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Will the Redeemed Live as Separate Classes in Heaven and Earth?

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Will the Redeemed Live as Separate Classes in Heaven and Earth?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #19
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: The Watchtower Society divides redeemed human beings into two classes: the “anointed class” having 144,000 members, and the “other sheep,” a much larger group with an unknown number of millions of people. The anointed class will live forever in heaven with God and Christ while the other sheep will live forever on Paradise Earth.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

The Watchtower Society teaches that there are two classes of people with the hope of everlasting life: a heavenly class and an earthly class. This two-classes theory affects a wide range of doctrines and practices for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

We may start at the end in order to understand the doctrine more clearly. According to the Watchtower, in the everlasting future, existence will be divided into two realms: Heaven, where God and other spirit beings live, and the new earth, which will be this earth fully cleansed and renovated, and where physical beings will live. That future, new earth will be made a “Paradise Earth” for all its inhabitants, but it will remain a separate realm apart from Heaven. Human beings who attain salvation will live in one or the other of these realms.

The class or group of people who will live forever in Heaven will number 144,000 and are called both the “little flock” (referring to Luke 12:32) and the “anointed class” (a term that does not appear in the Bible) because they are said to be “spirit-anointed” Christians. Members of this group include all early Christian believers from the first century, a few scattered Christians over the centuries, and a select group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They think that essentially all of the 144,000 had already been chosen by the mid-1930s, so that by now only a few thousand at most remain alive.1 They will not be raised with physical bodies but with “spirit bodies” (which the Watchtower teaches the angels have, as well as the resurrected Christ). “When anointed Christians die, they are not raised in the flesh. (1 Corinthians 15:50-53) A corruptible body of flesh and blood cannot inherit incorruption and the heavenly Kingdom.”2

The people who will live forever on Paradise Earth are unnumbered (but a much larger group of many millions) and are called the “other sheep” (an expression found in John 10:16). These other sheep include all saved people from before the time of Christ’s death as well as the vast majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses living today. Those other sheep who are alive in the final generation culminating in Armageddon are known as the “great crowd” (an expression used in Revelation 7:9).3 The other sheep “have the prospect of living forever on a paradise earth”4 but not in the presence of God, Christ, or their loved ones who are members of the anointed class. In addition to the millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses who survive “the great tribulation,” the rest of the other sheep will be resurrected to live on the Earth during the Millennium. All of these other sheep will have to prove themselves faithful and worthy during the Millennium in order to be assured of everlasting life.

This two-classes doctrine directly affects how Jehovah’s Witnesses view themselves and one another today. The Watchtower teaches that the anointed class is the Christian “congregation” (the word it uses in place of “church”):

Yes, the primary sense of “congregation” in the Christian Greek Scriptures is the composite group of spirit-anointed followers of Christ. These 144,000 anointed ones constitute “the congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens.”—Hebrews 12:23.5

God makes the “new covenant” with the anointed class, who are “spiritual Israel” and “the seed of Abraham,” and who receive “adoption” as God’s “sons” or “children” and thus become “Christ’s brothers” in heaven (Rom. 8:15-17, 23-25; Gal. 3:29; Heb. 2:16). It is for these 144,000 spirit-anointed persons that Christ is the “Mediator” of the new covenant (Heb. 8:10-13; 9:15). The other sheep are “beneficiaries” but not “participants” in that new covenant.6 In effect, Jesus is the Mediator between God and the anointed class, and the anointed class is the mediator between Jesus and the other sheep. The spirit-anointed members have the “holy spirit” as the seal of their “inheritance” in heaven (2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14).7 Only members of the “anointed class” are supposed to partake of the elements in the Memorial, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ annual observance of the Lord’s Supper.8

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also taught that only the 144,000 members of the anointed class needs to be or will be born again. The Watchtower argues that being born again is necessary only for those who will go to heaven to rule there with Christ.9 Being born again is being “born of spirit” (see John 3:5), which the Watchtower says means that God anoints with “holy spirit” those whom he chooses for membership in the heavenly ruler class.10 This “anointing” confers on this select group the status of being God’s adopted sons, “children of God,” and the spirit gives those individuals an inner awareness and assurance that he has chosen them for that heavenly status.11 Citing 2 Corinthians 5:17, the Watchtower explains that Christ and each member of the 144,000 (and no one else) is “a new creation.”12

Numerical Problems for the Anointed Class Doctrine

The Watchtower Society has had a “numbers problem” with its doctrine of the anointed class at three different times in its history. From the time of its founder Charles Taze Russell until today, the Watchtower has claimed that the anointed class would be limited to 144,000 members.13 The Society’s view of church history dictates that the first-century Christian movement would have included a good number of those 144,000 individuals, that comparatively few persons during the period of apostasy that lasted until the late nineteenth century would be counted, and that the remaining members would come from the ranks of the Watchtower’s loyal supporters. In order to legitimize this theory, Russell disparaged the faith of virtually all Christians during the intervening eighteen centuries of church history, including those who had died as martyrs.14

According to Russell, the “public Call” for faithful persons to join the 144,000 had ended in 1881, “when a sufficient number had been invited and had accepted the invitation.” The only reason why more people could still join that anointed group was that many of those who “had accepted the invitation” proved unworthy. Russell’s original assumption was that Armageddon would take place by 1914, so entrance into the anointed class could not happen after that date. However, as late as 1915, the year before Russell died, he told people, “you are still in time to make your consecration.”15

Twenty years later, the Watchtower’s numbers problem had only grown worse. Armageddon had not taken place, additional predictions of when it would occur had failed, and the religion, despite losing large numbers due to the failed predictions, was again growing. Russell’s successor, J. F. Rutherford, found it necessary to move the date for the end of the “call” to membership in the anointed class from 1881 to 1931, the year he changed the religion’s name to Jehovah’s Witnesses.16 In 1935, Rutherford announced a new doctrinal position with regard to the “great crowd” (then known as “the great multitude,” based on Rev. 7:9 KJV). Up to that point, the Watchtower had taught Russell’s view that the great multitude “was a secondary heavenly class,” but Rutherford declared that it was the class of the faithful that would survive the soon expected Armageddon and live forever on the earth.17 In 1966, the Society adjusted the date for when the 144,000 was essentially completed to 1935, the year of Rutherford’s doctrinal announcement.18

Rutherford had also mandated that only members of the anointed class were to partake of the elements at the annual Memorial.19 On the basis of this teaching, the number of adherents partaking declined from over fifty thousand in the 1930s until the late 1980s, when it flattened to a little under nine thousand a year. It remained at that level through 2006, while the number of active Jehovah’s Witnesses more than doubled from about three million to nearly seven million.

By 2007, anyone old enough to have become an “anointed” member by 1935 was at least 85 years old. The doctrine allowed additions to the anointed class only to replace those members who had proved unfaithful. This status quo was unsustainable, so in 2007 the Watchtower Society changed its doctrinal position again. Admitting that “the number of genuine anointed ones who have become unfaithful is likely not large,” the Watchtower concluded, “Thus, it appears that we cannot set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.”20

This newfound uncertainty as to when the call to membership in the anointed class ends did not really solve the problem. Considering the tens of thousands of Witnesses who have partaken in the Memorial since the 1930s, the total number of Witnesses in the religion’s history who have claimed in word or action to have been members of the anointed class is at least 80,000 and likely close to 100,000. It has become implausible to maintain even that most, let alone all, of those who have claimed to be members of the anointed class really have been. Thus, in 2016 the Watchtower let it be known that many of the people who partake at the Memorial are not really members of the anointed class:

The number of partakers includes those who mistakenly think that they are anointed. Some who at one point started to partake of the emblems later stopped. Others may have mental or emotional problems that lead them to believe that they will rule with Christ in heaven. Therefore, the number of partakers does not accurately indicate the number of anointed ones left on earth.21

The Watchtower’s leadership obviously must consider the problem to be serious if it found it necessary to disparage the mental and emotional stability of many of its members.

As an additional measure, the Watchtower also actively discourages Jehovah’s Witnesses from seeking to know which individuals among them are members of the anointed class:

No one can know whether an anointed Christian will receive his heavenly reward until Jehovah judges that person to be worthy of such a prize…. It would be pointless, then, for anyone now living on earth to try to ascertain who among God’s servants will eventually be part of the 144,000.22

Biblical Response

The Watchtower’s division of saved people into earthly and heavenly classes is woven into so many of its distinctive doctrinal positions that the idea affects the way Jehovah’s Witnesses read the entire New Testament. Whenever the New Testament writers speak about being children of God, of being “in Christ,” of the hope of seeing God or Christ, of becoming like Christ in his resurrection, of being Christ’s church, of the new covenant, and on and on, Witnesses are taught to think that these things applied to all Christians in the first century but to only a very tiny minority of Christians since then—even to a small fraction of modern Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The New Heavens and New Earth

A fundamental error in this Watchtower doctrine is that it assumes an eternal division not only between two peoples, but between “heaven” and “earth.” The eternal hope of all believers, according to the Bible, is life in God’s presence in “the new heavens and new earth” (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1). The exact relationship of the present universe to that future one is debated even among orthodox Christians, but what is clear and not debatable biblically is that it will be an eternal realm of resurrected, glorified human beings living in God’s presence. Peter reminded his Christian readers that this future world was the promise for which they were all waiting (2 Peter 3:13-14). In the climactic symbolic vision of the Book of Revelation, John saw “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” and a loud voice announcing, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:1-3). The eternal state will not be a two-tier system in which God and a select group of saved people live in heaven above while the vast majority of saved people live separately on the earth below. To the contrary, God will make his “tent” or “tabernacle” permanently among all redeemed human beings (Rev. 21:3).23

Many readers of the Bible get confused on this point because they do not properly distinguish what happens to believers when they die from what will happen to them in the age to come. When we die, our spirits await the future resurrection from the dead, and those who are redeemed will await that final glorification in the presence of Christ in heaven (Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:21-24). Once we are raised from the dead at the end of this age, we will still be with Christ, but Christ is coming here, back to the earth, and we will be with him forever living as glorified human beings with immortal bodies like his (Acts 1:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:35-58; Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; Heb. 9:28).24

If the division of the eternal future into two separate realms is unbiblical, then the division of the redeemed into two classes with separate hopes is also unbiblical. Indeed, Christians have “one hope” (Eph. 4:4).

The “Little Flock” and the “Kingdom” (Luke 12:31-32)

The division of Christian believers into a “little flock” and a larger company of “other sheep” is based on a misreading of two passages in the Gospels. On one occasion Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the expression “little flock” as if it were contrasting with a larger flock, but there is nothing to support this supposition in the context. The band of Jesus’ disciples was at that time indeed a “little flock,” a small contingent of disciples representing a small minority of the Jews living at that time.

The immediately preceding verse makes it clear that those to whom the Father has chosen to give the kingdom are Jesus’ disciples who seek that kingdom (Luke 12:31). To “seek his kingdom,” in Jesus’ teaching, does not mean to seek to live forever in Heaven as opposed to living on “Paradise Earth.” Rather, “to seek his kingdom is to seek to live in a way that honors God’s presence and rule”25 (see also Matt. 6:33). Whenever followers of Jesus pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9-10; cf. Luke 11:2), they are seeking God’s kingdom. The kingdom is promised to those who are poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3; cf. Luke 6:20), to those who take their stand with Christ even under persecution (Matt. 5:10), who do the Father’s will (Matt. 7:21). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all of the prophets, whom Jehovah’s Witnesses are told will have only an “earthly hope,” will be “in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28). Again, the kingdom of heaven is not life as non-physical or non-human beings in heaven separated from the vast majority of saved people. The kingdom of heaven, which is the same thing as the kingdom of God, is God’s exercise of his royal authority to eliminate all evil from the world and to bring about complete righteousness and peace in conformity with his will (Matt. 6:9-10; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:24-28).

The “Other Sheep” (John 10:16)

The other misunderstood text is Jesus’ statement, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). These “other sheep” are not an earthly class of believers in contrast to a heavenly class. Rather, in the historical setting of Jesus’ ministry, these “other sheep” are people living in other lands who will come to faith in Jesus and be joined to his Jewish followers as a single “flock.”

Throughout the first half of the Gospel, John repeatedly presents the mission of Jesus to be worldwide in scope. John the Baptist described Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The apostle tells us that God gave his Son because he “loved the world” and so “that the world might be saved through Him” (3:16, 17; cf. 12:47). There are many other statements in John to the same effect (4:42; 6:33, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 12:19-21).

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the divine Shepherd come to save and gather his scattered flock in terms drawn heavily from Old Testament prophecies (Isa. 56:6-8; Ezek. 34:1-24; 37:15-28). These prophecies indicate that God’s people will be drawn not only from Jews living in the Holy Land, but also peoples of all nations, including both displaced Israelites and indigenous peoples of the nations.26 Jesus was going to bring the “other sheep” into the “fold” through his death. He was going to die to “gather” the “scattered children of God” (John 11:52), to bear much fruit (12:23-24), and to “draw all” to himself (12:32).27 The “other sheep” would be gathered together into Christ’s “one flock” by coming to faith in Jesus as the apostles spread the message about Jesus’ death throughout the world (John 17:20).28

Thus, Jesus’ point in John 10:16 was not that two thousand years later he would be calling people to a different hope than the one he gave to his first-century followers. Rather, his point was that he was about to begin gathering people from all over the world to that same hope, into that same “flock,” through his death, resurrection, and glorification.

The 144,000 and the Great Crowd in Revelation

The other significant biblical texts used to support the doctrine of the two classes of Christians are found in the book of Revelation, the only book to use the number 144,000 (Rev. 7:4; 14:1, 3).29 Jehovah’s Witnesses take the visions of the 144,000 to symbolize the church (the “Christian congregation”). You would think, then, that they would take the number 144,000 symbolically—but they don’t. Instead, they insist on taking this one number 144,000 in Revelation 7:4 literally. But they do not take literally the twelve numbers of 12,000 each in 7:5–8 used to add up to the 144,000. There is no exegetical or hermeneutical sense to taking the one number literally but not the twelve numbers that the same text adds together to get the one number. Jehovah’s Witnesses also do not take the tribes of Israel, the seals, the Lamb, Mount Zion, the four living creatures, or the virginal status of the 144,000 literally. Yet they take the number 144,000 literally and use it to come up with a doctrine foreign to the entire New Testament.

We should acknowledge that some evangelicals regard the number 144,000 as a literal number. However, these evangelicals take the twelve occurrences of 12,000 literally, and they take the text literally when it describes the 144,000 as people from the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a debatable interpretation of Revelation 7, but in any case it is far more consistent and plausible than the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view.

The main exegetical argument Jehovah’s Witnesses proffer for construing the number 144,000 literally is that the number 144,000 is meant to be contrasted with the statement in the next vision about “a great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9). They argue that this statement implies that the number 144,000 is literal, because it is countable. But these are two complementary visions of the same people. Revelation 7:9 describes the great multitude as “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white.” That puts the “great crowd” in Heaven! The phrase “before the throne” is the same phrase used of the 144,000 in the later vision (14:3) and always pictures the location as Heaven (1:4; 4:5, 6, 10; 7:9, 11, 15; 8:3; 14:3; 20:12).

Seen in this light, the two numerical descriptions are complementary: the number 144,000 symbolizes completeness and the church’s status as a spiritual people of God, comparable in some way to the people of Israel. The description of the multitude as beyond human enumeration emphasizes the vastness of the company of the redeemed. Therefore, there is no basis in Revelation 7 for dividing the redeemed into heavenly and earthly classes.

The biblical hope does not divide the redeemed into earthly and heavenly classes. There is “one body” that has “one hope” (Eph. 4:4). All believers in Christ have God as their Father and Jesus as their brother by virtue of the Spirit dwelling in them (Rom. 8:9–30; cf. Gal. 3:27–4:7).30



1. Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy! (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1999), 286–93.

2. “The Resurrection Hope Has Power,” Watchtower, July 15, 2000, 19.

3. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, April 15, 1995, 31.

4. “Have You Received ‘the Spirit of the Truth’?” Watchtower, Feb. 1, 2002, 21.

5. “Let the Congregation Praise Jehovah,” Watchtower, April 15, 2007, 21.

6. “The Other Sheep and the New Covenant,” Watchtower (Feb. 1, 1998), 18–19.

7. “Mediator,” in Insight on the Scriptures, 2:362; “Have You Received,” 21.

8. “The Other Sheep and the Lord’s Evening Meal,” Watchtower (Feb. 15, 1985), 15–21.

9. “The New Birth—What Is Its Purpose?” Watchtower, April 1, 2009, 7–8.

10. “The New Birth—How Does It Take Place?” Watchtower, April 1, 2009, 8–9.

11. “The New Birth—What Does It Accomplish?” Watchtower, April 1, 2009, 10.

12. “New Creations Brought Forth!” Watchtower, Jan. 1, 1993, 5.

13. For Russell’s use of the expression “anointed class,” see, e.g., Zion’s Watch Tower, May 1, 1913, 38. Russell also used a variety of other expressions, such as “anointed company” and “Bride class.”

14. Zion’s Watch Tower, March 1, 1901, 94.

15. Zion’s Watch Tower, July 1, 1915, 203.

16. “Let God Be True” (Watchtower, 1946), 298; see also Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose (Watchtower, 1959), 139.

17. “My Life in Jehovah’s Spirit-Directed Organization,” Watchtower, March 1, 1988, 12.

18. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, May 1, 2007, 30.

19. Watchtower, March 1, 1938, 75.

20. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower, May 1, 2007, 31.

21. “‘We Want to Go with You,’” Watchtower (Study Edition), Jan. 2016, 27.

22. “‘We Want to Go with You,’” 23, 24.

23. See Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 158–70.

24. Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 45–79; see also the earlier articles #15 and #17 in this series, “Was Christ raised as an angelic spirit?” and “Does Christ return invisibly?”

25. Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Volume 2: 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1165.

26. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Book of Mormon and the ‘Other Sheep’ in John 10:16,” where a different misinterpretation of John 10:16 is addressed.

27. Jerome H. Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Historical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 303–304.

28. See also Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 307.

29. For the material in this section, see Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 153–56.

30. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jehovah’s Witnesses (Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 48–59.