Many years ago I fobbed off a couple of young Korean women who kept urging me to become a Jehovah’s Witness. They were nice, really decent people and I felt a bit guilty taking their Watchtower and Awake magazines and newspapers when I was 99 and 44/100ths per cent sure I was not going to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Actually, I may have been well over 100 per cent and have had some fantasy of persuading them to atheism and beyond. Whatever, they kept coming and it began to be difficult for them, and for me.
Eventually I hit on a wheeze – that I would take their special course, entitled “The truth that leads to eternal life” if they would promise that if I decided not to join they would leave me be.
It was a deal and the pair turned up every week and we discussed a chapter of the book the course was based on.
Over the few months this took, I gained a certain appreciation of this strange religion, a millennialist movement whose earnest practitioners are found just about everywhere on earth, door-knocking their message to anyone who will take the time to listen.
The JWs (said “Jaydubs” in New Zealand where I now live) have some surprising beliefs. For one, they don’t believe in Hell. Nor do they believe that when you die, you go to heaven – some do but the numbers are strictly limited to 144,000 and those places are pretty much full.*
The remainder of us, including all those who have lived before, are going to get tested by God at some stage, shown how to live the way God wants, and then – if we pass muster – granted eternal life right here on Earth. JW literature often features artwork depicting children petting lions and the like.
While we are waiting for this, JWs do believe in the devil, who God has given the opportunity to ruin the world, and who is doing a very good job of it – as indeed we all know. Eventually God will first banish this unworthy fellow to “a dark and dismal place” and after the final reckoning with we humans, will vaporise that tosser.
Because the devil is ruling the world that means JWs don’t take part in government, vote, or serve in the military, attitudes that have led to persecution and occasionally death in many countries, apparently on the grounds that while they themselves are harmless, their example is not. Quakers may nod in appreciation of this.**
I didn’t mind the absurd reasoning or the bizarre promise if the action – or lack of action – helped make this a better and more peaceful world.
Other things about the JWs were a bit tougher to take, in particular the idea that blood transfusions are wrong – to the point where parents refuse to allow their children to have them for life-saving operations. The rationale for this now escapes me though I can remember vividly the young woman who visited me speaking up for the appalling doctrine with verve and conviction.
The course ended, with it our meetings and after my visit to a JW “Kingdom Hall” one Sunday, our relationship. The Koreans stopped coming after a tearful farewell. They had been so hopeful…I felt a bit guilty, but only a bit.
It is easy to mock JWs and in some respects, I guess they deserve it. No one asks them to come knocking and their views, to put it mildly, are certainly unusual. Their religion isn’t for me, but I’ll respect them all the same for their missionary zeal, their patience in the face of hostility and persecution, and for some of their tenets.
They are not alone in believing in eternal life on earth come Judgment Day. Nikolai Fedorov, a 19th century Russian theologian, not only thought that, but believed that science would enable all previously dead people to be revived. Fedorov, a librarian at what became the State Library in Moscow occupied much of his adult life on this singular idea, but did not think this a religious belief but a scientific certainty and obligation, though he was a keen Orthodox Christian. While immortality for those living was possible, Fedorov argued, it was immoral to achieve that without going back over the millennia and reviving those who had come before.***
Fedorov’s desire may have sprung out of his millennial (Orthodox) Christianity, but his claim and his aim was scientific – his God gave humans the ability to think, to create, to devise and expected them to do it, and he saw the ability to bring the dead back to life and to achieve immortality, as a scientific problem. Nowadays other people think that too.
The JWs are still around, of course, and poor Nikolai is not – he is waiting to return maybe, when he will be able to have lecture tours to tell us all how he told us so, way back when.
Nowadays the tendency is to invert this process and to leave God completely out of it. Science predicts the end, apparently. Jehovah’s Witnesses are presumably rubbing their hands in anxious anticipation as they read apocalyptic predictions of the horrors that await as our feckless species overheats the planet. It is in their Bible, somewhere…Those young Korean women told me in 1970 or so what it would be like – earthquakes, tidal waves, climate disasters…they dismissed as ignorant raving the idea that God would appear in the sky – nature would give the signs. They claimed not scientific but Biblical authority and in those days the scientific doomsayers weren’t on about global warming but ice ages, and some of them are the same people! They just want to be in a band, on a wagon, waving at the crowd…
This really is heading somewhere: the subject of my new book. It’s not spoiling things to say it may not mention the JWs or Nikolai Fedorov. But it’s definitely going to mention the end of the human race, which some people predict is scientifically certain to come along sometime probably in this century. We are finished. It’s too late to do anything about it.
And I”m going to write it up. There is a question to be asked here, about why I would bother…and why anyone would want to do anything but party on down from this moment onward…you’ll have to read the result to find that out, and it’s not written yet.
Thanks for getting through this one.
*The JWs have their own translation of the Bible which has been disputed in some respects but this comes from The Book of Revelations and the curious can find this number in any translation I’ve ever seen. It’s probably worth pointing out that there are some things common between the JWs and Islam as well as other millennial religions, though the Koran (or Qu’ran) definitely has heaven and hell on offer or warning.
**A read of the autobiography of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, is revealing.
***Fedorov’s writings were not published until after his death in 1903 but manuscript copies were circulating and Dostoevsky – no mean Christian – admired him. Tolstoy was a friend until the librarian refused to see him because of ideological differences. Wikipedia is good on him, and so is Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Russian Idea, a book I used partly for my novel of the same title.