I Got a Letter from a Jehovah’s Witness!

A short letter packed with bad theology

In pre-COVID days I occasionally saw Jehovah’s Witness missionaries standing by their literature tables in the New York City Subway—and even too, once, just outside a Paris Metro Station. But that’s the closest I ever get to them: I live in an apartment building, so they’ve never had access to my front door. COVID must have made knocking on doors even more unpopular. So sending letters is an alternate strategy.



Mine arrived from a woman named Virginia, return address in Pawling, NY. Curiously, the envelope was postmarked: Santa Clarita, CA. Even so, it looked like an envelope from a friend. The opening couple of lines:


“I hope this finds you well and safe. Who knew just a few years ago, that we would have a pandemic and that it would go on for such a long time and have such a large scale number of deaths globally.”  


Then the missionary speaks. This is her second paragraph:


“Will suffering ever end? You may be surprised to read in the Bible, that the Almighty God is ‘tolerating’ our suffering, the same as He tolerated the suffering of His son while on earth. But why is He tolerating and allowing it if He is the ‘Almighty God’? It’s because the sanctity of his holy name and reputation, and the rightfulness of his universal sovereignty have been challenged and He must settle these vital issues in His own way, before mankind and angels, once and for all time.”


So, this excuse for the Christian god’s tolerance of suffering can be added to a long list of such excuses created by apologists; but this surely qualifies as one of the weakest, most pathetic imaginable. It certainly reflects very poorly on Virginia’s god. What is she claiming? That human suffering grinds on because the sanctity of god’s name has been diminished and his reputation has been challenged? Is it really a good idea to put so much emphasis on god’s ego? This surely qualifies as bad theology. 


This reminds me of a Bible verse I found baffling, even as a kid, Genesis 15:13, the OT god’s promise to Abraham:  “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years.” Why would a good, caring, powerful god allow slavery to go on—for his chosen people no less—for four hundred years? That just doesn’t make sense. 


Virginia is throwing into the mix the idea that a god tolerates suffering because his name hasn’t been treated with sufficient sanctity. In her next paragraph—as we shall see—she quotes the Lord’s Prayer, in which the Jesus-script created by the author of Matthew’s gospel includes the requirement that worshippers remind the god that his name is holy: “hallowed be thy name.” So…it helps to flatter god? This concept survives in a common ending of prayers today, i.e., “…in Jesus’ name we pray.” This is essentially a magic formula: say the magic word—in this case the name of the god—and your wish will come true. At least you hope it will, by giving it this extra boost.  


Virginia is confident that suffering will come to an end because of this line in the Lord’s Prayer, which she quoted, “Let your will take place as in heaven, also on earth.” (Matthew 6:10) She explains: “Just as there is no suffering in heaven, so there will be no suffering on earth when His Kingdom (government) rules over earth.” This is her final comment: “I hope this scriptural information has helped you feel more relieved about suffering and its promised end.”


…feel more relieved about suffering…


Well, no, that really doesn’t work. The “promised end” of suffering isn’t good enough if her god has the power to end it now—or at least drastically reduce it. It seems to me that Virginia—and those who have coached her in this theology—suffer from lack of perspective in at least three areas. 


First perspective: Has human suffering for millennia really grabbed their attention?  Does it make sense to claim that suffering is ongoing because a god is so annoyed that his name hasn’t been treated with sufficient sanctity? Wouldn’t a good, caring god have felt bad enough to intervene—long ago? And not give damn that his name has been somehow abused? His reputation has not held up well in the face of so much suffering. Think about child and infant mortality rates for millennia before humans figured out modern medicine. Think of the anguish of mental illness throughout the ages—and the best explanations humans could come up with was demon possession. That a god would allow even one more child to die of leukemia, when he/she/it has the power to stop it—how is that not inexcusable? 


Perspective about suffering would include so many appalling examples. When the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, more than 100,000 people were incinerated in an instant. During the rebellion in China (1850-1864), provoked by Hong Xiuquan, who believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ, twenty to thirty million people died. In December 1941 alone, during the siege of Leningrad, 50,000 people died of starvation. When German prisoners of war, by the thousands, were marched off to Siberia, only a tiny fraction survived to return home. 


And Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves felt the wrath of the Nazis, as we read in Wikipedia:


Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered religious persecution in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 after refusing to perform military service, join Nazi organizations, or give allegiance to the Hitler regime. An estimated 10,000 Witnesses—half of the number of members in Germany during that period—were imprisoned, including 2000 who were sent to Nazi concentration camps. An estimated 1200 died in custody, including 250 who were executed. They were the first Christian denomination banned by the Nazi government and the most extensively and intensively persecuted.”


These are the folks who are so sure they’re right about God, and who surely cannot be blamed for disrespecting his name. God couldn’t make an exception for them? It is theological laziness to claim that a god has allowed so much suffering because his name has not been held holy enough by humans. This is not just silly theology; it’s evil theology. 


Second perspective: Is it appropriate to be so heavily invested emotionally in ancient scriptures, written well before humans had figured out how the world works? In the first century it was commonly believed that the realm of the gods was above the clouds and below the moon—and that there were layers of heaven, inhabited by a wide range of beings, e.g., angels, demons, gods themselves. Catholics would add thousands of saints to this mix. Holy people climbed mountains to get closer to their gods and get divine instructions. And it was so easy to assume that gods communicated through visions and holy writings. 


That was then, this is now. A broader perspective would include learning and absorbing the amazing insights about nature and reality, achieved by the greatest minds. It doesn’t take much study to grasp what Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace figured out about nature. They were not evil men. They used their brains and powers of observation to explain things that previously had not been understood. Nor does it take much study to be stunned about what Edwin Hubble found out about the Cosmos—and our place in it. We can now be confident that ancient “inspired” texts fail to deliver reliable information about reality.  


Third perspective: This perspective grows out of the second, i.e., it’s important to try hard to realize our place in the Cosmos. The men who wrote the New Testament—who passed on to us their ancient world view—didn’t even know what stars were. As one meme circulating for a while puts it, “They didn’t know where the sun went at night.” This fundamental fact was unknown: that our planet orbits a star, which in turn orbits the galactic center (just one orbit takes about 225 million years), in a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars and trillions of planets. The Voyager Spacecraft captured the iconic photo of our tiny

Pale-Blue-Dot planet, from 3.7 billion miles away. Yes, we are lost in space. From this perspective, does it make sense that a creator god, with so many trillions of planets under management, closely monitors one mammalian species (humans!) on one planet, and holds a grudge against us for disrespecting its name? This concept really doesn’t work anymore, does it?   


There is also this fundamental issue: why should we trust pronouncements and claims found in ancient books? It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s God’s word”—but that claim is made by different, conflicting religions about their own scriptures.  Here’s the test, the attempt to find out what’s true: Think of any religious idea—say, something you believe with all your heart—and ask: where did this idea come from? Who thought of it for the first time? Can that even be determined? But even if the very first person who came up with the cherished religious idea is unknown, this is the dilemma you face: did the idea come from revelation, hallucination, or imagination? Taking it “on faith” that it came from revelation is wishful thinking. It is just a fact that theologians have been making things up forever, their ideas about gods are all over the place—and people follow blindly. That is, without insisting on evidence. That’s how religions have always worked.


As the very beginning of his new book, Jonathan MS Pearce, says this: “There are as many versions of God as there are believers. Indeed, many versions of God are perfect versions of those believers themselves! We are nothing if not good at projecting, we humans.” (30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”, Heaven, Hell, Satan and Divine Design, page 18, Kindle). The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own version of God, one of so many in the vast clutter of beliefs that goes under the name of Christianity. Don’t ever expect Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Mormons, etc. to agree about a Christian god, what it’s like and how it wants to be worshipped.


Virginia assured me that “…there will be no suffering on earth when His Kingdom (government) rules over earth." Strange: she seems to have forgotten Jesus’ prediction that, upon the arrival of the kingdom, there will be as much suffering as at the time of Noah! She referred me to the Jehovah’s Witness website to “know more” about when His Kingdom will arrive. I have learned that these cults that anticipate “the end times” specialize in overlooking or explaining away the timing mentioned in the New Testament itself: it would be soon according to both the apostle Paul and the Jesus-script created by the gospel writers. These authors would have been horrified at any suggestion that, 2000 years later, devout Christians would still be looking to the sky for Jesus’ arrival on the clouds. 


Here is yet another occasion for asking: This idea that Jesus would soon arrive on the clouds to bring the kingdom of a god—did this derive from revelation, hallucination or imagination? I’d go with option three. We can safely say that the guy who thought this up missed his calling by a couple of thousand years; he could have done very well dreaming up comic book superheroes.




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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