The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 30 - Life After Death

For eight years, while he was engaged on the Arcana, almost nothing is known of Emanuel Swedenborg personally. If he had retired to a Tibetan monastery he could scarcely have enjoyed greater seclusion than in his suburban home. During this time, 1749-1757, he had published the eight quarto volumes of Arcana Coelestia, and written a prodigious quantity of other manuscripts.

The summer of 1758 finds him again in England with the copy for five lesser works to be published in London. Much of it was based on material previously printed between the chapters of the Arcana, but now rewritten in a systematic form. One of the five treatises was the work Heaven and Hell, best known and most widely read of all Swedenborg's books. The other four were: The White Horse, an exposition of the vision of John in Revelation XIX, (see p. 260); The Last Judgment, (see p. 261) ; another called The Earths in the Universe, and The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine, a word that explains in detail the doctrines of the New Church, teaching from the Word how a man must live in order to be saved and that no one who believes in God and lives well is condemned, whatever his religion.[427]

Besides these he had begun and was elaborating a voluminous commentary entitled The Apocalypse Explained,[428] expounding, verse by verse, the book of Revelation as he had explained the books of Genesis and Exodus in the Arcana. Ideas first expressed in the Arcana are here developed in detail. Two copies of this work exist in Swedenborg's hand, written out for the printer. On the title-page is inscribed: "Londini, 1759," an indication that the author intended to publish it that year. Again his purpose was changed; whether for financial or other reasons, Swedenborg never issued this great work of four quarto volumes. Instead, seven years later, he published a resumé of the internal sense of the Apocalypse in one large volume entitled The Apocalypse Revealed.[429] It is difficult to see when even such a diligent student as our Swedenborg found time to do this amazing amount of writing and rewriting!

Just as his philosophical works, at one stage, culminated in his search for the soul, so now Swedenborg's theological writings are occupied with the Holy City or "the Kingdom of God." So basic for him was the idea "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all things shall be added unto you," that he placed this verse from Matthew VI as a motto on nearly all of his theological works up to this time. Our concept of the Kingdom of God is immensely extended by the treatise on The Earths in the Universe, for in this work Swedenborg maintains that the human race is not confined to one earth only but extends to earths innumerable.[430]

Heaven and Hell owes its appeal to the fact that it treats of the life after death. Whatever is uncertain in this world, one thing is certain - we all shall die, and there are few who have not, at some time, meditated on this inevitable change. Philosophers, ancient and modern, have discussed the question of the possibility of the soul's being immortal. Socrates, in his powerful Apology, rejoices that after he has drunk the cup of hemlock he will be reunited with his friends who have died and he joyfully contemplates the prospect of talking over and comparing his experiences with Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer and Ulysses, and spending his time pleasantly "in questioning and examining the people there, as I have done those here, and discovering who among them is wise, and who fancies himself to be so, but is not . . . " One ought to entertain good hopes with respect to death, says this wise man, and to meditate on the truth that "to a good man nothing is evil, either while he lives or when he is dead."

The orthodox Christian churches of the 18th century were very vague about the life after death. They taught, indeed, that man will live after death, but as to when and how the resurrection is to take place and as to what kind of life awaited the risen soul they were quite indefinite. By contrast, Swedenborg, in Heaven and Hell, declared that his assertions were actual facts about the future life; that the Word of God was the basis for them and that his own experiences were proofs of immortality!

How diametrically opposite to the prevailing ideas were his teachings!

Angels are a race of celestial beings created such from the beginning, said the Churches.

Not so, said Swedenborg; every inhabitant of heaven, as well as of hell, once lived a man on earth.

Man will be resurrected as to the physical body, said the Churches.

The physical body decays in the ground, never to be resumed, said Swedenborg. It is the soul, the immaterial body, that is raised - immediately after death.

The heavenly joys that await the saved soul are perpetual adoration and psalm-singing, said the Churches.

No, said Swedenborg. There, as here, everyone has his own occupation. Formal worship is only one phase of the heavenly life, a recreation rather than an employment. The angels eat and drink, work and play, live in homes and meet together in assemblies. They are divided into societies according to their services and genius.

Lost souls are perpetually tormented in eternal fire, was the established belief of those days.

There is no fire except the burning of evil lusts, said our author. God punishes no one. The torture of the damned consists purely in their being restrained from committing evils. It certainly is not "the pangs of conscience," for the evil have no conscience. To themselves they appear like men living as before, although in the sight of heaven they appear like monsters.

Millions of unbaptized infants and heathen are among the lost, taught the orthodox ministers, and hustled newborn babies out in any kind of weather to be baptized, so as to cheat the Devil of his prey - especially if the little ones were sickly and seemed in danger of dying!

Not so, said Swedenborg. The Gentiles are, in general, better than the Christians and when instructed are more easily received into heaven. As for infants, they are taken to heavenly societies immediately after death, to be tenderly nurtured by angels until they reach a state of spiritual maturity.

Instead of being vague, remote places, heaven and hell are all around us while we are living on the earth and, as to our souls, we are even now inhabitants of the spiritual world. Dying is merely a removal from one plane of consciousness to another; one's body is discarded like a worn-out garment, said Swedenborg. His spiritual world is a real world, inhabited not by ghosts but by men and women who have lived on earth. In the opening pages of Heaven and Hell he states:

When the body is no longer able to perform the bodily functions in the natural world that correspond to the spirit's thoughts and affections ... man is said to die. This takes place when the respiration of the lungs and the beating of the heart cease. But the man does not die; he is merely separated from the bodily part that was of use to him in the world, while the man himself continues to live, since he is not a man because of his body but because of his spirit, for it is the spirit that thinks in man, and thought, with affection, is what constitutes men. Evidently, then, the death of man is merely his passing from one world into another.[431]

In the other world a spiritual gravitation arranges everything into exquisite order. All there are associated through inner similarities and not, as here, by space and time. Those in the closest harmony with God are in the highest, inmost or celestial heaven; those relatively less perfect are farther removed and comprise the spiritual heaven; those still less perfect form the natural heaven. Thus there are three heavens, and opposite them three hells. The Lord casts no one into hell, but souls gravitate to those with whom they wish to be.

* * * * *

The world's thinking has altered much in the last, hundred years and few intelligent men today would advocate the old illogical doctrines about the future life. In America this change has been traced by some to the influence of Swedenborg, who, they say, has introduced the first really new conception of immortality given to the world in eighteen centuries. The idea of the hereafter took on sane and sensible forms and became rational, conceivable and natural, largely supplanting the orthodox belief that the dead are sleeping in their graves until the last trump shall call them to a bodily resurrection.[432]

A different reaction was to be expected from Swedenborg's contemporaries, nor did he look for an immediate acceptance of his revelations. In the opening pages of Heaven and Hell he states:

The man of the church at this day knows scarcely anything about heaven and hell, nor yet about his own life after death, although these things are all treated of in the Word; yea, many even among those who were born within the church, deny these things, saying in their hearts, Who has ever come thence and told us? Lest, therefore, such a negative principle, which rules especially among those who possess much worldly wisdom, should also infect and corrupt the simple in heart and faith, it has been granted me to associate with angels and to converse with them as one man with another, and also to see the things which are in the heavens as well as those which are in the hells, and this for the space of thirteen years, and to describe these things from what I have myself seen and heard, in the hope that ignorance may thus be enlightened and incredulity dissipated. The reason that such immediate revelation is made at this time is, that this is what is meant by the Coming of the Lord.[433]

In a manuscript entitled The Athanasian Creed, [434] written during his stay in England, he states that he has sent copies of the five treatises to all the leading clergymen of Great Britain without getting any response.

In his Spiritual Diary Swedenborg describes a conversation with an English bishop who in the world was considered more learned than all the rest. The bishop confessed that he thought of the Lord as just another man and admitted that he considered evils to be sinful only because they offended against the civil law.

This bishop told Swedenborg how, by abuse and misrepresentations, he had influenced the clergy to utterly reject the five works which had been sent to the bishops and lords of the Church of England in Parliament. Swedenborg's rejoinder was a solemn statement that this was not his work, but the Lord's, Who wished to reveal the nature of heaven and hell and of man's life after death, and that theological matters do not transcend the reason.[435]

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