The 144,000
October 17, 2004

I used to know a guy named Ed who was a Calvinist. That alone was remarkable to me—I didn't think Calvinists existed anymore, but Ed sure did. As I understand it, Calvinists are pretty strict in their beliefs about sin and morality and right behavior, so much so that one of the tenets of their faith is that when Judgment comes, only the Elect will be admitted to Heaven. They've even come up with a calculation, derived from numbers they say are encoded in the Bible, to estimate how many human souls out of all the billions who have ever existed are going to make the cut: 144,000. 

So I asked Ed if he really believed that only 144,000 souls were going to be saved come the End of Times. He nodded—one of the fast, tight-necked nods that scared people make. His eyes showed a lot of white, too, like a horse seeing a stick on the ground and thinking it's a snake. I asked him if he thought the rest of us were going to be pitched into the lake of fire. Again, that tight, white-eyed nod. 

Ed was an engineer so he had a pretty good grasp of math. I can't clearly remember if I actually was impertinent enough to ask him if he thought he'd be one of the Elect—I was pretty young and tended towards impertinence, so it's possible. Looking back, I don't think I really needed to ask that question. Ed's fear was palpable, a daily ritual. Ed knew in his heart of hearts that he wasn't "good enough" by Calvinist lights.  

He was the most terrified person I ever knew, if you looked beneath the surface of things. Tightly controlled, afraid of shadows, hyper-cautious about everything, every deed and morsel, extremely safety-minded and risk-averse. He always seemed a bit squirrely, ready to jump at loud noises. Not hard to imagine why. If Ed truly believed in the Calvinist creed, then the thought of death had to fill him with terror. His faith, as he interpreted it, was a torture to him because it convinced him that all that awaited when he died was the lake of fire.  

I can't really see the point in a belief system like that, but everyone is different.  I respect that. Perhaps Ed needed the fear. Or perhaps he'd been so indoctrinated at such a young age that he couldn't escape the prison of his thought patterns. 

I've thought about Ed now and again over the years. When younger, it was with shake-my-head amazement and a bit of derision. These days, it's with pity. Faith—it seems to me—needs to be a living thing, not a dying thing, though God knows many a creed has arisen that glorifies punishment. Glorifying punishment, instilling an unnatural fear of living, seems a perversion of Spirit. But what do I know? I am clearly not one of Ed's 144,000. 

Ever since the final word count on the first draft of my latest novel hit 144,000, Ed's been on my mind and I've been picturing his tight-lipped face. No, no, I'm not going to reduce and cheapen Ed's terror to a discussion of my novel. It's just on my mind a lot this morning, this afternoon, thinking about the boxes we shut ourselves inside, the lakes of fire we sometimes create out of our own lives.  

Life is about living. For all I know, this is all we've got. Spirit calls to me and I listen, but nobody really knows a thing. Not the Pope, not Billy Graham, George Bush, the Dalai Lama, the imams and ayatollahs, not Ed. Not me, not anybody. There is no received wisdom that wasn't first filtered through the skull of some poor mortal, where the lines of communication are prone to misinterpretation, self-interest, cultural biases, rationalization. We're all just living inside our own brains, making leaps of faith.  

I think it's important to believe in something, to make some kind of leap of faith sometime in our lives, but when I look back at Ed and folks like him, I realized they aren't making leaps of faith about anything. It seems to me that life is the true test of faith. If what you believe is not enriching your life, if it is not about living but about death and revenge and self-righteousness and judgment, then it is most likely a false faith. Spirit does not want us to "kick ass" on anybody else. Spirit wants us to concentrate on our own hearts, on making our relationship to our own souls as clear and as loving as we possibly can. Anything else is a perversion. 

No lake of fire could be worse.

Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson