Life after death – What’s it like?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

life after death
Heaven & Hell by E. Swedenborg

In the post Is there an afterlife? I pointed to a similarity between Swedenborg’s reports of his mystical experiences of life after death and numerous accounts of the near death experience. There are also striking similarities between what various modern psychic mediums have said concerning a realm of spirits with Swedenborg’s writings. These similarities are as follows:

Similar account of life after death

A soul body exists; time means nothing; environment appears created by thought; we gravitate to the shared environment of like-minded spirits; there is a self-evaluation involving how we lived life on earth; one’s inner character does not change because of death; punishment is only part of a purification process; there is no procreation; there are useful occupational and similar interests, albeit at a higher level; there is an upper Astral akin to heaven; there is no pain or alarm during the dying process; and because of a similarity of experience to life, new arrivals do not at first notice they are dead.

One’s first experience of life after death

Swedenborg reports that after we awake in the spirit realm we may find ourselves in some kind of living environment – often one we have been familiar with on earth. This gradually changes, beginning more and more to reflect the quality of our own thoughts and feelings. It may be a room in a very beautiful house or an untidy shed. This very much sounds like a projection of our inner state so that what one sees in the spiritual world is a reflection of different aspects of one’s own actual character. As we are all different there are many kinds of living accommodation and environment.

Being oneself in one’s life after death

As I understand it, the spiritual world forces no one after bodily death to be something that he or she is not. When we are alive in the body on earth, our outer thoughts are busy when we are with other people or engaged in some action. However, our inner thoughts come from what we are really feeling when we are alone at home. The picture we are shown of the next life, is that the values that deep down rule our hearts come to the surface and unrelated feelings, pretences and difficulties become dormant. We each get more in touch with our true selves and all other spirits see the genuine nature of everyone’s character; whether this is selfish and destructive or caring and creative. In other words, our inner feelings and desires determine our destiny. You really are what you choose to be and pretending to be something other than what you really are becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

I imagine the goodness or otherwise of your character would shine more clearly in the spirit realm than in our material world where people who do not know you well see only your outward persona and where your style of living is more apparent. This illumination is illustrated in near death experiences by the frequently mentioned encounter with a `being of light’ and of a life evaluation.

The ruling love emerges in the life after death

According to Swedenborg’s notion of a ‘ruling love’, we want one thing more than anything. It colours all our life. It could be for example a love of being useful, of the spiritual ideas we believe to be true, of having power over others, or of being popular and well liked. This is our underlying longing that is the essence of our true character. Many of our desires arise from this basic love. We are most likely to reveal our true selves by our actions when we do not think others are observing us.

“You are what your deep driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” (The Upanishads – Hindu tradition)

Avoidance of thinking about life after death

Whether or not we believe in life after death, we can all be afraid of death and dying to some extent. Perhaps we fear a lack of control over the process of deterioration that precedes death – whether it will involve pain or loss of dignity. But just as there can be no spring without the cold of winter that comes before it  – so the pain of suffering can be seen to precede the triumph of new life.

To my mind, death for me is eternity knocking at the door. Perhaps, an avoidance of thinking of life after death is due to realising that I am not living now, as I would want to live to eternity. The trouble is that often I am unwilling to allow what is bad in me to die. A reminder of the reality of death is a wake up call to discard the trivial and prioritise the significant. Now is the time to overcome estrangement and heal old wounds.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on21st April 2011CategoriesConsciousness, Mystical experienceTags,, , , , , , , , , , , ,, , , , , , Leave a comment

Punishment of hell – Can this be real?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

punishment of hellThe idea of punishment of hell seems unbelievable because these days we are less likely to see good and evil; no black and white, only shades of grey. People say if human beings are inherently good, then just take them away from a bad social environment, treat disease, or give them what they need, and they will be happy and useful.

If doing bad things is caused by environmental circumstances rather than individual moral choice, then surely an eternal punishment after death would be unjust? And if you balk at the idea of evil then you may dismiss the idea of hell and the punishment of hell.

What to do with criminals

But who would disagree that there are villains around stealing, embezzling, and murdering? Is their crime always just as an uncomfortable complication in human relations rather than as an offence against a standard of right and wrong, good and evil?

Kinds of evidence about an afterlife

There is some evidence about the afterlife in the remarkable similarities in the way the near death experience is told by many individuals. Also there are the accounts of modern mediums of what they have been told by spirit communicators about life after death.

This information tallies with the meticulously written up reports of the eighteenth century writer Emanuel Swedenborg about his own psychic experiences of what he termed “the spiritual world” which lasted during the last twenty-seven years of his life.

A punishment of hell witnessed

Swedenborg describes one of his psychic visions. He saw inside a building where there was a court for a judge. A certain person came along who is described as ‘a lover of self’ and sat on a kind of throne. He believed he was admitted into the place so he might be the judge.

There was a crowd of people there who went around the throne, some crawling underneath. As a consequence the spirit became invisible. The crowd made fun of him, by sitting near him and over him.

At length the judge came along and sat down. His cheeks became fiery and we are told that this was a sign not only that he was the judge but also that he would administer judgment.

He inquired whether anyone had committed evil. Some were arraigned and sentenced to punishment – what might be called a punishment of hell. The rest were commended and let go. The judge tolerated everyone making fun and having their jokes, only they must not do wrong to anyone.  They were afraid of him because of his power. If you treasure peace of mind, such a bedlam can perhaps be described as a hell.

No punishment of hell for crime committed on earth

This and many other experiences convinced Swedenborg that, in the next life, no-one suffers any punishment of hell for crime done in the world. Punishment and the fear of punishment is only used when needed as a deterrent if spirits were to deceive, steal from or abuse their companions with more evil intent than they did before their bodily death.

Some religious writers have spoken about infernal torments in hell as the stings of conscience on the part of remorseful souls when they are convicted of sin. However Swedenborg says people who have led spiteful and selfish lives may have regret for getting found out but no repentance because they have no real deeper conscience about right and wrong, other than concern about how they are viewed by others.

Swedenborg compares a heavenly state of mind with a hellish one. The former is an attitude of ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘loving one’s enemies’. However the latter is an attitude of ‘an eye for an eye’ and getting even with one’s foes. This then he says is really the punishment of hell. If, and only if, a malicious person does something horrid towards another individual beyond what has been done to him, he is immediately open to punishment or persecution from other spirits who do so with impunity.

Apparently fantasy can be a punishment of hell. Swedenborg observed proud spirits filled with their own importance as academic scholars. They lived in underground libraries wanting to be left to their studies and to escape responsibilities of life. But as they read, the candles went out!

Another proud person had contempt for others and became inflated like a balloon that grew to fill the universe – until he had no place to go!

Swedenborg was repeatedly told by evil spirits that “they would rather a thousand times live in hell than out of it.” Nowhere else could they indulge in their sole delight, which was to see others suffer and thus boost their own sense of importance. Nowhere else could they escape the light of truth, which spoiled their selfish plans and dispersed their cherished fantasies. For them to be allowed to enter heaven would be more aversive and unpleasant than whatever punishments their hellish companions could administer.

Swedenborg claimed that punishment of hell applied in the next life do not go on continually for ever. They are not retributions for sins committed on earth, but disciplinary reactions to criminal acts that selfish and cruel people commit in hell. Thus punishments in hell cease when external order has been restored.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems


Posted on30th December 2011CategoriesEthics, Private EthicsTags,, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,,  Leave a comment

Conviction or doubt about spiritual ideas?

conviction or doubtGeneral ideas about what is true about life come from all around us — family, the mass media, books. These concepts have often seeped through from current and past thinking for example from politics, philosophy and religion. We respond with either conviction or doubt or somewhere in between.

We absorb such ideas because we tend to be interested in making sense of our lives, why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going, not to mention fathoming the reality of suffering, misfortune, and chaos that we find all around us.

But life goes on and we are obliged to make the best fist of it using what values and principles we have learned about and accept.

The question arises: Is it better to have conviction or doubt about your ideas? Conviction helps you put ideas into practice with commitment. Having doubt about ideas other people believe in can be useful given the complexities of life.

Problems with conviction or doubt

One problem in forming set beliefs is that of believing something for reasons other than to do with the truth. This might be wanting to fit in with the attitudes of friends, unease in going against what your parents told you to think as a child, and even fear of expressing a religious doubt in case this is construed as blasphemy.

Some argue that rushing into belief about something also means your understanding cannot easily be broadened and what you hold to be true cannot be qualified in any way. So they say exposing yourself to opposing ideas obliges you to think and ponder over whether your ideas are indeed true, and to gather reasons in support of them.

Having doubts can be unsettling especially if they challenge previous life choices such as vocation or marriage. The trouble with seeing every side of an issue is you can get stuck. A humorist once commented on someone who belonged to a liberal religion which celebrated doubt. This person arrived at the pearly gates of heaven only to find a signpost pointing in one direction to God, and in the other direction towards a discussion of God. He took the latter path. In other words he preferred to talk the talk rather than walk the walk of his religion.

Conviction or doubt in relation to luck 

When something bad happens we might wonder why. One spiritual idea, is that good-fortune is a reward for acting rightly while bad luck is punishment for being bad. You tend to make this assumption when you find yourself asking ‘Why me, what have I done to deserve this?’

The idea that God punishes or rewards is an example of what I believe is an ‘appearance of truth’.

“Appearances of truth are given, to everyone according to (their) ability to grasp them; and these appearances are acknowledged as truths because they have the capacity to hold Divine things within them.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 3387)

England football manger Glenn Hoddle believed a person’s disability was a punishment for bad actions performed in a past life by that individual. And as a result of public outcry against this belief he was dismissed.

So what might a truer insight be? Clearly, we are all capable of bringing about our own suffering. Just keep drinking beer all day, or gambling away your savings. But often we suffer misfortune through no fault of our own. In the biblical book of Job we find someone who suffers great misfortune despite being innocent. He came to realize that good fortune and misfortune afflict the good and bad alike.

My suggestion is innocent suffering is permitted because it obliges us all to learn how to use our freedom of choice to respond to it e.g. with indifference or compassion. If this is true then it shows how a particular spiritual belief can be a temporary stepping stone to further insight.

Conviction or doubt about sacred myths

Is another example of an appearance of the truth found in sacred myth? I think so. Because they are myths, like parables, can’t they be seen on different levels depending on what people can grasp?

I offer this example. Doubting the idea of three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one God, opens up the mind to (what is to my way of thinking at least) a more rational understanding. A truer idea being these are three symbolic aspects of the one divine God – heart of creative love, head of human wisdom and hands of powerful activity.

Conviction or doubt in relation to enlightenment

For Swedenborg, the search for truth is crucial for deeper insight. Illumination of our ideas to develop conviction or doubt is seen by him as a spiritual gift which can only be received when the individual is in the genuine love of truth for the sake of truth and who humbly tries to live according to his or her lights. This is how we gain faith. In other words conviction is a feeling that can only come from inner enlightenment.

“Those with a genuine affection for truth, that is, those who desire to know truths to put them to good use and for the sake of the life they ought to lead, … when they receive (enlightenment) …their hearts rejoice.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 8993)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on personal problems

Posted on9th June 2012CategoriesEnlightenment, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , , , , , ,, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Criminal punishment – How might this work?

criminal punishmentNearly 75% of those aged over 18 and charged with offences committed during the 2011 English riots, had prior criminal convictions. In some urban neighbourhoods, there had been an intimidating atmosphere from a section of young people who can be aggressive in their demeanour and unafraid of social disapproval. We might wonder whether  the prospect of criminal punishment deters such individuals.

I’m not necessarily talking about all the looters during the recent riots some of whom to my mind were shallow thrill seekers joining in  because they thought they could get away with avoiding criminal punishment. But rather those engaged in  the mob violence, many armed with bricks, who didn’t care too much if they were  caught. Some of these  people were quite prepared to throw heavy slabs through police car windscreens and hurl petrol bombs at officers. This aggression towards the authority of law enforcement suggests a deeply held antagonism to mainstream society by a widespread if small criminal minority who are likely to end up receiving criminal punishment sooner or later.

The attitude of criminal punishment as a just desert

A few commentators have adopted a condemnatory attitude.

“These people are just scum and that’s the end of it. They deserve all the criminal punishment dished out to them.”

And there is a common view that trying to throw light on the riots in terms of social problems is tantamount to excusing individual actions. Social explanations do not erase responsibility of individuals but labelling these people as criminals does not help us understand why they became the way they are. Examining any relevant factors in society is not to justify behaviour but to try to throw some light on it. I would suggest a spiritual attitude is to condemn the behaviour but not the person: it is to look to enhance civil and moral order.

Criminal punishment that allows the drug habit

Is one of the possible social causes of the problem to do with the way society may have failed in its challenge to unacceptable behaviour? In other words, is disorder more likely on our streets because it has not been met with a sufficiently firm, fast and sustained response? It is well known a lot of crime is motivated by a desire to feed a drug habit. And so to the outsider like me it is a bit of a mystery why the problem of drug availability in many of our prisons has not been successfully addressed. According to this way of thinking as people get away with acting badly, social norms about law-abiding behaviour have been weakened.

A charitable attitude to criminal punishment

To my mind, a spiritual approach encourages the kind of punishment for wrong-doing that clarifies to everyone what is right, deters future crime and protects people from harm. I believe this element of social control is entirely in line with a charitable attitude. It is a very different approach to the one that sees punishment as there to make us feel better when criminals get their ‘just deserts’. Arguably, such an un-charitable attitude is counter-productive. Short-term imprisonment has been shown not to work in preventing re-offending. We need to be more creative in developing punishment that does work better. This is not to argue that punishment alone is enough but to suggest it is a crucial part of the mix of the ways disorderly behaviour can be more effectively challenged.

Community sentences as a form of criminal punishment

Offenders have not been obliged to face the consequences of their actions for example by paying back to the communities they have damaged. They need informing about what should happen locally to repair the harm they have caused. This is not a soft option. It is very popular amongst victims and can help those hurt by crime to feel a sense of closure. It is said to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

Community sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment has not found public confidence. I suspect one reason is it has been seen as a less expensive alternative to locking people up and therefore insufficient resources have been allocated to give it a chance to have some impact.

Restorative justice as a community programme can be combined with various forms of punishment. It is a process requiring skilled facilitation – thus financial investment. Those who advocate it argue that it has the potential to help in the repair of fractured relationships and to foster a sense of responsibility in those who wronged others. I believe it is entirely in line with a psycho-spiritual response to wrong-doing whereby true charity of feeling cannot be divorced from good sense of the understanding in action – the heart, head and hands working together.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

School discipline – how should it operate?

school disciplineOne view expressed in The Times newspaper in relation to the 2011 English riots is that “these disgraceful scenes were perpetuated by people who have not experienced any meaningful consequences for misbehaviour at school ” And so the spotlight is falling on school discipline.

Some teacher unions are saying that badly behaved pupils are running wild as staff feel  powerless to discipline them. In relation to school discipline, teachers complain that their authority is undermined both by government and by parents. Sometimes the latter have been known to aggressively come into the school to complain about teachers who dare criticise their children let alone try to discipline them.

Polarised attitudes to school discipline

Attitudes to responding to misbehaviour seem to have polarised between the hard conservative right and soft liberal left. Those on the right of politics bemoan about school discipline in what they see as a breakdown of authority. They would probably like to see a return to Victorian values such as shown in the phrases ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ ‘The little savages need civilising.’ Harsh draconian remedies may chime with a mood of resentment and anger. This is an unashamedly punitive attitude, components of which can be seen in the tabloid press, who scream for a blaming, punishing, labelling approach to misbehaviour.

The opposite attitude and one that historically has been probably a reaction against it, is one of ‘hands-off’ often accompanied by feelings of guilt regarding punishment which is seen as a violation of human rights. It is characterised by an expectation that children will thrive and behave in socially acceptable ways if they are given support and trust because of an innate goodness in their makeup.

According to this view the emphasis should be on support involving being reasonable, finding excuses, and trying to rescue the person from their problematic pattern of behaviour.

Psychologists on school discipline

However, psychologists tell us that acceptable behaviour needs to be consistently rewarded and unacceptable behaviour consistently earn disapproval, if social learning is to take place. In other words children are not born socialized. They find out how to behave properly. They have to learn to co-operate with others. They need to be trained to respect other people’s rights.

But to achieve this, teachers need to combine control with support, firmness with kindness. Control, means boundary-setting, discipline, and firmness; and  support involves nurture, encouragement, and kindness. These two things, control and support, are not actually opposites but two different dimensions of social correction.

School discipline from a spiritual perspective

From a spiritual perspective, Swedenborg writes about support in terms of a charitable heart. However, for him a charitable heart is not one at all unless it is informed by good sense of the head. This is his philosophy of the ‘heavenly marriage of good and truth’. One without the other lacks spiritual life. In his book Doctrine of Charity (section 163) he writes about those administering rules fairly are behaving charitably even when inflicting penalties. He compares this with a parent who from love firmly corrects bad behaviour.

School discipline as supportive control

Showing supportive control is entirely possible. It means exhibiting kind firmness. When this ethos is present within the school culture, teachers do not noticeably yell at the children. This combination of control and support tends to result in students acting in an orderly rather than an unruly way both within the school and whilst leaving it at then end of the day.

Such a teacher will be authoritative rather than authoritarian, responsible rather than negligent, empowering rather than only caring, and will foster a cooperative environment.

It doesn’t mean telling pupils that things are wrong in a self-righteous or over-severe manner, for in this circumstance the youngster will probably treat what the teacher says with scepticism or hostility, and especially if the adult is not following the rules him or herself. Neither does it involve failing to notice what sanctions are available.

Pupils need to be obliged to face the consequences of their actions.  What kids take for granted might be viewed as privileges that can be withdrawn rather than rights to be respected regardless of conduct.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems