33. Sin, Forgiveness and Salvation
Sin, forgiveness and salvation lie at the very heart of religion: of any religion I would say, although some religions make more of them than others. In the Old Testament we find God as a Law-giver issuing specific commandments which had to be obeyed by man: Ten Commandments in particular, inscribed on slabs of stone to indicate their inviolability. To break the least of these commandments was sin. God was likewise a Judge, condemning and punishing anyone who broke His laws. There are terrible threats of punishment, in Leviticus and elsewhere, upon those who provoked the Lord to wrath. Well, this concept served its turn. It was valuable as an ethical deterrent, well suited to simple and immature people. We use threats with our children: "Mummy will be cross with you if you do that," or "Daddy will spank you when he comes home!" And on extreme occasions, if the child persistently and willfully breaks the rules of the household, daddy does spank him, good and hard! Only as the children grow up do they realize that their parents' anger was only an appearance; that in fact their father did not hate, condemn and try to destroy them when they were naughty, but that he punished them for their own good. King Solomon is quoted as having said: "Spare the rod and spoil the child; he that loveth his son, chasteneth him betimes." And even in the Book of Revelations we get, in the Lord's message to the (immature) church in Laodicea: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore and repent."
Always, you see, there is this legalistic concept, that sin consists of breaking certain laws or commandments. God is angry with us and punishes us, even though it may be for our good. He sends us sickness, poverty, loss. And (at any rate after the captivity in Babylon) there was a long-term threat held over the people: if they did not take heed and repent, if they continued to displease the Almighty God, then He would throw them into hell, where the would suffer the torments of the damned to eternity.
The Book of Revelation crystallizes the legalistic concept by providing the imagery of a Great White Throne where the Divine Judge sits, before whom every soul is taken after death. A list of the accused's deeds, good and evil, is read out by the Recording Angel. If the final balance is on the positive side (more good deeds than bad ones) the soul is acquitted and carried up into bliss; but if the evil deeds outweigh the good, he is pitch-forked down into the everlasting bonfire. (See Michelangelo's picture of the Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.) The imagination of the Middle Ages was so excited by the prospect of the Judgment after death that people began to punish themselves, in the hope of working off some of the balance of sin before dying. And the torture and burning of heretics by the Church under the inquisition was theoretically supposed to be for the same merciful purpose. Better for the poor heretic to suffer burning for a few terrible hours on earth, than in the fires of hell to eternity.
In reaction, another idea was put forward, which was taken up principally by the Protestants after the Reformation. This swung to the opposite extreme. "Did not Jesus die for our sins?" it was asked. "Isn't that the meaning of Calvary?" And a whole new theory was propounded, called "The plan of salvation" which tried to show how God had removed everyone's sins, including yours and mine, and placed the whole load on the back of His Son, Jesus Christ, and Jesus had borne the punishment upon His own body. So there is no longer any condemnation! Jesus has taken upon Himself the iniquity of us all, provided only that we believe in Him. This is technically known as the Vicarious Atonement, and Salvation by Faith Alone, and is attacked by Swedenborg over and over again in his writings. And, indeed, such a belief is ethically bad as it leads to the idea that it doesn't matter how many sins you commit, they will all be forgiven if you believe that Jesus died for you; you will be "justified," or made just, and admitted to heaven when you die. I read a book only recently which said: "Because of the Crucifixion, God has forgiven all our sins, past, present and future." Why bother then?
Of course God has forgiven our sins and always will do to eternity! It is His nature to forgive. But what difference does this make if the sin persists? Moreover, sin is not some kind of morbid growth that can be removed by a surgical operation and grafted onto Jesus. Nor does the question ever arise in God's mind as to whether we should be pardoned or punished for our sins. There is no great White Throne, no Divine Judge weighing the souls of men, no recording angel. The Book of Revelation was never intended to be taken literally like that; it is visionary and allegorical, to be understood only according to the science of symbolism. How, then, are we to think of God? Think of Him, rather, as the Father of the Prodigal Son. In that matchless parable (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus gave us a clear indication of the true nature of sin, repentance, regeneration and salvation. The Father in the parable was not angry with His son; he yearned over him. He did not punish the young man. Nor did he have to "forgive" him, because, as far as we know, he had never condemned him! But how did this help the son while he was away in the far country wasting his substance with riotous living? The forgiveness and mercy and compassion were there at home; but the whole nature of the son's sin was that he preferred to be in a far country. Surely in this day of sophisticated psychological analysis we have outgrown the legalistic point of view of sin, as being the breach of some commandment which evokes God's vengeance in the form of punishment?
Sin is subjective, not objective. It lies in the secret chambers of the heart, in the realm of motivation, and it carries its own punishment with it. The only punishment we get is the effect of the sin upon ourselves. Sin can be defined as a deliberate turning away from God. It is the uncontrolled love of self, a blown-up ego. It is hatred and lust and jealousy and resentment fermenting in the heart and ever seeking an opportunity to burst forth into action. That is sin, and whether it is forgiven or not, is neither here nor there. Wicked actions are not sin in themselves, nor is the breaking of a commandment necessarily sin. It depends on why we break it! Sin is the motive which causes sinful actions. You can punish a sinful action in a court of law, and this may have a wholesome effect on society by encouraging people to keep their anti-social urges under control; but this does not really touch the sin itself. It may even increase the pressure of the sin by screwing down the lid. Sin consists in being, not doing. It lies primarily in a man's attitudes rather than in his actions. Jesus made this clear when He said: "He that looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her in his heart." The action may, or may not, follow; that is purely incidental from the spiritual point of view.
After the death of the body, hidden things are laid bare. "There is nothing covered" (said Jesus), "that shall not be revealed, neither hid that shall not be known. Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets, shall be proclaimed upon the housetops." (Luke 12:2, 3). This means, as I understand it, that the motives behind our sinful actions will be revealed, what we inwardly desired, what we really wanted to do, though perhaps we were unable to do. Our motivation will be revealed for all to see, and we shall no longer care who sees it! On the other hand, we may have done evil things on earth that we didn't really want to do (as, for example, an airman who drops napalm over a village in obedience to military orders, but hates himself for doing it.) This also will be cleared up after death when the motivation is laid bare.
When you have passed over into the spiritual world and remember back to the life you lived on earth, the important thing will be whether you recall your misdeeds with pleasure or regret. If you remember them with remorse and sorrow and wish you had acted otherwise (that is to say, if you have repented of them) then you will obviously not repeat them in the new free atmosphere of the spiritual world. But if you remember them with pleasure and wish only that you had gone a little further, then in the new free atmosphere you will plunge into them openly, without restraint. In the future life, the only restraint is self-restraint. That must be developed on earth, here and now. You cannot acquire it after death, because in the spiritual world you can do everything you want to. That is largely why we have been placed in this physical universe to begin with: to develop self-restraint.
And so begins the Judgment. When I said there was no Great White Throne I did not mean there would be no Judgment. There is a Judgment, but it is self-judgment and is effected unconsciously. The newly-awakened spirit does just what he likes. He expresses his personality completely and openly, as he has formed it by his life on earth. Heaven with all its bliss is freely available, and every effort is made to persuade him to enter heaven and partake of its happiness. The Judgment consists in whether he accepts or rejects the Lord's offer of grace. Unfortunately those who turned their backs on God during life on earth, usually continue to deny Him after death. They have acquired a habit of opposition to God's will, which they cannot now reverse. If a man's whole life on earth has been devoted to self, he is appalled when shown conditions in heaven, where the source of joy is love to the Lord an to the neighbor. Such happiness is utterly incomprehensible to him; the very smell of it fills him with torment, and he turns and runs for his life! What such a man wants, and what he gets, is a kind of liberty hall, where he can give vent to all his hidden evils in the company of others who are likeminded with himself. They fight and quarrel like a lot of dogs, and are jealous and indignant to their hearts' content. That is what we call hell, but the newly arrived "devil" will not think of it as hell, for he is at home there and it suits him. "Isn't he punished at all?" Certainly he is punished. He is miserable from the very frustrations of his existence, the fact that those around him oppose him and he cannot always get his way and be "top dog." Also, the very boredom of self-love is a terrible punishment which he carries around with him; always the itch and lust are at him from within. Jesus referred to it as the gnawing worm and the fire that is never quenched, and the gnashing of teeth. But the fire comes from the man's own evil passions, and the gnashing of teeth is the ceaseless nagging and arguing to which he is reduced in his relations with his fellows. However, at least he is happier there than he would be anywhere else. Hell is his heaven.
How different is the progress of the man who gladly accepts the invitation to "enter into the joy of his Lord!" He goes to heaven, not as a reward for having lived a good life, but simply because he wants to. The good deeds he performed in the world have had the effect of making him want to go to heaven. The unselfish, outgoing sphere of heaven suits him, he is in harmony with it. This is the kind of life he would have enjoyed on earth, though perhaps he was never able to get it. For all I know, he may have spent his years in jail. He might have been an alcoholic, a drug addict, almost anything. You cannot tell in the natural world what a man's motives are, and we are advised not to try.
Swedenborg was surprised at some of the changes which took place with some of his friends and acquaintances as they "died" and passed over. Famous clergymen, even bishops, were revealed as having been operating from a consuming love of self; many of the upper classes of Sweden were exposed as mean and corrupt. On the other hand, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, said by historians to have been one of the wickedest women of her time, was found to be among the blest, her sins forgiven, entering into the unselfish life of heaven! Of course, most cases are
not so contrary-wise; people who regularly commit sins on earth are usually sinners at heart and so become sinners in the life to come, whereas most people who are kindly and good on earth, who worship the Lord and love their neighbor as themselves, continue to do so after death. But only the Lord can tell how things will be.
It is hard enough to judge oneself, though you can get a clue as to your future lot by asking yourself: "What would I do if I were completely free to do anything I liked? If I could plan my own environment and circumstances entirely to suit myself, how would I live? How would I like other people to behave toward me, and how would I behave toward them? "Remember, in the other life people have everything they want, provided it can be fitted in with what other people want also.
How about the Ten Commandments, then, and all the other rules and statutes, the breaking of which is traditionally regarded as sin, punishable with hell? I believe they have been given to us by the all-wise Creator as guidelines to a good and productive spiritual life. They reveal to us the unvarying laws of spirit. Break them and you will suffer. You tell your child not to play with the electric toaster while it is operating; he disobeys you, and gets a shock or a burn. You do not have to punish him; his own action punishes him; but your words have helped him to learn that electricity burns. I look upon much of the Bible as being like the handbook or instruction card given by the manufacturers with some new appliance - toaster, TV or whatever, telling you how to get the best out of it, how to avoid smashing it up and smashing yourself up. The many sins we all commit during life, sins of omission and sins of commission, can actually be of benefit to us if we learn from them - just as mistakes made at school in a chemistry lab can be valuable to the student in the learning process. Don't feel guilty over your past sins; learn from them, pay for them, and turn away from them. The Commandments were not given to us to trip us up or condemn us, but to help and benefit us. God is on our side, as every loving Father is on the side of his children. He longs to have us all with Him in heaven. Open yourself to Him. Think of Him often. Get in tune with Him. Develop a heavenly state. of mind, and this will carry you into the happy, unselfish life of heaven. There will be rejoicing among the angels, and the Lord's intentions on your behalf will be fulfilled. Sin, Forgiveness, Salvation; the sequence will be complete.