In perhaps John Lennon’s most famous song, “Imagine,” he calls people to envision a world that would be at peace—where “the world will be as one.” He views certain ideas or beliefs as currently standing in the way of this utopia, including countries, religion, and possessions. But the first obstacle he names is belief in an afterlife:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
These lyrics reflect a common sentiment: believing in things like heaven and hell only lead to conflict. If people stopped thinking some of us are going to heaven while others are going to hell, we could all get along.
Why are beliefs in heaven and hell blamed for conflict? Perhaps it is their connections to religions, which are often blamed for the violence and fighting in our world. Perhaps it is the idea that believing you are going to heaven while someone else is going to hell leads you to be arrogant and hateful towards others. Perhaps it is the idea that focusing on the afterlife makes people not care about this present world.
Rather than trying to answer all of these potential reasons, let’s take a moment to actually imagine that there is no hell. This life is all there is, and when you die you cease to exist. Is that a better reality? Is the world better if there is no hell?
Some people may prefer this reality. Some may want no hell because they hate the idea of loved ones being in a place like hell. But others would love for there to be no hell because that would mean they could do what they want without fearing any consequences.
So what happens when people stop believing in hell? Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was tortured under the Soviet Regime, shares what he saw was the result of denying the existence of hell.
The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe. When man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil, there is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.” He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners. (Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co., 1967, 1998), 36.
Let’s consider one person who did not believe in heaven or hell: Mao Zedong. As a young man he wrote: “Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me….People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” [Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 13]. And he lived out his philosophy. He refused to visit his mother on her deathbed because he was concerned it would leave him with an unfavorable image of her (p. 18). He abandoned his second wife (his first wife had died about a year after they were married) and three children in order to advance his military career, then married his third wife less than four months later. Later, his second wife was executed in revenge after Mao attacked the village where she lived (80). He declined to visit his third wife after she was nearly killed by a bomb because he was “tired” (149). The hardships he forced his third wife to experience eventually led to a mental breakdown (197). As the leader of the people, he confiscated private property whenever he wanted in order to build multiple expensive private residences, rarely ever visiting them after they were built (p. 193).
Ultimately, he was responsible for the death of over 70 million people during “peacetime,” many of them starving because Mao confiscated food as payment in order to buy military weaponry (p. 3). Yet, as he neared the time of his death, he was able to make deals so that his fourth wife and other high ranking officials would be punished for his evils in this world (609-10). Thus, he died a relatively peaceful death, without facing any real consequences for his atrocities in this life. And if there’s no hell, he never faced any justice.
What is often lacking in discussions of hell is the issue of justice. Crime sometimes does pay. The good die young, while evil men live long and prosperous lives. Elderly people are robbed of their retirement by deceptive schemes, while those who devise these schemes enjoy their ill-gotten gain. Innocent people are sexually abused, often for years, while their abusers remain respected and free in the community. People go on shooting sprees in schools, set off bombs in public places, and commit genocide. And without hell, many of these people would get away with their crimes. The cries for justice from those who have been abused by wicked and powerful people would go unanswered.
Imagine there’s no hell. Then thank God there is.