Imagine There's No Heaven
All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.
— Joseph Campbell
There’s an odd reversal in the opening line of John Lennon’s most poplar post-Beatles song, “Imagine,” that usually goes unnoticed. We are asked to imagine there’s no heaven and then are assured that it’s easy if we try. Indeed. It requires no powers of imagination at all to imagine there’s no heaven, since it has no tangible existence whatsoever in this world. Even if heaven is a real place, we can only imagine what it is like, since it requires a one-way ticket to get there.
There are, of course, plenty of people who have died and then returned with tales of having hobnobbed with the dead. I even met one such person long ago, a woman who suffered cardiac arrest on the operating table during a routine procedure. She reported leaving her body and watching as the doctors frantically worked to save her. She then recalled traveling through a dark tunnel toward a heavenly light, where she found Jesus waiting for her on the other end. The woman seemed perfectly sincere to me. It remains to be seen, however, whether she actually made it to heaven or whether her so-called “near-death experience” (NDE) was merely the paroxysms of a dying brain, as some skeptics would contend. We probably won’t know for sure unless we one day find ourselves traveling though a dark tunnel toward a heavenly light.
There is now a considerable body of anecdotal evidence on NDEs among Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Mormon adherents, as well as among atheists and agnostics. With the exception of the latter two categories, those who reported NDEs described experiences that were consistent with their prior religious beliefs. The dark tunnel and heavenly light were common features, but Buddhists and Hindus assuredly did not find Jesus waiting for them on the other end. This to me suggests that concepts of heaven are deeply rooted in the popular imagination of a given culture and determine how we interpret NDEs.
Curiously, Jesus of Nazareth, during his short ministry on earth, had almost nothing to say about heaven as we usually understand it. He did talk a lot about the kingdom of God, but he wasn’t referring to some place you go after you die. Indeed, the first words out of his mouth in the earliest of the four gospels was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” By “at hand,” Jesus meant that God’s kingdom was not elsewhere, not somewhere over the rainbow, but right here and right now, within reach.
So if the kingdom of God is indeed here and now, why don’t we see it? The short answer is that we only see what we are looking for, and we are looking in all the wrong places. As Jesus told the Pharisees, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” The phrase “within you” is sometime rendered as “in the midst of you.” The kingdom of God is in the midst of you. Either way, Jesus is telling people that God’s kingdom is right under their noses and will never be found by looking elsewhere.
Jesus came to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom; his followers proclaimed the coming of Jesus — a classic case of confusing the messenger with the message. When disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked if he were the Messiah, he told them, “”Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus wasn’t really pointing to himself, he was pointing to signs that the Kingdom had come. The role of the Messiah (literally, “anointed one” in Jewish tradition) was to usher in a messianic age.
So how did Jesus come to be revered as the only begotten Son of God? The short answer is that you might be revered as a god, too, if you restored sight to the blind, made the lame to walk and raised people from the dead. And yet Jesus’ disciples did all of these things and are not worshipped as gods, even though some of those who watched them in action tried to. On a missionary journey to Lycaonia, Paul healed a man who had been crippled from birth, and the locals wanted to offer sacrifices to him and his companions. But they would have none of it: “We also are men, of like nature with you.”
If Jesus’ disciples did all the things he did but regarded themselves “of like nature” with those who tried to worship them, a radical reassessment is in order of what it means to be human. We must go back to the very beginning: the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to the Book of Genesis, the Lord God made humankind in his own image. Does that mean we were made to look like God? We’ll never know for sure, because God has never put in an appearance in which he actually appeared, and we are forbidden to make graven images of him. My own hunch is that we are made of like nature with him.
Here’s where things get tricky. Jesus once enraged a crowd at the temple by telling them, “I and the Father are one.” They were all set to stone him for blasphemy when he suddenly turned the tables on them. He told them, ”Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods’?” He wasn’t just making this up. Jesus was quoting one of the Psalms, which reads in part, "I say, you are gods, children of the Most High all of you.” In effect, he was telling the crowd that they were made of like nature with God.
The difference between Jesus and us is not that he is God and we are not but rather that he knows himself to be God and we do not. Christ's coming may have been a singular event in human history, but it is misleading to conclude that Jesus was one of a kind. According to St. Paul, we are meant to "conformed to the image of [God’s] Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” Presumably that does not mean we are meant to look like him but rather are meant to be of of like nature with him.
“Man is God afraid,” the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck is quoted as saying. But what are we afraid of? Ourselves primarily, of who we were created to be. And so we are content to worship Jesus rather than to be like him. And the kingdom he told us was at hand — the kingdom that is our birthright as creatures made in God’s image — remains tantalizingly beyond each.