The error of ignoring alternative explanations means that “a specific interpretation is given to a biblical text or set of texts which could well be, and often have been, interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered.”
Here are three examples from Watchtower publications:
Example #1: The witch at Endor
“In the fortieth year of his reign King Saul faces a battle with the Philistines near Mount Gilboa. Realizing that he is abandoned by Jehovah God, he turns to witchcraft, which he had at the beginning banned from his kingdom. By night he visits a surviving witch at Endor and tries to communicate through her with dead Samuel for information. Saul thus resorts to demonism. A demon impersonates Samuel to the witch of Endor, to her mind’s eye, and transmits through her a message of doom to King Saul. Not “tomorrow,” as the demon incorrectly says, but a number of days later King Saul and three, not all, of his sons fall in battle at Mount Gilboa. King Saul, wounded by a Philistine arrow, hastens his own death by falling on his royal sword.—1 Sam. 28:4-25; 31:1-13.” (Watchtower, 8/15/1964, p. 506)
- The possibility that it really was Samuel and not the witch’s “familiar spirit” that appeared and talked to Saul is not considered. For the Watchtower, taking Ecclesiastes 9:5 (“…the dead are conscious of nothing at all…”) out of context and turning it into doctrine precludes the possibility of alternative explanations.
- “Spirit mediums can trick people, “chirping and making utterances in low tones.” Such sound effects, attributed to the spirits of dead ones, can be worked through ventriloquism by a living medium. At times, though, the demons may get directly involved and impersonate the dead, as apparently happened when Saul inquired of the witch of Endor.—1 Samuel 28:8-19. (Isaiah’s Prophecy, 2000, p. 110)
- If a demon impersonating Samuel is only an apparent explanation, why doesn’t the Watchtower give its reader the alternative explanations?
Example #2: Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration
“Were Moses and Elijah actually there in person, as some in Christendom teach? How could they have been there when the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is ‘the first-born from the dead’? And did not Peter tell the Jews that even God-fearing David had not been raised from the dead but ‘his tomb is among us to this day’? If David was still sleeping in death, so were Moses and Elijah.—Rev. 1:5; Acts 2:29.”
- Regarding “first-born from the dead,” the Watchtower ignores the definition of the word “first-born” as “pre-eminent,” not “first one raised from the dead chronologically.” After all, Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:38-43), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus (John 11:14-44) were all raised from the dead before Jesus was.
- Regarding David, the Watchtower ignores the alternative explanation that while his body was still in the grave, his soul and spirit lived on in heaven.
- “Then how are we to account for the appearance of Moses and Elijah on that mountain? Jesus explains by his words to his three apostles: “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of man is raised up from the dead.” There we have it: it was a “vision” as far as the presence of Moses and Elijah was concerned.” (Watchtower, 9/1/1965, pp. 516-517)
- The Watchtower ignores the alternative explanation that the souls and spirits of Elijah were really there. The Greek word for vision (horama) can also simply refer to something that is seen. In fact, both the NIV and the ESV render Matthew 17:9, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen…”
Example #3: The disciples seeing and touching Jesus’ resurrection body
The Watchtower claims that Jesus was not raised from the dead bodily. Yet, in Luke 24:36-43 the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, had them see and touch his execution wounds, and ate a fish. How does the Watchtower explain this?
“Humans cannot see spirits, so the disciples evidently thought they were seeing an apparition or a vision. (Compare Mark 6:49, 50.) Jesus assured them that he was no apparition; they could see his body of flesh and could touch him, feeling the bones; he also ate in their presence. Similarly, in the past, angels had materialized in order to be seen by men; they had eaten, and some had even married and fathered children. (Gen. 6:4; 19:1-3)” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1984, p. 334)
- The Watchtower refuses to consider the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead in bodily form. I’ll just give two scriptures that teach this.
- Jesus’ prophecy in John 2:18-22: “So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
- Jesus’ explanation in the very passage under discussion—Luke 24:39: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Combatting This Error
The key to discussing Bible topics with Jehovah’s Witnesses is to make clear that:
- In order to avoid error, before we formulate doctrine on any subject we need to examine all the scriptures that bear on the matter (or at least a representative sample).
- In order to examine scriptures properly, we can’t simply ignore explanations that don’t match what we’ve been taught or what we prefer to believe.
- Instead, we need to be open to alternative explanations in order to determine which one best fits all the relevant passages.
- Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, James W. Sire (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1980), pp. 158-159