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Jehovah's Witnesses and the 144,000
By Gary F. Zeolla
Jehovah's Witnesses believe only 144,000 people go to heaven. Everyone else is to look forward to living in paradise on earth. These unique beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) will be evaluated in this article.
Explanation and Evidence
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the organization JWs belong to. An extended passage from a book published by the Watchtower (WT) will be quoted in order to allow JWs themselves to explain their beliefs on these matters. This quote also presents the major points of evidence generally cited for these doctrines.
The total number of those making up the "body" of Christ, the spirit-begotten congregation, is stated to be 144,000 persons. These, when resurrected to the heavens, are to reign with Christ as kings and priests (Rev 7:4-8; 14:1-5; 20:4,6).... They are the nucleus around which a much larger number of honest-hearted persons have gathered. These latter ones are called by Jesus the "other sheep" (John 10:16). The Bible also designates them as a "great crowd," having the hope of everlasting life on earth as subjects of the Kingdom (Rev 7:9-17).
The remaining ones of Christ's spirit-anointed body members on earth constitute the "faithful and discreet slave" of today, and it is this class as foretold at Matthew 24:47, that the Lord Jesus has appointed "over all his belongings" here on earth (Organization, pp.9,10).
So, according to the WT, "the faithful and discreet slave" of Matthew 24:45 is those of the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4 and 14:1 who are still alive today. Elsewhere in WT literature, the 144,000 is equated with the "little flock" of Luke 12:32 (Live Forever, p.124). It is only this class of people who go to heaven.
Further, the "great crowd" of Revelation 7:9 is said to be the same as the "other sheep" in John 10:16. These people will live forever in paradise on earth.
But does the Bible teach there are these two classes of Christians who have two different hopes? Are the mentioned passages ever equated in the manner in which the WT links them? To answer these questions, the context and meaning of each of the proof-texts cited by the WT needs to be examined.
The first verse to investigate is John 10:16. Ex-JW, David Reed comments:
They contrast the "other sheep" with the "little flock" mentioned at Luke 12:32 .... The "little flock," Witnesses say, are 144,000 spirit anointed believers who make up the body of Christ and will go to heaven, while the "other sheep" include all other believers - those who will receive everlasting life on earth .... Besides the vast majority of JW's, the Watchtower Society also throws all pre-Christian believers into the other sheep class with an earthly hope. Thus, Witnesses believe that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, and so on, do not go to heaven (Reed, pp.78,9).
When interpreting any passage, it is important to understand its historical background. Jesus knew a major issue the apostolic Church would have to deal with would be the relationship of Jews and Gentiles within the Church (see Acts 10; 15).
In John 10:16, Jesus is preparing his disciples for this problem by declaring "there will be one flock." So the sense of the passage is that Gentiles (the "other sheep") must unite with the faithful Jews (the "little flock" of Luke 12:32) to form the ONE people of God.
Next is Matthew 24:45-47. Reed comments on how the WT interprets this passage, "Instead of seeing it as an exhortation to each Christian to be a faithful and diligent "slave" for Christ, they believe that their organization represents the faithful and discreet slave, divinely appointed to dispense 'spiritual food' to the household of faith" (Reed, p. 58).
This passage is at the end of the Olivet discourse. Here, Jesus is discussing God's coming judgment. The preceding verses record Jesus' warning to be ready at all times since no one knows the time of His coming (24:42). There is nothing in the passage to indicate Jesus is referring to an organization or class of people.
The cited passages from The Revelation will now be studied. The seventh and fourteenth chapters of this book are the only places in the Bible where the number "144,000" is actually mentioned.
In 7:1-4, the 144,000 are specifically said to be Israelites. 12,000 Israelites from each of the 12 tribes of Israel are sealed by God to be His servants.
Now, some Christians do believe "Israel" in this passage should not be taken literally. Instead, they think it is to be taken metaphorically as referring to Christians (i.e. "spiritual Israel"). However, in this view, "144,000" is also taken figuratively. It indicates a complete but nonspecific number. 144,000 is the product of 12,000 times 12 and 12 is believed to be symbolic of completeness.
However, the passage must be taken wholly literally or wholly figuratively. It is faulty interpretation to take 144,000 literally yet to spiritualize Israel into "anointed Christians" as the WT does. If 144,000 is taken literally then so must Israel. If the number is taken spiritually, then so should Israel.
As for the "great crowd" - Revelation 19:1 specifically declares that they are in heaven! So how can this phrase refer to those who will live forever on earth?
Finally, all the redeemed will "reign" in the sense of having our dominion over nature restored that was lost at the Fall (Gen 1:26f; 3:17-19; Rev 5:9f). We are all "priests" since we have direct access to God (1Pet 2:9f; Heb 4:14-16).
One People of God
In conclusion, nowhere in any of the passages evaluated has there been found any indication that they should be linked in the way the WT strings them together.
Further, the New Testament teaches there is only ONE people of God. The idea of two distinct classes of Christians with two different destinies is simply not Biblical (see Mark 9:38-40; Rom 1:7; 12:4-8; Gal 3:7-9,26-29).
Moreover, only one thing is needed to become a part of this ONE people of God - faith in Jesus Christ (John 6:28f). All genuine believers can look forward to spending eternity in loving fellowship with the Father and the Son (Rev 21:1-4; 22:1-5).
If you have not placed your trust in Christ and in His death alone for your salvation, do so today! Faith in Christ guarantees forgiveness of sins, sealing by the Holy Spirit and placement into this ONE body of Christ (Eph 1:7-14; 1Cor 1:2; 12:13; 2Cor 6:1,2).
A good book on JWs is the one by David Reed mentioned in this article, Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. Another would be Reed's book Answering Jehovah's Witnesses Subject by Subject.
Organization for Kingdom-Preaching. Brooklyn, NY: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1972.
Reed, David. Jehovah's Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. Brooklyn, NY: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989.
All Scripture references outside of quotes are from The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982.
Jehovah's Witnesses and the 144,000. Copyright © 1999 By Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
For a more detailed discussion on this subject, see Do only 144,000 people go to heaven? by Jeff Chapman.
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1993.
It was posted on this website in July 1996.
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