Sunday, August 7, 2016
“IMAGINE”: A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
What if God woke up one morning and announced that he had changed his mind, that he was calling off the whole heaven and hell thing, that this was the one and only life that we humans would have? What then?
John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was first released nearly 45 years ago. At the time, frankly, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the lyrics. I had a lot else going on at the time. The song was released during the Vietnam conflict, and I understood Lennon’s main intent was to support the peace movement. But recently I began thinking about the lyrics and their implications in a religious context, particularly the opening lines:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky . . .
Most of us engage in thought experiments of one sort or another: We fantasize about what might be or what might have been. We picture ourselves in someone else’s situation. We dream about winning the lottery. As Lennon said, “It’s easy if you try.”
So I’m suggesting the following thought experiment. If, like most people, you currently believe in an afterlife, imagine that on a given morning you and everyone who previously believed in heaven and hell woke up realizing that there would be no afterlife, that this would be your one and only life. And then ask yourself the following questions:
1. Would you be disappointed? Angry? Afraid? Panicky? Relieved?
2. How would loss in belief in an afterlife affect your plans going forward? Would you focus more on this life? Travel more? Spend more time with family and friends? Create a bucket list? Would this create a sense of urgency toward getting things done in this life?
3. How would the change affect your moral choices? Would you try to “get away with things”? Would you redefine what you consider right and wrong? Would you be more or less generous in your charitable giving? Would you be more compassionate or less?
4. Without an afterlife you would no longer believe that you would be reunited with those who died before you. How would that affect your relationship with family and friends now, knowing that there would be no “second chances” in a next life?
5. Would this change affect your sense of being in the moment as opposed to focusing on future plans?
6. Overall would you be happier or not as happy?
Having observed both those who believe in an afterlife and those who do not, here are my thoughts. First, in the absence of belief in an afterlife there would be more focus on the here and now, this life and those things that provide personal meaning—love of family and friends. That would be a good thing. Second, there would be no significant changes in individuals’ moral choices. There would be no significant changes in crime rates, charitable activity, or compassion for others. And, as far as happiness is concerned, I do not believe there is any relationship between one’s happiness and one’s belief in an afterlife.
© 2016 John M. Phillips