The third millennium is just four years away, and you'd think that Jehovah's Witnesses would be ecstatic. Ever since the movement's inception in the 1870s, the Witnesses have insisted that the world as we know it is about to end. According to their unique Biblical calculations, the countdown to Armageddon commenced in 1914 -- the first world war was a major sign-and Christ would establish his millennial kingdom on earth "before the generation who saw the events of 1914 passes away." For countless Witnesses, this prediction was good reason not to save money, start a career or make burial plans. As one of their leaders famously preached in 1918: "Millions now living will never die."
Now, it seems, all millennial bets are off. In last month's issue of The Watchtower, the sect's leaders quietly acknowledged that Jesus was right in the first place, when he said that "no one knows the day or the hour." All previous references to timetables for Armageddon, the magazine now suggests, were speculation rather than settled doctrine. The year 1914 still marks the beginning of the last days. But those who hoped to witness the battle of Armageddon and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth will have to wait. Henceforth, any generation that experiences such calamities as war and plagues like AIDS could be the one to witness the end times. In short, the increasingly middle-class Witnesses would do well to buy life insurance.
If this serious revision of expectations takes the edge off the Witnesses' apocalyptic profile, it also buys them time. The generation that was alive in 1914 is rapidly disappearing, and the sect's current leadership shows every sign of digging in for the long haul. In recent years the Witnesses have been on a building spree: they just completed a 670-acre educational center in rural New York state that includes 624 apartments, garages for up to 800 cars and a dining facility that accommodates 1,600 people at one sitting. Officials of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Witnesses' official title) deny that the leadership felt a generational pressure to change. "The end is still close," says Witness spokesman Bob Pevy. "We just can't put numbers on Jesus' words."
So far, the new interpretation has caused no noticeable decline in membership among the 5.1 million Witnesses worldwide. But then, they rarely air their differences with outsiders. "Believing the end was imminent gave a special urgency to being a Jehovah's Witness," says Ray Franz, a former member of the society's governing board in Brooklyn, N.Y., who left the church in 1981. Older members, especially, heroically risked their lives and reputations by refusing blood transfusions, military service, allegiance to the flag and other acts prohibited by their faith-all with the expectation that they would soon live forever in the paradise of God's new kingdom on earth. Charles Kris, 73, a retired autoworker from Saginaw, Mich., served three years in prison with 400 other Witnesses for refusing to fight in World War II. "It was prison life, but I took advantage of the time to study the Bible and witness to other prisoners," he recalls. But for Kris, and especially for those younger Witnesses who have no memory of the rough early days (the Nazis interred many Witnesses in concentration camps), preaching God's message is more important than witnessing the end of the world. "I'd like to live to see it happen," says Kris, who still hands out tracts door to door. "But if it doesn't in my lifetime, I won't be disappointed."