This article first appeared in The Discerner, published by Religion Analysis Service. For original copies please see projects/publications at this site. 

 

 

WHY I AM NOT A BIBLE STUDENT

Robert C. Hill, ThB

They are growing. Their presses are churning. They are buying cable TV air time and the World Wide Web is the newest arena for the dissemination of their doctrinal error. Among other things, they promulgate Jesus’ second advent as having occurred in the fall of 1874 and that the resurrection of the dead was an event which shortly followed in the year 1878. These are the Bible Students a.k.a. the Dawn, Millennial Dawn, International Bible Students, Russellites . . . Russellites? The J.W.’s? No. The Bible Students are composed of independent splinter groups directly in line with the theological legacy ( some might prefer heresy) of Charles Taze Russell and hold no affinity to today’s Watchtower Societies’ Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this was not always so. To best understand who they are today and the message they teach a brief foray into their founder’s beliefs and the critical years following his death in 1916 offers insight into their controversial beginnings. Who are these Bible Students and what do they teach and hold as Biblical truth? This article will explore areas of their history, teachings, organizational structure, and media used for proselyting.

 

THE EARLY YEARS AND THE SCHISMS

C. T. Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Bible & Track Society (WTBTS) maintained unquestionable control over his religious organization. From its small beginnings in Pittsburgh, Pa. in the early 1870's it had become a thriving new religion by the time of Russell’s death in October 31, 1916. During his years as President and Pastor of what was then known as the International Bible Students Association (IBSA) this man Russell wrote profusely. It can be truthfully said that his writings promoted a denial of every major evangelical belief: a total rejection of the Trinity, deity of Christ, personage and deity of the Holy Spirit, denial of a physical resurrection, a rejection of any eternal retribution for the lost, and a denial of a conscious awareness after death. Some of his aberrant teachings include the following: Christ’s second advent having occurred invisibly in the fall of 1874, a second chance for salvation after the grave to some during the millennium, the ‘Times of the Gentiles’ ended in 1914, the body of believers are ‘The Christ’ to mention just a few. To such a man holding this unorthodox theology came such accolades as, "He was the greatest religious teacher since St. Paul, and did more than any other man of modern times to establish the faith of the people in the Scriptures."1

Some of these beliefs will be examined in more detail later but for now it is important to understand that today’s Watchtower Society no longer teach many of Russell’s theological views. The same cannot be said of the Bible Students who place a high value on their founders writings maintaining in various degrees a solid continuity with them. Therefore, his publications are keys to understanding the modern rejuvenation of the numerous independent congregations’ current teachings of God and man. Indeed, Russell’s own works were regarded so highly as gospel truth that an early divergence of his doctrine brought about the schisms after his death which resulted in the major splits between what is known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the various independent groups of Bible Students.

Russell used the printed page in very effective ways to spread his new found truth. These views were brought to the public in a non-ending stream of publications. His first magazine, co-published with N. H. Barbour was entitled The Herald of the Morning. After Russell split with Barbour over some doctrinal differences he began publishing Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence. This publication now has its more familiar name as The Watchtower, published by the WTBTS. His opus magnus, Studies in the Scriptures, have sold tens of millions of editions. These books, in six volumes, hold the key to the entire theology of this American made religion. Along with his Studies series he also wrote books entitled The Object and Manner of Our Lord’s Return, Food for Thinking Christians, Tabernacle Shadows and many other still popular tomes using the "What Say Scriptures about . . . "which included such topics as hell and spiritism.

Russell also had a popular touring exhibit advertised as "The Photo-Drama of Creation." This road show, according to early Watchtower sources, was seen by twelve million people. A book by the same name incorporating the photos and themes of the exhibition coincided with the tour. Adding to this partial list of his works are the twelve hundred congregations which voted him their Pastor, two thousand newspapers carrying his weekly sermons with fifteen million readers, with an international base of growing members.2 These early years brought about a very significant religious movement which even today bears his legacy. But the tranquil unity of these early Bible Students would soon begin to degrade in the immediate years after their Pastor’s death.

When Russell died a power struggle ensued. The main player in this was Joseph Franklin Rutherford who would emerge victoriously as the Society’s second president amidst much controversy. At that time, depending on whose story of the events is read, problems developed between several prominent members. On the side of the future Bible Students these problems were basically twofold: the publication of the seventh volume of Studies in the Scripture: The Finished Mystery, and the manner in which Rutherford wrest control of the Society. While on the other side the Watchtower Bible & Track Society claimed, "a real conspiracy developed. The seed of rebellion was planted and then the trouble spread."3 The conspiracy referred to is when Paul S. L. Johnson, who later would form the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement, was assigned to go to England in order to make a report to Rutherford on the situation there. That event took place in the summer of 1917. Rutherford and the Society claimed Johnson tried to take control of the Watchtower while he was visiting in England. The 1975 Yearbook states, "throughout England, Johnson characterized himself as Russell’s successor, contending that the mantle of Pastor Russell had fallen upon him just as Elijah’s cloak (‘official garment’) fell upon Elisha . . . Johnson endeavored to take complete control of the British field of activity, even trying, without authority, to dismiss certain members of the London headquarters staff."4 This lead to the ultimate disfellowshiping of Johnson who denied the charges made by the Society as false. Nevertheless this inner turmoil would ultimately lead to breakaway factions forming an independent Bible Student movement with an ever distancing of the larger group, the Watchtower.

One of the modern congregations, the Bible Students congregation of New Brunswick view their early history as beginning with an illegal claim to the presidency by Rutherford, who "established dictatorial control" and who began to do away with the writings of Russell. "Many individuals and congregations refused to surrender their Christian liberty or accept the new teachings. As early as 1917, the exodus from the newly declared sovereign headquarters began."5

While another congregation, the Dawn Bible Students Association, placed deceitfulness on the part of Rutherford for the release of the seventh volume of Studies in the Scriptures as the catalyst, which spiraled into division. The Dawn state soon after Russell’s death, "In a remarkably short time a ‘Seventh Volume’ was published, with the claim that it was the posthumous work of Brother Russell. It created a stir among the brethren, resulting in divisions in many places. It was not truly the posthumous work of Brother Russell, and in some ways it was contrary to both the letter and the spirit of his teachings."6 The Dawn now sees the Bible Student movement as compared to the Watchtower in a clear-cut manner, "In city after city throughout America, as well as other parts of the world, there are but the two groups-those who are with the original organization and those who are not."7

It can be seen that within five years of Russell’s death some of his closest mentors were kicked out of president Rutherford’s new order. These early Russellites began to form the splinter groups of Bible Students which still maintain the continuity of Russell’s teachings till this very day. Several of the present day organizations can claim a tradition going back to the original time of the major split: P. S. L. Johnson in the early 1920's founded the Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement which is very active and in 1918 R.H. Streeter began to edit The Herald of Christ’s Kingdom, a journal which is still published by the Pastoral Bible Institute, to note two. Today, this once small breakaway sect is no longer on the outer fringe of becoming a viable threat to the unsuspecting but rather is in the arena doing battle against every orthodox tenet held dearly by born again Christians- and is doing so in grand style.

 

 

THE BIBLE STUDENT MOVEMENT TODAY

Although they are not as large in numbers as their distant counterpart, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this group of religious zealots is on the move. They no longer rely just on the small ‘classes’ a term used for local cell groups to proselyte, or the printed word to get ‘the message out’, but have now entered into the world of hi-tech as well. Cable television and the world wide web are increasingly being used as effective conduits for their unorthodox beliefs. For example, one Bible Student organization, The Fort Worth Bible Students, is using cable TV for airing numerous broadcasts of their "The Divine Plan Program." In June of 1996 they added their outreach program to station WWOR-TV remarking, "The overruling providence of our loving heavenly Father has made it possible for time to become available for ‘The Divine Plan Program’ to be televised over WWOR-TV (New York City) . . . WWOR-TV covers the New York City area plus approximately twenty-three million (23,000,000) homes with cable throughout the U.S.A. Perhaps this is the greatest opportunity for the ‘household of faith’ to proclaim the truth by visual means since the days of ‘The Photo Drama’ which was shown to large audiences approximately 80 years ago."8 This startling news is just from one of the organized groups of Russellites.

Another use of hi-tech involves the world wide web. This ‘soap box’ offers an international audience and it is being utilized to promote Russell’s own brand of the ancient heresy known as Arianism. The Internet continues to be a fruitful harbor in which to propagate this aberrant theology. Each of the major groups are already maintaining sophisticated sites and many individual members continue coming online with personal web pages enabling more proselyting of Russell’s teachings. These larger Bible Student organizations effectively use this new media. At their site’s one can download articles, read newsletters, order publications, and contact the group for further information. This hi-tech presence of the larger groups and individual followers is the newest foray into getting out the teachings of Russell, but not at discounting the time proven printed page.

Many Bible Student organizations publish or offer reprints of Charles Taze Russell’s writings. Some of the larger organizations offer more publications but essentially the published reprints of the 1916 edition of C.T. Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures are very common to see and obtain.9 As a matter of fact, his writings are the glue which binds these independent groups together. Indeed, Russell left a legacy of printed material during his lifetime. What is known today as the Watchtower reprints covering the years 1879-1916 with more than 5,000 pages is one such publication readily available. Monthly, bimonthly, quarterly magazines, newsletters, and journals are another effective means of disseminating Russellism. The Fort Worth Bible Students, The Bible Students of New Brunswick, Laymen’s Home Missionary Movement, The Chicago Bible Students, The Pastoral Bible Institute are just a few of the larger groups offering this type of material. Numerous small cell groups also publish quarterly newsletters adding to a frontal assault against evangelical beliefs.

These smaller, independent localized cells or classes are linked together by the larger groups’ itinerant speakers who travel the country promoting the teachings of their ‘Pastor’ C.T. Russell. Any independent class or congregation may request such speakers for area wide conventions or at the state level. The major journals contain a calender of conventions which are held across the country and in many foreign lands as well. This gives the members of local cells a chance to meet with like-minded believers, to hear speakers, and have fellowship with each other. These are usually weekend events which are well planed out and are held at major convention settings.

Finally, Russellism is promoted through an extensive amount of radio air time. The Bible Student programs can be heard in virtually every state on AM and FM radio and internationally through their short wave broadcasts which are beamed toward several country’s world wide. One such popular program is entitled "Frank and Ernest" which can domestically be heard on more than thirty radio stations covering twenty-two states while internationally airing in nine countries and across Canada. These groups are beginning to reach an audience without limitations for teaching the theology of C.T. Russell.

On the positive side the Bible Students unlike their close counterparts the J.W.’s, allow their members to study other sources, although not without warnings about certain publications not supporting their beliefs. These Student’s are also more open in dialoging with non -Russelites, and to this author’s experience less combative as compared to the JW’s. However, there is much to disagree about and indeed, Russell himself denied every historical orthodox teaching held as biblical truth throughout the centuries, confirmed by the early councils, expressed in particular by evangelical believers. What are the main areas of concern? The focus will now shift to the theological foundations taught by Russell and maintained today by his followers.

 

THEOLOGICAL VIEWS OF THE BIBLE STUDENT’S

The Trinity is denied. But, this would be expected. Flowing from this tenet is the denial of the deity of Jesus and the deity and personage of the Holy Spirit. There is also a complete denial of any kind of eternal punishment and an adherence to the belief of a second chance for salvation to those who did not have an opportunity to hear the gospel in their lifetime. There is also the belief that Jesus’ second advent has already happened, and some Bible Students even date that event, "‘The times of restitution of all things’ began at the time our Lord returned in the fall of 1874." Accordingly, with His return came the resurrection of the dead saints, "The dead in Christ were resurrected in 1878."10 In order to maintain this invisible return of our Lord Russell taught one must have the eyes of faith to discern it as already occurring. And so the circular argument goes that if someone does not believe our Lord’s second advent has occurred, then that person does not have the eyes of faith.

The remainder of this article will offer a brief overview of the following doctrinal teachings: the Holy Trinity, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, hell, the Christ, and the Divine Plan of the Ages. As expected there is no agreement in each of these areas of belief. Enough will be gleaned in order to present the heretical teachings promulgated under the guise of True Christianity.

 

HOLY TRINITY OR PAGAN MYTH?

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is severely attacked by all cults, and the Bible Students make no exception. Although very monotheistic in belief, they do not allow the Trinitarian position of One God in Three Persons, so that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father but each holding to all the attributes of God being one in essence or substance yet three in persons. They claim that this doctrine has its roots in pagan mythology and was rejected by the early apostles and the church. In fact, according to the Bible Students this doctrine "was championed chiefly by the educated converts from Paganism and resisted by ordinary believers."11 Of course this is a fact not supported by history despite the attempts of others as well to find such an historical source for proof.

Depending on which Bible Student publication is used, will determine which definition of the Trinity is ascribed to the historic church. Indeed even C.T. Russell himself seemed somewhat confused on this matter. Notice Russell’s variations of the Trinity definition. In one source he teaches, "The doctrine of the Trinity holds that the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit are one in person, equal in glory and in power, as stated in the Church creeds."12 Of course this is not the expression in any of the historic creeds as far as orthodoxy is concerned. The doctrine of the Trinity does not hold that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in person, a heretical form of modalism, but rather three in persons, one in substance. The weight of Scripture demands that God is One, of which He is composed of Three distinct, coequal, coeternal persons of the same substance. Russell’s lack of understanding on this doctrine is further demonstrated by another of his statements, "inasmuch as the general thought of Christendom is greatly perplexed by what is known as ‘The doctrine of the Trinity’ . . . They declare in one breath that there is only one God (because the Scriptures so positively emphasize this point that it cannot be ignored), yet in the same breath they declare that there are three Gods (because to this theory they are committed by ‘traditions of the fathers’ handed down from earliest Papacy). But how could there be three Gods and yet only one God?"13 Here Russell errs by attributing another heresy, tri-theism, to the historic view held by the church. In another place Russell did get the definition correct of three Persons in One God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory, yet he wrongly charges, "This view suited well ‘the dark ages’ which it helped to produce. The period in which mysteries were worshiped . . ." Continuing with this quote demonstrates how he manipulated the correct definition into meaning something else, "How could the three be one in person, in substance?. . .Does not every intelligent person know that if God is one in person he cannot be three? and that if three in person there can be only one sense in which the three could be one, and that not in person, but in purpose, in mind, in will, in cooperation?"14 The three are not one in person, but three in person one in substance. The distinction of persons is not maintained in Russell’s understanding as just observed. The truth of the matter is that the church has held onto the biblical teaching of three persons in one God, not three gods in one person or three persons in one person both of which is heretical. Russell and the Bible Students are making false charges when using the former types of definitions for articulating the historical view.

Look at what others have stated regarding this sacred doctrine. From the Westminster Confession the orthodox definition of the Holy Trinity is, "In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally of the Father; the Holy Ghost, eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son." The Moody Handbook of Theology asserts, "While there is one God, there are three eternally distinct and equal persons in the Godhead, existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is distinct from the other, yet the three are united as one God. The term Triunity may best express the idea."15 Another definition taken from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, "The term designating one God in three persons. Although not itself a biblical term, ‘the Trinity’ has been found a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three ‘persons’ who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other; but coequally and coeternally God."16

What can be gleaned from the correct expression of the holy Trinity and how is it maintained in Scripture? The correct understanding clearly asserts both oneness and threeness of God: oneness, Deut. 6:4; Mk 12:29; Isa 45:5,6 and threeness, Jn 6:27; Jn 1:1; Acts 5:3,4. The definitions clearly assert the divine attributes of being coeternal and coequal. The terms ‘person’ guards against modalism (one God appearing differently at different times); and, ‘substance, or essence’ protects the oneness against tritheism. The undivided essence of God is equally belonging to each person of the Trinity, so we do not have deity as 1/3 for the Father, 1/3 for the Son, and 1/3 for the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to deny the triune Godhead translates into a denial of certain critical aspects for each of the three persons of the Trinity. Scripture then is wrongly interpreted and thus a faulty foundation is laid for other areas of theology. So much so that the grave consequences of a faulty view of God would even lay doubt on whether Jesus, if not fully God, would be able to offer a sufficient, efficacious atonement for the world. For the inevitable conclusion if taken down the Arian view held by the Bible Students would be that the saints have been relying on an angel for their complete trust, eternal safeguard and forgiveness of sins. A most untenable position especially in light of the reality of fallen angels as well as people.

 

DEITY OF OUR LORD JESUS OR CREATED CREATURE?

Following this rejection of the Holy Trinity comes a complete rejection of the deity of our Lord Jesus. The Bible Students share a long history dating back to Arius regarding this aberrant view. Jesus to them is Michael the archangel. They also teach that Jesus the man was either vaporized into gases or His body is in some grand memorial tomb in heaven. Regarding this matter Russell wrote, "We know nothing about what became of it, except that it did not decay or corrupt. (Acts 2:27,31) Whether it was dissolved into gases or whether it is still preserved somewhere as a grand memorial of God's love, of Christ's obedience, and of our redemption, no one knows-nor is such knowledge necessary."17 This statement and belief are still held despite the abundance of Scripture fully revealing what happened to Jesus after His resurrection and certainly His nature. The teaching by them that in His pre-incarnate state Jesus was an angel fits into their view of the atonement as well. References will be made that an angel could not pay the penalty to release mankind from death so Jesus became a man in order to do so. When Jesus was filled with the Spirit, according to the Russellites, this was his begetting of a new nature which corresponds to the divine nature and was fully manifested when he sacrificed the human nature. Of course what they teach cannot hold up under the full burden of Scripture. Jesus was fully God prior to His becoming a man, fully God while also fully man, and fully God fully man after the resurrection. God is the continuity and our assurance that the man Jesus was able to die for the sins of the world having a physical resurrection as proof.

Typical of the type of faulty exegesis done by the Bible Students is their analysis of the New Testament Greek Text. One example, cited by the Oakland County Bible Students’ involves the Greek word translated ‘equal,’ to which they state "When Jesus claimed he was the Son, ‘The Jews sought the more to kill him, because he . . . said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.’ (John 5:18, 19) Jesus, first of all, never claimed to be God, but God’s Son, and that was enough to infuriate the Jewish leaders of his day. They never assumed he was claiming to be God, but ‘similar’ (Strong’s Concordance #2470 for ‘equal’) to God as His Son. The Pharisees never said Jesus was ‘equal’ to God. The translators did! In fact, Jesus disclaimed his own authority and rank saying, ‘The Son can do nothing of himself . . . ’"18

Once again the Bible Students have redefined a Greek term according to their theology. The words ‘equal’ and ‘similar’ are not exactly the same in meaning and when dealing with Scripture an interpreter must try to capture the nuance of the Greek word to be translated. In this example the Greek word translated "equal" in the English language versions is ison (msa of isos). Louw & Nida in their Lexicon defines this word as "pertaining to that which is equal, either in number, size, quality, or characteristic ‘equal, equivalent, same.’. . . ‘making himself equal with God’ Jn 5.18."19 Likewise, in Baur’s Lexicon the word again is defined as "equal in number, size, quality."20 In Kittel (article by Stahlin on isos) John 5:18 , "The basis of the charge is not just the emphatic ‘my Father,’ but the related teaching of Jesus that He is identical with the divine Law-giver and that His works are the same as God’s works. Augustine remarks on this that the Jews understand what the Arians cannot grasp, namely, that Jesus claims to be truly God. Now it is true that Jesus Himself does not make this express claim . . . The emphasis is all on the identity of His works. Nevertheless, John accepts the paradox that He is the Son who is both subject to the Father and yet also one with Him (10:30; 1:1). In other words, He is equal to the Father (cf. Also 10:33, where we have the even stronger accusation)."21 This article goes on to comment that isos "expresses . . . the equality of dignity, will and nature . . . [and] thus acquires in the NT a depth and fulness which it never had before. Phi.2:6 also has the same meaning, "Christ was and is equal to God by nature. This equality is a possession which He can neither renounce nor lose . . . But He does not make use of His divine equality by retaining the form of God or of divine existence which He had. On the contrary, He temporarily divest Himself of it, and in place of the form of God He takes the form of a servant."22

 

DEITY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT OR A FORCE?

The monotheistic belief held by the Bible Students, in order to maintain their model of God, are also placed into a theological corner when it comes to the Third Person of the holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Russell viewed the historic expression in the following manner, "But this subject of the holy Spirit, its office and operation, has been grievously misunderstood by many of the Lord’s people for centuries: and only in the light of the rising Sun of Righteousness-in the light of the parousia of the Son of Man-is this subject becoming thoroughly clear and reasonable, as it evidently was to the early Church . . . "23 In his time of writing this subject was gaining more insight due to new light. It must be remembered that Jesus’ second coming had already occurred in 1874, so a lost truth is now being rediscovered according to Russell and the Bible Students. For Russell and today’s Bible Students the holy Spirit is a power with a oneness of purpose, "There is consistency in the Scripture teaching that the Father and Son are in full harmony and oneness of purpose and operation, as we have just seen. And equally consistent is the Scripture teaching respecting the holy Spirit-that it is not another God, but the spirit, influence or power exercised by the one God, our Father, and by his Only Begotten Son-in absolute oneness, therefore, with both of these, who also are at one or in full accord."24 The Oakland County Bible Students’ Congregation states that the holy Spirit is seen in such terms as the Spirit of God, of liberty, of understanding, of love. It is the oneness of mind "the disposition or influence of God." When one is "filled with the Holy Spirit [it is] not a person, but the influence of God’s mind working in us."25 The weight of Scripture does not support their theology.

The deity of the Holy Spirit is attested too in Scripture. He was promised by Jesus for His people as another paraclete (cf. Jn 14:16,17). The Paraclete is our Helper and Intercessor (cf. Jn 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 Jn 2:1). The Spirit can be called correctly the Spirit of God and also the Spirit of Christ (Ro 8:9). It should be extremely difficult to maintain the teaching that the Spirit is God’s influence, much like a force, as the Bible Students believe. Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit is a person, and that He is the third person of the Holy Trinity. He is described as a person by various attributes: do not resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51) do not grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30); do not quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19); do not insult the Spirit (Heb. 10:29). The Spirit speaks, something a force would have a hard time doing (cf. Acts 1:16; 8:29 10:19,20). He also loves (Ro. 15:30). The Spirit sends missionaries (Acts 13:4), He bears witness (Acts 5:32), He prevents missionaries from going into certain areas (Acts 16:7), appoints (Acts 20:28), and He intercedes for us (Ro. 8:26,7).

Note well the Holy Spirit has attributes which only God can have: He is eternal (Heb 9:14); Omniscient (all-knowing 1 Cor. 2:10); Omnipotent (all-powerful Lk 1:35); Omnipresent (everywhere present Ps 139:7-10). He is identified as Lord (2 Cor. 3:17). The Holy Spirit is associated with Jesus (Jn 1:32; 3:5; 7:39) and as a person distinct from the Father and the Son (Jn 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15). Some of the Spirit’s works are seen in creation (Ps’ 104:30), the inspiration of Scripture (2 Pt 1:21) and He raises the dead, most notably Jesus as well as indwells the believer (Ro. 8:11).

There are also passages which have the Holy Spirit in association with the other persons of the Trinity: In the baptismal formula (Mt 28:19), also in the beautiful benediction found in Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:14). There are numerous places in Scripture which relate to the Holy Spirit words and works attributed to God (cf. Isa 6:9;Acts 28:25; Acts 5:4;1 Pt. 1:2). One look in any concordance at the word Spirit is very forceful regarding the Spirit as something more than just a force or will of God.

 

SALVATION ONCE, TWICE . . . ?

Some of the writing regarding the subject of salvation sounds evangelical to a point; however there is more than enough written to reject the gospel message taught by Russell and believed in by the Bible Students. The Russellites believe that the death of Jesus was a ransom paid for the sin of Adam. They thereby deny a substitutionary atonement for the individual. Instead, Jesus made the proper sacrifice, accepted by God as the perfect man, thus canceling out the death warrant given the race from Adam. It is only the sins that come from Adam that is atoned for. He did not die for any sin that a new creature commits. However, Russell taught that very few would come under this banner due to the fact that our weakness was inherited from Adam. That Jesus paid the price for all will be credited in the Millennium when those who have died without hearing this gospel of the ransom will rise from their graves and have a chance after death to be saved into eternity. This price paid is now considered a deposit and credit and will be applied at the end of the age as it harmonizes with Russell’s Divine Plan of the Ages. There is no indication in Scripture for a second chance. In fact the Bible clearly teaches that man is appointed to die once and then comes judgment (Heb. 9:27).

Nevertheless at the end of the age Jesus will apply his sacrifice for the sins of the world, God will accept it and the world in turn will be given to Jesus. Mankind will then be subject to Him and in due time the merits of His ransom will be applied. However, Russell taught that in the meantime, those of the church who consecrate themselves will have some of the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice applied now in the church age. This will make the sacrifices of the church members acceptable to the Father. Once this is accepted, the person is considered dead to the world and a new creature.

There will be a time, in the yet future, when everyone who had not heard of Jesus will arise from the grave and gain the knowledge necessary. They must make a decision to consecrate themselves and if so will live. If they at that time reject the provision Jesus has made, they will then die the second death. There is no eternal awareness, but this death will be like sleep lasting for eternity. That all must come to a knowledge of the Lord and that He gave Himself a ransom for all meant, according to Russell, that for those who did not hear, then they must resurrect with another chance to accept the ransom and become consecrated. It is a repentant recognition knowing one cannot reconcile oneself to a holy God. This is also a time for the lost to accept Jesus as personal Savior, after the grave.

During the current time all who are consecrated must maintain a devotion to do the will of God. The Bible Students state that this consecration means to take up the cross daily and follow Christ. It is a denial of ones own will, while accepting the will of God. Those who do this in this lifetime will be rewarded with a heavenly body given at the resurrection. This is the elect class also known as the Christ and referred to by the Bible Students as the Messianic class. They are the 144,000 in Revelation. These are the ones who will have the heavenly bodies at the resurrection. Of course Scripture does not designate a two type of body class of people. In fact it states that we shall be like Him when He appears (1 Jn. 3:2), no distinction of bodies for all eternity. The Bible also states that to die is to be present with the Lord (Phi. 1:23)

The Bible Students however teach that another class of people, those raised in the Millennium will not be interested in spiritual things in the first life, so at most they will have earthly bodies. These are to be raised as human beings. The Millennium will be a time of trial, a second chance lasting a thousand years to hear the gospel and accept its provisions for eternal salvation. The Russellites teach a salvation by grace but it is never done against ones will. Also, the person must cooperate with God by what would be known as works.

Russell believed in a universal opportunity for salvation. He would say he did not believe in universalism, but that all would have a chance to hear the gospel. From the time of Jesus till the Millennium, those who consecrate themselves will obtain a heavenly body, all others’ earthly. Those who reject the gospel after hearing it will be judged and sentenced to the second death-annihilation.

 

HELL IN THE AFTERLIFE

Russell rejected any kind of theology which proposed a conscious eternal retribution for the lost. His understanding of God was such that he could never accept a loving God issuing forth such judgments against mankind. This idea of a hell with fire and torment for the condemned became instrumental in his early years to question and ultimately reject much of historic Christianity. For Russell and his followers, the whole notion of torment after death for the lost was a fabrication made up by the church to keep its members fearful and in control. Russell stated, " As knowledge increases and superstitions fade, this monstrous view of the divine arrangements and character is losing its force; and thinking people cannot but reject the Legend. ."26 Their main teaching is one known as "soul sleep" where the body is more or less in a state of sleep at death, and that the final judgment would only entail the annihilation of the body, therefore no suffering for the lost.

The Bible Students adhere to Russell’s view in that the main problem is one of translation. A lack of understanding involving the Greek and Hebrew words behind the English translation of ‘hell’, as notably found in the King James Version of Russell’s day, was faulty. Russell adds, "Guided by the Lord’s providence to a realization that the Bible has been slandered, as well as its divine Author, and that, rightly understood, it teaches nothing on this subject, derogatory to God’s character nor to an intelligent reason, we have attempted in this booklet [What Say the Scriptures About Hell] to lay bare the Scripture teaching on this subject, that thereby faith in God and his Word may be reestablished, on a better, a reasonable foundation."27

Many of the books and booklets published by the numerous Bible Students’ congregations cover the same arguments and are in complete agreement with each other. The whole rejection of reprobation is hinged on the translation of the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ and the Greek words "hades, gehenna, tartaroo," and taking a literal understanding of the word "death" to mean oblivion. For example, the Bible Students consider Ro. 6:23 (wages of sin is death free gift is life); Gen. 2:17 (you shall surely die); Gen. 3:19 (you will return to dust); Jn 3:16 (should not perish); and Matt. 10:28 (destroy both body and soul), in a most restrictive way. They will point out that these verses demonstrate a lost opportunity to live again brought about by sin. They contend that no hint of reprobation is mentioned. Of course there is agreement that mankind does die, however in the context of these verses it can be said that what is in view is the natural physical death of the body and not the soul. For the soul can only be destroyed by God.

When analyzing the Old Testament Hebrew word "sheol" the Bible Students follow Russell by using the King James Version (KJV) of the bible for doing their summations. In the KJV "sheol" is translated hell some 31 times. The various publications do not qualify the fact that today many translations are available which do not use the word "hell" in the Old Testament instead opting for the correct word "sheol." Even today’s New King James Version renders the word "sheol" in place of the KJV’s "hell" in the Old Testament. However, the Bible Students must rely on this usage of hell to maintain what they refer to as to their "torment theory" regarding the dead. Thus, they will place this theory on every word rendered "hell" by the KJV in the hopes of nullifying any belief concerning an eternal reprobation. However, they err when they interject their theology of soul sleep and annihilationism into the passages which contain the word "sheol" in the Old Testament as will be seen.

There is a lack of regard and a blurring for what must be considered as two referent points for the dead. First, sheol can be understood as the referent point to the departed regarding their worldly identity, that is, they live and they die in respect to those around them. Therefore, they are no more to those who are still living. This is what the grave depicts to the living, who without the Word of God must see their fellow humans go into the grave to return no more and to see their loved ones and friends turn to dust. Second, there must be a referent of the grave in relation to God. It is the New Testament which gives more light on this crucial understanding of the afterlife. For man must not be viewed only materially as a body decomposing in the grave, but also as a person with a soul, still existing in the nether world awaiting judgment.

Take for example the book of Ecclesiastes, it has one entry, Eccles. 9:10, which is a favorite text for many cults who teach soul sleep and annihilationism. The Bible Students will remark that this passage proves beyond doubt that there is a condition of unconsciousness beyond this life; and they will use this text to teach if God does not choose to awaken the person, then he goes to dust and is no more. Does this passage really say what the Bible Students want it to confirm? The text is contrasting life and death with life as the referent, the here and now. The wisdom of this is to do all you can now while you have the opportunity because when you die everything is left unfinished here among the living. It does not even hint to unconsciousness.

Take another example, the Bible Students interpretation of Ps. 16:10 and Acts 2:27-32. Here they write "that it applies to Jesus-that it was Jesus' soul that was not left in sheol. Thus we have an irrefutable proof that sheol is not a place of hell-fire and torment, for surely no one could think of Jesus going to such a place when he died."28 Once again the interjection into the text their theology regarding the resurrection of our Lord. Remember they deny a physical resurrection therefore they must only have His soul rise from the dead for Russell taught that His body was either vaporized or is in a tomb in heaven. Their understanding of the soul is not how we would believe because when Jesus rose from the dead, according to the Bible Students, he rose a spiritual creature-Michel the archangel. However, note verse 26 in the book of Acts which they are silent about, and for good reason, for this verse undermines their position, "Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue exulted; moreover my flesh also will abide in hope" (NASB). Now the question arises if the flesh is destroyed then how could it abide in hope? Also in verse 27 "Because Thou wilt not abandon My soul to Hades, nor They Holy One to undergo decay" (NASB). How is it possible for both the soul not to be abandoned nor the body to decay unless Jesus rose bodily from the grave? This clear teaching of Scripture in the very passage the Bible Students use proves their theology has many cracks in its structure. Did not Thomas wonder about the risen Christ? And would not believe unless he saw him physically? (Cf. Jn. 20:24-29). Scripture maintains what the historic belief has been, that Christ rose physically and that there is a state of awareness after death while awaiting the resurrection.

All Russellites hold to the belief that the grave is equal to oblivion. Therefore, continuing with the KJV use of sheol translated hell in Ps 16:10, these Students state, "The translators must have known that the ‘Holy One’ of this text was Jesus, yet they used the word hell to describe his condition in death, despite the fact that in most other instances where the righteous were concerned they have translated sheol by the word grave or pit. The reason for this is obvious, for they were caught in a dilemma by the fact that it is Jesus’ soul that is said to be in sheol. Had they used the word grave, they would have been admitting that Jesus’ soul was in the grave, in oblivion; so knowing that in the minds of the average reader hell was at least a place of life, they used it, hoping perhaps no one would inquire too diligently as to why Jesus was in hell, or what his experience there might have been. To admit, through a translation, that Jesus' soul was in the grave, the state of death, would have disproved another of the Dark Age dogmas; namely, the erroneous theory of the immortality of the soul."29 Much of their error not only here but in other citations stems from their presuppositionalism to the extent that meaning must be placed into the passage in any manner which it will fit. Here they equate grave with oblivion in order for their theology to work. By using the Old Testament passage of Ps. 16:10 containing "sheol" they try to equate that with "hades" in Acts 2:27 by their own singular definition of the word. From this they reason that the New Testament usage has the same meaning as found in the Old Testament use of Sheol. They conclude that this is definite proof that death is a state of oblivion. Furthermore, in the passage in Acts they will hold that only the soul of Jesus was brought back to life not his body, next is their insistence that sheol is the Bible hell, whereby this Bible hell is the death condition or soul sleep.

Sheol has a wide range of meaning and must be viewed by the context in which it is used. In the Old Testament it denotes the grave, or pit, a place where a dead body is placed. It is the New Testament which equates hades and sheol as a place where reward and punishment is given. Jesus Himself reveals this new revelation where there is an eternal gain and lost. Notice that hades in the New Testament can be a place of torment (cf. Lk 16:23-25; 2 Pet. 2:9) during the intermediate state while awaiting the resurrection. Quite contrary to Bible Student understanding of it meaning oblivion. That this meaning is so very clear renders the Bible Students to spiritualize the citation in Luke of the rich man and Lazarus.

With the addition of God’s revelation in the New Testament this subject concerning the afterlife becomes much clearer. Yet the Bible Students continue to equate hades with oblivion and do so even if the context does not demand this type of interpretation. Another example is found in Revelation. In particular Rev. 6:8 causes the Bible Students to conclude, "Here hell (hades) is represented as riding on horseback together with death. It would be difficult to imagine the great abyss of torture such as hell was supposed to be, thus riding on a horse's back. But in the symbology of this passage, no difficulty is encountered when we realize that hades and death are practically synonymous, and thus shown together in this graphic picture of destruction stalking through the earth."30 One problem with this interpretation is the fact that hades is not riding horseback with death, but rather is following. A careful reading many times will nullify a wrong interpretation as demonstrated here. Another term misused by the Russellites is "gehenna." It is properly understood as a place for eternal punishment and is associated with a final judgment. This is the eternal abode of the lost, a place beyond the intermediate state. All but one occurrence of this word is found in the Gospels. Whereas hades represents a place for both the saved and lost, gehenna is for the lost only, and it is eternal. Its very presence in Scripture rules out universalism, and along with hades, rules out a second chance for salvation beyond the grave. Yet, the Bible Students must somehow make even this term fit their theology of oblivion and annihilationism for the lost.

The Russellites will insist that gehenna is symbolic of those who are so incorrigible that even after a second chance for salvation in the Millennium they will not accept Jesus’ ransom. Another example is taken from Mt. 18:8,9. In this passage, as before the Russellites must make gehenna a place of destruction. They state, "Since fire is a symbol of destruction, and quite properly so because of its destructive qualities, the expression 'everlasting fire' would simply denote everlasting destruction. Again, no torment is suggested."31 However, what about the burning bush? Or what about Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace? Certainly fire was not destructive. A rigid literal rendering is sometimes not good methodology for interpretation as proof by the methods of Russell and his followers.

Their view of soul-sleep and annihilation for the lost must be held no matter what the Scriptures might indicate to the contrary. The Bible Students go into the holy text with a highly biased theology, and therefore must break acceptable rules of hermeneutics. The full weight of Scripture collapses the view which they try to maintain.

 

THE THEOLOGY OF RUSSELL’S ‘THE CHRIST’

Another strange teaching held by Russell and believed in by the Bible Students is the concept of "The Christ." They see the Christ not as Jesus alone, but also as the body of anointed believers making up the head and body. This is the little flock or Jehovah’s anointed. The Bible Students begin their reasoning with Paul’s mystery now made known to the saints (Col. 1:27), or Christ in you. Furthermore, because Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 10:18) he became Christ or the anointed. They then reason that because the saints are an anointed company, anointed to be kings and priests they constitute together with Jesus, the anointed-the Christ. This is the mystery that the Christ is not one member but many.

This thinking continues with Jesus and his body, the Christ, constituting the promised ‘seed.’ (Cf. Gal. 3:29). Russell pressed his theology to claim that the Christ both body and head was also the deliverer, not one but a group. This group had the highest calling. However, Paul himself teaches that the seed is not referring to more than one, but rather one, singular, Christ alone (Cf. Gal. 3:16). By being one in Christ Jesus does not imply that the believer is the Christ as the Russellites believe.

This idea of the Christ being collective members was also pushed in the direction of the resurrection. The Bible Students believe that the first or chief resurrection is the body of Christ collectively and will point to 1 Cor. 15:23 and Rev. 20:4-6. The first passage does not speak of any other Christ but our Lord Jesus who died and rose from the dead alone, the first fruits of the resurrection. The assurance that one day all believers will rise in the first resurrection is future from when Christ rose. This like other passages demonstrates a theology seeking Scripture instead of Scripture making theology.

Russell was so sure of his idea of the Christ that he even stated "That all who accept the terms may come into the Christ-body until a sufficient number will have been found, until the foreordained number have made consecration, and made their calling and election sure. How shall we know when the full number has so consecrated? It is not for us to know! In a general way, we believe that the outward call ceased in 1881."32 This date setting is typical of Russell. The question arises for the Bible Students that if the date was wrong perhaps then the teaching should be scrutinized for it too might be wrong. With Russell sure of the 1914 date when the Christ would rise to heavenly glory and rule the earth it is no wonder that he would also believe in the saints having the last call in his time. Both dates have proved him wrong.

The mediator between God and man according to Scripture is Jesus alone; also, it is Jesus Himself who is the mediator of the New Covenant (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 12:24). The Bible Students believe otherwise. Russell wrote, "That mediator, God is getting ready now. Christ is the mediator of the new covenant - Jesus, the head of the Christ, and the church, the body of Christ, will be the great mediator, and stand between God and Israel, and all who get blessings through Israel."33 This New Covenant was not a one time event according to Russell and his followers. Russell taught that the Christ suffered for 1800 years up to his time of writing and that the New Covenant would not begin mediating until the head and body was complete. This unique teaching of the Bible Students does not stand up to the truth of Scripture and apart from Russell writing and teaching this idea of a collective group known as the Christ this would not be gained from a reading of God’s word. This esoteric teaching is naturally rejected.

 

RUSSELL’S DIVINE PLAN OF THE AGES

The Divine Plan of the Ages is a centerpiece for the Bible Students. This plan was expanded by Russell in volume one of his Studies series, The Divine Plan of the Ages; and it is this volume which many of the unsuspected will receive in a full or condensed version upon first contact with the Bible Students. There is a chart of the plan contained, usually in a foldout inside the full version of the book.

This chart which is both central and crucial to the dating of events and Russell’s theology regarding people and religious institutions throughout biblical times is a maze of lines and sections and pyramids. The chart emphasizes the steps of the changing human nature as it goes from human to divine. The plan is broken into three main parts: plan A plan B plan C. Each is a dispensation with A lasting from creation to flood, and B from flood to the commencement of the Millennial reign of Christ at his second advent, and C from the beginning of Millennial age to ages to come. This is following A to C, the world that was, this world, and the world to come. In this world evil rules and the good suffer but in the world to come a reversal will occur where righteousness rules with evildoers suffering and then in the end all evil is to be destroyed.

For Russell taught that Satan is the ruler of this world but not of the world (A) before the flood. This world (A) was under the supervision of special angels who were permitted to try to restore mankind. Russell’s thinking for this bizarre theology was that Heb. 2:5 implies that the angels did not have authority in the world to come therefore they had authority in the world prior to the flood. The future world is under the dominion of Jesus and the joint heirs. Within the next dispensation (B) there is an age noted by Russell as age D, age E, and age F. Age D deals with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Age E is noted as the Jewish age and includes the period of time following the death of Jacob. Age F is the gospel age. This gospel age is the age in which the body of Christ is called out of the world to be obedient as a requirement for salvation. Evil plays an interesting role according to the theology of Russell. It is permitted to exist as a testing instrument to see who will give up the human nature which is a living sacrifice and conform to the death of Christ by rejecting the world.

The age to come has many ages of which is the Millennial age (G). The ages to come (H) follows this "reconstruction period" and the Scriptures, according to Russell are silent about this time, but there will be happiness.

Within this elaborate scheme are numerous parallel times. For example the harvest at the close of the Jewish age (a 40 year period between 29 AD and 70 AD) which corresponds to the time of the ministry of Jesus until the destruction of the temple also refers to the end of the Jewish age and beginning of Gospel age. There is both a harvest at the end of this age and overlapping with the new age. This same type of sequence is seen again at the close of the Gospel age with its harvest and the beginning of the Millennial age with what is also referred to as the Messianic age . In other words the gospel age is ending and the Millennial age with its restitution is beginning. It should be remembered that for the Bible Students, the Gospel age is for the calling out of the Christ (both head and body) and that the Millennial age will be a time when many who are dead and unsaved will rise again and have a second chance for salvation. It is very easy to see familiar terms redefined in Russell’s chart.

Russell continues adding to his Plan of the Ages chart with more letters. Within these ages are differing planes referred to as K, L, M, N, P, R. Briefly: N equals the plane of perfect human nature, Adam was on this plane before he sinned; R was where Adam fell and all mankind are now born; P is considered to be the plane of justification reckoned by sacrifices of law; N is for justified persons who have fellowship with God. The M plane is where the spiritual children are which Russell says are noted as embryo children on the plane of spirit begetting. Following is plane L which is the condition of perfect spiritual being and entrance into this level is known as "birth" which is the condition of life as a spirit being. It is this plane that the entire church will go when selected from the world in the end of the age. Here the saints will rise from the dead and the saints alive will be changed in a moment made perfect spiritual beings with bodies like the glorious body of Christ’s. The final plane is K and here one goes beyond the spiritual perfection gained by being a spirit being to a place of glory. This glory, according to Russell, is not one of person but rather a glory of power or office shared with Christ on his throne forever.

As if this scheme is not incredible in itself Russell correlates it to the great pyramid. And also includes many sub-points. One example refers to the path Jesus took. While on plane L, sub-point i where, after being dead for three and one half days, Jesus was raised to the perfection of a spirit being, i.e., born of the Spirit. Russell denies any continuity between the Jesus that lived and died to the Jesus that was resurrected for He became a spirit-being and was no longer a man. Of course the Bible has several statements to deny the fact that Jesus was a spirit. He himself tells His disciples that a spirit has not flesh and bones as He has, and also it is the "man" Christ Jesus who is the mediator between God and man.

This plan is much more detailed and elaborate. This brief sketch portrays the general jest of its nature. However, it is an imposed viewpoint and does not bear up to Scripture. This elaborate maze of Russell’s confuses the natural understanding of Scripture and the true history of salvation. The chart visualizes his theology. A theology which is gaining members and a group of people who are convinced that Charles Taze Russell was correct in his understanding. Our call was spoken long ago, to correct those who oppose us with gentleness that God may grant them the repentance which leads to the knowledge of truth (2 Tim. 2:25).

 

  Robert C. Hill, 1997

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NOTES

1. Rutherford, J.F. "The Late Pastor Russell." In What Pastor Russell Wrote for the Overland Monthly. Rpt. n.d. Chicago: Chicago Bible Students, n.d.. 443.

2. Ibid., 446-7.

3. Watch Tower Bible & Track Society. 1975 Yearbook. Brooklyn: WTBTS, 1974, 88.

4. Ibid.

5. Bible Student Congregation of New Brunswick. "A Pastor of Excellence." Bible Students Congregation of New Brunswick. October, 1996: 3.

6. Dawn Bible Students Association. When Pastor Russell Died. Edison: DBSA, ca. 1950, 6.

7. Ibid., 22.

8. The Divine Plan Program Bulletin Vol. 3 #3 May, 1996.

9. The 1916 edition is used because it contains editorial changes made by Russell himself, along with a watered down disclaimer for the 1914 date setting. In prior editions 1914 was to be the limits of Gentile rulership, and thus the end of the world’s satanic systems. This did not happen of course, but because WWI had begun, a new reappraisal was direly needed. Nevertheless, it was a huge disappointment for the faithful followers of Russell when the world did not end.

10. Fort Worth Bible Students. "A Statement of Purpose." The Divine Plan Journal Mar. 1997: inside cover.

11. Bible Students Congregation of New Brunswick. The Lord our God is one Lord a Scriptural Evaluation of the Trinity. Edison: BSCNB, n.d., 2.

12. Russell, Charles Taze. The Atonement Between God and Man. Vol. 5 of Studies in the Scriptures. 7 Vols. 1899, Edison: Divine Plan, 1985, 59.

13. Ibid., 54-55.

14. Ibid., 166.

15. Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989, 649.

16. Bromiley, G.W. "Trinity." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. W.A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989, 1112.

17. Russell, Charles Taze. The Time is at Hand. Vol. 2 of Studies in the Scriptures. 7 vols.1889 Edison: Divine Plan, 1977, 129-130.

18. Oakland County Bible Students’ Congregation. The Only Begotten God. Clawson: OCBSC, n.d. 2.

19. Louw, J. and Nida, E. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. 2 Vols. #58.33 Vol. 1. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989, 589.

20. Bauer, W., Arndt, W., Gingrich, F. A Greek -English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, 381.

21. Stahlin, G. "Isos."Vol. 3. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 Vols. Ed. G. Kittle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1984, 352.

22. Ibid., 353.

23. Russell, SS Vol. 5, 165.

24. Ibid., 165.

25. OCBSC, 2.

26. Russell, Charles Taze. What Say the Scriptures About Hell?. Brooklyn: IBSA, 1915, 2.

27. Ibid., 2.

28. Dawn Bible Students Association, The Truth About Hell. East Rutherford: DBSA, n.d., 11.

29. Ibid., 11-12.

30. Ibid., 27.

31. Ibid., 34.

32. Jones, L.W. What Pastor Russell Said. Reprint of book published ca. 1917. Chicago: Chicago Bible Students, n.d., 157.

33. Ibid., 187.

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