Warning: this article is interactive
We all know the John Lennon song Imagine in which the late Beatle sings:
“Imagine there’s no heaven …”
The words are sung with great feeling, hope even. It has the quality of a tragic “if only”—if only there was no heaven, oh, how wonderful it would be! He sings of a “brotherhood of man,” “no need for greed or hunger,” and “the world will be as one.” Such a lofty vision of humanity, or so some think. This YouTube video of Lennon singing it has 238 million views at the time of my writing.
Let’s take Lennon seriously. I have said that this article is interactive, and so it is. I want you to think through the implications of Lennon’s vision with me. Let’s imagine there is no God, no heaven. What would that look like? This is not a frivolous intellectual exercise. It has real-life consequences.
I have been down this road before. When I was in high school, beginning my freshman year, as I recall, I flirted with atheism. I was never an atheist. I found the whole everything-out-of-absolutely-nothing part more than a little problematic. I instead settled into a kind of deism. It was the teaching of evolution that got me started. If it was true that we had slithered from some primordial soup—and my science teachers all said so—the Bible could not also be true. This undermined the order of the universe as I had known it and accepted it. I existed because God had willed it. My life therefore had meaning, right? Nope. I was just another animal, a cosmic accident in space and time.
Perhaps I was an unusual kid, but I reflected on this deeply.
Then, in the normal course of my education I encountered the writings of the transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau in particular. I hated Emerson whom I judged to be feckless. He always started strong, as in his Harvard Divinity School Address, with all of his poetic references to beauty, but his conclusions were inevitably void of substance. For me, to read him was to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Uh, no, what?” Thoreau, however, had a certain appeal. He seemed more honest even if he was brooding. I wanted to go to my own Walden Pond and contemplate my life’s meaning, if, indeed, it had any. To me, the transcendentalists were atheists who just didn’t want to say they were atheists.
From the transcendentalists I went down a rabbit hole and there I met Friedrich Nietzsche, he of the big push-broom mustache, for the first time. While I never found Nietzsche wholly convincing—even then I thought him a madman—he did force me to think through the ramifications of a world without God. This was unquestionably darker. It was transcendentalism stripped of all the poetic nonsense even if Nietzsche did strive to be a poet. Nietzsche’s famous declaration, “God is dead!” was not shouted as enthusiastically as Lennon sings it. It was depressed, agonized. Nietzsche, who was, as Princeton (atheist) bioethicist Peter Singer once told me, “a bad philosopher,” nevertheless understood that without God there was no ultimate meaning in life.
And that led me to Darwin. I was back, as it were, where I had begun.
The naturalist immediately struck me as more philosopher with a J.R.R. Tolkien flair for fantasy writing than scientist. From his observations of the world and a set of facts, he had strung together an incredible narrative of human history that might have been as fictitious as Middle Earth, but it was reinforced with impressive graphics and presenters who spoke of it as infallible truth. And while there was no mention of God, the upshot of it all was inescapable: there was no room for God in this story of creation.
I studied the pages of my biology textbook with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. There they were, in all of their vivid color, the fragmentary remains of “Lucy,” recreated with flesh and a dubious humanoid expression, and biology’s “tree of life.” That was me, us, everyone. Lucy might as well have been my mother, and together, she and I, were no more than twigs on that damned tree. It was as if I had been adopted, given a happy home, and now my biological mother had tracked me down to tell me who I really was. “You’re nothing,” she seemed to be saying, “and no amount of poetry can disguise the fact. Get over yourself.”
Get over yourself. Was my desire for significance, for meaning, a kind of selfishness, an unbridled egocentrism? Some of those I read said that it was. I thought it was a basic need that functioned something like hunger pangs. I concluded that even Nietzsche needed meaning and had found it in an annoying habit of telling other people there was no meaning and in grooming his considerable mustache.
This was atheism, raw, bare-knuckled, and courageous. After all, hadn’t Nietzsche said so? It would, he said, take an especially strong man—the Übermensch or “Superman”—to live within this reality and create his own meaning while secretly knowing life had none. This was where I parted ways with the dead German maniac. Youth will tolerate a great many things, but a traitor isn’t one of them. They expect their teachers to be as sincere in their beliefs as they are. And on this point, Nietzsche was, I felt, intellectually dishonest. If life had no meaning, and he was absolutely clear that it had none, to artificially create it was no better than what he believed churchmen had done in inventing the Christian religion. Besides, Nietzsche, I knew, was not an Übermensch. He had gone insane and died of syphilis. Or was it a bout of depression brought on by bad philosophy that killed him? I didn’t know and didn’t care. I was done with Nietzsche. No, for me there could be only one honest response to meaninglessness: death.
This was the 80s, and all of this was going on in my secret thought life while there was a series of highly publicized youth suicides. Head-banger rock, which has a philosophy of its own, was often deemed to be a contributing factor. Kids, it was said, had listened to their disturbing albums in reverse or under black lights or while smoking giant doobies and then decided to put an end to themselves. I privately wondered if they had, like me, discovered the Great Hypocrisy beneath it all. Life is meaningless. We’re all chumps—or chimps. For the first time, I understood the appeal of suicide.
This was starting to have real practical effects in my life. I began to check out of school mentally. I skipped class. I decided I would drop out when old enough to do so. My rebellion took the form of an opt-out. I won’t be a cog in your machine! I clearly recall approaching my science teacher’s desk and the words that I spoke to him after a biology presentation:
“So, let me get this straight. The purpose of life is: we are born, we spend the first twenty years or so of our lives getting an education; we then get a job and, for the next forty years or so, we accumulate wealth; then we retire and live off of that wealth and coast into the grave. The idea is to get from A, birth, to B, death, as comfortably as possible, right?”
He stared at me blankly for a moment and then said: “Sit down, smart ass.”
I’m sure it came across as a bit presumptuous to him for this fourteen-year-old, seemingly out of nowhere, to put such a question to him. He was a football coach who was assigned a class and a subject he clearly hated, and here I was asking the meaning of life. But there wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in my question. I was guileless and not as yet jaded by life. I wanted an answer, and the question had unsettled him. Perhaps he had never thought of it, or didn’t want to, scared of what he would find. Most people play Whac-a-Mole with these questions. But I had decided that the trajectory of my life would be determined by the answers.
It was about this time that I heard two songs for the first time: Kansas’s Dust in the Wind and, you guessed it, John Lennon’s Imagine. Of course, I had heard them before, but I had never really heard what they were saying. Read the lyrics. Dust in the Wind is beautiful, haunting, honest. To describe the vanity of this life, the singer employs a metaphor similar to that of the writer of Ecclesiastes who spoke of “chasing after the wind”:
Same old song,
Just a drop of water in an endless sea.
All we do,
Crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind,
All we are is dust in the wind.
Now don’t hang on,
Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away,
And all your money won’t another minute buy.
Dust in the wind,
All we are is dust in the wind.
This resonated. How had a rock band, from Kansas of all places, managed to get right what a famous European philosopher had gotten so wrong? This served to reinforce at a modern (the song was already “classic rock” by then, but you get my meaning) pop culture level that someone else had connected the same dots as me. People sang the song, held their lighters in the air, and swayed with the violins, but they weren’t listening to what he was telling them: you are all doomed. This wasn’t your average rocker trying to get in the pants of a groupie on the way to his next drug-fueled orgy; this was a man who had come to hate his own existence.
Then I heard Lennon’s Imagine. Both songs had the same premise—no God—but one had arrived at the right terminus, while the other had gone spinning off into logical oblivion. As philosophers went, Lennon, I deduced, was a bad one. The Liverpudlian’s song angered me. (It still does.) A “brotherhood of man” based on what? And why, exactly, would hunger and greed suddenly disappear in this heavenless world? This was so much wishful thinking. Worse to me, it was Nietzsche all over again: exchanging one invented meaning for another. The fool! Hadn’t he read Darwin? Didn’t he know that Nietzsche had not only imagined that world, but had made it his reality and it drove him straight off a mental cliff?
If you don’t think believing there is no God is an utterly depressing worldview, it is only because you have never really imagined it. No meaning, no hope, no right and wrong, no justice. Your dead loved ones? You will never, never, ever see them again. Not even your love is real. It is simply a biological impulse for the perpetuation of the species. An instinct. Meaningless. As for life, there is only what happens—
—and then you die.
The word “forever” became for me the most terrifying word in the English language. It’s not “first, there was forever, and then I …” Forever is, by definition, immutable. The sentence is pronounced by—by whom or what? The Ether? The It? The Void? I’ll call it The Unmade Nothing. Yes, The Unmade Nothing condemns you to forever meaninglessness and forever silence with unalterable finality.
But for the intervention of a mentor who took my questions seriously and introduced me to the writings of Francis Schaeffer at the tender age of fifteen, I might have become a hedonist, an atheist propagandist, a wastrel, a terrorist, or another suicide statistic. Who knows? I had been given the requisite skills to be any of the above.
In recent weeks, I have been compelled to write on the Christian’s hope. Our society and our pulpits seem so void of it. Too often their messages are the same, and that should never be so. At the same time, I have been reflecting on Augustine’s City of God (yes, I moved on to better thinkers/writers) and its extraordinary relevance for the days in which we live. As Rome was being overrun by marauding barbarian hordes, the great Christian apologist penned his magnum opus to remind a distraught Christian population that their ultimate citizenship, their ultimate hope, lay in heaven.
And so, I remind you.
We have imagined a world without God. Now let me remind you of a world with God—and not, mind you, with any god or gods or vague deities, capricious, evil, scheming, unloving and unmerciful, but the God of the Bible, the Lord Almighty, Adonai, El Shaddai, Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts, The Ancient of Days, The Great I AM, the Lion of Judah, the One who said “Let there be light,” who has counted the stars, declared the boundaries of the great waters, who sustains the universe by the word of his power, and by whose word the world shall end and the wicked shall be judged.
I speak of the King of Kings!
Dear Christian, we don’t know the future. It is not for us to know. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly …” But the Lord has not abandoned us. He has given us a sure hope, an anchor in the storm, and if we cling to it resolutely, we shall not be moved come what may. No one—no one—has any power over you but that which is given from above. Our Lord’s existence is all the difference between meaning and meaninglessness; justice and injustice; eternal life and eternal nonexistence; a great hope and an inconsolable desolation.
Because HE LIVES, one day we shall, each of us who has believed in Him, hear the blessed words:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Now imagine with me the inexpressible joy at the heavenly reunions that have been and shall be! Your loved ones who have fallen asleep, you shall embrace them again! The sin that has entangled you, the burdens that you have carried for so long, they shall all fall away like hair clippings onto the floor, and a freedom that you have never known shall be eternally yours!
 One of the wonderful things about youth is that the reputations of the great writers, thinkers, artists, and scientists are utterly lost on them, so they approach them without prejudice. An adult will tell you Hemingway is wonderful even if they don’t think so because they know that’s what an educated person is supposed to say. An adolescent won’t spare you their real opinion because they don’t know any better. Ask one who’s never heard of Pablo Picasso his opinion of the artist’s Cubist work and prepare to be entertained. 1oo to 1 he tells you it’s crap! They are no respecters of persons!
 The author of the song, Kerry Livgren, later gave his life to Christ.
 John 1:3 says, “All things were made through him [i.e., God], and without him was not anything made that was made.” So, Unmade Nothing seems fitting.
 If you’ve ever wondered how I arrived at my chosen profession, this should give you some insight. If I had chosen to be against God, I would have been 100 percent against him. As it turned out, he saved me, and that meant I was for him, and my life would be dedicated to “demolishing arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) It wasn’t on a whim that I took the stage to debate atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, appeared on Al Jazeera to refute the arguments of atheist scientist Daniel Dennett, or that I went before a hostile Seattle audience to contend with atheist magazine editor Michael Shermer. It was with passion and conviction that what they believe was death itself.
And it is with that same passion and conviction that I assail atheism’s political manifestations socialism, Marxism, Critical Race Theory, et al. and any who champion them. It is because I know very well the inevitable outcome of these (evil) ideas: spiritual, intellectual, and physical degradation.
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