In the World of Spirits
The whole Bible assumes the existence of a Divine Being, a spiritual world, and the immortality of human beings. These ideas form the basis of its whole structure, and are interwoven into every part of it, but they are rarely taught in a distinct and formal manner. We are not told where the spiritual world is, nor are we distinctly instructed under what form we are to conceive it. There is but little said, except in a figurative and incidental way, about the employments of spiritual beings, their relations to one another, and their general mode of life. But the great truths are everywhere implied, that the spiritual world is a real world, that spiritual beings are real beings, and that they dwell in a state of happiness or misery according to their characters.
This method of treating these subjects has given room for the exercise of human reason and .fancy, and the result has been a multitude of theories, ranging from the grossest materialism to the most ethereal and meaningless abstractions. These theories have generally been based upon some passages in the Word which seemed to suggest them; and then they have been carried out according to the fancy and constructive ability of their authors. Thus, the common idea of hell as a burning lake into which the wicked are plunged, and on whose fiery billows they are to be forever tossed and tormented, but never consumed, is founded upon a few passages in the Bible in which fire is mentioned in connection with the punishment of the wicked. The happiness of heaven is generally thought to consist in rest from all active employment, and in the perpetual worship of the Lord. This idea is doubtless derived from some expressions in the Revelation, which represent the multitude of the heavenly host as surrounding the throne and singing songs of perpetual praise. But the more the subject is viewed in the light of reason, and the nature of humankind as spiritual beings, the less satisfactory these theories become. They cannot be accepted as full and final statements upon these subjects; and the doctrines based upon them are so conflicting with one another, and result in so many contradictions of the nature of man, and the general scope and spirit of the Sacred Scriptures, that they involve the whole subject in darkness, and lead many to doubt even the existence of a conscious, real life after this. It was this very reason, as we believe, that rendered new and fuller disclosures upon this subject necessary.
In the absence of all direct and positive teaching upon these subjects in the letter of the Word, we are compelled to judge of every theory by its intrinsic probability. If a theory of future life is presented to us, which contains nothing contrary to the spirit and plain teachings of the Bible; if it does no violence to reason; involves no inconsistencies with itself; satisfies the demands of human nature, and is in perfect harmony with all the Divine methods of operation so far as we know them, it would seem difficult for us to reject it.
We seek this comprehensive, catholic judgment for the disclosures of the New Church. We do not ask you to deny the Bible, to reject your reason, to be blind to universal laws, or to seek refuge from any absurd conclusions in the Divine omnipotence. Bring to their examination the acutest reason, the maturest judgment; compare them with the whole spirit of the Word, and with all the Divine methods of operation; compare them with themselves, and the more thorough, severe, and impartial your examination, the more likely you will be to see their truth.
In previous chapters I have endeavored to show that there are spiritual substances, and, consequently, that there can be a spiritual world, entirely distinct from this world; that people are essentially spiritual beings, organized of spiritual substances, and that as a spirit they are in the human form, that their material body receives its form from the spirit, and when it has performed its office, decays and falls off from it, as the husk falls from the corn when it is ripe, as the shell falls from the sparrow when it is ready for entrance into a new world. I have aimed to show that every law of God, of human beings, and of nature, demands the death of the body and the resurrection of people into the spiritual world. Let us now endeavor to follow them into that world, learn something of its nature, and endeavor to ascertain what condition and changes the same laws demand for them there. I propose to do as I have done in previous chapters, state the doctrines of the New Church, and give some of the reasons on which they are founded.
During the process of their resurrection from the material body, people are in a state of total unconsciousness. They fall into a profound sleep, and wake in the spiritual world. They have no power to effect their resurrection themselves. Their soul does not escape from the body as gas from a vessel, by its comparative levity. Their spiritual body must be withdrawn from the material body, and this separation is effected by the Lord, through the ministry of angels, by a spiritual attraction. When the delicate task is fully accomplished, without any pain or consciousness on the part of those who are undergoing the change, people are gradually and gently awaked, and find themselves among angels and friends in the spiritual world. They are in the same form, and they do not even know that they are dead until they reflects upon what they see around them. They have all the bodily organs they ever had. They see, hear, and use all their senses the same as they ever did. They talk with those present, and walk from place to place as they did when in this world. Indeed, there has been no more change in their bodily form and organization than there would have been by going from one house to another in this world. They have only thrown aside the garment of clay. The spiritual body remains the same as before.
No change in his intellectual or moral character has been effected by his death and resurrection. He knows no more and no less; he is no better and no worse. Every one takes all his memory, and all his mental faculties act the same as before. He loves, hopes, fears, reasons, desires, reflects, forms opinions and expresses them. In a word, he is the same person, and he knows it.
The question naturally arises, What grounds have we for this belief?
There is nothing in the Bible contrary to this doctrine, but many things that tend to confirm it. Our Lord's promise to the thief on the cross, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise," is sufficient evidence that we preserve our identity, if we do nothing more. Moses and Elias were seen on the mount of Transfiguration. John saw a vast multitude from every nation, kindred, and tongue. All the promises and threatenings of the whole Bible imply that human beings are the same being in the spiritual world that they were in this.
I presume all persons who believe in a future existence will admit this as an abstract truth. But most persons practically deny it, by denying to people as spirits those qualities which constitute their personal being, or identity. There is not the slightest ground for believing that a person would know themselves if they became after death what a spirit is generally supposed to be. And this, without doubt, is the cause of' the great fear many persons have of death. They do not know and cannot conceive what they will become.
There can be no identity or recognition where there is no form, or where the form is totally changed. Every person has some idea or conception of themselves. Suppose the next time you look in a mirror you should see nothing but what a spirit is generally supposed to be, would you recognize yourself in it? Or, suppose you see a distinct human form, but totally unlike your own, would you not say at once, "That is not I?" How do you recognize your friends? By their having the same form they had when you saw them last? If the change has been very great, you do not know them; you never know them until you see some features you remember to have seen before. The same principle applies to things as well as persons. You could not find your house tonight if it was totally changed, with everything around it. The word identity means sameness. If we do not rise into the spiritual world in the same form we possessed here we shall never rise.
But not only outward form is essential to the preservation of our identity, but inward character. We must preserve our affections, our knowledge, our experience, and our memory. We preserve our identity as intellectual and moral beings, by comparing every step in our mental and spiritual progress with the last one. Gradual development is absolutely essential to the preservation of our personal being. We must be able to see how one state grows out of another, to know that we are the same beings today we were in the past. All the laws of our life demand, therefore, that we shall preserve our form and character and rise in the spiritual world the same being we were here.
You can hardly fail to see how simple and logical the doctrines of the New Church are upon this subject. They avoid all the difficulties and confusion of ideas which the prevalent beliefs produce by directing us to look into the grave for some part of our friends, and into the spiritual world for some other part, and to some future time when the two maybe re-united.
The spiritual world being here, and people being spirits in the human form - in the same form as the body - when they are raised up into the spiritual world, they stand there, a complete human being, having left nothing behind them but their material body. The veil of flesh is now removed from their spiritual senses, and spiritual objects and spiritual beings are now as real to every sense as natural objects were before.
Having thus followed our path fairly into the spiritual world, without losing ourselves as distinct personal beings, and without violence to the laws of our own nature, or any opposition to the universal methods of the Divine wisdom, let us examine the nature of the spiritual world and learn its relations to the intelligent beings who dwell in it.
We have already seen that, if it is anything, it is a real and substantial world. Our doctrines teach us that it is divided into three principal divisions. Heaven, the world of spirits, and hell. Heaven is the abode of the good; hell of the evil; and the world of spirits is a state intermediate between them. It is called the world of spirits, because those who dwell in it are called spirits, in distinction from angels or devils. The inhabitants of the heavens are angels, of the hells, devils or satans; but all are called spirits before they reach their final home. This state is not like the purgatory of the Catholics. It is not a state of probation or punishment. though some persons suffer severely in their passage through it. Nor is it a place where the souls of people wait for the resurrection of the material body, as many believe. It is a state of judgment and preparation for the eternal home, of all who have passed from the earth. It resembles this world so fully that when we are first raised up into it we are not struck with any great change. In respect to the forms and scenery, the change is not greater than it would be if we had removed to some other place in this world, and perhaps not so great. We finds ourselves real people in a real world. We sees similar forms, as real to our spiritual senses as rock and tree ever were to our natural senses in this world. It lies next to the earth, between us and heaven or hell, and all from the earth - the good as well as the evil - must pass through it before they reach their final home.
Such, briefly, are the doctrines of the New Church upon this subject. Let us see what rational grounds we have for belief in such a world.
Heaven is a state of unsullied purity, and of that joy, peace, and blessedness which only result from the harmonious activity of all our spiritual faculties. Every thought and affection must not only be in perfect accord with every other thought and affection in the same mind, but in all minds; and not only with the minds of all who dwell in heaven, but with the Lord from whom all this life flows. There must be no jar, no discord, no selfish or evil desire, no failure in the attainment of any end. Now, it is almost if not quite impossible for us to conceive of such a state. We may imagine a condition of things which we think would content us, but we often find ourselves greatly mistaken, even in this world. But when we come to take all others into the account, the problem becomes much more complicated. While we love and obtain what perfectly contents and satisfies ourselves, we must, at the same time, satisfy every one else. Now, can you find a hundred persons in this world so heavenly-minded, so unselfish, so homogeneous in nature, that it would be possible for them to form such a society? Do you know of two persons who have attained such perfection? But this state must be attained before we reach heaven. Do you not think the best of men and women must undergo great changes before they come into this state? Must not their understandings become greatly enlightened, and their affections elevated and purified?
It seems to be generally supposed that all that is necessary to gain entrance into heaven is the permission of the Lord. But if the doors of heaven were thrown wide open - and they are - and the Lord should say to every one as he entered: "I freely forgive you; I will not punish you for a single sin," and all, as they left this world, should enter, do you think it would be a heaven long? We must not forget that the character of every society is formed by the members who compose it, and that we do not gain any knowledge or any goodness by the mere act of death. Is it not evident that heaven is very remote from most of us?
We must remember also, that all changes of character are effected by our voluntary agency. We must learn what is true and heavenly, and do it, from love, not from fear or compulsion, before we can enter heaven. The kingdom of heaven must be formed within us before we can enter into it. We find it a very slow and difficult work here; so slow and difficult that we often despair of accomplishing it.
But suppose it were possible for the Lord by His omnipotent power to transform us instantaneously into angels. Do you think we should know ourselves? I fear not. We might be angels, but I doubt whether we should know that we were ever men and women in this world. Is it rational to suppose that we can leap that mighty interval between us, as we are in this world, and what we must and shall be, if we ever reach heaven? The supposition is contrary to reason, to the nature of man, and to all known methods of the Divine wisdom.
Think of the great multitude of human beings who are daily and hourly passing away from the earth. It is estimated that thirty-six millions of people die annually. This would be three millions a month, and a hundred thousand a day. Every twenty-four hours a hundred thousand human beings, of all ages, sexes, and conditions, pass into the spiritual world. Among that vast multitude, there are many helpless infants, children, youth; many persons in the prime of natural life; many in the decrepitude of old age. How large a portion of them are heathen, utterly destitute of any spiritual knowledge, and with very little knowledge of any kind! The infant is an infant still, the child is a child, the savage, a savage. All these persons are to be provided
for. We cannot suppose the Lord deserts any of His children. We cannot believe that this vast multitude of human beings, differing from one another in so many respects, each one having wants peculiar to themselves, are crowded together in one promiscuous mass. They could not form a heaven; they could not form a hell; for hell as well as heaven is a state of society determined by those who compose it. They cannot be instantaneously changed into beings fit for either state, without destroying their identity, and contravening all known methods of infinite wisdom.
Here is a large army of souls daily marching into the spiritual world, every one the object of the Heavenly Father's love. The greater part of them are weak and ignorant; their characters have not yet been confirmed in opposition to good. We can conceive of influences under which they might be brought, if they were to remain in this world, that would form them into good men and women. Can any one entertain the idea, that a being of infinite love and wisdom fails to provide every necessary means for the accomplishment of this work, when it is the essential end for which He created them?
What is to be done with the little child? She is weak, ignorant, has many evil tendencies, but she has all the germs of angelic life. If she could remain in this world, she might develop these germs and make them a part of her real being. Does she lose his opportunity of becoming an angel by her resurrection from the material body? She cannot become one, at once, unless all the laws of the human mind are changed. She must have the means of instruction. Her will must not be destroyed, for that would be the destruction of the essential human principle. She must be left in freedom, to do what he is taught. And this implies the opportunity to exercise his affections. This is the only way in which her spiritual faculties could be developed. What becomes of the heathen, and the great number in Christian countries, who go into the spiritual world without any knowledge of spiritual truth? They are children in knowledge, though adults in years. Do you not suppose that the Lord would provide for the development of those faculties, for which they had no opportunity in this world?
Here is a man, a type of a large class, who is a good man at heart. He means well, and strives to live a good life. But he has many evil inclinations to contend with, many bad habits to overcome. Where is there a good man or woman who has not? Where is the Christian who is not oppressed, and sometimes discouraged, as Paul was, with this conflict? Who does not find that when they would do good, evil is present with them; and that they are compelled to maintain a constant warfare against false and evil principles? The purest and best Christian sees more clearly than any others, that they have these two opposing natures. Indeed, none but those in whom a true spiritual life has begun to germinate do see and feel this antagonism. What is to be done with that large class, who embrace nearly all the good? They cannot carry any evil or impurity into heaven. And, by the same law, they cannot carry any goodness into hell. Without doing violence to their own natures, they cannot be instantaneously changed.
I know it is generally supposed that a good person leaves all their imperfections behind with the material body. But there is no ground for the belief. The body does not sin. It is just as powerless to do that before death, as afterwards. Goodness and truth, evil and falsity, are mental and spiritual qualities, not material. But suppose people were instantaneously changed at death into beings of perfect purity and holiness, do you think they would know themselves? Would they be the same beings? Suppose everything that is not heavenly to be eliminated from your will and understanding, your affection and thought, would it not create a great void? I fear there would not be much left of any of us. The result would be about the same as it would to remove all the features in a deformed face but those of perfect loveliness and beauty. If the mind is a spiritual form, as we have seen that it is, it would be such a change. Who would know themselves? But the mind cannot be changed, except by its own consent and cooperation. A rock or a block of dead wood can, but living forms cannot. Such an instantaneous change, if it were possible, would so disrupt a personís whole nature, break all the fine and delicate laws of association by which his or her thoughts and affections are related, and the continuity of their being is maintained, that it would destroy them. It would be like tearing out half the nerves of their body. Between the vast multitude who are continually passing into the spiritual world, and the repose, purity, and perfection of heaven, there is, therefore, a greater or less distance that must be passed over. Many evil and false principles must be put off, many truths must be learned, and many good affections must be more fully developed. The good and the evil, so intimately bound together and consolidated by habit, must be disentangled; and this must be done so gently, that our spiritual organization will not suffer by it. It must be done by our voluntary cooperation. In the larger part of spirits character must have almost its whole development. And we have no evidence that the laws of mind, in that world, are so changed as to make the development other than a voluntary and gradual process.
To what conclusion, then, are we inevitably brought? Do not heaven, hell, the nature of human beings and of the Lord, and all spiritual and Divine laws, so far as we know anything about them, demand an intermediate world in which spiritual beings may be instructed and prepared for their final home, and led to it? Is there any escape from this conclusion? It may be denied. So you may deny that the sun shines. You may say that the Lord has omnipotent power, and can effect these changes in a moment. But you have no evidence that He will. On the contrary, from all we know of the Divine methods, we have no right to infer that He abandons the relations of cause and effect, and acts in a purely arbitrary manner in the spiritual world more than here.
Admitting, then, as I think every rational mind must, that there is this intermediate state between us and our eternal home, we can see how beautifully it harmonizes with all we know of the Divine operations, and how clearly it shows the protection and merciful care of the Lord for His children, in every stage of their existence, and how consistent the theory is with all we have said in previous chapters concerning the nature of man as a spiritual being and the realities of a spiritual world.
That world is here, is everywhere around us, and is separated from us only by the thin veil of matter. We are in it now, though unconscious of it. We are spirits in the human form, and when the veil of matter is withdrawn, the spiritual world in which we were already living is revealed to us. We have not gone to any remote place. We are not changed. We see the beings who were around us, and just as near us, before the veil was withdrawn from our eyes, as they are now. We do not go among strangers, and find everything new and wholly different from what we have seen and known before. Says Swedenborg:
"The first state of a person after death is similar to his state in this world. . . . They have a similar face, similar speech, and similar moral and external life. Hence it is that he knows no otherwise than that they are still in the world, unless they pay attention to those things which present themselves, and to those which were said to them by the angels when they were first raised up, that they are now a spirit. Thus one life is continued into the other, and death is only the passage." (Heaven and Hell, no. 493)
Who cannot see in this a kind and merciful regard for people; such provident care as infinite love must give to every one? You could do no less for your children. Your weak, imperfect human love would not only lead you, but would make it delightful to you, to do all in your power to provide your children with all the means for their instruction and comfort; to secure friends for them if they were going far away from you into some foreign country. Will not infinite love do as much? It follows, from all we have said, that the world of spirits is the place of reunion among friends who have been separated by death. Being in the same form as when they were in this world, their friends can recognize them. If they were nothing but what spirits are generally supposed to be, such recognition would be impossible. But if they have the same form and the same features, and if all persons carry with them all things of their memory, so that the most trivial incident they have ever known or seen can be recalled to them, it would follow that they could hardly fail to meet and be recognized by their friends.
When we found that we were real human beings, in a substantial human form, and were in a real world, our first thought would naturally be about our friends who had gone before us. Would not the mother whose children had been removed before her first inquire for them, and rejoice with unspeakable delight when they were restored to her? Would not the husband and wife, bound to each other by the strongest and tenderest ties, but long separated by death, seek each other and rejoice in being once more united? Could it be otherwise? Friend would seek friend, and all whose lives had been united by common pursuits and common affections, would find one another, and according to the mutual affinities of their natures they would associate together.
This would necessarily result from a universal law of spiritual life, a law that operates in this world as well as in the spiritual. When we think of another, we imagine how that person looks; we present them before us. If we were in the spiritual world he or she would actually stand before us. Thought is spiritual presence. Suppose, for example, a mother, when she was fully aware that she was in the spiritual world, should think of some beloved son or daughter; she would have in her mind a perfect picture of her child, and the being who was the counterpart of that picture would stand before her, not merely as an image in a mirror, but as a real presence, and would greet her and embrace her with as ardent an affection as ever in this world.
There friend meets friend; families, apparently broken up by death, are reunited; the child is restored to the bereaved parent, and all whose hearts have been bound together by mutual affection find each other and associate together, according to their spiritual affection for each other in this world. What a comforting hope does this truth hold out to every bereaved heart.
But while the Lord has mercifully provided that the change from this world to the spiritual world should appear to be very small at first, that there may be no break in the continuity of our being, the real change is very great. We are free from the impediments of the material body. We throw off the burden we have carried so long, and the spiritual body becomes subject to spiritual forces alone. The senses are uncovered. No dead matter comes between them and spiritual objects, and their acuteness and delicacy are wonderfully increased.
A veil is taken away from all the mental faculties, the perception becomes acute, the understanding clear, the reason sharp to discern all the relations of various truths; ideas can be perfectly represented to the senses in spiritual forms, and the mind has every facility for rapid and comprehensive development; and though the distance to our final home is great, we may soon pass over it. That depends, however, upon how much we have to unlearn, which is always a more difficult task than to learn, and how much affection we have for the truth. Some are but a few days in throwing off all that is not homogeneous to their essential characters, while others struggle along for years. Children learn far more rapidly than in this world, and they have this immense advantage: they learn only the truth, and consequently they have nothing to unlearn; every new truth is a step forward. They have teachers, also, who know how to touch the secret springs of their life, and to adapt their instruction in the most perfect manner to every state. And they are not only taught the truth, but they are continually applying it to life. They use it as they learn it. Thus they are prepared to become angels in heaven. It is necessary that they should begin life in this world in a material body, but it is not necessary that they should remain long in it.
This world of spirits is common ground for all who dwell in the spiritual world. The angels visit it when they can be of any service to any spirit who dwells there, and there is open, conscious, and delightful intercourse with those heavenly beings. In that world, also, they are near to us, for that world is here, and they are continually performing kind offices for us, doing far more for us than our best friends here can do; and when we are about to leave this world, and take the next great step in life, they stand around us and assist us with the most loving and assiduous care.
Thus, in our journey towards our eternal home, we are attended by the purest and noblest beings, and there is no break in the continuity of our life. From conception to birth, from birth into this world to our birth into the spiritual world, and from that through eternity, every step follows by natural sequence from the preceding. There are no fathomless gulfs to cross, no steps to retrace, no dispersion of any elements that will ever be essential to us. We shall always leave behind everything that has ceased to serve us. We shall always find the world we dwell in keeping even pace with the development of our spiritual natures, that we may have the fullest and widest scope for the exercise of every faculty, and the attainment of every joy.