Ecclesiastes 9:5 tells us “the dead know nothing.” What does that mean? What can it mean when so many people have been through near-death experiences or have connected with the other side? And why do other Bible passages seem to disagree?
Emanuel Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences, which deals with hidden meanings in life and scripture, may help us understand. In this episode, host Curtis Childs explores the spiritual writings of this eighteenth-century scientist and mystic in order to find out the real story.
A Headache for Webster
If you are trying to define life and death using the Bible, you might have some trouble. Take, for example, the puzzling verse Ezekiel 18:32: “‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn and live!’” This sounds like something we’d all like to do, right? But if you take that verse too literally, you risk ending up in a corner with a hockey helmet and a broom.
Verses like John 6:48 and Ezekiel 18:9 provide some clearer instructions—eat of the bread of life and follow God’s laws—but even the biblical figures who were most just and upright still died in the end. Across the whole of scripture, the only definition that seems clear is the simplest: good is life; evil is death.
Swedenborg says the same:
In the other world, “life” means heaven in general and eternal happiness in particular, while “death” means hell in general, and eternal unhappiness there in particular. Many scriptural passages make this plain. Heaven in general and eternal happiness in particular are called life because the wisdom to see what is good and the insight to see what is true are found there, and these contain life from the Lord, the source of all life. Hell holds the opposite, though. It holds evil instead of good, and falsity instead of truth, and therefore spiritual life that has been snuffed out. As a consequence one finds comparative death there, because spiritual death is evil and falsity. In a human being, spiritual death is evil intent and the distorted thinking it leads to. (Secrets of Heaven §5407)
The Benefits of Death
Why are we so afraid of physical death when it’s something we must all go through? Maybe our fear of death actually corresponds to our fear of evil.
Why does spiritual death result when truth is lacking? Spiritual life consists in activity that follows the lead of truth and consequently in being useful. People dedicated to spiritual life hunger and long for truth for the sake of their life—that is, for the sake of living by it and so of being useful. The more they can absorb of the truth they need as a guide to usefulness, the more spiritual life they have, because the light of understanding and wisdom they enjoy increases with it. (Secrets of Heaven §6119:1)
So in Ezekiel, when we are told to “turn and live,” we’re actually being told to use the truths we’ve learned to make better choices—that in turn help us to be better people.
That seems pretty easy: life is choosing good; death is choosing evil. But is it really that simple? Every correspondence has a positive and negative meaning, and some biblical references to “death” represent a good thing. For instance, when John falls “as if dead” in the book of Revelation, it actually symbolizes the death of his selfishness.
Death symbolizes resurrection, and therefore the dead symbolize those who rise again into eternal life. This is because death symbolizes hell, and consequently evils and falsities, which must die in order for us to receive spiritual life. Not until they are dead and extinct can we possess spiritual life, which is the life meant in the Word by life, eternal life, and resurrection. (Apocalypse Explained §899:3)
With the understanding of what death means, we can now revisit the previous passages with a new lens. For instance, take Matthew 10:39: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” This isn’t about martyrdom; it’s about giving up your self-centered agenda for the sake of God, which leads to heaven.
Our intrepid life-seeker shows us how allowing the death of both self and selfishness opens us up to a much fuller life.
Time for the wrap-up: What does all this tell us about Ecclesiastes 9:5, which tells us that “the dead know nothing”? It means that those who are committed to a self-centered life don’t know love, don’t know truth, and don’t know what they’re missing.
- Why is it not better for God to not create those he foresees will ultimately choose evil / backslide? Is it not possible?
- Is there a finite time that people are allowed to live in hell or is it eternal? Did Swedenborg mention this?
- What does the Bible mean by the “second death”?
- The Bible says, some of you will not die. Does it mean we will also directly go into the spiritual realm in bodily form?
- In one segment, it is said it’s easier to go to heaven than to hell (if you pay attention). But then Jesus had to die to restore the balance of good / evil. So, if it was easier to go to heaven, why didn’t the greater numbers of heaven make that unnecessary?
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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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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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