People often ask me how to respond to the Jehovah’s Witness’ teaching that only 144,000 go to heaven. One way is to point out that Jesus said many Old Testament prophets would be in the heavenly kingdom:
Do the Old Testament Saints Receive a Heavenly Reward?
An examination of Watchtower interpretation
One of the unique teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses is their insistence that a total of only 144,000 people will enter the heavenly kingdom. Basing their interpretation on certain passages in the book of Revelation, they also teach that those who served God in pre-Christian times do not receive a heavenly reward. Instead, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Old Testament saints will inherit everlasting life in a “new earth.” The hope of 99 per cent of the 7.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses today is not heavenly, but to also be in this new earth with these Old Testament servants of God.
This post will focus on this single issue: What about those who served God before the time of Christ? Do they have the hope of heaven? What do the Scriptures say?
Many Christians refer to Jesus’ words to a Gentile centurion who believed:
“But I tell you that many from eastern parts and western parts will come and recline at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens; whereas the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the darkness outside. There is where their weeping and gnashing of their teeth will be.” (Matthew 8:11,12)
On a different occasion, Jesus referred to this same scene when replying to the question, “Lord are those who are being saved few?” (Luke 13:23) As part of his reply, he again mentions the Jewish Patriarchs as part of the kingdom:
“There is where your weeping and the gnashing of your teeth will be, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown outside. Furthermore, people will come from eastern parts and western, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:28,29)
Are there any reasons not to accept Jesus’ words at face value?
The Watch Tower Society teaches that Jesus’ mention of the Jewish patriarchs in the heavenly kingdom is to be understood figuratively. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become symbols of those who inhabit heaven. Pointing to Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac as foreshadowing Calvary, they say “Abraham” here stands for Jehovah God and “Isaac” stands for His Son, Jesus Christ. “Jacob” was the patriarch who was renamed “Israel,” so the Watch Tower Society says “Jacob” here stands for “spiritual Israel,” their “144,000 heavenly class.”
The March 15, 1990 Watchtower, page 31, restates this interpretation:
“But the little flock of spirit-begotten humans receiving that reward could be compared to Jacob reclining at a table in heaven with Jehovah (the Greater Abraham) and his Son (pictured by Isaac).”
The Watch Tower publication The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived gives a similar interpretation in chapter 36: “An Army Officer’s Great Faith.” It says:
“Abraham, Isaac and Jacob represent God’s Kingdom arrangement. Thus Jesus is relating how Gentiles will be welcomed to recline at the heavenly table, as it were, ‘in the kingdom of the heavens.’”
There are a few problems with the Watch Tower Society’s explanation of Jesus’ words.
If Abraham (Jehovah), Isaac (Jesus) and Jacob (the 144,000) are the only ones supposed to inhabit heaven, then who are the “many from eastern parts and western parts” who “reclining at the table with” them in the heavenly kingdom? (Matthew 8:11)
In context, Jesus was commending the Gentile centurion’s faith by stating that many Gentiles would be in the heavenly kingdom, while the “sons of the kingdom” (the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) would not make it into the kingdom. Adding these “many from the East and West” to “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” would be many more humans in heaven than just 144,000!
In addition, the Watchtower interpretation would destroy the irony implied in Jesus’ words. If you take his words at face value, Jesus is saying that Gentile believers are going to be with the Jewish Patriarchs in heaven instead of the contemporary Jewish religious leaders. Those would be shocking words to his listeners!
Greater problems are encountered with Jesus’ words from St. Luke. He again speaks of “people from eastern parts and western, and from north and south” reclining “at the table in the kingdom.” However, Jesus adds another group besides the famous Jewish Patriarchs: “…when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown outside.”
If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are figurative, who do “all the prophets” represent?
It is apparent this heavenly scene includes the men and women of the great “hall of faith” in Hebrews chapter 11. Undoubtedly, Jesus was saying that all the great personages in the Old Testament were going to be joined by Gentile believers in the heavenly kingdom.
St. Paul said of these men and women of faith:
“These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents in the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been remembering that land they came from, they would have had opportunity to return. But they now aspire to a better land—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16; compare Hebrews 11:8-10; Hebrews 12:22, 23 and 13:14.)
In conclusion: the Watch Tower Society’s interpretation of these passages ignores the context and also leaves unexplained the other participants of the heavenly banquet: “those from east and west” and “all the prophets.”
Some Objections Considered:
But, John 3:13 says “no man has ascended into heaven”!
Jesus was not contradicting what he said at Matthew 8:11 and Luke 13:28, 29. His description of the Jewish Patriarchs in heaven is future, for he said: “many will come and recline…”
According to Matthew 11:11 John the Baptist will not be in the heavenly kingdom.
Jesus’ words here are:
“Among those born of women there has not been raised up a greater than John the Baptist; but a person that is a lesser one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.” (Matthew 11:11)
Notice that Jesus is speaking in the present tense. He is not speaking of John the Baptist’s final position. He is speaking about blessings that those who joined themselves to Jesus enjoyed.
While Scripture often refers to the Kingdom as a future event, it is also spoken of as a present reality. (Compare Colossians 1:13 where it says God has “transferred” [past tense] Christians into the Kingdom. See also Matthew 12:28; Mark 10:15; Luke 17:20, 21.)
John himself explained that others would have greater blessings, identifying himself as the friend of Christ the bridegroom:
I am not the Messiah. I have been sent as his forerunner. It is the bridegroom who marries the bride. The bridegroom’s friend, who stands by and listens to him, is overjoyed at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. This is my joy and now it is complete. He must grow greater; I must become less. (John 3:28-30)
Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom. John the Baptist had no part in that, except to introduce Jesus. So those who were following Jesus (and thus be in the Kingdom) would be greater (more privileged) than John, who preceded and prepared the way for Jesus. This verse says nothing about John the Baptist’s final destiny.
But, why can people who lived before Christ get to go to heaven when the ransom price had not been paid?
The Death of Christ is both an event in time and eternal. Revelation 13:8 speaks of “the Lamb who was slaughtered from the founding of the world.” Christ’s death happened once in time but its meaning for mankind is timeless. From man’s perspective he died nearly 2,000 years ago but from the heavenly perspective it’s an eternal event. That is why St. Paul could compare Abraham’s being made righteous (justified) with the justification of the first-century Christians. (Galatians 3:7-9) If God wants to reward the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets with heavenly life, who are we to disagree?
Doesn’t Revelation 7:4-8 limit the number going to heaven to 144,000?
Jehovah’s Witnesses use those verses to limit the number going to heaven to 144,000. There are two chapters in the book of Revelation which mention the number 144,000. The first is Revelation chapter 7. Strictly speaking, there is no “vision” of the 144,000 in that chapter. John “heard” the number of those being “sealed,” 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The first few verses of Revelation chapter 7 indicate these 144,000 are being “sealed” before destructive winds (symbolizing a time of trouble.) In the next few verses (Revelation 7:9-17), John “saw” an unnumbered “great crowd,” which is said to be “before the throne,” in verse 9, having survived a “great tribulation.”
The Watch Tower Society insists the number 144,000 is literal but at the same time they say the numbers 12 and 12,000 (12,000 from 12 tribes) are figurative. Christians have traditionally interpreted all these numbers as symbolic. Later on in the book of Revelation we see the numbers again symbolically used: “12,000 furlongs” and “144 cubits.” (Revelation 21:16, 17)
The number 144,000 which John heard in the first part of Revelation chapter 7 is the spiritual Israel of God being “sealed” here on earth before what is called a great tribulation. Before the tribulation they are symbolized as the new spiritual Israel. After the tribulation they are seen in glory as an unnumbered multitude from all nations. (Compare Revelation 5:5, 6 where John hears of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and then turns and sees the “Lamb who has been slain.”)
Revelation 14:3 mentions the 144,000 again and places them “before the throne” just as the “great crowd” of Revelation chapter 7 are “before the throne.” Revelation 19:1 speaks of the “great crowd” as being in heaven.
What about the “new earth”? Who’s going to be on the “new earth”?
Scripture is very plain that there will be both a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1-4) The fact that Jesus placed the Jewish Patriarchs and prophets in the heavenly kingdom does not contradict this fact.
The Bible is also clear there is only “one hope” for Christians (Ephesians 4:4). The latter part of Revelation symbolically describes what is called “the final state,” a future time where God will fill the earth with His divine presence.
This is symbolically described as the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to the earth. (Revelation 21:1-4; Revelation 22:1-3) In this “final state” all the redeemed are shown as having access to the New Jerusalem. Those who are outside the City are said to be cursed:
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” (Revelation 22:14, 15)
So you are either in or you’re out—and if you’re out you’re lost.
Jesus prayed that those who would believe through the preaching of the Apostles would be with him:
“I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their message….I desire those you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they shall see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation.” (John 17:20, 24)
The hope of the Christian is to be with Jesus Christ wherever he is!
For further reading:
Following the Scriptures, Orthodox Christians believe in the goodness of the human body and of all material and physical creation. Thus, in its faith in resurrection and eternal life, the Orthodox Church looks not to some “other world” for salvation, but to this very world so loved by God, resurrected and glorified by Him, tilled with His own divine presence….When the Kingdom of God fills all creation, all things will be made new. This world will again be that paradise for which it was originally created. This is the Orthodox doctrine of the final fate of man and his universe.