John Lennon’s “Imagine” famously ruminates on a world where people are not fixated on heaven or an afterlife, where people do not commit atrocities in the name of religion, but instead focus on helping their fellow human beings. The first verse reads as follows:
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
And the other stanzas express a similar sentiment. Here’s the problem I have with Lennon’s philosophy, though: I would not want people living for today. I know all the proud, hurtful, greedy actions in my past. I know all the thoughts I have had. If I were to live for today, I would live for myself. Lennon continues:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
If it were up to me, there would be no “brotherhood.” I would be out for myself first, and the people closest to me second. Because the reality is this: as fallen beings, we do have greed. As humans bound to flesh, we do have hunger. And so long as we are fallen and physical, we will never be the altruistic, unified ideal of John Lennon. When people live for today, without any concern for tomorrow, without the guide of their conscience or the worry of future justice, the mindset produces ruthless exploiters. I think that if he had thought about the future and the possibility of being caught, Bernie Madoff would not have scammed people out of millions of dollars. The socialist dictators of Soviet Russia and China would not have exiled and executed hundreds of thousands of people.
But perhaps Lennon would argue, “What if they set aside their greed? If they set aside their hunger for power, then there would have been more peace.” Yes, say I, but that is wishful thinking. I think this song demonstrates that Lennon believed in the goodness of man and his ability to overcome negative impulses. I disagree. I believe that “[t]he heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9a), that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). I believe that “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:17-18), so our inclinations toward evil indicate that we are evil at our core.
“Wait,” Lennon might say. “I’ve done good in my life. That should prove that I am a healthy tree, good at the core.” This is a result of common grace. In his book, “The Truth About Grace,” John MacArthur discusses it:
Common grace is a term theologians use to describe the goodness of God to all mankind universally. Common grace retrains sin and the effects of sin on the human race. Common grace is what keeps humanity from descending into the morass of evil that we would see if the full expression of our fallen nature were allowed to have free reign. (6)
It is only due to God’s grace that we are able to do what we call “good things.” The apostle Paul wrote that “the work of the law is written on their hearts” in reference to Gentiles (Rom. 2:15a); God has given us a conscience to guide our actions. Still, the fact that God helps us do good does not conceal nor compensate for the fact that, as a result of the Fall, we are inherently evil and as such, we are inclined to do bad. This innate evil is why I think Lennon is mistaken to wish that everyone would ignore heaven and live only for today.
Thankfully, special grace is available to us–the grace God showed imperfect and flawed sinners by sending His perfect Son to die on the cross, suffering punishment for sin in our stead. Having believed that this is true, having trusted that God alone saved our souls by transferring our punishment to His Son, we turn our gaze to heaven. We are able to understand the importance of heaven. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says,
19“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus understood that we are governed by what we place value on. If our values pertain to earthly things, which have been corrupted and co-opted by sin, we will be driven by sin. Even if our treasures have good intent, such as being promoted in work, or earning more money for increased financial stability, they may be driven by sinful elements, such as greed in wanting more than is necessary, or pride in wanting recognition. Taken to the extreme, this results in the Madoffs and Hitlers and Stalins of this world. Furthermore, Jesus warns, anything we store up here on earth will perish in our life or upon our death. Instead we are commanded to store up treasures in heaven by working to advance God’s glory and His kingdom.
My problem with Lennon’s advocacy for the absence of heaven is this: I fear the actions of men should they decide that they only want to live for today. People who live only for today live only for themselves. Our inclination toward evil would persuade us to do many evil things, and it is only by common grace that we are not all thieves, larcenists, and murderers. The idea of heaven is a good one to keep eternity fixed in the minds of unbelievers. How best should they act in the face of looming judgment? Thankfully, God has provided Christ as a sacrifice for our sins that we might be reconciled to Him. Heaven is reality for us, one that we do not need to imagine. For His glory, we work for His kingdom and store up treasures in heaven.