The New Idea of Heaven
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (MAT 22: 31,32).
In this, and many other passages of scripture, the Lord tried to reassure us that death is not the end of life, but only the end of life in the natural world. He taught this with His words, and at the same time, He showed it with His actions; for by His touch, many were raised from the dead. And finally, to show His complete power and mastery over death, He even raised Himself from the dead.
Even though the Lord went to such great lengths to show that we had nothing to fear, yet people still do not believe. It is, after all, human nature to scoff at those things that seem unusual, or that cannot be confirmed with the five senses of the body. Remember what happened to the rich man that we read about in our second lesson: all his life he acted as if there was no life after death, and treated others unkindly. Then, when faced with his own evils, he reaches out, hoping to warn his family and friends to not make his mistake and so save themselves from hell. But Abraham sadly tells him, If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead (LUK 16:31).
We can see how true that is, for the Old and New Testaments are full of dire warnings, teachings about the nature of the spiritual world, the description of the Lord’s resurrection; and still people wonder aloud if there is a life after death.
This is the second in a series of sermons which attempts to answer the question, “What is new about the New Church.” In the first sermon, it was shown that the New Church doctrine of the Lord is not so much a new doctrine, but rather a restatement and development of the doctrine which the Lord Himself taught in the gospels. It only seems new because it is different from the doctrines which have been introduced by various councils into the Christian Church during the last seventeen hundred years. Today, we are addressing the concept of the “New Idea of Heaven” and we find much the same situation: The New Church does not so much present a “new” doctrine, but rather develops and enfills that which the Lord taught in the gospels, while stripping away the false and confusing ideas that have been added by men.
The book Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from Things Seen and Heard by Emanuel Swedenborg (commonly known as “Heaven and Hell”) is one of the most commonly published books in the world. It has been read by countless millions of people, and it spite of the fact that it is quite literally the testimony of one who has come back from the dead, one who has actually visited the spiritual world, few take it seriously.
That’s their choice, their freedom. The Lord never presents any truth in such a way that the human mind cannot figure out some way of turning away from it. Even the Lord cannot force someone to believe if they themselves do not want to. But we have to ask ourselves why the Lord went to the trouble of creating the universe if it is only so that people could live out their allotted time and die. It is our understanding of the infinite nature of God’s love for the human race that He created the whole universe for no other purpose than creating a heaven from the human race, and that He has tried to teach us about that heaven through His prophets in the Word.
In the two thousand years since the Lord came to earth to teach us about heaven and hell and the life that leads to eternal life in heaven, Christianity has acquired a lot of ideas from other sources as well, ideas that have mixed with the original teachings until they are almost unrecognizable.
Think about all the different things Jesus taught about heaven in the gospels; the parables of the Sower, the Wheat and the Tares, the Vineyard, the Wedding Feast, and all the others. In every case, Jesus was telling us that when we die, we will be gathered together with others like ourselves. Those who have obediently followed His commandments and been kind to their neighbor will be blessed, while those who have done evil things will be punished.
He also taught that the rewards (or punishments) are immediate, when He told about the poor man in Abraham’s bosom, and when He told the man crucified with Him that he would be with Him in paradise that day.
If we compare these simple, beautiful, and comforting teachings with some of the doctrines that have arisen in the Christian Church, we can only wonder where they came from.
It is my belief that when the doctrine of the trinity of persons was accepted by the leaders of the Christian Church, it introduced a poison into the doctrine of the church that caused all the strange ideas that later appeared.
The reason for this was that the doctrine of the trinity separated the concept of the Angry Jehovah from the Merciful Son, and made them opposing forces, rather than aspects of the same personality. Any parent knows that in order to teach children to respect dangerous things, it is sometimes necessary to appear angry and to punish, but this is only an aspect of parental love and care–it is done from mercy. But with the doctrine of the trinity, Jehovah became the angry, distant God of the Old Testament, furious that Adam and Eve had sinned, and therefore no longer interested in mankind. Jesus, who, in order to make this system work, is the “Son born from eternity,” loves everyone, and wants them to be with Him. Therefore He came into the world, took all sin upon Himself, and died with it as the sacrificial lamb of God, therefore taking it away from people making them all without sin. At least, we are taught by the church leaders, if not from all people, then from those who believe that Jesus died to take away their sins, for then Jesus will approach Jehovah for them. Jehovah, because He loves His Son for His sacrifice, will then look favorably on the believer and remove his condemnation.
Over the years, the doctrine of heaven itself became confused, and whole new structures, never mentioned in scripture, found their way into Christian dogma. We now have Catholics in purgatory and limbo while awaiting their chance to go to heaven. The reformed Christians never get into heaven at all, but wait in the grave until the day when Jesus will return to earth to establish His kingdom–on earth.
It is rare today to hear anyone preach these doctrines, even in their own churches. Common sense, or an intuitive understanding that God’s own way would be more simple and more merciful, has led the Christian back to a more scriptural belief in the afterlife, no matter what the formal doctrine of his church may be.
For example, the idea that Jesus will come into the world in the flesh once again, this time to rule in an earthly kingdom, has led some people to believe that there will be only one “last judgment” and that all the people who have ever lived will be judged at the same time. This means that everyone who has died since the beginning of time is still waiting for the “last day” when they can be miraculously given a new physical body and judged. Not one person from this world has yet been given eternal life, but all are still waiting in the grave.
But why then did the Lord show us that resurrection is almost immediate by telling the man who was crucified with Him that he would be with Him in paradise that day? Why did the Lord Himself rise from the grave on the third day? For no other reason than to show us that the body does not wait on earth for a physical resurrection. Its use is over, and it is laid aside, releasing the spirit within.
Think of a butterfly. At first it hatches from the egg as an ugly worm that spends its whole life in a single-minded search for food. This, clearly, is a symbol the quality and nature of our earthly lives. Then, when its time is past, it seems to die. It forms a cocoon around itself, does not move for many weeks–a symbol for death. Then suddenly, the cocoon opens, and a beautiful, colorful butterfly emerges. While the hungry worm is a symbol for our lives in the natural world, the beautiful butterfly is a symbol of the spirit soaring free from the limitations of the natural world, living as an angel.
The Lord taught us in the Word that everyone who dies is brought into spiritual life within three days. Once in the spiritual world, each individual is judged according to the quality of things they did in the world, and the intention with which they did them. The Lord, being the One True Judge, is able to look into the heart of everyone, and see what is there. He is able to understand that even when we try to do what is right, still we make mistakes. He is able to forgive our ignorance, our foolishness, and see the true intentions within. He then allows us to join with other like ourselves, once our confusion has been stripped away, and our questions answered.
This much is clear from study of the scripture itself, from Jesus Christ’s own words, and it forms the basis of the doctrine of the New Church concerning the life after death. What we do have that is new is the further explanation and illustration of these principles through the spiritual experiences of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Swedenborg was a man who was uniquely prepared to be a modern prophet. As a prominent scientist, he was prepared to make careful and detailed observations of the things he saw. As the son of a Bishop, he was raised in a home secure in its belief in the Divine, and in Biblical scholarship. And as a man who was independently wealthy, he was able to give up most of his secular work in order to follow the Lord’s bidding. Invited by the Lord to have the senses of his spirit opened so that he could live in both the natural world and the spiritual world simultaneously, Swedenborg accepted, and spent twenty seven years traveling throughout the spiritual world, visiting many different places, and speaking to many different men and women who had once lived on earth.
His observations and experiences are scattered through his theological works. Many of them he collected into the above mentioned work, “Heaven and Hell,” but they do not constitute a “new” idea of the spiritual world, for nothing in any of his observations contradicts what the Lord Himself taught. They do, however, add considerable depth and richness of detail to the Lord’s basic teachings.
It should not be surprising that this has happened, for the Lord said, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (JOH 16:12) By this He meant that the human race was not yet ready to hear all the details of the spiritual world. His intention was to lay the foundation of truth, and when the church, and the subsequent thought about doctrine, had sufficiently matured, He would return to explain more fully and more deeply–not in person, but in the “clouds of heaven”–a symbol for the Word itself.
Some of the details of heavenly life which were revealed to the world through Swedenborg are the following:
The “elect” are not those arbitrarily bestowed with salvation by a God who allows all others to perish or be damned, but the “elect” are those who choose to live well from conscience.
Heaven is not a cloud upon which angels with wings sit, playing harps, but it is a real world with homes, villages, trees, avenues, and everything else that humans need and love.
A spirit is not a wisp of air but a real person with the enjoyment of all his activities and senses. Every angel is a married pair, male and female, and the delight of marriage love is the primary delight of heaven because it corresponds to the marriage of Good and Truth in the Lord, and therefore mirrors creation itself.
Heavenly happiness is not eternal leisure, but the accomplishment of useful services such as welcoming and teaching newcomers to heaven, passing influx from the higher heavens into those lower, and thence into the natural world, and various forms of government in the different societies. All these activities are balanced by recreation and sport of all kinds.
Hell is not fire and brimstone, but a world without love where those live who have denied both God and their fellow man. In heaven men serve others from love, but in hell, they are compelled to serve.
The Lord knows that the death of the natural body is frightening–He’s been through it Himself. And so He has given us a rich body of teachings to reassure us and to help us face the fact of our own death. There is nothing capricious about God, He is justice itself. We can be certain that we will find the eternal reward that we genuinely deserve. He has told us these many things so that we can prepare ourselves for heaven by our lives in this world. 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 to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (JOH 14:2,3).
Lessons: MAT 22:1-14, LUK 16:19-31, HH 1:e
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