by Fr. David J. Endres
Editor’s note: This column, “Outside Perspectives”, addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the Catholic Church’s teaching.
There are more than 7.5 billion people on earth. How many of them will be saved and enter into God’s eternal presence? No one knows for sure. Not all of humanity even believes in the possibility of life after death, but many — including Christians and Muslims — hope to experience the joy of heaven. The question of who and how many will be in heaven is not new. It is recorded in the New Testament.
As Jesus passed through towns, one bystander called out to him: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Luke 13:23). The Lord did not answer the question directly but replied that some who strive to enter the “narrow door” will not be able. Many faiths share the belief in a figurative “narrow door” to the afterlife.
Most religions do not teach that a certain number are saved, but most believe that not all will go to heaven. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who consider themselves Christian (but whose beliefs contrast from mainstream Christianity, including Catholicism and Protestantism), teach that exactly 144,000 souls — called the “anointed” ones — will reign in heaven. Jehovah’s Witnesses base their belief on their understanding of the Book of Revelation (especially chapters 7 and 14), where it records the number of those saved as drawn from the tribes of Israel (12,000 souls each from 12 tribes). For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number is not symbolic but actual, indicating the total number of those in heaven. Jehovah’s Witnesses accept, however, that there are two forms of redemption: life in heaven for the anointed and eternal life for those who will be preserved on earth.
In addition to the 144,000, “a great multitude” (as in Revelation 7:9) will gain a form of salvation and remain on earth eternally, not in the world we see around us, but in a world like the paradise of the Garden of Eden. The number of these souls is innumerable. Christians — including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers — do not believe in two kinds of salvation; they believe in only one: eternal life in the presence of God in heaven. The number of the redeemed, they believe, cannot be counted. They hold that the number 144,000 is symbolic to indicate the great multitude who will be saved, not to offer a limit on the souls who will be in heaven.
Billions and billions
This difference in understanding depends on how the Scriptures are read: in the literal or spiritual (non-literal) sense. The Book of Revelation, in which the 144,000 is referenced, is not often understood literally. Since the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, it points to what will occur at the end of the age when Christ returns. Most believe it is not an actual depiction of the end times, but through a figurative reading, it offers spiritual truths about judgment and the life to come.
A symbolic reading of the Scriptures does not mean that the details offered in Revelation, including the use of numbers, are not significant. As the Ven. Bede wrote in the eighth century, the 144,000 “is a finite number that ought to be understood as infinite.” The amount is significant itself, representing a “perfect” or complete number. 144,000 is 12 (the number of the tribes of Israel) multiplied by itself times 1,000 for emphasis.
The souls in heaven may be billions and billions
It is seen as representative of the fullness of Israel as manifested in Christ through the Church. 144,000 is then symbolic of the completion of the heavenly Jerusalem. Most Christian traditions do not teach who has been or will be saved. However, while the Catholic Church marks some out for special recognition as canonized saints (estimated as many as 10,000 and counting), only a small number of those who are saved are recognized in this way.
The souls in heaven may be billions and billions, including both Christians and non-Christians who sought God with a sincere heart and attempted to live their lives according to God’s will. Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses share the understanding that eternal life is not guaranteed. Neither presumes that all are lost or that all are saved. Both hold that God’s grace, the sacrifice of Jesus, and faith make salvation possible — whether for 144,000 or a great unknown multitude who live eternally in God’s presence.