Revelation 11:1-13 relates a vision of two witnesses who are killed and then resurrected. Here’s a synopsis of our interpretation of that vision.
The two witnesses represent the anointed. The anointed are trampled upon (persecuted) by the nations for a literal 42 months from December, 1914 to June, 1918. They prophesy for these 42 months. Their public condemnation of Christendom during those 42 literal months fulfills Rev. 11:5, 6. After the 42 months, they finish their witnessing, at which time they are killed and lie dead for 3 ½ days. Unlike the 42 months, the 3 ½ days are not literal. The incarceration of responsible members of the Brooklyn headquarters staff and the consequent virtual cessation of the preaching activity corresponds to the 3 ½ days their corpses lie exposed. When they are released in 1919, great fear falls upon their enemies. They are figuratively taken up to heaven, becoming untouchable. This is supposed to symbolize the protection they receive from God, and that the work can never again be stopped. A spiritual earthquake occurs and a tenth of the city leaves Christendom and joins Jehovah’s people.
A cursory review of this understanding makes it appear plausible, but a deeper investigation raises a number of serious questions.
One questions arises immediately. Why is the 42-month period considered to be literal while the 3 ½ days are considered symbolic. The only reason given in the Revelation Climax book is that the former is expressed both in months and in days. (Rev. 11:2, 3) This is the only reason given. Is there a Scriptural basis to consider a time period referred to using two different measurement units as literal? Is there a basis for considering a time period expressed only in one measurement unit as symbolic? Are there examples in scripture that mix symbolic and literal time periods in the same vision?
A second question arises when we look for historical proof about what we say occurred during the literal 42 months from December of 1914 to June of 1918. We say that the anointed as the two witnesses preached in sackcloth during that period, indicating “their humble endurance in announcing Jehovah’s judgments”. (re p. 164, par. 11) Concurrent with that preaching and also running for 42 literal months, the holy city is trampled on by the nations, indicating that true Christians were “’cast clear out, given to the nations’ to be severely tried and persecuted.” (re p. 164, par. 8)
If one mentions persecution, the mind immediately goes to Nazi concentration camps, Russian Gulags, or what happened to the brothers in the 1970s in Malawi. The 42-month trampling underfoot is supposed to be a similar time of severe trial and persecution. What evidence is there of this? In fact, we have an exceptional witness at hand. Now it should be understood that our current understanding of this prophecy was not held at the time these events were actually transpiring, so this witness is not speaking to support our current interpretation. In that sense, his testimony is unwitting and therefore difficult to challenge. This witness is brother Rutherford, who as one of the those whose incarceration is said to have played a part in fulfilling this prophecy and whose position at the head of Jehovah’s people at that time put him in a unique position to speak with great authority about the events of those days had this to say about the time period in question:
“Be it noted here that from 1874 until 1918 there was little, if any, persecutionof those of Zion; that beginning with the Jewish year 1918, to wit, the latter part of 1917 our time, the great suffering came upon the anointed ones, Zion. Prior to 1914 she was in pain to be delivered, greatly desiring the kingdom; but the real travail came later.” (From the March 1, 1925 Watchtower article “Birth of the Nation”)
Rutherford’s words do not seem to support the idea that Rev. 11:2 was fulfilled from December, 1914 to June, 1918 by Christians being given to the nations to be trampled on, i.e., ‘severely tried and persecuted.’
A third question arises when we try to identify the beast that is prophesied to kill the two witnesses. It was in fact a recent Watchtower article which brought this matter to the fore.
“The Anglo-American World Power waged war with those holy ones.” (w12 6/15 p. 15 par. 6)
So the Anglo-American World Power—specifically the United States—killed the two witnesses by incarcerating those taking the lead in the preaching work.
The problem with this assertion is that it doesn’t seem to be supported by Scripture. Rev. 11:7 says the two witnesses are killed by the Beast that rises out of the abyss.
(Revelation 11:7) And when they have finished their witnessing, the wild beast that ascends out of the abyss will make war with them and conquer them and kill them.
Rev. 17:8 contains the only other reference in the Revelation to a beast that arises out of an abyss:
(Revelation 17:8) . . .The wild beast that you saw was, but is not, and yet is about to ascend out of the abyss, and it is to go off into destruction.
The beast rising out of the abyss is the United Nations, the image of the seven-headed wild beast of Revelation chapter 13. The United Nations was not around in 1918 to imprison anyone. We attempt to resolve this conundrum by explaining that the sea from which the seven-headed wild beast of Revelation 13 rises can also be used in the Bible to represent an abyss. Therefore, by this interpretation, there are two beasts in Revelation that rise from an abyss: the seven-headed wild beast representing the entire political organization of Satan during the last days, and the image of that beast, the United Nations. There are two problems with this solution.
Problem one is that we also say that the sea in this instance represents turbulent humanity from which the beast with seven heads rises. (See re p. 113, par. 3; p. 135, par. 23; p. 189, par. 12) it is difficult to see how the same feature in this prophecy can have two distinct meanings—turbulent humanity and the abyss.
Problem two with this interpretation is that the seven-headed wild beast did not kill the two witnesses. It represents the entire political system of Satan. Only the United States, one half of one head of the wild beast killed the two witnesses by incarcerating the members of the headquarters staff.
Let’s approach this without any preconception. The ‘who’ of our mystery is identified as the beast rising out of the abyss. Without recurring to any interpretation on the meaning of abyss, let us consider that the only other beast in Revelation which is explicitly shown as rising from an abyss is that spoken of in Revelation 17:8, the United Nations. This requires no speculation on the meaning of the word abyss. It is a simple one-to-one correlation and we are allowing the Bible to say what it means.
To support our current understanding, we must first say that in this instance, ‘abyss’ means ‘sea’. Therefore, ‘abyss’ can refer to turbulent humanity. Nowhere in the Bible is the word ‘abyss’ used to refer to humanity, turbulent or otherwise. But that’s not all we have to do to try to make this work. We have to acknowledge that the beast that rises out of the sea which we say represents the entire political organization of Satan is the one that kills the two witnesses. Therefore, we must explain how in this instance, the United States can represent the seven-headed wild beast that ascends out of the sea of turbulent humanity.
A fourth question arises when we try to fix the time when the two witnesses are killed. Revelation 11:7 clearly says that the wild beast does not make war, conquer, and kill the two witnesses until after they have finished their witnessing. A quick search in the WTLib 2011 program reveals that there is no comment on the meaning of these words to be found in any of our publications. Since a key aspect of any prophecy is the identification of its timeline, and since we are tying the fulfillment of this one to a specific year and month, one would think that evidence that the two witnesses “finished their witnessing” in or near June, 1918 would abound both historically and in our literature. Instead, this important feature is completely ignored by us.
How can we say that they were killed in June, 1918 if we cannot show that prior to that they finished there witnessing? One might argue that the killing of the two witnesses finished their preaching work, but that ignores the phrasing of the account. It is only after the preaching work is finished that they are killed. It is not finished as a consequence of their deaths. In fact, is there any evidence that the preaching work ceased then, for any reason whatsoever? The Watchtower continued to be published and the colporteurs continued to preach.
“Nevertheless, according to available records, the number of Bible Students reported as having some share in preaching the good news to others during 1918 decreased by 20 percent worldwide when compared with the report for 1914. “ (jv chap. 22 p. 424)
Given the effects of four years of war, it is to be expected that the preaching work would suffer somewhat. That there is only a 20% drop over 1914 is actually quite commendable. To fulfill the prophecy, our witnessing work would have had to have ended no later than June of 1918, and all activity would have had to cease for the six months of that year, plus three more in 1919. A 20% drop in activity can hardly be equated with a cessation or finish to the preaching work, nor can we convincingly say that this proves the two witnesses were lying dead for all to see.
We say that the door-to-door witnessing ‘virtually’ stopped during those nine months, but the historical facts are that while the colporteur work was in place in the late 1800s, the distinguishing feature of Jehovah’s people in the modern era, the door-to-door preaching work by every member of the congregation was not yet in effect by 1918. That came afterwards in the 1920s. So from the late 19th century down to our day, there has been a continual increasing and expanding of preaching work. That will continue until the end prophesied to take place in Mt. 24:14.
In summary, we have a literal 42-month period when we claim the witnesses were being persecuted even though the then president of the Watchtower society, Br. Rutherford, attests to there being virtually no persecution during that period. In contrast to the literal 42 months, we have a symbolic 3 ½ day period lasting nine months. We have the United States ‘killing’ the two witnesses when the Bible says the killing is done by the beast rising out of the abyss—a role the Anglo-American World Power is never depicted as filling in Scripture. We change ‘abyss’ to mean ‘sea’ in this instance only. We also have the killing of the two witnesses occurring at a time when we were nowhere near finishing our witnessing. Finally, we say that great fear fell upon all observers at the resurrection of the two witnesses when there is no historical evidence that anyone reacted with fear when the members of the headquarters staff were released from prison nor when we intensified our preaching work. Anger, perhaps, but fear, apparently not.
An Alternate Explanation
What if we were to look again at this prophecy without any preconceptions, or previously drawn conclusions? What if we didn’t believe that 1914 was the start of Christ’s invisible presence in the heavens and so didn’t have to try to tie virtually every prophecy in the book of Revelation somehow to that year? Would we still arrive at a 1914-1919 time period for its fulfillment?
The Who is the beast identified at Rev. 17:8 as ascending out of the abyss. Our current understanding—one which fits the facts of history—is that it represents the United Nations. This is the eighth beast of the line of beasts (world powers) that have affected God’s people. To date, it has not affected us. However, to qualify as one of the prophetic beasts, it must have a major impact on God’s people. (See w12 6/15 p. 8, par. 5; also Questions from Readers, p. 19) Therefore, since it hasn’t yet, it will in the future.
When does the prophecy take place? Well, the two witnesses prophecy for 42 months (Rev. 11:3) after which they have finished their witnessing. If the 3 ½ days of the prophecy are symbolic, would not the 42 months be also? If the preaching of the two witnesses goes on for 1,260 days and their death covers only 3 ½ days, then we can deduce that the time of their inactivity would be relatively short by comparison. In fact, 3 ½ days is precisely 1/360th of 42 months, or to put it another way, a day for a (lunar) year. The relationship of a literal 42 months to a literal 9 months doesn’t jibe with the proportionality of the prophecy. Our preaching work has been ongoing since, at the very least, 1879, when the Watchtower was first published. If our witnessing ends (if we lie dead) for even a few years, the implied proportionality of the two time periods would be preserved.
That this is a future fulfillment is indicated by two facts. One, the United Nations has yet to affect Jehovah’s Witnesses in any major way and two, our preaching work is not yet finished.
Therefore, when Jehovah calls an end to our preaching work, we can expect the United Nations and the nations it represents to wage war on Jehovah’s people.
The warring upon, conquering and killing of the two witnesses will occur in “the great city which is in a spiritual sense called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was also impaled.”
re chap. 25 pp. 168-169 par. 22 Reviving the two witnesses
John…says that Jesus was impaled there. So we immediately think of Jerusalem. But he also says that the great city is called Sodom and Egypt. Well, literal Jerusalem was once called Sodom because of her unclean practices. (Isaiah 1:8-10; compare Ezekiel 16:49, 53-58.) And Egypt, the first world power, sometimes appears as a picture of this world system of things. (Isaiah 19:1, 19; Joel 3:19) Hence, this great city pictures a defiled “Jerusalem” that claims to worship God but that has become unclean and sinful, like Sodom, and a part of this satanic world system of things, like Egypt. It pictures Christendom, the modern equivalent of unfaithful Jerusalem
If the understanding that the Where is before Christendom, lying in the street as it were for all the world to see, then it is likely that the attack on God’s people precedes the destruction of false religion. Perhaps in some way this provides the escape that Mt. 24:22 points to and which corresponds to the abortive siege on Jerusalem in 66 C.E. which allowed the Christians to escape the destruction of 70 C.E.
This is not clear, however. It could also be that when Babylon is attacked, we will go dormant and our preaching work will cease, causing all onlookers to think we have gone down with the rest of religion.
There is no way to be sure at this point in time and the reader may well accuse us of engaging in unfounded speculation. He would not be wrong in doing so, because we simply do not know the future. However, we can safely say that going only with what the Bible has to say on this subject and avoiding to the greatest degree any attempt at speculation, it seems clear that the only conclusion that fits the Scriptural facts is that the events depicted in Revelation chapter 11 are future events. Nothing in the past fits with what the Bible says will happen. Our preaching work did not finish in any sense of the word during World War One. The beast that rises out of the abyss—whether it be the UN or the world-wide political system of Satan—did not incarcerate us. The incarceration did not bring about a full cessation of the preaching work required to consider it as dead. There was no 42-month trampling of the holy city by persecution during that time period according to brother Rutherford who was on hand to bear witness.
So we are looking at a future fulfillment. In some way, we will lie dead for a symbolic 3 ½ days, and then we will stand up and great fear will fall upon all those observing us. What could that mean and how could that come about? Consider what else is said about that event.
The eighth king that rises out of the abyss and is the image and representation of the seven-headed wild beast is shown to make war on God’s people. However, the seven-headed wild beast it represents is also said to make war on the holy ones. They are one and the same in this regard. Of interest are the verses in chapter 13 of Revelation that go into detail in this regard.
(Revelation 13:7) 7 And there was granted it to wage war with the holy ones and conquer them, and authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.
(Revelation 13:9, 10) . . .If anyone has an ear, let him hear. 10 If anyone [is meant] for captivity, he goes away into captivity. If anyone will kill with the sword, he must be killed with the sword. Here is where it means the endurance and faith of the holy ones.
There are true Christians and false Christians. Are there also true holy ones and false holy ones? The image of the wild beast, the UN, is also called a ‘disgusting things standing in a holy place.’ (Mt. 24:15) In the first century, the holy place was apostate Jerusalem and in our modern day, it is false religion, specifically Christendom, considered holy by the world was Jerusalem was by the people back then. Are the ‘holy ones’ referred to in Rev. 13:7, 10 also of this type? Perhaps both classes of holy ones are being referred to, the true and the false. Otherwise, why the exhortation that ‘anyone killing with the sword will be killed with the sword’, or the warning that this means “the endurance and faith of the holy ones”? False holy ones will defend their churches and die. True holy ones will “stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah”.
Whatever the sequence of events, there will be a short period of time before (possibly) and during (certainly) when Jehovah’s Witnesses will appear as dead before the world. After the destruction is over, however, we will still be around. We’ll be the ‘last man standing’, as it were. Rather than the overstated fulfillment we currently have, that will be a truly awe-inspiring fulfillment as the people of the world realize that only Jehovah’s people got through and survived that great tribulation. As they comprehend the significance of that truth, great fear will indeed fall upon all on-lookers for our survival will be the ultimate proof that we are God’s people and that what we’ve been saying for decades about the end of the world is also true and about to happen.
This is the second woe. (Rev. 11:14) The third woe follows. Does that follow chronologically. According to our current understanding, it cannot. However, with this new understanding, could a chronological fulfillment work? It appears so, but that is best left for another time and another article.