– John Lennon, ‘Imagine’
No thank you, John. I don’t think I will.
You see, John, I’ve lived long enough to know that, although we human beings can have a good try at making the world a better place, our track record is, well, not all that great. People of good will have been trying to bring peace, love, and understanding to the world for centuries, but despite all their best efforts, the twentieth century was the most violent century in human history, and the twenty-first doesn’t seem like it’s going to lag behind, either. The inhumanity of people toward people seems to grow apace. A huge chunk of the world’s population lives in grinding poverty, and for many of them, all our efforts to make the world a better place aren’t going to come in time, because, well, they’re going to die of starvation tomorrow. Or tonight, even. And thousands of them will be little children.
You think it will make those children and their parents feel better to imagine that this life is all there is, John? Born in poverty, lived in starvation, died of an empty stomach. This is all the heaven you’re going to get, living for today. You think that’s good news, John? I mean, I know we can have a discussion about whether or not life after death is just wishful thinking, but thats not what you’re asking me to do, John. You’re asking me to imagine there’s no heaven, and then enjoy the thought. And when I look around me at all the suffering in the world, the only thing I can say in response, John, is “Are you out of your *%^*#@!! mind?”
Two years ago one of my best friends died of cancer at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind a young family. As a pastor, I know many people who deal with the scourge of cancer at a young age, and some of them die of it. I can tell you, John, from personal experience, that imagining there’s no heaven is not usually a great comfort to them. When a young family loses a father or a mother – when a husband loses a wife whose love he had hoped to enjoy for another thirty years – do you seriously think that imagining that they’ll never, ever see them again is something they’ll enjoy doing? All I can say, John, is that if you do, you need to get out a bit more and acquaint yourself with some real human suffering.
Come to think of it, you did, didn’t you? I wonder if it changed your mind?
Oh, and by the way, no intelligent religious person thinks that heaven is above us ‘in the sky’, and that hell is under the earth below us. People have known for a long time that this was metaphorical speech. Do you really think that old Dante thought that the devil was stuck head first in the ice at the centre of the earth, upside down, with his hairy shanks protruding? Come on, John – if you’re going to pick a quarrel with us, you could at least pay us the compliment of assuming that we can tell the difference between a metaphor and its meaning!
Let me tell you what ‘imagining there’s no heaven’ does for me, John. I think of a universe with no God, no objective standard of right and wrong, no morality and ethics except what the majority of human beings can agree on. I think of a universe where life happened by accident, where human beings are just highly developed animals, and where all the work we do to build loving marriages and lasting friendships comes to nothing in the end, because it’s all lost at the moment of death. I think of a world where the vast majority of human beings have been delusional, because they have believed that there’s more to it than that. I think of a world where the only sentiment that makes objective sense is ‘Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’re going to die, and we won’t know a thing about it’. A world where one might admire unselfish people, but one can’t think of a single logical reason to be one of them, because this world is the only chance they’ve got for happiness, pleasure, and joy, and they’re giving it all up for others.
Well, John, every honest person of religious faith knows that there are no absolutely watertight arguments for the existence of God, of moral absolutes, or of life after death. I believe in all of those things, but my belief isn’t founded entirely on logic, and who knows? One day I might wake up to find out you were right after all (although how a dead person would find that out, if your view of the world is true, is perhaps a bit problematical – after all, after we die, we don’t know anything, because we’re gone, gone, gone!). But please don’t ask me to enjoy that thought, John! That makes no sense to me at all. I want to see my Dad again some day – and my grandparents – and dear friends like Joe and Ken who have gone before me. If I’m going to get joy out of ‘imagining’ anything, I’d much rather imagine what it will be like to see them again, and to enjoy their company in the presence of God forever. Now that’s something worth imagining!
(to be continued…)