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David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

“John’s Utopia is a 20th century version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s flat universe.”

In 1971 John Lennon, and his co-writer and life partner, Yoko Ono, exhorted us to ‘imagine there’s no heaven’; they assured us that ‘it’s easy if you try’. Ok, I’m imagining, or at least I’m trying to, but…it’s not all that easy. 

John’s Utopia is a 20th century version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s flat universe. Listen to what Nietzsche had to say in 1888: “One belongs to the whole, one is in the whole – there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” — Twilight of the Idols.

Note that Nietzsche’s World explicitly lacks values: “There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being.” In John’s words, there’s “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

One thing you could say both of Nietzsche and of Lennon: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Their flat universe represents the hierarchical cosmos of Judeo-Christian tradition, squashed.

Of all Western philosophers, Nietzsche’s vision is the most penetrating. He knew only too well that his flat universe would make any Halloween House of Horrors seem like a kiddie ride at Disney World, but that didn’t stop him. Whatever else you might say about Nietzsche, he had the courage of his convictions; he always philosophized in good faith. 

When Nietzsche pronounced his death sentence on Value (he had already done so on God), he did it with a heavy heart and a twinge of regret. He knew he was destroying a magnificent edifice…and he got no pleasure from it.

When John Lennon did the same, he celebrated! Let’s unpack John’s lyrics: Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Ok, nobody likes to think about killing or dying. Either way, it’s the ultimate sacrifice. But it may be that there are things you would kill or die for (at least you’d like to think you would), things you value more than you value your own life. 

By denying that possibility, John turns the world in on itself; it becomes Nietzsche’s ‘whole’. And religion? The function of religion is to identify things that someone might be willing to kill or die for, i.e., to identify values…and then to curate those values. We can’t have any of that, can we? So, no religion too

John’s message in Imagine is the same as Nietzsche’s.  Live now, die later. We are our own highest value. This sounds benign enough, but it isn’t:

If we have no values beyond ourselves, there is no reason for any of us not to head straight for those tempting Deadly Sins: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth. There’s even a combo pack, one of each vice; it’s what all the kids are asking for this year for The Holiday that Used to be Called Xmas, and it’s even on sale this month at Costco. Pick up a pack for me while you’re there.

We’re often told that death is one of only two certainties in life. We will all die someday and if we are our own highest value, then our highest value (ourselves) will also cease to exist. But how can a value cease to exist? How can a value cease to be a value? By definition, values are universal, eternal and immutable. They apply, period, even in a Multiverse.

Suppose we value Honesty. Ok, not everyone is honest; someone can be honest today and dishonest tomorrow. But even if everyone was dishonest all the time, it would not diminish the Value of Honesty.

John & Yoko are taking us down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death (i.e., Nihilism) and at the same time they are depriving us of the Good Shepherd who was supposed to meet us there.

How cocky we once were, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are by my side.” In other words, the Good Shepherd and I can handle anything life throws at us. Afraid of the valley? Heck no, I rule that valley! As long as I have my wingman with me, I’m good.

The problem is that if there is nothing to kill or die for, then there can’t be anything to live for either. In Lennon’s universe, killing and/or dying can’t be the ultimate expression of value because per se they have no value. 

We are all going to die someday. In that sense, we are all the same; and we all come to the same end. We are all conceived ex minimis, and our future is a common, unmarked grave. And all that comes in between? According to Shakespeare, it will be “melted into air, into thin air… the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself…shall dissolve.” (The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1) 

We live “now (and) at the hour of our death.” We should all be prepared to give that a great Amen at any time. So ‘to be or not to be’ is not on the table. Our common fate is ‘to be and not to be’, and, as Hamlet realized, there’s nothing we can do to escape it. I am because I am writing this article and I am not because I will soon perish. 

Only values can give our fleeting lives meaning. The sense of purpose, anathema to Nietzsche, was celebrated by Victor Frankl, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor. He replaced personal happiness as the goal of life with ‘purpose’, dedication to something outside oneself, i.e., dedication to Values.

Not John Lennon’s favorite philosopher, I’m guessing.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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