I've had some experience in dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses, and thankfully some of the JWs I've come to know in recent years have been very warm, friendly and approachable individuals, so I'm pleased to say that I've had no negative encounters with anyone of this religion. This morning, however, as my wife and I were getting ready to head out to take part in the Emmanuel Community encounter/retreat day at the Little Sisters of the Poor convent, a pair of JWs (a gentleman and his wife) turned up at our front door (at approximately 8:15am... it's a good thing we're no longer accustomed to sleeping in on weekends or they really would have been in for it!) and they began with the usual introductions, "Can you spare a minute to hear an important message?" and "We're visiting households in the area this morning to tell families about the goodness of God's kingdom", and the preaching begins.
In the last few months I've befriended a couple of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, and in conversation, they've provided me with some insights into their beliefs and I've really been pining for the opportunity to ask other JWs about some of their core beliefs, namely their "doctrine" of the 144,000 (according to them, only this amount of people will be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and apparently JWs get first dibs). Learning about some of the beliefs of JWs has allowed me valuable opportunities to get back to the books and look at what mainstream Christianity teaches on issues such as these so that I can contrast it with what the JWs believe.
So here's how we address the issue of the "144,000". As alluded to earlier, JWs believe that the literal figure of 144,000 - found in the Book of Revelation - will be going to Heaven. JWs use Luke 12:32 to justify this:
"'Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (RSV)
The "little flock" reference in Luke 12:32 is used to support the notion of an "elect" being the only ones granted entry into Heaven at the time of judgement (this is also a belief held by Calvinists; see this blog entry for a bit more information) since 144,000 compared to the rest of humanity and all that have ever lived, in relative terms, does seem like a "little flock". The JWs that don't make it to Heaven (those not part of the 144,000) will remain on earth to guide others remaining on a path of righteousness.
What puzzles me about this belief and the JWs desire to "evangelise" is that firmness on the 144,000. The question I immediately asked of the pair of JWs that come to my door that morning was this:
"I understand your ambition is to bring others to the Jehovah's Witness faith, and that includes me at this very moment, but wouldn't my conversion to the JWs lower your chances of being one of the 144,000?"
I was met with blank stares directly after that question, but that didn't last long as the gentleman began to thumb through his Bible (the New World Translation, a specifically JW translation of the Bible) and that's where he himself read out Luke 12:32 and began to explain a bit more about the 144,000. I couldn't believe my luck! But rather than me giving you a blow-by-blow account of what was said and how it was said, I'm going to sum-up the arguments that I submitted to the pair; the same that I gave an ex-JW friend of mine when he himself encountered questions on the same topic from people close to him.
Let's take a look at John 3:16-17...
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save THE WORLD through him."
Now, obviously "whoever" and "the world" does not imply a particular number or an elect group, but EVERYONE. No, not everyone accepts the grace of salvation, but it is offered to all, and all MAY freely accept.
We're told similar in 1 Timothy 2:6...
"For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom FOR ALL, to be testified in due time."
"For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died FOR ALL, and therefore all died. And he died FOR ALL, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." - 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
"For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of ALL MEN, specially of those that believe." - 1 Timothy 4:10
It's a matter of mathematics. Does all = 144,000? No, therefore this number is NOT to be taken literally (don't forget that John's Revelation contains prophetic symbology and imagery). If Salvation is offered TO ALL, and if more than 144,000 ACCEPT the grace offered to us, then this shows quite clearly that it's God's intention that no SPECIFIC number be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven; there is no limit to God's love; there is no limit to the saving graces of Christ "WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
The 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7 and 14 are from the tribes of Israel. If we were to take this number literally, then we'd also have to take the fact that they're from the 12 tribes of Israel literally too. Are JWs Israelis? Can they show lineage to the tribes of Israel back to the time of the Old Testament? Ask them for family trees.
The 144,000 are all apparently male virgins too:
"And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads..." - Revelation 14:1
"These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb." - Revelation 14:4
If we are to take the 144,000 literally, then we must also take the 144,000 being male virgins literally too. Is it only then 144,000 male virgins that will be taken into Heaven? What about our wives, daughters, sisters and mothers, etc.?
Jesus said himself that he came to heal the sick. If "the sick" are sinners (the Jews believed that sickness was the inheritant result of sin and generational curses), and if Romans 3:23 tells us that "ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", then therefore Christ came to save all.
When reading Luke 12:32, it's important to read what's written before that very verse.
In that instance, Jesus is speaking to his disciples and quite possibly a small group of people as somewhat indicated in verse 13. Why would Jesus say "large flock" if he was only speaking to a small group of people at the time?
The use of the term "little flock" is interesting, because there's an underlying binary opposite, i.e. if there's a "little" flock, then there must also be a "large" flock or other flocks varying in size. Else why didn't Jesus just use the term "flock" when saying, "Do not be afraid, flock" (verse 32).
JWs use this verse incorrectly to support their "elect"/144,000 doctrine; they take Luke 12:32 way out of context. And let's be logical for a moment here as well: does 144,000 sound like a "little flock" or a small group of people?
If we were to take Luke 12:32's "little flock" literally, and more notably how the JWs read it, would it then mean that only the people Jesus was speaking to were going to be saved and the rest damned? If JWs are willing to take the "little flock" discourse literally, then they must also concede that that particular message was only intended for that small group of people present at the time, which we know is ridiculous to suggest!
Consider what Jesus meant when he said this before speaking in Matthew 11:
"He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." - Matthew 11:15
Don't we all have "ears to hear"? Therefore Christ's invitation to salvation is to ALL. What Jesus emphasises here is the difference between hearing and listening:
ALL may HEAR Christ's word, but will everyone listen? Christ was ALL to listen, and again we're taken back to John 3:16...
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
It's like when you send out invitations to a birthday party: you may send out a hundred invitations, but does that mean a hundred people are going to turn up? Every hope within you may want/desire the hundred to turn up, but we know that only those that respond to the invitation accordingly will come to the party. If you didn't want a hundred people at the party, you wouldn't have sent out a hundred invitations! Ergo, if God didn't want all to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, he wouldn't have sent His Son for everyone, i.e. "whoever believes in him", and if this was the case, verses like John 3:16 would read dramatically differently. For example:
"For God so loved a portion of the world, he gave his one and only Son, that this portion would believe in him will not perish and have eternal life".
That doesn't sound like an almighty God to me if he can only save an "elect"!
Also consider Christ's instructions to his disciples in Matthew 28:19...
"Therefore go and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."
It doesn't say "... go and make disciples of 144,000..." or "... go and make disciples of a particular number of nations..." does it?
At that point they were hinting at making a move to head off to the other houses in the street, but I did make sure that I invited them back another Saturday morning if they wanted to talk more about how our beliefs contrast. We exchanged goodbyes and I moved inside to find my wife with her arms crossed over each as she was giving me a look... the look (that "I'm getting rather impatient"/icy look). It was time to get in the car!
* * * * *
As I mentioned earlier: I've got nothing against JWs, but since they came to my house, the home of a devout Catholic, they were going to pay a toll, and that toll was to listen to what I had to say, and to their credit they did so without any protest... even if they didn't like what I had to say!
It's very imporant that when you're defending the Catholic faith or making attempt to point out the grey areas in another person's own faith, that you do so with great gentleness and respect. But if in doubt, adhere to the following steps:
1. Refer to scripture;
2. Refer to history (context); and
3. Use common sense!
I don't expect that that pair of JWs will return to my abode any time soon as others that have said they would return have not, but I felt that after my discussion with them that Saturday morning, common sense of all things prevailed!
Further reading: http://www.catholic.com/library/Stumpers_for_Jehovah_Witnesse.asp
... and viewing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2sRv6IvvBc
Peace be with you.