Are Ghosts Real?

Swedenborg Foundation

Tales of ghostly encounters range from creepy stories of haunted spaces to uplifting meetings with loved ones who have passed on. As someone who spent years writing about his experiences in the spiritual world, Emanuel Swedenborg had a lot to say about people who have crossed over. But what about encounters with spirits in this world?

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First, a quick detour into terminology. Swedenborg uses the term spirit (Latin spiritus) to refer to the soul or consciousness of a human being that continues to live on in the spiritual world after the physical body stops working. (In this footnote: what Swedenborg means when he says ghost.) He says that the only inhabitants of the spiritual world are human beings: every angel in heaven and every devil in hell used to be a person living on earth. In the spiritual world they might be transformed so that they are indescribably beautiful (in the case of angels) or twisted and bestial (in the case of evil spirits), but at their core, they’re still people.

Is it possible for those people to communicate with us here on earth? Yes, Swedenborg says. In fact, he says that every person living on earth is already in contact with angels and evil spirits, even if we don’t realize it. The influence most often comes in the form of a stray thought or impulse disguised as our own inner voice—a little psychic push toward good or evil rather than a being appearing out of nowhere and talking to us.

Outright communication with spirits, he adds, is both rare and potentially dangerous. He describes the spiritual world as a reality that is so close to our own that the two essentially coexist on different planes. Just as we are very rarely aware of the other side, the other side is often not aware of us. This protects us from evil spirits, whom Swedenborg describes as utterly malicious beings who will sometimes pretend to be familiar figures or good spirits to cause us harm. Even though Swedenborg himself talks about crossing from one world to the next and conversing with both angels and evil spirits, he warns others against trying the same thing because of those very dangers. (See Heaven and Hell #249 for the dangers of evil spirits and this interesting passage from True Christianity for more on the separation between the two planes).

Unfortunately, the same separation between physical and spiritual that protects us might also prevent good spirits from contacting us. For more, see “Why Don’t Those Who’ve Died Communicate With Us More?” from our weekly webcast Swedenborg and Life.

So, to go back to the question that kicked off this article, are ghosts real? Swedenborg would likely say yes—as long as you’re talking about the spirit of someone who’s crossed over to the other side. While he described good and evil spirits as having the ability to sometimes come back from the spiritual world and influence us, he also says that after death everyone makes the transition to the spiritual world, so there’s no such thing as a “lost soul” who is unable to cross over to the afterlife.

However, Swedenborg was also a scientist by training, so he might also point out that sometimes our eyes and ears can fool us. Sometimes we experience things that seem to have a supernatural origin that was caused by something mundane in our own world.

Swedenborg also said often that the Divine—in whatever form and by whatever name you might call it—is stronger than any evil influence out there. At times when he felt besieged by evil spirits, he knew he could pray for help and protection, and he would encourage anybody in this world to do the same if they experience something frightening, which is a very likely scenario around this time of year. Happy Halloween!

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Footnote: Swedenborg wrote in Latin, and he consistently used the word spiritus(spirit) to talk about people who had crossed over. However, there were places where he uses words like larva, umbra, and the Greek phantasma, all of which we would translate ghost. When he uses these terms, he’s often contrasting our preconceptions about what it means to be dead with what it’s actually like to be on the other side—alive, vibrant, and still learning and progressing toward a much more spiritual state. So for Swedenborg, a “ghost” is something unreal or less than human—like an illusion, we might see it, but it has no substance or spiritual reality. back

References in this post:

Heaven and Hell #249

Talking with spirits is rarely allowed nowadays, though, because it is dangerous. The spirits then actually know that they are with us, which otherwise they would not; and evil spirits harbor a murderous hatred for us and crave nothing less than our total destruction, body and soul. This is what actually goes on in people who regularly lose themselves in delusions, even to the point that they lose touch with the pleasures appropriate to their natural person.

There are some people who lead solitary lives who sometimes hear spirits talking with them without risk; but the Lord keeps these spirits a little space away so that they do not know they are with these individuals. Most spirits, you see, are not aware that there is any other world than the one they are living in or therefore that there are people anywhere else. So we are not allowed to talk back to them, since if we did, they would know.

People who are constantly thinking about religious matters, so wrapped up in them that they practically see them within themselves, also begin to hear spirits talking with them. This is because when we voluntarily get wrapped up in religious matters, no matter what kind, without the interruption of various useful activities in the [external] world, these matters enter into us very deeply and take substance there so that they occupy our whole spirit, move into the spiritual world, and affect spirits there. However, people like this are visionaries or fanatics, and no matter what spirit they hear, they believe it is the Holy Spirit, even though the spirits they hear are fanatical. Spirits like this see false things as true; and because they see them as true they convince themselves and also convince people into whom they flow. Further, since spirits like this who command obedience have also begun to urge people to do evil things, they have gradually been moved away. Fanatical spirits can be differentiated from other spirits by the fact that they believe they are the Holy Spirit and that what they are saying is divine. They do not harm us, because we offer them divine worship. back

True Christianity, “Author’s Index of Memorable Occurrences,” #280

People who are in the spiritual world cannot appear to people who are in the physical world, and neither can people in the physical world appear to people in the spiritual world. Therefore spirits and angels cannot appear to people, and people cannot appear to spirits and angels. This is due to the difference between what is spiritual and what is earthly, or, to put it another way, the difference between what is substantial and what is material. It is because of this that spirits and angels have completely different language, different writing, and different thinking than people do. . . .

They also think things that are beyond an earthly person’s comprehension. The reason behind these differences is that spirits and angels are at the level of primary structures, whereas people in the world are in derivations from them. To put it another way, spirits and angels live among primary things that act as causes of secondary things; people live among these secondary things. back

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