Chapter 11: Deathbed Repentance
By Stephen Flurry
“Not long before he died, Herbert Armstrong told my dad that some things in the church needed to be changed. He didn’t make a list of the changes he had in mind, he simply said that ‘things needed to be changed.’”
— Joseph Tkach Jr.
Transformed by Truth
After everything Mr. Armstrong said about Mystery of the Ages before he died—“most important book since the Bible”; “best work of my 93 years of life”; “the most valuable gift I could possibly give to you”—the fact that the Tkaches retired the work 2½ years after his death says a lot about what they really believed all along about Mr. Armstrong’s teachings. But to retire the book and then blame its removal on Mr. Armstrong, after all those glowing, public remarks, shows how far Tkachism was willing to go in order to deceive and lie—even if the lie was unbelievably absurd.
In 1990, Joseph Tkach Sr. said, “Mr. Armstrong himself told me that the book contained errors and that he needed to rewrite it.” But, according to Tkach, Mr. Armstrong died before he could revise the book. “I felt that there was so much valuable truth in the book that we should continue using it anyway,” Mr. Tkach said.1 So according to the 1990 version of the story—get this—it was Mr. Armstrong who wanted the book shelved and Mr. Tkach who wanted to keep it in circulation! “After a while,” Tkach continued, “I realized that the errors in the book could make the whole subject seem unreliable, and I had to do what I perhaps should have done to begin with.”
As for Mr. Armstrong’s profuse praise for the material in the book, Tkach said he “made some very strong claims regarding the book. He even called it the most important book since the Bible. This was an overstatement.”2 Yes, in the very same article, Mr. Tkach said Mr. Armstrong overstated the book’s importance when it was released, yet fully realized there were errors in it and that it needed to be rewritten.
What Mr. Tkach failed to mention in that 1990 article is that he too got “carried away” in his praise for the book. On January 16, 1986, the day Mr. Armstrong died, Mr. Tkach called Mystery of the Ages Mr. Armstrong’s “most powerful and effective book.”3 Ten months later, when he introduced the final installment of Mystery in the Plain Truth serialization, he wrote, “Mr. Armstrong did not underestimate the importance of this last work ….”4 He said that 10 months after Mr. Armstrong died. In 1990, Tkach made it clear that Mr. Armstrong did overestimate the book’s importance.
That Mr. Tkach would change his views about the book from 1986 to 1990 is one thing. But how could Mr. Armstrong’s views change? He was dead! Either he thought the book might be the most important since the Bible or else he considered it flawed and in need of a rewrite. It can’t be both!
In his 1986 article, Mr. Tkach Sr. called Mystery of the Ages Mr. Armstrong’s “last will and testament, to be passed on to those who would value it. … He loved and respected his readers and, in a figurative sense, he remembered you in his will.5
All these comments were made after Mr. Armstrong supposedly told him the book contained errors and needed to be rewritten. But in 1990, in response to criticism for removing Mystery from circulation, Mr. Tkach wrote,
As I said, before he died, [Mr. Armstrong] told me that the book had errors and should be rewritten. The truth remains the truth, of course. The errors were the problem. But he did not get the chance to rewrite it. So what was I to do? How could I before God continue to print the book, knowing it contains errors, and knowing Mr. Armstrong told me that he wanted to rewrite it?6
The thing is, before God, he did continue printing the book! He distributed it around the world for 2½ years! What’s more, even after this supposed conversation with Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Tkach referred to Mystery of the Ages as “powerful” and “remarkable,” saying it was Mr. Armstrong’s “last will and testament.” He never once mentioned this conversation with Mr. Armstrong until four years after he died—after he had already discontinued the book—and after he had received criticism for doing so.
Don’t blame me, Mr. Tkach responded to the critics. I’m only carrying out Mr. Armstrong’s final wishes.
How absurd is that?
Mr. Armstrong Behind the Changes?
Picking up on his father’s sudden recollection four years after the fact, Tkach Jr. made even more sweeping statements in 1991. In a personal letter written late that year, he told a former wcg member, “On his deathbed, Mr. Armstrong himself commissioned my father to look into the very changes we have made. Therefore, we are following the wishes of Mr. Armstrong and, more importantly, God.”7 By that point in time, numerous changes had already been made and much of Mr. Armstrong’s literature had either been revised or rejected. And the Tkaches were actually trying to convince members that Mr. Armstrong had commissioned Tkach Sr. to make these changes.
The following year, in November 1992, Mr. Tkach Sr. sent a video to all wcg churches in which he further elaborated on the supposed deathbed conversations he had with Mr. Armstrong. Here is what Mr. Tkach told the membership nearly seven years after Mr. Armstrong’s death:
A number of these [changes], whether you want to believe it or not that’s immaterial, I can’t lose any sleep over that; I know what transpired with Mr. Armstrong.
When we were talking about a number of these issues, I said to Mr. Armstrong, “What you’re bringing up here is really heavy, heavy information. It’s a shame that we can’t tape record this and preserve it for posterity.”
And he said, “Well, ok.” No, first he asked me why.
I said, “Well I know my limitations. I won’t remember everything we’re talking about.” And I said, “Secondly, even more important, the people won’t believe me!”
And so he acquiesced for a second and said, “Go ahead, get a tape recorder.” So I went around into the kitchen and as I was dialing for the radio studio or tv, I don’t remember, to ask someone to bring a tape recorder down, I heard his faint voice calling me back.
So I went back and said, “Yes, sir.”
He said, “On second thought, let’s not do it.”
I said, “Well, may I ask you why?”
He said, … “The people, God’s people, His precious chosen people, are going to have to take it on faith, if they truly are converted.”8
Mr. Tkach wanted this conversation recorded because he didn’t think the people would believe him. So what Mr. Armstrong supposedly spelled out for him must have been major doctrinal changes. Later in the video, Tkach said,
Some of those things were so far over my head it’s only within the last few years that they’re beginning to come back. And that’s what he told me. He said, “When it’s time for you to remember a certain point, God’s Spirit will bring it back as if we were just discussing it.” And that’s how things just come.9
Brilliant! It would all unfold just like it did with Jesus Christ’s disciples, who couldn’t understand certain things until after the Spirit of God filled the church on Pentecost in a.d. 31. The problem is, Mr. Tkach had received God’s Spirit decades before these deathbed discussions. He had spent his entire adulthood in the Worldwide Church of God. He was well aware of the church’s body of beliefs. That Mr. Armstrong’s deathbed comments were so far over his head doesn’t necessarily speak well of his overall grasp of doctrine.
What Tkachism told the wcg membership in 1992—nearly seven years into their administration—is this: On his deathbed, Mr. Armstrong commissioned the Tkaches to look into the “very changes” that had been made, which is pretty specific. What Mr. Armstrong brought up was such “heavy, heavy information” that Mr. Tkach wanted to tape record the conversation. Furthermore, the reason it took several years for Mr. Tkach to make the changes Mr. Armstrong supposedly wanted made is that the deathbed comments were “so far” over Tkach’s head, they simply did not start coming back until years later.
Riddled With Error
In that same video, Mr. Tkach also made some unbelievable comments about Mystery of the Ages. He said,
The same thing with Mystery of the Ages. We do have that on tape—where he [Mr. Armstrong] admitted that it was “riddled with errors.” We have it on tape where he began to extol the book and everything else when he was offering it to the student body as their textbook. And he told them that unfortunately the thing went to the printer before it could be properly edited and remove a lot of our misunderstandings in it. And it got printed.10
This was a sad case where the elder Tkach could not keep his lies straight. This happened quite a lot in those days, especially when Mr. Tkach would veer away from sermon notes someone else had prepared.
The video Mr. Tkach referred to was of Mr. Armstrong presenting the book to the sophomore class at Ambassador College on September 9, 1985, about four months before he died. In it, Mr. Armstrong was nearly overcome with emotion when he asked, “Will you forgive me if I get a little bit of a thrill that this is done; that this book is out now? Today is a pretty big day in my life when I can hand copies of this book out to each of you.” He spent quite a bit of time during that speech explaining how Mystery of the Ages came to be. He said he wanted the students’ education to be as “complete as possible.” Mr. Armstrong explained how some of the material in the book was from other books and booklets he had written while some material was brand new. He said, “The Bible is like a book that had been sort of cut up into about 2,000 or 3,000 pieces and you have to get them all put together in the right order or you can’t understand them. This book puts them together.” Later, he said Mystery of the Ages covers the “main thread” of the Bible. Reading it, he said, would “make the Bible plain and clear and understandable.” He recommended that the students read the book a second and third time, saying that they wouldn’t get the full meat of its message after just one reading.11
In a co-worker letter written just three days after Mr. Armstrong’s address, he said, “Since last December I have been working diligently on the largest and most important book of my life. In real fact I feel I myself did not write it. Rather, I believe God used me in writing it. I candidly feel it may be the most important book since the Bible.”12 More than two months later, Mr. Armstrong called Mystery of the Ages the “best work” of his 93 years of life.13
Mr. Armstrong never said, or even remotely implied, that the book was “riddled with error.” In 1992, Mr. Tkach made the embarrassing mistake of attributing this infamous statement to Mr. Armstrong when, in fact, it was said by his own son.
Caught in a Tangled Web
In the letter Tkach Jr. wrote to Dennis Leap on April 20, 1990, he said, “Mr. Armstrong commented shortly after [Mystery of the Ages] was published that the book was outdated and needed to be rewritten when he was up to the task.”14 Mr. Armstrong began distributing the book just four months before he died. It was his newest, just-published book—and yet, sometime during his last four months, the Tkaches say he supposedly discovered it was “outdated”? Actually, when Mr. Armstrong first handed out the book to the sophomore class at Ambassador, explaining that he had relied on various other writings of his to help produce parts of the book, he said,
Much of it’s been rewritten. It’s all been reorganized and updated. It had to be different from any book ever written before. It had to contain parts of several different books that we had. But we had no book that I thought was fitting …. There were some things in other booklets. But there were some things too that weren’t written at all and weren’t in any book that I wanted in.15
In truth, Mr. Armstrong never said the book needed to be rewritten. What he said was that more material could be added to the original text. Here is what he wrote in a letter to those who requested Mystery of the Ages:
Since writing the book, I have written another booklet that well could be the opening chapter of this book. And indeed, may be in future editions. It is on the mystery of the Bible itself. This booklet is titled The BIBLE—Superstition or Authority? … and Can You Prove It? Can you prove that the Bible is indeed the very Word of God, and the supreme authority in life, in right and wrong, by which every person ever born will be finally judged?
I feel sure you will want to read this new booklet, especially in connection with Mystery of the Ages.16
The only indication Mr. Armstrong ever gave about revising Mystery was the possibility of adding another chapter. Yet Tkach Jr. took that to mean “Mr. Armstrong realized that Mystery of the Ages had errors in it.”17
In David Hunsberger’s response to Malachi’s Message, he also brought up the subject of Mystery and the sophomore address. He wrote, “Mr. Armstrong realized that Mystery of the Ages had errors in it. Even when he personally distributed it to the sophomore class, he told the students that a new edition would need to be written.”18 Again, there is a huge difference between adding another chapter and wanting to rewrite the book because of major flaws.
Notice another excerpt from a letter Tkach Jr. wrote in early 1992:
Mr. Tkach spent literally hundreds of hours in personal talks with Mr. Armstrong during the last months of his life. Mr. Armstrong was well aware of a number of errors in his book and other doctrinal changes and corrections that needed to be made. He personally told Mr. Tkach to study into several of these matters.19
Now put yourself in the position of a wcg member sitting in that church between 1986 and the early 1990s. First, Tkachism made all kinds of changes, but told the membership there were no changes. Then, in the early 1990s, they admitted there were changes, but insisted that Mr. Armstrong was behind them. In the case of Mystery of the Ages, they said Mr. Armstrong had wanted to “update” the book anyway. Then, later, they said Mr. Armstrong was well aware of all the “errors” in Mystery.
Judging by the evolving story coming from wcg officials, you can see why Mr. Tkach couldn’t quite get the story straight during his November 1992 sermon. But the extensively written historical record speaks for itself. There is no way an honest observer, looking at all the facts, could say that Mr. Armstrong wanted to rewrite Mystery of the Ages because of errors, let alone that it was “riddled” with them. Yet that is exactly what church officials tried to convince the membership between 1990 and 1992.
Skeptics in the wcg were finally convinced that the changes were for real in late 1994, but not because of a courageous sermon by Tkach Sr. No—they were convinced because that was the year the Tkaches finally came clean.
That same year, Tkachism also fessed up on the Mystery of the Ages rewrite. Joe Jr. wrote in September, “Certainly Mr. Armstrong would have withdrawn and rewritten his book Mystery of the Ages had he been aware of the errors it contained.”20 But I thought he was aware of the errors? Didn’t they have it on tape where Mr. Armstrong admitted it was “riddled with errors”?
Tkach Jr. continued, “[Mr. Armstrong] did announce to students that he was going to rewrite the first chapter and make it Chapter 2 [actually, he indicated that he would move Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, not rewrite Chapter 1] while writing a completely new Chapter 1. He never accomplished this goal, however, due to his illness.”21 It’s not 100 percent accurate, but it is certainly much closer to the truth than what he said between 1990 and 1992.
By the time Joe Jr. wrote his book in 1997, their deceptive spin had come full circle. He wrote that Mr. Armstrong considered Mystery of the Ages his “crowning achievement,”22 “his opus magnum.”23 No mention of Mr. Armstrong being aware of all the errors—or even that he wanted it to be rewritten. Instead, Tkach Jr. spun the 1997 version of the story this way: “Herbert Armstrong considered the book Mystery of the Ages to be the great work of his life, the greatest book since the Bible.”24 As for the “deathbed” conversations Mr. Armstrong supposedly had with Mr. Tkach? Joe Jr. explains,
Not long before he died, Herbert Armstrong told my dad that some things in the church needed to be changed. He didn’t make a list of the changes he had in mind, he simply said that “things needed to be changed.”
What things might he have intended? We can never be sure—with one notable exception. Near the end of his life, Mr. Armstrong said that our stance on divine healing needed change.25
That’s not what Joe Jr. said in 1991—how Mr. Armstrong supposedly commissioned his father to look into the “very changes we have made.” In 1992, Tkach Sr. said he was anxious to get a tape recorder because of the lengthy list of changes Mr. Armstrong wanted made. Instead, Tkach had to work from memory. And many of the changes made several years after Mr. Armstrong died, so said Mr. Tkach, sprung from those deathbed conversations. According to Tkach Sr., they just popped into his head as Mr. Armstrong told him they would.
That was then. Now, however, we can never be sure what Mr. Armstrong meant when he said some things needed to be changed.
Let’s consider one last point with respect to Mr. Armstrong’s address before the sophomores. In the early 1990s, the Tkaches referred to this address as proof that Mr. Armstrong knew about the “errors” in the book. Notice what Mr. Tkach Jr. wrote in a letter, March 16, 1992:
Mr. Armstrong realized that Mystery of the Ages had errors in it. Even when he personally distributed it to the sophomore class, he told the students that a new edition would need to be written. His exact words were: “I won’t say it is inspired in the sense of the Bible. It’s not perfect. Then when we come to prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and when we come to the New Testament books, God inspired them. They are the infallible words of God. I don’t make any such claim for this book [Mystery of the Ages] whatsoever. I think in a way God inspired it, but not in the sense that it is the Word of God. I fully expect that within a year there will be a second edition, that some improvements will be made in this book.”
Regretfully Mr. Armstrong did not live to produce a revised edition.26
Mr. Tkach Jr. referred to these “exact words” in several letters he wrote to church members around that time. David Hunsberger also referred to this quote in his 1991 Worldwide News article.27 The problem with this quote is that it is a distortion of what Mr. Armstrong actually said.
Excerpts from his comments were played before the entire church at the Feast in 1985. The 20-minute video, which preceded Mr. Armstrong’s sermon, introduced Mystery of the Ages to the church. In the video, the announcer referred to the book as Mr. Armstrong’s “most important and significant work.” And to reflect this high level of importance spiritually, the announcer described how Mr. Armstrong wanted Mystery of the Ages to be of the finest quality physically—with the title embossed in gold lettering and the cover in royal purple. Four lengthy segments from the sophomore address were interspersed throughout the video. Here is the one uninterrupted clip Mr. Tkach quoted from so often in the early 1990s:
When the Bible speaks, that is God speaking, not a man. Now it’s true Moses wrote the first five books. But it wasn’t really Moses writing it. God was having him write it. And it was God writing it. But that was really inspired. And then when we come to prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and then when we come to the New Testament books, God inspired them. They are the infallible words of God. This book is not. I don’t make any such claim for this book whatsoever. But I think in a way God inspired it. But not in the sense that it is the Word of God. It’s as God inspired Herbert Armstrong. And I tried to yield myself to Him. And I hope I was able to yield myself, if not 100 percent, 97, and 98, and 99 percent. The Bible is like a book that had been sort of cut up into about 2,000 or 3,000 pieces and you have to get them all put together in the right order or you can’t understand them. This book puts them together.28
Notice the italicized words in particular. Mr. Tkach Jr. does quote that correctly in his letter. But before it, he added, “I won’t say it is inspired in the sense of the Bible. It’s not perfect”; and after it he tacked on, “I fully expect that within a year there will be a second edition, that some improvements will be made in this book.”29 (Notice his letter again, quoted above, to see where he added these comments.) These words do not appear in the video that played during the Feast in 1985. Nor do they appear on the World Tomorrow television program that also broadcast excerpts of Mr. Armstrong’s address.30
Now granted, the video the church produced for the Feast most likely did not include Mr. Armstrong’s entire speech. So it’s possible Mr. Armstrong could have made the statements Joe Jr. attributed to him. It’s also possible that Mr. Tkach invented the comments.
The key point, though, is this: For several years in the early 1990s, the Tkaches continually pointed to this sophomore address as proof that Mystery of the Ages was not perfect; that it was not inspired in the same way the Bible was; that it contained “errors”; that Mr. Armstrong knew it needed to be rewritten; and regrettably, he just never got that chance since he died soon after it was published. That much we know, based on the letters Tkach Jr. wrote during the early 1990s.
But notice how Mr. Tkach Jr. remembers that same sophomore address today:
When the book was published in 1985, Mr. Armstrong addressed a class at Ambassador College and handed out the book to sophomores and juniors, who were assigned to use it as a textbook. “This book is the greatest book since the Bible,” he said, “and it was inspired just like the Bible.”31
What a shocking difference! As every member in the wcg should remember, when Mr. Armstrong spoke about the book’s importance, he said things like, “I candidly feel it may be the most important book since the Bible”32 or “Time may prove this to be the most important book written in almost 1,900 years.”33 He did not blast away with, “This book is the greatest book since the Bible” and he certainly didn’t say it was “inspired just like the Bible”! The very address Joe Jr. is supposedly quoting disproves it! (Please read the quote from the video again and keep in mind that this was played before the whole church.) In his book, Mr. Tkach twists, distorts and even makes up material from that sophomore address to add color to his ever changing story.
These examples illustrate how far Tkachism goes in order to mislead and deceive. How could Joseph Tkach Jr.’s memory of the sophomore address be so different between 1992 and 1997? Judging by Tkach’s writings, it’s as if Mr. Armstrong gave two different speeches.
Taking the Credit
The year after Joseph Tkach Jr. succeeded his father as pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God is when he issued his mea culpa in the church’s magazine, the Plain Truth, saying the church had been “judgmental and self-righteous.” They had “much to repent of and apologize for.”34
He actually apologized on behalf of Mr. Armstrong for his “flawed” teachings—some 10 years after Mr. Armstrong died! But why didn’t he mention that Mr. Armstrong himself commissioned Joseph Tkach Sr. to make the very changes they had made since 1986? In fact, throughout the article of apology, Joe Jr. never even mentions Herbert Armstrong. Wouldn’t he at least want the Plain Truth readership to know that Mr. Armstrong was behind “all these changes”?
Tkach Jr.’s book, Transformed by Truth, according to a July-August 1997 Plain Truth ad, details how “in 1995, only 10 years after Armstrong’s death, the leadership of the wcg publicly renounced its unorthodox teachings and entered the evangelical mainstream.”35 In a 1997 Worldwide News, Tkach Jr. quoted from Charisma magazine, which said, “The Worldwide Church of God has made a dramatic shift away from heresy since the death of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, in 1986.”36
Now, of course, Joseph Tkach Jr. and the leadership of the wcg heartily congratulate themselves for the wcg’s radical transformation. If only they would have been so honest in accepting responsibility in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
When Mr. Armstrong died, the Tkach administration had nothing but praise and adulation for him and for Mystery of the Ages. A few years later, after numerous changes in church policies and doctrines, the Tkaches denied there were any changes. They insisted that they were following right in the footsteps of Mr. Armstrong. Then, after the changes became obvious, they attributed them to what Mr. Armstrong supposedly said on his deathbed. Now, Joseph Tkach Jr. takes full credit for the transformation—even indirectly calling Mr. Armstrong a heretic!
It’s almost comical, were it not so gut-wrenchingly tragic for tens of thousands of people whose lives have been ruined by Tkachism.