When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses goes out knocking on doors, he brings a message of hope: the hope of eternal life on earth. In our theology, there are only 144,000 spots in heaven, and they are all but taken. Therefore, the chance that someone we might preach to will get baptized and then be chosen by God to occupy one of the remaining heavenly vacancies is about as likely as winning the lottery. For this reason, all our efforts are directed toward making known the hope for life in an earthly paradise.

It is our belief – indeed, the official teaching of our Organization – that should someone who rejects our message die, he will return in the resurrection of the unrighteous. (Acts 24:15) In this way, we show that Jehovah is fair and just, for who knows but that the individual might have taken a stand for righteousness had he only lived a little longer.

However, this all changes when Armageddon arrives.  We believe that sheep-like ones accept the hope and join our organization.  The goats are outside and they die at Armageddon, going into everlasting cutting off.  (Mt 25:31-46)

Of all our beliefs, this one bothers us the most.  We hold Jehovah to be fair, just, and loving.  He would never condemn someone to the second death without first giving him fair warning; a chance to change his course.  Yet, we are charged with giving the nations that chance through our preaching and we simply can’t do it.  We have been saddled with an impossible task; denied the tools to fully accomplish our ministry.  Are we to be held accountable for failing to reach everyone adequately?  Or is a greater work ahead?  To alleviate our troubled conscience, many hope for some such miraculous change to our preaching work near the end.

This is a real conundrum, you see?  Either Jehovah doesn’t treat everyone equally, or we are wrong about the hope we preach.  If we are preaching a hope to survive Armageddon and live in a paradise earth, then those who do not accept the hope cannot get the reward.  They must die.  Otherwise, our preaching is redundant – a bad joke.

Or perhaps…just perhaps…our whole premise is wrong.

The Premise

Undoubtedly, Armageddon is a necessary mechanism for cleansing the earth of wickedness.  One could hardly expect to achieve a new world of righteousness, peace, and security without first removing all elements that would undermine it.  In our current wicked system of things, millions of lives are aborted yearly. Millions more die annually in infancy due to disease and widespread malnutrition. Then there are the millions who reach adulthood only to live in squalor all their lives, eking out an existence so meager most of us in the West would rather die than have to face it.

In the developed world, we are like the Romans of Jesus’ day, comfortable in our wealth, secure in our overwhelming military might, taking for granted the privileged life we lead. Yet we too have our poor, our suffering masses. We are not free of disease, pain, violence, insecurity and depression. Even if we are among the privileged few who escape all these maladies, we still grow old, decrepit and eventually die. So if our already short lives are shortened even further by God’s Great War, what of it? One way or the other, everybody dies. All is vanity. (Ps 90:10; Ec 2:17)

However, the hope of the resurrection changes all that. With the resurrection, life does not end. It is merely interrupted – like a night’s sleep interrupts your daily routine. Do you notice the hours you spend asleep? Do you even regret them? Of course not.

Think back to Sodom and Lot’s sons-in-law. They were destroyed along with the rest of the city’s inhabitants when fire rained down from heaven. Yes, they died…many centuries ago.  Yet from their point of view, their life will be one unbroken string of consciousness.  Subjectively, the gap will be nonexistent. There is no injustice in this. No one can point a finger at God and cry, “Foul!”

So why, you might ask, would the JW belief in Armageddon cause us any disquiet? Why can’t Jehovah simply resurrect those killed at Armageddon like he’s going to do with the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah? (Mt 11:23, 24; Lu 17:28, 29)

The Conundrum

If Jehovah resurrects people that he kills at Armageddon, he invalidates our preaching work.  We preach an earthly hope.

Here, in a nutshell, is our official position:

We have been pulled from the dangerous “waters” of this wicked world into the “lifeboat” of Jehovah’s earthly organization. Within it, we serve side by side as we head for the “shores” of a righteous new world. (w97 1/15 p. 22 par. 24 What Does God Require of Us?)

Just as Noah and his God-fearing family were preserved in the ark, survival of individuals today depends on their faith and their loyal association with the earthly part of Jehovah’s universal organization. (w06 5/15 p. 22 par. 8 Are You Prepared for Survival?)

Resurrecting those killed at Armageddon means giving them the same reward as that granted to those in the ark-like organization of Armageddon survivors.  It cannot be, so we teach that it isn’t so and preach a message that requires conversion for salvation.

So why the difference between Armageddon and Sodom and Gomorrah? Simply put, those in Sodom and Gomorrah did not get preached to, and therefore were not given an opportunity to change. That does not satisfy God’s justice and impartiality.  (Acts 10:34) That is no longer the case, we argue. We are fulfilling Matthew 24:14.

Until then, the anointed will take the lead in something that is well-documented by our annual service report—the greatest preaching and teaching work in human history. (w11 8/15 p. 22 Questions From Readers [boldface added])

If you wonder at the apparent effrontery of such a grandiose claim given that the preaching work started by Jesus has resulted in over two billion people claiming to be Christian compared with the paltry eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses, please understand that we don’t count those billions. We believe that true Christianity died out in the second century to be replaced by apostate Christianity. Since there are only 144,000 anointed Christians in all, and since the gathering of the other sheep with an earthly hope only began in the 20th century, the eight million that have joined our ranks in the past hundred years are the true Christians gathered in from all that nations.  This in our view is an outstanding accomplishment.

Be this as it may, let us not get sidetracked into a debate about whether this is an accurate interpretation of events or merely an indication of communal hubris. The matter at hand is that this belief has forced us to the conclusion that all who die at Armageddon can have no resurrection hope. Exactly why is that? It can best be explained by slightly modifying an illustration I heard once at a public talk in the Kingdom Hall:

Let’s say there is a volcanic island which is about to explode. Like Krakatoa, this island will be obliterated and all life on it, destroyed. Scientists from an advanced country go to the island to warn the primitive natives about the impending disaster. The locals have no idea of the destruction about to befall them. The mountain is rumbling, but this has happened before. They are not worried.  They comfortable with their lifestyle and do not want to leave. Besides, they don’t really know these strangers talking crackpot ideas of doom and gloom. They have their own government and are not enamored by the idea of having to conform to a new way of life under different rules in their soon-to-be new country.  Thus, only a small number respond to the warning and take the offered escape. Shortly after the last plane leaves, the island explodes killing all those who stayed behind. They were given a hope, a chance for survival. They chose not to take it. Therefore, the fault is theirs.

This is the reasoning behind the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding Armageddon. We are told that we are in a life-saving work. In fact, if we do not engage in it, we ourselves will become blood-guilty and will die at Armageddon. This idea is reinforced by likening our time to that of Ezekiel.

“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman to the house of Israel; and when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them from me. 18 When I say to someone wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him, and you fail to speak in order to warn the wicked one to turn from his wicked course so that he may stay alive, he will die for his error because he is wicked, but I will ask his blood back from you. 19 But if you warn someone wicked and he does not turn back from his wickedness and from his wicked course, he will die for his error, but you will certainly save your own life.” (Eze 3:17-19)

A critically minded observer—one familiar with the full body of our doctrines—will note that everyone back then who died for not listening to Ezekiel’s warning will still be resurrected.[i]  (Acts 24:15) So the comparison with our pre-Armageddon work doesn’t quite fit. Nevertheless, this fact escapes the notice of virtually all my JW brethren. Thus, we go door to door motivated by love for our fellow man, hoping to save some from the exploding volcano which is the impending war of Armageddon.

Yet, in the dark recesses of our mind we realize that the comparison just made with the natives living on the volcanic island doesn’t quite fit either.  All those natives were forewarned.  This is simply not the case with our preaching work.  There are millions in Muslim lands who have never been preached to. There are millions more living in slavery of one form or another.  Even in lands where there is relative freedom, there are multitudes of abused individuals whose upbringing has been so deplorable as to render them emotionally dysfunctional. Others have been so betrayed and abused by their own religious leaders that there is little hope of them ever trusting another. Given all this, how can we have the effrontery to suggest that our brief door-to-door visits and literature cart displays constitute a fair and appropriate life-saving opportunity for the peoples of earth. Truly, what hubris!

We try to reason our way out of this contradiction by speaking of community responsibility, but our innate sense of justice just won’t have it. We are, even in our sinful state, made in God’s image. A sense of fairness is part of our DNA; it is built into our God-given conscience, and even the youngest of children recognize when something “just isn’t fair”.

In fact, our teaching as Jehovah’s Witnesses is not only inconsistent with our knowledge of the character (name) of God, but also with evidence revealed in the Bible. One outstanding example is that of Saul of Tarsus. As a Pharisee, he was well aware of Jesus’ ministry and his miraculous works. He was also highly educated and well informed. Yet, it took a miraculous apparition of blinding light along with a loving rebuke by our Lord Jesus to correct his wayward course. Why would Jesus make such an effort to save him, but pass over some poor pre-adolescent girl in India sold into slavery by her parents for the bride-price they could obtain? Why would he save Saul the persecutor, but bypass some poor street urchin in Brazil who spends his life scrounging for food and hiding from neighborhood thugs? The Bible even acknowledges that one’s station in life can impede one’s relationship with God.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches. Just let me consume my portion of food,  9 So that I do not become satisfied and deny you and say, “Who is Jehovah?” Nor let me become poor and steal and dishonor the name of my God.” (Pr 30:8, 9)

In Jehovah’s eyes, are some humans simply not worth the effort? Perish the thought! Yet that is the conclusion to which our JW doctrine leads us.

I Still Don`t Get It!

Perhaps you still don’t get it. Perhaps you still can’t see why Jehovah can’t spare some at Armageddon, or failing that, resurrect everyone in his own good time and way during the 1000 years of Christ’s future reign.

To understand why this won’t work based on our teaching of a dual-hope salvation, consider that those who survive Armageddon – those in the Ark-like organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses – do not get eternal life.  What they get is a chance at it.  They survive but must continue in their sinful state working toward perfection over the course of the thousand years.  If they fail to do that, they will still die.

Our belief is that faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses who have died prior to Armageddon will be resurrected as part of the resurrection of the righteous. These ones are declared righteous as God’s friends, but that is all the declaration amounts to.  They continue in their sinful state progressing toward perfection at the end of the thousand years together with the Armageddon survivors.

Those chosen by God for heavenly life must, even now, be declared righteous; perfect human life is imputed to them. (Romans 8:1) This is not necessary now for those who may live forever on earth. But such ones can now be declared righteous as friends of God, as was faithful Abraham. (James 2:21-23; Romans 4:1-4) After such ones achieve actual human perfection at the end of the Millennium and then pass the final test, they will be in position to be declared righteous for everlasting human life. (From w85 12/15 p. 30)

Those who return in the resurrection of the unrighteous will also come back as sinful humans, and they too will have to work toward perfection at the end of the thousand years.

Think of it! Under Jesus’ loving attention, the entire human family—Armageddon survivors, their offspring, and the thousands of millions of resurrected dead who obey him—will grow toward human perfection. (w91 6/1 p. 8 [Boldface added])

Does this not seem silly? What real difference is there between those who accepted the hope and made huge sacrifices in their lives and those who ignored God?

“And YOU people will again certainly see [the distinction] between a righteous one and a wicked one, between one serving God and one who has not served him.”” (Mal 3:18)

indeed, where is the distinction?

This is bad enough, but somehow we have come to accept this as part of our theology; likely because as human beings we really don’t want anybody to die – especially dead “unbelieving” parents and siblings. But it would be too much to apply the same logic to those were destroyed at Armageddon.  It would be as if the inhabitants of that condemned island who chose not to get on the planes and fly away to safety were somehow miraculously teleported to the new country anyway; escaping despite their refusal to accept the hope extended. If that were the case, why even bother going to the island in the first place? Why trouble yourself with the time, expense and burden of trying to convince a resistant population if their salvation never depended on your efforts at all?

We are faced with an irresolvable paradox. Either Jehovah is unfair in condemning people to death without ever giving them a real opportunity for survival, or our preaching work is an exercise in futility.

We have even made tacit acknowledgement of this incongruity in our publications.

The “unrighteous” will need more help than the “righteous.” During their lifetime they did not hear of God’s provision, or else they did not heed when the good news came to their attention. Circumstances and environment had much to do with their attitudes. Some did not even know that there is a Christ. Others were so hindered by worldly pressures and cares that the “seed” of the good news did not take permanent root in their hearts. (Matt. 13:18-22) The present system of things under the invisible influence of Satan the Devil has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, that the illumination of the glorious good news about the Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine through.” (2 Cor. 4:4) It is not a ‘second chance’ for those resurrected ones. It is their first real opportunity to get eternal life on earth through faith in Jesus Christ. (w74 5/1 p. 279 A Judgment That Balances Justice with Mercy)

If the resurrection of the unrighteous is not a second chance, but the first real opportunity for those who die prior to Armageddon, how could it be any different for those poor souls who happen to have the misfortune to be alive at Armageddon? These will not be possessed of some supernatural wisdom and insight that their dead forbearers lacked, will they?

Yet our belief in an earthly hope requires this.  Resurrecting those who die at Armageddon would turn the JW preaching of an earthly hope into a cruel joke. We tell people that they have to make great sacrifices for the hope of escaping death at Armageddon and living in the new world. They must give up family and friends, forgo a career, spend thousands of hours in the preaching work over a lifetime and endure the disdain and mockery of the world. But it is all worthwhile, for they get to live while the rest die. So Jehovah can’t resurrect the unrighteous he kills at Armageddon.  He can’t give them the very same reward of living in the New World.  Were that the case, then what are we making sacrifices for?

This is the same argument, albeit in reverse, that Paul made to the Ephesians:

“Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized for the purpose of being dead ones? If the dead are not to be raised up at all, why are they also being baptized for the purpose of being such? 30 Why are we also in danger every hour? 31 Daily I face death. This is as sure as my exultation over you, brothers, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If like other men, I have fought with wild beasts at Ephʹe·sus, of what good is it to me? If the dead are not to be raised up, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die.”” (1Co 15:29-32)

His point is valid. If there is no resurrection, then what were first century Christians fighting for?

“For if the dead are not to be raised up…we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1Co 15:15-19)

How ironic that we should now be able to completely reverse Paul’s reasoning. Our doctrine of a final call in the last days for people to be saved from Armageddon by those with a newly revealed earthly hope requires that there be no resurrection of those who die at Armageddon. If there is, then we who give up so much in the belief that we alone will survive into the New World “are of all men most to be pitied”.

Whenever we are faced with such a contradiction arising from two mutually exclusive premises, it is time to humble ourselves and acknowledge that we got something wrong. It’s time to go back to square one.

Starting at Square One

When Jesus began his preaching work, he extended one hope for all those who would become his disciples. It was the hope of ruling with him in his Kingdom. He was looking to form a kingdom of priests who would, together with him, restore all humankind to the blessed state that Adam had prior to his rebellion. From 33 CE onward, the message that Christians preached consisted of that hope.

Watchtower disagrees with this point of view.

Jesus Christ, though, is leading meek ones into a peaceful new world, where obedient mankind will be united in the worship of Jehovah God and will press forward toward perfection. (w02 3/15 p. 7)

Nevertheless, this arbitrary statement finds no support whatsoever in Scripture.

With the hope that Jesus actually taught, there were but two outcomes: Accept the hope and win the heavenly reward, or reject the hope and miss out. If you missed out, you could not be declared righteous in this system of things and so could not be freed from sin and could not inherit the kingdom. You would continue as unrighteous and the unrighteous are resurrected as such. They will then have the opportunity to get right with God by accepting the help provided by Christ’s “Kingdom of Priests”.

For 1900 years, this was the only hope extended. The apparent delay was due to the need to collect a particular number of such ones to fill the need. (2Pe 3:8, 9; Re 6:9-11) All was well until the mid-1930s when Judge Rutherford came up with an unscriptural idea based wholly on fabricated types and antitypes that there was another hope. This secondary hope was that by becoming a member of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a person could survive Armageddon to live in the New World, albeit still as an imperfect human, still needing redemption. In this way he differed not at all from the resurrected unrighteous other than that he got a “head start” on attaining perfection. By definition, this interpretation condemns the billions who will die at Armageddon to eternal destruction.

Resolving the Contradiction

The only way we can resolve this contradiction – the only way we can show that Jehovah is just and righteous – is to abandon our God-dishonoring doctrine of an earthly hope. It has no basis in Scripture in any case, so why do we cling to it so tenaciously? Billions will be resurrected in the New World – that is true. But this is not extended as a hope that they must accept or reject.

To illustrate this let’s return to our volcanic island, but this time we’ll make it fit the facts of history.

A loving, wise and wealthy ruler has foreseen the approaching destruction of the island. He has purchased an extensive piece of land on the continent so as to create a new country all his own. Its terrain is beautiful and varied. However, it is completely devoid of human life. He then appoints his son whom he trusts completely to go forth and save the people on the island. Knowing that most of the island’s inhabitants are incapable of understanding all the ramifications of their circumstances, the son decides that he will take them all by force to the new land. However, he cannot do so until he first sets up a supportive infrastructure; a governmental administration. Otherwise, there would be chaos and violence. He needs capable rulers, ministers, and healers. These he will take from the island’s own people since only those who have lived on that island fully understand its culture and the needs of its people. He journeys to the island and sets about gathering such ones. He has rigid standards which must be met, and only a few measure up. These, he selects, trains, and prepares. He tests them all for fitness. Then, before the volcano erupts, he takes all these ones to the new country, and sets them up.   Next, he forcibly brings all inhabitants of the island to the new country, but in a way that allows all to acclimatize to their new circumstances. They are helped and guided by his chosen ones. Some reject all assistance and continue in ways that endanger the peace and security of the populace. These ones are removed. But many, freed of all the encumbrances that hindered them in their former life on the island, gladly embrace their new and better life.

When Does Armageddon Come?

The Bible does not say that Armageddon will come once everyone on earth has had an opportunity to accept or reject the hope of living forever on earth. What it does say is this:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness they had given. 10 They shouted with a loud voice, saying: “Until when, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they had been.” (Re 6:9-11)

Jehovah will call an end to this old system of things when the full number of Jesus’ brothers is complete. Once his chosen ones have been removed from the scene, he will release the four winds.  (Mt 24:31; Re 7:1)  He may allow some to survive Armageddon.  Or he make start with a clean slate, and use the resurrection of the unrighteous to progressively repopulate the earth.  These are details about which we can only speculate.

It appears that some will not get a resurrection. There are those who go out of their way to make tribulation on Jesus’ brothers. There is an evil slave who abuses his brothers. There is a man of lawlessness who sits in God’s temple and plays the role of a rival God. Who these are and what their punishment turns out to be, we shall have to be patient to learn. Then there are others who had the hope of becoming Jesus’ brothers, only to fall short of the mark. These will be punished, though apparently not with the second death.  (2Th 2:3,4; Lu 12:41-48)

The simple fact is that only one hope has ever been extended to Christians. The choice isn’t between that hope and the second death. If we miss out on that hope, we have the eventuality of being resurrected in the New World. Then we will be offered an earthly hope. If we take it, we will live. If we reject it, we will die. (Re 20:5, 7-9)

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[i] The article “Who Will Be Resurrected?” in the May 1, 2005 The Watchtower (p. 13) revised the thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses with regard to the resurrection of individuals killed directly by Jehovah. Korah, who knowingly opposed Jehovah’s anointed ones and who was swallowed up by the earth as a consequence of his rebellion is now considered to be among those in the memorial tombs (Sheol) who will hear the master’s voice and come forth. (John 5:28)