"Do you want to die?" the man asks me. He stands on the steps leading to my front porch with a stack of literature in his arms. He is wearing a suit that probably looked sharp 15 years ago. Home laundering has taken its toll. The fabric is pilled, the seams are droopy. A middle-aged woman in an ankle-length skirt stands on the walkway a few feet behind him. Her hair and makeup-free face are the same washed-out color. These people have been coming to my door for several months now. Before this pair, it was another. I've collected a small stack of issues of The Watchtower, their primary publication.
Today, I accept a pamphlet entitled "Life in a Peaceful New World." The cover illustration shows an idyllic scene of meadows and snow-peaked mountains. It's half pastoral England and half Swiss Alps. In the foreground are people of all races smiling, gathering fruit and vegetables. An Asian toddler feeds blueberries to a grizzly bear. The inside text reads, "The whole earth will eventually be brought to a gardenlike paradise state ... no longer will people be crammed into huge apartment buildings."
The man's question-"Do you want to die?"—is not rhetorical. He scans my face frantically. In his mind, we are having a moment. Metaphorically, he is a reaching out a hand to me.
Not only am I not a Jehovah's Witness, I'm not even a Christian. I grew up with no religion. I am a "None." That's what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question "What is your religious affiliation?" with a single word: "None." But over the years, I've grown curious. I want to know what it's all about.
By not accepting the man's offer, I am sealing my own fate. By turning back and closing the front door, I am choosing complete and permanent obliteration. It would be another few months before I would grasp the full significance of my actions from his point of view. For the time being, I went back into my house relieved to be free from the intensity of his gaze. I thought of the irony of those two corpses offering me everlasting life. My greys are dyed and my cheeks are blushed.
At least I fake vitality.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to be an American in the early and mid-1800s, when what seems to me a particularly desperate brand of Christianity that includes the Jehovah's Witnesses took shape. Textbooks teach the broad social changes: urbanization, industrialization, rapid population growth. But what did this mean to individuals? In a nutshell: filthy living conditions.
Most of those piling into the cities did not have refrigeration and indoor plumbing. The "Gilded Age"—steel, lights, science!—was not yet far enough along to bring much innovation in the way of medicine or sanitation. The two basic things you needed, food and water, were also effective transportation for those other colonists not detectable to the human eye. Bacteria were winning. In the 1832 cholera epidemic, thousands were felled by drinking water.
In this context, a certain group of people became convinced that current conditions were so terrible it must have the end times that Jesus alludes to in the New Testament, a time of trouble and tribulation heralding the return of the messiah. America wasn't just some far-flung new land; it was the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. The present wasn't a random chapter in human history, but a vital piece of the story, the point at which the circle comes round, the grand finale.
The Bible was filled with clues of how our last days would play out. After careful consideration, William Miller, a farmer in New York, came to believe that the 1,000 years of peace prophesied in the New Testament would come only after Christ returned—not before, as typically assumed. He scientifically decoded the Bible's messages and began to spread the good news: Jesus was coming back in 1843.
What if these are real-life zombies? This thought flashes into mind as I'm standing in the entrance to my local Kingdom Hall with people milling around me. The Jehovah Witnesses have been coming to my door for more than two years acting like they have the answers, so I'm finally taking them up on the offer to come to their Kingdom Hall. It's just down the street from my house.
Inside, people are milling about. Maybe what they say is true and here are some of the multitudes whom Jesus has made rise from their graves. Their happy expressions and business-casual attire carry the whiff of inauthenticity. It's like they're trying too hard to seem alive. The atmosphere in the building can only be described as funereal: fake plants, floral carpet, mauve wainscoting. No windows, the only light emanates from fluorescent tubes. Décor best appreciated by the dead. I keep expecting someone to turn and have an eyeball dangling from a socket.
Even though they had visited me at least a dozen times, I was hesitant to visit in return. I called earlier in the week to make sure it was OK for me to attend Sunday services. The Witnesses aren't listed in my local newspaper's Worship Directory. It goes along with their distrust of all things civic: They don't vote, hold office, salute the flag, serve in the military, or volunteer their information to the newspaper authorities. It's part of their commitment to avoid the world where evil lurks. Theirs is a safer parallel world, intersecting with the evil world chiefly at countless doorsteps. The phone book is the one civic instrument they are powerless to avoid.
On the phone, I talked to a woman named Sadu, who said I would be welcome on Sunday. She speaks with a strong accent that I imagine is from some place in India or maybe Africa. I picture her as statuesque, like one of the women from the Watchtower illustrations with the colorful headscarf and flowing robes.
At the Kingdom Hall entrance, a man in a suit smiles broadly. He has big white teeth and sandy blond hair shellacked into place. If he's not a dentist, he could play one on T.V.
"I'm looking for Sadu," I tell him him.
He frowns and turns to a woman, "Have you seen Sadu?" She turns to second woman. The second asks a third. Sadu? Sadu? On down the line. A young woman approaches, "Sadu isn't here today." She is apologetic. "You can sit with me if you'd like." She is white and short and ordinary, but I accept her invitation.
I take a padded seat near a polyester plant while she fetches me a small song book called "Sing to Jehovah." The cover is illustrated in the familiar style, wiht the hordes of happy people of all colors and ages. Here they cradle hymnals and float in a golden light. The tinkling of piano keys begins and we stand to sing hymn number 19, "God's Promise of Paradise." We warble the first verse:
A paradise our God has promised,
By means of Christ's Millenial Reign,
When he'll blot out all sin and error,
Removing death and tears and pain.
The pace of the piano is so slow that everyone is forced to linger, but we each draw out different words and in different ways. The result is a sound I'd liken to a gang of angry, drugged alley cats. I scan the room for the culprit. "Where's the piano?" I whisper to my companion. She points up. Suddenly it makes sense. It's prerecorded and piped in through speakers in the ceiling. The playing is so mechanical that I doubt it's the product of human hands. As we yowl our way through the rest of the hymn, I'm hoping earplugs will be available in the beautiful paradise we sing about.
The founder of the Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, believed Miller's theory that all signs pointed to Jesus' imminent return. After the "Great Disappointment," when Jesus failed to arrive in 1843, he, like White, accepted that while the messiah hadn't come to earth, he had taken up residence in a heavenly sanctuary and would soon make it the rest of the way down. At which point the dead will rise, and everyone who ever lived will be sorted into either believers or nonbelievers.
Nonbelievers will be obliterated; no Hell: just poof and gone. The rest will occupy earth forever with perfect bodies that never get old.
Until now, I haven't thought too much about Christ's actual return to earth, although it is a fundamental belief shared by all Christians. From what I can tell, they agree on two main points: 1. Christ will return, and 2. his return will either usher in—or cap off—1,000 years of peace. As for the specifics, most mainstream denominations stay mum, which is just as well. People tend to freak out when they think of end times, and details in the Bible don't help. The Book of Revelation appears to state that only 144,000 faithful will escape obliteration. This must have seemed a sufficiently huge figure 2,000 years ago, but now it's not even a fifth of Albuquerque.
In the sanctuary of the Kingdom Hall, I'm seated directly behind a young woman with Down syndrome. She could be as old as 20. She is with her mother. The reason I know the woman is her mother is because of the two empty seats between them; at a certain point, the more distance we put between ourselves and our guardians the more obvious our dependence. She's holding a tablet of paper with extra-big spaces between lines. Someone has written in big, fluid script, "I will not listen to Satan" three times down the sheet, leaving room for her to copy the words underneath. Throughout the morning, she works, painstakingly forming each letter and then holding the page close to her face to admire her work.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have brilliantly solved the whole 144,000 dilemma. It's kind of the whole point. That relatively small number only refers to a special group—what they call the "small flock"—that will help Jesus run the new earthly paradise, in official administrative positions. The small flock includes the original apostles and draws on all the faithful who ever lived, so you'd have to be exceptional to make it in—though past and present leaders in the Jehovah's Witnesses organization are shoo-ins. But you can still be an inhabitant of the new earth without being a member of the small flock. It sounds like the better deal, because it means you get to live in paradise without taking on any management duties.
According to some old Watchtower articles, members of the "great flock" won't just feed blueberries to grizzlies all day-they'll have tasks too. For example, they will be on post-apocalypse clean-up duty. The article mentions that they will be assigned the job of gathering the bleached bones of the annihilated. You'd have to dream awfully big to be included in the small flock, but the only requirement for becoming a member of the great flock is to be an obedient Witness.
For all the shades of grey that exist in Christianity, here is a denomination that lays it out in black and white. When the new world arrives, the Jehovah's Witnesses Organization will become what it was destined to become: a global governing structure. Kingdom Halls are ready and waiting in communities all over the world. These will be the new Kingdom's headquarters, and the remaining people will be a single race speaking one language. What language? According to an old Watchtower, it will be like ancient Hebrew—except the letters will look more like our current style of alphabet instead of that weird old blocky text. How will we learn it? The Watchtower assures its readership that the Kingdom will employ plenty of good language instructors.
If you're the kind of person who wants answers, here they are in spades. In fact, you don't even have to think of the questions yourself—those are provided as well. The day's "sermon" is almost a parody of itself. It's a question-and-answer session lifted directly from the most recent copy of the Watchtower. Every Kingdom Hall all over the world is reviewing this exact article this weekend. The governing board of the Jehovah's organization keeps a tight grip on the curriculum. Everyone is asked to read the article in advance—carefully, at home, during the week. Now an elder stands at the podium as we open our flimsy copies of the Watchtower to the correct page.
Today's lesson is about "Entering into God's Rest." Examples from Genesis and Hebrews reveal people being punished for not being obedient to God. The old guy at the podium asks the questions printed at the bottom of each column and then calls on people by name. "Why is obedience essential if we are to enter into God's rest?" A few people raise their hands and provide an appropriate snippet from the article. Then he asks the next question, "What does it mean to enter into God's rest today? Brother James?"
"By being obedient," says Brother James.
For those who want a bottom line, a pull quote is printed at the top of the page: "We can enter into Jehovah's rest today by obediently working in harmony with his advancing purpose as it is revealed to use through his organization." Every answer is provided, but I'm left scratching my head.
After the service, my seatmate and I chat with the mother of the young woman with Down syndrome. They are both extraordinarily nice, but the conversation seems to lack the goofy spontaneity, the awkward turns of phrases, so common when complete strangers exchange personal information to get to know one another better. It's as if their talking points have been polished to a high sheen.
I wrote my name and address down before I left Kingdom Hall. I thought for sure their persistence would increase. All these months, the witnesses have been showing up at my door every few weeks and now I come into their Kingdom Hall and write my name and address on a piece of paper.
As I am leaving, I can see a group gathering around a flip chart. This is the meeting where they go over their personal ministries, which is what they call their doorstep proselytizing. They are dividing up the neighborhoods, making sure every door gets knocked on.
For the first time, I want them to come. I actually have questions. I've skipped ahead to the next week's lesson and it is about family members who leave the faith, and how they must be shunned. The attached photo shows a young man walking out the door with his suitcase leaving behind his weeping mother. I want to ask about family and friends who would never in a million years join the faith. Can an eternal paradise really be that great if no one I love will be there?
I also need clarification on the things I am supposed to avoid. I can live without celebrating Christmas and birthdays and other holidays. I can steer clear of smoking and gambling and pornography. But what about other things in this ungodly world? During the service, one of the leaders from another Kingdom Hall gave a brief talk about immorality and he singled out Web-based social networking as an example of one of the ways "wicked men will be progressing from bad to worse."
Will I need to delete my Facebook profile? What about my blog?
All this attention is surely giving the forces of evil more power, not less. On the way home, I can't shake the image of the young woman diligently copying her sentence about avoiding Satan.
It's as if now that I've seen with my own two eyes what they have to offer, they are no longer interested in convincing me. The power dynamic in the relationship has shifted and now I long for them to want me. I'm fascinated—though perhaps not for the reasons they would hope.
Weeks later, I keep waiting for my doorbell to ring unexpectedly. It does once and I run, only to find kids selling cookies. Then weeks turn into months and still I'm waiting.