Among those who believe in a conscious afterlife, the great dividing question is a simple one—do we stay or do we come back? Do we go straight to some other plane after we die, or do we travel through a series of lives?
Eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg had firsthand experiences of the afterlife that may shed some light on the question. In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests explore his writings about the nature of spiritual reality and the process of our spiritual growth.
Do we reincarnate? According to Swedenborg, the answer is no. And also yes. He found that we leave the physical world once, but then go through several lives in the spiritual world—a kind of hybrid of Christian tradition and the popular view of reincarnation.
Swedenborg writes only a couple of passing references to reincarnation, and he usually does so from the perspective of his own experiences in the spiritual world. So what did he learn about the body and how it relates to the spirit?
Our physical body serves as a kind of womb or container for the spirit, allowing us the time and space (literally!) to develop as spiritual people. In the world, the choices we make, for better or for worse, define who we grow to become. All spirits had a physical body once; but once we enter the afterlife, we don’t need it anymore and don’t need to go through that “incubation process” again. Swedenborg’s experience seems to contradict the whole idea of reincarnation.
What about the evidence in favor of reincarnation? What about, for example, people who remember past lives and find physical evidence that proves their memories are accurate?
If a spirit were to talk with us from her or his own memory, then it would seem to us entirely as though the thoughts were our own, when they would really belong to the spirit. It is like remembering something that we have never seen or heard. . . . This is why some of the ancients were of the opinion that after some thousands of years they would return to their former life and all its deeds, and that they had in fact returned. They gathered this from the fact that sometimes a kind of memory would come up of things that they had never seen or heard. This happened because spirits had flowed from their own memory into the images of these people’s thoughts. (Heaven and Hell §256)
It still seems like Swedenborg is saying that reincarnation doesn’t exist. But wait! There may be common ground to discover after all.
Karma can mean different things to different people, but most see it as a system of reward and punishment—a kind of moral balancing act. This does happen, according to Swedenborg, but only in the spiritual world. If you do evil in this world, you bring that love of being self-centered into the spiritual world; and then you’ll keep doing the same types of things over and over again.
Every evil brings its own punishment with it. They are united, so whoever is involved in something evil is involved in the punishment of the evil as well. . . . [It] makes no difference whether you say that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the world or that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the other life, because after death we all return to our life, which means that we are involved in the same kinds of evil. This is because our nature is determined by the kind of physical life we led . . . (Heaven and Hell §509)
In other words, people who are evil on earth will continue doing evil things in the afterlife, and their punishment for those deeds is to live with the evil that they create—over and over again. This is similar to the idea of karma as a wheel where we live the same type of life over and over until we learn the lessons we need to progress.
In the physical world, some people use karma to explain why one person is born in very lucky circumstances and another isn’t. Others might call it random chance. Swedenborg would call it the means to accomplish divine providence.
Divine providence is over all, that is, it is present within the smallest details of all . . . people in the stream of providence are being carried along constantly towards happier things, whatever appearance the means may present. (Arcana Coelestia [Secrets of Heaven] §8478)
Therefore, things that feel bad for now are really just the means to the divine end of bringing us into a heavenly mindset. That doesn’t mean that God wants to cause people suffering; as Swedenborg writes, “Evil is foreseen, not provided” (Spiritual Experiences §4295)—divine providence is not causing the bad things we do to each other, but it is instead working to bend them toward good.
Divine providence consists of the fact that it is constantly allowing things to happen for a purpose and is permitting only things that serve that purpose, nothing else. It is constantly examining the evils that are allowed to emerge, separating them, purifying them, banishing the ones that do not suit its purpose, and lifting them away in ways we cannot see. (Divine Providence §296)
There are other things we call karma, such as the idea that we work through personal or spiritual issues across lifetimes. Swedenborg calls that heredity, meaning that we work through issues across generations (or not!) as the same tendencies are passed down from parents to children.
There’s another concept called “lifetime reduction,” meaning that if you actively work toward enlightenment in this lifetime, you won’t have to be reborn so often. Swedenborg wrote something similar: if you put in the spiritual work of becoming a good person in this world, that could help you grow faster in the afterlife. Some people, as Swedenborg experienced in the afterlife, come so far in this world that they can go to heaven almost immediately.
On the other hand, some people’s spiritual journeys require them to spend a very long time—the equivalent of thousands of years—in their learning phase before they can move on.
There are cycles everywhere. Just as they occur in nature with the changing of seasons, cycles occur in the spiritual world as well. Even angels need to go through cycles of improvement.
By . . . alternations of delight and discomfort, [angels’] perception of and sensitivity to what is good become more and more delicate. [The angels] have gone on to say that the Lord does not produce these changes of their states, since the Lord as the sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom. Rather, they themselves are the cause, since they love their sense of self and this is constantly misleading them. (Heaven and Hell §158)
When angels fall into the wrong thoughts, they can fall down to a lower spiritual plane and then have to learn lessons in order to get back up to where they were. It’s not reincarnating back down into an earthly body, but there’s an ongoing cycle at work that produces gradual upward progress. Sometimes, as Karin Childs suggests, even angels can get stuck in lower cycles and forget their heavenly lives.
Good spirits and angels continually change and progress in regard to their state. As a result they move deeper into the interior of the region they inhabit and therefore into more excellent functions. In heaven everyone is constantly being purified and created over again, so to speak. (Secrets of Heaven §4803)
In the wrap-up, Curtis reviews both the similarities and the differences between the idea of reincarnation and Swedenborg’s views on past lives and memories. But no matter which point of view works best for you, they’re all pointing toward the same goal: living a better, more spiritual life.
- I’m curious if we retain our female or male energies after death? I think there are definite attributes of both; is that related to the ego or part of our soul?
- I have a question about organ transplants and reincarnation. So many cases of recipients adopting exact behaviors / qualities of the donor. Is this different completely or similar?
- So it’s as though we have now to practice doing the right things because in the spirit life the punishment is instantaneous? Is that correct?
- Where or what were we before being born?
- I understand karma. What does Swedenborg say about “remorse” in the afterlife for one’s sinful actions in the physical realm?
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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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