1 The Knowledge of the Afterlife
"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." John 14: 2
Few deny that man has a mind as well as a body. And since time immemorial it has been felt—in a parallel fashion— that there is an unseen realm of spiritual life, the abode of souls, the real home of the human mind, beyond or within, the material world.
But in this pragmatic century any mention of a "spiritual world" will likely cause embarrassment or misgivings unless the reference is simply to the familiar haunts of our own mind. Even from Christian pulpits the doctrine of man's immortality is often spoken of only in apologetic whispers. And when the more conservative among the clergy speak at a funeral, it is only to announce in dolorous tones that the departed will sleep in the grave until a mythical day of general resurrection. Nothing is said of the bourne to which the deceased has departed, nor of the life-functions which might now become his, or the spiritual treasures which he takes with him. Since the churches are silent, it is not surprising to find a credulous multitude who draw a confused comfort from the report of mysterious and unusual happenings which they interpret as interventions by the spirits of the dead in our human affairs.
Nor is it any wonder that the respectable scientist shies off from the study of such a field—wherein fact and fancy seem to intertwine. When the imagination has once been aroused, a less cautious mind may easily overstep the evidence. Even science has bred a fiction of its own, and there has been a recrudescence of a specific brand of popular literature which solemnly gathers hearsay evidence not only about apparitions and "poltergeists" who play noisy havoc in haunted houses and spirits who at will assume "ecto-plastic" bodies, but about space-wanderers in "flying saucers" which defy gravity and dematerialize in a moment!
Such fantasies are enough to discourage sober minds from an acceptance of inconclusive claims. Yet the failure to prove the presence of spirits by sensual demonstrations does in no wise disprove the existence of a spiritual world which influences our lives intimately and in orderly ways, but which by its very nature eludes experimental approach. And although there is much self-delusion, and much trickery and deception among the so-called "mediums" who claim contact with spirits, there is also evidence at hand to show that mankind is still confronted with unsolved problems and that there are undiscovered depths within the human mind itself which transcend our rational analysis. Empirical science has not given any satisfying explanation even of the ordinary processes of our thought, memory, and emotion. Nor can it with any surety deny the visionary experiences of many who assert that they have "seen spirits."
Revelations about the Spiritual World
Besides all this: Can we ignore the testimony of all the prophets, philosophers, saints and seers, many of whom we still reckon among the most enlightened of men, and who not only sincerely believed in guardian spirits but whose eyes were at times open to glimpses of the world of the hereafter ? Did not our Lord Himself confirm the age-long conviction of mankind when He said, "In My Father's house are many mansions. If not, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you"? Yet He also intimated that the time was not yet ripe to speak openly of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He could speak of them only in parables. "These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs," He said, "but the time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father" (John 16:25). "When the Spirit of Truth is come, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13).
The promise of such an explicit revelation was fulfilled in an unexpected way. It was granted to Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish savant and philosopher of the eighteenth century, to become a citizen of two worlds for a period of twenty-seven years. Inspired by the Spirit of Truth he was given to write down his experiences gathered during his intercourse with spirits and angels in the spiritual world, and to publish the truth about the afterlife, lest the spirit of denial which was already then beginning to rule the worldly-wise should also corrupt the simple in heart and the simple in faith.1 Only a Divine revelation could disclose to our race the truth about heaven and hell. At the same time Swedenborg, after diligent study of the Sacred Scriptures, was inspired to find its internal or symbolic meaning which accorded in every part with the doctrine known to the angels in heaven.
Since the present little book may find its way into the hands of readers who are not familiar with the doctrines of the New Church, it seems well at the outset to review some of the leading truths which New Church readers take for granted. These teachings, which must be postulated if we are to understand the Scriptures rationally and explain the phenomena of the mind and of nature, may be summarized as follows:
The title of our book does not imply any claim that it covers all the relations of spirits and men. Nor is it our purpose here to describe the spiritual world or to define the nature of the soul and its life. But in the voluminous Writings of Swedenborg we have an inexhaustible field of information about the arcana of the spiritual world "from things seen and heard" and about the laws which govern the impact of that world upon our lives. There, also, are shown the different angelic influences which succeed each other as man advances along the path of regeneration.
What we here wish to stress is that man's character is finally formed by the spiritual influences which he invites from the unseen world. It is often claimed that man is merely a product of his heredity and his environment. But while the parental strain determines the initial form of his mind and the more active loves and abilities with which he starts in life; and while his surroundings are at first predetermined and certainly limit his opportunities for knowledge and usefulness; yet within the range of these two factors of heredity and environment man exercises a choice which gradually builds within him a character quite individual and free. For as to his mind he moves in a spiritual environment which always corresponds to his own states of mind. The ability of man to become responsible for his own inner character and final destiny is due to the fact that he can—in freedom and according to his reason—choose what kind of spirits shall inspire his thoughts, purposes, and decisions. Although he feels at all times as if he were moved by his own affections, his spirit is actually held, unknowingly, in an equilibrium between influences from heaven and from hell, and is motivated either by the affections of angels or by the lusts of evil spirits. He does not live from himself. He is only a receptacle of a life which originates from God but which is mediated by the souls, good and evil, who inhabit the spiritual world.
And the purpose of the following essays is to examine some of the manifold ways in which our lives are moulded for good or ill by the influx of these invisible agencies.