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Are there animals in the afterlife? And if so, what can they tell us about the nature of the spiritual realms?
In this episode, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s vivid descriptions of animals in the afterlife.
The Source of All Species
Swedenborg calls the physical world a correspondence—almost like a reflection or an echo—of what happens in the spiritual world. While we may think of the spiritual world as something airy and abstract, in fact it is the cause and the source of everything we see around us. In many ways, the spiritual world is more real than our own.
All this matters because when Swedenborg encounters animals in the afterlife, he also describes the ways that they relate to the thoughts and feelings of the angels there.
Now we have the answer to the question posed in the title: yes, there are animals in the afterlife. But relating to thoughts and feelings? What does that mean?
An angel from some community in heaven . . . said . . . “The purpose of showing you these things was for you to be able to see the whole of creation from a particular instance. God is absolute love and absolute wisdom. His love includes an infinite number of feelings. His wisdom includes an infinite number of perceptions. The correspondences of those feelings and perceptions are all the things that appear on earth. This is where the birds and animals come from. This is where the trees and shrubs come from. This is where the grains and crops come from. This is where the plants and grasses come from. God is not extended but he is everywhere in what is extended. He is in the universe from beginning to end. Because he is omnipresent, correspondences of the qualities of his love and wisdom are found everywhere in the physical world. In our world, called the spiritual world, there are similar correspondences surrounding those who receive feelings and perceptions from God. The difference is that in our world God creates things of this kind in a moment to match the feelings of angels, while in your world things like this were originally created in a similar way but there was a provision for their perennial renewal from generation to generation; and so creation goes on.” (True Christianity §78:1, 3)
Everything that exists is a part of God, even animals. What Swedenborg is saying above is that the same spiritual energies or essences that show up as thoughts and feelings within us can appear as animals in the spiritual world. The animals in the physical world reflect those same spiritual essences, which ultimately radiate from God.
Wait . . . Does this mean animals aren’t real? Not at all! Remember, things that exist in the spiritual world are more real than things that exist on earth.
But, you might ask, do animals have souls? For that answer, you’ll have to wait for the next section. In the meantime, take this quiz to help you better understand the correspondences of different animals.
Animals have a closer relationship to us than we might think. Swedenborg says that animals do indeed have souls, comparing the “living souls” of animals to human souls and plant souls. When describing animal souls, Jonathan Rose explains, Swedenborg uses the term “mediate lives.”
No one can understand the nature of the life of the beasts of the earth, of the birds of heaven, and of the fish of the sea, unless he is also acquainted with the nature and quality of their soul (anima). That every animal has a soul is a well-known fact; for animals live, and life is the soul; for this reason they are also called in the Word living souls. That this soul in its ultimate form, which is corporeal, such as it appears before the sight, is an animal, cannot be better known from any other source than the spiritual world. For in the spiritual world, just as in the natural, beasts, birds, and fishes of every kind are seen, and in form so similar that they cannot be distinguished from those which are in our world. But the difference is this, that in the spiritual world they have an apparent existence from the affections of angels and spirits, so that they are appearances of affections. For this reason they also vanish as soon as the angel or spirit departs, or his affection ceases. It is therefore evident that their soul is nothing else; and consequently that there are as many genera and species of animals as there are genera and species of affections. (Apocalypse Explained §1199:2)
If animals are symbols for affection then, what about the pets we love from the physical world? Well, Swedenborg didn’t really talk about them—not many people had pets in his time. We turn to Donnette Alfelt for another Swedenborgian perspective: pets do travel with us to the other world.
Even though Swedenborg falls down a bit when it comes to insights about pets, his writings do point to a very deep connection between humans and animals in the afterlife:
There are animals of every kind in that world. They are likenesses of the feelings of love and the resulting thoughts that angels have. The same goes for the tree gardens, flower gardens, and lawns and meadows there. The angels are also given insights about what feeling this or that object represents. Surprisingly, when their inner sight is opened up they recognize an image of themselves in the things around them. This happens because all people are their own love and their own thought. In everyone there are a variety and multiplicity of feelings and thoughts, some of which relate to the feeling embodied in one animal, and some to the feeling embodied in another. Therefore images of the angels’ feelings take shape in that way. (True Christianity §66)
Animals can be a reflection of our inner thoughts and feelings, but that doesn’t mean our thoughts and feelings are always nice. Just as some people crave horrible things, nature can be brutal and dangerous as well as life-giving and beautiful. Because of this, animals can mean different things depending on the context.
Many cultures across history have associated animals with specific characteristics. Swedenborg says that for the earliest people, this knowledge was instinctive.
The people of the earliest church communicated with spirits and angels and were constantly having visions and dreams like those of the prophets. For this reason, as soon as they saw an animal, an awareness of its symbolism immediately leapt to mind. (Secrets of Heaven §2179:3)
Before we take a look at some of the stranger animals Swedenborg saw in the spiritual world, have another go at our animal correspondence quiz.
On Shapeshifters and Composite Elephants
Just as we have animals in this world that are adapted to their environments, spiritual animals match the environments around them. In the spiritual world, those environments—their spiritual habitats—are the hearts and minds of angels.
When angels’ emotions are active, and they are talking about those emotions, their ideas are expressed among the spirits in a lower realm in representative images of animals. When the conversation is about positive emotions, animals that are pretty, tame, and useful present themselves . . . If anything ever appears sitting on one of these animals, it presents a kind of portrait of their thoughts, as honest spirits are allowed to perceive. (Secrets of Heaven §3218)
Animals can even represent entire communities of people. If you were looking out across a panorama in the spiritual world, the animals you see could (if you understand correspondences) tell you something about all the different ways that people understand spirituality. Everything is connected to form a portrait of God.
Not weird enough? Let’s talk about shapeshifters.
Fantastic animals are found in the afterlife as well, including a two-headed turtle.
And while some of these fantastic creatures have a negative symbolism, animals can symbolize beautiful things like marriage love.
And before the wrap-up, take one last shot at our correspondence quiz. Can you intuit the correspondence of a frog prince?
Last thoughts: Swedenborg’s perspective on animals may not be what we’re used to, but it points to a longing for harmony with the animals around us. The more you open up, the more connected you can feel.
- Are there flies and mosquitoes in the spiritual world?
- What about dinosaurs?
- If this world is a reflection of the spiritual world, what happens in the spiritual world when some species face extinction here on earth?
- Does Swedenborg believe in animal evolution?
- What about the new animals/bugs/fish we are still finding? Like those in the rainforest and Mariana Trench. Are there correspondences to things we are still learning?
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About Swedenborg and Life
In a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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