The Necessity of Swedenborg’s Introduction into the Spiritual World
by Rev Frank S. Rose
(Delivered at the Thirty-Ninth British Assembly, Colchester, August 4, 1952.)
When the Lord was on earth, He told a parable of a certain rich man, whose disregard for the poor destined him to a place in Hades. This rich man, on discovering that the spiritual world was a very real place, pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus to his father's house so that the five brothers of the rich man might be forewarned. In reply Abraham said: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." The rich man responded: "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." And to this Abraham merely remarked; "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead" (portions of Luke 16:19-31).
People have not changed very much in the centuries since the Lord told this parable. Swedenborg was well aware of the fact that people would not be persuaded by his repeated testimony that he had come back from the dead. And so he writes: "I know that few will believe that any one can see things that exist in the other life, and bring therefrom any report respecting the state of souls after death, for few believe in the resurrection, and fewer of the learned do so than of the simple some go so far as to say openly that if any one were to rise from the dead and they were to see, hear, and touch him, then they would believe. But if this were done, it would have to be done for each individual, and still no such person as denies in heart would be persuaded by it the Sadducees openly denied the resurrection, but did better than those at the present day who say they do not deny it because it is according to the doctrine of faith and yet do deny in heart; so that they say what is contrary to what they believe, and believe what is contrary to what they say. But lest they should confirm themselves further in this false opinion, of the Lord's Divine mercy I have been permitted, while still in the body in this world, to be in the spirit in the other life and to speak there with souls who had risen not long after death as very many say that they will believe if any one comes to them from the other life, it will now be seen whether they will be persuaded against the hardness of their hearts" (AC preface to Genesis 16).
It is clear that Swedenborg had no illusions about how the Writings would be received. He wrote from command and not from caprice. He included the descriptions of the spiritual world from a sense of duty, not merely because he thought that they would attract people to the New Church. That this is so is indicated in Count Hopken's Testimony concerning Swedenborg as recorded in Tafel's DOCUMENTS: "I know that Swedenborg has related his memorable relations in good faith. I asked him once why he wrote and published these memorable relations which seemed to throw so much ridicule on his doctrines, otherwise so rational; and whether it would not be best for him to keep them to himself, and not to publish them to the world? But he answered that he had orders from the Lord to publish them, and that those who might ridicule him on that account would do him injustice, for, said he, why should I, who am a man in years, render myself ridiculous for phantasies and falsehoods?" (Docu. II, p. 416; cf. Docu I, p. 66).
The direct command to make known the various things seen and heard in the spiritual world (TCR 771) was but an echo of the words of Genesis: "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). The Lord wills that men should understand, and not, as some believe, that they should be in ignorance of the truth. And it is in order that the man of the New Church may not wander about in shade that he has been given the means of understanding the spiritual world (TCR 771).
Man was born to live in heaven, and it is supremely important that he be given the opportunity of preparing himself for this eternal home (AC 1775; cf. AE 1094:1). In all things the Lord looks to the salvation of men. This is, of course, true of revelation. The basic reason, then, why the spiritual world has been revealed, is that a knowledge of that world is necessary to man's salvation. We are asked in the Writings: "How can one who never thinks about heaven, hell and the life after death, shun evils as sins? Such a man does not know what sin is" (AE 936:2).
If this point were obvious, the question as to why it was necessary for the spiritual world to be revealed would not arise. But, people say, "Could not a man refrain from stealing without knowing about the spiritual world? couldn't he love his neighbor without believing that there is a heaven and a hell!" The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments whether there is a spiritual world or not, it is proposed.
This question seems to bother a great many people when they first learn about the New Church. The whole subject of the spiritual world seems too vague or too complicated to discuss. And on top of this it seems to be quite impractical and theoretical in nature.
The difficulty begins with a misunderstanding of the nature of evil. Evil may be defined as a perversion of order. In itself it is not a substance; it is not a thing; it is not a bad habit; it is not even the sum total of all that is annoying to us. Evil is much more subtle than that. It follows us around in careful disguise for it appears in men as an attitude of mind. It is an attitude that seeks to destroy the order which the Lord has placed in the universe.
According to certain physicists, the universe of itself tends to slip into chaos and confusion. The sun tends to cool elf, things tend to decay and to settle into meaningless masses. Hereditary evil may be compared to this in that it is a natural tendency to enjoy disorder. Take the case of the poor housekeeper who must constantly struggle with the tendency to leave the house in a mess and enjoy it that way. Her problem is to come to know what order is, and from a sense of duty to impress that order on the house whether she likes it or not. And this, of course, means that there must be some standard, and some means of distinguishing between what is of order, and what is of evil.
This makes the problem of regeneration sound simple, but it is complicated by the fact that there are many different degrees in creation. There can be no order that does not account for these several degrees. Ideally, the Lord must be at the head, the heavens below, and the world under the feet. When man places the natural world above the spiritual world, or when he places his own will above the Divine will, he perverts order, and as it were creates evil. The great struggle of life is to effect a proper balance and subordination among the various degrees of life. In order that this struggle may be carried out intelligently and freely, the Lord has seen fit to reveal things about Himself, about the spiritual world and about an orderly life in the natural world.
Consider the confusion that has arisen among Christians because of a misunderstanding of what evil is. All the stress was laid upon a correct external without any regard for the necessary ordering and arrangement of the degrees of life. And so baptism was mistaken for salvation, drinking for intemperance, and misconduct for evil. With a great mass of people religion became a ritual. The church prescribed the narrow external path which her members must follow, and regeneration was measured by the ability of the individual to follow that path without wavering to the right or left.
But now the Lord has shattered the fable that the church can prescribe what her members shall do, and has given back to the individual the responsibility of ordering his steps according to his own conscience. This responsibility would be meaningless unless the Lord had presented the doctrines of true order in a rational form. Now men can study the teachings about the spiritual world and can attempt to effect a balance in their own lives between mind and body.
The answer to our question, then, is this: The spiritual world has been revealed in order that men might shun evils as sins. We note in this answer that the purpose is not a new one. And as a matter of fact, the Lord wills from eternity that man should not only know and understand the spiritual world, but as Spiritual Diary 2542 words it: "should reach his (full) age, be ignorant that he lived in the body, and so, his body being thrown off, immediately remove into heaven." For man was created so that even while living on earth he might at the same time live among the angels in heaven (AC 1880: 4; cf. SD 2541). This being the case, our thoughts turn to the question, not as to why the spiritual world has been revealed, but why it was hidden from men for so long a time.
In the beginning, men enjoyed some intercourse with the spiritual world. However, when evil increased, the dangers of this intercourse increased. Finally the door between the two worlds was closed, with only an occasional messenger to remind the one of the other's existence.
The Writings give us the general requirement for intercourse with spirits when they teach: "Man in his spirit is able to see things that are in the spiritual world if he can be withdrawn from the sensual things which are from the body and be elevated into the light of heaven by the Lord" (AE 543:5; cf. AC 4622). This suggests that sensuality is what prevents communication between the two worlds. In appearance, the Lord blinded the eyes of men. But evil is what blinds men to the truth, and it was the increase of evil in the world that closed the communication with heaven (AC 5964). Men became sensual. They became so enthralled with the natural world and its delights that they turned their minds away from the spiritual world. They were reluctant to admit that the natural world which they loved so much could be taken away from them. For this reason they could not have accepted a spiritual world that was anything but a more perfect natural world. So it is that we find the Mohammedan heaven differing from the natural world only in that the black eyed women are more numerous and less rebellious than their earthly counterparts. Men who reached heaven enjoyed feasting and drinking, and reclined on soft couches for the remainder of their days (The Koran, Sura LV). This was not a spiritual world, but just another idealized sensual world.
Had men been taught more about the spiritual world in revelation they would have seen it in this same light, and so would have taken all that is spiritual out of it. But the Lord's hands are not shortened that they cannot save. As soon as men had become so immersed in evil that they would not acknowledge a spiritual world, the Lord began a gentle leading that would one day bring them out of this their darkness into light. The letter of the Word became almost silent about the after life, disclosing only enough to preserve the innocent in the hope of immortality. This was what made it possible for there to be two camps among Jewish scholars the one believing in a life after death and the other firmly denying it.
When the Lord came on earth He gave comfort to those who would not give up the hope of eternal blessedness. But the teachings were not explicit and they left the Christian world with little more than wishful thinking about what the spiritual world might contain. Indeed, the Lord had many things to tell them that they could not as yet bear. Eventually ignorance turned into denial, until, at the time of Swedenborg a belief in the spiritual world had almost entirely disappeared.
Conditions today are not much better. J. Paterson Smyth describes contemporary belief in these words. "The Lord is risen, but the people do not know it. There is no death, but the people do not believe it men pass into the Unseen as stupidly as the caterpillar on the cabbage-leaf, without curiosity or joy or wonder or excitement at the boundless career ahead. . . . instead of the thrill of adventure we have the dull grey monotony of aged lives drawing near the close, and the loneliness of parting is intensified in the hearts of the bereaved as the beloved one crosses the barrier . . .what is the matter with us, Christian people! Do we not know? Or have we lost our beliefs? Or has imagination grown dulled by too frequent repetition of God's good news?" (J. Paterson Smyth: Foreword to The Gospel of the Hereafter).
This denial even in the face of the Lord's teachings was again the result of sensuality. The evil loves that place the body above the spirit will not admit that the spirit is immortal and that the body must perish. And so, in order to shape doctrine to suit themselves, men have either denied the life after death, or have suggested that when the body dies men wander about in the air longing for the material body. The great and wonderful day of the Lord will come when men can once again be joined with the flesh and can live in the kingdom of God on earth to eternity. Many religious sects dangle in front of their people the tempting thought that only members of their baptism will be privileged to come back into their physical bodies when the graves are reopened.
The reason why the spiritual world remains concealed, then, is that men are in evils that close their understanding. It is of the Lord's mercy that men have remained ignorant of the spiritual world, because these same evils would have led them to profane the truth had they known it.
The world is not regenerate today any more than it was when the door between heaven and earth was first closed. And so it is a change in regard to the possibility of profanation that makes it possible for the spiritual world to be presented to men once more. As a matter of fact, it is because men are more deeply immersed in evil that it is now possible to reveal that world without danger of profanation. Profanation comes when a thing is first accepted and later denied. As long as men had some love, even that called natural good, they could have received the truth interiorly and so could have profaned. But at the present day, the Writings assure us, there is scarcely any faith because there is not any charity (AC 3398:4).
The turning point came at the time of the last judgment. To quote: "The Divine truths that lie interiorly stored up in the Word could not be made manifest until after the Last Judgment had been accomplished; and for the reason that before that judgment the hells had prevailed, while since that judgment the heavens prevail; and man is placed in the middle between the hells and the heavens; consequently so long as the hells prevail the truth of the Word is either perverted or despised or rejected; but the reverse takes place when the heavens prevail. From all this it can be seen why Divine truths are now first disclosed and the spiritual sense of the Word revealed" (AE 957:2; see also AE 1094).
The predominance spoken of, we assume, is the predominance of either good or evil in the world of spirits. As long as hell ruled there, men would have been led to profane by the sheer pressure of influx from that world. With heaven now prevailing, the world of spirits tends to withdraw man from such profanation. In this whole history we see evidence of the fact that the Lord from eternity wills that man shall understand the spiritual world. Even when men had closed heaven to themselves, the Lord preserved some hope of an after life with simple people all over the globe. At His first coming, He made the first bold statements that gave authority to the persistent belief that man would live forever. And now, with the state of the world so consummated as to make profanation unlikely, if not impossible, and with order established in the world of spirits, the Lord presents His teachings about the other world once again.
But note, the Lord in the Writings speaks to the intellect of man. He pictures the spiritual world in doctrinal terms. He does not invite men to experience the spiritual world as Swedenborg did. For men through evil have rendered themselves incapable of complete communication with that world, and they must work and study to understand it in a rational way and prepare themselves for it.
Having presented what we consider to be the primary reason for the revelation of the spiritual world, we can turn to a few of the lesser reasons. There are a great many that might be mentioned, but we will confine our discussion to four: 1) to prevent denial; 2) to restore communication between heaven and earth; 3) to provide a confirmation of truth in the light of heaven; and 4) to supply man with truths delightful to his mind.
The world, as we have said, plunged itself into darkness. It necessarily followed that even men who would have welcomed the truth found it inaccessible to them, and therefore they had to wait in hope or sink into agnosticism and atheism. The Christian Church has failed to hold intellectual people within its ranks. The answers which the questioning mind seeks have not been found. As a result, men have been slipping away from a dependence upon revelation, and are turning to the productions of their own intelligence to satisfy their desire to know, understand, and enjoy life. These men, like those bound in the pit, have been at the mercy of the hells. The Lord conquered the hells in order that such men might be freed from their bondage, and might be led away from a denial of the truth.
To effect this liberation the Lord has presented Himself in a rational form. He has supplied men with evidence of the spiritual world, and has given the philosophic principles upon which an understanding of that world must be based. Having these teachings before him, man can accept or reject the truth on its own merits. An important use in the revelation of the spiritual world, then, is its use to prevent denial. As is said in the work on Influx: "Lest, therefore, from ignorance of that world, and the uncertain faith concerning heaven and hell resulting from it, man should be infatuated to such a degree as to become an atheistic naturalist, it has pleased the Lord to open the sight of my spirit" (Infl 3).
As to the second reason. Man was created with a soul and a body. He has his own spiritual and his own natural world. Without these two he would not be a man but either a beast or a breath of wind. His whole life depends upon the interrelation of these two. This is even more significant in the grand man. The spiritual world and the natural world are interdependent. One cannot exist without the other (LJ 9).
Now the effect of evil is to block the influx from the spiritual world, the drastic results of which may be concluded from this passage: "Without communication by means of spirits with the world of spirits and by means of angels with heaven, and thus through heaven with the Lord, man could not live at all; his life entirely depends on this conjunction, so that if the spirits and angels were to withdraw, he would instantly perish" (AC 50). The conjunction, between the two worlds is by means of the Word, for the Word is the general receptacle of spiritual and celestial things (AC 1775, 9378: 2). With the revelation of the spiritual world and the spiritual sense of the Word, a communication of men with angels has been provided, and thus a conjunction of the two worlds effected (Inv. 43-44).
This is not the time to discuss the nature of the communication between the two worlds. Suffice it to say that the man of the New Church can come into an understanding of spiritual things, and can come into thoughts that correspond to the thoughts of spirits and angels. It is by means of such an understanding of spiritual truth that the communication is effected, and therefore it is not necessary for all men to see and converse with the departed to this end. As our perception of the real meaning of the Writings and what they disclose about the spiritual world becomes clearer, this communication will become more powerful. And so the effectiveness of the Writings to restore this communication depends at least in part on the quality of the men who are of the New Church (AC 10287). [As to the statements in the Writings with regard to this renewed communication see: AC 1880: 3, 931, 4545: 7, 8972: 2; SD 2390.]
A third important effect of Swedenborg's introduction into the spiritual world was that he was enabled thereby to confirm what was revealed to him in the light of heaven. Indeed, it is clear that the spiritual sense of the Word could not have been opened except by means of a person who could be present in both worlds at the same time. As is said in the Arcana Coelestia number 67: "It has been granted me to know the internal sense of the Word and the most arcane things contained therein which never before came to the knowledge of any one, nor can they come unless they know how things are in the other life, for very many things which are in the internal sense of the Word regard, mention, and involve them, therefore it has been conceded to open those things which for many years I have heard and seen" (AC 67; cf. LJ 42; SD 200).
Swedenborg often acknowledges his indebtedness to his spiritual experiences in unlocking for him the correspondences of the Word. To cite but one example, he writes: Bears "are those who read the Word and do not understand it . . . that these are signified by 'bears' was clear to me from the bears seen in the spiritual world, and from some there who were clothed in bear skins, who had all read the Word, but had not seen any doctrinal truth therein" (AR 573; cf. AE 781: 19; SD MIN 4772). The reason for this is fairly obvious. All appearances in the spiritual world are correspondences of the states of spirits and angels. Since the Word is written according to correspondences it is, in one sense, comparable to a description of the spiritual and not of the natural world. A man with a sound knowledge of both worlds would be able to understand the meaning of the Word in a way not possible to a person acquainted only with one of them.
In addition to this, there were other things to be learned in the spiritual world that are inaccessible to men. For example, we read: "That conjugial love was the love of love with the most ancients and the ancients . . . cannot be known from history because their writings are not extant. . . therefore it has pleased the Lord to open those ages by leading me to the heavens where are their homes that I might derive from them orally what marriages were with them when they lived in their times" (CL 73).
The man of the New Church can benefit a great deal by the countless illustrations available to us in the descriptions of the spiritual world. We even find Swedenborg confessing that philosophic reasoning was not proof enough when he says: "That man lives a man after death and that then the male is male and the female is a female . . . I have hitherto sought to confirm by such things as are of the understanding . . . but because from infancy man has acquired the faith from parents and masters, afterwards from the learned and the clergy, that he will not live a man after death until the day of the last judgment . . . it was necessary that these same things be confirmed by documents of self experience" (CL 39).
In other places we find the assertion that a thing is true because it has been made known by living experience. And throughout the work True Christian Religion we find illustrations drawn from incidents occurring in the spiritual world. These relations, appealing as they do to the imagination, give added weight to the doctrines. The theologians remind us that it is impossible for us to judge the spiritual state of another, but we still persist in making unconscious judgments on the people around us. However, our confidence in this ability to analyse others cannot help being shaken when we learn how Swedenborg discovered some of his most respected friends in hell. Then too, we wink at some of our own misdeeds and petty hatreds, not realizing how serious they are. A brief study of the vastations inflicted as a result of these evils can remind us to fight the temptation now while it is still relatively simple. We could multiply illustrations, but the salient point remains that the Writings contain a great mass of material that appeals to the imagination as well as to the rational mind.
The fourth reason for the revelation of the spiritual world is that man may have truths that delight his mind. The whole of the Lord's kingdom looks to use. Aside from the preparatory use of regeneration, the Lord's operation looks to the increased happiness of angels through conjunction with Him.
So it is that the Lord supplies all uses with their delights. He gives our food a variety of flavors so that it may delight as well as nourish us. With the truths revealed in His Word He brings the mind refreshment. The almost insatiable curiosity of human beings is permitted by the Lord. To satisfy this curiosity the Lord allows His creatures to explore the natural world, to philosophize about those things which are unexplorable, and to dream about those which are beyond the realms of philosophy.
With the Writings the Lord has opened to man some of the long lost mysteries of the spiritual world. He has given him descriptions of that world from things seen and heard. He has provided the basic truths with which to explore further into the secrets of that existence. Now man can share with his Creator another aspect of this marvelous universe. He can once again enter into thought about a realm that, although hidden for a time, is now revealed. For the Lord does not will that His subjects be in ignorance. He desires for man an ever more perfect knowledge of creation, and so, when it is possible and useful, He opens to him hidden treasures. With the truths thus revealed, man can help himself along the road of regeneration, and in them he can find unending delight.
What we have said concerning the necessity of Swedenborg's introduction into the spiritual world does not begin to cover the subject, but perhaps this treatment has supported the statement that: "The manifestation of the Lord in person, and the introduction by the Lord into the spiritual world, both as to sight and as to hearing and speech, surpasses all miracles" (Inv. 43; cf. AC 1880: 3; see also Coro Miracles iv).
We now stand at the threshold of a new day. We uncertainly finger the pages of a marvelous revelation. Our task is to come to understand that revelation so that we may use it for what it was intended. We must seek to know what is evil and what is good so that we may shun evils as sins against the Lord. We must accept this our responsibility, willingly and intelligently, to the glory of the Almighty God who made both the heavens and the earth.