Clarifying Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs, Pt 2: The 144,000 and the "Gotcha" question
Some time back, I set aside a moment for clarifying Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs, to address two common misconceptions:
2. No, JWs do not think you're going to hell. They don't believe in eternal torment or in hell – in fact, they don't believe in "the eternal soul" at all! (When you're dead, you're just dead, they say – and that sounds right to me!)
It's time once again to correct a misconception, one closely related to #2 above but worth its own look:
"Those wacky JWs claim that only 144,000 people are going to heaven, yet they foolishly believe they're among that number – even though there are millions of JWs! Do the math!"
This is a misconception. Read on for the short explanation, and a warning about a would-be "gotcha" argument that won't work against those JWs ringing your doorbell.
JWs and the non-heavenly reward
There's an idea floating around for the perfect "gotcha" question with which to nail those pesky Saturday morning doorstep-darkeners from the local Kingdom Hall: "So, if you say only 144,000 people are going to heaven, how can claim that you millions of JWs are going to heaven? Ah ha!"
I've had it posed to me directly, and I just heard it posed by a caller to The Atheist Experience (episode #928) as a way to embarass JW proselytizers. Unfortunatey, the show hosts didn't catch the flaw in the witticism.
Trying to snare JWs with that math won't work. You'll just get this instant and utterly non-flummoxed response: "Oh, that's not the case at all. We're not going to heaven. We're looking forward to an eternal paradise right here on Earth." And the JWs will be immensely pleased that they now have the perfect opening to tell you all about that paradise, and how you too can be part of it...
As I mention in one of the most-read articles on this site, the JWs offer their followers the best reward package in the religion industry: eternal life right here, on an Earth restored to its pre-Fall, Eden-like paradise condition. Take a peek at the link; the JWs' "New System" is an interesting (and arguably far more attractive) alternative to the vague, bopping-around-the-clouds-with-Jesus heavenly afterlife of more mainstream Christianity.
So what's the deal with this weird number 144,000? The JWs are serious about that number as the count of those who'll live forever in heaven, and the vast majority of JWs are certain of their own non-inclusion in it. I'll let Wikipedia provide the 5-cent version of the doctrine:
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that exactly 144,000 faithful Christian men and women from Pentecost of 33 CE until the present day will be resurrected to heaven as immortal spirit beings to spend eternity with God and Christ. They believe that these people are "anointed" by God to become part of the spiritual "Israel of God". They believe the 144,000 (which they consider to be synonymous with the "little flock" of Luke 12:32) will serve with Christ as king-priests for a thousand years, while all other people accepted by God (the "other sheep" of John 10:16, composed of "the great crowd" of Revelation 7:9,14 and the resurrected "righteous and the unrighteous" ones of Acts 24:15), will be given an opportunity to live forever in a restored paradise on earth. According to the Witnesses, the first of the 144,000 were resurrected in 1918 and others who die thereafter are immediately resurrected to heaven.
So, except for the few who are part of that heaven-bound elite, JWs believe they're staying right here (or ending up eternally dead in the attempt, should they fail to meet Jehovah's standards). Only a small number go straight to heaven (an exception to their "dead means dead" doctrine); the vast majority of JWs hold no heavenly hope. There's no numerical "gotcha" to hit them with here.
Are you one of the 144,000?
I know I'm not one of those "called" to heaven. Or I knew I'm not (I left the JWs a long time ago!). But maybe you are! How would you know if you were one of "the little flock"?
Answer: You'd just know.
Seriously, that's the answer I was given as a kid when I asked. You'd know. And, I guess I didn't know, so I wasn't. For what it's worth, nor was any other JW I knew. No one in my congregation was one of "the anointed".
But I did see one once! My memory's vague here, but once, during the JWs' annual Memorial service (i.e., Passover, the Big Event for JWs, ritual-wise), there was an old man in attendance – he was visiting our congregation, or we were at his for some reason – and he was said to be one of the 144,000. Which was apparent because, yes, as we all watched reverently, he partook of the bread and wine. That's how the JWs do it: the goods gets passed around to everyone, but only those of the 144,000 partake of it. (Which means, yes, that in a typical congregation like mine, the Memorial is strictly a viewing of the bread and wine, with no one taking a nibble or sip.)
144,000... and counting?
Incidentally, just how many of these living relics are left, making up what the JWs call "the remnant"? Poking around for an answer, I found claims of several thousand, or even more than 10,000 – and a surprising page claiming that the number of Memorial partakers is around 15,000 and increasing! Which would seem to make no sense to me, as any remaining 144,000 should be dying out at a fast clip, to be instantly transported to Jesus' right hand (and given, I would hope, a nice pre-eternity orientation session). But get this: The linked page claims that the Watchtower Society once held a doctrine that all the 144,000 had been picked by 1935, then dropped that doctrine in 2007. Which would mean that after a 72-year moratorium, the JWs have decided to once again start hearing cases of "Uh, I think I'm one of Them..."
That's all news to me (technical details of the 144,000 business were really scant in my days). I'm not claiming veracity for the linked site – I certainly welcome any needed corrections from currently (or until-recently) active JWs. But if it's true, it tells me a lot!
One, it suggests that recognition of a person as one of the 144,000 truly does operate on a self-reported "I just know" system. As far as I know, the JWs count "the remnant" (they do report the number every year) simply by counting how many people nip'n'sip at the Memorial service. (No, this does not seem a reliable system to me.)
Two, it suggests that the JWs never had some sort of official "registry" of anointed (totaling, we would hope, 144,000 names). I guess I would have thought they did, but maybe they don't. Anyone know?
And three... it suggests, delightfully, that a strange doctrinal about-face in 2007 has saddled the JW organization with the problem of a growing number of nutters claiming to be of the prophesied "little flock", when the remnant should be dwindling to zero! And that's an embarassing problem for them!
Hey, how do I get to be a supplier of bread and wine for the JW Memorial? I sense a sales boom coming...