Imagine there's no heaven,
Is Lennon urging us to abandon the idea of an afterlife, or simply the idea that a virtuous person will be rewarded in such an afterlife? Or is he suggesting that there are no deities or mystical dimension to reality in any way. Is this a plea for atheism? As a beginning point for our imagining, this line brings up more questions than answers, but perhaps that is to be expected at this point in our analysis.
It's easy if you try,
Clearly, this concept is not as “easy” as Lennon asserts. I suspect that this line was inserted solely as part of the rhyme scheme, but we can’t completely rule out that he is relating his personal experience with no-heaven imagining and that he found it “easy.”
No hell below us,
This line raises questions similar to those raised by the earlier line concerning heaven. Is there no punishment for sinners? No source of evil? Or is he rejecting the idea of a dichotomist afterlife entirely? Or is he totally rejecting the concept of any survival of the soul?
Above us only sky,
Finally, a line that sheds light on Lennon’s conceptual drift! Here he clearly rejects the idea of a heaven “above us” but goes on to stress that nothing at all exists above us but “sky.” Here he is playing on the double meaning of the word “above” which not only can refer to the relative heights of objects (“The rug is above the floor”) but also to the relative status or power of individuals (“The principal is above the teacher”). So, not only is there no “heaven” above the “sky”, but Lennon is further indicating that above “us” there are no supernatural entities or deities that would have created or inhabit heaven or hell, or who further would pass judgment on the still-unacknowledged disembodied souls. This is a clear rejection of a deistic worldview, though leaves unanswered questions concerning post-demise survival of consciousness.
Imagine all the people
living for today...
Following from the previous conclusion, Lennon further invites us to imagine a world where people, absent the threat of hell or promise of heaven, or even of any hope of existence after death, live “for today.” This truly horrifying image, of crops unplanted, factories unmanned, schools unfilled, hospitals unstaffed, children starved and aggression unchecked, while people devote themselves entirely to earthly pleasures in the present with no though for the future, is surely one of the most striking ever presented in any Lennon lyric. The logical conclusion of his suggested train of thoughtful imagining is clearly the ruin of civilization amid the horror of war, death, pestilence and famine. Thus, his thinking leads us to reject the premise that there is no heaven, no hell, no deity and no afterlife. A classic example of the Socratic Method, with conclusions that reaffirm the salutatory power of traditional religious ideas and rejects atheistic concepts.
Imagine there's [sic] no countries,
In this lyric, we are again invited to imagine the non-existence of something; however, while the previous stanza began with the request to imagine “no heaven”, this one begins with a request to imagine “no countries.” This is considerably more difficult, since while the existence of heaven is something unproven and insubstantial, countries as political entities undoubtedly exist and have meaning in the real world. Lennon is inviting us to imagine the world united into a single mega-country, a one-world government. Perhaps this explains the subject/verb number disagreement: the replacement of multiple countries with a single humungo-country is a concept so sweeping that it overpowered Lennon’s usual careful grammar. Whatever the implication, he is suggesting that individuals have distanced themselves from the center of power of government, allowing others to decide for them.
It isn’t hard to do,
This line was clearly added as a mirror to the “It’s easy if you try” line in the first stanza. Considering the impact of the previous line, we may safely assume that Lennon is being ironic here.
Nothing to kill or die for,
On the face, Lennon seems to be implying that in the absence of countries, people would become both immortal and non-aggressive, since it is solely the existence of individual polities that cause people to kill and die. This is an interesting supposition, but one that is unsubstantiated in the historical or fossil record, so not one that is easily imagined. While it is true that most wars are between countries, nevertheless people kill and die for a variety of reasons not sanctioned by their prospective governments, and we have no reason to think it would stop with the implementation of the one world government.
No religion too,
This line is somewhat obscure. Is the implication that the abolition of countries would naturally also abolish all religions as well? In the Ancient World, where each individual town or country was believed to be an earthly representation of a deity, and that conflict between nations represented supernatural strivings, it was further believed that the destruction of a country meant the destruction of their gods, and thus, their religion. It’s therefore possible that Lennon is referring to this idea by including this line. In this case, it should be understood as an embellishment of the previous concepts, not the introduction of an entirely new meme.
Alternatively, this line could be a clue that this stanza should be intellectually linked to the previous stanza about the absence of heaven and hell. If this is the case, we should understand that the abolition of national boundaries should be seen as part of the greater breakdown of society that would result from a world without these concepts.
The most likely interpretation, however, is that Lennon is here indicating the nature of the one-world government he is imagining, one where religion is outlawed by the State. As the abolition of religion is indicative on only one major international political party, it is reasonable to assume that Lennon is imagining a world united under the Red banner of International Communism.
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...
Lennon here then brings us to the conclusion of this stanza, to an imagined world filled with immortal and peaceful people living under the auspices of an all powerful one-world Communist government. Considering the unlikely nature of this predicate, and the fact that it stands in direct opposition to the previous stanza’s disaster scenario, Lennon is clearly marking out the two extreme choices facing mankind: abdicating individual responsibility for building a prosperous society (the first stanza); or relinquish responsibility to a self-appointed elite that promise an attractive but unobtainable dream world (the current stanza).
Imagine no possessions,
In the third stanza, Lennon again invites us to imagine another absence: this time, the concept of “possessions.” By this it is assumed he means that we are to imagine ourselves bereft of all things that we can rightly call our own: land, home, cattle, chattel, family, objects, clothing, etc. We are to imagine ourselves, basically, as penniless refugees, driven by war or failed government policies to wander from place to place to beg for the very necessities of life. A horrifying image indeed, but one that is unfortunately an all too common one for nations that abdicate their personal responsibilities and place all their trust in failed economic and political ideologies.
I wonder if you can,
Here Lennon cleverly inverts the pattern established in the two previous stanzas. The second line in those stanzas asserted (ironically in one case) that the supposed imagining would be simple for the listener to accomplish. In the current stanza, however, Lennon is implying that he doubts that the listener has the ability to imagine themselves impoverished and driven like animals before the will of a distant and uncaring government. This, then, challenges the listener to make a further effort to put themselves in that place, which is necessary for the further images invoked in the following lines.
No need for greed or hunger,
Another ironic statement by Lennon: certainly, there would be no lack or need of these things, as hunger, for one, would be omnipresent to the refugees, while the greed of the government would be manifest in the confiscation of their possessions. Lennon again displays his subtle sense of humor.
A brotherhood of man,
It is in the best interest of the oppressive government imagined by Lennon in this stanza to break down the relationships between individuals, so that normal concepts of familial, national or cultural obligation be minimized and abolished. To this end, the use of the term “citizen” or “comrade” or “brother” becomes a common expression of the relationship between people, a meaningless distinction but the only relationship that is acceptable to that state. All people are “brothers” to one another, for there is no “parent” but the State that enslaves them.
Also, Lennon’s imagined government is profoundly chauvinistic and misogynistic, as apparently only men have a place in the New World Order.
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
Lennon’s musings come to an end with a truly horrifying vision of an enslaved population, deprived of personal belongings and personal relationships, subservient to a government that controls every aspect of their lives. Indeed, all people would “share” the world in the same way that farm animals share their pens, yet own no part of them.
You may say I’m a dreamer,
In his final stanza, Lennon begins by addressing the listener directly as “You”, thereby forcing a response: “You, yes YOU hearing my words!” Lennon anticipates that the listener will dismiss him as a “dreamer” but warns that this would be a mistake. Lennon, in the guise of the Sybil, is telling us that his “dream” has serious meaning and we ignore it at our own peril.
but I’m not the only one,
Lennon further tells us that there are others who share his vision of an oppressive world state that offers relief from personal accountability in return for ultimate power. But, he warns darkly, these others hold this vision as something, not to be avoided, but to be obtained by any means necessary, with themselves either as the elite or as soporific “brothers” hoping to “live for today” but destined for all the horrors inherent in these imaginings.
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.
Who is the “us” that Lennon wants the listener to join? Obviously, those who share these imaginings and learn the lessons they hold. Lennon hopes that we will join with him in opposing those who offer a “dreamy” life of no responsibility, accountability or effort, rejecting these ideas as pipe dreams, and to recognize those who offer them as the deceivers and political opportunists that they are.
In conclusion, “Imagine” by John Lennon is demonstrated to be one of the 20th Century’s most stirring anthems to traditional religious attitudes and feelings, individualism, freedom and free enterprise, as well as a warning against the limitations and dangers inherent in Collectivism and the threat to liberty represented by International Communism.