Did the Last Days start 1914?
"Yes, the world really changed in 1914!" Awake! 1981 May 8 p.8
Jehovah's Witnesses believe the Last Days commenced in 1914, supposedly evidenced by dramatic increases in sickness, famine, war, earthquakes and crime. This section shows these conditions have not become worse since 1914, and in most ways have greatly improved. For this reason, the Watchtower finds it necessary to resort to presenting inaccurate and misleading information to support its claims.
Apocalyptic religions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, believe the Last Days to be a short period of time; generally the one they presently live in. The Watchtower's founder, Russell, taught that the "time of the end" started in 1799, borrowing his complex eschatology from the nineteenth century Adventist movement. He claimed his lifetime, the 1800's, had the worst conditions in history, proving the Last Days would end in 1914.
"... our readers are writing to know if there may not be a mistake in the 1914 date. They do not see how present conditions can hold out so long under the strain." Watchtower 1894 Jul 15 p.224
The failure of each of Russell's Adventist predictions necessitated adjustments by the Watchtower's second leader, Rutherford, who moved the start of the Last Days into his own lifetime. Rutherford changed a nineteenth century explanation into a twentieth century one, and from the 1930's he said the Last Days started in 1914. (See Changed Dates.)
Currently the Watchtower points to the 20th and now 21st centuries as unique fulfilment of war, earthquake, pestilence and food shortage. This is not unusual; every century since Jesus has had its share of Christian sects claiming their century as the worst time in history. 300 years ago Newton wrote:
"This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."1
In order to support it's theory that Jesus unseen, heavenly rulership commenced 1914, the Watchtower calls 1914:
"… the "turning point" of modern history the pivotal one for mankind, because that is when the world entered a period of difficulty never before experienced on such an earth-wide scale." Watchtower 1980 Oct 15 pp.14-15
This is a serious misrepresentation of facts and by the end of this section, it should be clear that historical evidence proves there has never been a safer, more desirable period of time to live. Through this summary,2 it will be shown that these signs apply to every century since the time of Jesus.
Each century has suffered war, plague, food shortage and earthquakes. The 1200's were ravaged by these on scales greater than in the 1900's. However, most probably the worst period of time since Jesus was the fourteenth century, with ongoing catastrophes far outweighing those of the twentieth century. A major contributing factor, the "great famine" of Europe in 1315-1317, caused conditions so bad that parents are recorded as eating their own children. This led to a marked increase in crime, as recorded by historian George Lucas. In Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal T.F. Ruiz shows rape and murder were far more common in the fourteenth century than the twentieth. Warfare spanned the century, with the Mongols killing over 35 million Chinese in the early 1300's and in 1337 the longest war in history (the hundred year war between France and England) commenced. Like every century, ongoing earthquakes caused constant havoc, death and destruction. The weakened population then succumb to the Black death, a bubonic plague starting in 1347 that killed one third of Europe and caused in total over 70 million deaths. The result was that within a century the global population is estimated to have reduced from 450 million to only 350 million.
In the sixteenth century, comments from religious writers echo those made by the Watchtower today.
"6,000 years have elapsed since Creation, and the World should last no longer than that. God should then punish mankind with plague, starvation and death in the final days - and has He not done that?" Bishop Peter Palladius, 1555
"The World is so evil that it cannot grow any worse. A child 7 years old knows more about wickedness than old people did before. Fidelity and love exist no more. The signs in the Heavens cannot be misunderstood. There is blood, pain, suffering, devils and demons everywhere." Bishop Olaus Petri, c.1550
"The End is near." Historian and theologist John Carion, 1532
"A huge battle has taken place in the Heavens. Antichrist will be thrown out in 1672. There will then come a short period when the Word of Christ will be preached worldwide in all its purity and cleanness and clearity, before Christ will come for the second time." Theologian Andrew Osiander c.1550
It is the best time in all history to be alive
Conversely, life has improved since the industrial revolution. Tremendous advances touching most aspects of human life have resulted in global life expectancy at birth rising from 28.5 years to 68 years between 1800 and 2007. (Riley, Rising Life Expectancy). This is due to a lower proportion of war related deaths, almost incomprehensible increases in medical technology, more accountability for serious crime, better distribution of food during famine and greater preparedness for earthquakes.
You Can Live Forever on Earth makes the sensational claim that the Spanish flu was the deadliest ever.
"Right after World War I more people died of the Spanish flu than had died of any disease epidemic in the history of mankind. The death toll was some 21 million people!" p.151
The Spanish plague was not the deadliest epidemic in history, this false statement undermined not only by history, but even by an earlier Watchtower article.
"The article notes that the sixth-century plague of Justinian "supposedly claimed 100 million lives-but it endured for 50 years." The 14th-century bubonic plague was said to have taken 62 million lives world wide, but it lasted for three years." Watchtower 1977 Jun 15 p.359
Pestilence has scourged mankind since Jesus. For example, between 310 and 312 A.D. plague killed up to 99% of people in the Northwestern provinces of China. It attributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. Between 1346 and 1720 Europe suffered a plague on average every 6 years often affecting over 30% of the population. During the 1800's five Cholera pandemics killed around 100 million people.
After raging unchecked for the last 2000 years, pestilence was finally and dramatically reduced in the 20th century. An article entitled "Pestilence History of Public Health" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002 states;
"In terms of disease, the Middle Ages can be regarded as beginning with the plague of 542 and ending with the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348. Diseases in epidemic proportions included leprosy, bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, scabies, erysipelas, anthrax, trachoma, sweating sickness, and dancing mania. … The development of microbiology and immunology had immense consequences for community health. … Evidence of the effectiveness of this new phase of public health may be seen in statistics of immunization against diphtheria-in New York City the mortality rate due to diphtheria fell from 785 per 100,000 in 1894 to 1.1 per 100,000 in 1940.
You Can Live Forever on Earth continues with an additional line of inaccurate reasoning when it attempts to make heart trouble and cancer a part of Jesus' sign.
"Yet pestilence and disease continue to rage. Millions die each year from heart trouble and cancer." You Can Live Forever on Earth p.151
At Luke 21:11 the physician Luke used the Greek word loimoi as part of the sign. Loimoi refers to an infectious malady or pestilence as separate from the words nosos (disease) or malakia (sickeness). Therefore Jesus was not referring to an increase in heart disease and cancer.
Medical advances against pestilence and disease have resulted in significant increases in life expectancy over the last 100 years. A working paper from the Australian National University, states:
"The average length of human life has roughly doubled over the last 200 years. Most of this increase took place over the last 100 years. In Australia, life expectancy at birth was 57 years in 1901-1910 and increased to 80 years in 2000. During the early part of the century, the greatest gains were due to reductions in mortality from infectious and parasitic diseases at young ages, while during the later part reduced mortality from chronic diseases at middle and older ages was the dominant factor." Beyond three score years and ten: Prospects for longevity in Australia Heather Booth & Leonie Tickle
The Watchtower has regularly (and incorrectly) claimed that the greatest famines of all time have occurred post 1914.
"And in the wake of World War I came the greatest famine of all history." "Let Your Kingdom Come" p.122
"Shortly after World War I China had the biggest famine it ever had" From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained p.181
These comments are entirely false. Apparently they refer to the following famines.
"In 1921, famine brought death to some 5 million people in the U.S.S.R. In 1929, famine caused an estimated 3 million deaths in China. In the 1930's, 5 million died of hunger in the U.S.S.R. Just a few years ago prolonged drought in countries bordering the Sahara Desert resulted in countless refugees and up to 100,000 deaths." Watchtower 1983 Apr 15 pp.5-6
Once again Watchtower resorts to distorting reality to support its 1914 theory. Famine related deaths since 1914 pale into insignificance compared to prior centuries. During the 2000 years prior to World War I, the world had a terrible history of famine, with many thousands of famines being referenced by researchers such as F. Curschmann, L. Delisle and A. Schultz. To indicate how numerous famine was prior to 1914, and how much greater their affect, consider the following:
- China 1876 9 million deaths
- India 1876-78 5 million deaths
- Persia 1871-73 1.5 million deaths
- India 1865-66 3 million deaths
- China 1849 14 million deaths
- Ireland 1846 1 million deaths
- India 1769-70 10+ million deaths
- France 1709 1 million deaths
During the 1800's alone, over 100 million Chinese died from famine. Reports abound of people from China, India, Ireland and England resorting to cannibalism (including of their own children) in an attempt to survive.
Famine has dramatically decreased since 1914, as can be seen comparing the above figures regarding the 1800s with the 1983 Watchtower figures for the 1900s. India and China have virtually eradicated famine over the last 50 years. During the early 1980's, charities managed to limit deaths in drought stricken Africa to 1 million. Since then, a combination of advanced crop technology and global charity efforts make famine related deaths in the millions unheard of.
The article Global Hunger: Calamitous famine eradicated in last 50 years by the Associated Press, 12 October 2015 shows how striking the reduction in famine has been.
"The study, part of the 2015 Global Hunger Index, says it's one of the "unheralded achievements" of the past 50 years: the elimination of calamitous famines that cause more than 1 million deaths, and reduction "almost to a vanishing point" of great famines, which cause more than 100,000 deaths.
"The trends are striking," said author Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Until the middle of the 20th century, millions died of famine every decade — from 27 million in 1900-1909 and more than 15 million in the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to a low of 1.4 million in the 1990s. So far this century, the death toll is near 600,000." cnsnews.com
The decade before 1914 resulted in 27 million deaths from famine, the decade before 2014 less than 0.5 million. Considering the increase in population from 1.75 Billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010, famine related deaths are a mere 1.9% of what it was prior to 1914, despite Watchtower rhetoric that we are deep into the last days.
Possibly the most cited "proof" that Jesus started to rule in 1914 is that World War I started in that year. The Watchtower has attempted to present World War I as a unique turning point in history. Claims include:
"THE first world war was by far the widest and most destructive human conflict up to that time." Watchtower 1984 May 1 p.4
"No generation previous to that of 1914 ever experienced a world war, never mind two." Watchtower 1983 Jul 15 p.7
"Historians widely agree that World War I was the first war on a global scale." Awake! 1981 May 8 p.8
"World War I was an evidence of this, since it was so much worse than any war that had ever preceded it, which is why, at the time, it was called "The Great War." It was the first global or world war. It was total warfare and affected nearly every country on earth." Watchtower 1980 Oct 15 pp.14-15
Each of these comments is false. World War I was not the first "World" War, not the most destructive and not unique. Previous wars are also termed world wars, some involving more deaths and/or more countries. The following wars are all classified as world wars:
- The War of Spanish Succession 1702-1713
- The Seven Years' War 1756-1763
- The War of American Independence 1775-1783
- The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815
Halvdan Koht in Folkets Tidsalder (Stolkhome 1982) p.7 states that the Napoleonic Wars were "a more than twenty-year-long world war, fought on all continents". On the other hand The Great War of 1914 (as it was originally referred to) was largely limited to Europe.
The Watchtower provides sensational, but contradictory numbers of deaths for World War I.
- 37 million Awake! 1961 Feb 22 p.6
- 14 million Awake! 1971 Oct 8 p.16
- 21 million Awake! 1983 Oct 8 p.12
The generally accepted combined figure of soldier and civilian deaths for World War I is 10-12 million. This figure pales next to The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 that resulted in 40 million deaths, and is quite similar to the 10 million deaths of The Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648.
An even less truthful statement that the Watchtower has chosen to quote is at Watchtower 1975 Oct 15 p.633
"According to one study, World War I was reportedly seven times greater than all the 901 major wars of the previous 2,400 years"
This is a ludicrous statement, deaths from the 6 wars mentioned above alone come to many more times that inflicted by World War I.
The fact is that war has continued unabated throughout human history. The number of historical wars and war related deaths is hard to determine, not least as no one definition exists of what constitutes a war. Variables include whether or not to include civil war, how many deaths are required before being classified as a war, and whether to include the death of soldiers, civilians and deaths from resultant famine and disease. The massive extent of historical wars can be seen by a figure quoted by the Watchtower.
"As calculated by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in 1969, the world has known only 292 years of peace since 3600 B.C.E., whereas 14,531 wars have been fought." Watchtower 1983 Apr 1 p.3
Though not mentioned by the 1983 Watchtower, the above report went on to say that these 14,531 wars have resulted in 3,640,000,000 (3.6 billion) people killed! Francis Beer examined and confirmed these estimates. In light of such figures the accuracy of the following comment can be understood.
"Unlikely as it sounds, there may have been no significant change over time in the incidence of peace and war and in the casualties of violence." Francis Beer, Peace Against War (San Francisco, 1981) pp.46,47
World War II is considered to be the most destructive war of all. Yet, since then the world has entered what is considered histories greatest period of peace from war ever. War researchers such as Q. Wright and also Singer and Small show a reduction in the frequency and length of war in the 20th century.
In A History of Violence by Steven Pinker it is shown that violence and warfare has been decreasing over the centuries. Particularly is this true since the 1950's.
"Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade."
CREDIT: STEVEN PINKER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Watchtower publications, such as Survival into a New Earth (1984) p.23, make exaggerated claims of there being twenty times the number of earthquakes since 1914.
The frequency of earthquakes has not increased since 1914 and there has been no increase in the size of earthquakes. There has not even been more earthquake related deaths in the twentieth century, in comparison to some prior centuries. This information is readily available in encyclopaedias and from the United States Geological Survey website, which states:
"We continue to be asked by many people throughout the world if earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant. … According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 - 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year." earthquake.usgs.gov 27 Oct 2009
Watchtower claims to the contrary have been inaccurate and dishonest to such an extent that it warrants its own section and for detailed discussion please refer to Earthquakes since 1914.
"Space does not allow us to give further details of contempt for God's laws, but what has been presented clearly shows that since 1914 there is an increasing of lawlessness on a magnitude unlike any period in history!" Watchtower 1983 Jun 1 p.7
Studies of lawlessness over long periods of time show that society is becoming gentler and less violent. Crime rates rise and fall over periods of decades but over centuries history shows that prior to the 20th was at least as lawless as today. However, an unfortunate tendency of humans can be to focus on negatives, as seen by the concentration on the nightly news of the bad occurrences of the day along with the saying 'the good old days'. People of all centuries have been quick to complain about the rise in crime.
"Most nineteenth-century Englishmen were convinced that crime was increasing as never before; eighteenth century commentators were thoroughly alarmed by what they saw as a rising tide of violent criminality; and complaints of the imminent breakdown of law and order punctuated the Middle Ages." J.S. Cockburn, Crime in England 1500-1800, Princeton, New Jersey, 1977 p.49
Watchtower claims that lawlessness is now at unprecedented levels is baseless. I am sure few people wish they lived in the Dark Ages rather than today. Nor would they wish to live in centuries where religion enforced temple prostitution and human sacrifices. Large advances have been made in increasing women's rights and reducing violence against women. An indication of the constant threat of violence people of prior ages faced is walled castles, as explained in the following book.
"A longer view, peering into the middle ages, or even the eighteenth century, might well give more substance to the theory. With all our crime, our society as a whole is more secure, less savage, than theirs. The mere fact that towns had to be walled, that castles ha to provide refuge for the surrounding villagers and their belongings, that travelers had to take their own protection with them, bears witness to the constant threat of brigands as well as the needs of warfare." Sir Leon Radzinowics and Joan King, The Growth of Crime (London, 1977) pp.10,11
Research (such as by Lodhi and Tilly) show countries such as France have had a dramatic decline in crime per population.
"In most modern western countries the level of crime has been so reduced that the misdeeds of the few serve rather to provide the ordinary citizen with escapist entertainment than to instill a sense of fear." John Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages, London and Toronto, 1973, p.3
Christians were fed to lions for 300 years after the death of Jesus. A person can hardly compare the occasional soccer riots with the Roman gladiator games where people were forced to fight to their deaths.
Freakonomics explains that through the study of economics we are refining human behaviour, based on three incentives; economic, moral and social. It includes a table showing the fall in homicide rates over the last 900 years, to highlight how dramatic the improvements have been in the area of crime.
“Consider the historical trend in homicide (not including wars), which is both the most reliably measured crime and the best barometer of a society’s overall crime rate. These statistics, compiled by the criminologist Manuel Eisner, track the historical homicide levels in five European regions. The steep decline of these numbers over the centuries suggests that, for one of the gravest human concerns - getting murdered - the incentives that we collectively cook up are working better and better.“ Freakonomics pp.18,19 Revised edition 2006 SD Levitt & SJ Dubner
Pinker highlights how broad reaching the movement against violence has been in areas that we take for granted these days.
"... the 17th and 18th centuries ... saw the first organized movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism. Historians sometimes call this transition the Humanitarian Revolution." The Better Angels of Our Nature - Why Violence Has Declined Steven Pinker (2011 Viking Penguin) Preface
"Social histories of the West provide evidence of numerous barbaric practices that became obsolete in the last five centuries, such as slavery, amputation, blinding, branding, flaying, disembowelment, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and so on. Meanwhile, for another kind of violence-homicide-the data are abundant and striking. The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply-for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s." edge.org (Apr 3rd 2007) Quoting A History of Violence by Steven Pinker
Readers may find these figures hard to believe, and Pinker explains why.
"No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions." The Better Angels of Our Nature - Why Violence Has Declined Steven Pinker (2011 Viking Penguin) Preface
Population growth rates over time are a strong indication of the large death toll resulting from war, famine and pestilence prior to the 20th century. Population should increase exponentially, as has occurred during the 1900s. This was not the case prior to 1900. The Awake! 1967 September 8 p.4 shows that it took 1600 years from Jesus for the population to double from 250 million to 500 million, whereas it doubled again in just the next 200 years, and again in 100 hundred years. Since 1914 the population doubled in just 35 years.
Knowing that in prior to the 20th century pestilence and famine regularly used to claim 30% and sometimes up to 90% of entire populations explains why it took 1600 years to double since Jesus. As shown in the figures above, in the 1800's well over 250 million people died from famine, war, earthquake and pestilence, a huge percentage when the global population was barely 1 billion people, and most certainly not emulated since 1914. It is unfortunate that in a century of unprecedented peace and abundance the Watchtower is intent on convincing its members that life is the worst it has ever been.
When Did the Last Days Begin?
The Watchtower explains that:
- The Last Days mentioned by Paul, James and Peter,
- commenced at the end of the Gentile times3 indicated by Luke,
- as predicted by Daniel's Seven Times prophecy to begin 1914,
- and confirmed by Jesus' signs.
There is no specific reason to allow any of these connections.
The concept that the last days started in 1914 falls apart when considering Luke 21:28 which says:
"But as these things start to occur, raise yourselves erect and lift YOUR heads up, because YOUR deliverance is getting near."
As of 2013, there are very few still alive who saw "these things start to occur" in 1914, and within a few years there will be none left upon whom this deliverance will apply. This also affects the "generation" doctrine, resulting in the illogical "overlapping generation" teaching.
Peter showed that the Last Days started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 33 A.D. when he applied the prophecy of Joel to the first century.
Acts 2:17 "… 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 …"
When asked for a sign of his second coming, Jesus warned against following those who made claims the end had approached, adding that war and disorder were not signs of his imminence.
There have always been doomsday sects. Click here for a list of failed pre-1914 predictions.
Luke 21:7-11 ""Teacher, when will these things actually be, and what will be the sign when these things are destined to occur?" He said: "Look out that YOU are not misled; for many will come on the basis of my name, saying, 'I am he,' and, 'The due time has approached.' Do not go after them. Furthermore, when YOU hear of wars and disorders, do not be terrified. For these things must occur first, but the end does not [occur] immediately." Then he went on to say to them: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be great earthquakes, and in one place after another pestilences and food shortages; and there will be fearful sights and from heaven great signs."
These problems were to be ongoing and not a sign; the sign that deliverance is near was specifically stated in verses 25-28 as ones appearing in the sky;
"Also, there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth anguish of nations, not knowing the way out as these things start to occur, raise yourselves erect and lift YOUR heads up, because YOUR deliverance is getting near."
As shown by Peter, the Last Days has obvious reference to the outpouring or holy spirit at Pentecost 33 A.D. The signs of Jesus ended with the fall of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. Matthew 24 makes this point throughout; with references to the temple in verses 1-3, the holy place in verse 15, Judea in verse 16 and the Sabbath in verse 20.
Claiming the Last Days started in 1914 has necessitated the claim of two fulfillments, a minor and major one, though this has more to do with wishful thinking than Scripturally sound reasoning.
Worship should not be based on serving to a date or earning salvation at Armageddon; it should revolve around serving God. It is not necessary to know when Jesus Second Coming will be. Christianity manifests itself by showing love for God and love for neighbour regardless of when the end will come.
The tragedy of the doomsday mindset and Watchtower deception regarding world conditions, is it perpetuates negativity towards current life and a lack of appreciation for the great advances of the last century. Furthermore, it dissuades from attempts at further improvement. Such a pointless mindset is a blight on human nature, and many thousands of years ago Solomon categorises those that believe such as unwise:
Ecclesiastes 7:10 "Do not say: “Why has it happened that the former days proved to be better than these?” for it is not due to wisdom that you have asked about this."
1 Isaac Newton's Prophecies Revealed to Public for First Time in Jerusalem-Makes Prediction About Second Coming of Christ by AP/TN : Jun 20, 2007 : AP christianpost.com
2 Much of the following information has been referenced from The Signs of the Last Days - When?, Carl Olof Jonsson, Wolfgang Herbst (Commentary Press 1987). This book contains a detailed analysis on the signs, supported by numerous secular quotes.
3 The term "Gentile Times" never appears in the New World Translation of the Bible, yet is used over 500 times in the Watchtower during the 50 years between 1950 and 2002. It originates with Luke 21:24 - "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations, until the appointed times of the nations are fulfilled."
Written 2006. Latest update Oct 2015.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2015