Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg: what gives?

Heaven and HellHeaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A one-of-a-kind work setting out the discoveries of an 18th-century Swedish scientist’s extended forays into the spirit realm. Swedenborg gives detailed descriptions of what happens to us after we die, and the process that leads to our being drawn to either heaven or hell as our ultimate and permanent destination.

Swedenborg, the son of a Lutheran bishop, presents an eschatology that is consistent with his faith. According to him, if you’re a Catholic you face serious obstacles to gaining entrance to heaven, even though God’s—or the Lord’s, to use Swedenborg’s preferred designation, apparently referring more especially to Jesus Christ—intention is for all people to be saved. You’re also in for an unpleasant surprise if you’re a Muslim, since you will discover that Muhammad can do nothing for you after all. You will be reeducated by angels who themselves were Muslims in earthly life, and will thus be able to gain entrance to heaven.

And what about other religions? What about atheists? According to Swedenborg, the way to heaven is open to all who practice a true religion—that is, one that embraces belief in a (the) supreme god. I couldn’t help but note that this appears to exclude Buddhism, which is not based on belief in a creator god. And yet Buddhists (and other atheists) are as capable of ethical behavior as anyone, and it is our behavior, or, rather, the intentions behind our behavior, that is key in determining our ultimate destination. It’s just that, according to this author, all loving acts stem from the Lord, since the Lord is love, and so apparently ethical behavior that does not come from faith in Him is actually hypocritical, since it is based on love for oneself or love for the world—perverted types of love that are the cause of all evil.

Against this, I note simply that loving-kindness and compassion are attitudes and practices that are taught by Buddhism, especially by Mahayana Buddhism, and are held to arise from the fundamental nature of mind and not due to one’s relationship with any god. As a Buddhist, am I in for a rude awakening after I die? Will I find that my face after death is turned not toward God, but away from him, and that I accordingly will have self-selected my fate to the underworld of the hells? There, because I am not especially aggressive or cunning, I would certainly find myself enslaved by those who have those traits, and there I would remain until . . . well, forever.

Sobering thoughts.

Personally, I have no doubt that Swedenborg is reporting real experiences. I believe that he did indeed make extensive tours of the spirit realm and have interactions with many spirits and angels (and angels, by the way, were all once human beings; it is a mistake to think that they were created by the Lord as a separate class of being—and the same goes for demons). There is consistency and profundity in what he records. The question then is about the status of his experiences: is he describing an objective reality, and, if so, is it the only objective reality?

If he is, then it seems to contradict, or at least differ from, the experiences of at least some other people who have also made forays to the spirit world. The American businessman Robert Monroe, in his book Journeys Out of the Body, describes journeying in at least three distinct astral realms. In one of these he experienced the presence of a great “Lord,” someone that all the people there bowed down to—as he did himself while he was there. But my sense here was that this Lord was more of a tyrant, someone who needed to be worshipped. But Monroe himself seems to have been basically a secular man, and his experiences were mainly secular ones.

Another traveler to the beyond was Betty J. Eadie, who, in her book Embraced by the Light: The Most Profound and Complete Near-Death Experience Ever, describes a days-long sojourn in the postmortem state after dying in a hospital. She is a Christian, and in the spirit realm she encountered Jesus. If I recall correctly, there are many points of similarity between her account and Swedenborg’s, but also many differences.

The Buddha himself is said to have had extensive visions of the cosmic order. In particular, shortly before his enlightenment he was able to see all of his previous births: each one individually, hundreds of thousands of them. He was also able to see the mechanism of karma: how people are propelled by it from one life to another, again and again, like balls in a pinball game. This was samsara, the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth: the endless round of suffering.

For Swedenborg there is no rebirth; our lives are one-shot deals. What about children who die? They are lovingly attended to by female angels and raised to adulthood in heaven. Since they spend so little time on Earth, and have a sure pass to heaven due to their relative innocence (although Swedenborg does discuss at length the difference between childhood innocence and true innocence, an adult quality that enables one to become an angel), their lives are among the most blessed. This should be a comfort to parents who have lost a child.

But is it true? I don’t know, and I have no way of checking it until I have astral experiences of my own—or until I die. Most of us are in this situation; we have to use our best judgment to prepare ourselves for whatever exists above and beyond the physical reality that we know, and after our present life. What is least prejudicial to our long-term welfare?

Swedenborg offers a comprehensive picture of the spiritual world, which includes many authentic-sounding details. If you ordered your life according to his vision, you would be a devout Christian, a Protestant, scrupulously ethical in your conduct and exhibiting high personal integrity—for he emphasizes this above almost anything else. In the spirit world, there are no hidden agendas and there is no hypocrisy; it is impossible to think one thing and say or do the opposite. There, for better or for worse, your heart is always on your sleeve, and can never be anywhere else. Everyone knows where everyone else stands. Indeed, this is why heaven and hell exist: they are the natural destinations of people whose motives are good and bad, respectively. In the spirit realm, our true inner selves are laid bare and we go to live among others like ourselves. So here in earthly life, it’s best to say and do good things because you really value God and really value your neighbor. That is the surest path to heaven.

Swedenborg’s book is well worth reading. At the very least, it will challenge your spiritual beliefs and assumptions, which to me seems inherently healthy. Whatever your beliefs about the afterlife are, why do you hold them? How strong is that basis? Here we have a man of integrity, a man of science, telling us plainly the results of hundreds or perhaps thousands of his own experiences with the spirit world, a place where he had much dialogue with angels and with the spirits of people he knew and people he didn’t. He saw the vast array of the heavens, and glimpsed the equally vast and dark array of the hells. The picture is consistent and detailed. It’s hard to ignore.

For my part, I will trust to whatever spiritual experience of my own that I have been able to have, which has been within the context of Buddhist practice. Unless the Lord sees fit to give me a clear vision to the contrary—as he apparently gave Swedenborg—this is my path. I intend to keep my mind open, along with my eyes and ears, and, moving forward thus, hope for the best. If there is a Lord in charge of it all, I’m hoping he’s a reasonable guy.

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