The Bible tells us a great deal about what leads to salvation. It talks about faith, repentance, and living a good life (obeying the commandments).
The path to salvation is simple: live well, believe rightly, and you will be saved. We believe that all people who live good lives, no matter what their religion, have a place in heaven. Heaven is limitless in its capacity for angels, in fact, the more angels there are, the more heaven thrives. Everyone born on this earth has been predestined for heaven. The only reason someone would go to hell is because they have chosen to go there of their own volition.
In determining whether or not we have lived well, God leads us to assess the whole of our lives — the highs and lows, causes and effects, the mistakes made and genuinely good things done. If there is any possible way He can lead us into heaven, He will. In other words, it’s pretty difficult to go to hell. God’s greatest wish for us is that we find our highest happiness within the angel body. Those who choose hell are people who put themselves above all else, repeatedly indulging in things which are hurtful to others. The only reason hell exists is to preserve the freedom of choice which God grants to all His people.
ONLY THE LORD SAVES, BUT WE PLAY A ROLE
We play an active role in our salvation every day of our lives. When we look to the Divine and live according to what we believe is right, we move closer towards heaven. If we shun good, we move closer to hell. Thus, salvation and freedom of choice are inseparable from each other.
Salvation is not dependent on the doctrinal specifics of the religion you have followed on earth. As long as you have lived a life acknowledging God and refraining from evil because it is against Him, you will be saved. Acknowledging God does not necessarily mean recognizing Him by name. A person can be ignorant of religion and still acknowledge God by living a life of goodwill. This is because the choices that we make on a daily basis are what determine whether we end up in heaven or hell. Yes, worshiping God is essential for admittance into heaven, but we worship Him through the actions of our lives.
“The sum of faith is that one who lives well and believes rightly is saved by the Lord.” (True Christian Religion 340)
“Every person has been created to live to eternity in a blessed state.” (Divine Providence 324)
For anyone who believes in heaven, one question stands above all the others: How can I get there? How can I be saved?
Christianity has offered a variety of answers over the millennia, from early sects that simply followed the example of Jesus to monasticism to the elaborate rites and rituals of medieval catholicism to crusading warfare to the Protestants’ hope in the mercy and blood of Jesus.
For the most part, those concepts have regarded heaven as a paradise, where anyone would be happy no matter what he or she did to get there, and no matter what kind of person he or she is. This actually does not make a lot of sense if you think about it. If the cruel and power-hungry could attain heaven alongside the kind and caring, then surely they would make heaven a hell through their cruelty and desire to rule. And if the cruel and power-hungry were rendered non-cruel and non-power-hungry, would they still be themselves anymore?
Swedenborg’s idea of heaven – and hell – is different. In his theology both are simply spiritual states where we live with others who love the same things we do. If those loves are good and kind it will be a wonderful life of sharing and joy; if those loves are cruel and selfish we will end up in endless contention with others who are cruel and selfish.
Salvation, then, is a matter of letting the Lord change our hearts from the naturally selfish state to a heavenly, loving state. We do this by learning what is right and good, using our minds to lead us in doing those things, and asking the Lord to change our hearts. If we continue and stick to it. He will little by little do that, so that eventually we can reach a state where we love what is good and know what is true.
So is that salvation by faith? Salvation by works? In a way both, and neither. Works are involved, because we have to make ourselves do what we know is good and loving. Faith is involved because we have to invite the Lord into our hearts to make a true change. But neither can get us there without the other, and the ultimate judgment is on what we love, not what we’ve done or what we believe.
Religion is simply about how to live a heaven-bound life. And, if one humbly and sincerely loves God and the neighbor, reaching God’s heavenly kingdom of mutual love does not require one to be a neuroscientist.
So why did Emanuel Swedenborg provide so many extra details on the process of spiritual salvation? The average person who lives a life of goodness from spiritual principles does not really need such doctrinal “overkill.”
A hint comes from a statement once made by George Gurdjieff that “the more one knows, the more effective one’s efforts can be.” The purpose of religion is to change our lives to become better people. Therefore, Swedenborg offered the extra information for those who wanted to understand the actual “science” behind salvation (all process proceeds according to the laws of order).
Religion basically informs us that we have a soul and a physical body. Because we have souls, the human race can survive death and live in a spiritual realm. But what Swedenborg (and Gurdjieff) brings to the theological table is that the human soul still needs to be embodied in a way that allows an individual’s personal identity to be put into a non-physical structure and organically transferred to a different realm.
According to Swedenborg, God’s living force flows into our souls—through heaven—and down into the hearts and minds of us people living on earth. But this divine influence flows through us like water through a sieve—unless a person makes the effort to allow God’s love and truth to become “fixed” and permanent in his or her life.
Swedenborg discovered that the true human soul is even beyond the consciousness of angels. So we cannot live in such a rarified sphere after death. What happens is that the Soul creates a spiritual body inside the physical body—based on the things we LOVE and seek! In other words, instead of being the mere result of our parents’ genes (which is a genetic “crapshoot”), the spiritual body is who we really are and deserve to be!
Swedenborg claimed that a person’s blood is a physical analog of an individual’s loves, affections and passions. Not only do people have different appetites, the human digestive system extracts nutrients that bring the chemical makeup of a person’s blood into concord with their affections. He claimed individuals even extract different qualities from the atmosphere (atmospheric and ethereal salts) in our respiratory systems to further promote this concord. And finally we all draw in different kinds of knowledge from the world (including religious doctrine). From these multi-sourced “foods” the soul fashions our real spiritual body using the substances that correspond to our life choices and values (loves).
We tend to view the human mental faculty of understanding and reasoning as a cognitive function. But Swedenborg claimed that the human understanding is an organized body of knowledge that forms one’s innermost bio-complexity. In the same way the physical body consists of organs that digest and prepare food, the human understanding contains non-physical analogs of these same organs by which the spirit can digest and prepare information. Angels, and those who live in heaven, have developed spiritual bodies that can receive and digest an even nobler food or quality of information—God’s teachings and tenets.
The spiritual body develops (crystallizes) within our physical bodies as we live out and act on our chosen principles of life. When individuals leave their physical bodies behind after death, they find themselves living in the environment that most suits their spiritual bio-complexity. Those who gravitate toward heaven or toward hell have differently organized spiritual bodies. Again, the soul can only create our inner reality and spiritual body from the things we hold dearest in our hearts and minds. (If the soul did not comply with our strongest wishes our very bio-fabric would rip apart!)
I am sharing these ideas with you so that you can have a more visceral notion of the consequences of one’s behavior. My new book Proving God contains a chapter entitled “The Science of Salvation” which puts the discussion of human salvation into clear scientific language!
Because Holy Scripture describes ancient battles and warfare, chariots are often mentioned. But according to scientist/theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, the driver, the horses and the chariot all refer to—and symbolize—qualities of the human mind and spirit!
Swedenborg claimed that Holy Scripture contained deeper levels of meaning. These deeper levels addressed the spiritual story of human salvation and God’s secret steps for securing human salvation. Symbolically speaking, a chariot represents one’s body of knowledge, worldview and faith-system (or doctrine of life). In other words, it represents the exterior “housing” (memory-data) which carries our beliefs and preferences.
The horses represent an individual’s emotional world, affection and love. Swedenborg stated that horses represent the love of learning—which carries one’s worldview to new “places.”
The rider or driver represents the intelligence and the wisdom of a person to maneuver their emotions and knowledge in the most advantageous and strategic way. The archer in the chariot represents the wisdom and intelligence by which an individual defends his or her worldview and attempts to convince. The archer’s arrows are “arguments” forged to make a sharp point in order to penetrate opposing views.
So the chariot, horses and riders symbolize various and distinct cognitive functions of the human psyche. But what about the connections between these mental functions that allow them to be subordinated, coordinated, and act in a unified manner? What do the connections correspond to?
Some people have asked me why I would mix the teachings of George Gurdjieff with those of Emanuel Swedenborg. Well, they both agreed that ancient civilizations employed this symbolism and allegory into their style of writing. But for me, Gurdjieff brought something new to the table. He said that the connections between the various cognitive functions were the flow of blood. Furthermore, Gurdjieff insisted that humans consisted of three distinct (discrete) species of blood!
This further insight can be applied to the symbolism of the chariot. The shaft that connected the chariot to the horse was the red blood. The reins that connected the driver to the horses was a “purer” blood, which modern science would describe as the electro-colloidal fluid/energy that courses through the nerve fibers. Finally, God was connected to the driver and archer through the “purest” blood or external blood of the soul.
Those who have read Swedenborg’s scientific and anatomical work know that he also classified blood into three similar and distinct species. And if one reads this material more closely it can be verified that these bloods do indeed connect the human body, mind and soul together.
I am sharing this unique information with you because my current book project Proving God seeks to unify science and religion. Most people know that religion offers us with ways to purify the heart. But there is also a scientific angle to salvation. When we apply God’s spiritual tenets to our lives, it affects the quality of our blood. Living a heaven-bound life actually cleanses and purifies the red blood and the purer blood (which Swedenborg called the animal spirit). Evil intentions and behavior particularly corrupts the purer blood (Arcana Coelestia, n. 4227).
Boxing Day 2004 was shattered by the developing news of the tsunami disaster in the Indian ocean and as more and more details of the horrific results of this tragedy emerged we have had to try to come to terms with one of the greatest natural disasters of the last 50 years.
Of course ‘disasters’ happen all the time and often they are close and personal or in our extended families. And then there are the larger events such as train crashes which affect dozens of lives. But this ‘tsunami’ event we have witnessed has affected millions of lives across many countries not just because of the widespread effect of the giant waves crossing the ocean but also because of the large number of people on holiday in those parts. It is, perhaps, this all encompassing effect that has made this tragedy so prominent in our news programmes and newspapers and such a challenge to our thinking about God and the way God works in the world.
To those who profess no belief in God, such a violent and destructive event tends to reinforce those views. To those who do believe in God, it raises questions about why God allows such things and why he does not intervene – and these questions inevitably bring doubt and disbelief. After all we might not be surprised if bad things happened to bad people but when bad things happen to good people or innocent people we are at a loss to explain it.
But how might we begin to try and make sense of all of this?
I think we need to start with asking ourselves who we really are. Are we just a wonderful human body driven by a vastly complex brain and so able to operate in the natural world around us? Or are we really deep inner spiritual beings with the potential to grow as we come to terms with the events that affect our lives?
I certainly feel that we are indeed spiritual beings and that the greatest gift God gives us is the freedom to choose on the one hand to be selflessly loving in our relationships with others or on the other hand to be selfishly loving towards ourselves. As we take what this freedom offers and choose the selfless pathway, then we grow spiritually, and this growth can continue past the death of our physical bodies and on to eternity.
But what if God did intervene in a disaster? What scale of disaster would merit this divine intervention? Would it only be something on the scale of the ‘tsunami’ event or would smaller scale disasters also receive God’s attention? Would family tragedies also be avoided by God’s intervention? Commonsense suggests that if God intervened at all there would be no limit to that intervention and ultimately nothing in the world would go wrong, whether caused by nature or caused by men and women. Our world would become a world in which we existed like robots, with no problems or difficulties to face and where choices to act selflessly or selfishly would be meaningless.
So we have an apparent paradox that whilst we can think of God as all powerful, nevertheless God cannot act against his love that we should live in freedom. God doesn’t want disasters or accidents or terminal illness but these are allowed because only in that way can true spiritual freedom be maintained.
Now this is an easy thing to say if you are not watching a loved one being swept away by a tidal wave or if you are not caring for someone dying as a result of some terrible accident. In these situations no words can really give comfort, however true they maybe, it is only love that can make a difference.
But don’t we often say that God is Love?. We might ask the question – “where is God at work in the ‘tsunami’ disaster?” and if we cannot find an answer it is probably because our understanding of God is limited in some way (perhaps by thinking that God should act as we act in a “quick fix” kind of way). But if this is so then we should ask instead – “where is Love in this disaster?” And surely an answer to this question comes immediately! We have seen love at work in the desperate attempts by people to save those overwhelmed by the gigantic waves, even if in that attempt they lost their own lives. We have seen love at work in the rescue workers searching hour after hour, day after day, to find those whose lives could be saved. We have seen love at work in the outpouring of concern and giving around the world. And in all this love, is God.
Bad things happen. We know that from our own personal experience and we also know it from observing the world around us. But however bad the situation it is love that can lift us up and lead us forward again. And the source of all the true love we can experience and share with others is God.
“Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation.”
“What drew me to the faith was the concept that all religions point to God”
Everyone eventually dies. Greg McCelvie faces this reality almost every day. With a father and mother who both passed away in the last three years, as well as many of the patients he cares for in the nursing home where he works, Greg has seen death come suddenly, carrying away the spirits of those that he knows and loves.
But Greg has also seen the beauty of life coming into being. At only 48 years old, Greg became a grandfather. As he held little Sam, softly bundled in his arms, Greg knew that this child deserved pure love. Over the past five years, the opportunity help raise a child, while also mourning the loss of parents and many patients, has launched Greg into a process of discovery about the meaning of life. He said, “Part of my journey is to find my purpose. Trying to discover who I am and where I am going.”
Greg had been raised with a Christian spiritual foundation, but over time, he and his wife found themselves becoming increasingly dissatisfied with certain religious concepts. Although he loved the teachings of Jesus, Greg didn’t resonate with the idea that Jesus was the ONLY way, or that salvation involved a statement of faith, rather than a way of life. After trying various churches, Greg and his wife eventually dropped out of church altogether. Still, Greg never gave up on his hope of finding some sort of teaching that would value the dignity in each person, honor the variety of spiritual paths, and shed light on what awaits us in the afterlife.
Then just last summer, while looking through the books at the Sasketoon Public Library in Canada, Greg found a book unlike any other that he’d read. It was called The Essential Swedenborg. Although he’d been reading other spiritual books, something about this one stood out to him, and he began taking it with him to the park to read and ponder in the sunshine. The words were dense, and he found the language challenging, but the concepts were beautiful.
He said, “What drew me to the faith was the concept that all religions point to God. That attracted me.” He added, “In the nursing home I work with a lot of evangelicals who have a certain idea about salvation. But I like how Swedenborg puts it – that salvation comes from just living a good, honest, upright life. That’s the way I see it.
I may make mistakes, but I try not to hurt anyone emotionally or mentally. That’s a path to salvation that makes sense to me.”
He began looking online for more connections to Swedenborg, and he came across the Journey programs. He did both “Pause” and “The Path of Integrity,” and found them very helpful both in his newly developing understanding of Swedenborg, as well as his personal spiritual growth. He said, “Through working on myself, I have been finding a lot of peace. I’m trying to mend relationships, make amends with family and learning to live in harmony.”
One of the life areas where Greg has found an opportunity to practice these spiritual concepts has been in his relationship with his brother and sister. After their parents died, Greg’s siblings split the inheritance, without involving Greg in the process or even letting him see the will. But Greg does not speak about this with resentment; he only mentions it as an example of how he views people. He said “I don’t see people as commodities, or as ways to make a profit, or as convenience for my personal gain. I see each person as a valuable gift, and worthy of love.” And his efforts have been paying off – his relationship with his siblings has become stronger, and he has learned to accept them and their choices.
One area where Greg practices peace is with his Alzheimer’s patients: “I’ve been there 6 years and it’s challenging. You have to show a lot of love and a lot of patience. That develops a lot of spiritual character. It’s not their fault – they didn’t ask to lose their mental faculties. Sometimes I think God put them in my life to help me learn to be kind, and not to judge.” Greg’s co-workers have noticed how much the patients seem to gravitate to Greg. They say, “We never see you mad!” Greg’s loving attitude also makes an impression on his patients: “They can see that they can trust me because I show love and dignity and respect.”
In addition to his siblings and patients, Greg finds meaning in his relationship with his grandchildren. “When our daughters were born I took a lot of overtime shifts and I wasn’t around much. But it seems like God sometimes gives us second opportunities. Now that my career and my wife’s career is established, and our parenting days are over, we can show a lot more love and really appreciate our grandchildren.”
Finding the writings of Swedenborg has been a solid part of Greg’s process of finding peace within himself and with others, and in discovering the true meaning of life. He now has a few more books of the Writings, and hopes to join an online Journey group to connect with more members of the New Church faith.
When the time comes for Greg to die, he wants to feel that he has lived a good, honest life. Although he still has more to learn, what he’s discovered so far is this: “If you’re genuinely trying to show love and reach out to others, and you try to live with pure intentions and motives, others will come around and either see the way you’re living and want to do the same, or choose differently. Either way, you’ve done your best, and you can be at peace.”
One of the flaws in much of modern religious thought is to approach God as someone who can make our lives easier. Therefore, the ecclesiastical crowd makes every effort to offer comfort to those individuals experiencing a bumpy road—as if God is to be petitioned and expected to remove any discomfort, suffering or personal tragedy we face.
While I do not demean empathy and kindness, much of my experience with organized religion shows a prevailing attitude to overlook the holiness and spiritual necessity of “bad crap” in our lives. Yes, holiness!
Actually, “bad crap” plays a sacred role in the Trinitarian doctrine of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To understand this we need the help of scientist/theologian Emanuel Swedenborg because this topic embraces both physics and theology.
In physics, all energy and action is under law. Laws in the universe provide the constraints (resistance), which define the parameters and the quality of a particular force. Without constraints and obstacles the quality and measurement of an action cannot be known. There are three essentials to manifestation: 1) initiating force, 2) resisting force and 3) reconciling force (which gives us an observable and measured outcome).
This universal law in nature has its origins in the dynamical relationships of the Holy Trinity. God the “Father” represents initiating force. The “Son” represents resistance. And, the Holy Spirit is the kinetic outcome of the two.
It is beyond the scope of this short blog to prove Swedenborg’s theology that Jesus was Jehovah in the flesh, however, the prevailing idea that God is three Persons can still offer us valuable insights into the holiness and importance that “s_ _t happens.” (See my blog post titled “Three Gods or One God?”).
The purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to “do the will of the Father.” So Jehovah God represents the initiating force. Because Jesus was given a human body of flesh (with all its hereditary compulsions) and the inertia of physical matter, He had to overcome real “earthly” resistance to divine and heavenly dictates. That Jesus felt abandoned at times and showed fear were clear indications of His real battle with a finite and flawed human nature. By overcoming His human nature He conquered all human sin (resistance) and made His material body perfectly Divine and Holy—that is why there was an empty tomb.
The Lord conquered all sin but did not remove it. We must (on our own finite scale) go through a similar process by imploring the Lord’s help in identifying our own personal flaws and the power to overcome them. Swedenborg insisted that salvation could not lawfully take place without overcoming resistance, which in spiritual jargon is called temptation and misfortune.
The process of salvation is not the enhancement of a positive state—it simply leads us to a positive state. Affliction and temptation are the holy means by which God helps us to arrive at innocence and sincere goodness. Our negative side must be exposed and dealt with first. This determines the quality of our goodness.
Even those who have studied Swedenborg might argue that in his three-fold description of the Divine Trinity, the Father represented Divine Love, the Son represented the Divine Truth (He came into the world as the Truth) and the Holy Spirit represented the Divine Love coming forth through the Divine Truth.
How then does Truth serve as resistance to Love?
The answer is that Truth gives law and quality to Love. Truth is the form, constraint and parameter by which Love’s quality is put on display and measured. The Lord Jesus Christ put on display the quality of Divine Love towards the human race through His selfless sacrifice and servitude.
Jesus was Divine Truth because He gave form to Divine Love and made it visible and knowable.
It’s a question that people have wrestled with for ages: Why would an all-powerful God, one whose essence is literally love and wisdom, allow evil and suffering to exist in the world?
Swedenborg devotes an entire book to answering this question: Divine Providence. In it, he explains that the Lord’s goal is the formation of a heavenly community, bringing everyone—every human being on earth—into heaven. Divine providence is the way he works to do that. But he will not do this without our freely given consent and cooperation. In other words, there can be no true salvation without free will; nor can there be a full commitment to spiritual growth without first understanding the role that evil plays in our lives.
The Laws of Divine Providence
Swedenborg systematically describes the way that divine providence works in our lives by condensing it into five laws:
1. We should act in freedom and in accordance with reason
Freedom, in this case, means spiritual freedom. Our bodies limit what we can see and hear and do. Governments have laws that prevent us from acting in certain ways. But in the privacy of our own minds, we can think and feel just about any way that we like. In other words, we can choose to inwardly embrace thoughts and feelings that are either good or evil. Swedenborg tells us:
The origin of evil is the abuse of the abilities proper to us called rationality and freedom. By rationality, I mean the ability to discern what is true and therefore what is false, and to discern what is good and therefore what is evil. By freedom, I mean the ability freely to think, intend, and to do such things. (Divine Love and Wisdom #264)
The actions that we choose—and, more importantly, the underlying attitudes that motivate those actions—become a part of us. Swedenborg may have anticipated modern psychology when he observed that the thoughts and feelings we embrace never truly leave us. We may repress them, or deny them, but the thoughts and feelings that we dwell upon become part of our essential self. Ancient wisdom teaches, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Swedenborg takes it a step further, saying that “we are what we love.” (Divine Love and Wisdom #1). The more we are motivated by and act upon our noblest desires, the more that nobility becomes a part of our very being. This is the way we cooperate, connect, and come into communion with God. But it must be done freely, and we must make that decision rationally rather than acting out of fear or external pressure.
2. We should reject any tendencies toward evil that we notice coming into our mind
What is evil? In its most basic form, it refers to any desire or any tendency to turn away from God, or from the highest principles we know. Swedenborg describes angels as perpetually turned toward God—not in the literal sense of always facing the same direction no matter which way they’re walking, but in the spiritual sense that their minds, their inner selves, are always guided by the Lord’s love and wisdom. In the same way, he says, evil spirits are always turned away from God, guided by their own obsessions with power and prestige.
We should not think of “evil spirits” as medieval characters in fictional literature. They are real influences masquerading as our thoughts and feelings. While these thoughts and feelings may feel like our own, they do not become a part of us until we identify with them, embrace them, and lead our lives by them.
The process of noticing the negative thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds, and then rejecting them, begins on earth. This is a basic aspect of our common humanity. None of us is born “perfect,” but we can strive to become better. As Swedenborg notes, we are all born with a tendency to be selfish and to crave material pleasures. And yet, more deeply, we are also born with an inner spiritual essence that comes from God. In Hindusim this is called “Atman”; in Buddhism it is our “Buddha nature”; and in Swedenborg’s theology it is “the innermost.” It is in this “innermost” part of us where we connect with God, allow God to guide us, and become cooperative channels through whom God’s love and truth can flow.
When Swedenborg talks about rejecting evils, then, he is talking about our tendency to be selfish—to always act in what we regard as our own best interest rather than our neighbors’; to love power and crave domination over others; to steal, or kill, or otherwise do harm.
But what we do isn’t the whole story. Why we do it goes deeper. For example, let’s say that a man working for a large corporation—overworked, underpaid, and perpetually mistreated by his tyrant of a boss—discovers a loophole that will allow him to steal money from the company without anyone noticing. Over the course of a couple of years, he’s stockpiled enough money to quit and start his own business. No big deal, he tells himself. Nobody got hurt. The corporation is so large that nobody even noticed the money was missing. Anyhow, he deserves the money as compensation for the way he was treated.
Though it may not seem like a big deal, this kind of rationalization and justification of actions that we know are wrong (rather than acknowledging and rejecting them) leads us away from the Lord. The more we tell ourselves that it’s okay to help ourselves at others’ expense, the farther away we get.
However, if instead we make a concerted effort to reject those selfish thoughts and feelings, try to make amends for past actions, and truly work to become better people, we open the door for God to enter our lives and put us on the path to heaven.
3. We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way
Swedenborg asserts that nobody can be reformed by threats and punishments, or even by miracles and visions of the afterlife. In order for faith to be real, and for reformation to be actual, we have to examine ourselves in the light of our highest values and see if we are living in accordance with them. It is only when we choose to act consciously in accordance with our faith that the process of reformation really begins.
An external event like a miracle may make a big impression, and it may even force us to rethink our beliefs. However, “force” is the key word here. If we have a vision of God telling us to go help the poor, we may feel compelled to do so simply because of the overwhelming experience we’ve just had. It’s no different from acting to help others because an authority figure has told us that we must do so. If we have not consciously chosen to become a better person, to do good simply because it is good, then our inner selves are not changing—and deep inside is where it really counts. What we actually do doesn’t matter if we’re motivated by fear or external pressure.
For the same reason, people who have mental illnesses, or who suffer from some other disability that prevents them using their freedom and rationality, are not held spiritually responsible for their actions. This also includes emergency situations where a person is acting out of instinct or desperation, or times and places where people are genuinely ignorant of spiritual truths.
4. We are taught and led by the Lord, although it may appear that we are acting independently
In many places throughout his writings, Swedenborg emphasizes that all life comes from God, that his love, wisdom, and energy flow into everything. If God were to withdraw from anyone, even for a moment, that person would simply cease to exist. Because of this, even people who have chosen to do evil still have God’s presence in their lives, sustaining them. God never stops trying to lead people to do good things and to love each other, and as long as we are on earth it’s never too late to change. (Although the longer we wait, the harder it gets!)
5. We will not feel the workings of divine providence in our lives
We are not allowed to see God at work in our lives for the same reason that we can’t be converted to faith by miracles: we have to choose to do good because we truly believe it is right, not because we are forced to or because there will be an immediate reward for doing so.
That’s why some people choose to abandon their belief in God. They are looking for an immediate reward—or even an eventual reward—for being good, and are disappointed when they do not see divine providence working in their lives. They do not realize that the God “who neither slumbers nor sleeps” is always working in their lives, bringing the best out of everything that happens, no matter how dark the moment appears to be. This is a hard but important lesson—especially when there has been a serious misfortune. Sometimes it’s not until long after the fact that the lessons we learned or the positive results that ensued become clear.
Disasters and Personal Suffering
But what about innocent people who are doing their best to lead good lives and yet still suffer misfortune? What about natural disasters like floods and earthquakes that kill thousands of people? What kind of lessons do we learn from that?
The evils in the world are real, Swedenborg says, but are permitted to happen so that we can grow:
Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation. . . . [Divine providence] is constantly focused on its goal; so that every moment of its work, at every single step of its course, when it notices that we are straying from that goal it leads and turns and adapts us in accord with its laws, leading us away from evil and toward good. . . . This cannot be accomplished without allowing bad things to happen. (Divine Providence #234)
Following a natural disaster, there might be an outpouring of love and support that inspires people to treat everyone better. Perhaps a person who helps during this time might decide to dedicate their lives to helping others, affecting thousands of lives for the better. Technologies may be developed that prevent bigger disasters down the road. With our limited perspective, it’s impossible to see all the positive consequences that might arise from a personal crisis or natural disaster. Part of faith is learning to trust, as Swedenborg assures us, that the Lord will not allow anything to happen if it cannot eventually be turned to good (Secrets of Heaven #6574).
Disaster, crime, disease, and other misfortunes also force us to confront the fact that evil exists in the world. When everything is going well, when there is peace and prosperity and nobody is suffering, we tend to take things for granted. We relax and enjoy the good times without thinking too much about it. Disasters make us realize what’s important to us; they wake us up to the fact that we matter to each other. From that starting point, we can think about who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. Ultimately, if we let them, even the worst events in life can be the first step on the path to heaven.
Most of us have ideas about heaven. Whether it is a group of angel babies with big wings and harps, a singing choir of gorgeous voices, a delicious feast, or angels jumping on huge clouds in the sky, many of us find some way to imagine what “heaven” looks like and feels like.
Swedenborg’s descriptions of heaven and hell have fascinated people of all sorts for ages: he presents us with stories of a warm, peaceful heaven and a stricken, foul hell. Swedenborg describes heaven as a place where each angel finds a home according to the things they love the most, a home where they can find a useful purpose and work with other angels who love the same things. Swedenborg describes hell as an option that people choose by living a hellish existence on earth—if people consistently engage in hurtful, selfish, or hate-driven behavior while alive, they will not choose heaven after they die even if they have it right in front of their nose. They will instead choose to love themselves over what is good, and make an eternal life working toward getting more stuff and doing a better job of loving themselves.
Swedenborg has a lot of helpful hints for living a heavenly life on earth in his many books. However, wading through theology is no small task. If you’re just looking for a quick taste, here are three ways to get a little slice of heaven on earth today:
(Note: Below, we’re using pie as a metaphor for the delicious goodness we want to create within ourselves. To read about it in Swedenborg’s words, look into the resources at the end of this post.)
1. Find a Problem to Fix (AKA: Notice the Bad Stuff in the Batter)
If there is a bit of fluff in the batter, we must notice it and recognize it before it can be removed. This fluff stands for all the bad habits and the negative things in life. When we look at the batter and think to themselves, “That looks like a nasty bit of fluff. Maybe I should take it out . . .” and then consider ways to fix the problem, we’ve already started that process of change on a mental level. In life, this happens whenever we notice a bad habit and get ready to change it. Maybe one person notices that every time their friend has a good story to tell, they find themselves unconsciously racking their brain to think of a slightly better story to tell. When they notice that bad habit, they’re making the first step toward a little bit more happiness (Divine Providence #39). Stare at that fluff, and go on to step two.
2. Start to Fix the Problem (AKA: Remove the Fluff)
Staring at the bit of fluff in the batter won’t solve the problem. The problem will only be solved when we make a change, pick up the spoon, and take the fluff out of the batter. When we take bad things out of our lives, we leave room for good things to flow in and cover that space (Divine Providence #33). This step is a huge part of Swedenborg’s idea of repentance, which is the first step toward regeneration, or becoming a new, better person (True Christianity #510). To become better, people have to stop doing things they know are bad for them. Say goodbye to the fluff—on to step three.
3. Ask for Help (AKA: Fill in the Pie Crust)
In this step, Swedenborg writes that people should turn to the Lord for help. He says that God is able to fill in the cracks and let new good things flow into people’s lives as bad things leave, just as the pie filling flows into the pie crust. The happiness of eternal life begins with this step, and the next secret one, as we are able to love more easily and more wholly in life because we are less filled with bad things, and looking outside of ourselves for help (True Christianity #539).
Secret step #4: Repetition (AKA: Practice Making Pie Again and Again and Again and Agai . . .)
Actually, this process never ends. It starts over at the beginning every time we notice bad things about our lives. It continues as long as people are changing and growing and loving and making mistakes. As long as people continue to repeat this cycle, the bad things get removed and the good things flow in. It’s the never-ending process of life.
Divine Providence #39: “Words cannot describe the varieties of heaven’s bliss, rapture, pleasure, and delight—the joys of heaven. . . . However, these joys enter into us only as we distance ourselves from compulsions to love what is evil and false, which distancing we do apparently with our own strength, but in fact from the Lord’s strength. These joys are actually joys of loving desires for what is good and true, and they are directly opposed to the compulsions to love what is evil and false.” back
Divine Providence #33: “Since the Lord flows into everyone’s life and flows through our life’s desires into our perceptions and thoughts (and not the reverse), as already noted, it follows that the closeness of our union with the Lord depends on the extent to which our love for evil and its desires—its compulsions—is dismissed. Further, since these compulsions have their home in the level of our being that deals with this world, and since anything we do that is rooted in that level feels as though it belongs to us, we need to dismiss the evils of this love with what seems to be our own strength. To the extent that we do this, the Lord draws near and unites us to himself.” back
True Christianity #510: “Before repentance, we stand outside regeneration [or spiritual rebirth]. In that condition, if any thought of eternal salvation somehow makes its way into us, we at first turn toward it but soon turn away. That thought does not penetrate us any farther than the outer areas where we have ideas; it then goes out into our spoken words and perhaps into a few gestures that go along with those words. When the thought of eternal salvation penetrates our will, however, then it is truly inside us. The will is the real self, because it is where our love dwells; our thoughts are outside us, unless they come from our will, in which case our will and our thought act as one, and together make us who we are. From these points it follows that in order for repentance to be genuine and effective within us, it has to be done both by our will and by our thinking that comes from our will. It cannot be done by thought alone. Therefore it has to be a matter of actions, and not of words alone.” back
True Christianity #539: “There are two duties that we are obliged to perform after we have examined ourselves: prayer and confession. The prayer is to be a request that [the Lord] have mercy on us, give us the power to resist the evils that we have repented of, and provide us an inclination and desire to do what is good, since ‘without him we cannot do anything’ (John 15:5). The confession is to be that we see, recognize, and admit to our evils and that we are discovering that we are miserable sinners.
There is no need to list our sins before the Lord and no need to beg that he forgive them. The reason we do not need to list our sins before the Lord is that we have searched them out within ourselves and saw them, and therefore they are present before the Lord because they are present before us. The Lord was leading us in our self-examination; he disclosed our sins; he inspired our grief and, along with it, the motivation to stop doing them and to begin a new life.
There are two reasons why we should not beg the Lord to forgive our sins. The first is that sins are not abolished, they are just relocated within us. They are laid aside when after repentance we stop doing them and start a new life. This is because there are countless yearnings that stick to each evil in a kind of cluster; these cannot be set aside in a moment, but they can be dealt with in stages as we allow ourselves to be reformed and regenerated.
The second reason is that the Lord is mercy itself. Therefore he forgives the sins of all people. He blames no one for any sin.” back
We not only have the means to prevent unwanted births, we have adopted similar means of preventing ideas from inseminating our minds.
For instance, the Ten Commandments can be read, stored in the memory as data, but never acted upon. The Lord, while in the world, simplified these ten laws into two – loving God and loving the neighbor. Still, the Lord’s teaching of loving God and loving others can simply be filed away in the memory as mere data.
Anything that prevents God’s ideas from taking hold in the mind and not being allowed to grow into the mature and loving actions of one who seeks eternal life and blessedness is spiritual contraception.
The Christian doctrine of salvation by faith alone is just such a spiritual birth control pill. The reason is that faith alone stresses “belief” over “acts of goodness” for obtaining salvation and entry into the gates of heaven.
This is holy hogwash!
Believing alone is like allowing a concept to enter into one’s memory without the conceiving. In other words, when an idea is not allowed to germinate and change the way we act in the world, how can mere “believing” lead to our spiritual rebirth?
Rebirth implies real, tangible process.
What possible process is involved when ideas simply remain as un-germinated seeds in the soil of the human memory? Those who embrace the doctrine of faith alone point out that no one is perfect and that no human act or deed of goodness can help us gain the credit of the Lord’s righteousness.
The doctrine of faith alone allows Christians to overlook their personal flaws and serves as a prophylactic to the commandments and introspection. Such believers cleverly point out that an individual who seeks salvation through good deeds seeks his or her own merit. But they miss the point that, because people are imperfect, they must seek and pray for the Lord’s help in becoming a better person. One does not seek merit if he or she approaches the Lord with sincerity and humility. (And one cannot effectively seek God’s help unless one sees specific inclinations and compulsions that need overhauling.)
The other thing people tend to overlook is that good deeds are not sincere until someone tackles their personal flaws. Otherwise, a person can accomplish good deeds for the sake of reputation, self-promotion, and even to keep personal agendas hidden from the world.
Repentance precedes good deeds. This brings innocence to the deed.
Love is faith put into action. True faith is the love to do what is true. Love makes faith alive. The warmth of Love is how faith germinates in our memory and grows out into the living actions of our heart. Any religious doctrine that deters the growth and development of spiritual love in our lives is “rebirth control.”
God’s heavenly kingdom consists of mutual love. Mutual love is more than our possessing the right idea in our noggins. It necessitates doing the right thing from a spiritual conscience.
The Lord’s governance of all people is called His Divine Providence.
There is nothing that happens outside of the care of the Lord and His providence. This does not mean that the Lord wills evil things to happen. The Lord is continually providing for all that is good and true and useful to effect us and inspire us. His will is only that good things happen. However, He also created people to be free. Therefore people make choices that are merely somewhat good, or partially good and sometimes downright evil and wrong. The Lord is present with people in these choices trying to bend them to a lesser evil or even to what is good. He will never exert His influence to the point where someone’s will is broken or pushed beyond their own free choice. We are also told that the Lord will only permit evil to happen if good may come from it. For example, we can see in the death of an individual how often it will impact people for good; by either inspiring others to change their lives, or live more spiritually, or some such thing. When evil things happen the Lord is there permitting it (not willing or desiring it to happen), providing that good might come from the choices made.
When it is said that God permits, this does not mean that He wills, but that He cannot avert on account of the end, which is salvation. Whatever is done for the sake of the end, namely, salvation, is according to the laws of the Divine Providence. (Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence 234)
We will be effected by our heredity that is passed on from our parents and ancestors, our environment, our experiences, and our ruling or dominant love. We are created to have free choice so it is completely up to us what we choose to do and what we choose to love. The Lord knows what we are going to choose but that doesn’t mean He is deciding for us. It means that He can allow for, and provide for, our choices.
While I have never been an atheist, if I had not come across the unique concepts of theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, I would have rejected all official systems of belief. I certainly would have rejected, and still do, all ideas by the traditional Christian Church that faith trumps enlightenment.
There is something wrong when millions upon millions of hungry and curious neurons occupying the human brain are asked to have “faith” and “belief” at the expense of knowledge and rationality.
What really makes my neurons cringe is the doctrinal idea that God is “three Persons” and that Jesus ransomed His life to appease the wrath of His Father. Such doctrinal notions implore us to suspend all reasoning and blindly believe that by some kind of divine hocus-pocus (called a divine mystery) Jesus magically took all our sins and guilt to the cross with Him, and by dying on the cross, put the Father into the right mood and loving frame of mind to again be interested in human salvation.
Besides this scenario making Jehovah God look temperamental and subject to moods, I am at a loss as to how anyone’s bad behavior can be transferred and credited to Jesus, or how the Father can then credit us back with righteousness. This is “voodoo” redemption and implies that Christians are spared from living a life according to the Commandments.
It also suggests that God is glorified in the same way men wish to be glorified—by being served rather than serving, since good works play no part in our redemption.
Jesus was not a ransom for an angry Father-God. If this were so, then Jesus would not have started a ministry and gone to great lengths to share new teachings. While on earth, what Jesus did ransom was His human inclination to exercise command and dominate others. Instead, He choose to wash the feet of the seemingly unworthy. This self-induced humbling action is how God was glorified. The Lord attained greatness through humility rather than through a show of force or might.
“It shall not be so among you; but whosoever would be great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:26-28, Mark 10:44,45)
The Lord took human sin upon Himself by coming into the world and acquiring an imperfect physical body through a human female and real human ovum. In this way, He acquired humankind’s defects and hereditary inclinations towards evil. During the Lord’s life on earth He was given the medium through which He could be influenced by and defeat evil, until He succeeded in perfecting His human nature and uniting it with His divine nature (which was Jehovah). Jesus was Jehovah, and became the Alpha and Omega.
This process of the Lord uniting his human nature with His divine spirit, or Jehovah, was one of perfect humility (exinanition) that reached its ultimate intensity on the cross where the human flesh cried out to be spared from this indignity and be treated specially. Instead of coming down from the cross and showing His true power, he fought to stay on the cross. He brought His flesh under the complete control of the divine will. He showed His ultimate power that divine truth ruled over the selfish and anxious impulses of human flesh.
There is nothing more contrary to heavenly love than the love of self. Therefore, what was ransomed by the Lord’s life on earth was the human compulsion to be served by others for the sake of self and demand obedience.
If the Lord had come off the cross and taken full control, He would have compelled humankind to worship Him. Only humans compel others and force them into submission.
But coercion is not the strategy of God’s Infinite wisdom.
Love is God’s strategy. This includes His first Advent and Second Coming.
Jesus was actually a double agent. All the time He was teaching, performing great miracles, and finally having to suffer on the cross, Jesus was also on a secret assignment from heaven.
This assignment was secret because it was kept hidden from our view. This secret part of His divine mission included dealing with special challenges both on earth and in the spiritual world. The Lord not only had to deal with disbelief and sin on an earthly plane, He had to directly confront the forces of evil coming from Hell.
Many Christian theologians believe that Christ took our sins upon Himself, gave his life as a ransom on the cross, appeased the Father through His death, and arose from the dead in order to broker a deal with the Father to remove our guilt—as long as we had the proper “faith.”
That is not how the Lord actually ransomed himself, or portrayed how He ultimately glorified the Father, and the Father, Him.
The Lord’s secret mission on earth can only be deciphered if one has access to the higher levels of meaning that are hidden within the literal words of Scripture. Thankfully, theologian Emanuel Swedenborg has provided us access to this rarefied knowledge.
You see, unbeknownst to most Christians, Jesus was actually Jehovah himself. The strategy of God taking on a human body was not just to provide the Romans with something solid to nail on the cross, but to strip hell of its power.
The forces of hell, while frightening, are still only finite forces. Nothing finite can ever challenge an Infinite God—unless God could take on a finite body giving hell a medium through which evil could attack. This required not only a physical body, it necessitated a body born of a woman. Hell attacks people through their inherited evils. Since God had no evil of His own, He needed to acquire humankind’s hereditary disposition towards evil by entering into the human gene pool.
The Lord did NOT gain “all power over flesh” by arising from death, but through a life on earth whereby He battled and successfully fought off all inclinations and sins of the flesh. It is this inner confrontation that is addressed within the deepest level of meaning contained within the literal words of Scripture.
This incarnation, furnished with real human genes, is how the Lord took the sins of humanity upon himself. The Lord conquered sin by resisting temptation from hell and subordinating his human essence to the will of the Father (the Lord’s heavenly essence) through a life of HUMILITY (called exinanition).
Crucifixion is designed for maximum humility. This was the Lord’s final and ultimate test of humiliation. If He had gotten off the cross to physically prove his authority and then demanded obedience, the flesh would have won. Jesus came into the world to serve us, not bring us to our knees through physical force. Giving up the physical force to compel people and sacrificing the human urge to dominate over others is what is meant by the Lord’s life being a ransom.
This battle between the Lord’s flesh and His divine spirit is even transparent in the literal words of Scripture describing Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. Here is where the Lord is feeling so much pressure to go on with his deadly mission that he seeks a way out and begins sweating blood. Here, the big “squeeze” is being put on the Lord’s human nature. This is why Gethsemane means “olive press.”
By overcoming all these obstacles the Lord united His human essence (the Son) with His divine essence (the Father). In this “top-down” and “bottom-up” process, the Son glorified the Father and the Father glorified the Son. The Lord’s human was made fully divine.
But even this great event in history saved no one. The Lord came into the world to keep the possibility of salvation left open. Even traditional Christianity supports the notion that there is a caveat to salvation. A person is only saved if he or she has the proper “faith.” However, Swedenborg puts a different wrinkle on what constitutes proper faith. He maintained that only a faith conjoined with good works saves. Love is faith put into action. But this brings free will and human cooperation with God’s tenets into the equation of salvation.
Free will is given to men and women as a gift of God’s divine love. Love is meaningless without free will. And free will cannot be maintained unless a person can be kept in a balance between good and bad influences. The Lord appeared on earth at a time when human free will was being threatened by an overwhelming influence from Hell.
The Lord’s victory over the hells restored the cosmic balance between good and evil influences, and thus protected human free will.