Part III: New Light on Traditional Doctrinal Categories
The Redemption of the World From a Flood of Evil
We have now concluded our brief survey of the spiritual world, and so we are in a position to take up again what Swedenborg calls the doctrine of the Lord, continuing the inquiry we began in Chapter 3 with "God the Creator." In the next few chapters we shall be dealing with such sublime subjects as the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Glorification, the Trinity, Salvation, and the Divine Providence. But first we must ask who Jesus actually was, and why he came into the world when he did. We must determine as far as possible what his relationship was with God the Creator, what he achieved on earth, and where he is now.
Whole libraries of books have been written about our Lord's outer life in Palestine— his journeys, his teachings, his miracles, and finally his crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension. But to understand his mission intelligently we must look below the surface and see what he was doing on the inner side. Briefly, his purpose was three-fold: to redeem humanity from the growing power of Hell, to glorify the human nature he derived from Mary of Nazareth, and to establish the Christian church.
Jesus lived his life on two levels simultaneously. He was in the world, tramping the lanes of Galilee with his disciples, but at the same time he was consciously active on the spiritual plane. On earth, he taught and healed, and set an example of Christian living, which led to the founding of the Christian church. In the spiritual world he performed the redemption and glorified his humanity.
Most Christians today ignore what he did on the spiritual plane, because they do not understand it. The old explanations are so irrational, even unethical, they have been generally abandoned, and even numbers of the clergy will confess that the redemption doesn't mean much any more. But to those of us in the New Church, the redemption was our Lord's crowning work, one of the pivotal turning-points of human history. We will consider it somewhat fully in this chapter.
To "redeem" means to rescue someone from slavery or captivity. In can be done by payment of a large sum of money as a ransom, or it can be achieved by force. At the time we are considering, two thousand years ago, the human race was enslaved by the devil. A general redemption had become imperative, and we believe it was effected by Jesus.
The early church used to teach that Jesus did it by paying the ransom money of his own blood to the devil. Later, people said, "No, no! Surely he did not pay the ransom to the devil! That would make the devil mightier than God!" So the church changed things around and said that Jesus paid the ransom to God-his-Father.
The theory was developed late in the 11th century, somewhat like this: God-the-Father had intended to destroy humanity as a punishment for sin. However, his son Jesus, who had always been with him in Heaven, was persuaded to go down to earth to be punished on humanity's behalf. ("How wonderfully kind of God-the-Father to send him," people used to say!) So Jesus came on earth and lived a life of exemplary sinlessness, at the end of which he was unjustly tortured and nailed on the cross. This entirely satisfied the "justice" of his Father, who thereupon forgave the sins of the human race, and humanity was saved! The only requirement now is that we should "believe" that Jesus died on our behalf; this will bring us into the redemptive scheme, and all will be well.
Such an explanation of the redemption does not make much sense, as you will agree; yet it has found its way into thousands of sermons and hymns, and into countless prayers which end: "For Jesus Christ's sake," or "For the sake of Thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
If we abandon this myth of the "vicarious atonement, which is nowhere taught in the gospels (nor even in Paul's epistles, despite their legalism), do we have to drop all belief in the redemption? By no means. But, it must be interpreted correctly.
The Lord did not redeem humanity by payment of a ransom. To "pay the price of sin" would have actually increased sin's resources, and strengthened the power of Hell. No; he redeemed us by fighting single-handed against Hell, thus breaking the power of evil that was becoming too great for humanity to resist.
Who was the Enemy?
There was at that time an enormous accumulation of evil spirits from this earth who had not yet passed on into their final home in Hell, but were occupying the World of Spirits alongside this earth. These evil spirits were dominating people's minds, and even, in some cases, their physical bodies. The equilibrium between good and evil was being upset. As a result, this world was ceasing to produce angels. The old process of salvation was no longer working; a new church was needed. But first, the human race had to be rescued from the mess it was in. To do this, God himself came into the world, which was the arena where the evil spirits were operating. He could not come in his unshielded majesty and glory, or he would have destroyed everybody, which he did not want to do. (He loves even the devils and satans: they are still his children, though they have turned against him.) So he came as the man Jesus. The evil spirits were acting on the human plane, in human heredity, so God assumed a human nature, complete with its evil heredity, and came to grips with them where they were operating.
Jesus was God and human. He was God as to his inmost soul and human as to his conscious thought, his physical desires and sensations, and, of course, as to his physical body. Being a man, he was tempted and attacked by devils and satans, like every other person at that time; but, being inwardly God, he had power to resist, which no other person could do. "He trod the winepress alone." (Isaiah 63:3)
God Himself was the Redeemer
It is a basic teaching of the New Church that God himself, Jehovah our Creator, was the Redeemer. ("Before Abraham was," said Jesus, "I am.")(John 8: 58) The human nature he assumed was merely the instrument by which he accomplished his redemptive work. There was no "second person" involved. Jesus was God himself in human form, or God in human focus.
The Old Testament affirms this great truth over and over again. "Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." (Deuteronomy 6:4) "There is no God else beside me, a just God and a savior; there is none beside me. Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God and there is none else." (Isaiah 45:21-22) "Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem?" (Isaiah 50:2) "Thus saith the Lord your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 43:14.) These passages prove that the one God of the Old Testament is himself the redeemer and savior. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he has visited and redeemed his people." (Luke 1:68) No mention here of a second person!
The Son of God
By the "Son" of God is meant the humanity that God took upon himself when he came into the world. Jesus "came forth from God" rather as a son comes forth from his father. Thus (note this well) there was no "Son of God" before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The expression "Son of God" does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. The first time we read of the Son of God is when the angel Gabriel says to Mary: "That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35) In other words, there was no Son of God up to that time, but there would be a Son of God when Jesus was born of Mary, and God was his father; therefore Jesus was the son of Mary and the son of God. The parts of his nature that he derived from Mary were finite, corruptible, and not divine; therefore, Mary was not the mother of God, as some people believe. God cannot have a mother!
Jesus was never separated from God in the way that the seed that produced you was separated from your father at conception. Always God was within Jesus as his soul, even while he was still a fetus in his mother's body, and all the time he was growing up in Nazareth—first as a child, and then a young man at the carpenter's bench. He spoke of God as his Father who was within him doing the works. "He that hath seen me," he said, "hath seen the Father. I and the Father are one." (John 14:9 and 10:30)
The Son of Mary
All of us derive something from our fathers and something from our mothers. So with Jesus. What he derived from his Father (God) was divine. What he derived from his mother (Mary) was just the same as what other Jewish boys were inheriting from their mothers at that time, corrupt with evil tendencies of every kind. Because of this, Jesus was "tempted in all points like as were are" (Hebrews 4:15) and a thousand times worse than any of us are today. He passionately desired to commit every kind of sin: to love himself and dominate others, to seize their possessions, to commit adultery, to bear false witness, to covet . . . and so on. But he never once yielded. He never committed sin in thought, word or deed. He fought and overcame his tempters, with power drawn from within himself—the divine side of his nature. He said, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" (Matthew 16:23) This was not easy for him; it was a perpetual struggle, with real pain and anguish. While being tempted, he did not feel himself to be divine, far from it! On the contrary, he felt that God had deserted him. He had to pray constantly to the Father within him for strength and courage. But each time, after the battle was over and another gang of evil spirits had been deprived of their power, he felt once again that he was the "Son of God"—God in human form.
Freedom for Humanity
When we speak of the redemption, then, we mean that Jesus fought and conquered the evil spirits who were dominating the world from the intermediate region of the spiritual world. He drove them down into Hell, and actually formed them into a new Hell. By doing this, he released from bondage all people on earth who had been reduced to slavery by them. After their crushing defeat, the devils and satans in the spiritual world could no longer compel men and women on earth to obey them, tempting them beyond their powers of resistance. Hence forward, anyone wishing to be saved could be so, in the Savior's strength. Jesus restored free will to the world. He "redeemed" humanity, making everybody spiritually free. He did not, of course, bring an end to sinning and evil (there has been plenty of sin and evil in the world since the redemption!), but he ended the human race's slavery to evil.
If you could study the inner history of the human race, you would find that, during the lifetime of Jesus on earth a new spirit of freedom came into the world, not only in Palestine but also in India, China, Europe, Africa, America, Australia—wherever there were people. This freedom was of the soul, and resulted in a bubbling up of new spiritual life everywhere. It was, in fact, a New Church.
As well as bringing spiritual freedom to the human race on earth, Jesus liberated the good spirits in the intermediate region of the spiritual world, who had been dominated and enslaved by the evil gangs there. These good spirits he raised up and formed into a new Heaven. This separating of the evil from the good is referred to in the gospels as the "Judgment." Jesus said, "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from Heaven." (Luke 10:18) And we are told that, after the crucifixion, "The graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves." (Matthew 27:52-53) This all took place in the intermediate region of the spiritual world, seen only by those whose spiritual eyes were opened.
Some people think that Jesus redeemed us simply by suffering death on the cross, and that the crucifixion was the redemption. According to this view, his life and teachings were of no particular importance, it was only his death that mattered! Well, of course, this is not true. Actually, the redemption was almost complete before the crucifixion.
Yet the crucifixion must be given its due place in the picture. It was the most grievous of our Lord's temptations, because it came right down into his physical body. The devils, powerless over his spiritual life, were fighting a rear-guard action by tormenting him physically. While he was nailed on the cross and hung there dying in agony, the temptation to hate his torturers and to use his divine powers against them, must have been almost overwhelming, especially as he was made to feel (as in all his temptations) that God had forsaken him. Where were his disciples? All had deserted him! Was it worth all this suffering? Yet he must continue to love the whole human race, good and bad alike. If he had ceased to do this for one instant, the evil spirits would have a resounding victory, and his redemptive work would have been undone. Instead, he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) His unwavering love, even in the face of torture, broke the power of Hell.
Yet what of himself as a man of flesh and blood? What was to become of him? His whole conscious life was ebbing painfully away. Before him lay a vast emptiness, a void of nothingness, into which he had to plunge.
When he rose from the sepulcher on Easter Sunday, he was in his Divine Humanity only. Everything from his mother, Mary, had been annihilated, and the redemption had been accomplished.