This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 18, number 4 (Spring 1996).
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force and deny His deity. They further deny that the soul survives physical death and that hell is a place of conscious eternal punishment for the wicked. Moreover, the Witnesses imply that the early church believed as they do about these doctrines. Examination of early Christian literature, however, refutes these claims. It demonstrates that the early church believed in the full deity and personality of the Spirit. It also reveals that they believed in a soul that survives death and in a place of conscious eternal punishment for the wicked. There is no historical evidence from the earlieat years following the apostles for any group believing as the Witnesses do today. The absence of such evidence provides an opportunity for Christians to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the Watchtower Society, a necessary step for leading Jehovah’s Witnesses to Christ.
Part One of this series examined two important doctrinal premises of the Jehovah’s Witnesses: (1) the idea that a great apostasy occurred in the Christian church after the death of the apostles, and (2) the claim that the early Christians believed Jesus Christ was a created being. The literature of the early postapostolic period reveals no evidence that a great apostasy occurred and demonstrates convincingly that the early church, beginning with disciples of the apostles themselves, believed Jesus Christ possesses both the nature of God and the nature of a human being. On this basis alone one can refute the claim of the Watchtower Society to be a contemporary restoration of the true Christian faith.
The Watchtower Society also diverges markedly from the orthodox church on the nature of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the soul, and the existence of a place of conscious eternal punishment for the wicked. Yet, despite their differences with Christendom, the Witnesses are convinced that their teachings are harmonious with the teachings of the apostles and the early church. To resolve this issue, it is important to seek evidence for the beliefs of the early church from the testimony of history.
THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE POST APOSTOLIC CHURCH
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that “holy spirit” is neither God nor personal, but rather is an impersonal force or energy sent forth from God.1 The Witnesses assert that the orthodox teaching about the Holy Spirit — that He is personal and a member of the Trinity — was an apostate church innovation that became official church dogma from the fourth century. This challenge raises serious questions about this fundamental teaching of the Christian faith. What did the early church believe about the Holy Spirit? Did they consider the Spirit to be a person or an impersonal force? Did they consider the Spirit to be equal to God Himself?
An examination of early church literature reveals that little attention was paid to the specific issues of the nature and personality of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is difficult to be dogmatic about the beliefs of the early church on this subject. The literary motivation of the patristic authors generally falls into several categories, the most common being the defense of the faith against pagans, pastoral concerns, and the refutation of heresy. This last category — the defense of the faith against heresy — served as the strongest incentive for the development of formal Christian doctrine. In the centuries before the council of Nicaea (AD 325), the principal heretical challenges to the faith focused on the nature of Christ and His relationship to the Father. Except for the work of Origen in the latter part of the third century, no formal, systematic Christian theology was attempted during this period. Because there was little controversy about the nature and personality of the Spirit, a strong motivation to develop formal doctrinal positions on this issue was lacking.
Nevertheless, it is possible to discern from this literature the broad outlines of the early Christian understanding of the Spirit, and to compare and contrast this picture with the teachings of the Watchtower Society. The Spirit is mentioned frequently in early Christian literature, most commonly in contexts describing the baptismal formula or other contexts that do not clearly demonstrate a definitive understanding of the Spirit’s nature. But some common threads are evident. The principal themes pertaining to the Holy Spirit found throughout the patristic literature are described below.
The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit
The church fathers make frequent mention of that which they believed to be at the heart of the Christian life — the rebirth of a sinful person through the indwelling of God within the human heart by faith in Christ. Emphasis on this as the central experience of the Christian faith is seen outside the Scriptures as early as the first century, during which time many disciples of the apostles, and even some of the apostles themselves, were still alive.
The Epistle of Barnabas, written by an unknown author shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, makes frequent reference to the importance of this spiritual transformation: “Behold then we have been created anew, as He said…’Behold, says the Lord, I will remove from them…their stony hearts and will put into them hearts of flesh.’ For He Himself was to be manifested in the flesh and to dwell in us. For the abode of our heart…is a holy temple to the Lord.”2 We also read, “By receiving the remission of our sins and hoping on the Name we became new, created afresh from the beginning. Therefore God dwells truly in our dwelling within us.…He Himself [is] dwelling in us.…For he that desires to be saved looks not to man, but to Him that dwells and speaks in him.”3
Ignatius, a revered martyr of the early church who clearly proclaimed the deity of Christ in his epistles, also testified to the indwelling of God the Father and Jesus Christ in the temple of the believer. While he did not specifically mention the Spirit in such a context, his testimony bore witness to the fundamental conviction of the early church — God is present in the heart that is newly created through faith: “I realize that you are not conceited; for you have Jesus Christ in yourselves.”4 “Let us, then, do everything as if He were dwelling in us. Thus we shall be His temples, and He will be within us as our God—as he actually is.”5
While both Barnabas and Ignatius emphasized the indwelling of God and Christ, other early authors stated that God dwells within the human heart through His Spirit. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century allegory esteemed by the early church, speaks often of the Spirit and His sanctifying work in the human heart: “Love truth, and let nothing but truth proceed out of thy mouth, that the Spirit which God made to dwell in this flesh, may be found true in the sight of all men; and so shall the Lord, Who dwelleth in thee, be glorified.”6 “For if thou art long-suffering, the Holy Spirit that abideth in thee shall be pure…[He] shall rejoice and be glad with the vessel in which he dwelleth.”7 “Take heed therefore, ye that serve God and have Him in your heart…”8
The early church proclaimed the same good news that Christians rejoice in today — that we may be reconciled with God through faith in Christ and transformed through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And it is very clear from the language they used that they considered this indwelling Spirit to be personal and identified Him as God.
The Holy Spirit Is the Author of Scripture
Frequent references to Christ as the author of Scripture demonstrate the early church’s belief in His deity. Likewise, the patristic writers attributed the voice and authorship of Scripture also to the Holy Spirit. For example, Hippolytus (who according to the Watchtower believed that the Spirit was an impersonal power9) said this of the Spirit: “Neither does Scripture falsify anything, nor does the Holy Spirit deceive His servants, the prophets, through whom He is pleased to announce to men the will of God.”10 “For either they do not believe that the Sacred Scriptures were spoken by the Holy Spirit, in which case they are unbelievers, or, if they regard themselves as being wiser than the Holy Spirit, what else are they but demoniacs.[sic]”11
Many such instances are seen in early church literature. Since the fathers believed the author of Scripture to be God, their testimony about the Spirit speaking through the written Word provides substantial evidence that they understood the Spirit to be personal, and they attributed to Him the nature, words, and will of God.
The Holy Spirit Is Described in Personal Terms
The Watchtower Society argues that the use of terms of personality to describe the Holy Spirit is not evidence that He is a personal being, but rather represents the literary technique of personification. Their reference book Insight on the Scriptures asserts that personification does not prove personality: “It is true that Jesus spoke of the holy spirit as a ‘helper’ and spoke of such helper as ‘teaching,’ ‘bearing witness,” ‘giving evidence,’ ‘guiding.’…it is not unusual in the Scriptures for something that is not actually a person to be personalized or personified. Wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs.”12
This weak defense is contradicted not only by Scripture, but by the postapostolic literature. With the exception of the allegorical Shepherd of Hermas, the church fathers rarely employed the literary technique of personification, yet they repeatedly spoke of the Spirit in personal terms. They believed the Holy Spirit has an active and dynamic role in the church, not as an impersonal power, but as a personal being with an independent will and ministry. For example, Ignatius des-cribed the Spirit as Preacher.13 Likewise, Justin Martyr referred to Him as Teacher: “The Holy Prophetic Spirit taught us this when He informed us through Moses that God spoke….”14
The early fathers recognized that the Holy Spirit possesses all the attributes that we associate with personality. In the following passages note how the Spirit manifests emotion, functions as an intermediary between two personal beings (God and humans), exercises endurance, accuses sinners, and proclaims the truth of God without deception: “The doubtful mind saddens the Spirit….Put away therefore from thyself sadness, and afflict not the Holy Spirit that dwelleth in thee….”15 “The Jews…were rightly censured both by the Prophetic Spirit and by Christ himself, since they knew neither the Father nor the Son.”16 “The Holy Spirit [does not] deceive His servants, the prophets, through whom He is pleased to announce to men the will of God.”17
It is not plausible to claim that such references involve the literary personification of an impersonal power or force. To see such a consistent personification would be most unlikely given the wide spectrum of authors and literary styles evident in the writings of the fathers. There is no support in the writings of the early church for a doctrine of the Spirit as an impersonal force or energy of God. Whatever the origins of this Watchtower teaching, it did not come from the teachings of those who were disciples of the apostles.
The Spirit Is Functionally Equated with the Father and the Son
The patristic writers frequently spoke of God and Christ in equivalent ways, often interchanging “God” and “Christ” in the same sentence or paragraph. They treated the Spirit in a similar manner: “He that has the Spirit…giveth no answer to any man when enquired of, nor speaketh in solitude (for neither doth the Holy Spirit speak when a man wisheth Him to speak); but the man speaketh then when God wisheth him to speak.”18 “The Spirit and the Power from God cannot rightly be thought of as anything else than the Lord, who is also the First–born of God.”19
God, Christ, and the Spirit are spoken of in an equivalent manner throughout the patristic literature. While distinguishing different roles in their relationship with humankind and with the church, the apostolic fathers treated the Holy Spirit as the functional equivalent of the Father Himself. They believed that the Spirit was God dwelling within the heart of the believer, teaching and admonishing the church, manifesting the emotions and will of God. They did not believe He was simply an impersonal energy or force.
THE NATURE OF THE SOUL AND ETERNAL PUNISHMENT
Among the most fundamental questions of religion are those pertaining to human nature, the consequences of evil, and the destiny of human beings after death. There are substantial differences between the teachings of the Watchtower and those of orthodox Christianity on these issues, yet both claim to accurately interpret Scripture and represent apostolic teaching.
The Watchtower Society denies the existence of the soul as a separable entity from the body that survives death. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the term soul refers to the whole person, composed of a physical body and an impersonal “spirit” or life force. At death, a person ceases to exist except in the memory of God; the life force does not survive death but its energy returns to God.20 While Witnesses nominally believe in a resurrection of the righteous, it is in reality a recreation, wherein God creates a new person from the pattern of that individual in His memory.21
The idea of hell as a place of conscious eternal punishment for the wicked has always been anathema to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe the biblical terms for hell (sheol in the Old Testament, hades and gehenna in the New Testament) refer only to the common grave of humankind. Using their ubiquitous yardstick of biblical interpretation — their own human reason — they assert that a God of love would never condemn humans to an eternity of fiery torment. The fate of the wicked is nonexistence, with no hope of resurrection to Jehovah’s paradise on earth.
The Witnesses believe that the doctrines of a soul that survives death and a hell where the wicked are punished eternally arose from Platonic influences within an apostate church, and they are not representative of the beliefs or teachings of the apostles or early Christians. Does early Christian literature substantiate their claim to have a true biblical and apostolic understanding of these doctrines?
Discussion of the soul occurs frequently in the postapostolic literature. There are different meanings for soul depending on the context in which it is used. The fathers sometimes used the term to refer to the entire person. Their understanding, however, was not confined to this use.
Martyrdom was common in the widespread persecution of the early church. The courage of the martyrs was based on their faith in Christ their Savior and their conviction that death would immediately usher them into His presence. Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, was one of the early church’s great martyrs. At the time of his death, his prayer expressed a hope not only in resurrection, but also that he would stand in the presence of Christ after his sacrifice: “I bless Thee, because Thou hast deemed me worthy this day and hour, to take my part among the number of the martyrs in the cup of thy Christ, for ‘resurrection to eternal life’ of soul and body…may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.”22
Ignatius likewise manifested this hope at the time of his martyrdom: “I would rather that you fawn on the beasts so that they may be my tomb and no scrap of my body be left. Thus, when I have fallen asleep…shall I be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more.”23
Similar references are common in the postapostolic literature. Typical of the early church’s teaching on the soul is a passage from Justin Martyr, a convert from pagan philosophy who also suffered martyrdom: “Look at the end of each of the former emperors, how they died the common death of all; and if this were merely a departure into unconsciousness, that would be a piece of luck for the wicked. But since consciousness continues for all who have lived, and eternal punishment awaits….All this should convince you that souls are still conscious after death….We look forward to receiving again our own bodies, though they be dead and buried in the earth.”24
In contrast to passages such as those above, there is no literary or historical evidence for any early Christian group teaching soul sleep. The belief in a soul that survives death is ubiquitous in the writings of the early church. It is not credible to say that a theology of soul sleep and an impersonal life force reflects apostolic teaching when such concepts appear nowhere in the writings of apostolic disciples or others in the early church.
As with Justin Martyr above, the punishment of the wicked after death is also a common topic in the literature of the church before Nicaea. There is no indication that the early church believed the wicked were punished by annihilation. Rather, the conscious punishment of those who reject Christ and fail to repent permeates the evangelism of this period. The early church was not reticent about teaching the consequences of sin for the unrepentant.
A few passages speak of the destruction of the wicked. The Epistle of Barnabas, for example, says, “For it is a way of eternal death with punishment wherein are the things that destroy men’s souls.”25 Such affirmations taken in isolation might seem to support the doctrine of soul sleep. Yet when the broader context is examined, the fathers did not believe that “eternal death” or “destruction” meant cessation of existence, but rather a state of eternal separation from God — the antithesis of the perfection achieved when a faithful Christian is joined eternally with God in heaven.
The early church believed the wicked would receive an eternity of torment and punishment. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, said, “It is better for a man to confess of his sins than to harden his heart in the way those rebels against God’s servant Moses hardened theirs. The verdict against them was made very plain. For ‘they went down to Hades alive.’”26 Similarly, the author of 2 Clement, an early Christian homily, said, “But the righteous…when they shall behold them that have done amiss and denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds, how that they are punished with grievous torments in unquenchable fire, shall give glory to God.”27
The author of The Martyrdom of Polycarp describes in detail the death of John’s disciple, and says this of the motivation behind Christian martyrdom: “And giving themselves over to the grace of Christ, they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing for themselves…life eternal. To them the fire of their inhuman tortures was cold, for they set before their eyes escape from the fire that is everlasting and never quenched.”28
Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp — described by the Watchtower as one “who boldly spoke out in favor of the inspired written Word of God rather than the traditions of men”29 — said this about the fate of the unrepentant: “The Church…received from the apostles…its faith…that [Christ] may make just judgment of them all; and that He may send the spiritual forces of wickedness…and the impious, unjust, lawless and blasphemous among men, into everlasting fire.”30
It is clear from these and many other references that the early church, citing apostolic teaching as its source, believed that those who failed to repent were destined for conscious eternal torment in hell. They ridiculed the pagan notion that the wicked would be annihilated and cease to exist, asserting that this would be an unjust end for those who pursued wickedness and the pleasures of this world. Just as they believed that faithful Christians would be eternally in the presence of God, they were convinced that the wicked would suffer an eternity of torment apart from Him. The Watchtower teaching on the annihilation of the wicked quite simply has no historical precedent in the early church.
THE WATCHTOWER VS. THE HISTORICAL RECORD
One avenue for refuting Watchtower teachings is the careful and thorough exposition of biblical texts. Many biblical scholars have solidly refuted the unsound approach to biblical interpretation practiced by the Watchtower Society, yet the fruits of such efforts are often dismissed by the Witness at the door who is unwilling to accept any scholarship — regardless of how thorough or distinguished — that contradicts an organization believed to be God’s sole channel of communication. Faced with this obstacle, the Christian who wishes to lead the Witness to Christ and into the truth of the Christian faith may find his or her commentaries and books on biblical apologetics to be of no avail. The Watchtower has over one hundred years of polemical experience and millions of pages of literature defending their interpretation of Scripture. The Christian who confronts this arsenal directly is facing a most formidable stronghold.
The Watchtower fortress is not invulnerable, however. The Watchtower Society claims to have an unbroken lineage of faithful Christians since the apostles who have believed and taught as they do today. The Governing Body of the Watchtower Society, which represents the defacto voice of God for the individual Witness, derives its authority by claiming to be the “faithful and discrete servant” of Matthew 24:45. They assert that at the time of the invisible presence of Christ in 1914 he chose a group of Christians who alone were faithful to the true gospel. This group of “anointed” Witnesses is said to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy about the servant serving faithfully when his master returns. The Watchtower maintains that there has always been a “faithful and discrete servant class,” appointed by Jehovah God to proclaim His kingdom gospel, even during the 1,800 years between the death of the apostles and the establishment of the Watchtower Society.
These claims present an opportunity for Christians seeking to reach Jehovah’s Witnesses for Christ. The Witness likely will not be receptive to the true gospel or the true Christ until he or she first accepts that the Watchtower Society is not God’s sole channel for truth. By demonstrating through the vehicle of history that the early Christians — the same men cited in Watchtower literature as supporting Witness teachings — did not believe or teach as the Watchtower does today, the Christian may plant seeds of doubt about the truthfulness and reliability of the Watchtower Society.
Unlike topics such as the Trinity or the correct translation of John 1:1, the Witnesses have no prepared answers for such questions. Their literature provides no substantiation for claims of historical solidarity with the apostles, leaving the Witness with a dirth of prepackaged Watchtower answers. This provides a golden opportunity to compel Witnesses to think independently about such issues.
Readily available translations of the early fathers may also be accepted and studied by the Witness who would reject Christian apologetic literature as “spiritual pornography.”31 It therefore behooves Christians interested in reaching out to Jehovah’s Witnesses to familiarize themselves with the historical evidence for their own faith so they can contrast it with a latter-day counterfeit preaching another Jesus and another gospel.
Witnesses, who believe they are following the truth, need to be confronted lovingly with the historical fact that, while a few scattered groups over the centuries have held doctrines resembling a few of their teachings, there is no evidence for an unbroken lineage of anointed Jehovah’s Witnesses holding their interpretation of Scripture prior to Charles Russell. Certainly no evidence exists for such a group in the early church.
Those who know Jesus Christ and are born of His Spirit share the same faith with those who defended that faith nearly two thousand years ago. Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite their zealousness, are serving a religious fabrication masquerading as true Christianity. It is the duty of those who serve our Savior to introduce them to the Christ of truth, faith, and history.
Robert U. Finnerty, M.D., is a practicing physician in Tacoma, WA and is the author of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial: The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers (P&R Publishing, 1993). He may be reached “on–line” via the internet at [email protected].
- Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 2 (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1988), 1019.
- Barnabas, 6; in J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).
- Ibid., 16.
- Ignatius, Magnatians, 12; in Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970).
- Ignatius, Ephesians, 15; in Richardson.
- Hermas, Mandate, 3, 1; in Lightfoot.
- Ibid, 5, 1; in Lightfoot.
- Hermas Similitudes, 1; in Lightfoot.
- Insight on the Scriptures, 1019.
- Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel, 4.6; in W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979).
- Hippolytus, The Little Labyrinth; quoted in Eusebius Pamphilus, Ecclesiastical History, 5.28.15; in Jurgens.
- Insight on the Scriptures, 1019.
- Ignatius, Philippians, 7; in Lightfoot.
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, 44; in Jurgens.
- Hermas, Mandates, 10.2; in Lightfoot.
- Justin Martyr, 63; in Richardson.
- Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 4, 6; in Jurgens.
- Hermas, Mandates, 11.1; in Lightfoot.
- Justin Martyr, 33; in Richardson.
- The cessation of a person’s existence at the time of death is referred to as soul sleep or soul death.
- You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1982), 78. Insight on the Scriptures, 1025.
- Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14; in Richardson.
- Ignatius, Romans, 4; in Richardson.
- Justin Martyr, 18; in Richardson.
- Barnabas, 20; in Lightfoot.
- 1 Clement, 51; in Richardson.
- 2 Clement, 17; in Lightfoot.
- Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2; in Richardson.
- Watchtower, 15 July 1990, 26.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.10.1; in Richardson.
- The Watchtower teaches that Jehovah’s Witnesses must avoid any religious literature from Christendom — especially any writings opposing the Society or written by former Witnesses (“apostates”) — and must treat Christian literature as pornography.