To apocalyptic movements the “end” has always been at hand. Without doubt this has been the key to their success. How many people wouldn’t like our world of endless problems to disappear and be replaced by a better one? Any movement that is able to keep such expectations alive has a guaranteed increase.
War and Peace as “Signs of the Times”
Such expectations are created by interpreting different world events as prophetic ‘signs’, which indicate that the end is close. There are always Scriptures which, by the aid of a little imagination, can be applied to the current world situation. In times of war Jesus’ words about “nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt. 24:7) are quoted. And during more peaceful periods attention is drawn to other biblical statements. At such times the Watch Tower Society has commonly referred to the words of the apostle Paul at 1 Thessalonians 5:3. This text says, according to the New World Translation:
“Whenever it is that they are saying: ‘Peace and security!’ then sudden destruction is to be instantly upon them just as the pang of distress upon a pregnant woman; and they will by no means escape.”
The Society interprets this text as follows, according to The Watchtower of May 15, 1984, page 6:
“This prophecy makes it clear that, just prior to the end of this system of things, ‘peace and security’ will be declared in some exceptional way, whether by the United Nations or independently by political and religious leaders. What will follow that declaration? Paul said: ‘Then sudden destruction will be instantly upon them.’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 3”
An “Unmistakable Sign”?
Seventy-six years have now passed since 1914, when, according to the Society, the ‘last generation’ began. That the present peace efforts have heightened the expectations among Jehovah’s Witnesses is, therefore, nothing to wonder at.
Thanks to Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ policy a new period of relaxation between the great powers has developed. A number of protracted wars have ended, the dictatorships in Eastern Europe are falling, and important steps have been taken in the negotiations on peace and disarmament. Will this development result in a proclamation of “Peace and Security” around the world? This is, at least, what Jehovah’s Witnesses are now being led to look for.
According to the Society, such a proclamation will be “the signal for God to move into action”, yes, “an unmistakable signal that world destruction is imminent.” – Awake!, April 8; 1988, page 14; “True Peace and Security – How Can You Find It?” (1986), page 85.
But how “unmistakable,” really, is the “signal” the Witnesses have been told to look for? Most of them are completely unaware of the fact that the Society repeatedly during its past history has proclaimed that the period of “peace and security” is immediately at hand, or even that this period already has begun. Each time, however, the “unmistakable signal” has turned out to be a mistake!
“Peace and Security” in the Period 1899-1914
Towards the end of his life Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Society, arrived at the conclusion that 1 Thessalonians 5:3 was fulfilled in the period 1899-1914. When, during a question and answer session at a convention in 1915, he was asked how this text should be understood, he answered:
“We think that this saying of ‘peace! peace!’ has been going on for some years. The Church systems and everybody have been claiming, ever since the first Peace Conference at The Hague (in 1899), that war had to come to an end, that we were having the time of peace that the Bible tells us about.”According to Russell’s interpretation, this period of “peace and security” was cut off in 1914 by the “great tribulation”, which was to culminate in the predicted world destruction. – See the book: What Pastor Russell Said (written by L. W. Jones, a close associate of Pastor Russell), page 529
Peace and Security in 1918
Russell’s interpretation turned out to be shortlived. In 1917, when world developments indicated that the war, instead of culminating in world destruction, would soon come to an end, Russell’s interpretation was changed by the new president, J. F. Rutherford. The war would end, he wrote, and be followed by “a short period of peace,” when the people would say “Peace” in accordance with 1 Thess. 5:3. Soon after that the end would come. – The Watch Tower, Jan. l, 1917, pp. 4-5; Dec.1, 1917, p. 358
“Peace and Security” in the 1930s
The “sudden destruction” expected to follow quickly upon the peace that commenced in 1918 turned out to be long in coming. In the middle of the 1930s, therefore, the time was due for a new application of the ‘peace prophecy’. Thus, in 1936, Rutherford, in the booklet Choosing Riches or Ruin?, wrote that they “now” were in the period when the prophetic words in 1 These. 5:3 would be fulfilled. But prior to this imminent peace period, Rutherford predicted, the nations on earth, headed by religious leaders, would silence the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thereafter they would proclaim “Peace and security” worldwide. – See also pages 291-294 of the book Enemies, published in 1937. On page 293 of the latter book Rutherford wrote:
“The old ‘whore’ (Roman Catholic Church) sitting upon the back of the beast may soon be expected to say: ‘Peace and safety; we have silenced all opponents.’ Then Jehovah’s ‘strange act’ will begin, and sudden destruction comes upon her ‘as travail upon a woman with child’.”
“Peace and Security” After 1945
In 1939, however, World War II broke out without having been preceded by the predicted world peace. Once again, therefore, Rutherford had to postpone the peace period. In 1940 he foretold that the war would soon be interrupted by a brief peace period, immediately followed by God’s war Armageddon. – The Watchtower August 15, 1940, page 246 and September 1, 1940, pp. 259, 260, 265, 266.
Early in 1942, in the middle of the war, Rutherford died. His successor, N. H. Knorr, stuck to this latest interpretation. In the booklet Peace – Can It Last?, published in 1942, Knorr explained that the peace period soon to come “will be very short-lived”, as it would quickly be followed by the battle of Armageddon. (Page 26)
But the peace period that began after the end of the war in 1945 was not to become as “short-lived” as the Watch Tower Society had predicted! We are, in fact, still living in that peace period! Historians now point out that such a long era of peace between the great powers is unique in history! Historian Robert Jarvis, for instance, wrote in 1988 that,”Such a long period of peace between the mightiest states is without precedence.” (International Security, Vol. 13 1988, p. 80) And two years earlier K. J. Holsti noted that,”By historical standards a forty-one year period without an intra-Great Power war is unprecedented.” (International Studies Quarterly, 30 December 1986, p. 369)This peace period has now lasted over 45 years
“Peace and Security” in the 1970s
During the greater part of the peace period after 1945 the relations between the great powers have been strained, a situation that has often been described as ‘the cold war.’ The ‘peace prophecy’ at 1 Thess. 5:3, therefore, was generally pushed into the background. But early in the 1970s a relaxation, a detente, of the strained relations occurred. This was greeted in the Watchtower publication as an important “sign”, especially as the Society for a number of years had been stressing that 6,000 years since the creation of Adam would expire in 1975. “Strange events are taking place in our time,” said the Awake! magazine of October 8, 1972., on page 4. This special issue on the theme “World Peace Coming – Will it Last?” contained a series of articles discussing the peace efforts. On page 9 the magazine referred to the prophecy about “Peace and Security” at 1 Thessalonians 5:3 and stated:”This prophecy seems to be rapidly nearing its fulfillment.”Two books, both published in 1973, added more fuel to the expectations. True Peace and Security – From What Source? clearly related the detente in the world to the prophecy at 1 Thess. 5:3. And the other book, God’s Kingdom of a Thousand Years Has Approached, said on page 364:
“The current world events appear to be flowing toward the situation when men in control of affairs will jubilantly cry out in a self-congratulating way: ‘Peace and security!'”
Similar statements appeared repeatedly in the Watchtower publications during the next two years.
1986: “The International Year of Peace”
Despite all the predictions and expectations for the 1970s, the decade passed without either world peace or world destruction. And when also the relaxation and peace talks between the great powers broke down, The Watchtower finally had to admit that “none of these efforts fit the description at 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 3.” (The Watchtower, November 15, 1981, p. 14)
But toward the end of 1985 the speculations got a new start. On October 24, 1985, the United Nations, on its 40th anniversary, declared 1986 as “the International Year of Peace”.
The Watchtower of October 1, 1985, stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses “watch the event with interest”, but “cannot say in advance whether this will prove to be the fulfilment of Paul’s words quoted above.” (Page 18) For safety’s sake, however, The Society dusted off one of the books from 1973, True Peace and Security–From What Source? and published it again in a new, revised edition during the peace year 1986 (renamed as True Peace and Security – How Can You Find It?). Referring to the United Nations declaration of 1986 as the “Year of Peace”, the book quoted the prophecy at 1 Thess. 5:3 and stated that:
“this, no doubt, is a step toward the fulfilment of Paul’s above-quoted words.” (Page 85)Like all the earlier predictions and expectations, the “peace year” 1986, too, failed to “signal the imminent apocalypse.” (The Watchtower, February, 1986, page 6)
The developments in recent years, however, during our present so-called “glasnost” era, have kept the expectations alive. At first, though, the statements in the Watchtower publications were framed somewhat more cautiously. One hundred years of failed predictions seemed to have left their marks. In Awake! magazine of December 8, 1989, the question was asked if the recent surprising world events could be a fulfilment of 1 Thess. 5:3. The answer given was:
“We cannot say. Nevertheless, it is obvious that today, in December 1989, ‘peace and security’ is closer to realization than before.” (page 24)
The issues of The Watchtower of April 1 and 15, 1990, both carried special articles on “world peace”, but still one could notice a palpable caution. The April 1 issue just briefly mentioned that 1 Thessalonians 5:3 will be fulfilled “very soon” (page 9), while the issue of April 15 didn’t mention Paul’s prophecy at all.
This caution turned out to be short-lived. A few months later, at the Society’s summer conventions a new book, Mankind’s Search For God, was released. On page 371 of this book we found the following bold statement”Already, another outstanding Bible prophecy is approaching fulfillment before our eyes.” Then, quoting Paul’s words at 1 Thess. 5:1-3, the Society applies them to the present world situation by saying it would appear that the nations that were formerly belligerent and suspicious of one another are now moving cautiously toward a situation in which they will be able to declare world peace and security. New expectations are thus, once again, being built up among the Witnesses worldwide. In view of the past record, it seems safe to predict that these expectations also will fail.
“Timely Warnings to the Reading Public”?
Time and again, for almost a whole century, the Watch Tower society has proclaimed that Paul’s prophecy about “peace and security” has been close to fulfillment. Each time these predictions have gone wrong. It might be expected that a movement that has failed so com-pletely in its predictions would finally assume a more humble attitude and begin to tone down its prophetic claims. But instead the movement continues, with stubborn presumptuousness, to speak as if it receives its messages directly from Jehovah himself: “We are confident that Jehovah will keep his people well informed”, said The Watchtower of May 15, 1987 (page 19)
And in the same magazine, in the issue of September 1, 1987, the following promise is given on page 22:
“To help you keep on guard, the Watch Tower Society will continue issuing in its publications timely warnings to the reading public, so that you will not be caught off guard by the coming pretentious proclamation ‘Peace and security’, as devised by the nations of this old system of things.”
“Timely warnings”? How much is such a promise worth to the one who knows that every warning of this kind given in the past by this Society has been given in the wrong time? Not a scrap, of course. Unfortunately, however, millions of unsuspecting and confiding people will continue to take such promises in sober earnest and act accordingly. No one is so misled as the one who believes it is a grave sin to question those who misled him. (Matthew 15:14)
What Did the Apostle Mean?
Did Paul really predict that the nations, immediately before the end of the age, would proclaim a world peace? Did he say that this would be the “final signal” heralding that “sudden destruction” is imminent? (The Watchtower, May 15, 1987, page 19) The context, and especially the broader context, shows this conclusion to be totally wrong.
Bible commentators often point out that the apostle Paul in 1 Thess. 5:1-11 simply gives a summary of Jesus’ own words about his coming as recorded at Matt. 24:36-44, Luke 17:26-30 and 21:34-36. Jesus had said that he would come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. It would be as in the days of Noah, before the Flood, and as in the days of Lot, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. People back then were occupied with their daily activities and didn’t suspect anything; “they were eating and drinking, men were selling, they were planning, they were building.” In the middle of all this the destruction suddenly came upon them. Paul briefly sums up Jesus’ words:”Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well (from Jesus’ own words) that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly.” 1 Thessalonians 5.1-3 New International VersionA thief does not announce in advance the “times and dates” of his coming. He does not “signal” his coming in any way. He comes unexpectedly, surprisingly, when people feel safe and secure. It was because of this absence of any “signs” or “signals” that Jesus urged his disciples to “keep awake” and “ready” and “sober”. (Matt. 24:42, 44; Luke 21:34, 36) Paul repeated these exhortations. (1 Thess. 5:6-8) To “keep awake” would not mean to keep looking for any “final signal”, but to “keep our senses and have on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet the hope of salvation”. (1 Thess. 5:8) The one clothed in that armor would not be taken by surprise by the “Lord’s day”. He would be ready, whenever it came.
The Watch Tower Society has changed the sense of Paul’s words to mean exactly the reverse. They have made the predicted absence of “signs” and “signals”, which Paul expressed with the words “Peace and safety” (NW: “Peace and security”) to the “final signal” that world destruction is imminent!
“Peace, Peace; When There Is No Peace”
The Greek word used by Paul of “peace” is “eirene”. This word is used in the New Testament as an equivalent of the Hebrew word “schalom”, which often occurs in the Old Testament. Schalom did not merely refer to “peace” in the political sense, but also, and primarily, to God’s good will toward men, “God’s peace”. Paul’s use of the expression “Peace (eirene) and safety” is commonly supposed to be an allusion to Jeremiah’s words about the Jews of his time at Jer. 5:14 and 8:11 (ASV):”They have healed also the hurt of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.”There was no political peace at that time. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was involved in a campaign of conquests aimed at subduing the whole Middle East, and Judah, too, was threatened. But the people felt safe, imagining that they had God’s protection, His “peace”. They expected “no evil” to “come upon” them. (Jer. 23:17) The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 B.C., therefore came as a shocking surprise.
This too indicates that Paul’s words about “Peace and Safety” should not be understood as a political proclamation of world peace, interpreted as the “final signal” of “world destruction”.
Those who are looking for a thorough and enlightening examination of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 are recommended to read Joseph Plevnik’s article, 1 Thess. 5: 1-11: Its Authenticity, Intention and Message,” published in Biblica, Vol. 60, 1979. pp.71-90, as well his book Paul and the Parousia. An Exegetical and Theological Investigation, Boston, MA: Hendrickson Publ, 1997, pp. 99-121.