Question: "What do the Jehovah's Witnesses believe about the 144,000 and a heavenly/earthly hope?"
Answer: The Bible teaches that at death the souls of believers will go to be with the Lord, and, after the resurrection, they will spend eternity in the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven onto the new earth. The Bible makes it clear that deceased believers are with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6–8; Philippians 1:23) in a spiritual realm called heaven. The ultimate destiny awaiting believers is the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21—22). Our physical bodies will be resurrected and glorified, made perfectly fit for eternity on the new earth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 persons since the time of Jesus can ever go to heaven, there to be co-rulers with Christ Jesus over the inhabitants of a paradise earth. They also believe that the soul dies when the body dies and must wait until the resurrection before Jehovah “remembers” the personality of the deceased and matches it to a new, physical body. Those who are part of the 144,000 will be given spiritual bodies, but everyone else will be given a fleshly body.
The 144,000 are first mentioned in Revelation 7:4: “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” Whereas the Witnesses take the number 144,000 to be literal, they say the description of their being male Jewish virgins (Revelation 14:4) is symbolic. Revelation 7:5–8 presents the 144,000 as being from the twelve tribes of Israel—12,000 from each tribe. The reference to the tribes of Israel is also taken as symbolic, not literal. They believe that the “anointed remnant” of the 144,000 has replaced Israel and that they are “spiritual Jews.” Further, Revelation speaks of a great crowd in heaven that no man could number (Revelation 7:9), but Jehovah’s Witnesses say only the 144,000 can be in heaven. The great crowd, they say, are on the earth.
In the 1930s the organization claimed that the number of the 144,000 had been sealed, and new Witnesses would have an eternity on earth, rather than in heaven. In 1935 the number of Witnesses who believed they were part of the 144,000 numbered 52,465. The number who believed they were heaven bound decreased dramatically over the following decades. In 2005 there were only 8,524. By 2020 the number had increased to 21,182. Now the Watchtower Society says the number of the 144,000 will be sealed just before the Great Tribulation starts.
According to one publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “After the apostle John was told in vision about this group of 144,000 individuals, he was shown another group. John describes this second group as ‘a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.’ This great crowd refers to those who will survive the coming ‘great tribulation,’ which will destroy the present wicked world. . . . The context of Revelation 7:4 and related statements found elsewhere in the Bible bear out that the number 144,000 is to be taken literally. It refers to those who will rule in heaven with Christ over a paradise earth, which will be filled with a large and undetermined number of happy people who worship Jehovah God” (“Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, September 1, 2004).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that they will be the only survivors of the Great Tribulation, coupled with the fact that in 2020 they numbered 8,695,808 persons in active service, clashes with Scripture’s description of a multitude “that no man can number.” The Witnesses have been numbered.
Jehovah’s Witnesses still insist that 144,000 is the limit to the number of people who will reign with Christ in heaven and spend eternity with God. However, they say it is possible for those who have been “anointed” to fall into unrepentant sin. The numbers continue to increase because, they say, Jehovah replaces those who fall by the wayside. The January 2016 Watchtower also explains the increase by saying that some Witnesses “have mental or emotional problems” and are simply mistaken in thinking they will rule with Christ in heaven.
Of critical importance is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that the 144,000 have been anointed by Jehovah’s spirit and they alone are in the New Covenant. Only the 144,000 have a “heavenly hope.” Other Jehovah’s Witnesses have an “earthly hope”—they expect to live forever on a paradise earth, but they are not part of the New Covenant.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that the New Covenant “makes it possible for 144,000 faithful Christians to go to heaven. There they will serve as kings and priests for the blessings of all mankind. . . . Only those in the new covenant—that is, those who have the hope of going to heaven—should partake of the bread and wine. God convicts such ones that they have been selected to be heavenly kings” (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, Appendix, p. 207–208).
So, the majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses are excluded from the New Covenant, yet they have been told that they can still benefit from the covenant, being granted the opportunity to live forever in an earthly paradise; of course, the blessing is contingent upon their remaining faithful to the anointed till the end. They have no assurance of salvation because they could still fail the final test. But neither are the “anointed remnant” assured of heaven; they have supposedly been sealed, but they might stumble and fall and so forfeit their heavenly inheritance.
All this goes contrary to what Jesus Himself says about those who believe in Him: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29). After the resurrection of Christ, Gentiles were also brought into the blessing of the New Covenant (Acts 10; Ephesians 2:13–14). Under the New Covenant, believers receive salvation as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8–9). Our responsibility is to exercise faith in Christ, the One who fulfilled the law and brought an end to the law’s sacrifices through His own sacrificial death. Through the life-giving Holy Spirit who lives in all believers (Romans 8:9–11), we share in the inheritance of Christ and enjoy a permanent, unbroken relationship with God (Hebrews 9:15).
Nowhere does the Bible limit the number of persons who can go to heaven to 144,000. Neither does the Bible say that only 144,000 persons can be part of the New Covenant. These are man-made teachings and have no biblical basis.