Jehovah’s Witnesses are constantly encouraged by the Watchtower Society to maintain a sense of urgency in the belief that this old system of things will soon be destroyed and replaced with Christ’s millennial reign over a paradise earth. Because of the perceived urgency of the times, young Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged not to pursue higher education and normal plans for a career and have even been advised to consider putting off marriage and having children in favour of pioneering and other activities considered to be ‘putting Kingdom interests first’. One of the major premises underpinning this attitude in the organisation is the belief that we have been living in the ‘last days’ since 1914 and that the generation of 1914 would not die off before Armageddon comes.
“If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the “last days” in 1914, Jesus foretold: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” Awake! 1969 May 22 p.15
The Watchtower Society has changed its understanding many times on what Jesus meant by ‘generation’ at Matthew 24:34. If one assumes that Jesus’ words have a future, secondary fulfillment beyond the first century, this verse has a particular fascination for Jehovah’s Witnesses since they believe the ‘generation’ that Jesus spoke about is inextricably linked to the beginning of the ‘last days’ which they believe began in 1914.
A quick search using a Watchtower CD Rom will identify about a dozen changes over the years. The earliest interpretation possibilities given by Charles Taze Russell in 1897 were:
“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 and a 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 most enduring interpretation was that the ‘generation’ was the natural life-span of persons who were alive at the beginning of the ‘last days’ in 1914. This was understood to be a typical, natural life-span counting from 1914, if we included babies born in 1914. For many years this was presented as a fundamental Bible truth by Jehovah’s Witnesses in a ‘Bible study’ with interested persons using the 1992 book ‘You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth’. This is an illustration from that book:
This interpretation was for many years also presented in the Awake magazine’s masthead statement as the ‘Creator’s promise’:
Then in November 1995, the masthead statement was changed to remove any reference to a generation from 1914:
The Society realized it was backed into a corner and something needed to give.
So in a series of Watchtower articles in November 1995, the Watchtower dropped the idea that the generation could be calculated in terms of a fixed human life-span from 1914 in favour of the following vague definition:
“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.” – Watchtower Nov 1, 1995, p.20.
The 1995 change was problematic since it basically removed any meaning from Matthew 24:34. Many felt that, contrary to the Watchtower’s statement, if the term was not used by Jesus to provide a rule for measuring time and instead meant something more like an era or epoch, there was no point saying “this generation will by no means pass away.” The result was a loss of a sense of urgency and confusion amongst many Jehovah’s Witnesses, with an accompanying detrimental effect on the growth of the organisation, particularly in the western world where many countries, for the first time, reported zero or negative growth.
In 2008, the 1995 definition was adjusted again to mean that the generation was no longer said to refer to unbelievers but to anointed believers. This definition still meant that, technically, there was no limit to when “this generation” will die out. With the Society admitting in 2007 that the calling of the anointed evidently did not end in 1935, it meant the ‘generation’ could conceivably last as long as the life-time of the youngest member of the ‘anointed’ – “Thus it appears that we cannot set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.” – Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.31). With increasing numbers of persons, some as young as in their 20’s, partaking of the memorial emblems from 2007, this would allow for the ‘generation’ of anointed persons to extend practically indefinitely. This new understanding seemed to remove any link to the ‘generation’ of 1914.
This problem was apparently noticed by the Society, so in 2010 the interpretation morphed again into its current version:
The link to 1914 was thus re-established. This latest definition meant that as long as the life of the very oldest anointed person who was alive in 1914 (even as a baby) overlaps with the very youngest member of the ‘anointed’ class, then the ‘generation’ that Jesus ‘evidently’ meant could still exist. So, for example, if there is a member of the anointed class who was born in 1914 that is now 98 years old (in 2012), and at last year’s memorial somebody only 20 years old partook of the emblems, there exists an overlapping generation fitting this new interpretation that could potentially be extended out to, say, the year 2082 if that 20 year old lives to be 90 years old and keeps taking the emblems. If Armageddon starts in the year 2082, then according to this latest definition, the generation Jesus meant will not have passed away!
In a 2014 Watchtower article, the Society has tried to clarify this latest interpretation to rule out the possibility of another 60 or 70 years perhaps passing, as illustrated above, before this new “overlapping” generation could theoretically expire, stating:
“We understand that in mentioning “this generation,” Jesus was referring to two groups of anointed Christians. … They were anointed with holy spirit during the time that those of the first group were still on earth. … Today, those in this second group are themselves advancing in years. Yet, Jesus’ words at Matthew 24:34 give us confidence that at least some of “this generation will by no means pass away” before seeing the start of the great tribulation.” Watchtower 2014 Jan 15 p.31
With this latest twist, it appears the Society is trying to put some limits on what the “overlapping generation” means chronologically so as to maintain some sense of urgency about the preaching work. The spin now appears to be that the first group would have been anointed in 1914 in order to qualify as part of that group (a view they abandoned many years ago but have now restored), and that before that first group died-off, persons belonging to the overlapping second group must also have existed as anointed ones. Therefore both groups could not include babies, young children or teenagers. So, for example, if the youngest anointed person in the first group was, say, 20 years old in 1914 and died in 1984 having lived to a good old age of, say, 90, then similarly the youngest of the second overlapping group who was, say, 20 years old in 1984 could also live to 90, finally dying in 2054. Thus, despite the latest 2014 clarification, this post-2010 “overlapping generation” theory still means the end of this system could still be many decades away.
Yes, this is what Jesus “evidently meant” at Matthew 24:34.
Needless to say, increasing numbers of intelligent Jehovah’s Witnesses are finding this pretty difficult to swallow as being “new light” from God, and a sense of disillusionment has set in. Many long-serving Jehovah’s Witnesses who for decades believed it was the “Creator’s promise” that the generation that saw the events of 1914 would not pass away before the end comes are especially feeling disaffected and bitter. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses have sacrificed tertiary education, good careers, marriage and children, buying a house, saving for retirement, because of believing that the end is very close, certainly no further away than the last of the generation born in 1914. There is a real feeling among many Jehovah’s Witnesses that the teaching has become an embarrassing, patched-up creed, long since proven false by the march of time.
How long is a Bible generation?
The Society can stop speculating on what Jesus meant at Matthew 24:34 because the Bible clearly interprets itself on this matter, as follows:
Speaking about the rebellious attitude of the nation of Israel who had came out of Egypt under Moses it says at Numbers 14:29: ‘All your registered ones, from 20 years old upward who complained (vs30) will not enter into the promised land (vs33). They will become shepherds in the wilderness forty years to answer for your acts’. Then at Numbers 32:13 it says ‘God made them wonder in the desert for forty years until all that generation that offended God came to their end.’ So, all that generation with a minimum age limit of 20 years came to its end from God’s stand point 40 years later. Jehovah held responsible for their actions all registered males of 20 years and above (Num 14:29). God referred to the full time limit of one generation as being 40 years (Num 32:13). Interestingly, God told Moses that the price of a vow made by a male person in the 40 prime years of their life, between the age of 20 to 60 was 50 shekels, the highest price (Lev 27:2-3, Deu 1:35, 39, 2:14-16, 32:5).
Moving to the Christian Greek Scriptures, Matthew chapter one lists 42 (14 + 14 + 14) generations from Abraham to Jesus (some debate over this – anywhere between 41-46 generations). “So all the generations from Abraham to David [are] fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon [are] fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ [are] fourteen generations.”- Matthew 1:17
The number of years from Abraham’s birth to Jesus’ birth is understood to be about 2000 years, according to accepted Bible chronology. That averages out to about 48 years for each generation. A bible generation therefore has a limit of between 40-48 years.
Backing this up, when Jesus sat on a hilltop in 33CE having discussed the destruction of the temple mount and he told the group of followers that “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things are fulfilled”, what would they have understood him to mean? Surely that they and their contemporaries, men around say 30 years old, would see the end of it, which they did when Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. The generation Jesus spoke to in April of the year 33CE saw the predicted end of the Jewish system which occurred 37 years later in the year 70CE, all within a 40 year generation period. It could truly be said that this first century generation by no means passed away before the events foretold by Jesus came true. We would expect any second, modern day application to parallel this.
When Jesus stated that by no means would this generation pass away until “all” these things occur, it would indicate that, according to God’s definition, a 40 year generation of time would definitely not come to its end before “all” these things would occur in any modern-day fulfillment. If, as some believe, the last generation started in 1914, then we should expect God to have brought about all the things that were to happen within this last generation before 40 years lapsed, or by 1954 at the very latest. But that never happened.
100 years have nearly elapsed since 1914. By no reasonable stretch of the imagination can it be said that the generation, with its youngest adult of say 20 in 1914, now 120 years old, could be the generation Jesus spoke of. And as for the Society’s latest interpretation of what Jesus “evidently meant” at Matthew 24:34, to put it bluntly, it is an insult to one’s intelligence. As demonstrated, the Bible provides clear guidance on what Jesus really meant but the Watchtower Society has altered that meaning to effectively mean an era or epoch. The Watchtower leadership has effectively abandoned letting the Bible interpret itself on the matter, instead opting for a secular, forced interpretation that is well beyond what the scriptures say on the subject. The Society doesn’t even bother anymore to attempt to justify their latest position scripturally. Even from a secular point of view, the definition stretches all credulity. Anyone who has a “love of the truth” (2 Thess 2:10), despite any fierce loyalty to the Watchtower Society, has to reject the interpretation.
All of this helps us realize that it is not what Jesus meant by ‘generation’ that is the problem, since he did indeed use it as a rule for measuring time, as demonstrated by his words at Matt 24:34 being fulfilled within a 40 year period from 33 AD to 70 AD. What the problem is, is how the Watchtower Society insists that the start of the “generation” began in the year 1914, resulting in increasingly ridiculous interpretations.
What can the Society do?
Assuming the Society has no intentions of ever abandoning its 1914 teaching, there appears to be four options for it to take regarding the meaning of ‘generation’ in Matthew 24:34:
1 Stick with the current interpretation, despite the fact it is clearly not what Jesus meant and is an obviously artificial interpretation being twisted to fit around the organisation’s 1914 eschatology.
2 Abandon the latest untenable interpretation in favour of a new interpretation. One of the interpretations by C T Russell quoted at the beginning of this article, ie, that a scriptural human generation may be considered to have its upper limit at 120 years would be a possibility. It at least has some scriptural precedent, unlike the current ridiculous interpretations. And 120 years is more or less the actual physical limit of human longevity today. Interestingly, a December 15, 2003 Watchtower article (copy partially reproduced below) appeared to allude to such an interpretation. The problem in formally adopting such an interpretation though, is that it would create an expectation that the generation will expire in 2034 (1914 + 120 years = 2034 AD), only 20 years away. This would create a renewed sense of urgency in Jehovah’s Witnesses minds, but when 2034 comes and goes without Armageddon, it will be yet another time-based prediction by the Society that failed, potentially leading to a massive disillusionment and stumbling similar to what was experienced after 1975 came and went uneventfully. It is unlikely the Society would ever take this risk again. The Society’s current interpretation, as discussed earlier, effectively buys them a lot more time well beyond 2034.
3 Coming up with a totally new interpretation that is no longer connected to 1914.
Given the Society’s track-record of flip-flopping and regular revisions on the subject, it would not be surprising to see more fanciful interpretations presented as ‘new light’ in years to come, especially if the sense of urgency starts to really drop off. Eventually the Society may come up with something completely new that no longer has 1914 as the starting date. For example, it could be announced that the “generation” is the same as the “flesh” and “chosen ones” referred to in Matthew 24:22 who will be saved during the great tribulation; or broadly speaking, the “generation” is simply interpreted to mean the “great crowd” that passes through the great tribulation. Such a view, however, would require an accompanying radical overhaul of the organisation’s long-cherised 1914 parousia/”composite sign”/last days eschatalogy in favour of reinterpreting most of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 to apply to a shorter future great tribulation rather than a lengthy period of time from 1914 – something we are unlikely to ever see the Watchtower Society do in the foreseeable future, despite very strong arguments that can be put forward for such a different interpretation.
4 Eliminating any modern day application of Matthew 24:34 (and parallel verses) and confining it to a first century fulfillment only.
This fourth option is in fact the interpretation favoured by most academic and religious Bible commentators, who assert that it was a reference by Jesus about the destruction of first century Jerusalem only. The Society has in fact noted in Watchtower study articles that many of Jesus’ prophesies had a first century fulfillment only.
The Society is in a quandry with options 1 and 2. The first option is completely unscriptural and is a cause of disconfirmation and stumbling for increasing numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With each passing year, Jehovah’s Witnesses are becoming increasingly disillusioned at how long this system of things is lasting and how unsatisfactory the Society’s explanations for this are. The second option creates a new date prediction for the end of this old system of things with the prospect of a massive stumbling should the end not come by 2034. Any other interpretation that falls between these options suffers the same problems. I strongly doubt the Watchtower will ever will take up the fourth option of deferring to a view taught by secular Christendom and academia. Instead, I expect the Society will continue with the current “overlapping generation” view in some form or other for many years to come until about 2034 or so. Some time after that, with mileage from the overlapping generation theory used up and in the face of worsening growth and increasing pressure to reform, the Society will finally settle for the third option – a radically new interpretation totally divorced from the year 1914 altogether, probably done in conjunction with radical reinterpretations of other prominent 1914 based teachings.