Is the Holy Spirit a force?
Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that the Holy Spirit is not a divine person existing eternally with the Father and the Son but is instead an impersonal, active force emanating from Jehovah God when he employs his power or energy toward the world. However, the arguments the Watchtower uses to support this doctrine are not biblically sound.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
The Watchtower’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit is driven by antipathy toward the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the Watchtower Society, “The Trinity doctrine, their concept of God himself, is borrowed from pagan sources and was developed in its present form centuries after Bible writing was completed.”1 Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that belief in the Trinity arose as part of the worldwide apostasy fomented by Satan.2 In their view, Jehovah God is the Father only; the Son of God was Michael the archangel, God’s first creature, whose life force was used to make the man Jesus; and “holy spirit” (lower-case) “is God’s active force, not part of a Trinity.”3 There is no divine person called the Holy Spirit; instead, there is only this invisible, impersonal force that in some way emanates from Jehovah God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses describe “holy spirit” as an “energy”:
Just as wind is invisible but exerts force, so the immaterial, impersonal holy spirit is unseen but produces effects. This spirit is energy from God projected and exerted on people or things to accomplish his will.4
It is God’s active force, not Jehovah’s power residing within himself, but his energy when projected out from himself for the accomplishing of his purposes.5
The Watchtower famously compares holy spirit specifically to electricity:
The holy spirit has been likened to wind. In certain respects it can also be likened to electricity. It also serves for illumination, as a means of communication, and represents a powerful force that can accomplish great things.”6
Rational Difficulties in the Watchtower Doctrine
The idea that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal active force that emanates from Jehovah God, like an energy source comparable to electricity, may sound simple enough, but it is not. There are theological puzzles lurking.
In Jehovah’s Witness theology, the “energy” that functions as God’s active force is apparently part of God’s own being, since the Watchtower has repeatedly said it is God’s energy. However, this idea needs to be related in some way to the Watchtower’s doctrine that Jehovah God is not omnipresent being but rather has a spirit body and is located somewhere. Does this mean that the energy is in God’s spirit body or composes his spirit body? When this “holy spirit” energy comes from God to people on earth, does it leave his spirit body? Does it go back when its function is complete? Does Jehovah have an infinite supply of this energy in his localized spirit body? When this energy enters into a human being, who is in control of that energy—Jehovah or the human being?
These are all legitimate questions, especially considering that Jehovah’s Witnesses commonly insist that there can be no “mysteries” or theological paradoxes in true doctrine.
The point here is not that such reasonable questions disprove the Watchtower doctrine. Rather, the point is to show Jehovah’s Witnesses that all doctrines of the Holy Spirit are going to have some rational difficulties. Yes, there are some apparent philosophical difficulties in the traditional Christian view of the Holy Spirit: How can he be the Spirit of God, be God himself, and yet be personally distinct from the Father? The issue cannot be settled by raising such “how” questions, whether in relation to the Watchtower’s doctrine or in relation to the orthodox view. Rather, the issue of what doctrine is correct must be settled by examining what the Bible says.
Just as there is very little in the Old Testament that refers explicitly to the Son as a divine person distinct from the Father, there is also very little if anything in the Old Testament that reveals the Holy Spirit to be a distinct divine person. In fact, the Old Testament has relatively little to say about the Spirit as compared to the New Testament. There are less than a hundred references to the Spirit in the whole Old Testament, whereas in the much shorter New Testament there are roughly 270 references to the Spirit. Most likely, the Old Testament did not speak clearly about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct persons because its focus was on teaching Israel to believe in and worship the one God who made and rules the world, a notion that cut across the grain of their polytheistic civilization.
Although Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit during his public ministry (e.g., Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10, 12), he waited until the Last Supper to speak in explicit terms about the Holy Spirit as someone distinct from himself and the Father. On that occasion, the night before his death, Jesus spoke at length to his disciples in a speech found in John 13-17 that scholars describe as his “farewell discourse.”7 In such a discourse, the speaker gathers with those he is about to leave behind, explaining that he is about to leave them, exhorting them to continue following his instructions and example, and offering them assurances about their future after his departure. This is exactly what Jesus does in John 13-17. The best example of such a farewell discourse in the Old Testament is the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses informed Israel that they were about to enter the land and that he would not be able to enter it with them.
The common feature of many ancient farewell discourses of importance here is that the speaker typically named a successor, someone who would pick up where he left off as a teacher, leader, or ruler. In the case of Deuteronomy, Moses named Joshua as his successor (see especially Deut. 31:1-8). In John 13-17, Jesus named the Holy Spirit as his “successor,” as it were:
“Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-16 NET).
The word translated here as “Advocate” (also in the NIV, NLT, NRSV, etc.; see also 1 John 2:1 in most English versions) is also translated in other versions as “Comforter” (KJV) or “Helper” (ESV, NASB). The Greek word paraklētos was a personal noun that generally referred to someone who advocated or interceded for a person in need by testifying on that needy person’s behalf, either in a legal setting or more broadly by approaching a wealthy or powerful patron whose help was needed.8 Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another Advocate,” implicitly referring to himself as an Advocate (as in 1 John 2:1) whose place will be taken by this second Advocate. The clear point here is that the Spirit is someone—a divine person other than Jesus who will come in Jesus’ place. The Spirit in this passage is not an impersonal force like electricity, but a divine person like Jesus.
Jesus goes on in the Upper Room Discourse to speak about the Holy Spirit in ways closely paralleling what the Gospel of John says about Jesus. God “gave” his Son (John 3:16) and “will give” the Spirit (14:16). The Son was “with” his disciples (14:9) and after he left the Spirit would be “with” them (14:16). The Father “sent” the Son (14:24; 15:21; 16:5); the Father and the Son would “send” the Spirit (14:26; 15:26; 16:7). The Son came in the Father’s name (5:43); the Spirit would come in the Son’s name (14:26). The Son and the Spirit both came “from the Father” (15:26; 16:28). The Son “taught” the disciples (6:59; 7:14, 28); the Spirit “will teach” them (14:26). The Son “testifies” (13:21); the Holy Spirit “testifies” to the Son (15:26). The Son did not speak or act “on his own” (5:19; 7:18); the Holy Spirit would also not speak “on his own” (16:13). The Son came to “glorify” the Father (14:13; 15:8; 17:1, 4); the Holy Spirit would come to “glorify” the Son (16:14). Thus, Jesus taught that the Spirit would come in his stead and perform personal functions comparable to the things Jesus himself did while he was physically present with his disciples.
We see Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled in the Book of Acts. Just before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples that they would receive power to be his witnesses when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). When the Jewish authorities challenged Peter for preaching about Jesus, Peter told them, “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). This is precisely what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do with the disciples (John 15:26-27). Luke reports on several occasions that the Spirit spoke to the disciples (Acts 8:29; 10:19-20; 13:2, 4; 21:11). Especially noteworthy here is that the Spirit speaks in the first person when he says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2; see also 10:20). Throughout the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is presented as an active, personal participant in the ministry of the apostles and their associates, directing the mission, calling people into service, and guiding the apostles’ decision making (see especially 15:28; 16:6-7; 20:28).9
Seemingly Impersonal Descriptions of the Holy Spirit
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians invariably point out that in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is described as acting like wind, water, breath, or other impersonal substances or forces of nature. People “drink” from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13); they are “baptized” (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Cor. 12:13), “filled” (Exod. 31:3; 35:31; Micah 3:8; Luke 1:15, 41, 67; 4:1; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52; Eph. 5:18), “anointed” (Acts 10:38), and “sealed” (Eph. 1:13; 4:30) with the Holy Spirit; they have the Holy Spirit “poured out” on them (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18, 33; 10:45). Such language appears to describe the Holy Spirit as impersonal.10 Yet this argument, applied consistently, ought to lead to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is some sort of fluid, not that he is an impersonal energy or power source. We do not normally speak of being anointed or filled with electricity or to have energy poured out on us.
The main problem with this line of reasoning is that the Bible sometimes speaks this way about God (and also specifically about Christ). Famously, God appeared to Moses in a bush that appeared to be on fire (Exod. 3:2-4), and elsewhere the Bible states that God is fire (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Heb. 12:29). The Bible also says that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and refers to Christ as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Ephesians says that Christians should be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) but also says that they should be filled with God (Eph. 3:19; 4:10). On one occasion Jesus referred to God the Father as “the Power” (Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:62; “the power of God,” Luke 22:69). Paul also called Christ “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). The Bible exhorts believers to “taste” that “the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; 1 Peter 2:3). In the same epistle in which Paul spoke about drinking of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), he said that the ancient Israelites “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). Such language is used somewhat more often for the Holy Spirit because his work occurs invisibly and usually internally, but the principle is the same. Such language, which of course is figurative, does not mean that the Holy Spirit is less than personal. Rather, it indicates that he is more than personal; in some ways he transcends personhood as we observe and experience it in the natural realm.
Arguments from Silence
Like most critics of the doctrine of the Trinity, Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently employ arguments from silence against the idea of the Holy Spirit as a divine person. Most of these arguments appeal to the lack of any mention of the Holy Spirit in various places in the Bible as evidence that he is not a divine person. Here is a representative passage from the Watchtower:
Daniel, Stephen and John in visions saw representations of the Father and the Son, but never one of the holy spirit. Why not, if the holy spirit is equal to the Father and the Son in glory, power, etc.? The creed may state that unless we believe that the holy spirit is equal to God we shall perish, but Jesus, in giving us the rule for life, does not even mention the holy spirit: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.”—John 17:3, NW.11
The basic problem here is that arguments from silence are logically invalid; they are fallacies. Such arguments fallaciously reason that if a particular speaker or writer did not mention something it must be because he was ignorant of it (or even that he would have denied it, given the chance). These arguments are notoriously unreliable because speakers and authors rarely tell us everything they know. The arguments typically overlook possible explanations for why the author is “silent” about the particular matter at hand.12
We would not normally expect visions of heaven to include embodied or visible representations of the Holy Spirit because of the distinctive way he works. The consistent role of the Holy Spirit in biblical teaching is to work in hidden or invisible ways, usually within the minds or hearts of human beings. Yet it is not true that the Holy Spirit is always “missing” or “absent” in such visionary experiences. Consider, for example, the vision that Stephen had just before he was killed, which the Watchtower claims is an example of the missing Holy Spirit:
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56 ESV).
In this incident recorded by Luke, the Holy Spirit is not missing or absent. He is filling Stephen in order to produce the vision of Jesus at the right hand of the glory of God. This is exactly what we should expect once we understand the role of the Holy Spirit in divine revelation.
With regard to Jesus’ statement in John 17:3 about eternal life consisting in knowing the Father and the Son, evidently Jesus did not expect his followers to understand that the Holy Spirit was a distinct divine person until he came into their lives in a transforming way after Jesus’ resurrection (at Pentecost). The Gospels report Jesus saying very little about the Holy Spirit until the night before he was killed, and then Jesus spoke at length about the Holy Spirit (in John 14–16). In this same context, Jesus made it clear that he did not expect his disciples to grasp fully what he was saying until the Holy Spirit came to be their new Advocate (John 14:25-26; 16:13-14). This may help explain why Jesus did not refer to the Holy Spirit in John 17:3.
In his remarks preparing the disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus made a very significant statement about the way the Holy Spirit would operate:
“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth;
for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak;
and He will disclose to you what is to come.
He will glorify Me,
for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (John 16:13-14 NASB).
Jesus’ point here was that the Holy Spirit’s role in redemption during this period in history was to be focused on glorifying the Son in order that people might put their trust in what he did for them in his death and resurrection. This role suggests that at least part of the reason why the person of the Holy Spirit may not seem as clearly revealed in the Bible is that he seeks to draw attention to the Son rather than to himself.
In the final analysis, our doctrine of the Holy Spirit must be based on what the Bible says, not on what it does not say. Arguments from silence are unreliable foundations for doctrine.13
We saw in a previous article that the Jehovah’s Witnesses view of Jesus Christ makes God remote and uninvolved in his creation because they think that Christ does virtually everything in creation and redemption as God’s agent. Reducing the Holy Spirit to an impersonal force that God transmits from heaven away from himself to produce desired effects from a distance has the same consequence. The Jehovah of the Watchtower is a remote deity that did not make the world himself and is not immanently involved in its history and redemption. Such a deity is not the God of the Bible.
1. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1995), 204.
2. Real Faith—Your Key to a Happy Life (Watchtower, 2010), 24.
3. “Do You Appreciate Our Special Heritage?” Watchtower, 15 Feb. 2013, 9.
4. “Why Be Guided by God’s Spirit?” Watchtower, Dec. 15, 2011, 13.
5. “The Holy Spirit—Third Person of Trinity or God’s Active Force?” Watchtower, July 15, 1957, 433.
6. Ibid., 434–35.
7. Of the many works that discuss this point, a noteworthy study is John Carlson Stube, A Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading of the Farewell Discourse, Library of Biblical Studies (London: T & T Clark, 2006).
8. Antony Billington, “The Paraclete and Mission in the Fourth Gospel,” in Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell, ed. Antony Billington, Tony Lane, and Max Turner (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), 90–115; Tricia Gates Brown, Spirit in the Writings of John: Johannine Pneumatology in Social-scientific Perspective, JSNTSup 253 (London: T&T Clark International, 2003), 23–61.
9. For a much more detailed study on this subject, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit in John and Acts: A Narrative Approach” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2014).
10. “Holy Spirit—Third Person of Trinity or God’s Active Force,” 431–32.
11. Ibid., 431.
12. Several examples of arguments from silence concerning the Holy Spirit are examined in Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Arguments from Silence: Bad Arguments against the Personhood of the Holy Spirit #2” (IRR, 2014).