Since their earliest years, Jehovah's Witnesses have believed that the end must come within one generation of a supposed invisible return of Christ. According to Watchtower literature today, Jesus is said to have taken his throne as king in the heavens in the year 1914. This is the invisible return. They believe that Matthew 24:34 teaches that the final judgment must occur within a generation of that date. This teaching has proven problematic as 1914 is now over a hundred years past, leading to reinterpretations to try to preserve this failed prediction.
The 1874 Generation
Many Jehovah's Witnesses are unaware that their founder's original teaching was that Jesus' invisible return was in 1874 rather than 1914. The founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, taught that Jesus' return began in 1874 (though he did not fully ascend to the throne until 1878) and that the day of God's wrath would be complete in 1914 or 1915. He thus explains that the time between the invisible return of Christ and the end of God's judgment of the world would be well within one generation.1 In spite of the fact that this failed to transpire, Watchtower literature continued to hold to the 1874 return of Christ through the 1920's. One publication, for example, plainly stated:
"Surely there is not the slightest room for doubt in the mind of a truly consecrated child of God that the Lord Jesus is present and has been since 1874," (Watchtower Jan 1, 1924 p.5)
Thus for some time, the Jehovah's Witnesses taught that the end must come before the generation of 1874 passed away.
Those Alive in 1914
In spite of all this clarity and alleged certainty, the date of Jesus' "invisible return" was eventually changed to 1914 (the date of Russell's original prediction for the final judgment). As to the generation, the Watchtower literature explained:
"Some persons living A.D. 1914 when the series of foretold events began will also be living when the series ends with Armageddon. All the events will come within the span of one generation," (Watchtower, Sept 1, 1952)
The literature was clear that the "battle of the day of Jehovah" would come "shortly, within our twentieth century."2 They went on saying for decades things like:
"In 1914, he went into action as ruling king. Satan and his demons were promptly hurled out of heaven, this act cleansing the seat of government. (Revelation 12:7-12) The Present world system had entered its final days. The countdown that had proceeded for some six millenniums now nears its zero hour. So close is it that people who were alive in 1914, and who are now well along in years, will not pass off the scene before the thrilling events marking the vindication of Jehovah’s sovereignty come to pass – Mark 13:30," (Survival into a New Earth, 1984, Pg 185)
"It was to our generation that Jesus referred when he added the key thought: 'this generation will by no means pass away until all things occur.' (Matt. 25:34) The generation that saw the beginning of woes in 1914 would also see the end of Satan and his entire wicked system of things. Some who were alive then would still be alive when 'the end' comes," (Awake!, 1966, pg 18)
The literature even seemed to imply that they did not merely mean just anyone born by 1914, but specifically those who were old enough to actually be witnesses of the things that occurred that year:
"Some who saw the events of 1914 will also see the complete destruction of this present wicked world," (Studies in the Scriptures, 1989, pg 200)
We have left the twentieth century behind. We are over a century passed 1914. The Watchtower expectation remains unfulfilled. While there are still a small number of people left who were alive in 1914, even a few who were old enough to qualify as eyewitnesses, the Watchtower has already begun preparing for the inevitable failure of this prediction by changing the rules again on what they once proclaimed to be so certain.
The Overlapping Anointed Generation
In the last several years, the Watchtower literature has been changing their interpretation yet again. In 2010, they began explaining:
"We do well to keep in mind several things about the word “generation”: It usually refers to people of varying ages whose lives overlap during a particular time period; it is not excessively long; and it has an end. (Ex 1:6) How, then, are we to understand Jesus’ words about “this generation”? He evidently meant that the lives of the anointed who were on hand when the sign began to become evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation. That generation had a beginning, and it surely will have an end. The fulfilling of various features of the sign clearly indicate that the tribulation must be near," (Watchtower, April 15 2010)
In 2014 they repeated all of this, and went on to further explain:
"Anyone who was anointed after the death of the last of the anointed ones in the ﬁrst group—that is, after those who witnessed the “beginning of pangs of distress” in 1914—would not be part of “this generation.”—Matt. 24:8," (God’s Kingdom Rules, 2014, pg 12)
"The anointed ones who are still alive and part of “this generation” are getting on in years; yet, they will not all die oﬀ before the great tribulation begins. Therefore, we can conclude that very soon indeed God’s Kingdom will come and exercise its rule over the earth! How thrilling it will be to witness the fulﬁllment of the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Let your Kingdom come”!" (God’s Kingdom Rules, 2014, pg 12)
In other words, "this generation" is now defined as two groups of people. The first is anyone who was already a part of the Jehovah's Witness "anointed class"3 in 1914. The second group is anyone who became a member of the "anointed class" during the lifetime of the first group. The literature implies that the first group has already died and that the second group is "getting on in years." What year did the last of the first group die? Just how old is meant by "getting on in years?" The Watchtower leaves all of this far more ambiguous than they used to. Still, this explanation will likely see some further tweaking in the next few decades to allow for an even longer understanding of what it means to be a "generation."
While it's impossible to read the motives of another man's heart, these changes at least appear rather telling. If the Watchtower writers really believed their own teachings, you would expect them to see that the 1914 generation was nearly over and to be doubling down with urgency as the end must be upon us any day now. Instead, you see the convenient rewriting of the teachings to buy time while straining the definition of words beyond reason. It seems the leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses wish to maintain just enough urgency to keep their people engaged, but that they doubt their own teachings too much to let them stand in the twilight years of their once firm prediction. The Watchtower has a long history of false prophecies due to their poor system of interpreting the Bible. This is another example where a single set of biblical misunderstandings has produced as series of failed predictions and is in the process of producing more before our very eyes. The world did not end in 1914. It did not end before the generation of 1874 passed away. It did not end before the close of the twentieth century. The Watchtower writers have already hedged their bets that they will fail again as we approach the tragic passing away of the last of those who lived to see the year 1914. These predictions have failed, and continue to fail, because the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses is not God's organization as they falsely claim to be, and they cannot interpret the Bible properly. The whole Jehovah's Witness system has shown itself to be a lie.
- 1. Studies in the Scriptures - Series IV - The Battle of Armageddon, 1916 edition, pg 604-605
- 2. The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah, 1971, p. 216
- 3. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that there are 144,000 individuals whom God has chosen to be resurrected as "spirit creatures" or angelic beings and who will reign in heaven as the "kingdom of God" in the age to come while all other Jehovah's Witnesses will live on a paradise earth