The clip is taken from the August 29, 2011 episode of Australian X Factor. If you don’t want to take time to watch the whole thing, here is a quick summary:Emmanuel Kelly, a young man with obvious limb deficiencies, receives polite applause as he limps to the microphone to face the judges. Then a shocked silence falls over the crowd when Ronan Keating asks the singer how old he is:
“I, um, well, actually I am not exactly sure. When I was originally found in Iraq in an orphanage – my mom found me – I was found with no birth certificate, no passport, nothing. ” Emmanuel, as the audience then learns via a recorded video clip, was born in a war zone and his deformities were caused by chemical weapons. He and his brother were found abandoned in a shoebox in a park and taken to an orphanage. There they were discovered by humanitarian Moira Kelly and flown them to Australia for surgery. “She was like an angel walking through the door,” Emmanuel reported. Moira then “fell in love” with the boys and adopted them, raising them in what certainly appeared on television to be a very loving and happy family. “My hero would have to be my Mom,” said Emmanuel.
The introductory video clip ends with most of the audience members and judges already on the verge of tears. Then they are pushed completely over the edge when Emmanuel begins to sing. His song choice for the event: John Lennon’s Imagine:
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
Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one
If the studio audience and over 11 million views on YouTube are any indication, it was a very moving performance. Personally, I found it mostly ironic. As much as I enjoyed Emmauel’s singing, the ridiculous juxtaposition of a boy who had been rescued by nuns of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity and then adopted and raised by the founder of the Children’s First Foundation, a woman whose “Catholic faith has been her driving force to [help children in need] in New York’s Bronx, Calcutta, the Kalahari, Western Australia and all around the world,” singing about how belief in heaven and hell is the cause of great pain and suffering was simply too much for me. I don’t know if Emmanuel actually believes that getting rid of the Christian doctrines regarding the afterlife would be beneficial to the world, but I know that his own life is evidence that points in exactly the opposite direction. The fact that some people were convinced of the reality of heaven and hell was a major cause of all the blessings in Emmanuel’s life, not his suffering.
Unfortunately, Lennon’s thesis is quite widely accepted among skeptics so it is important to recognize it and be able to correct this false view. They charge that people who seek after Heaven and try to avoid hell are too focused on the afterlife to bother making this world a better place. This is simply not the case. Biblical religion is not opposed to the betterment of the world. Indeed, Christianity has been the premier means by which the conditions of this planet have become better, a point very ably argued by such thinkers as Thomas Woods (How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization), Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason), and Vishal Mangalwadi (The Book that Made Your World). C.S. Lewis adds:
If you read history, you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought the most about the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their marks on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they become ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.
One of the major reasons for this fact is biblical religion’s distinctive eschatological view of time. Most worldviews view time pessimistically. Eastern religions (and Western paganism) view history as either a vicious cycle or a march away from an idyllic moment in the past. As such, the goal of these worldviews is to escape the cycle and the degradation. Western materialism’s view is that time is ultimately meaningless, a position elucidated beautifully by Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
For Biblical religion, however, time is charged with meaning and is purposefully moving towards a positive goal in that God is actively working to redeem all of creation. Those with a Christian worldview are looking forward to the new creation as the culmination and fulfillment of God’s ongoing work. Christians don’t look to escape time or return to the Garden of Eden; instead, like Abraham, they are looking forward to the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
The practical result of this eschatological view of time is not that Christians sit around and wait for the New Jerusalem to arrive. Rather, we actively work to see it accomplished.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) presents this truth clearly:
The form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away and we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells… [and] we have been warned that it profits man nothing if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself. Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come.
The same document notes: “In their pilgrimage to the heavenly city Christians are to seek and relish the things that are above: this involves not a lesser, but a greater commitment to working with all men towards the establishment of a world that is more human. Indeed, the mystery of the Christian faith provides them with an outstanding incentive and encouragement to fulfill their role more eagerly… .”
As Peter Kreeft says:
People think that heaven is escapist because they fear that thinking about heaven will distract us from living well here and now. It is exactly the opposite, and the lives of the saints and our Lord himself prove it. Those who truly love heaven will do the most for earth. It’s easy to see why. Those who love the homeland best work the hardest in the colonies to make them resemble the homeland. “Thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”
The pregnant woman who plans a live birth cares for her unborn baby; the woman who plans for an abortion does not. Highways that lead to somewhere are well maintained; dead ends are not. So if we see life as a road to heaven, some of heaven’s own glory will reflect back on that road, if only by anticipation: the world is charged with the grandeur of God and every event smells of eternity. But if it all goes down the drain in death, then this life is just swirls of dirty water, and however comfortable we make our wallowing in it, it remains vanity of vanities.