According to the Watchtower, 144,000 is the total number of people who will make it into heaven, and every last one of them will have been a Jehovah’s Witness. These folks (variously known as “the little flock” or “spiritual Israel”) are also the ones that the Bible was written for, and are the only ones who have Jesus as their Mediator.
All other Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered “the Great Crowd” of “other sheep.” These 8 million people are to live forever on earth rather than in heaven, and must rely on the 144,000 for biblical interpretation and salvation (in effect, the 144,000 act as their mediator in place of Jesus.)
But, in reality, when it comes to telling the Great Crowd what they must and mustn’t do and believe, it is a tiny minority of the 144,000 that fill this role: the men of the Governing Body.
The relationship of the Great Crowd to the Governing Body is best expressed in the succinct motto imposed upon the former by the latter: “Listen, obey, and be blessed.”
Without this doctrine, some 8 million people would be free to live their lives: not shunning their children who come to disagree with the Governing Body; not withholding life-saving medical procedures from them; not discouraging them from getting an education…
This fundamental Watchtower doctrine is based on the following Scripture:
Then I saw, and look! the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who have his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. I heard a sound coming out of heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; and the sound that I heard was like singers who accompany themselves by playing on their harps. And they are singing what seems to be a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, and no one was able to master that song except the 144,000, who have been bought from the earth. These are the ones who did not defile themselves with women; in fact, they are virgins. These are the ones who keep following the Lamb no matter where he goes. These were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb, and no deceit was found in their mouths; they are without blemish.
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, 144,000, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel:
Rev. 14:1-5; 7:4
They figured all of this out in 1935. Prior to that year the “great crowd” (aka “great multitude”) of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been heaven-bound:
…all the facts and the scriptures bearing upon the matter under consideration show that those who form the great multitude constitute a spirit class, born on the spirit plane.”
–- Watchtower 1927 Jan 15 p.20
They believed that if these who were said to be of the great multitude were faithful at that time, they would be resurrected to heavenly life — not to rule as kings but to take a position before the throne.”
-– Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom pp.160, 161.
But, “all the facts and the scriptures” were evidently wrong:
At the end of May of that year  a five-day convention of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses was in session… the president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society discussed the subject of ‘the great multitude,’ spoken of in Revelation 7.9-17, Authorized Version. He made it clear that the ‘multitude’ was no spiritual or spirit begotten class, would not attain the angelic nature in heaven so as to assist the 144,000 joint heirs with Christ. It was a distinctly an earthly class with hope of endless perfect human life in the earthly paradise under Christ’s kingdom”
–Holy Spirit – The Force Behind the Coming New Order (WBTS 1976) p. 156
This was also the year that marked the completion of the selection of all of the 144,000 heaven-bound Witnesses:
Logically, the calling of the little flock would draw to a close when the number was nearing completion, and the evidence is that the general gathering of these specially blessed ones ended in 1935.
-– Watchtower 1995 Feb 15 p.19
But the door that shut in that year must’ve been a revolving one, because “new light” has revealed (after obdurate later-day Witnesses kept insisting they were anointed):
Thus it appears that we can not set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.
-– Watchtower 2007 May 1 p.31
Does anything seem a little out of whack to you about this whole thing?
A Book of Symbols
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that they are not fundamentalists because (among other reasons) they do not believe that every passage in the Bible is to be interpreted literally. [It’s beside the point that this is based on their own definition of fundamentalism: not the rest of the world’s.]
Revelation is one of those books of the Bible that are not to be interpreted literally. The Watchtower says that it is “highly symbolic” Insight Vol. 2 p. 798-801
If you ever want to hear “the book of Revelation is symbolic and not to be taken literally” from the mouth of an actual Jehovah’s Witness, just ask them to read Revelation 20:10 to you. I can almost guarantee that a phrase similar to this will be the next words out of their mouths.
When it comes to the number 144,000 however, the Watchtower is adamant that it is not symbolic, but literal. Let’s see why their stance makes no sense.
Revelation 7:4-8 says that the 144,000 are made up of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. It even spells this out for us in the Bible’s frequently redundant manner. The Watchtower assures us that these “tribes” are symbolic.
That’s right: they add up symbolic tribes and come up with a total number of literal people! That’s like counting out twelve apples and coming up with a total of a dozen doorknobs.
But wait; there’s more!
Here are all of the items mentioned in the passage from Revelation, showing whether the Watchtower considers them symbolic or literal:
How can they hope to get away with this arbitrary assigning of literalness to one item in this highly symbolic passage? It’s as if I were to tell the fairy-tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and admit that it’s all make-believe except for the part where the wolf says “The better to see you with, my dear,” that one part, I insist, is literally true. Would you take me seriously?
Somehow, eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses take the Governing Body seriously when they do the identical thing with the Bible book of Revelation!
The Watchtower’s rationale is that the 144,000 are contrasted with the “great crowd,” so:
If the number 144,000 were symbolic, referring instead to a group without number, then the contrast between the two groups would be lost.
JW.org: Who Go to Heaven? (parg 21)
But this isn’t necessarily so; the number can be symbolic and still contrast perfectly well with another unnumbered [or vastly larger] group.
For example, consider the number 10,000. I will give you two examples where the number 10,000 is used symbolically [or non-literally.] Then I want you to see if you can still contrast that number with another group that is unnumbered [or vastly larger.]
Example 1: Group Having a Symbolic Number Contrasted With an Unnumbered Group
In some of the older readings in Buddhism you might come across the expression “ten thousand things.” In Buddhism ten thousand isn’t some magic number. It too is vague. It could just as well be “a billion things.”
Ten thousand refers to the uncountable numbers of forms in which life force, or Buddha-nature, exists.
–With thanks to the FAYETTEVILLE ZEN CENTER article: http://zentalks.blogspot.com/2009/08/ten-thousand-things-id-like-to-talk.html. (Emphasis added.)
In the context of Zen Buddhism I might say something such as: “Shift your focus away from the 10,000 things and onto your studies.” Those are two separate groups (10,000 things, and studies) one having a symbolic number, and the other being unnumbered. Is there any problem contrasting the two? No.
Example 2: Group Having a Non-Literal Number Contrasted With a Vastly Larger Group
The state I live in (Minnesota) has a nickname: “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” In fact, “10,000 Lakes” is what you’ll see on our cars’ license plates. But Minnesota actually has 11,842 lakes (of 10 or more acres; and many more if we count lakes 5 acres or more in size: the minimum size of a lake, according to Wikipedia.) So 10,000 isn’t a literal number in this context. It’s just a big number giving us “bragging rights.”
However, our bragging is severely humbled by the following quote:
Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. Alaska tops that with more than 3 million lakes.
With thanks to AlaskaKids: http://www.alaskakids.org/index.cfm/know-alaska/Alaska-Geography/Lakes
In the above quote, one group — with the non-literal number of 10,000 — is compared to another group with a vague, though vastly larger, number (“more than 3 million.”) Any problem contrasting the two groups (Minnesota lakes and Alaska lakes)? No.
So, just as in our examples above, the number 144,000 can be symbolic, referring to a group without number, without the contrast between this group and the “Great Crowd” being lost.
A “Sealed” Number
The Watchtower also insists that the number 144,000 is literal because it is a “sealed number.” But, once again, they are not consistent; there are many other things in the book of Revelation which are “sealed” but are still held to be symbolic by the Watchtower. Each of the 7 plagues in chapter 6 and 8, for instance, were “sealed,” and yet the Watchtower teaches that the plagues are symbolic. Therefore, the number being “sealed” is no indicator that the number is literal.
According to the Watchtower, The Number 12 is Symbolic of Organization
Furthermore, the Watchtower has repeatedly stated that the number twelve is symbolic. They claim that it is used in the Bible (specifically here in Revelation chapter 7) to represent “organizational completeness.”
In Revelation 21:10-21 the “heavenly new Jerusalem” is described as having 12 gates with 12 angels and the 12 names of the tribes of Israel. The city is 12,000 furlongs in width, depth, and height. The wall is 144 cubits with 12 foundations. The Watchtower teaches that this city is symbolic, and that its obvious and repetitive use of the number 12 (and 144, which is 12 squared) is symbolic of organization.
Wouldn’t it be consistent then to recognize that since the number 144,000 consists of 12 groups of 12,000, it also appears to be using the number 12 in a symbolic manner?
Yes, it would be consistent, but it would lose the Governing Body its power-hold over its great crowd of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Revealingly, on its website, the Watchtower omits to mention the 144 cubits measurement of the “Heavenly New Jerusalem,” and fails to reveal the usage of the number 12 as a symbol of organization: What is New Jerusalem? Perhaps they are worried that Witnesses may put two and two together (or in this case: 144 and 12,000) if these things are pointed out.]
Where, Oh Where is that Great Crowd of Other Sheep?
The Watchtower contends that since the Great Crowd is seen standing “before the throne” in Rev. 7:9; and since a totally unrelated Bible verse states that “the earth is God’s footstool” (Is. 66:1); and since a footstool typically sits before a throne — therefore the Great Crowd must live forever on earth! [Yes, I’m being serious; this is how they “interpret” the Bible!]
But if “being before the throne” proves that the “great crowd” is on earth, then it would likewise prove that the following groups were also on the earth:
- The angels.
- The elders.
- The four beasts.
- The 144,000!
All of these groups are said to be “before the throne” in the verses already quoted above. Since the Watchtower teaches that these groups are in heaven, it cannot be true that “before the throne” means “on the earth”.
Since it all seems a bit too much for them, and they can’t seem to make up their minds, instead of asking the Watchtower where the “great crowd” is, let’s ask the Bible:
After these things I heard what was a loud voice of a great crowd in heaven. They said, “Praise Jah, you people! The salvation and the glory and the power belong to our God.”
—Rev. 19:1 NWT
Where does the Bible explicitly say the “great crowd” is? “In heaven.” Where does the Watchtower say the “great crowd” is? “On earth.” Which source of information should a Witness go by?
Jehovah’s Witnesses try to be careful about how they express themselves. Instead of saying, ‘the Society teaches,’ many Witnesses prefer to use such expressions as, “the Bible says” or, “I understand the Bible to teach.” In this way they emphasize the personal decision that each Witness has made in accepting Bible teachings and also avoid giving the false impression that Witnesses are somehow bound to the dictates of some religious sect.
—Watchtower, 3/15/1998, p. 19
How about really going by what the Bible teaches instead of giving it lip-service, all the while kowtowing to the Watchtower?
The Watchtower’s dividing people into classes — so that one class can lord it over the other — is just plain wrong, and has no solid foundation whatsoever. So, “Great Crowd,” live your lives accordingly: as individuals trusting your inherent empathy over the dictates of the Watchtower.