The Doctrine of Immortality
by Rev. Willard D. Pendleton
Nowhere in the five books of Moses do we find any direct teaching concerning the life after death. Israel believed in gods and in lesser deities, called angels; but unlike the other nations of the ancient east, they had no positive doctrine of personal immortality. The reason for this was that Jehovah was conceived to be a national God whose influence was confined to His own people and land; and it was assumed that as a national Deity He had neither interest nor jurisdiction in the abode of the dead. This accounts for the later day doctrine of the Sadducees who, in refuting the Lord's teaching concerning the resurrection, insisted that there were neither angels nor spirits, that is, angels and spirits who had lived as men upon earth, but only the grave. (The Acts 23: 8)
But the fact that the five books of Moses do not contain any direct teaching concerning the immortality of man did not preclude the possibility of the survival of the human soul after the death of the body. As a matter of fact, it opened the way to all manner of speculation which in time led to the many seemingly contradictory concepts of the state of the deceased that are found in the subsequent books of the Old Testament. It cannot be said, therefore, that the early Israelites rejected the hope of immortality and accepted the inevitability of extinction at death. The fact that Moses, in the law, prescribed the death penalty for those who served as mediums of communication with the dead, is evidence of an underlying belief among this people in the reality of the spiritual world, and also of the generally accepted belief that the dead were gifted with the ability to reveal the future to men on earth. Hence we read: "A man . . . or woman that hath a familiar spirit . . . shall surely be put to death." (Leviticus 20: 27. See also Leviticus 20: 6)
It is evident that the primary purpose of this stern law was to protect the purity of the prophetic function. Only the prophets of Jehovah were permitted by law to speak of those things which were to come to pass. This was essential to the preservation of the Word and the fulfillment of Israel's ultimate destiny. But it seems that in the days of the judges this forbidden practice of divination flourished to the extent that when Saul became king he found it necessary to rid the land of those who dealt with familiar spirits. That he did not entirely succeed in doing so is evident from the fact that when he sought guidance of the Lord, and the Lord would not answer him, he resorted to the witch of Endor, who was purported to have the ability to communicate with the spirit of Samuel. In doing this, Saul not only perverted the law which was vested in his person, but also gave ample evidence of a deeply rooted faith in the survival of the spirit after the death of the body.
It was not until the days of the later prophets, however, that a positive doctrine of individual immortality began to emerge among the Jews. Prior to the Babylonian captivity, the Jews had conceived of the afterlife in terms of Sheol, which was a land of darkness in the lower parts of the earth. While opinions varied, it was generally regarded as a land of sleep; but it seemed that the spirit could be addressed, and when aroused to consciousness was capable of prophetic utterance. This view seems to be confirmed by Samuel's words to Saul: "Why hast thou disquieted me?" (I Samuel 28: 15) But with the fall of the empire and the gradual dissipation of Israel's hopes as a nation, a new note was struck in prophecy which tended to transfer the hope of the Messianic kingdom from the nation to the individual. Heretofore, the individual had been related to Jehovah only as a member of the nation, whose common fate was to be shared by all; but now we are told that the sins of the father would no longer be visited upon the sons, (Ezekiel 18: 20) and that in the future, everyone shall die for his own sins. (Jeremiah 31: 30)
It was this emancipation of the individual from the sins of the group that opened the way to a new concept of God and the reward that He had in store for the righteous. If, as it now appeared, Jehovah's real concern was for the faithful, did it not follow that He would bring the faithful into His kingdom? This faith is implied in both the forty-ninth and seventy-third Psalms. The teaching is that all shall die, but whereas the wicked will remain in Sheol, God will redeem the soul of the wise. To this should be added the teaching of Daniel, that the wise shall have everlasting life. (Daniel 12: 2, 3)
It is evident from this that the Old Testament does provide a positive doctrine concerning the kingdom of heaven; but the thought of eternal existence in a world of the spirit had little appeal to the earth-bound minds of this people. With characteristic emphasis upon the delights of this world, they interpreted the teaching in terms of a bodily resurrection to take place when the kingdom of God was established on earth. Then would the souls of the faithful be released from Sheol, and through reincarnation would enjoy everlasting life in the flesh. This, as distinguished from the doctrine of the Sadducees, was the doctrine of the Pharisees, the largest and most influential sect in New Testament times.
We can understand, therefore, why it was that when the Lord came teaching the doctrine of the kingdom of heaven, His words were not understood. Not only did He insist that His kingdom was not of this world, but that the resurrection involved a spiritual rebirth whereby the spirit of man was elevated into a new and different life. (John 3: 3, 5) According to His doctrine, it is in the life of the spirit, as differentiated from the life of the flesh, that the kingdom of God is to be found. As the Lord said to Nicodemus: "Except a man be born of ... the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [For] that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." (John 3: 5-7)
In identifying the kingdom of God with the life of the spirit, the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, and the faith of the Christian Church from Jewish eschatology. Here was a new doctrine based on the thesis that man is essentially a spiritual being, and that the life of the flesh is but a transitory state in the process of human development. Yet at that day, as at this, the spirit of skepticism prevailed; and while many in Israel heard the words which He spoke, few believed on Him. It was to these few, however, that the Lord said: "Ye believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." (John 14: 1-3)
To believe in God is to believe that there is a purpose in creation. To believe in the Lord is to believe in the Word which He spoke. At this day, however, the Word is discredited as an authoritative statement of truth. While many adhere to the social teachings of Jesus, relatively few subscribe to the teachings of Scripture concerning the life after death. One reason for this is that they are presented in the form of parables and cryptic references to the kingdom of heaven which lack meaning to the modern mind. We can understand, therefore, why it was that in his introduction to the work, Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg said:
What the Writings offer us, therefore, is a new concept of the spiritual world. It differs from that which is presented in the New Testament as that which is addressed to reason differs from that which is expressed by means of parables. Whereas the Writings deal directly with the nature and phenomena of the spiritual world, in the New Testament these things are only implied. It is the teaching of all Divine revelation, however, that man is a spirit, and that the spirit of man, being what it is, survives the death of the body, and thus enters with perception into the life of the spirit; that is, into the conscious awareness of life. For although it is true that the doctrine of individual immortality does not emerge in the Old Testament until the days of the later prophets, when understood in its spiritual sense it is everywhere implied. For wherever death is mentioned in the Scriptures, the reference is not to the death of man, but to the separation of the spirit from the body. Hence the statement in the Writings:
Now it should be observed that the Writings rest the case for the immortality of the human spirit upon the doctrine of man, that is, upon the doctrine of what man is. As any other living form which perceives life in terms of sensation, man enjoys conscious existence. He sees, he hears, he smells, he tastes, and he feels the physical forces of nature which impinge upon the body. In this, however, he does not differ from other living forms except to the degree that he is more or less sensitive to the stimuli which give rise to sensation. Man is not man, therefore, because he is a creature of sensation, but because he possesses an ability which the beast does not possess, which is the ability to abstract rational ideas out of experience. Hence man is said to be man because he can think rationally; that is, because he can form an idea of a thing which is not directly derived from sense experience. In other words, man can reflect upon the nature, causes and principles of things, and upon the relationship which exists between one thing and another. Thus he can form meaningful concepts of what he experiences in a way that is not possible with animals. It is this which accounts for the knowledges which man has acquired. It is also this which accounts for the fact that man can, if he will, perceive that there is a meaning and purpose in life other than that of self-preservation.
Surely there must be more to life than a brief moment of conscious existence in which man temporarily enjoys the experiences which come with mental awareness. If man is but dust, what properties does the dust possess that would account for the miracle of life? For life is a miracle, in that it is not inherent within nature but is universally present as the Divine operation within nature. Hence it is said in the Writings:
This question, which was pertinent in Swedenborg's time, is far more pertinent today. With the development and the accomplishments of the scientific method, men in increasing numbers are ascribing all things to nature. Like the primitive skeptic, of whom the Psalmist spoke, many are saying, "Where is thy God?" (Psalm 42: 3) In repudiating the reality of that which cannot be substantiated by direct experience they "sink their rational into the sensual," and deny the existence of God and the spiritual nature of man.
We return, however, to the teaching of the Writings that man is not man because he possesses a human body, but because he possesses a human mind. It is as to his mind, which is a spiritual creation, that man differs from the beast; and the difference is found in the fact that man can, if he will, elevate his thought above sensual appearances and think rationally concerning those things which are presented to the mind in the form of knowledge. Thus man, as distinguished from the beast, can form some idea of ultimate reality; that is, of a God who in essence is good and truth. It is because man can see God, that is, because he can see what is good and true, that the spirit, or mind of man, can be conjoined with God. For all conjunction is effected through love; and where there is love, or the potential of love, the way is opened whereby conjunction may be effected.
As to the interiors of the mind, all men possess this potential. For man is born a form of love and wisdom; that is, a form capable of loving what is good and perceiving what is true. Were this not so he would not be man, but a beast. That is the reason why the spirit or mind of man is immortal, for as the Writings state:
This is the key number in the Writings concerning the immortality of man. It constitutes the Writings' answer to the spirit of denial that pervades modern thought. Unlike the New Testament, in which the doctrine of immortality is proclaimed but not expounded, the Writings develop the thesis by way of rational considerations based upon the essential nature of man. For what is man but a unique form of life who is endowed by his Creator with the ability to perceive what is true, and therefore with the ability to do what is good. It is because man has this ability, that is, the ability to think about God and to love God, that he can be conjoined to Him. And as the Writings state: "Whatever can be conjoined to the Divine cannot be dissipated, but whatever cannot be conjoined is dissipated." (HH 435)
But immediately the question arises, What if man rejects what is true and perverts what is good? Note, however, that the Writings are not speaking here of the nature of man's response. This may be either affirmative or negative, as the man wills. Were this not so man would not be in freedom, and therefore would not be man. What the Writings are speaking of in this passage is man's ability to perceive what is true and to do what is good; and this ability, regardless of how it is exercised, is the perpetual gift of God to man. Was it not to this that the Lord referred, when in speaking of His death and resurrection, He said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me"? (John 12: 32)
We must distinguish, therefore, between two sets of passages in the Writings which speak of the conjunction of the Lord with man and of man with the Lord. The first set of passages has reference to the conjunction of the Lord with man, which is effected on the plane of the soul or human internal. Hence the passage just quoted, where it is said that "man has what beasts have not, namely, an inmost into which the Divine flows, raising man up to itself, and thereby conjoining man to itself." (HH 435) It is by virtue of this conjunction that every man, regardless of the quality of his life, is immortal. For what the Lord gives, He does not take away. The second series of passages, however, has reference to reciprocal conjunction; that is, to the conjunction of man with the Lord. The reference here, therefore, is to the man who wills to be led by the Lord. For he who wills to be led by the Lord is conjoined to Him, not only as to his soul, which is above the plane of conscious existence, but also as to his affections and thoughts. It is in this that the regenerate man differs from the unregenerate, and the angel of heaven from those who of their own free will choose to live in bondage to self, that is, in the hells.
Let us have no illusions, therefore, regarding the purpose of life. The purpose in life is that man may have life. But of what value is a gift that is given only to be taken away? Thus in speaking to the Jews, the Lord said, "I am come that ... men might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10: 10) But if man is to have life more abundantly, the spirit of man must in time be released from its dependency upon the physical body which serves as an instrument whereby man is temporarily granted conscious existence in the world of nature. Thus when the body dies, the spirit or mind of man enters with evident sensation into the perception of those spiritual forces and realities which underlie, and are the origin of, the world of nature. Hence the following statement from the Spiritual Diary:
In this connection, bear in mind that it is not the eye which sees, but the mind, and this whether man is living in this world or in the world of the spirit. The difference, however, is that as long as man lives in the world the mental images which take form in his mind derive their qualities from the objects of nature. Thus we associate what is real with that which is bound by time and space. But beyond the appearances of time and space there are deeper realities which are spiritual substances. In the life after death it is these substances which serve as an objective plane of sight, and this in accordance with the affection and thought of the spirit. Thus it is that the things which are seen in the spiritual world are "so wonderful that they can scarcely be described." (SD 2392) As the Lord said to Thomas, the doubting disciple, therefore "be not faithless, but believing." (John 20: 27) "In My Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you." (John 34: 2) For, "I am the resurrection, and the life." (John 11: 25)
-New Church Life 1972;92:56-63