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Hauntings and ghost stories occur in all cultures across the globe. It gets to deeper mysteries: Is there life after death? What does it mean to exist?
In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose use the writings of eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg to help gain a new perspective on supernatural experiences.
Let’s look at what we know about ghosts. Oddly, even though we’re not sure they exist, most cultures have some sort of shared understanding of ghosts: for example, that they can affect physical objects and seem to be “stuck” or focused on some issue or place from their past lives.
Do ghosts exist or not? There are problems with both sides of the argument. If we say that ghosts exist, the very thought challenges what we know about the physical order. In the physical world, loving a place doesn’t mean that you get to stay there forever, so why would that be true of the afterlife? On the other hand, since so many people across many cultures have experienced something ghostly, we can’t safely claim that ghosts aren’t real either. Some people may have been lying, hallucinating, or honestly misinterpreting a strange occurrence. But can we really dismiss 100 percent of those reports that way? Refusing to even allow the question stifles the spirit of open-minded inquiry.
Let’s step back and set some goals: four questions to answer.
- Do ghosts exist?
- How could ghosts exist?
- Why are they the way they are?
- Why would this matter?
We can’t actually answer whether or not ghosts exist in a way that would satisfy both camps—that debate is destined to rage on. However, Curtis is ready to explore our second question: under what circumstances could ghosts exist? Swedenborg’s understanding of the spiritual and physical world helps explain this.
Swedenborg describes two planes of existence, the spiritual world and the physical world. The spiritual world is the source of our life. Whereas in our world, not everything that’s made of matter is alive, in the spiritual world, everything has life in it, even seemingly inanimate objects. The connection point between the two worlds is correspondences. Everything that exists in the physical world also exists in the spiritual world, and in fact, the spiritual world is where the true soul or essence of everything lives—the physical forms are just a copy. Everything, from water to a horse, corresponds to something spiritual.
Not only are the spiritual and the physical worlds connected, but they depend on each other in order to exist. Consider the way a tree interacts with the soil around it—the soil is our body, while the tree and its roots are our spiritual existence. The soil needs the roots to flourish, while the tree can’t live without soil. There’s a constant interface between the spiritual and physical worlds. So from a Swedenborgian perspective, the spirits of people who have passed on are always connected to the physical world in some way because they have to be.
This brings us to the second question: why are ghosts the way that they are? Why would a spirit interact with the world in that particular way? Swedenborg offers some clues through the records of his experiences with spirits.
From time to time I have observed, as discussed elsewhere, that spirits produced an effect on my body that was completely perceptible to every sense, just like objects outside of me. For example, they quite often spread odors, offensive or pleasant. And we spoke about it, that they had maltreated my body to the point of considerably severe pain, and had done so on several occasions. They had brought on feelings of cold or heat in a very obvious manner, and coldness more often. They had come at me like a gust of wind. I felt the wind plainly, and it even made the flame of the candle flicker.
So there can be no doubt that spirits are organic substances, and not just thought, as some like to conceive of them. . . . When all attributes are taken away, people cannot have any thought image of spirits, so they doubt, and they deny, not realizing that spirits in the body, or spirits separated from the body, are real substances, and in people on earth, substances that are joined with their physical material elements, and from which they cannot be separated as long as they live on earth. (Spiritual Experiences §2392)
Here Jonathan tackles another characteristic of ghosts: they seem to be stuck somewhere in the physical world. How could that work? It seems consistent with Swedenborg’s observations of spirits attached to the physical world.
The mental imagery of [certain] spirits is bound to a place and things that are in a place. (Spiritual Experiences §3608)
Swedenborg goes on to describe a time when he was surrounded by spirits, then walked out of the room and no longer sensed their presence. The spirits were attracted to the images in his mind—books, candles, etc.—and when he no longer saw those things, the spirits seemed to disappear.
In the spiritual world, you can move with as much as a thought. But if spirits are fixated on material things, they become anchored to them—just as people living in the physical world can become spiritually “stuck” by obsessing about money, power, or other material gains.
Swedenborg’s experiences also mirror some of the more frightening stories that others tell. Sometimes, in his bed, Swedenborg would be surrounded by darker spirits that caused him to tremble violently, but he knew at the same time that he was protected by angels.
But while these experiences can be undeniably stressful for the people who have them, Swedenborg says they can be stressful for the spirits, too. He gives the example of spirits who had become attached to two different teapots. The spirits had a debate over which pot he should use, and they felt fear and grief when other spirits urged him to smash their favored teapot.
To answer the last question—why does any of this matter?—we have to ask this: “When are we the ghosts we’re looking for?”
Ghosts seem to be stuck in their old lives and ways of thinking—their “unfinished business.” This can be true of us even in our lives. Are we focused on what others think of us? Some old slight? Do we treat our reputation like the spirits treated Swedenborg’s teapots? We might be trapped in the past ourselves, just like the ghosts we’re studying.
We can be free of this by letting divine providence do its good work. It’s important to remember that all spirits have the potential to become unstuck and move on to higher realms where they can be guided by love. In the same way, no matter how stuck we seem to be in our lives here on earth, we have an entire universe set up to guide us to a better place.
Related Swedenborg and Life Videos
“How to Tell the Difference Between Good and Evil Spirits”
“How to Travel in the Afterlife”
“Is It Safe to Talk to Spirits?”
“What Does the Bible Say about Spiritual Experiences?” (short clip)
“Who Was Swedenborg?”
“Why Don’t Those Who’ve Died Communicate with Us More?”
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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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