In his short work The Lord, published about midway through his theological career, Swedenborg opens by quoting the book of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and nothing that was made came about without him. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us; and we saw his glory, glory like that of the only-begotten child of the Father. (John 1:1-3, 14; as quoted in The Lord #1)
“We can see from this,” Swedenborg concludes, “that the Lord is God from eternity and that he himself is that Lord who was born into the world” (The Lord #1).
Throughout his writings, Swedenborg consistently uses the term the Lord (Latin Dominus) to refer equally to the infinite, omnipotent creator of the universe and to the human incarnation known as Jesus Christ. However, in works where he discusses the nature of Deity in detail, he often uses the name Jehovah, the Latin Deus (God), or the neuter Divinum (the Divine) to refer specifically to the infinite and uncreated aspect of Deity, while the Lord refers to Jesus. He only occasionally uses the name Jesus Christ.
Swedenborg asserts in many places that God is not only human, but uniquely, definitively so. We in fact are truly human only to the extent that we live according to divine principles. Swedenborg therefore rejects the notion of a single human being who lives in heaven and walks around performing miraculous feats. God’s essence, Swedenborg tells us, exists outside of space and time, and therefore is truly infinite and eternal. God is human in the sense that that he is the source of all love and wisdom:
God, as the source of what is good and true, is their essence. Since we cannot deny this, we cannot deny that God is a person, since none of these things can exist apart from a person. (Divine Love and Wisdom #286)
Likewise, a human being living on earth is not human because of his or her body, but because of his or her ability to embody this divine nature:
All earthly individuals are born in the human form as to their physical bodies. This is because our spirit, which is also called our soul, is a person; and it is a person because it is receptive of love and wisdom from the Lord. To the extent that our spirit or soul actually accepts love and wisdom, we become human after the death of these material bodies that we are carrying around. To the extent that we do not accept love and wisdom we become grotesque creatures, retaining some trace of humanity because of our ability to accept them. (Divine Love and Wisdom #287)
Swedenborg goes on to say that God created the universe out of his eternal essence, and all things in the universe reflect a divine design that leads back to love and wisdom. That design encompasses all the functions that we see at work in our own bodies: perception (understanding truth), digestion and breathing (taking in what is good and releasing what is not useful), circulating the good and useful to all parts of the whole, and many more.
This design is in its purest form in the spiritual world, where the angels form communities that perform these functions for the benefit of all beings. Those who prefer to live only for their own selfish concerns remove themselves from the design and consign themselves to hell.
Rationality—that is, the ability to consciously choose either good or evil—is part of God’s design, and the freedom to choose is given to all humans, that is, to all beings capable of love and wisdom regardless of origin. (In his short work Other Planets, Swedenborg describes beings from other worlds who also fit this description.) After we are born, our rational ability grows along with our bodies, until we reach the point where we can consciously choose the path to heaven or the path to hell. Eventually, we can come to realize that this freedom is not really ours, but is the Lord’s gift within us. The more that we choose to close themselves off from God and reject his love and wisdom, the more we place ourselves outside of the divine design.
God’s essence sustains even the people in the deepest hell, as it sustains the existence of everything in the universe. However, the inhabitants of hell are so far removed from God that if he were to attempt to interact with them in his pure essence, they would be destroyed instantly. God’s love for all beings is too great to permit that. Thus when the evil in hell became so great that the Lord had to intervene in order to protect the good people in heaven and everyone on earth, it was necessary for him to incarnate in the physical world as a human being.
Swedenborg emphasizes that because the universe was created according to the divine design, God himself is bound to follow that design. How could God act against his own nature?
“To redeem people without a human manifestation,” Swedenborg writes, “would have been as impossible for God . . . as growing trees on heat and light alone if air had not been created as a medium through which they travel and earth had not been created in which the trees could grow” (True Christianity #84).
Swedenborg divides the history of humankind into a series of spiritual ages or “churches,” each of which ends with a catastrophic reckoning that results in a new relationship between human beings and God. At the start of the Christian era, he writes, human beings had so many misconceptions about God that very few were able to enter heaven, and hell was overflowing, threatening to overwhelm the good people both in heaven and on earth. It became necessary to bring genuine teachings to the people on earth, and the only way to do that was to manifest as a human being. To put it another way, divinity had to become manifest on the material level because humanity had become so materialistic.
Jesus, then, was born as a normal, physical human being to all intents and purposes, gradually growing into his full divine nature. In this process he followed the same steps as any human who undergoes spiritual rebirth, or regeneration: Through personal struggles temptations, Jesus’s ego-focused self was emptied out, making room for divine influence to flow in. This process culminated in his crucifixion: “It was not the Lord’s divine nature that suffered, it was his human nature; and then the deepest union, a complete union, took place” (True Christianity #126).
He was unique in that he was born of the Holy Spirit, with an inner divinity he called “the Father who dwells within me” (John 14:10). The ultimate union was so complete that he rose from the dead even physically.
Swedenborg argues that the suffering on the cross is not what redeemed the human race; it was what glorified the Lord. Once glorified, the Lord was able to subdue the denizens of hell, restoring balance to both heaven and earth. That was the redemption.
Raised in a devout Lutheran household (his father would become a bishop), Swedenborg was taught the concept of the Trinity from an early age. However, he was adamantly opposed to the Lutheran teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were such separate beings that the Son could placate the Father’s righteous wrath. He felt that this completely destroyed any thought of God’s oneness and ultimately led people to think of three gods rather than a single One who is the source of all creation.
Swedenborg compared Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a person’s soul, body, and the effects that their actions produce: three different aspects of a whole that springs from a single source and acts with a unified intent.
Swedenborg was ahead of his time in that he saw the common ground between Christianity and other religions, and he asserts that all religions, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the contemporary religions of Asia and Africa, started from a core belief in one God, even if they misunderstood some aspects of divine teachings and came to believe in many gods. For this reason, he said, all people of good heart and good faith, regardless of their religion or place of birth, could go to heaven after they pass out of this world.
For more information, check out our videos about God from offTheLeftEye.
On our blog, check out “Why Swedenborg Says You Don’t Have to Be Christian to Be Good.” You might also enjoy “Asking the Right God Question,” a meditation from George F. Dole on the intersection of science and spirituality, and “Does God Have an Ego?” which looks at the sense of self from a divine perspective.
Divine Love and Wisdom, perhaps Swedenborg’s most philosophical work, has an extensive commentary on God as the infinite, uncreated essence that is the source of the created universe.
Swedenborg’s shorter work The Lord focuses more specifically on Jesus’s incarnation on earth and the reasons for it, including a description of the spiritual age that is now unfolding.
A Thoughtful Soul: Reflections from Swedenborg by George Dole is an overview of Swedenborg’s theology that includes a chapter on the nature of God.