faulty hypotheses;
  • hides the fact that calculations prove Jerusalem was not destroyed in 607 BCE;
  • presents their faulty interpretation of the “Seventy Years” as “Bible chronology”.

The critique is provided as two related parts and can be downloaded in PDF format at the links below:

For further reading:

Critique of the October 1, 2011 Watchtower article on chronology (PDF) by Doug Mason

Critique of the October & November 2011 Watchtowers on chronology (PDF) by Carl Olof Jonsson

Watchtower Leaders Try to Salvage 1914 Teaching

Were Watchtower Prophecies About 1914 Fulfilled?

Are We Living in a Special Time? by Tom Cabeen

A Memorial to a False Prophecy


Are We Living in a Special Time? Part Two

September 24, 2011

By Tom Cabeen

Part One can be read here.

Are We Living in the “Last Days?”

In addition to believing that Jesus was reigning, there is also no doubt that the first Christians believed they were living in the “last days.” Peter, on the occasion of the remarkable events of the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, quoted Joel’s prophecy as proof of that fact:

“This is what was said through the prophet Joel, ‘“And in the last days,” God says, “I shall pour out some of my spirit upon every sort of flesh.” —Acts 2:16,17

The expression “last days” here translates the Greek term eschatais hemerais, an expression used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and widely understood by Jews to refer to the Messianic era. (Isa 2:2; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1) The introduction of the inspired letter to the Hebrews reflects this perspective:

“God, who long ago spoke on many occasions and in many ways to our forefathers by means of the prophets, has at the end of these days spoken to us by means of a Son.”
—Heb 1:1, 2

The expression “at the end of these days” in the New World Translation here translates the same Greek words used by Peter at Pentecost (eschatais hemerais: see Kingdom Interlinear), but the expression is translated differently here, so its implications are not immediately apparent to any but the most diligent student.

Early Christians did not understand the expression “last days” in the same sense as we might say on a fine day just before we feel the first cool breezes of fall: “These are the last days of summer.” Jews generally believed that human history was divided into two great epochs: the “former days” or period before the Messiah appeared and the “latter days” or period after His appearance. Since Jesus’ disciples accepted him as their Messiah, they believed that his appearance marked the beginning of the “latter days,” or Messianic era, in contrast with the “former days” before he appeared, and they supported that view by references to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first Jewish Christians had to change their initial perspective on the nature of their Messiah and his rulership. They expected a political savior who would deliver them from subjection to Rome. Instead, Jesus delivered them from sin, death and the devil. His kingdom was quite real, but was no part of this world. They became part of it by accepting and obeying him as ruler. (Col 1:13) Jesus also revealed to them that he would leave and return again at an unexpected time. Many early disciples evidently thought the second coming would occur in their lifetime. But as more and more of those who had known Jesus personally, including the apostles, began to die (many as martyrs), and persecution against them intensified, they began to understand that the Messianic era was not to be a time of physical abundance and material blessing (as many Jewish teachers taught), but would instead be an extended time of tribulation, especially for Christians. Thus, it was appropriate for Paul to warn Timothy: “Know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.” (2 Tim 3:1) After describing the kind of people that would typify these difficult days, he told Timothy to “turn away” (“be turning yourself away” Kingdom Interlinear) from these people. Clearly he was not warning Timothy to keep away from people who would live centuries in the future. He and Timothy were, in Paul’s view, living in the last days, that is, the Messianic or Christian era.

What about the “signs” which Jesus’ predicted?

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 (and parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21, sometimes called the “Olivet Discourse” or the “Eschatological Sermon,” from the Greek word for “final things”) describes a series of events which would happen at the time of Jesus’ parousia and serve as a sign that it had begun. The purpose of this document is not to present a detailed verse-by-verse consideration of these passages, but a few comments are appropriate.

First, a brief explanation of the Watchtower understanding of the Greek word parousia in Matt. 24:3. The term is usually rendered “coming” or “arrival,” but is translated “presence” in the New World Translation. Late in the nineteenth century, some disappointed Second Adventists, men who had been influenced by William Miller, Nelson Barbour and his associate B.W. Keith in particular, who had expected Jesus to return in 1874, noticed that parousia was translated “presence” in the Emphatic Diaglott, a Greek/English interlinear translation prepared by Benjamin Wilson. Apparently impressed by the chronology enough that they did not want to give up that date, some of them came up with the idea that perhaps Jesus really did return in 1874 just as they had predicted, but invisibly.

C.T. Russell's magazine, Zion's Watch Tower, heralded Christ's invisible presence as beginning in 1874.

Russell incorporated their ideas into his own version of the “time of the end”. He saw Jesus’ parousia as a special 40-year period of invisible “presence” during which Russell’s followers, (then called International Bible Students; now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) would be in a special relationship with him. Russell saw the events described in Matt 24:3-14 as proof that Jesus had already returned, invisibly.

If Jesus’ parousia was actually to be invisible, some “sign” might indeed be needed to show that it had begun, but it would be strange for Jesus to choose things which were to be in almost constant evidence during the entire Christian era as a “sign” of some special period at its end. The difficulty that arises when one uses those things as signs is shown by the fact that Russell pointed to the very same “signs” as proof that Jesus’ parousia started in 1874 that Witnesses point to today, events mentioned in Matthew 24:6-14 (war, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, and others) to “prove” that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914 and put them in charge of all his kingdom interests on earth.

The word parousia, in its most common meaning, meant someone’s bodily presence, but it can also refer to the visit of a royal person, which is consistent with Jesus’ own description of his second coming:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matt 25:31, 32)

“The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”—1 Thess 4:16

In Jesus’ day, many Jews believed that immediately prior to Messiah’s coming there would be a series of calamities. These “woes of the Messiah,” included wars, insurrections, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, and signs or portents from heaven. It is not unlikely that Jesus’ disciples had heard of these predictions. Since these events clearly did not appear before Jesus’ birth or baptism, when they heard him predict the destruction of the temple, they may have been asking, “Is this what we have been told to expect; the woes of the Messiah? Is the destruction of the temple part of that great time of calamity we expect to precede your coming in glory?”

If that was the intent of their question, Jesus’ answer was that disasters would definitely come, but they would not be a sign of his return. Jesus started his prophecy by warning them not to be misled, adding that when wars and rumors of wars happened, “see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt 24:6)

Other catastrophes would also make their appearance. Even these would only be “the beginning of birth pains.” Rather than confirm that these things would be the immediate precursor to his return and their deliverance, Jesus warned them of increasing persecution and hatred by persons of all the nations, of a great rise in wickedness, and said that they would need endurance. His words did not point toward imminent deliverance, but an extended period of tribulation. The events Jesus mentioned in Matthew 24:3-14 have occurred often throughout the centuries since the days of the apostles. Periodically during those centuries, some Christians have tried to prove that Jesus’ return was imminent by pointing out the prevalence of war, earthquakes, famine, pestilence, and the like, and have been disappointed every single time. [An excellent consideration of this entire subject is found in Doomsday Delusions, © 1995 by C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines, Jr., InterVarsity Press.] Indeed, Jesus’ words have been undergoing fulfillment for nearly two thousand years, and “the end is still to come.”

Jesus’ words may have been the disciples’ first inkling that the Messianic era would not be the time of great political peace and material prosperity they may have been led to expect by some Jewish teachers. Since evidently they associated the destruction he spoke of with his return, they only asked one question, but Jesus reply encompassed two separate events: first, the destruction of the Jewish temple and second, Jesus’ return or parousia, both of which they may have thought would occur at the same time.

Jesus gave them specific instructions about what to do at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. But at the same time, he warned them that events they might have considered to be “signs” of his parousia were not true signs at all, but false signs, expected by some Jews in connection with the glorious arrival of Messiah, but not relevant to Jesus’ second coming. It is very significant that, rather than giving them a sign which would appear some significant period of time, even years, in advance of his second coming, he instead repeatedly urged them to keep alert, on the watch. He compared his return to the visit of a thief in the night. Thieves do not usually provide any advance notice before they strike. —Matt 24:43, 44

Conclusion

To summarize, there are serious problems with the Watchtower view. First, the idea that one can predict by any means when Christ would return is in direct contradiction to Jesus own clearly stated warning that he would return at a time that his disciples did not think it to be. The idea of any kind of sign which would give advance warning of Jesus’ return completely contradicts what He clearly said on numerous occasions, that his parousia would be both sudden and unexpected:

“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” (Mark 13:33)

If we take him at his word, Jesus’ words on the Mount of Olives do not provide a way to predict either an invisible presence or his imminent second coming.

The historical Christian belief is that Christ's Return will be visible to all.

Second, the concept of Jesus’ parousia as an invisible event cannot be reconciled with His words: “Look! I am with you always, until the conclusion of the system of things” (Matt 28:19 ) which clearly show that Jesus would always be invisibly present with his disciples. It also directly contradicts Rev 1:7, which says “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him,” which clearly states that Jesus’ parousia would be anything but invisible.

Thirdly, if we remain true to the original and most direct sense of Scripture, we must conclude that Jesus began ruling in the first century, and that all Christians who lived from the first century until now have been living in the last days ( the Messianic era).

Both biblical and historical evidence show that Jesus Christ began to reign in the first century, and that his reign has continued until now, “in the midst of his enemies.” That being so, we must also conclude that the situation that has existed among persons claiming to be Christians is what Jesus expected, and that the way things have developed is in harmony with his sovereign will as king over heaven and earth. Any group which started during the centuries following the apostolic age, then, can make no serious claim to being Jesus’ true church.

We have absolutely no reason to conclude that Jesus abandoned his followers to his enemy the devil at the end of the apostolic period, as Russell believed and taught. There is also no basis to conclude that near the end of the first century, things somehow got out of Jesus’ control and the whole body of Christ became corrupt and worthless. We must conclude that there have been true followers of Christ all down through the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, and that Christians, during the entire Christian era, would face the same types of difficulties. Each would be required to be faithful and obedient to his Lord in the situation in which each found himself or herself.

For further reading:

Historical Idealism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an evaluation of the claim that Watchtower publications predicted Christ’s return in 1914)

Critiquing the Watchtower’s Latest Defense of their 607 BCE Chronology

A Memorial to a False Prophecy


Are We Living in a Special Time? Part One

September 10, 2011

I thank my friend Tom for providing this article that refutes the Jehovah’s Witness belief that we are living in a special time. Part 2 can be read here.

Are We Living in a Special Time? — Part One

by Tom Cabeen

A long-standing and very prominent Watchtower teaching is the belief that in 1914 a special period of time Jesus called the “Gentile Times” ended, the “last days” began, and Christ began to rule over the whole earth for the first time since his resurrection and ascension to heaven. Immediately prior to that time, Jesus, in anticipation of his imminent reign, began inspecting the religious organizations of the world to see which one would be his official representative when he began to rule. He examined the teachings of all religions on earth claiming to be Christian and decided that the most “faithful” one (meaning the one with the most correct interpretation of the Bible) was the small group of Charles Russell’s followers, later to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, Watchtower publications teach, shortly after 1914 Jesus committed all the interests of his kingdom into their hands, and they became his only approved channel of communication between God and mankind.

If this teaching is true, something very significant changed in 1914. Things must be different since 1914 than they were for the rest of the Christian era. If this is true, that would add some evidence to the idea that, as they claim, the Watchtower Society, with its origins in the nineteenth century, is the only denomination which God approves. On the other hand, if the weight of scriptural and historical evidence points away from this conclusion, any group which proclaims this idea, including the Watchtower Society, is suspect. If we hold the idea that we are now living in a special time, we may have to reevaluate our views.

Since its origin, fundamental teachings of the Watchtower Society have been based on and intimately tied to the idea that serious Bible students could determine with reasonable accuracy when Christ would return, either through chronological calculations or observation of unique world events which would serve as a sign of Christ’s imminent return or advent (or both). Generically, Christians who believe that to be possible have been called “Adventists”.

First, let us examine the chronology which, according to their claims, establishes that 1914 marked the end of one special time period and the beginning of another.

Is Watchtower Chronology Sound?

C.T. Russell's chronology borrowed many elements from William Miller and the Second Adventists

Charles T. Russell borrowed his chronology and methodology from the Second Adventists, after William Miller’s failed attempt at predicting Christ’s return in 1843, based on the same methodology. The calculations are based largely on interpretations of passages in Daniel 4 and Luke 21:24. In brief, Witnesses teach that the “Gentile Times” is a special period of 2,520 years during which God’s kingdom, David’s dynasty, had no king. It supposedly began when Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and ended in 1914. Considering the importance of the conclusions it supports, the chronology is based on a rather tenuous series of assumptions:

First, that the dream Nebuchadnezzar had about becoming a beast for “seven times” (recorded in Daniel 2) does not refer primarily to him (as stated directly in the text), but rather that he, a pagan king, not even a worshiper of Israel’s God, actually represents God’s kingdom.

Second, that God’s kingdom or rulership over mankind somehow “ended” when Zerubbabel, a direct descendent of David, was removed from the throne of Jerusalem when it was destroyed by Babylon, and that the kingdom would “begin” again some twenty-five centuries later when Jesus, a descendent of David, began to rule in 1914. The Jews expected a descendent of David to rule as king forever, but the concept of God’s kingdom “ending” and “beginning” is never suggested in the Jewish sacred writings, and in fact directly contradicts Daniel 4:17, which is specifically connected to Nebuchadnezzar’s beastly experience!

Third, based on the first assumption, each “time” must represent a special “prophetic” year of 360 days, although no actual earthly year, solar or lunar, has 360 days. [The Aramaic word Daniel used for “time” just means a period of time, not always a year. (The word for 1 “year” is different, as used, for example, in Daniel 1:1). The word used in Daniel 4 is `idd¹n, which, according to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, means “ time, period, span , year, era. … Two basic meanings are equally a “point” in time or a “span” of time.” In this context, a “time” could easily mean a week, a month or a season. Possibly, Nebuchadnezzar only acted like a beast for seven months or seasons, not seven years.] Seven of these 360-day prophetic years would add up to a total of 2,520 “prophetic” days. To make this assumption even more shaky, each of these “prophetic” days in turn must represent a solar year of approximately 365¼ days. Absolutely nothing in Scripture, Jewish tradition, or the writings of early Christians even suggests that we make this complicated series of assumptions and calculations.

Fourth, that this period of 2,520 solar years are identical to what Jesus referred to when he used the expression translated “the appointed times of the nations” or “the times of the Gentiles” in Luke 21:24 (“Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled…”), even though Jesus was specifically discussing the future destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, not its past destruction by Babylon, and despite the fact that there is not a single word in Scripture, Jewish tradition or Christian writings that indicates that the “Gentile times” refer to any time period during which God’s eternal kingdom would be inactive.

Fifth, that Jerusalem was actually destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 607 BC. The date for Jerusalem’s destruction is one of the most accurately fixed of ancient history. More, significantly, the historical sources that establish the date for Babylon’s fall in 539 BC, (which date the Watchtower Society does accept and, in fact, which it uses as the starting point for its 1914 calculations) are exactly the same sources that establish 587/6 BC as the date for Jerusalem’s destruction! Several independent lines of evidence (historical, astronomical, archeological, etc.) point to the date of 587/86 BC, not 607 BC, as the date of Jerusalem’s destruction. There is not a single line of historical evidence which supports the 607 BC date. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998 for a detailed discussion of this topic.)

Sixth, that all the plain passages in the Greek Scriptures that clearly state that Jesus began ruling in the first century, such as Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” don’t really mean what they say. Below is a more extended discussion of the implications of this assumption.

C.T. Russell wrote in the 7/15/1894 Watchtower that 1914 would be the end of the time of trouble.

Each of the six assumptions listed above are interrelated. All must be true before the Watchtower conclusion could be accepted with any degree of confidence. Again, the veracity of all of them together are absolutely critical to the Watchtower teaching that we are living in the time of the end and that the Watchtower Society has been chosen by Jesus Christ as Jehovah’s organization and, as such, His official channel of communication with his faithful people on earth in 1914. If any one of them is wrong, the final conclusion is invalid and the Watchtower claim is demonstrated to be false.

It is worth noting that Russell, using the same methodology, “proved” that he was living in a special time period, which would end in 1914 with Christ’s return to judge the nations. He also admitted that if any one of the assumptions upon which he based his conclusions were wrong, it would prove his entire approach would be completely invalid. That did, in fact, happen. In time, not only did every one of his assumptions get rejected, Russell’s ending date for the time of the end (1914) is now the starting date for the same period, according to current Watchtower teaching.

When Did Jesus Begin to Reign?

If the Watchtower chronology is invalid and Jesus did not begin reigning in 1914, is he reigning now? If so, when did that reign start? Watchtower publications interpret Hebrews 1:13 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”) as follows:

“In 33 C.E., [Jesus] died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. … At that time, however, Jesus did not act as King and Judge over the nations. He was seated next to God, awaiting the time to act as King of God’s Kingdom. Paul wrote of him: “With reference to which one of the angels has he ever said: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I place your enemies as a stool for your feet’?” (Hebrews 1:13) Jehovah’s Witnesses have published much evidence that Jesus’ period of waiting expired in 1914, when he became ruler of God’s Kingdom in the invisible heavens.” —The Watchtower, 10/15/95, pg 21, par. 14-16

Hebrews 10: 12, 13 says: “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” If this were the only reference to Psalm 110 in the Christian Scriptures, and there was nothing else to indicate otherwise, this verse might indeed be interpreted to mean that the word “waits” in this passage refers to a period of non-rulership, which is exactly how the Watchtower Society interprets it:

“Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, he had to wait at his Father’s right hand until the time came for him to rule as King over mankind. (Hebrews 10:12, 13)” —The Watchtower, 6/15/94, pg 6

But is this how the apostles and early Christians understood the expression “sit at my right hand”? No! Among many ancient peoples, the imagery of a king sitting on the throne of his God was a common way to express that the king ruled with the approval and support of his God, and this is consistent with how early Christians understood this phrase. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, 3rd Ed. , Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998, pg 264-270.)

This is not the only place where this expression from Psalm 110 is quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures. This passage from the Hebrew Scriptures is the one most often quoted in Christian Scripture. So we can examine a number of its appearances to correctly establish just how it was used and to what arguments it was applied as support. The Watchtower interpretation that “sitting” meant “waiting” is required by their chronology-based belief that Jesus could not begin his reign until 1914, as discussed above. But it is quite clear from many other passages that the early Christians did not understand the passage to mean that. They understood the phrase “sitting at God’s right hand” to mean that Jesus was already ruling as king. One very clear example of this is Paul’s citation of Psalm 110 in his first letter to the Corinthians while discussing the resurrection. Paul actually substitutes the term “rule as king” for “sit at God’s right hand” in the source from which he quotes:

Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. For he must rule as king until [God] has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing. … But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone. —1 Cor 15:24-28 NW (Italics added.)

It is clear from his use of the passage that Paul understood “placing all things under Christ’s feet” to mean rulership. Why should that not be the case, since after his resurrection, Jesus explicitly stated that he had been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” When Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel said that he would be given the throne of David his forefather, and that he would reign forever. So it would be most natural for the apostles to understand his post-resurrection words to mean that he was reigning as their king, even if the way in which he was to rule turned out to be different from what they expected. The psalmist’s statement that he was to reign in the midst of his enemies is consistent with the idea that his rulership expands until, by the end of his reign, all things are under his feet. A great
resurrection occurs at that time; thus death becomes the last enemy to be subject to him. The image is that of a ruler who sits down on his throne, at the right hand of his God, and continues to rule until all things are subject to his power. Afterward, Paul writes, the Son subjects himself to God, the Father.

Early Christians believed the ascended Christ to be ruling as king.

Many other passages show that the apostles and early disciples viewed Jesus as ruling as king in their day, several of which quote Psalm 110 for support. Here are but a few (all quoted from the New World Translation, 1971 ed.):

Matt 28:18-20: Jesus approached and spoke to them, saying: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the 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.”

Mark 16:19: So, then, the Lord Jesus, after having spoken to them, was taken up to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.

John 5:26, 27: For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted also to the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to do judging, because Son of man he is.

John 17:1, 2: Jesus spoke these things, and, raising his eyes to heaven, he said: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son, that your son may glorify you, according as you have given him authority over all flesh, that, as regards the whole [number] whom you have given him, he may give them everlasting life.

Col 2:9, 10: …it is in him that all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily. And so YOU are possessed of a fullness by means of him, who is the head of all government and authority.

Acts 17:6, 7: …they dragged Jason and certain brothers to the city rulers, crying out: “These men that have overturned the inhabited earth are present here also, and Jason has received them with hospitality. And all these [men] act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”

Eph 1:18-23: It is according to the operation of the mightiness of his strength, with which he has operated in the case of the Christ when he raised him up from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every government and authority and power and lordship and every name named, not only in this system of things, but also in that to come. He also subjected all things under his feet, and made him head over all things to the congregation, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills up all things in all.

Col 1: 12-14: … [The Father] delivered us from the authority of the darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, by means of whom we have our release by ransom, the forgiveness of our sins.

1 Pet 3:21, 22: [Baptism] is also now saving YOU, … (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the request made to God for a good conscience,) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is at God’s right hand, for he went his way to heaven; and angels and authorities and powers were made subject to him.

Viewed in their context, these passages indicate clearly that early Christians believed Jesus was ruling, not waiting. The entire basis of their confidence in salvation and forgiveness of sins was based on their understanding that they had a ruling high priest who could actively plead for them, that the glorified Jesus was in heaven, sitting at God’s right hand, that is, ruling with His Father’s full support, possessing complete authority to act on their behalf.

Part Two can be read here.

For further reading:

Historical Idealism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an evaluation of the claim that Watchtower publications predicted Christ’s return in 1914)

Critiquing the Watchtower’s Latest Defense of their 607 BCE Chronology

A Memorial to a False Prophecy