Jehovah’s Witnesses believe we are living in the “Last Days”: A period that allegedly began in 1914 and will culminate in Armageddon, when God will destroy all wicked. Jehovah’s Witnesses point to world developments – wars, earthquakes, human suffering – to prove fulfillment of Bible prophecy is upon us. Is this true? Are we living in the last Days?
“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.”
If you are a Christian who believes in the last Days, the sentiments in above quote probably sound familiar. And the author is most definitely describing the times we are living in, right? Wrong. The words were uttered by one Bishop Olaus Petri in 1550. The truth is: Christians have been living in the Last Days since forever.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only group who believe we are living in the Last Days. Websites like AreWeLivingInTheLastDays.com, articles like “50 Reasons we are living in the Last Days“, “Proof we are living in the last days” or even “Are we living in the last of the Last Days?” show that this subject is of great importance to many Christian faiths. All of them use the same Bible passages. In this article, we will analyze the evidence using the Jehovah’s Witness translation of the Bible.
How do Jehovah’s Witnesses try to prove we are living in the ‘conclusion of this system of things’?
For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another. 8 All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress.
There will be great earthquakes, and in one place after another food shortages and pestilences;+ and there will be fearful sights and from heaven great signs.
But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having an appearance of godliness but proving false to its power; and from these turn away.
In fact, these are the exact scriptures Jehovah’s Witnesses use as evidence to prove we are living in the Last Days in their Bible study manual What does the Bible really teach?. In a chapter with the subheading ‘Major Developments of the Last Days‘, the Watchtower Society tries to provide evidence for their claim by analyzing above scriptures point by point.
It is important to note that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe the mere existence of these developments to be proof of the Last Days. Rather, an overall increase of all of these events and their fall out supposedly points to the times we are currently living in.
How does Jehovah’s Witness interpretation fare? Using data freely available (and kindly compiled by historian Max Roser (2015), published online at OurWorldInData.org), let us take a look and compare the biblical prophecy to the numbers recorded since the alleged start of the Last Days in 1914.
1. “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:7)
Have there been more wars and war deaths since 1914? Do the numbers substantiate the claim that things have gotten worse since the alleged beginning of the Last Days?
No. The number of people who died in wars has declined since 1945:
The rate of war deaths relative to the world population is declining even faster:
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.
He goes on to establish:
Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.
As unbelievable as it may seem, violence is declining. Wars have also declined since the end of the Cold War, and the increase before that predominantly an increase of smaller and smaller conflicts. All in all, wars have become less and less deadly. The numbers are in, and they don’t lie:
“Large parts of the world have now been peaceful for an unprecedented long period. Although wars are still fought, the world is now more peaceful than ever.”
2. “There will be food shortages.” (Matthew 24:7)
Between 1914 and the 1960s, there were a lot of famines. But since the 70s they have rapidly declined. Also, the share of undernourished people per country has declined since 1990, as the following comparison of data illustrates:
The data also tells us that while there are more and more people to feed there is still more and more for each one of us. Max Roser concludes:
As we are certainly heading in the right direction, it is also true that we are surely not where we want to be. Technological progress, better institutions, research and education ended malnutrition in parts of the world – and this is certainly not a small achievement – but we have to continuously improve to end malnutrition for everyone.
So, yes, all is not well – but it is certainly not true that there is an increase in famines and malnutrition that indicates we are living in the biblical Last Days.
3. “There will be great earthquakes.” (Luke 21:11)
First up: There have always been great earthquakes. Have they increased since 1914? This one is difficult and it depends a lot on which perspective you take. One source from 2012 tells us:
Scientists analyzed the historical record of earthquakes greater than 8.0 in magnitude and concluded that the global frequency of large earthquakes is no higher today than it has been in the past.
It is also noteworthy it was only in 1897 that a global network of seismographs was established. Records for the magnitude of earthquakes before this date are sparse. Judging by the number of casualties, the deadliest recorded earthquake occurred in 1556 in China, killing 830,000 people. In fact, of 13 earthquakes with 100,000+ deaths, 6 of them happened before 1914. In total, the number of deaths through natural catastrophes has significantly declined:
In comparison, the past two decades have seen an increase in deaths through earthquakes which is mainly down to more densely populated areas and an overall higher population. But has the total of earthquakes increased? Taking a look at the data, it is evident that there was a slight peak in the 90s but the number of earthquakes has fairly stabilized at about 150 per year. As this blogger concludes:
If every earthquake was a harbinger of an impending apocalypse then I think I would go look for a different omen or live in perpetual disappointment.
On the other hand, “a new study finds there were more than twice as many big earthquakes in the first quarter of 2014 as compared with the average since 1979.”
What do we take from this?
The evidence is not as clear as with the other signs of the Last Days. As it seems, there has indeed been an increase in earthquakes in the past years. But is significant enough to denote the Last Days? Doubtful. Apart from that, even one single fulfilled sign wouldn’t be enough to be counted as fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
4. “There will be . . . pestilences.” (Luke 21:11)
Jehovah’s Witnesses introduce this paragraph by saying: “Despite medical advances, old and new diseases plague mankind.” This is the sort of overgeneralization Jehovah’s Witnesses like to use that is seldom wrong but makes an inference that is incorrect. What do the facts say? This chart sums it up pretty well:
To add to this, take a look at the reduction of vaccine-preventable diseases after the introduction of the vaccine in the US:
This particular sign of the Last Days especially illustrates how Jehovah’s Witnesses are clutching at straws to find evidence for the ‘conclusion of this system of things’:
In terms of illnesses, the world has never been a safer place. Even last year’s Ebola outbreak doesn’t change the data significantly. Never before in human history have less people been ill, never before have we as a race eradicated so many diseases. If increasing pestilences are a sign for the Last Days, then they are not anywhere close.
5. “What traits foretold at 2 Timothy 3:1-5 do you see in people today?”
Aside from identifying certain world developments, the Bible foretold that the last days would be marked by a change in human society. The apostle Paul described what people in general would be like. We are told: “In the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.” (Read 2 Timothy 3:1-5.) Paul said that people would be
lovers of themselves
lovers of money
disobedient to parents
having no natural affection
lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God
having an appearance of godliness but proving false to its power
Have people become like that in your community? No doubt they have. There are people everywhere who have bad traits.
What do the facts tell us? Are we as a species worse than before 1914? Well, the criteria mentioned in 2 Timothy isn’t really helpful, because humans have always been egotistical, materialistic, disrespectful, hedonistic etc. But let’s take a step back and look at it differently: One would expect a society full of narcissistic, fierce, hedonistic personalities without self-control to be full of violence and debauchery, wouldn’t one?
Rape has declined. There has also been a significant shift toward postmaterialist values. Steven Pinker states that “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.”
Bonus: “Then people will hand you over to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.”
It is interesting that the book What does the Bible really teach? does not elaborate on another so-called sign of the Last Days: Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The belief this would happen is based on Matthew 24:9. All-out persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses supposedly is a sign we are living in the Last Days. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim:
The Bible foretold that persecution of true Christians would reach a climax during the last days.
Not surprisingly, Satan continues to use frontal attacks in the form of persecution. Since the end of World War II, dozens of lands have imposed governmental bans on the Christian educational work of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
How does this sign match up to reality? First, we should establish what religious persecution denotes:
Religious persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or lack thereof.
It has also been defined as
“the act of harassing, oppressing, or killing people because of their difference from society.”
Without any doubt, Jehovah’s Witnesses have indeed been subject to discrimination and persecution throughout their history. In Germany, Mozambique and Malawi, Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured and killed; in Bulgaria, Russia, Eritrea or South Korea they are still being discriminated because of their belief today. So, yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been and are still being persecuted in some parts of the world – but has persecution reached a climax on a global scale?
It is striking that Jehovah’s Witnesses nowadays already think they are being persecuted when they stumble upon an apostate website with disconcerting information that makes them question their beliefs. This attitude would make their brothers and sisters in Germany, Malawi, Angola and other countries who suffered and died for their faith turn in their graves. Being exposed to objective criticism is definitely not harassment, let alone persecution. But this misunderstanding explains why so many Witnesses erroneously believe persecution has increased and this particular sign is seeing its fulfillment. But is it?
Looking at religions in general, discrimination is actually declining. Between 2012 and 2013 countries with Government restrictions on religions decreased by 43 %, global restrictions even decreased by 60 %. The number of countries where Christian groups are being harassed decreased between 2012 and 2013 and this number has been pretty stable since 2007.
Once a year, Jehovah’s Witnesses publish their annual report entitled Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A couple of pages are always devoted to the Grand Totals, a country-by-country rundown of hours spent preaching by how many members. The last row in 2015 (as every year) is: 30 other lands, featuring over 39,000 Witnesses. These are lands in which the work (as in: practicing the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses) is banned and Jehovah’s Witnesses may be persecuted for preaching and worshiping. The number of lands has been stable since 1985. Taking the total of countries the Watchtower Society is active in into account, the percentage of lands where Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned and may be persecuted has decreased from 14.6 % to 12.5 % between 1985 and 2015, while the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses has increased globally.
Reviewing the annual Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we also notice a steady decline of the mentions of ‘persecution’ in the past decades. Which is noteworthy, as being persecuted is one of the Watchtower Society’s Unique Selling Propositions. The following chart tells us there is less persecution to be reported on than in the past:
While not being conclusive, the chart does indicate that the overall situation for Jehovah’s Witnesses has improved on a worldwide scale. Persecution is not reaching a climax. Rather, data suggests it is declining.
We do not know what will happen in the future and how religions will be viewed in the coming years. But it is safe to say that the alleged sign of the last days – persecution of true Christians in general and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular – has not seen its fulfillment yet; at least it isn’t exclusive to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But why do Doomsday cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses insist we are living in the ‘conclusion of this system of things’?
Well, for one, the world is far from being perfect. Steven Pinker rightly says:
Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.
Which means: If you look for signs, you will find them. This is what we call the Observational Selection Bias. If you are expecting more wars, more earthquakes, more pestilences, you will start noticing them everywhere and believe the frequency has increased.
Also, as the quantity of our access to information increases, more events get covered than before. Yes, maybe some historians (the Jehovah’s Witnesses who like to quote them) are correct in inferring that the number of recorded wars has ridden since the middle-ages. But as political scientist James Payne points out, this may show only that “the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth-century monks.”
In other words: Since we hear more about catastrophic events, we automatically assume they have increased. Therefore, Bible Prophecy is being fulfilled, we believe. This fallacy is called the Availability Heuristic. This is a mental shortcut which makes us base decisions on information that spring to mind easily. “For example, after seeing several news reports about car thefts, you might make a judgment that vehicle theft is much more common than it really is in your area”, explains this website. We are biased towards the latest news. Hence, it seems the world has gotten worse, when in fact it hasn’t.
The numbers are in and they leave no doubt: The world has never been a better place to live in. The so-called prophecies Jehovah’s Witnesses base their claim on are one size fits all: You could apply them to any century in human existence and get it right. Data tells us there has been no significant increase in events described in biblical prophecy. Rather, most of the numbers have been steadily declining since 1914. There is absolutely no evidence that we are living in the Last Days.
Thank you to Max Roser for his research. This article uses data compiled by Max Roser (2015) – ‘Our World in Data’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: http://ourworldindata.org/ [Online Resource]