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Who wouldn’t be afraid of death? By its very nature, death is horrifying—an inescapable journey into the ultimate unknown. We spend much of our lives trying to avoid it, but we hardly understand it at all. To truly comprehend death, we have to look from the other side.
In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests explore eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg’s accounts of how we pass from earthly life to the afterlife. According to Swedenborg, we have the love and comfort of angels waiting to guide us through the next stage of the journey.
When a caterpillar curls into a cocoon, it’s not dying or disappearing—it’s changing. Its narrow perspective ends as it transforms into a different creature with a higher function. Swedenborg describes death in the same terms.
When someone’s body can no longer perform its functions in the natural world in response to the thoughts and affections of its spirit (which it derives from the spiritual world), then we say that the individual has died. This happens when the lungs’ breathing and the heart’s systolic motion have ceased. The person, though, has not died at all. We are only separated from the physical nature that was useful to us in the world. The essential person is actually still alive. I say that the essential person is still alive because we are not people because of our bodies but because of our spirits. After all, it is the spirit within us that thinks, and thought and affection together make us the people we are. We can see, then, that when we die we simply move from one world into another. (Heaven and Hell §445)
Our bodies are just containers for our souls, so a body’s death is nothing to fear. While some people have negative near-death experiences, it seems that such experiences serve a higher purpose in helping someone find a new direction in life.
In his books, Swedenborg describes how he was permitted to see the entirety of the dying process from the spiritual side. Latin expert Chara Daum explains that Swedenborg often writes about the same thing in different books; and at this point in the episode, Curtis draws from two of Swedenborg’s writings to offer complementary accounts of the dying process.
I have not only been told how the awakening happens, I have been shown by firsthand experience. The actual experience happened to me so that I could have a full knowledge of how it occurs. (Heaven and Hell §448)
I was brought into a state in which I was unaware of physical sensation—almost into the condition of someone who is dying. My inner life and thinking remained unimpaired, however, so that I would perceive and remember what was happening. I underwent the same experiences as those who have died and are being revived . . . (Secrets of Heaven §169)
Many times, the words of the dying are communicated using travel language. In the first stage of the death experience, the spirit disconnects from the body. Swedenborg draws a correspondence between the motion of the heart and lungs and the thoughts and emotions that circulate in our mind.
After this separation, our spirit stays in the body briefly, but not after the complete stoppage of the heart, which varies depending on the cause of death. In some cases the motion of the heart continues for quite a while, and in others it does not. The moment it does stop, we are awakened, but this is done by the Lord alone. “Being awakened” means having our spirit led out of our body and into the spiritual world, which is commonly called “resurrection.” (Heaven and Hell §447)
Caregiver Robin Childs talks about how here on earth we can care for people who are going through the dying process, helping them to pass on peacefully with love. When people are this close to the next stage, they often report spiritual experiences. Studies have shown that singing can help to make the transition feel loving and smooth. Chelsea Odhner describes a time when she joined with others to sing for a dying friend in her community.
As soon as the internal organs of the body grow cold, our living substances, wherever they are located, are separated out. This would happen even if they were lost in the thousand interlinking passages of a labyrinth. The Lord’s mercy, which I had already experienced as a living and powerful pull, is so strong that it could not leave any living element behind. (Secrets of Heaven §179)
It doesn’t matter how you die; everything about who you are comes with you into the afterlife. In a sense, it’s a lot like being born. Midwives and doulas help babies enter into this life just as angels help us enter into the next. Kaye Lermitte is a doula who says that understanding the process of birth might help us understand what happens next after death.
Of all the angels that Swedenborg encountered, heavenly angels were the ones that began his guided journey through death. He describes how these angels guided his experience with very attentive care, allowing him to experience firsthand what it’s like to die.
In various passages from Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg wrote with added detail about how the angels protected him from the spirits around him during the transition. The communion with those angels was so close that as he shared their thoughts it almost seemed to him as if their faces became his own; they embraced him and encouraged him to think about eternal life, not judging any of his misconceptions. It is only after being in this state for some time that a person passes fully into the spiritual world and receives “the gift of light,” meaning that they can now see what is around them. At this point, the spiritual angels—angels from a different part of heaven—come to take care of the new arrival.
In the second phase of Swedenborg’s journey, the spiritual angels helped to guide his thoughts. This part of the episode begins with a slightly different description of the awakening process from Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell that reveals how the angels open our spiritual senses.
That’s right; here is some Swedenborg and Life trivia! The name of our YouTube channel, offTheLeftEye, comes from Heaven and Hell §450, in which Swedenborg describes a part of this awakening where a covering is rolled off of his left eye. Curtis mentions that he considered “gently rising paths” as another possible name for the channel.
This is when we start to live, and at first things are happy and cheerful, since we feel we have entered on eternal life. This stage is represented by a brilliant light with a beautiful golden tinge, symbolizing the fact that our first stage of life is heavenly, with a touch of the spiritual. Then we are welcomed into a community of good spirits. . . . The thought is planted in our minds that we will be taught about truth and goodness. Then some gently rising paths become visible, symbolizing the fact that we will be led gradually toward heaven by a knowledge of truth and goodness and an acknowledgment of our own nature. Unless we acknowledge who we are and learn what is true and good, we can never be led there. (Secrets of Heaven §§186–187, 188–189)
These angels are happy to teach new spirits; and for those who are ready, the spiritual angels have amazing secrets to impart. But some people either don’t want to learn or aren’t quite ready for the deeper teachings, and there’s a place for them, too:
When we as souls break off with [the spiritual angels] in this way, we are next welcomed by good spirits, and in their company every possible service is again performed for us. However, if our life in the world was such that we cannot stay among the good, once more we want to get away from them. The process repeats continuously until we come into contact with the type of people whose life in the world was in total agreement with ours. Among them we seem to find our own life. Then, surprising to say, we live the same kind of life with them as we had lived in the body. As we sink back into that life, we experience a new beginning. Some of us move on from there toward hell after a fairly long time and some after a fairly short time. Those of us who had believed in the Lord, however, from the time of that new beginning are gradually led to heaven. Some reach heaven more slowly and some more quickly. (Secrets of Heaven §316–317)
It’s important to note that a person’s religion on earth doesn’t matter in heaven; all that matters is what a person’s life was like.
To wrap things up, we’ll look a little more closely at where the fear of death comes from. But first, a short non-commercial break: Curtis shares a viewer video with a spiritual insight about gardening. Have a clip of your own to share? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where does the fear of death come from? Swedenborg’s experiences help to mitigate the fear of the unknown, and several modern accounts seem to indicate that God’s love will mitigate the physical and emotional pain that come with death.
Among the case histories collected by [Dr. Robert] Crookall is the account by an American doctor, R. B. Hout of Indiana, who seems to have been endowed with a rare degree of psychic vision. At the death-bed of his aunt, he claimed to have seen, “this astral body hanging suspended horizontally a few feet above the physical counterpart. It was serene and in repose. But the physical body was active in reflex movements and subconscious writhings of pain. I saw the features plainly. They were very similar to the physical face except that a glow of peace and vigour was expressed instead of age and pain.” (From Life After Death by Neville Randall)
Even if it seems like a dying person is in pain, a common element in many near-death and psychic experiences is that as soon as life ends—often even before life ends—the spirit is freed from all pain. There’s nothing to fear in the process.
To demonstrate how anxieties about dying are alleviated even for people who are already in the afterlife, Swedenborg talks about the kindness of angels freeing a lost spirit and helping him into heaven.
- Why does the Christian Bible not reassure us about this crossing over into heaven or the other side?
- Last November, my 29-year-old son died suddenly. While waiting outside for paramedics to save his life, I begged my son to choose to stay here with me. Did he have a choice, as NDE stories state?
- What would Swedenborg think was more important: experience or the “moving of the spirit” in Quaker terms, or the Bible and church traditions?
- Swedenborg had many out-of-body experiences, or spiritual experiences, but what about allowing spirits to speak through you? Is it dangerous to speak or be a medium?
- Do we, the living, ever really feel loved ones around us or is it wishful thinking?
- Christianity teaches that after we die, we essentially take a “dirt nap” until the resurrection. Is this true?
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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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