Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try.
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
Living for today ...
There is something very appealing to me about John Lennon's invitation to imagine. Of course, many religious folks will dismiss this song, as idealistic and simply as wrong, because it offends the certainty of heaven, hell, and religion itself. But, if zealous religious folk could put down their cross-stamped swords long enough, they might be able to hear this invitation as a way of deepening faith, not simply as a challenge to faith.
Take heaven, for example. John invites us to imagine there's no heave, only the sky above us. And, in fact, that is how much of the Bible speaks of heaven as well. Seriously, check it out for yourself. Go to http://bible.oremus.org/ (an excellent online Bible resource). Scroll down to where you can search for a word or phrase, and type in 'heaven'. Then, sit back, because this is going to take a while. You will see that the first five zillion references in the Scriptures use the word 'heaven' in a way that essentially means 'the sky.' In almost every early instance of the word, 'heaven' is the 'up there' that is noticeably different from the earth 'down here.' In other words, when many of the biblical writers spoke of 'heaven' they were referring to exactly what John Lennon means when he says, "Above us only sky."
In time, of course, 'heaven' took on other connotations. It became known as the dwelling place of God and other celestial beings. In the first creation story (Genesis 1), heaven is not where God dwells, because 'the heavens and the earth' are the first products of God's creation. But, in time, the heavens became known as the dwelling place of the divine, while earth was the dwelling place of mortals. Even later, heaven became known as the future dwelling place of mortals, probably because in too many lives justice, rewards, or punishments are not fully served prior to death. Later writings in the Hebrew Bible show the beginnings of this development, which is fully-blown by Jesus' time. (However, even then, one group of Jews called the Sadducees were not ready to buy into this new-fangled belief in heaven.)
My point is that John Lennon's imagination of no heaven (as the afterlife existence of humans) is not particularly new. And I think it is promising for to us to join John in imagining no heaven - at least in one way. It is an oversimplification to say that 'religion' in itself or the concept of 'heaven' in itself is the cause of all people not living in harmony. But, believing in heaven could be a cause of all kinds of problems. It depends on 'how' we believe in heaven. Here are two options:
1.One can conceive of heaven as a beacon of hope. Sometimes service, laying down one's life for a cause, or opening oneself to the vulnerability of loving others can be very rewarding in this life. But, too often it is not. Innocent persons suffer and die, caregivers often never receive the care they need, and some means of service are just plain thankless. In that respect, heaven is a promise that the good life, the servant life, the meaningful life - though not necessarily rewarded in our life span - is worth it and is valuable in God's eyes.
2. Or, one can conceive of heaven as representing what is truly valuable and "this old world" as just a temporary testing place. This view of heaven can lead us to ignore, even despoil this life in lieu of 'the next life.' That kind of concept of heaven, it seems to me, is exactly what John Lennon is questioning in his song - and deservedly so.
The Scriptures, it seems to me, see our commitment to this world and our hope for heaven as inherently connected; never separable. When we forfeit this world as a means of attaining the next, we actually imperil both. That's one lesson that John Lennon's imagination helps us to appreciate.