He had the silly notion that if you could do away with heaven and hell you could do away with Christianity. Even though the first century believers had turned the world upside down, since then Christians have been busy keeping the world right side up. John Lennon hated that. He couldn’t stand how the preachers sent the boys off to war. He railed against a system that talked about a man who gave up all he had, and comforted those who held onto everything. Hardly anyone remembers John Lennon’s rambling interviews or angry words. Hardly anyone considers his drug use, his lavish lifestyle, his inability to get along with even the people closest to him. What we remember are his songs:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try...
No hell below us
Above us only sky ...
I vividly remember sitting in third grade asking my teacher, who was a nun, a question I very much wanted an answer to. How is it, I had wanted to know, that God could allow people to be born whom He knew He was going to throw into hell? I asked this with all the innocent passion an eight year old could muster. How could God, who is supposed to be good and merciful, cast people into hell who had never heard of Jesus Christ? At the time it was the most important thing in the world to me. She deflected my question with an answer I have heard since then in many different ways. Some things, she told me, are mysteries. We are not to know why — only to trust.
Years later, when John Lennon told us to imagine, his words struck a resonant chord within me. Was it really fair to favor with eternal life those who had a Bible or a television preacher or a fine car to drive to church every Sunday, and condemn to everlasting fire those who hadn’t? I kept on thinking about the thousands of generations of Chinese who’d never even heard of a Bible, let alone Jesus. What about them, I wondered. Maybe there was nothing up there but sky. I used to think about going out to the woods when it was time to die. Then my body could decompose and at least enrich the earth like the leaves did which fell every year. Then my death would be a natural part of the circle of life, like everything else was, except man.
A friend of mine and I were standing near the lake on campus. We were talking when up came a Christian evangelist warning us, in his earnest way, of coming judgment. I don’t know whether it was embarrassment or nervousness that I felt, but I couldn’t hear a word he said. It was like when the P.A. system in school broke — all I could hear was a buzzing in my ears. In a way I was pleased to be so seemingly unaffected. My friend and I laughed and went on. Later I saw his name in the newspaper. He’d gotten himself arrested for being such a pest. Served him right, I thought to myself.
Next year I had a Christian for a roommate. He’d turned his back on being a trumpet player because the life of a musician was so unstable. I often wondered whether he’d made the right choice. Instead he wanted to be an accountant like his father. Still, he was a likeable guy, and we used to study together till late in the night. Then it happened, the thing I feared more than anything else. He found this campus minister who could out talk me. Like a bird freezes before a snake, I helplessly debated with this man, throwing all my puffballs of reasoning at him. He cheerfully batted them away because, not only was he intelligent, he was funny. Like a spider dashing in to loop another strand around her prey, he knocked my arguments and defenses down, one by one. I felt like I was fighting for my life and this guy got me to laugh about it.
Trapped. I was trapped. If I didn’t believe in Jesus I was going to hell. If I did believe I would be a Christian. Which was worse? What was I to do? I didn’t want to be a Christian. I’d gotten fed up with Catholicism growing up; the last thing I wanted was to become born again. I would never, ever wear an “I Found It” button.
Then there was my conscience. I’d done plenty of bad things all right, but becoming a Christian hadn’t been one of them. At least I hadn’t betrayed the eight year old boy I’d once been. He had demanded an answer to the central question the Christian gospel raises — is God just? At least I wasn’t a hypocrite. But what if I was going to hell? What if they were right? Was there any way back to just living life in peace like I used to do, scorning Christians and minding my own business?
Finally my head won out over my heart. It made no sense to go to hell when it was so simple to go to heaven. What did it really matter what happened to all those other people? After all, God was just — it said so right there in the Bible. Does an insect resign itself to the spider’s embrace, or just get worn out? In either case the venom goes home and the struggle ends. I said the sinner’s prayer and I stopped letting things bother me so much. I had joined the biggest in crowd in the world, Christianity. I was one of the elect.
Some essential part of my humanity died as I learned more and more about the “free gift of salvation.” It does something to you to be saved so cheaply when, for so many, life is a grim struggle to survive. I remember the unease I felt when reading what a popular Christian evangelist said, “A Buddhist may be a better person than a Christian, but a Christian is forgiven and a Buddhist isn’t.” The unspoken conclusion was that it didn’t matter what kind of life you led. I sensed there was something wrong with such thinking, but no one could tell me exactly what.
Like a dying man passes in and out of consciousness, my conscience would stir and condemn me for what I had done. How could I have anything to do with this Christian God who is so harsh in judgment? Is he any better than a murderer for throwing into hell people who did the best they could by the light they had? I would quote Bible verses to myself and read Christian books on predestination until I could carry on again. So my life lurched along as I tried to make my church a light to the world and sent lots of money to help missionaries overseas. If they didn’t get to the natives before God did, then there was no hope for them. God would have no mercy because they were sinners. How thankful I was, I told myself, to be saved from such an angry God.
I probably could have gone on in this uneasy condition indefinitely, although the social life of Christianity was wearing thin. There was such little difference between it and the world. I found it easier and easier to enjoy the things I used to before I became a Christian. It was becoming obvious to me that only my thoughts had changed, not my life. This, I was told, nonetheless meant I was glory bound. When I asked my pastor how come the life of the New Testament believers was so different from Christianity today, how come they gave up everything just like their Savior did, and we live in the lap of luxury, the answer I received was: that was for those days. I guessed it was another one of those mysteries — how it could possibly be that we both enjoyed the same salvation. It had cost them so much and it cost us so little.
Some little seed of hope kept me from giving up altogether. Way down there somewhere was the thought that maybe God was good and just and He would judge everyone fairly. I knew for sure I wasn’t better than anyone else. Neither altar call nor river baptism seemed to have any more affect than when I was sprinkled by the priest a few days after my birth. I had been declared the spiritual property of the Catholic Church by this rite, and set on an unalterable path to the pearly gates. The Catholics get their dibs in early, dispensing with all the emotional trauma of conversion experiences. It really is simpler that way, and in the long run both Catholics and Protestants provide the same answers. They both live the same lives as well, practically indistinguishable from the rest of the world.
If only Christians lived like the first church in Jerusalem so long ago. I respected those people because they had actually done what their Savior told them to. They shared everything they had, even their food. Those with property sold it to meet the needs of their poor brothers until it could be truthfully said there were no rich or poor among them. These people dropped everything to be devoted to their Master’s teaching and to prayer. They loved to be with one another. Sadly, however, it seemed that life had perished long ago. Was the Bible in Acts two and four just another Imagine song? The people who sang it now had no intention of doing what they said. They were like John Lennon, who only imagined, but never gave up his possessions.
At just the right time, before I abandoned my life to self centered cynicism and selfishness, the real, true God brought me to His people. There I learned I was a sinner, just like the Christians said. I had done many things that I knew were wrong. By doing such evil things as defying my parents, fornicating, hating, lusting, and living only for myself, it was as if I had signed a contract with the devil. He was faithfully leading me to eternal destruction. My sojourn into Christianity neither dismayed nor disturbed him in the least. The unfaithful, compromised, grasping system of Christianity has never saved anyone. Only obeying the gospel Yahshua preached can do that.
To become His disciple you have to first give up all your own possessions. Maybe John Lennon thought of Him when he wrote his song. But Yahshua did what He expected His followers to do. It was so simple, even a child could understand it. You had to die to yourself, leave everything behind — because nothing was worthwhile compared to Him — and follow Him wherever He went. This is exactly what His early disciples did. It takes great complexities of reasoning to imagine that it is any different today. Rejecting His message today is motivated by the same love of the world that caused people to reject Him when He was alive.
A hypocrite can’t teach anyone to be sincere. The callous can’t teach others to be sensitive. The unjust can’t teach about justice. Christianity can’t teach about the true God, but it can distort the inherent foundations of right and wrong in someone’s conscience. It has done so ever since the early church died, around the end of the first century. Its greatest weapon has been the concept that when a person dies, he can only go to heaven or hell. Actually, John Lennon was far closer to the truth.
One day there will be no heaven and one day there will be no hell. They will both be gone forever. Heaven will come to earth, and hell will be cast into the Sea of Fire, a place that was never meant for man. It was prepared for the devil and his angels.1 Those who did evil will rise from the grave to go to the second, unending death of the Sea of Fire. Instead of the smug, self important heaven of Christianity, eternity will be bursting with life. Those who persevered in doing good will have a second, unending life in what the Bible calls the nations.2 They will parent happy children who will fill the galaxies with life. This will bring thanksgiving to Him from all generations forever and ever.3 And ruling over the nations will be those who chose to be with Him in this life. They will be with Him forever in the Holy City.4
That is the choice I made. Now I have another memory to wash away the pain that pierced my soul as a child. That pain was the nameless, dreadful fear that life was meaningless, a sorry joke, with Christians having the last laugh. But when I learned that God is fair and just, I stood weeping, exulting at the goodness and mercy of God. Now my salvation no longer requires that I compromise the essential humanity God Himself put in me. I am part of a people who serve the God who truly does love the world.