Persons who were formally of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently raise the question as to that religion’s teaching of eternal life on earth. Following is an answer written by the author of Commentary Press publication Crisis of Conscience:
You mentioned questions regarding life on earth. As for the manner of the resurrection and all the details, I don’t see reason for dogmatism. Likewise as regards life on earth. I am perfectly happy to wait to see what the eternal destiny of people will be according to God’s disposition, and I feel we are wise not to pretend to be so certain that we know all there is to know on the subject.
When people write about this I usually respond that as to one’s hope, I can only urge that it be tempered with a willingness to recognize that our understanding is rarely something beyond adjustment or increase. When a promise is clearly and definitely stated in Scripture, we can not only hope for its fulfillment but have conviction of it, faith in it. That is true of the hope of forgiveness of sins, of the resurrection, of the hope of life everlasting. These hopes are spelled out clearly and extensively, even repeatedly, in the Christian Scriptures.
As for hope of life on earth, whatever argumentation may be presented, using certain isolated texts or Hebrew Scripture prophecies, I don’t believe one could say that any comparable clear, definite, full presentation of such a hope is found in the Christian Scriptures. I am not arguing against one’s hoping for this, but am arguing for viewing it as simply that, a hope and not something allowing for the conviction that God’s clearly stated promises permit and encourage.
To assume, for example, that the first two chapters of Genesis contain a total revelation of God’s eternal purpose for humankind or for the physical universe, something eternally binding upon God, with no possibility of further revelation that amplifies the picture and scope of His purpose, making evident previously unknown or unstated aspects, is certainly unwarranted. God told the first human couple their destiny if they disobeyed. He did not discuss their eternal future if they obeyed. Deductive reasoning all too often may be influenced by subjective thinking or presuppositions. Rather than, in effect, place a deductive limitation on God and on his purpose, it seems more respectful and reasonable to view these chapters as presenting His expression of His will and purpose at that point in man’s history and for the existing circumstances.
Jesus, for example, taught many new things to people so as to correct existing Jewish bias but so many of the things he stated, with regard to the law, to the basis for salvation, the uniting of Jew and Gentile, the place and manner of his own future reign, and a host of others, were originally expressed often in remarkably brief form, frequently no more than a basic principle stated with little elaboration. The implications were enormous yet it was not until after his death that they were clearly perceived and ‘spelled out’ in subsequent apostolic writings.
Rather than base our understanding and hope on the assumption that those two Genesis chapters bind God in some way as to human destiny, we should let other texts balance and moderate our thinking, such as the apostle’s words at Ephesians 1:3-6 and 3:6-12, where Paul feels free to refer to God’s “eternal purpose” with regard to the good news, resulting from Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and the extension of its promises to those forming the “body of Christ.” I don’t think we can safely pretend to know God’s mind in this area in a dogmatic manner, as Watch Tower publications seem to do.
In Psalm 37. David is actually talking about God’s dealings and their outworkings then, in his time, as a comparison of verse 10 with verses 35, 36 demonstrate. The Watch Tower Society understands Jesus’ expressions at Matthew 5:3-11 to apply to the “anointed,” likely due to expressions such as “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” etc. To be consistent, then, they must understand verse 5, which corresponds to Psalm 37:11, also to apply to them. In reality, Christ is made his Father’s heir of all things, earth included, and as joint heirs his followers share in that inheritance. (Hebrews 1:2; Romans 4:13-16; 8:15-17) That is doubtless why Paul could tell fellow Christians that “the world” already belonged to them, so that in that sense they had “inherited the earth” and all other things.—1 Corinthians 3:21-23.
The term “forever” (NWT “time indefinite”) used of the earth at Ecclesiastes 1:4 renders the Hebrew ohlam which does not necessarily mean eternal, being used of features of the Mosaic law and of the Aaronic priesthood—things that were long-lasting but not eternal—as you can see by use of a concordance. As regards the earth itself, some point to certain texts to indicate its eventual disappearance, for example:
Heaven and earth will pass away.—Matt. 24:35.
I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken.—Heb. 12:26, 27.
You laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment.—Heb. 1:10, 11.
The earth and everything in it will be burned up. —2 Peter 3:10.
The texts, or their context, are, however, generally of a nature that puts in question their literalness. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with examples of the use of poetic forms, figurative expressions—with rivers “clapping their hands,” fields “rejoicing,” or the land “gone to mourning has faded away,” etc.—and often the texts employed from the Christian Scriptures in regard to the earth’s future seem of a similar nature. (Psalm 98: 7, 8; Isaiah 24:4) At any rate, I don’t find the matter that clearly spelled out to want to be very specific on it.
Jesus’ statement regarding John the Baptist at Matthew 11:11 is sometimes referred to. It was made about him at a time when John was still living and evidently as relating to his human life and career, what he was as a man. No human, no matter how great on earth, is equal to any of those forming Christ’s heavenly kingdom, possessing the likeness of their kingly Head. But the comparative inferiority of John’s human, earthly career, certainly would not preclude John’s becoming one of those in that heavenly kingdom. While that is so, it may well be that Jesus was actually focusing on quite a different aspect of matters, as indicated by the context, dealing with the matter of prophets. Even John’s work of preparing the way for Christ is not equal to the superior privilege of having accepted him, placing faith in, and bearing witness to, his death and resurrection as a Ransomer, etc. The Watch Tower’s interpretation is heavily conditioned by circular reasoning and is simplistic, essentially ignoring the context and reality of the existing circumstances.
Revelation 5:10 and its application even in the first century is discussed on pages 544 to 548 of the Christian Freedom book. Whether the thousand years of Revelation 20 is literal rather than symbolic, or whatever the meaning of 2 Peter 3:13 as to a “new earth” is, this would not affect the validity of those points. Revelation is obviously a book replete with symbols and symbolic imagery and expressions. Any part of it can be understood only when considering the clear, plain-language statements presented in the rest of the Christian Scriptures, and the symbolic should always yield to or conform to the literal, not vice versa. As to 2 Peter 3, we might ask ourselves if we can rightly focus only on the reference to a “new earth” and discount the contextual references to the dissolving of the earth and its elements and the dissolution of the heavens? Do we apply part as figurative (for example, verses 7 and 10) and part as literal (verses 5, 6 and 13) and by what means do we do so? Does the text point to the removal of the present planet and its replacement with another? If so, how can persons hope to survive and still remain on the destroyed planet? These questions simply show why I think caution is called for, and the unwisdom of taking one or two texts—texts that employ prophetic imagery—and use them as if they were master texts by which all others are to be understood. I believe a person will always face difficulty and perhaps considerable anxiety unless focusing on the solid facts involved in the good news and permitting the other less-certain details to take minor place and importance. As the New English Bible renders Philippians 1:9, 10:
And this is my prayer, that your love may grow ever richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, and may thus bring you the gift of true discrimination [footnote, may teach you by experience what things are most worth while].
The New World Translation adjusts the wording at Hebrews 11:16 to make the text fit WT teaching, but the Greek itself simply says, “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” as most translations read.
In the final analysis, I don’t find the matter that clearly spelled out to want to be very specific on it. I do find it difficult to see why the scene of the whole drama of creation and of humanity’s fall, the scene of the lives of faith and courage lived by men and women over centuries, and above all the scene of the surpassing act of love represented by Christ’s life and death—which scene is this earthly planet—should be removed from existence. But that, too, is ultimately my own human reasoning.
It would seem that the really crucial thing after all is that we have the prospect of everlasting life. The “where” of it would seem to be of minor importance when compared to that hope of having death overcome for us personally. Similarly, as regards our enjoying reunion with loved ones through God’s power of resurrection. The reunion itself is certainly more important than its location. It would seem that recognizing that can allow us a measure of calmness in reading the Scriptures and letting them mold our thinking—whatever the conclusions they lead to or however long it takes to reach such conclusions. As Phillips translation renders Philippians 4:4-7:
Delight yourselves in the Lord, yes, find your joy in him at all times. Have a reputation for being reasonable, and never forget the nearness of your Lord. Don’t worry over anything whatever; whenever you pray tell God every detail of your needs in thankful prayer, and the peace of God, which surpasses human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and mind as they rest in Christ Jesus.
My counsel, then, to anyone bringing up the question of earthly life and a “two-class” system of Christians is simply that they read the Christian Scriptures with an open mind, trying not to let presuppositions influence their understanding—something often easier said than done—and then let what they read govern their understanding. I have no interest in arguing them out of one view into another view.
As for the other side of the matter, the many expressions in the apostolic writings of a Christian hope of being with Christ Jesus, having a resurrection like his, sitting with him on his throne in his Father’s presence, would seem to give sound reason for belief in a future heavenly existence—unless, of course, one believes, as some religions do, that Christ is going to return to earthly life. As John 14:1-4 quotes Jesus’ words to his disciples: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” If he were going to be on earth and his disciples also there would be no need for him to go elsewhere to prepare a place for them. (Also John 16:5; 17:5, 11, 24; 1 Corinthians 15:42-54; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Philippians 1:21-23; Colossians 3:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 3:21) The arguments advanced regarding earthly life either require understanding these expressions in a quite different way than what they appear to say, or else require two hopes for Christians, instead of the “one hope” that Paul speaks of.—Ephesians 4:4.
As for the 144,000 of Revelation 7, I personally see no reason to view it in any way other than symbolic as is true of so many things within Revelation. There is great inconsistency in the Watch Tower’s interpretation. They say that the “Israel” as referred to (verse 4) is symbolic, that the twelve “tribes” are symbolic, that the “12,000” from each of the tribes is symbolic. Yet after recognizing all these symbolic elements, when reaching the number 144,000 they say it is literal! This is illogical.
Some suggest that John’s first vision (of the 12 tribes of 12,000 each) is symbolic of what is sometimes called “the church militant,” that is the Christian congregation on earth, viewed as an ideal “Israel,” the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16 [written primarily to Gentile Christians]; compare Romans 2:28, 29; 9:6-8; Galatians 3:28, 29), while the subsequent vision (of the great crowd out of all nations standing before God’s throne) represents “the church triumphant,” the Christian body members having completed their earthly course and having endured the tribulation it brought, and having now received their heavenly reward. Without being dogmatical, this is at least one way of understanding the visions that seems to harmonize with the rest of the Scriptural teachings.
I don’t know of any specific works that attempt to assign a number to the Christians in existence during the first three centuries of the Common Era. Fox’s Book of Martyrs is sometimes referred to. How accurate it is I don’t know. But the fact that not long after Pentecost there were more than 5,000 male disciples in Jerusalem gives some indication. (Acts 4:4) In his allegory of the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem, Paul quotes the text that “the children of the [initially] desolate woman [the Jerusalem above] are more numerous than the children of the one who is married [earthly Jerusalem].” Christians as God’s sons and heirs are children of that free woman and hence must be more numerous than those of the slave woman, that is of fleshly Israel. (Galatians 4:21-31) The number of Israelites ran into the millions. The number of Christian children of the heavenly Jerusalem must exceed that for the apostle’s statement to be true.
Once again, the important thing is your own reading of the Scriptures. As you read them they will guide your thinking. Faced with the various Biblical interpretations one can find, sometimes differing widely one with another, it seems the greatest safeguard rests in seeking always to keep the whole picture, the overall message, in view, not isolating one part from the other. The reason for such a wide variety of interpretation of various points undoubtedly has a relation to the tendency to focus on one part of Scripture rather than looking at it as a whole. A friend recently sent me some information that included a quotation from B. F. Westcott, who shared in the development of the well-known Westcott and Hort text or recension of Scripture. In his book The Bible and the Church, he makes this comment:
No temptation is more subtle or more potent than that which bids us judge everything by one standard. Practically we are inclined to measure others by ourselves, other ages by our own, other forms of civilization by that under which we live, as the true and final measure of all. Against this error, which is sufficient almost to cloud the whole world, the Bible contains the surest safeguard. In that we see side by side how God finds a dwelling-place among nations and families in every stage of social advancement, and recognizes faithful worshippers even where they are hidden from the eyes of prophets. The absorbing cares of daily life, the imperious claims of those immediately around us, tend to narrow our sympathies, but the Bible shows to us, in an abiding record, every condition and every power of man blessed by the Divine Spirit. It lifts us out of the circle of daily influences and introduces us to prophets and kings and deep thinkers and preachers of righteousness, each working in their own spheres variously and yet by one power and for one end. It may be objected that devout students of the bible have often proved to be the sternest fanatics. But the answer is easy. They were fanatics because they were student not of the whole Bible but of some one fragment of it to which all else is sacrificed. The teaching of one part only, if taken without any regard to its relative position in connexion with other times and other books, may lead to narrowness of thought, but the whole recognizes and ennobles every excellence of man.
I think there is much sound thought expressed there. Someone has said that sects develop primarily through emphasis on points that are not major, not clearly stated, and their theorizing on those minor, even peripheral, points, and arguing for the theory, produces a distinctive movement.
Reading the Scriptures from that standpoint, focusing on the message, enables us to genuinely feel that we have come to know the source of that message. The New World Translation of John 17:3, with its rendering “taking in knowledge of you,” perverts the real sense of the statement, making it seem as if a basically mental acquisition of information is what is involved. The word “know” in the Scriptures very often has a deeper meaning, as in this case. (Compare John 1:10; 8:19; 10:14, 15.) We cannot have genuine faith if our reading of the Scriptures is made from the standpoint of simply understanding certain doctrines. The main purpose should be to come to know God, and to know his Son. I cannot believe that any sincere-hearted person who does indeed come to know them, seeing them in their true light and from an intimate standpoint, cannot be drawn to them and find in them that on which life may safely and confidently be centered.—Matthew 11:25-30; 2 Timothy 1:12.
As Witnesses, much of our faith was a borrowed faith, believing what we believed because we were told we should believe it. And while there is doubtless a measure of a sense of personal relationship with God and Christ among Witnesses in general, for most it is definitely a muted sense, often feeble. Faith, genuine faith cannot be loaned or transferred or transfused—though with our human proclivity toward laziness we might wish it could. We can be helped, of course, for, as the apostle says, “faith comes through what is heard,” but ultimately it must be born in and grow in the heart of each individual. (Romans 10:17) Each of us must develop faith through personal conviction and acceptance, no one else can do it for us. When that is the case, and the faith is truly our own, we will enjoy a true and full sense of personal relationship with God and his Son. And when that is attained, for the first time may come a realization of just how much one was previously deprived.
[Reproduced with the writer’s permission.]