This is the second in our series on short questions or points one can make in discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The first can be read here.) The idea is to plant a “seed of doubt” in the mind of the Witness. Often, these are questions they’ve never thought of before. They could lead to in depth discussions but that’s not necessary and may even be counter-productive.
These are questions to provoke thought — not to win some sort of debate. Avoid an argumentative spirit or trying to force the Witness you’re talking with feel he has to give you an answer immediately. Don’t expect the Witness to “cry uncle” in your presence. Just plant the question and if further discussion on the subject continues come back to the question again. If needed, there are “further reading” links at the end but it’s probably best just to plant the seed of doubt and let it take root.
Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse) in the New Testament you may never have encountered the number 144,000 and connected it to Christian belief. This number is mentioned in two sections of the book of Revelation (in chapters 7 and 14) and nowhere else. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, it’s a very important concept.
First, some background. Read this next part to understand the deeper issues involved, but it’s not the seed of doubt that I will suggest you use. That is much simpler and can be used as a stand-alone.
The Witnesses believe that only 144,000 people will get to go to heaven to be with Christ. Now, for some people, this is a confusing concept as there are over 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide. Some people misunderstand the Witness teaching about only 144,000 going to heaven and wonder what will happen to the rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The short answer is that the Witnesses believe the rest of those who will be saved will live on a future paradise earth separate from the 144,000 in heaven. The 144,000 get to be with Christ. Those who will live on this future paradise earth will never be with Christ.
However, Jesus prayed shortly before his death for the oneness of his followers and that they would later also be with Christ:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-24)
The idea of there being two “classes” or groups of Christians–one with a heavenly hope and the other with an earthly hope goes counter to some plain words of St. Paul:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Again, the background above is just to acquaint you with the deeper significance of the issues involved. It may be helpful if you decide to do more than plant this seed of doubt, but you can decide to just plant it and let someone else water it.
What to say about the number 144,000
A major topic the Witnesses want to talk about when they call is their idea of what the future holds for mankind. Essentially, their view is that the time is up for the world and God will shortly destroy all governments. After that, they say, God will usher in a new world society for “the righteous” (meaning those who listen to the message Jehovah’s Witnesses preach). Here is where this topic can come up. Ask them something like this:
Don’t all Christians get to be with Christ in heaven?
They will likely come back with their “two hopes” view of Christian salvation. For this conversation, you can ignore whatever explanation they give (if you want, there are links at the end of this article that go into that subject in depth), but ask:
How many Christians will be with Christ in heaven?
If they haven’t said this yet, here is where they’ll likely turn to the book of Revelation:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:
From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed. (Revelation 7:1-8)
Now, it’s possible they might cite the other passage in Revelation (chapter 14:1) instead, but it’s likely they’ll go here. If not, just say:
Isn’t the number 144,000 mentioned in chapter 7 too?
Now, this is important: don’t get bogged down in trying to interpret this passage with them. That could come later if you want to do that. What you want to do now is highlight a fundamental flaw in how they are interpreting the number 144,000.
Here is where you make your point:
So, you believe the number 144,000 is a literal number?
They will affirm this and may try to go elsewhere. But, bring them back to this passage with this question:
You say the number 144,000 is literal. Is the number 12,000 from each tribe literal or symbolic?
Likely, they have never thought of this. They believe the “twelve tribes” referred to in Revelation 7 are symbolic. They do not believe there are literally 12 groups of 12,000 comprising the 144,000. The 12,000 part is understood to be symbolic. Here you are pointing out a major inconsistency on how they interpret this passage.
The Witness will probably now see where you are going with this. They may admit they believe the number 12,000 is a symbolic number though they probably also realize you are moving towards a “checkmate” on this. After they have answered your question about the number 12,000, you can conclude with this:
Wouldn’t it be inconsistent to say that the number 12,000 from each tribe is symbolic while the total 144,000 is literal? It would seem to me that either both numbers–144,000 and 12,000–are literal or both numbers are symbolic.
Witnesses may ignore your question about the number 12,000 and try to take the conversation elsewhere. If you’re so inclined, you could continue with some points taken from the “further reading” below. Or, you can just say something like this:
The book of Revelation is not an easy book to understand and I’m no expert in it myself. Still, there’s obviously much symbolism in it. To focus on the number 144,000 as literal while at the same time saying the number 12,000 is symbolic is inconsistent, in my opinion. It’s also hard to believe that Jesus’ prayer for future believers to be with him in heaven has such a limited fulfillment.
For further reading: