When we first came into contact with the Worldwide Church of God in 1983, we were unaware of the scandalous receivership, the ousting of Garner Ted Armstrong, and the failed prophecy of 1975 (the year Christ was to return).
Many had left, and we were the beginning of the influx of new recruits who were oblivious to the organization’s shady past. Petra was still on the minds of remaining members, in spite of the failed prophecy, and we heard references about it in casual conversations between long time members. It wouldn’t be long before we began to question what this thing called “Petra” was.
We were informed (by a deacon and minister’s daughter) that Petra was the “place of safety” that God was going to take us to when the Great Tribulation would start (said to be January 7, 1972, which HWA said was the end of a “19-year time cycle”). It was located in the deserts of Jordan and, when it was time to flee, God would make sure He would give the warning to His Apostle, Mr. Armstrong.
At that time, we would sell all of our worldly possessions and send the money to Pasadena. Then, HWA would purchase jetliners and we would head to Jordan (“on eagle’s wings”). They told us that HWA had made all these arrangements with King Hussein.
Once we got there, we would walk into Petra on foot and then set up camp and go through some type of “final training” (Gerald Waterhouse would head this). God would provide food by probably sending manna again1 (only we wouldn’t grumble like the ancient Israelites did because we were too spiritually mature), and God would miraculously give us water to drink (probably from a rock that HWA would strike). We would stay there, protected for 3-1/2 years, while the rest of the world would have to suffer the terrible plagues of the Great Tribulation. Then Jesus would return and we would be changed into spirit beings (that was our salvation). Now all this sounded exciting enough, but I did have a few nagging questions.
I wanted to know what would happen if a woman was pregnant when Christ returned? HWA answered that question during a taped sermon where he declared that “God is going to close up all the wombs of the women during this time.” This not only would take care of birth control needs, but sanitation needs as well (think about it). What about people who were taking medicine? God would heal them while we were there. What about adults and children who were wearing orthodontics? God will make sure that there would be members who are doctors and dentists. God would use them to take care of our needs (like setting broken bones). I was fascinated by their total faith in God’s provision.
I completely missed the boat when I failed to think thoroughly about these answers. Were these fleeing doctors and dentists going to haul all their medical equipment and supplies to Petra? Why did we need the medical profession there with us in the first place–couldn’t God supernaturally heal broken bones alongside of the diabetics and cancer patients? Why would the ministry instruct us not to see doctors, but assure us that they would be with us in Petra? Man-contrived beliefs will always have loopholes.
As we spent more time in “the true church,” it was clear to us that getting to the “place of safety” was the ultimate goal of each member. It seemed any world event (from wars to natural disasters) were interpreted as a possible “trigger” for the end times. I recall one Feast where we met a lady who said that we would flee in 1993, because all the planets in the solar system were going to line up. The speculations never ceased among paranoid parishioners, nor did any dire predictions ever come to fruition.
Over time, we developed a phobic fear toward world events. Back in 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and President George W. Bush, Sr. ordered American troops to fight in the Gulf War. This was a time of anxiety in the Church (WCG). Was Saddam Hussein the catalyst that would give rise to the evil False Prophet and Beast power? There was much speculation among the members. Would we be fleeing in the near future? Herbert Armstrong, “God’s Apostle,” warned us for decades that these events would unfold in this very generation. Was HWA the “Moses,” the “Lawgiver,” who wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, and Joseph W. Tkach, Sr. the “Joshua” who would finally lead us there?
HWA told us that America would “never win another war,” [“America has won it’s last war”] and that God was going to “break the pride of our power.” Since he was in direct contact with God on a daily basis, then he should know, right? I never wavered in my faith toward “God’s Apostle.” God was using him to finish the “End Time Work,” and I was going to follow him all the way. To doubt, we were told, meant we lacked faith and I never wanted to be accused of “shrinking back,” so I put my whole, complete faith into “God’s Church.”
Money was pouring in to headquarters so “the Work” would make its last, great push to the finish line, since we were certain that this was the beginning of the end.
One hundred days later, the U.S. declared victory in defeating Iraq. Not only was Iraq defeated–they were completely clobbered. (Remember General Schwartzkopf’s famous dictum: “The Mother of All Wars has turned into the Father of All Retreats”?)
Now let’s understand the significance of this war. Didn’t “God’s Apostle” say that America would never win another war? What happened? Members became restless and began to question. To quell the upheaval, members were told, “The Gulf War really wasn’t a war–it was a mere military skirmish. Herbert Armstrong meant “a World War–that America would not win the next World War.”
To see whether this claim holds any water, let’s go back into history and see whether these words hold true.
HWA began his work in 1934, between two World Wars. He continued to proclaim that America would not win World War II (“God is going to break the pride of our power!! America will not win another war!!!”), and that the Great Tribulation would begin, and Jesus would return. Of course, we know from our history books that America was victorious during this war and Christ’s return did not occur. When we questioned our minister about these statements, he replied, “Mr. Armstrong was following the Scriptures (Daniel 11) as these events were unfolding. But when events began to unfold in verse 10 (…and one shall certainly come, and overflow, and pass through: …), and he saw the armies ‘overflow and pass through,’ he realized that God was not ready to completely fulfill His words at that time. It became apparent to Mr. Armstrong that ‘God wasn’t finished with His Work yet.’ ” So now we see a false prophet at work. He declared that Jesus would return during WWII, but when it didn’t happen, he justified it as “God’s fault for changing His mind.” He also ensured his future position as God’s prophet by declaring “the Work” wasn’t finished yet.
Now let’s look at the 1950s, `60s and `70s. The `50s brought us the Korean War, the `60s brought us the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the `70s had us mired in the Vietnam War. America seemed that she couldn’t decisively win a war anymore, and Herbert Armstrong capitalized on those fears. He told us over and over that “God was breaking the pride of our power” by not letting us win another war with puny little countries such as Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Notice that the Gulf War was downgraded to a “skirmish” while Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam were considered “wars.” It seems that there was one standard for defining “wars” (anything America lost), and another for defining “skirmishes” (anything America won). Instead of admitting that their prophecies failed, they would redefine the meaning of “war”!! Members were told that the Gulf War was just the “beginning of woes, when nation shall rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, but the end is not yet.” So this was another way to bow out of a false prophecy. Members would also be blamed for “not being without spot and wrinkle (as if humans could ever be perfect)–the Bride wasn’t ready for Jesus to return for her.” This is a typical religious cult tactic–shift the blame away from the false prophet and on to the membership.
I guess I never questioned as to “why” we even needed to go to Petra in the first place? Wasn’t God powerful enough to protect us right where we were? God protected the Israelites from the plagues while they still lived in Egypt! If God was able to do it then, why can’t He do it today? And another thing I never, ever considered: Where in my Bible does it say that Petra is the “place of safety”? I couldn’t find one single Scripture that did.2 Was this Petra teaching “adding to” the Bible? What does God say He will do to people that “add to” the Scriptures? I believed what I was told instead of proving it for myself with the written Word of God. We were always so proud that we “proved all things” and ridiculed others outside of “the church” as people who “followed traditions without question.” I think we were guilty of the same when it came to Petra.
I finally learned that our place of safety and refuge is in Christ, and when we are in Him, there is no fear, because “perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18) If we fear the end, then we need to ask, “Where did I get this fear from? If God is Love, then why am I so scared of the end?” Bible-based cults use fear to keep members in check. We need to ask ourselves, “Does God function this way?” Again, ask yourself, “Why am I afraid to leave this group?” If your answer is, “I am afraid of being left behind and losing out on my salvation,” then you need to closely examine why this group perpetuates this teaching.
Today, I no longer have fears. I am in Christ, and I know upon my death, I will be with Him for all eternity. Exploitive groups don’t want you to know this, and they don’t want you to have this, because once you gain this knowledge, they know they can no longer wield power over you. Remember how the Apostle Paul talked about the “simplicity in Christ”? (II Corinthians 11:3) It truly is that simple–loving the Lord with your whole heart. It doesn’t have to be an endless act of obeying strict rules, and fearing that if you mess up, you will miss your ticket to Petra.
Exit & Support Network™
Update: Gerald Waterhouse later left Worldwide Church of God and joined United Church of God-AIA in 1995. He died September 4, 2002 at age 76 after a long illness.
Note: One teaching during the early years was that the “church” (WCG) would flee on the Night Much To Be Remembered (the day which pictured Israel going out of Egypt). But Gerald Waterhouse later preached that “some will try and flee ahead of time and be killed, or captured.” This served the purpose of keeping members fearfully obedient to the “government” of the organization. (More about Gerald Waterhouse, Petra, and the Place of Safety, is covered in chapter 18 of Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Webby David Robinson. If you are interested in having a PDF copy of the book you can download it here from ESN’s site.
Why Was Petra Chosen as the Place of Safety?
Raymond Cole (evangelist in WCG; died 9-25-01) told David Robinson (when asked why Petra?) that many of the Psalms included the word “Sela” which means “rock” and Petra meant “rock” so that must be it. (Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web, p. 237)
Loma Armstrong is said to be the one that actually came up with Petra as the place of safety (although her husband Herbert got the credit). She supposedly read an article in the National Geographicmagazine that had an article on “Petra, The Rose Red City” and afterwards suggested to her husband that Petra was probably the place of safety. So it became church doctrine. (Ibid., p. 237)
Worldwide Church of God and the Place of Safety Teaching:
After Herbert Armstrong, Loma and their son Richard took a tour overseas, the second installment of “Loma Armstrong’s Diary” (covering their visit to Petra) was published in the November 1956 issue of The Plain Truth. (The November issue was also accompanied by a horrifying article by Herman Hoeh entitled: “Are Christians Again to Be Martyred?” and stated, “YOU are among its intended victims!” It was complete with pictures of grotesque piles of dead bodies from the Holocaust. This would no doubt cause members to want to flee to a “place of safety.”)
In the January 1958 Good News Herman Hoeh authored: “We Saw PETRA!” This article covered a trip that he and C. Paul Meredith had taken to the Middle East and their “opportunity” to visit Petra.
Hoeh also wrote the article: “If World War III Comes–There is a Way of Escape!” (June 1963 Plain Truth). The April 1962 and October 1963 Good News similarly contained articles on Petra, including a number of pictures of the area. (For more about what these articles said, see Philadelphia Church of God and the Place of Safety.) WCG members were taught they would flee to Jordan on jumbo jet airplanes that headquarters would own and then walk the rest of the way into Petra on foot.
WCG ministers predicted the date of January 7, 1972 for the time when members would flee to the “place of safety.” When this date failed to materialize, other dates were given: 1975, 1979, 1981, 1984, etc. The December 1981 Plain Truth editorial by HWA was entitled, “There Is a Way of Escape.” HWA used this idea as a money-making tool.
Members Were Specifically Taught There Was a Place of Safety:
It was back in the 1950s (when WCG was known as Radio Church of God) that members believed that they were going to Petra as a literal place of safety. In fact, in the January 1958 Good News Herman Hoeh (1928-2004) wrote an article (“We Saw PETRA!) about a trip that he and C. Paul Meredith took to Petra. In it he wrote:
“We do not yet know absolutely where the prophesied place of escape may be. But the recent trips to Petra have led to uncovering important new Bible evidence strongly indicating Petra to be the probable place of safety!” (p. 1)
Over the years many WCG evangelists / ministers gave sermons on “Petra” and the “Place of Safety.” One such minister was Richard Frankel who gave a sermon on November 8, 1980, entitled, “Petra.” “We see very, very clearly that the Bible very strongly–very, very strongly–indicates that Petra is the Place that God is going to protect His church.” [Tape with ESN] More quotes from his sermon are here.
One WCG evangelist who taught a literal place of safety was Carn Catherwood. His 1981 sermon on the “Anti-Place of Safety Bias” appeared to have been given to discourage members from going with GTA, who believed members could be protected by staying home during the Great Tribulation (and which Catherwood said was a “heresy”). “When you understand the truth about the place of safety, that will free you from a lot of anxieties and enable you, as a result, to have more faith in God…” Yet his sermon incorporated much fear (along with contradictions) to influence members that they better not refuse to flee. He says the “remnant” that Satan goes back to persecute will be those who “stayed in their homes and didn’t flee.” He warns them at the beginning and end of this sermon to “remember Lot’s wife” and says that the “lesson of Lot’s wife”–who “wanted nothing to do with this place of safety idea”– was a memorial for members who “reject the promise of literal, physical removal.” He also mentioned “Jonestown” and said when they get ready to flee, the media will compare them to Jonestown and “it will be embarrassing.” He stated, “Mr. Armstrong believes in the place of safety.” [Tape with ESN]
HWA’s Duplicitous Statements Concerning the Place of Safety:
Feb. 25, 1982 Co-Worker letter from Herbert W. Armstrong:
“I hope to arrange for the use of Petra as a possible refuge or place of safety during the Great Tribulation when I see King Hussein. Pray for this please.”
July 16, 1982 Co-Worker letter from HWA:
“Incidentally, I know many of you seem to have your hearts set on going very soon to Petra as “the place of safety” during the soon-coming Great Tribulation. Well, GET YOUR MINDS OFF PETRA. Brethren, I HAVE NEVER said that Petra definitely is the place of protection where God will take us. I HOPE IT IS NOT!”
The above two quotes show how HWA would state something and then later deny he ever said it. This is very common with false teachers.
Offshoots and Splinters Continue Same Teaching:
A number of totalistic offshoots and splinters continue to teach about a “place of safety”; e. g., Restored Church of God, Living Church of God, Philadelphia Church of God, etc. Read: Philadelphia Church of God and the Place of Safety. In March 2013 there was an announcement in PCG that Petra is no longer the place of safety; however, HQs ministers are supposed to go to Jerusalem “ahead of time” to check out a new place of safety. (See March 18, 2013 letter to ESN)
By D. M. Williams
Exit & Support Network™
Recommended book: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger
Related Article: Philadelphia Church of God and the Place of Safety
Footnotes by ESN: (includes verses used to justify the place of safety)
Isaiah 2:10: “Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty.”
Isaiah 16:1-4: “Send ye the lamb to the ruler of the land from Sela to the wilderness, unto the mount of the daughter of Zion. For it shall be, that, as a wandering bird cast out of the nest, so the daughters of Moab shall be at the fords of Arnon. Take counsel, execute judgment; make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noonday; hide the outcasts; bewray not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab; be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler:…”
Isaiah 26:20: “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.”
Isaiah 33:16: “He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure.”
Isaiah 42:11: “Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar doth inhabit: let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains.”
Jeremiah 48:28: “O ye that dwell in Moab, leave the cities, and dwell in the rock, and be like the dove that maketh her nest in the sides of the hole’s mouth.”
Daniel 11:40-41 “…and he shall enter into the countries, and shall overflow and pass over. He shall enter also into the glorious land, and many countries shall be overthrown: but these shall escape out of his hand, even Edom, and Moab, and the chief of the children of Ammon.”
Revelation 12:14: “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”