When I was a young, “wet behind the ears” baby priest, my first assignment was to be the associate pastor at St. Francis in Brainerd. The house I lived in was across the street from the church, but it was completely unmarked, as though it had no association with the parish.
The parish offices were about half a block from where I was living, so most often I would walk home for lunch.
One fateful late morning as I was preparing my peanut but sandwich for lunch there was a knock.
As I opened the door, there were two young gentlemen with shocked looks on their faces. They were missionaries from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was wearing my clerics.
Needless to say, they were not expecting a priest to answer the door of this normal looking house. I happily invited them in and asked them to give me their “spiel” as If I were not wearing clerics.
Three hours later they left with a good handshake and a Catholic catechism in hand. I am not saying I converted them—I never saw them again—but at least they agreed to take the catechism and read it.
In that three-hour conversation many issues were discussed. One of them is a familiar issue for many readers. I am sure, and that is the Jehovah’s Witness belief that only 144,000people will be saved.
They get this idea from two passages in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 7:4 says, “I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites.” Revelation 14:4 says: “These are they who were not defiled with women; they are virgins and these are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”
The idea of only so few people being saved might strike some as odd, but their creed gets a bit stranger still. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the number 144,000 was met in 1935, so anybody born after that year would not even have a chance, and according to at least one online source, 9,000 of these chosen ones were still alive in 1986.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only way you can be one of the 144,000 is if you are a Jewish man who happens to be a virgin. This belief is based on a literal interpretation of those two passages, whereas all other biblical passages are interpreted figuratively.
Needless to say their interpretation does not pass the smell test. Can you imagine if this was our belief? I cannot speak for you, but if that is what we believed as Catholics I would have to wonder: What’s the point? Why even be a member, since the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us, and for those of us born after 1935, it’s utterly hopeless.
I think even the least scripturally scholarly person among us knows that numbers in the Bible are most often figurative. According to Genesis 5:5, Adam lived to 930 years of age. Explaining that will be a whole other Apologetics column, but suffice it to say there is symbolism in that number as there is in the numbers three, seven, 40 and others, including 144,000.
The number 144,000 is actually made up of other symbolic numbers. We know that there were 12 tribes in Israel, and that there were 12 Apostles to represent the church as the new Israel, so 12 times 12 multiplied by 1,000 makes up our number.
Scripturally speaking, the number 1,000 symbolizes completeness.
Knowing the sort of symbolism that makes up the 144,000, one can start to see the real message the author of Revelation is trying to give. If we read Revelation literally, the whole book would be crazy, but in this instance it would be depressing because of the very small number of the saved.
But if we read it as it was meant to be read then we would see in this number that heaven will be full and complete. The author was actually giving us this number to express the expansive nature of heaven and how it will be universal, not limited to Jewish men who happen to be virgins, because if that were the case then not even the Jehovah’s Witness founder Charles Taze Russell (1872-1916) would be saved.
I love the parishes of which I am now pastor, but one unfortunate thing about my assignment is that my rectory is clearly associated with my parish. Therefore, I will not have any opportunity to enjoy the surprised looks on the faces of unwitting missionaries any time soon, as I do not think they make it a practice of knowingly knocking on Catholic priests’ doors.