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Take a minute to imagine eternity. It’s easier said than done. No matter how much time you take to think, you’ll be stuck within the physical world’s limited perception of time. But you won’t be stuck forever.
In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests explore what eighteenth-century scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg learned about time in the spiritual world—and what it means for us in the physical world.
Time and space are often intertwined. While a previous episode of the show that dealt with traveling in the afterlife focused only on space, this episode will explore time in the physical world and how it relates to spiritual time.
There are many examples of the fact that as people move through space in the spiritual world, distances are equivalent to progress through time. Paths there are actually or correspondingly lengthened, in response to eagerness, which is a matter of thought from affection. This is also why we speak of “stretches of time.” (Divine Love and Wisdom §74)
Modern scientists tend to agree that time is relative, and several studies have proven that human perception of time is extremely uneven. Swedenborg sees this as a result of the spiritual world, where there is no passage of time—instead, angels experience changes in their state of mind. Doesn’t make sense? Don’t worry. All will be revealed in upcoming sections.
First, however, we break for a fan video: “I’ve been reading Swedenborg’s works for seventeen years, and I learn something new every time.”
The Limits of Temporal Thought
There are fundamental differences between our experience of time and time in the spiritual world. Even Swedenborg had trouble wrapping his mind around the subject:
I was thinking about eternity once, and using a concept of time I could grasp what “to eternity” entailed—namely, without end—but not what “from eternity” entailed and therefore not what God did before creation, from eternity. As my anxiety mounted because of this, I was raised into the sphere of heaven and therefore into the perception of eternity shared by angels. This shed light for me on the fact that we ought not to think about eternity in temporal terms but in terms of state, and that when we do, we can grasp what “from eternity” entails, which was actually done for me. (Heaven and Hell §167)
Swedenborg warns that getting caught up by the physical perception of time is a dangerous distraction: if we believe that what we perceive is all that exists, then we can get caught unprepared by a mind-broadening experience.
Swedenborg sums it all up this way:
A natural person may believe that we would have no thought if concepts of time, space, and matter were taken away from us, that all our thought is based on these foundations. Let such people know, though, that thoughts are limited and constrained to the extent that they derive from time, space, and matter, and that they are freed and expanded to the extent that they do not derive from such things . . . (Heaven and Hell §169)
So how do we take time out of our mental equation? Chelsea Odhner shares a meditation strategy. The idea is to take yourself out of time and space and keep your focus on the eternal.
There are a great many temporal matters, but they all boil down to eminence and wealth. By “temporal matters” I mean things that either die off in time or simply cease when our life on earth is over. By “eternal matters” I mean things that do not die off and stop either in time or at the end of our life on earth. (Divine Providence §215:1)
In other words, time perception isn’t really about watching the clock; it’s about what we think and care about. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about eating, for example, or making sure we can pay the bills; it just means that we need to keep our focus on what’s eternal: the good that can be served through our actions.
Time vs. State
The spiritual world has time—in the sense that things happen in a certain sequence and there are causes and effects—but it’s not the same kind of time as in our world. Spiritual time is structured around emotional states.
People [in the spiritual world] live with each other the way we do on earth, which cannot happen without some appearance of time. However, time there is not divided into segments the way it is in our world . . . It is actually the Lord’s divine love that angels see as their sun. . . . It provides them with divisions that cannot be called divisions into time segments, only divisions of state. . . . When it is state that determines time, time is only an appearance. A pleasant state makes time seem brief, and an unpleasant one makes it seem long. (Divine Love and Wisdom §73)
Nuclear physicist Dr. Ian Thompson elaborates on how time and space might work in the spiritual world: time and space there are fluid, much more so than in the physical world. He notes that according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity can cause elasticity in physical space and time—in much the same way that the structure of space and time in the spiritual world is shaped by love.
By “the changes of angels’ states,” we mean their changes in regard to love and faith and therefore in regard to wisdom and intelligence—to the state of their life, that is. . . . Angels are not constantly in the same state as to love, and consequently they are not in the same state as to wisdom, for all the wisdom they have is from their love and in proportion to it. Sometimes they are in a state of intense love, sometimes in a state of love that is not intense. It decreases gradually from its most to its least intense. When they are in the highest level of love, they are in the light and warmth of their lives, or in their greatest clarity and delight. Conversely, when they are in the lowest level they are in shadow and coolness, or in what is dim and unpleasant. From this latter state they return to the first, and so on. The phases follow each other with constant variety. (Heaven and Hell §§154, 155)
This is just like something we experience on earth: the movement of the sun in the sky to create different times of day.
Angels are moving in relationship to the Lord, which produces different emotional states.
For angels, everything is happening right now. They don’t think about future events. Because God is always present with them—in every moment—for an angel, every moment is now.
If you want to hear more about that, you’re in luck: the next section is all about God and eternity.
So if time is really a state, what does forever mean? And what does Swedenborg mean when he says that God exists in all time non-temporally?
Since angels have no notion of time, they have a different concept of eternity than we earthly people do. By “eternity,” angels perceive an infinite state, not an infinite time. (Heaven and Hell §167)
God is present all the time, everywhere, but he makes his presence known through a very finite medium—living beings. To illustrate this concept, Curtis uses the example of a gift: An object you give someone will only exist for a limited amount of time. No matter how well that person takes care of it, eventually it will deteriorate. But the intention behind that gift—the caring and the desire to make someone happy—is part of the giver’s spirit. That will exist forever.
In the same way, God exists in us through the good and loving deeds that we do. That’s how our non-eternal selves contain a little piece of the infinite.
Swedenborg adds that divinity exists in exactly the same way in the largest and the smallest things. In other words, you can accomplish good things in any amount of time, no matter how short it may seem.
Physical time matters to us—we can’t ignore its passing. But we can still replace time-bound thought with eternal perspective.
Time-bound things are all the properties of the physical world and therefore all of our own properties. The primary properties of the physical world are space and time, both of which have limits and boundaries. . . . In contrast, eternal things are all the properties of the Lord and the things from the Lord that seem to be ours. The properties of the Lord are all infinite and eternal, beyond time therefore, and consequently without limit and without end. Their derivatives that seem to be ours are likewise infinite and eternal, but nothing of them really belongs to us. They simply belong to the Lord, within us. (Divine Providence §219:1)
You can find infinite significance in every moment, even in this time-bound world.
- I would not like to lose myself as to who I am. Would God also want each of us to be as we have developed ourselves?
- Is time limited relative to a physical body as opposed to a spiritual one in the physical world?
- Do angels have a sense of humor? Do they play pranks or make inappropriate jokes?
- Any idea what’s happening when it seems like time stops for a few seconds? Is it the spiritual and the physical worlds connecting?
- What happens if a person has had a lot of trauma, etc.? Are negative things eternal too?
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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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