I managed to wind up getting in the debate I wanted to avoid with my Jehovah's Witness friends yesterday. I totally blame myself for that. I read ahead in the book we were using, and came across a section I knew I would have trouble with. I should have seen the signs and prepared better. Instead, we wound up debating how accurate the Bible is when it comes to science and prophecy.
The discussion started out well enough. Jehovah's Witnesses hold to a variation of the ransom theory of atonement. Last week, I pointed out that ransoms are usually paid to someone and asked to whom was the ransom paid. They weren't clear about it themselves, so I asked them if they could get material for the official Watchtower teaching. They provided it this week. It's material I still have to look over. It could be the beginning of some work comparing different Atonement theories. We'll see.
Then we began covering chapter six of What Does the Bible Really Teach? (WDBRT), a PDF version which can be found here. Some of it is standard Christian teaching, i.e., death began with Adam. The crux of the chapter, however, is about the distinctive teaching of the Jehovah's Witnesses that the dead are basically in a state of sleep until if and when they are resurrected. That is, a person's spirit does not go to heaven or hell while awaiting the final judgment. They did make a good biblical case for that view, although, as I pointed out, other interpretations are also possible. Their view is consonant with scholarship on the development of the doctrine of the afterlife.1
No problems there. I'm not horribly concerned with what happens after we are dead. I figure we are all going find out sooner or later anyway.
No, my problems did not start until we hit the final section “Knowing the Truth About Death Is Beneficial” (p. 64-65). I didn't find this section very beneficial. In this section, the book talks about the reasons why people believe other things about what happens after death. Basically, it boils down to Satan blinds them and religious teachers are lying. That's where I slammed the brakes in our discussion.
It's one thing to say people are wrong. The solution is to present your case and let people decide. To say something like “People believe other things because Satan has blinded them” is utterly dismissive of their views. It refuses to consider the possibility that people might have good reasons for believing what they do. And when you go further and start accusing people of actually lying … well, then, you had better be ready to prove it.
When I said as much, they turned to the Bible. Next thing you know, we're discussing whether the earth is supposed to be topped of with a dome (Gen. 1:6-8, 14-19) and whether Ezekiel's prophecies regarding Tyre and Egypt came true. They promised to come back with answers to the issues I raised (which I'm sure is going to be the same old stuff I've heard before). I marked a few passages of my own in case they really want to continue that discussion.
The problem is I don't want to continue the discussion. As I noted before, such a debate would be pointless anyway. In this case, it is also worthless because a discussion on the Bible's reliability will not advance my understanding of the Jehovah's Witnesses. That is the point I need to keep in mind.
So my plan for the next meeting is to apologize for derailing the discussion so badly. Meanwhile, I need to do my homework better. If I can anticipate a problem, I need to know better what I am going to say so that pointless debates don't ensue.
1 See, for example, Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).