When I talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have a plan. This keeps us from getting sidetracked during the course of our conversation. However, I wasn’t always this tactical. I used to easily get pulled off topic. As a result, I would leave the conversation feeling frustrated.
For example, I remember one energetic discussion I had with two friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses on the nature of the atonement. At one point during the conversation, I said, “Jesus died on the cross for our sins.” This seemingly benign declaration launched our discussion in a completely different direction. Unfortunately, it was a direction I wasn’t prepared for.
It came as a surprise to me that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus died on a cross. I knew Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses have fundamentally different views on why Jesus died on the cross. But, as I soon found out, we have fundamentally different views on whether Jesus died on a cross.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus was crucified on a stake, not a cross. Moreover, they believe that the cross is a pagan symbol that Christians have adopted because of the influence of satanic forces.
There are a number of problems with the view that Jesus died on a stake. Rather than provide a comprehensive case, let me give you five talking points for the next time a Jehovah’s Witness tells you Jesus died on a stake.
First, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which claims to be God’s prophet on earth today, used to teach that Jesus died on a cross. In fact, up until October 1, 1931, The Watch Tower magazine (now called The Watchtower) included a cross and crown on the cover. This was part of their official logo for 40 years.
Moreover, in 1921, The Watch Tower published a book by Joseph Rutherford - the second president of The Watch Tower - titled The Harp of God. Repeatedly, Rutherford affirms that Jesus died on a cross. For example, he writes, “The ransom price was provided at the cross. The cross of Christ is the great pivotal truth of the divine arrangement, from which radiates the hopes of men” (141, emphasis added).
It is imperative that you point this out to your Jehovah’s Witness friends. This is not meant to humiliate them. Many have no idea how The Watchtower has changed this doctrine - and others - over time.
Here’s the crucial question you need to ask: If The Watchtower is a true prophet of God - who speaks for Jehovah - how could they get this wrong?
If they are willing to admit that The Watchtower was wrong, then ask if they could be wrong about other doctrines, like the deity of Christ. Minimally, this should cause them to doubt their alleged prophet.
Ultimately, all Christian doctrines need to be tested by the revelation given in Scripture. This leads to the remaining four points.
Second, the Greek word stauros - translated “torture stake” by the 2013 edition of the New World Translation - is used to refer to a number of wooden structures used for execution. These structures include a variety of shapes, like a cross, x-shape, plus-shape, and a simple pole. Therefore, the word itself isn’t enough to tell us if it was a cross or something else. We need the context for that. So, we need to look for clues in the text to help decide if it was a cross or a stake.
Third, the apostle John describes nails being used. This is a significant point easily missed if you’re not paying attention.
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).
This passage indicates there was one nail for each hand. This fits the description of being nailed to a cross, not a stake. After all, only one nail was needed when crucifying a person on a stake. Unwittingly, The Watchtower concedes this point. In the 2014 revised edition of What Does the Bible Really Teach? they include an illustration of Jesus on a stake showing only one nail through both hands. Ironically, this depiction is contrary to what the Bible really teaches.
Fourth, Jesus describes how Peter would be crucified and refers to his arms being outstretched.
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.“ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19)
Most scholars believe Jesus is using this expression (“you will stretch out your hands”) to refer to crucifixion on a cross. Of course, this expression makes little sense if Jesus is referring to crucifixion on a stake.
Fifth, the charge against Jesus was placed over his head (Matt. 27:37). Again, this makes little sense if Jesus was crucified on a stake. After all, if Jesus was on a stake, then the sign would be placed over His hands, not His head. But crucifixion on a cross could have a sign over Jesus’ head.
None of these pieces of evidence alone will likely convince a Jehovah’s Witness, but taken together they provide clear support that Jesus died on a cross.
In the end, this isn’t a hill I want to die on with my Jehovah’s Witness friends. Even if I successfully persuaded them that Jesus died on a cross, they would still be lost. That’s why my primary goal will always be to bring it back to the identity of Jesus. Why He was crucified is far more important than how He was crucified.