At Matthew 24:34 Jesus is recorded as announcing, "Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur." Over the last 100 years, the Watchtower has continued to change its teaching of what "this generation" refers to, in order to make Armageddon appear to be imminent.
Many Witnesses based their life choices on the teaching that Armageddon would arrive before all those born prior to 1914 had died. Can an organization that makes such critical errors rightfully claim they alone are directed by God?
At the 2010 annual meeting, John Barr presented the latest understanding of the generation. 97 year old Barr was an apt choice to deliver this talk, being the last of the Governing Body born before 1914. He explained the generation is now to include 2 groups whose lives "overlap" since 1914:
"John Barr ... twice read the comment: "Jesus evidently meant that the lives of the anointed ones who were on hand when the sign began to be evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of the other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation." We do not know the exact length of "this generation," but it includes these two groups whose lives overlap. Even though the anointed vary in age, those in the two groups constituting the generation are contemporaries during the part of the last days. How comforting it is to know that the younger anointed contemporaries of those older anointed ones who discerned the sign when it became evident beginning in 1914 will not die off before the great tribulation starts!" Watchtower 2010 June 15 p.5
There is no Scriptural reason to believe a generation referred to two overlapping groups, other than wishful thinking and a need to prop up the 1914 teaching as still relevant. Can any credence be given to this explanation? The following review of the history of contradictory generation teachings shows there can be no doubt that these teachings are neither directed by holy spirit, nor Scripturally sound.
A key factor to the growth of the Watchtower Society is the promise that this system will end at any moment. The shorter the expected time left, the higher the growth. (Immediately prior to dates the end was specifically expected, such as 1914, 1925 and 1975, growth increased to as high as 20 %.) When there has been no specific date set, the concept that "this generation will by no means pass away" has been used to stimulate urgency. Looking retrospectively, it is remarkable to see the number of changes to the "generation" teaching, in order to make each decade in the 1900's appear to be the decade Armageddon would come.
The commencement of Jesus' heavenly rulership in 1914 is key to Watchtower theology, the foundation for many other teachings. Unseen and hence unproven, Witnesses expected proof in their own lifetime by means of the arrival of Armageddon - based on the generation teaching that some people born prior to 1914 would never die.
"The countdown that has 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 all pass off the scene before the thrilling events marking the vindication of Jehovah's sovereignty come to pass" The early members of this group are now in their 60's or 70's or older. Jehovah did not allow the ingathering of this group to begin too soon. The "great crowd," including many of the earliest members thereof, will survive into the "new earth." Survival into a New Earth (1984) p.184-185
"Prophetic information in the Bible about our day details the following: ...The survival of at least some of the generation that saw the beginning of "the conclusion of the system of things." True Peace And Security (1986) p.70
When this was changed in 1995 with an article explaining that a generation could extend for multiple lifetimes, many Witnesses saw this as indication the Governing Body had lost faith, no longer confident that Armageddon is close at hand. Since 1995, the growth rate of Jehovah's Witnesses has fallen dramatically. In 2010 the teaching changed back to say that it will be within 2 overlapping lifetimes, so it will be interesting to see if this can be used to try to turn around the declining growth rates.
Originally - Fixed period, applied to worldly people - to end 1914
Russell applied the generation to mankind in general - "people living contemporaneously" (Studies Vol IV p.602) He had a two way bet, explaining that the start year for the generation may have been 1780, extending for a period of 100 years to 1880, with the fulfilling of all the signs. He then went on to say it may instead refer to the 36 ½ year period from 1878 to 1914.
"A "generation" might be reckoned as equivalent to a century (practically the present limit) or one hundred and twenty years, Moses' lifetime and the Scripture limit. (Gen. 6:3.) Reckoning a hundred years from 1780, the date of the first sign, the limit would reach to 1880 Or, since the Master said, "When ye shall see all these things," and since "the sign of the Son of Man in heaven," and the budding fig tree, and the gathering of "the elect" are counted among the signs, it would not be inconsistent to reckon the "generation" from 1878 to 1914--36 1/2 years-- about the average of human life today." Studies in the Scriptures Series IV - The Day of Vengeance 1897 ed. pp.604, 605
The world did not end as expected in 1914 so Russell's concept of the generation proved false. For more than a decade Watchtower publications were silent as to whom the generation applied
1927 - The Anointed over Last 1900 Years
In 1927, Rutherford changed the application of the generation from mankind in general to the Anointed. Rather than a short period of time, it incorporated the entire period from the time of Jesus till Armageddon, in excess of 1900 years.
"The irresistible conclusion therefore is that Jesus referred to the new creation [the anointed] when he said: This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled. This then would be a strong indication that some members of the new creation will be on the earth at the time of Armageddon." Watchtower 1927 Feb 15 p.62
1951 - Fixed Period, applied to worldly people, within lifetime of 1914
In 1951, during the time of Knorr, application of the generation reverted from the anointed back to worldly people upon whom judgement would fall. The starting point of the generation now became 1914.
"So it was on this generation that the accumulated judgments were to fall. (Matt. 23:36) This therefore means that from 1914 a generation shall not pass till all is fulfilled, and amidst a great time of trouble." Watchtower 1951 Jul 1 p.404
The most important aspect of this change was that Armageddon must come within the lifetime of people alive in 1914. From 1951 to 1995 the number of years that a generation can constitute changed numerous times in an effort to make the end imminent at the time of writing. One thing remained constant; some people born prior to 1914 would live through Armageddon, never to die.
To end by 1951: 37 year generation
In order to make it appear that Armageddon was about to occur in 1951, the length of time for a generation was said to be 36 ½ years (37 years). With 1914 as the start date this indicated the end was due in 1951, the time of writing of the new generation concept.
"By keeping the people ignorant they led them into having Jesus killed on a torture stake at Calvary. Thirty-seven years later this willfully cultivated ignorance led to its fatal consequences, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem with an enormous loss of human lives, just as Jesus had predicted, and the breaking up of the Jewish nation till this day. And now in this "time of the end" the revived nation of Israel with capital at the modern city of Jerusalem chooses to go on in the steps of its forefathers . . ." Watchtower 1950 Sep 1 p.277
"Counting from the end of the "appointed times of the nations" in 1914, we are 37 years into the "time of the end" of this world. (Luke 21:24, Dan. 12:4) During these crucial years Jehovah's witnesses have sought shelter and strength in him, and they can confess for themselves that he is a "well-proved help in trouble". If it were not for this, they would not be here today nor increasing in numbers. But we are entering the most serious and trialsome years of this "time of the end". The final conflict of Armageddon draws near." Watchtower 1951 February 15 p.179
To end 1960's - 70 Year Generation
After 1951 drew to a close without incidence a generation was extended to be possibly up to 70 or 80 years.
"The Bible does speak of a man's days as being threescore and ten or fourscore years; but it assigns no specific number of years to a generation.-Ps. 90:10. 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 a generation. There are hundreds of millions of persons living now that were living in 1914, and many millions of these persons could yet live a score or more years. Just when the lives of the majority of them will be cut short by Armageddon we cannot say." Watchtower 1952 Sep 1 pp.542-543
To coincide with 1975
In 1968 it was said that a person as young as 15 could "discern" the beginning of the time of the end. Add 70 or 80 years to a person born in 1899 and the generation was to end in the mid 1970's.
"Some of the generation that discerned the beginning of the time of the end in 1914 will still be alive on earth to witness the end of this present wicked system of things at the battle of Armageddon.-Rev. 16:14, 16." Watchtower 1968 May 1 p.272
"Jesus was obviously speaking about those who were old enough to witness with understanding what took place when the 'last days' began. ... Even if we presume that youngsters 15 years of age would be perceptive enough to realize the import of what happened in 1914, it would still make the youngest of 'this generation' nearly 70 years old today." Awake! 1968 October 8 p.13
To the Early 1980's
By revising the age of discernment down to 10, but excluding babies, the Watchtower led a reader to the realisation that in the early 1980's those of the generation were between "70 or 80 years old". (Ps 80:10)
"Thus, when it comes to the application in our time, the "generation" logically would not apply to babies born during World War I. It applies to Christ's followers and others who were able to observe that war and the other things that have occurred in fulfillment of Jesus' composite "sign."" Watchtower 1978 Oct 1 p.31
"As indicated by an article on page 56 of U.S. News & World Report of January 14, 1980, "If you assume that 10 is the age at which an event creates a lasting impression on a person's memory," then there are today more than 13 million Americans who have a "recollection of World War I." And if the wicked system of this world survived until the turn of the century, which is highly improbable in view of world trends and the fulfillment of Bible prophecy, there would still be survivors of the World War I generation. However, the fact that their number is dwindling is one more indication that "the conclusion of the system of things" is moving fast toward its end." Watchtower 1980 Oct 15 p.31
Detailed information was provided to prove how quickly the remaining ones of the 1914 era would die out.
"According to available statistics, in 1980 approximately 250,000,000 of those who were alive in 1914 were still living. That generation is not yet gone. Interestingly, however, of those born in 1900 or earlier, figures published by the United Nations indicate that only an estimated 35,316,000 were still alive in 1980. So the number drops quickly as individuals reach their seventies and eighties. When considered along with all the details of Jesus’ prophetic sign, these facts strongly indicate that the end is near." Survival into a New Earth (1984) p.28
The late 1980's
In 1984 discernment was no longer a criteria and babies started to be included in the generation, meaning that the generation were once again between 70 and 80.
"If Jesus used "generation" in that sense and we apply it to 1914, then the babies of that generation are now 70 years old or older. And others alive in 1914 are in their 80's or 90's, a few even having reached a hundred. There are still many millions of that generation alive." Watchtower 1984 May 15 p.5
In 1988 an expert was used to prove a generation is 75 years. A baby born in 1914 would be 75 in 1989, leading the reader to the conclusion that the end was imminent.
"J. A. Bengel states in his New Testament Word Studies: "The Hebrews . . . reckon seventy-five years as one generation, and the words, shall not pass away, intimate that the greater part of that generation [of Jesus' day] indeed, but not the whole of it, should have passed away before all should be fulfilled." This became true by the year 70 C.E. when Jerusalem was destroyed. Likewise today, most of the generation of 1914 has passed away. However, there are still millions on earth who were born in that year or prior to it. And although their numbers are dwindling, Jesus' words will come true, "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." This is yet another reason for believing that Jehovah's thieflike day is imminent." Watchtower 1988 April 8 p.14
Early 2000's - within lifespan of baby born in 1914
Eventually the generation was given no age limit; the only proviso was that some people born in 1914 would still be alive at Armageddon.
"Remember, Jesus said of those living through the last days, starting in 1914: "Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur." (Matthew 24:34) Yes, peace will really come within this generation but not through the nations' efforts." Watchtower 1991 Apr 15 p.7
1995 - Worldly People for an Unlimited Period
By the 1990's the generation teaching was reaching its physical limits, being more than 80 years since 1914. Many Witnesses could envisage the generation extending for a maximum human life time, so around 100 years after 1914, but nevertheless, the generation would at some stage end without Armageddon coming. In 1995 a dramatically different teaching was introduced, showing that the Governing Body did not trust Armageddon would be any time soon.
The 1995 teaching was simple to understand, but presented in unspecific terms to hide the controversy. Put simply, the end could arrive after every person born in 1914 has died out. The people born in 1914 form a collective generation with those born in following generations. Sometime in the future this ongoing generation will see the end. This could be tomorrow but it could also be in 200 years time. Clearly this teaching had been introduced to protect the organization from the very specific, wrong teaching of the last hundred years.
"Eager to see the end of this evil system, Jehovah's people have at times speculated about the time when the "great tribulation" would break out, even tying this to calculations of what is the lifetime of a generation since 1914. However, we "bring a heart of wisdom in," not by speculating about how many years or days make up a generation, but by thinking about how we "count our days" in bringing joyful praise to Jehovah. (Psalm 90:12) Rather than provide a rule for measuring time, the term "generation" as used by Jesus refers principally to contemporary people of a certain historical period, with their identifying characteristics. In line with the above, professor of history Robert Wohl wrote in his book The Generation of 1914: "A historical generation is not defined by its chronological limits . . . It is not a zone of dates." Therefore, in the final fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy today, "this generation" apparently refers to the peoples of earth who see the sign of Christ's presence but fail to mend their ways Is anything to be gained, then, by looking for dates or by speculating about the literal lifetime of a "generation"?... Does our more precise viewpoint on "this generation" mean that Armageddon is further away than we had thought? Not at all! Though we at no time have known the "day and hour," Jehovah God has always known it, and he does not change. (Malachi 3:6) Obviously, the world is sinking further and further toward terminal ruination. The need to keep awake is more critical than it has ever been. Jehovah has revealed to us "the things that must shortly take place," and we should respond with an absorbing sense of urgency." Watchtower 1995 Nov 1 p.20
"In the final fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy at Matthew 24:34-39, to what does the expression "this generation" refer? Jesus apparently refers to the peoples on earth who see the sign of Christ's presence but fail to mend their ways." Watchtower 1995 December 15 p.30
Further clarification of the new doctrine appeared in 1997.
"In that statement, Peter was clearly not being precise as to any fixed age or length of time, nor was he tying the "generation" to any certain date. He did not say that people should get saved from the generation that was born in the same year Jesus was or the generation that was born in 29 C.E. Peter was speaking about the unbelieving Jews of that period-some perhaps being rather young, others being older-who had been exposed to Jesus' teaching, had seen or heard of his miracles, and had not accepted him as Messiah.
It must be acknowledged that we have not always taken Jesus' words in that sense. There is a tendency for imperfect humans to want to be specific about the date when the end will come. Recall that even the apostles sought more specifics, asking: "Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?"-Acts 1:6.
So the recent information in The Watchtower about "this generation" did not change our understanding of what occurred in 1914. But it did give us a clearer grasp of Jesus' use of the term "generation," helping us to see that his usage was no basis for calculating-counting from 1914 - how close to the end we are." Watchtower 1997 Jun 1 p.28
The 1995 change was significant, as the generation teaching allowed "this generation" to extend for an unlimited period of time. The change was a result of necessity, but taking away a definitive time frame took away any sense of urgency and so had a detrimental affect on the growth of the organisation.
The concept was senseless, as it removed any meaning from Matthew 24:34. If "generation" refers to people of an ongoing period of time, there was no point saying "this generation will by no means pass away".
This was the first change of consequence for many Witnesses active in 1995. It prompted some to question the ability and right for the Organization to dogmatically direct their steps, concluding that these changes signify Watchtower teachings do not result from God's direction. For many years prior to 1995 the global growth rate of publishers was around 6%. Within the next 3 years it had dropped to 2% per annum. The growth rate of educated countries has been even more deeply affected. In 1991, 24 countries had zero or negative growth; in 2005 this had risen to over 50 countries. Whereas 30 years ago every 1,500 hours of witnessing resulted in one extra publisher, by 2000 it took over 5,000 hours. (See Watchtower Statistics)
2008 - Anointed Over the Last 2000 years
There was yet another generation doctrinal change in 2008.
"Previously, this journal has explained that in the first century, "this generation" mentioned at Matthew 24:34 meant "the contemporaneous generation of unbelieving Jews."* That explanation seemed reasonable because all other recorded uses that Jesus made of the term "generation" had a negative connotation, and in most cases, Jesus used a negative adjective, such as "wicked," to describe the generation. (Matt. 12:39; 17: 17; Mark 8:38) Thus, it was felt that in the modern-day fulfillment, Jesus was referring to the wicked "generation" of unbelievers who would see both the features that would characterize "the conclusion of the system of things" (syn-te'lei-a) and the system's end (te'/os).
"It is true that when Jesus used the word "generation" negatively, he was speaking to or about the wicked people of his day. But was that necessarily true of his statement recorded at Matthew 24:34? Recall that four of Jesus' disciples had approached him "privately." (Matt. 24:3) Since Jesus did not use negative qualifiers when speaking to them about "this generation," the apostles would no doubt have understood that they and their fellow disciples were to be part of the "generation" that would not pass away "until all these things [would] occur."
"On the other hand, Christ's faithful anointed brothers, the modern-day John class, have recognized this sign as if it were a flash of lightning and have understood its true meaning. As a class, these anointed ones make up the modern-day "generation" of contemporaries that will not pass away "until all these things occur."* This suggests that some who are Christ's anointed brothers will still be alive on earth when the foretold great tribulation begins." Watchtower 2008 Feb 15 pp.23-24
The generation was no longer said to refer to the unbelievers, but to Anointed believers. However, this does not bring Armageddon any closer. Since it was said that the calling of heavenly ones may not have closed, and with no suggestion for when this may occur, there was no limit to when "this generation" will die out.
With 2008 Watchtower doctrine, "generation" could no longer be used as a limiting word; it could extend infinitum; applied to the overlapping lives of contemporaries. There are a number of reasons why the view was of dubious merit.
- The New Testament applies the word generation consistently to evildoers in a negative connotation, yet the Watchtower applies this term on this specific occasion to the righteous anointed.
- Jesus statement that the generation would "by no means pass away" applied to a group that saw both his ministry and the destruction of Jerusalem. The term generation and statement that they will "by no means pass away" have becomes all but meaningless with current Watchtower doctrine.
- When Jesus made this statement there were no Anointed, as the Holy Spirit was not poured out until after his death at Pentecost 33A.D. Jesus is claimed to be applying the term "this generation" to a class that at the time of the statement did not even exist.
2010 - Anointed Generation of 1914 Overlaps with Current Anointed
The introduction of the 2010 Watchtower article explained that holy spirit is using the Slave to dispense increased light; ironic considering it is a contradictory merging of old light.
"13 Third, holy spirit is at work in bringing Bible truths to light. (Prov. 4:18) This magazine has long been used by the faithful and discreet slaveas the primary channel for dispensing increased light. (Matt. 24:45) For example, consider our understanding of those who make up this generation mentioned by Jesus. (Read Matthew 24:32-34.) To what generation did Jesus refer? The article Christs Presence What Does It Mean to You? explained that Jesus was referring, not to the wicked, but to his disciples, who were soon to be anointed with holy spirit. Jesus anointed followers, both in the first century and in our day, would be the ones who would not only see the sign but also discern its meaning that Jesus is near at the doors.
"14 What does this explanation mean to us? Although we cannot measure the exact length of this generation, 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 fulfillment of the various features of the sign clearly indicate that the tribulation must be near. By maintaining your sense of urgency and keeping on the watch, you show that you are keeping up with advancing light and following the leadings of holy spirit.Mark 13:37."
Watchtower 2010 Apr 15 p.10 Holy Spirits Role in the Outworking of Jehovahs Purpose
"John Barr made clear that the gathering wound not continue indefinitely. He referred to Matthew 24:34, which says: "This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur." He twice read the comment: "Jesus evidently meant that the lives of the anointed ones who were on hand when the sign began to be evident in 1914 would overlap with the lives of the other anointed ones who would see the start of the great tribulation." We do not know the exact length of "this generation," but it includes these two groups whose lives overlap. Even though the anointed vary in age, those in the two groups constituting the generation are contemporaries during the part of the last days. How comforting it is to know that the younger anointed contemporaries of those older anointed ones who discerned the sign when it became evident beginning in 1914 will not die off before the great tribulation starts!"
""The sons of the kingdom" eagerly await their heavenly reward, but all of us must remain faithful, shining brightly to the end. What a privilege we have to see the collecting of the "wheat" in our time."
Watchtower 2010 Jun 15 p.5
The Watchtower still holds that there was a first fulfilment to this Scripture relating to the first century, so really it is saying there are 3 groups - first century Christians, the 1914 anointed and the overlapping anointed alive today. The concept of an overlap is nonsense. Since there was no overlap for the first century group there is no basis that there would be today.
The overlap generation amounts to a complete revocation of the 1995 teaching, as once more it sets a time frame, and no longer included the wicked, but rather the anointed. It is an attempt to bring back the urgency of the pre-1995 teaching, but without setting any definable end date by which to be proven incorrect. The assumption is encouraged that the end will be shortly, within in the life of an anointed that was a contemporary of an anointed alive in 1914. If Armageddon does not arrive in that timeframe, it can then be extended to an anointed who knew an anointed who knew an anointed alive in 1914 - serial overlapping.
After so many revisions to this doctrine, it is farcical to claim this latest change is "advancing light" and "leadings of holy spirit." Anyone who was deceived into thinking the 1995 explanation was truth would do well to ask themselves if they can really trust that the 2010 incarnation is any less the rantings of men.
Who are the Generation
The Watchtower generally admits a generation is a short period of time. For example, Insight on the Scriptures explains:
"A generation commonly refers to all persons who were born about the same time. (Ex 1:6; Mt 11:16). Associated with this is the meaning “contemporaries”." Insight on the Scriptures - Vol 1 p.917
This is also the common meaning in English.
Random House Dictionary
1. the entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time: the postwar generation.
2. the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
Up until introducing the 2010 concept that overlapping lifespans constitute a single generation, the Watchtower has shown that overlapping lifespans are separate generations.
"Three or even four generations may be living at the same time, their lives overlapping. (Ps. 78:4; 145:4)" Watchtower 1952 Sep 1 p.542
The 2010 position of a multi-century overlapping generation has only been drawn upon to manipulate its interpretation of Matthew 24, but is contradictory to the context of the rest of Matthew.
Matthew 23:36 says, "Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation." The context of Matthew 24 shows Jesus was saying the group of people living around 33 A.D. would be alive at 70 A.D. It is dubious to think Jesus had a second fulfilment for our time, and completely unsupported to say the generation will last so long it requires an overlap.
A generation is generally regarded to be a group of people that live together at the same time, or about 30 years - the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. When Jesus made his statement regarding the generation, he meant the group that saw the signs would see the destruction of Jerusalem. The Governing Body has misapplied this statement, setting false expectations for many generations of Watchtower followers.
Witnesses are encouraged to keep a short term focus and for over 100 years Witnesses have been discouraged from having children, getting married and going to University. The Watchtower 1938 Nov 1 p.324 advised not to have children because the end was so near. Most of these followers have since passed away without the joy of rearing children and grandchildren.
By any logical definition, the 1914 generation is all but gone. This means either the generation teaching does not have a secondary fulfilment for our day, the Watchtower doctrine about 1914 is wrong, or they are wrong on both counts. As 1914 is the fundamental doctrine of the Watchtower, it does not bide well for the Watchtower's future interpretations. The Governing Body has alleviated proof its generation doctrine is wrong by removing any fixed time frame. But with the year 1914 quickly fading into obscure irrelevance, one must wonder when this core doctrine too will be discarded.