Life on Other Planets
In his short work Other Planets, which has also been published under the title Earths in the Universe, Emanuel Swedenborg tackles head-on the question of extraterrestrial life. But rather than speculating on physical encounters with alien life-forms, he instead reports on spiritual encounters with extraterrestrial beings—that is, meetings in the afterlife with spirits who, during their lifetimes, lived on other planets.
As a methodical thinker steeped in the sciences, Swedenborg seems to have anticipated that some would find it hard to believe what he wrote about life on other planets:
If you know nothing of heaven’s secrets, you might not be able to believe that anyone could see such distant planets or report anything about them on the basis of direct experience. Be aware, though, that spaces, distances, and consequently movement from place to place in the spiritual world are, in their origins and first causes, inner changes of state, and that to angels and spirits, these spaces, distances, and movements appear in accordance with those inner changes. Further, spirits and angels can by this means appear to be taken from one place to another and from one planet to another, even to planets that are at the edge of the universe. The spirit of a person in this world can also do this, even while the person’s body remains in the same place. . . . The fact that our spirit can travel in this way is not something sense-oriented people can grasp, because they are immersed in space and time and measure their journeys by these criteria. (Other Planets §125; see also §135 on the nature of distance and perception in the spiritual world)
In the eighteenth century, there was already speculation on whether or not life might exist on the planets people could observe through telescopes, and in Christian countries, that led to further debate about the spiritual state of the people there. If someone is born on another planet, with no way to become aware of Jesus, then how can they be saved? That question seems to have been one of the motivating factors for Swedenborg to write this book. In it, he asserts that the Lord is the Lord of the whole universe, and that this fact is acknowledged on every planet:
In the other life it is common knowledge that there are many planets with people on them and consequently spirits and angels from them. If a love of truth and therefore some useful reason prompts people there to want to talk with spirits from other worlds, they are all allowed to do so. This assures them that there is indeed a plurality of worlds and informs them that humankind exists on not just one earth but countless planets. It teaches them also about the character and life of these people, and about their worship of God. (Other Planets §2)
It is important to know that whatever planet people are from, the Lord acknowledges and accepts everyone who acknowledges and worships a God in human form, because God in human form is the Lord. Since the Lord appears to the inhabitants of various planets in an angelic form, which is a human form, when spirits and angels from those planets hear from spirits and angels of our planet that God is an actual human being, they accept this as the Word, acknowledge it, and rejoice that this is the case. (Other Planets §121)
In the book, Swedenborg describes the lives of the people who live on these other planets, providing details of their society, their homes, their clothes, and their relationships. While he consistently refers to the spirits he meets as human (see below), he describes their physical appearance as very different from ours, with it varying from place to place or even among individuals from the same planet.
However, despite the abundance of material details, the focus is always on spirituality: how these beings interact with the Lord, how they practice their religion, and how they relate to the greater spiritual community in the heavens. At times, Other Planets seems to be a critique of Christian beliefs, where the wisdom of the extraterrestrial spirits is contrasted with religious doctrines or practices on Earth (see, for example, §158 and following).
The core of Other Planets (which itself is a compilation of material from Swedenborg’s multivolume biblical commentary Secrets of Heaven) is a series of chapters devoted to life on the planets in our solar system that were known in Swedenborg’s time: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon.
These specific descriptions of people from planets that modern science has shown to be uninhabited has been a challenge for dedicated readers of Swedenborg. Throughout the years, those readers have developed a number of theories to account for the discrepancy. Some of the more common include:
- That Swedenborg was being metaphorical or using these descriptions as teaching stories to illustrate a theological point. Swedenborg’s works as a whole have many, many stories of encounters with spirits in the afterlife, and some readers regard all of those accounts as metaphorical. However, as in the quote above, Swedenborg himself asserts that these were real experiences, meant to be taken literally.
- That Swedenborg did encounter real extraterrestrial spirits from other planets, but he was mistaken (or deliberately misled) about what planets those spirits were from.
- That there was once life on the other planets in our solar system, but it died off long ago, leaving only the spirits in the afterlife. A variant on this theory is that there continues to be life on these planets, but it’s in an environment that masks its presence or a form that we are not able to detect with scientific instruments.
Regardless of how one encounters this work, it provides a unique framework for thinking of alien beings as people who have distinctive societies and spiritual beliefs, with their own place in a shared afterlife. It’s also a poignant demonstration of an important piece of Swedenborg’s theology: it’s not the shape of our bodies that makes us human, but the way we love.
[The spirits I was speaking to] were deeply moved and delighted to hear it said that their Only Lord is in fact the only human and that all people are referred to as human only because of what comes from him. We are human to the extent that we are images of him, that is, to the extent that we love him and love our neighbor, and therefore to the extent that we are devoted to doing what is good, since good that is done out of love and faith is the image of the Lord. (Other Planets §65:4)
You can download Other Planets for free as a standalone work or in the New Century Edition Deluxe volume The Shorter Works of 1758, which in addition to the text has annotations to illuminate obscure references within the work and a number of reference materials. The introduction to the Deluxe volume, written by scholar Richard Smoley, explores the context of Other Planets in more detail. You can read an abridged version of that introduction in his blog post “Is There Really Life on Other Planets?”
Karin Childs, our community manager and a writer for our webcast series Swedenborg & Life, gives an overview of what Swedenborg wrote in Other Planets in the short clip “Life on Other Planets in Our Solar System?!” For a more in-depth treatment, the team from our offTheLeftEye YouTube channel dedicated an episode of Swedenborg & Life to “The Spirituality of Aliens.”
Also on our blog is “The Scout from Outer Space,” which our editor John Connolly wrote when an object from outside our solar system sparked speculation about alien civilizations.
Or, for a bit of fun, this short video is a tongue-in-cheek marketing promo for Other Planets.