Saturday, April 30, 2011

Imagine There's a Heaven

I remember back when John Lennon’s song “Imagine” came out and reached wide popularity, how there was an outcry of protestation against it from the evangelical community. The song begins with the lyric, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Evangelicals were outraged by this because we’re not supposed to do this – we’re not supposed to imagine that there is no heaven.
Rather, we’re supposed imagine that there is a heaven.

After all, what alternative do we have to imagination when it comes to contemplating the heaven which is described in the Christian bible? We can’t see it, we cannot infer its existence from empirical facts, we cannot conclude that it is real by reference to what we discover to be real. Indeed, we have no alternative to imagining when it comes to something as fantastic as Christianity’s heaven.

Just as important, if not more so, we’re also supposed to imagine that there’s a hell. Christians are encouraged to take the notion of hell seriously, and they want non-believers to take it seriously as well. Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Without the threat of eternal damnation, Christianity would have only the incentive of a magic kingdom to encourage compliance with the devotional program. It would not have the psychological sanction needed to drive compulsion.

But before one can take the notion of hell – eternal torment, fire and brimstone, the bureaucracy of demons and devils which supervise the suffering that occurs there – one must imagine hell.

I have been told by at least one Christian, of the Calvinist persuasion to boot, that the Inquisitors “really believed in hell,” taking it so seriously that they believed nothing they could do on earth could match the suffering and torment that sinners will receive in hell. This same Christian also told me that Christians today typically do not believe in the existence of hell as fervently as the Inquisitors did. He did not explain how he knew what people long ago believed or how fervently they believed it. But the actions of the Inquisitors are in fact in line with what one might expect from those who take such fantasies seriously. But before they could take their belief in hell seriously, they had to imagine hell, for the imagination is the gateway to everything supernatural.

I will point out that this same Christian condemned the Inquisition as “a great evil,” and claimed that there is no biblical justification for what the Inquisitors did to people. I’m sure the Inquisitors themselves would disagree with both pronouncements. After all, the Christian bible has been, and can be, used to justify just about anything, including Calvinism itself. But debates over this point tend to distract us from the larger picture when it comes to evil and the Christian worldview. On the Christian worldview, there’s no doubt that there’s a place for evil in “God’s plan.” As the Christian worldview has it, the Christian god deliberately uses evil means to achieve its ends. Only we’re not allowed to call this action itself evil. We’re supposed to call it “good,” since its performer is supposed to be “all good” and have no evil in it. Who needs evil when good is misused in such a manner?

What’s noteworthy in this regard is that this same believer explained that where the Inquisitors went wrong is in their view of “God’s sovereignty as regards election.” The immorality of the Inquisitor’s position was not in their disregard of individual rights, but in improperly imagining their god’s nature. With thinking like this prevailing in some Christian quarters, the threat of the Inquisitors’ return will always be present.

While the imagination is indeed a powerful capacity of the human mind, it can go only so far in resolving such torturous incongruities as calling clearly evil actions “good.” Another case in point is the Christian notion of the trinity. According to Van Til & co., the trinity is supposed to be one person at the same time it’s three persons.

Now we can imagine fantasy realms like heaven and hell, and even invisible magic beings manipulating what we perceive from behind the scenes, thus satisfying the inceptive psychological demands of the Christian faith. But how does one wrap his mind around the notion of a god that is “one person, three persons” at the same time? I don’t think I can even imagine such a thing, let alone persuade myself to truly believe that such a contrivance is real. And if I can’t imagine it, how can I have faith in it? I could pretend, but I’m too honest to evade the fact that I would at that point be pretending, and such self-deception would be too blatant to sustain, even for the Christian faith’s own interests. Christianity tends to wield its sway best over a mind that has effectively buried its self-deceptions under the finely tilled surface of theological jargon and rationalizations.

But the imagination is still very powerful, and Christianity exploits this power most acutely in coaxing the believer literally to scare himself. It does this by urging with intense insistence the believer to imagine things which threaten his very being, things that are out of his control (even though, ironically, they are a figment of his own imagination), things that are malevolent and almighty, having the ability to dispatch a man’s very soul to the confines of inescapable torment forever and ever, amen. If a person invests himself in such imaginations, and takes them seriously, even seeking to validate them in his mind somehow as genuinely reflective of reality, he will find it terrifying. This simple scare tactic is the ultimate constable of the Christian faith. Once it is indulged and takes root in the mind of the bible-believer, it will hold him captive.

I recall, of all things, a John Stossel special I saw years ago called “The Power of Belief.” In it, Stossel explored the suggestibility of individuals disposed to confusing the imaginary with reality. I was delighted to find that portions of this documentary are accessible on YouTube (see here).

In the initial installment of the program (at the link provided), you will see an experiment conducted on several groups of children and a large enclosed cardboard box. The kids play in the room with the large cardboard box and eventually the kids inquire on the contents of the box. The children are told that it is empty and invited to look in the box to see for themselves that it is in fact empty. After the box is closed back up, the children are told a story about a hungry fox which lives inside the box. They understand that they’re supposed to pretend that there’s a fox in the box, and they play along with the story. Then the adult excuses herself from the room for a few moments, leaving the children in the room by themselves. After a short while, their curiosity about the box grows and they start to wonder if in fact there’s something in the box that they had earlier seen to be empty.

Soon the children begin to think they are hearing the fox in the box. Then they worry about it. Some get closer to the box to listen, but are afraid to open it. Some of the children in the experiment were confident that there was no fox in the box, but “most kids,” says Stossel,
aren’t sure. This is what happens in test after test. Almost every child begins to believe that the animal they helped create, might be real. Even when the researcher explains again that there was no fox in the box, most children believe it was there… Sometimes when we form beliefs, those beliefs persist against logic or evidence to the contrary. When I talked to kids later, many were convinced that the fox was in there.
Stossel says “magical thinking is fine for kids, but another thing when adults do it,” but quickly cautions that “we’re not talking mainstream religion here.” But why not? I’m guessing that Stossel didn’t want to alienate the mainstream religionists in his audience, even though the point he makes indubitably applies to their worldview.

There can be no doubt that the children in these experiments had active imaginations, and that their imaginations were fueled by suggestive input, in this case storytelling in which listeners use their imaginations to bring the story elements to life in their own minds. As children, they were not concerned with making a philosophical error. They were just reacting to their imaginations and the emotions that both fed and resulted from them.

The key here is the imagination, but not simply the ability to imagine, but rather the willingness to treat what one imagines as if it were real. This willingness is preconditional to taking the Christian view of heaven as a serious representation of reality, or “ultimate reality” as some believers might put it.

Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus is said to have mouthed the following words?
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Adult Christians, then, are strikingly similar to children who have failed to distinguish between reality and imagination. The difference is that, as adults, they certainly should know better.

In the Christian worldview, it’s far more insidious than the experiments in the Stossel special. In the case of the story of the hungry fox in the box, the children were not encouraged to believe that the fox actually exists, and that it also demands their lifelong sacrifice. What the children did on their own as an innocent reflex of their own curiosity and sense of wonder, the Christian worldview systematizes as an essential part of its aggressive predatory gambits. The point is to undermine doubts in a person’s mind, to undermine his confidence in his own rational faculties, and consequently make him vulnerable to suggestion, even mind-control.

Are you sure there’s no fox in the box?
Are you sure there’s no God?
From there, the imagination is supposed to take over and nourish the seeds of doubt and appease the fear that such doubts inevitably breed.

Even though the Christian himself has no alternative to his own imagination as the means of “knowing” heaven, he assures us that heaven is real, not imaginary. Some Christians have come close to conceding that the means by which the believer “knows” of heaven is very similar to imagination, and even that his imagination is involved in considering the wonders that heaven must possess. But, they hasten to add, this does not prove that heaven itself is imaginary. It does not necessarily follow, they might argue, from the fact that we must use our imaginations when thinking about heaven, that heaven is therefore imaginary. But this pushes the issue further into the realm of incredibility. If a Christian admits that the imagination is involved in his spiritual apprehension of heaven, then how does he distinguish what he calls “heaven” from what he may merely be imagining? They have all but outright admitted that their own imaginations are the psychological conduit by means of which they acquire cognitive access of this mysterious realm. And even if the believer is unwilling to admit the role of his imagination, he needs to consider the fact that the non-believer he’s trying to convince has no alternative to imagination as the means by which even to relate to what the Christian is telling him.

Rest assured, there’s a lot of heaving in Christianity about heaven. After all, Christians are emotionally invested in the hope that there’s a heaven awaiting them after death. And they actively seek out ways to convince themselves, once and for all, that the heaven they imagine actually exists. The desire to convince oneself is never satisfied, though, which only keeps them trying harder. Doubt is their sworn enemy. One is to “have faith, and doubt not” (Matthew 21:21), so doubt must be suppressed at all costs. Even if that doubt lingers in the minds of others. Even there it is a threat. And Christians treat it as such.

Some Christians have appealed to testimonies from so-called “near-death experiences,” in which a person who was close to death or actually pronounced dead at one point and subsequently revived, reports that he had visited heaven while apparently deceased.

The question I would have for such individuals is how they identified the “place” where they found themselves during their experience as heaven in the first place. What vetting process, if any, did they apply in determining that what they experienced was the realm which Christianity calls “heaven”? And if heaven’s so great, why did they return to earth? Perhaps the very indicators which confirmed in their minds that they were in heaven, persuaded them that life on earth was actually better. Was it the boredom factor? Was it the lack of caring for anything? Was it the chaos of the dream-like quality of the experience? Was it the obvious superimposition of storybook details accrued from bible-reading or gospel hymnals on the memory of a dream? In the attempt to validate the claim that the realm visited really was heaven, what “evidence” does one isolate to factor out the role of the imagination as the medium of the believer’s experience? This seems to be the unanswered question which Christianity is most unprepared to face.

by Dawson Bethrick


ActionJackson864 said...

new post! awesome! thank you! super busy but cant wait to sink my teeth into it!

ActionJackson864 said...

"Some Christians have appealed to testimonies from so-called “near-death experiences,” in which a person who was close to death or actually pronounced dead at one point and subsequently revived, reports that he had visited heaven while apparently deceased."

I personally met someone who was pronounced dead, for 20 minutes, he told me that he saw lights, no red devil man, no pearly gates, no magic sky daddy. I was talking with Rick Warden about this but he would not address this issue.

Ydemoc said...


I second ActionJackson's enthusiasm over your newest blog entry. Keep 'em comin'!

After reading your post, I'm reminded how a Christian I know sometimes uses the line: "If you could see your friends and loved ones after you die, wouldn't you want to?"

I usually respond with answers like: hope divorced from reality is no hope at all; there's no evidence for consciousness surviving without a biological basis; and I can certainly 'imagine' such a scenario. One answer I haven't tried is, "What makes you think such a fantastic notion is even possible?" I would be interested to hear the answer to that one. I have no doubt it wouldn't be that far removed from imagination.

I probably won't get the opportunity to have that discussion since lately his enthusiasm for discussing Christianity has waned due to my challenging him when he brings the topic up. The funny thing is, he's accused me of scoffing, the same way he scoffs at religions other than his own.


Bahnsen Burner said...

AJ: “I personally met someone who was pronounced dead, for 20 minutes, he told me that he saw lights, no red devil man, no pearly gates, no magic sky daddy. I was talking with Rick Warden about this but he would not address this issue.”

Rick is a drive-by internet apologist. His only concern is to do damage to opposing positions, even though his efforts fail miserably. He does not address questions directed to him. Evading direct questions is Rick’s habit, as my sustained interaction with him clearly demonstrates, even though I Peter 3:15 instructs believers to “be ready always to give an answer to every man.” But Rick is not unique in this. Look at Sye Ten Bruggencate, who basically says he won’t interact with me unless we are in some public debate, or Chris Bolt, who simply ignores the questions I’ve posed to him about the uniformity of nature and induction, supposedly his area of expertise. The inescapable truth to it all is that all they have is a monumental bluff, and they just need to be called on it. Watch them scamper when they are.

Ydemoc: “Keep 'em comin'!”

I would love to, but my situation will be unsettled possibly for the next few months as I am moving overseas in less than two weeks. It may be a while before I will be settled in and ready to work on some more blogs. But I’ll be doing what I can to make opportunities to do so.

Ydemoc: “After reading your post, I'm reminded how a Christian I know sometimes uses the line: ‘If you could see your friends and loved ones after you die, wouldn't you want to?’”

I’ve encountered questions like this before as well, as if merely wanting to see people after I die were somehow significant. And yet, many Christians have accused me of rejecting Christianity on the grounds that I “just don’t want to obey God,” that I “just don’t like God’s rules,” or something along those lines, which they characterize as a subjective reason for denying “the truth” of Christianity. But when they try to persuade us that Christianity is true, they appeal to our wants, likes and dislikes, when in fact I don’t appeal to my wants, likes and dislikes in developing my criticisms of Christianity.

I remember back when I was trying to be a Christian, how I imagined my loved ones after they died. Since they weren’t bible-thumping Christians themselves, I had to consider the possibility that they would end up in hell. My imaginations of them suffering in intense torment for all of eternity certainly were not comforting. I’ve asked many Christians how they think they could be happy and enjoy heaven and love its god if they knew any of their loved ones were deep-frying in hell forever. After all, heaven is supposed to be such a wonderful, idyllic place (Jesus is said to have referred to it as “paradise”). But I couldn’t be happy knowing this. It’s a question which the bible never addresses so far as I’ve seen. And yet, if I were a believer, I’d really want to know how happiness would still be possible with such knowledge. Some Christians have told me that memories of loved ones would be erased. But I don’t know where the bible suggests this. And if memories need to be erased in order to enjoy happiness, what does that say about the whole heaven scheme?


Ydemoc said...


Thanks for the response.

I think Calvin or John Edwards talked about how, when they are in heaven, their happiness would only increase as a result of looking down upon all those burning in hell.

Since - according to the Christian worldview - it's possible to be saved moments before death, I wonder how a Christian would handle the idea of hanging out with Hitler or Osama in heaven while many of the people they killed are burning in hell? (assuming Hitler and/or Osama had a last minute conversion)


Justin Hall said...


They can because they pay only lip service to the concepts of right and wrong. What really matters is submitting to the authority of their imaginary god, all other considerations are not. The point you bring up only illustrates for me the moral bankruptcy of Christianity.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Ydemoc: “I think Calvin or John Edwards talked about how, when they are in heaven, their happiness would only increase as a result of looking down upon all those burning in hell.”

When believers announce things like this, they tell us about themselves, about their character. Theirs is a morality which relishes the suffering of others. Look at how happy they are that their own god suffered on the cross. Suffering is almost an object of obsession for the Christian mind. They count their own suffering as a blessing from their god, since it is seen as corrective chastisement.

I do recall one of my “brothers in Christ” telling me how he was looking forward to watching people in hell suffer from the vantage he assumed he’d have when he got to heaven. His fantasy was driven by frothing vindictiveness. He wanted to see revenge exacted on his “enemies” for not converting as a result of his witnessing efforts. If they don’t convert, was his thinking, they will suffer, and he will delight over their suffering.

And Christians have told me that compassion and human dignity can “make sense” only on the basis of their worldview.

The Christian worldview literally disintegrates the human mind by disabling conceptual integration through psychological compartmentalization. They apparently can’t recognize, or simply don’t want to recognize, how their view of life and reality and what they claim as virtues on behalf of their worldview are entirely at odds with each other. A man who delights in fantasies of other people suffering, especially because they were not persuaded by his efforts to defraud them of their own intellect, is not someone who can legitimately claim that his worldview is the necessary basis for compassion. Such fantasizing is not an expression of either compassion or dignity.

Also, I’m wondering how much of it is just talk. I’ve encountered folks who’ve made big claims about what they would do in a certain situation, but when put to the test they fall miserably short of their boasts. Perhaps they were saying these things so that others would start repeating them and adopting such views as well.

Keep in mind that it’s safe to make claims about the supernatural. Since it’s all imaginary, there’s nothing that will serve to correct those who want to believe it’s all real.


Ydemoc said...

Dawson: "Also, I’m wondering how much of it is just talk. I’ve encountered folks who’ve made big claims about what they would do in a certain situation, but when put to the test they fall miserably short of their boasts. Perhaps they were saying these things so that others would start repeating them and adopting such views as well."

You bring up a good point here, Dawson, about things like this being "all talk" and possibly compartmentalized. When this Christian I know preaches to me, he often resorts to Pascal's Wager, saying to me, "what have you got to lose?" Besides telling him that what I would lose is "being in touch with reality" and that a Muslim could say the same thing, I also asked him if Pascal's wager was the reason he became a Christian and if he could see himself on judgment day, standing before his god, and explaining that the only reason he believed was because "he had nothing to lose." I asked him if he thought this response would go over well with the god he worships. His response was muddled and evasive, and had something to do with trying to reach me through a "secularized approach." I told him if the "nothing to lose" approach wasn't good enough for him, what makes him think it would be good enough for me. His response didn't make much sense to me then and it still doesn't. It seems it was just all "compartmentalized talk."

Justin: Thanks for your comments.


Ydemoc said...

Dawson and Justin,

By the way, I've also heard this whenever I offer up challenges to the Christian worldview. The Christian says, "You are trying to send me to hell, while I'm trying to get you to heaven. I am offering you everything; what are you offering me?"

Keep in mind, I'm never the one who initiates the topic.