Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2006.
By Jonathan S. Rose
On an unseasonably pleasant Friday evening in January, the Swedenborg Foundation hosted a talk by Dr. Jonathan S. Rose. In his talk, Dr. Rose expressed what he saw as the vision contained in the work True Christianity, the first volume of which he recently translated for the New Century Edition. The following article is based on that talk.
What is the core message of Emanuel Swedenborg’s True Christianity? I see Swedenborg in this work as Samson with his hands against two great pillars [see Judges 16:29]. Do you know the story of the end of Samson’s life? Thousands of Philistines were gathered in, and on the roof of, a large temple supported by two central pillars. Samson summoned all his strength and pushed down the two pillars, killing all the people there, including himself.
At the end of Swedenborg’s life as well, there were two pillars he wished to tear down: the doctrine of the vicarious atonement and the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which in his view were propping up all sorts of other false notions throughout Christianity. In brief, the vicarious atonement is the idea that Jesus is but one of three Persons in the Godhead and that Jesus took on the damnation of the human race to protect it from the wrath of God the Father, sacrificing himself on the cross for our sins. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, or the belief that it is our faith and only our faith that saves us, to Swedenborg meant that the good actions we perform contribute nothing to our salvation. He saw both of these doctrines as spiritually damaging to many individual Christians and to Christianity as a whole.
He wanted to push those two pillars down and destroy the whole system that was based on them. In expressions of outrage that occur here and there in the text, you can almost hear him groaning as he strains against them.
Swedenborg claimed, in fact, that, from the very beginning, Christ’s message and life had been misunderstood. Although over the years there had been many good, faithful Catholics and Protestants who had found their way to heaven, the Christian church leadership and its doctrines had always been in error. So from the perspective of this work, Christianity is not something in the past. It is something in the future. It has yet to dawn.
The Christianity that Swedenborg saw coming in the spiritual world, which he wished to establish on earth to replace those two pillars—the vicarious atonement and justification by faith alone—differed starkly from the Christianity of his times, particularly in regard to the Trinity and the purpose of Jesus’ life and death.
As for the Trinity, God is one Person, not three, Swedenborg strongly asserts. To paraphrase Swedenborg’s teaching about this concept, if you think of some-one you love, you can see three parts or aspects to that person: there is a mind or spirit; there is a body that is distinct from the mind or spirit; and there is the work that the person does, the effect he or she has.
Each of us, then, contains a trinity, and God is no different. What has been called God the Father is really just the soul of this one divine Person. Jesus Christ is the body of this Person. And the Holy Spirit is the effect of this Person. The concept that the Trinity is three facets of one Person forms the theological heart of True Christianity.
As for Jesus’ purpose in coming into the world, whereas the doctrine of the vicarious atonement holds that he did so in order to appease God the Father, Swedenborg gives quite a different explanation: Jesus’ earthly life served to create an avenue by which God and people in the physical world could have greater access to each other.
According to Swedenborg, God’s communication with human beings before his Incarnation was only indirect. God was present with people only through a chain of communication that extended from him to angels in the higher heavens, from them to angels in the lower heavens, from them to people who had recently died and become spirits in the world of spirits below heaven, and from them to people still alive in this world. As the millennia passed and people drew farther and farther away from God, evil became more prevalent in the physical world. As a result, the ratio of evil spirits to good spirits necessarily rose in the world of spirits as well, since that world is populated exclusively with people who have recently passed on. In effect, this growth of evil in both worlds interposed an increasingly dark and menacing cloud between the Light itself and the human race. In this darkness, the path to heaven was becoming more and more difficult to find.
In order to dispel this dark cloud and establish a direct and permanent path of access to people, God was born in human form as Jesus Christ. The Gospels’ record of Jesus’ ministry covers only its outermost aspects; his teaching, healing, and ministering were, according to Swedenborg, but a small part of the overall plan for his life. His life had two grand purposes, called redemption and glorification—terms to which Swedenborg gives new meanings. One of Jesus’ primary purposes was to restructure heaven, hell, and the world of spirits in order to restore a balance despite the tremendous growth of evil. He was able to accomplish this because his presence as a human being on this earth allowed him direct access to and control over areas much lower than those he could have approached as a purely divine being without destroying them [see True Christianity §§124– 125]. This restructuring of the spiritual world, says Swedenborg, was the real redemption that Jesus brought about.
Jesus’ other main purpose was to undergo a series of transformative experiences, the last of which was the Crucifixion; these experiences changed his merely human attributes into divine attributes so that, in the end, he became fully one with God himself. This was Jesus’ real glorification.
When Jesus rose from the grave with his whole glorified body, God had become a human being and a human being had become God. In effect, this transformation stretched God’s zone of direct access to cover all parts of the spiritual world, including the realms in which our minds and hearts are dwelling right now, while we are still alive in this world. Therefore ever since he died on the cross, although we can no longer see him with our earthly eyes, Jesus is able to be Immanuel, “God-with-us.”
By “access” Swedenborg does not simply mean that God wants through his Incarnation to be more fully present outside of us or next to us. God wants to be able to be present within our mind and heart, to be able to see our memories, feel what we feel, shape what we feel, guide what we think, and have a direct impact on us, even while we are still alive in this world. It is up to us, of course, whether we allow God this degree of access to us in actuality, but the potential for it was established by his life on earth.
In this volume, then, Swedenborg gives us a much different view of God than that presented by the vicarious atonement. In attempting to pull down the old structure, Swedenborg wishes to create room for a new or rejuvenated Christianity. He portrays a God of love and mercy who wants to come directly to us and be with us as fully as possible, wherever we are.
In another crucial message of True Christianity, Swedenborg characterizes our ideal relationship with this accessible God as a partnership: God wants to form a reciprocal relationship with each of us individually. Although one might assume that a partnership with God would entail an inevitable loss of self and absorption into the Infinite, Swedenborg asserts that partnership with God actually increases our sense of self. The result of such a partnership is not what we used to be and not what any others have become through their partnerships with God, but a new, unique, angelic being. In fact, Swedenborg’s own remarkable spiritual awakening can be seen as resulting from the type of partnership with God he describes in True Christianity.
Swedenborg had a vision of a day to come, a day that was not just about Christians; his was an ecumenical vision. He had grown up in a Europe that generally believed Christianity was the only true religion. When he visited the spiritual world, however, he found that many different faiths successfully prepared their followers for heaven—the living of any faith was sufficient to establish this partnership with God. In fact, Christianity was having the least success, largely because of its two false pillars of the vicarious atonement and faith alone.
In True Christianity, Swedenborg laid the foundation for the new Christianity he envisioned—a movement centered around personal partnership with a personal, human, loving God. He suggested in 1771 that this movement would have little impact for “a time, times, and half a time” yet to come [see True Christianity §848]; but he foretold that it was certainly coming and was only the beginning of a bright spiritual future for the human race.