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Many who read the book of Revelation become fascinated by the strange, almost mythical beasts it describes. Why, in a Bible full of God’s love and grace, are these monsters so carefully described? For many, it’s a mystery. But eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg discovered how these creatures actually symbolize hidden messages from God. In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests delve into the spiritual truths that correspond with the locusts, red dragon, first beast, and cherubim described in Revelation.
The Warm Up
You find stories of fantastical creatures across all of human history, but why do they fascinate us so? Swedenborg wrote that animals and unique beasts have their root in the spiritual realm.
Various representative scenes appear in the world of spirits, and animals are often presented to the sight of the spirits there too. They include horses wearing different types of ornamental trappings, cattle, sheep, lambs, and other species—sometimes kinds never seen on earth—but they are simply representations. The prophets also saw animals like these (as mentioned in the Word), and they arose in the same way. The creatures that appear in the world of spirits represent different kinds of desire for goodness and truth and also for evil and falsity. (Secrets of Heaven §2179:1)
According to Swedenborg, when the conversations of angels come down to the spiritual world, their words are represented there in the form of animals. For example, if angels talk about earthly goodness, cattle appear; and if they discuss rational goodness, sheep appear. Swedenborg called these representations “correspondences.”
These representations are a far cry from the multi-faceted beasts of Revelation, so we start our examination of correspondences with a well-known mythical creature: the unicorn.
Swedenborg wrote that horns symbolize truth coming from goodness and that the number one symbolizes love and goodness. (For more on the meaning of numbers, watch our episode “The Spiritual Meaning of Numbers.”) The unicorn of the Bible most likely looked like what we know as the form of an ox. And since animals correspond to affection, or desire, and the ox’s single horn is made of bone, which corresponds to truth and understanding, the ox symbolizes power; it uses its horn to accomplish its desires. The overall meaning of a unicorn, therefore, is “The power of truth from goodness.”
Swedenborg believed that every detail of the Bible has meaning for us and in our understanding. The Book of Revelation, in particular, is quite complex, full of monsters whose overall meaning is the result of religion without love.
Religion Is All about How We Live, and the Religious Way to Live Is to Do Good (Life / Faith §1–8)
When we think of locusts, we think of bugs that look pretty much like grasshoppers. The locusts described in Revelation look much different, though, and Swedenborg describes them as symbols of people who are religious but not loving. Let’s look at the correspondences of the different parts of this biblical creature.
The head of the locust represents inflated self-perception. On its head, it wore:
- A gold crown because it felt like a conqueror.
- The face of a man because it thought it was wise.
- The hair of a woman because it thought it desired truth.
- The teeth of a lion because it believed it had power from falsities.
Their bodies represent fanatical certainty in their ideas. Locusts:
- Looked like war horses because they were convinced that their reasoning was the truth.
- Wore iron breastplates because they believed that their fallacious arguments were irrefutable.
- Had wings, which symbolizes their confidence in their perception of the Bible.
- Had scorpion tails, which correspond to falsified biblical truths that were used as a weapon to induce stupor; that they hurt men for five months symbolizes their strong, subtle falsifications of the Word.
The locusts’ king was named Abaddon, which means “destroyer.” Abaddon signifies that falsities had destroyed the church.
Swedenborg experienced these truths firsthand when he saw these locusts in their hellish home. There, people scribbled broken and false dogmas over old desks in fragile dome huts. Curtis explains that this misuse of faith causes many problems, from the creation of communities in hell to all kinds of harm on earth and in the spiritual world.
Thought saves no one. It is the life we have acquired for ourselves in the world by means of religious knowledge that saves us. . . . In heaven people associate with each other on the basis of the way they have lived, never on the basis of thought disconnected from life. Thoughts that are not attached to our life are hypocritical and are categorically rejected. . . . We acquire heavenly life from all those aims, thoughts, and deeds that belong to neighborly love. This is the life that everything called faith looks toward, and such a life is acquired through everything that belongs to faith. This evidence shows what faith is: it is charity. (Secrets of Heaven §2228:2–3)
Swedenborg says that our faith leads us toward charity and that when our physical body body comes to an end, our love is reflected by our soul.
The Red Dragon
The Book of Revelation depicts a woman clothed with the sun, but before long she is attacked by the great read dragon. Swedenborg scholar Dr. Jonathan Rose explains that the dragon was more likely a sea monster than a traditional dragon. The idea of fire comes from the Bible’s description of a fiery red dragon; but according to Jonathan, this dragon breathed water, which symbolizes false teachings.
Swedenborg wrote that the dragon is the doctrine of faith without love. Let’s break down the red dragon.
Its red coloration signifies the falsity of evil compulsions.
- Its seven heads symbolize insanity from falsified truths of the Bible.
- Its ten horns represent its incredible power.
- Its seven crowns correspond to the falsification of all truths.
- Its tail knocked a third of the stars from the sky and thus signifies alienation from spiritual knowledge.
- Its desire to eat the child of the woman clothed with the sun represents the desire to extinguish the doctrine of the new church.
This dragon represented the spiritual climate in which Swedenborg lived—he felt that many members of the church at his time had fallen to false dogma. Swedenborg had a vision of thousands of people appearing as the great red dragon due to their dedication to faith alone, or faith without love.
The First Beast
Though not as well known, the first beast actually comes straight from the red dragon. The beast rises from the sea and is worshiped alongside the dragon. Curtis breaks down what the beast symbolizes.
Overall, the beast represents the dragon’s broken faith, not with the priests but with the masses.
- It’s a beast because it signifies a person’s affections.
- It had seven heads and ten horns for the same reasons as did the dragon.
- But it had ten crowns on its horns because it had the power to falsify many truths.
- The blasphemous name written on its forehead represents denial of the Lord.
- Its leopard-like body signifies how it misuses truths in a destructive way.
- Its feet represent the fact that it’s full of fallacies.
- Its lion-like mouth corresponds to reasoning from falsity as if it were true.
That the dragon gave the beast its power symbolizes that the masses are convinced of falsities by their teachers. But what about its mortally wounded head? Dr. Jonathan Rose explains that the wounded head represents the separation between the modern church’s teachings and the truth of the scripture. So, the wounded head represents the sickness of believing that love is unnecessary to faith.
Finally, a friendly face! After all those beasts representing evil and falsity, we get to encounter an angelic figure. Cherubim don’t look like winged babies so much as they do like many-eyed monstrosities, but they are not as scary as they look. In fact, they mean divine providence.
They are described as living creatures because they are divine truth incarnate.
- The multitude of eyes represents divine wisdom within the Word.
- The lion’s head represents the divine truth of the Word as to power.
- The calf’s head represents the divine truth of the Word as to affection.
- The human head with the face of a man represents the divine truth of the Word as to wisdom.
- The flying eagle represents the divine truth of the Word as to knowledge and understanding.
- The six wings symbolize the protection of the inner power of the Word.
- That they sing praise all day and night represents the worship of God and keeping the focus on love.
Our implicit biases could be dragging us toward the first three beasts, but we can avoid these falsities through connection to the cherubim.
- We can invoke the power of the lion to fight against falsities from hell.
- The calf can help us affect minds.
- The human helps us be wise and humble.
- The eagle brings us goodness and truth.
In these ways, we can unite love with faith in our daily life and keep the monsters of Revelation at bay.
- Why does Swedenborg talk a lot about the falsity of people and the way they were in the world rather than about the good?
- Doesn’t scripture teach that the heart is deceitful and wicked? How then can we know our motives and be sure that our intentions are loving and kind?
- Are there different levels in hell?
- Will we all understand all of this material and symbols when we die and go into the spirit?
- I have been seeing a lot of birds. What are their symbolism?
- Does the symbolism come from our interpretation or is it universal and we tap into that and make those associations as well?
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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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