Debating Jehovah's Witnesses Unique Resurrection Doctrine

Can the faithful really live forever in paradise on earth?

circa 1960: Jehovah's Witnesses being baptised by complete immersion.
circa 1960: Jehovah's Witnesses being baptised by complete immersion.

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Millions of Christians look forward to an afterlife where they will be rewarded with a heavenly resurrection while the spirits of the wicked are punished in Hell. Jehovah's Witnesses, in contrast, don't believe in an immortal soul and most look forward to an earthly resurrection where their bodies will be restored to perfect health. Nearly everyone will be resurrected and given a second chance to prove their loyalty to God, which makes Jehovah seem kinder than the God of many Christians.

How did Jehovah's Witnesses come up with such a different interpretation of the Bible? How can atheists debating Jehovah's Witnesses address their claims?

Hell Is Not a Place of Eternal Torment

Individual entries found in the Society's Insight on The Scriptures encyclopedias focus on three words in the original texts often translated as "Hell" in most Bibles. The Watchtower Society's Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, doesn't even translate these words into English. Here's how the Society says they should be interpreted:

  1.  She'ol': literally a "grave" or "pit"
  2. Hai'des': literally "the common grave of all humankind"
  3. Gehenna: A real place, also called the Valley of Hinnom

The Society says that She'ol' and hai'des represent literal death, where the body ceases to function and the person is unconscious. That means the dead know nothing until they are resurrected and do not suffer in any way. Then there's Gehenna, which stands for everlasting destruction. Anyone sent to a figurative Gehenna will not be resurrected. That includes billions of non-Witnesses who will be killed at Armageddon and anyone who disobeys God, Jesus, or the anointed after the Resurrection takes place.

Is this interpretation supported by outside authorities? Some do, while others do not. You could compare the Society's view to one offered by Candy Brauer if you're caught in a debate. But don't expect most Witnesses to take her word over the Society's. You'll have to focus on other issues if you want to make an impression.

Is the Society’s Resurrection Doctrine Logical?

The doctrine runs into serious problems if we consider the number of people that have ever lived. There is nothing from the Society recently that gives an actual number for this, but their older publications have. There was an April edition of the Watchtower back in 1982 that suggested estimates ranged from 14 to 20 billion. 

The planet would be overpopulated if even half that number were resurrected, but there are a couple responses which Jehovah's Witnesses can offer:

  1. Jehovah could make the planet big enough to hold one-hundred-billion people or more.
  2. Jehovah could make us smaller so everyone would fit.
  3. Jehovah could transplant us into numerous worlds.

Anything could be possible if Jehovah is omnipotent, but doesn't all of this make the doctrine sound a little contrived? Why didn't Jehovah take the Resurrection into account when he made the Earth in the first place? Surely an all-knowing God would have planned for such an eventuality if he existed and if the doctrine were true. When we consider the complexities that need to be solved, one has to admit that a heavenly (non-physical, non-material) resurrection seems like a simpler solution.

It's true that the Watchtower Society does not believe in an immortal soul, yet humans can still go to heaven. Most of the anointed "slave class" of Witnesses (also called the 144,000) are already there ruling as kings at Jesus's side. (Once God takes their consciousness and transplants it into some sort of "spirit body" in Heaven) One wonders why Jesus won't call all of us to Heaven instead of leaving everyone here on a crowded Earth. Isn't there enough room in Heaven? Surely God can come up with a better way.

The Watchtower Society's Resurrection scenario gets messy if you start asking too many questions. One can debate the biblical interpretations, but reason alone makes the doctrine sound a little far fetched. Like so many other religious beliefs, you either reject it as unreasonable or you trust that an all-powerful deity can somehow work it all out in the end.

Implications of the Society’s Resurrection Doctrine

Many atheists feel that God, as described in the Bible, is too cruel to deserve our worship even if he does exist. We wonder how anyone could justify an eternity of torment for just a lifetime of sin. Jehovah's Witnesses have also asked this question and their answer is to reduce God's punishment of the wicked from eternal hellfire to just killing them outright. Once he decides you aren't willing to obey him absolutely, he just kills you again and that's how you stay. Problem solved.

Does this make God seem kinder or more loving? Jehovah's Witnesses claim that God must kill those who won't abide by his rules because they'll only make life difficult for the faithful in paradise, but isn't that a double standard? If Witnesses are willing to believe that God can work out all the problems mentioned in the previous section, surely they believe that God is powerful enough to rehabilitate the wicked too? Why not move them to another world where he could handle them separately from the rest? If an all-powerful God truly exists, then he could do this effortlessly. Theirs won't even try.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' God may not be as cruel as the one envisioned by some Christians, but he likes to play favorites. His best children go to Heaven, his good children live forever as perfect human beings in paradise (so long as they obey him), and his most difficult children are simply cast aside so he doesn't have to bother with them anymore. Is this really an improvement?

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Your Citation
Harris, Isaac J. "Debating Jehovah's Witnesses Unique Resurrection Doctrine." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Harris, Isaac J. (2020, August 27). Debating Jehovah's Witnesses Unique Resurrection Doctrine. Retrieved from Harris, Isaac J. "Debating Jehovah's Witnesses Unique Resurrection Doctrine." Learn Religions. (accessed August 6, 2021).