A core Watchtower doctrine is that only 144,000 humans will go to heaven, where they are to rule as kings. Most Jehovah's Witnesses are not considered part of the 144,000 and do not expect to go to heaven. Rather, they believe themselves part of the Great Crowd that will never die, but rather reside forever on earth.
Prior to 1935, all "true Christians" were said to be anointed and called to heaven. Therefore, everyone associating with the Watchtower Society prior to 1935 was automatically part of the heavenly class. Those who converted after 1935 generally are told they have an earthly hope. What makes this doctrine quite absurd is that it indicates God could only find 144,000 true Christians over a period of 2000 years, yet over 6 million true Witness Christians since 1935.
Revelation 7 defines the 144,000 are a class of "kings and priests", so there is no issue in claiming these are a smaller group than the Great Crowd. However, there are aspects of this Watchtower doctrine that merit consideration and are discussed in this article:
- Is the number 144,000 literal?
- Did the total number of 'true Christians' between Jesus time and 1935 only amount to 144,000 people?
- Does the memorial show respect to Jesus?
The number 144,000 is mentioned just twice in the Bible.
Revelation 7:3,4 - ""Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until after we have sealed the slaves of our God in their foreheads." And I heard the number of those who were sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel."
Revelation 14:1, 4-5 - "And I saw, and, look! the Lamb standing upon the Mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand having his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. ...These are the ones that did not defile themselves with women; in fact, they are virgins. These are the ones that keep following the Lamb no matter where he goes. These were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb, and no falsehood was found in their mouths; they are without blemish."
The Watchtower makes the claim that in these Scriptures the number 144,000 is literal, but all other descriptors of them are figurative, saying that they are not literally:
- from the tribes of Israel
- having the name of Lamb and Father on their foreheads
- holding no falsehood on their mouths
- without blemish
In such a figurative passage there is no strong reason to believe that the number 144,000 is any less figurative.
Closer inspection of Revelation also shows that this group are not collected over a two thousand year period, but rather the entire group reside on earth at the time of the great tribulation. Revelation 7:4 says that the winds are held back, not to seal the remnant, but rather to seal a 144,000 sons of Israel.
Only 144,000 in 2000 years
Watchtower doctrine has been that until 1935, all "true Christians" were part of the heavenly class, which means that over a period of 1902 years only 144,000 people can be considered to have worshipped God acceptably.
"As spirit-anointed brothers of Christ, all the early Christians had the prospect of being heavenly priests with Christ." Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom p.35
"And Christians back there in the first century needed it. At that time all of them were spirit-anointed Christians who looked forward to a future resurrection "into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." "Let Your Kingdom Come" p.88
"For some 19 centuries after this there was only one calling, the heavenly one. It was an undeserved kindness that God bestowed on a limited number in furtherance of his own wise and loving purposes." United in Worship of the only True God p.111
"Selecting these future corulers over mankind would take time. Why? For one thing, that opportunity had to be extended to people of all nations. And, while many professed to lay hold of it, few truly proved to be faithful followers of God's Son. (Matthew 22:14) High standards had to be met." True Peace and Security - How Can You Find It? p.65
"We understand that this heavenly calling continued down through the centuries, though during the so-called Dark Ages, there may have been times when the number of anointed ones were very few. With the reestablishment of true Christianity near the end of the last century, more were called and chosen. But it seems that in the mid-1930's, the full number of the 144,000 was basically completed. Thus there began to appear a group of loyal Christians with the earthly hope. Jesus termed such "other sheep," who unite in worship with the anointed as one approved flock." Watchtower 1996 Aug 15 p.31
So how many true Christians were there to receive the heavenly calling in the 1835 years between 100 A.D and 1935 A.D.? The Watchtower provides figures that can be used to determine this figure.
The Watchtower would have us believe that in the first century, whilst some of the apostles were still alive, there were tens of thousands of Christians worthy to be of the heavenly calling. 40,000 are said to have been martyred in the year 95 A.D. alone.
"Brief respite followed the death of Nero, but by the latter years of the first century the second great persecution, under Emperor Domitian, flared up. It is said that in the year 95 alone some 40,000 suffered martyrdom. Also, it was in this period that John, last living of the twelve apostles, was exiled to the isle of Patmos, from where he recorded the inspired Bible book of Revelation about A.D. 96." Watchtower 1951 Sep 1 p.516
Again from 1878 to 1935, tens of thousands attained the equally high standards that were required to receive the calling. We find that over 52,000 Jehovah's Witnesses claimed the heavenly calling by taking the emblems in 1935.
"Year ...... Att. ...... Part.
1935 ...... 63,146 ... 52,465"
Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom p.717
To be conservative, from the figures above we can estimate that by the end of the first century there were at least 65,000 Christians and in 1935 there were 52,000 Anointed Watchtower followers. Therefore we have:
- less 65,000
- less 52,000
- equals 27,000 true Christians called during the 1835 years between 100 A.D. and 1935
That would mean that during this period God could only find an additional 15 true Christians per year, throughout the entire world.
The word conservative is used because there have been many more than 52,000 Watchtower partakers. To the 52,000 actively partaking in 1935 there needs to be added the many Watchtower followers that had died prior to 1935 and the 10,000 now partaking.
The word conservative is also used as history shows that there were likely more than 65,000 Christians in the first century. By the end of the second century there were an estimated 3,000,000 Christians of which over one millions Christians had been martyred.
"It has been calculated that by the end of the second century 60,000 copies of the major part of the Christian Greek Scriptures could have been in circulation, even if only one in every fifty of those professing Christianity possessed a copy." Watchtower 1963 Apr 15 p.249
"Diocletian assumed the crown A.D. 284. At first he seemed friendly to the Christians, but in the year 303 he gave in to persuasion and opened the tenth persecution, probably the most ferocious of all. Suffocation by smoke, forcible drinking of melted lead, mass drownings and burnings, breaking on the rack of men and women alike ran the empire with blood. In a single month 17,000 were slain. In the province of Egypt alone, 144,000 such professed Christians died by violence in the course of this persecution, in addition to another 700,000 who died as a result of fatigues encountered in banishment or under enforced public works." Watchtower 1951 Sep 1 p.518
These men, women and children offered their lives for God and it is illogical to claim these early Christian martyrs were not worthy to be counted as true Christians and hence denied the heavenly calling. They are shown great disrespect by being branded as unworthy and apostate simply because it does not fit the Watchtower theory that only 144,000 go to heaven.
The term "little flock of 144,000" never appears in the Bible
As discussed at the section on paradise, the Bible consistently shows that the resurrection hope is a heavenly one held out to all Christians. In an effort to make the number that go to heaven appear small, the Watchtower refers to a heavenly class that is described as a "Little Flock of 144,000".
"One aspect of that secret involved Jehovahs selecting a little flock of 144,000 humans to be associated with his Son as part of the seed, to reign with him in heaven." Examining the Scriptures Daily 2007 p.117 Nov 28.
These terms do not appear together in the Bible, and there is no reason to believe they refer to the same group. Yet Watchtower publications group "little flock" and "144,000" together over 300 times over the last 5 decades.
The 144,000 (hundred and forty-four thousand) are described only twice in the Bible at Revelation 7 and 14, and the term Little Flock appears only once:
Luke 12:32 "Have no fear, little flock, because YOUR Father has approved of giving YOU the kingdom."
To group these terms and claim heaven will be limited to a little flock results from an eisegesis doctrinal approach, as the context of Revelation and the gospels contain no such arbitrary links. As shown at Great Crowd, the other sheep (gentiles) actually become part of the little flock (Jews) and the great crowd is a heavenly group.
One of the results of this doctrine is that most Jehovah's Witnesses do not partake of the bread and wine emblems in memorial of the death of Jesus. Only remnants of the 144,000 are permitted to.
"Since sharing in the bread and wine passed during the Memorial involves all of this, it would obviously be inappropriate for those having an earthly hope to partake. Those with an earthly hope discern that they themselves are not anointed members of the body of Christ, nor are they in the new covenant that Jehovah made with those who will rule with Jesus Christ. Since "the cup" represents the new covenant, only those in the new covenant partake of the emblems. Those looking forward to everlasting life in human perfection on earth under the Kingdom are neither baptized into Jesus' death nor called to rule with him in heaven. Were they to partake of the emblems, it would signify something that is not true with respect to them. Thus, they do not partake, though they do attend the Memorial as respectful observers." Watchtower 2006 Feb 15 p. 24
This is in direct violation of Jesus words, where he commands partaking of the emblems as an importance acceptance of him and gaining everlasting life.
John 6:53-57 "Accordingly Jesus said to them: "Most truly I say to YOU, Unless YOU eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, YOU have no life in yourselves. He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I shall resurrect him at the last day; for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in union with me, and I in union with him. Just as the living Father sent me forth and I live because of the Father, he also that feeds on me, even that one will live because of me."
1 Corinthians 11:25b-26 "Keep doing this, as often as YOU drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as YOU eat this loaf and drink this cup, YOU keep proclaiming the death of the Lord, until he arrives."
When was the calling closed?
Russell had said that all 144,000 had been chosen by 1881 and presented a number of Biblical reasons why this was the case.
"Remember, too, that the Scriptures proved to us in various ways-by the Jubilee Cycles, the 1335 days of Daniel, the Parallel Dispensations, etc.-that the "harvest" or end of this age was due to begin in October, 1874, and that the Great Reaper was then due to be present; that seven years later-in October, 1881-the "high calling" ceased, though some will be admitted to the same favors afterward, without a general call being made, to fill the places of some of the called ones who, on being tested, will be found unworthy." Thy Kingdom Come p.362
"And the three and a half years following the Spring of A.D. 1878, which ended October, A.D. 1881, correspond to the three and a half years of continued favor to individual Jews in the last half of their seventieth week of favor. As in the type that date-three and a half years after the death of Christ-marked the end of all special favor to the Jew and the beginning of favor to the Gentiles, so we recognize A.D. 1881 as marking the close of the special favor to Gentiles-the close of the "high calling," or invitation to the blessings peculiar to this age-to become joint-heirs with Christ and partakers of the divine nature." The Time Is At Hand 1916 ed. p.235
Rutherford recycled this concept, and without any Biblical basis moved the sealing of the 144,000 from 1881 to 1931.
"God having a fixed time for every purpose (Ecclesiastes 3:1), his time to give creatures on earth the opportunity to get in line for a heavenly reward has been from A .D. 29 until, chiefly, 1931, called the "day of salvation". "Let God be True" 1946 ed. p.298
"Although Jehovah had come to his temple in 1918 and had begun judgment of this anointed class, still others must be brought in, because some were found unworthy and they must be replaced. The evidences show that this continued until especially 1931, when there began a work of gathering those recognized as "other sheep" of the Lord Jesus Christ." Jehovah's Witnesses In The Divine Purpose 1959 p.139
This was later changed to 1935.
"Hence, especially after 1966 it was believed that the heavenly call ceased in 1935." Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.30
"Their being identified in 1935 as the great crowd of other sheep was an indication that the choosing of the 144,000 was then about complete." Revelation, Its Grand Climax Now at Hand p.125
In recent years, those that chose to partake of the emblems have been criticised as having emotional issues.
"Over the years some, even ones newly baptized, have suddenly begun to partake. In a number of cases, after a while they acknowledged that this was an error. Some have recognized that they partook as an emotional response to perhaps physical or mental strain. But they came to see that they really were not called to heavenly life. They asked for God's merciful understanding." Watchtower 1996 Aug 15 p.31
These comments a reminiscent of the words of Jesus at Matthew 23:13:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to."
In 2007 this teaching was once again changed, with the admission that the Bible does not give a date for when the closing would occur.
"As time has gone by, some Christians baptized after 1935 have had witness borne to them that they have the heavenly hope. Thus we cannot set a specific date for when the heavenly hope ends." Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.31
With the number of partakers increasing, it is only a matter of time before the Watchtower is forced to re-examine this doctrine yet again, quite possibly deciding to admit the number 144,000 is not literal after all.
Written 2007. Latest update Mar 2014
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2014