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Everyone has heard of the pearly gates to heaven and the doorway to hell, but in this episode, we ask why there are gates in the spiritual world in the first place. Hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose study eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg’s accounts of heaven and hell to teach us what these gates truly mean.
This topic was inspired by a viewer question from a previous Good Question! episode called “Beliefs, Evil Spirits, and the Power of Prayer?”.
What is the Swedenborgian interpretation of “straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”?
Before we dive in, let’s break the ice with a related question.
You might think you have to wait for death to find heaven, but Swedenborg reveals that heaven is all around us all the time. Jonathan feels like heaven tends to be quiet much of the time, but it can be seen in small acts of kindness. For Curtis, the core of heaven is sustainable joy. For both of them, heaven isn’t about a place, but a state of mind.
Instead of starting with the Bible or even with Swedenborg’s writings, we begin with a commonly shared human experience. According to reports from all sorts of people, there is evidence that we don’t see what’s really there—instead, we see what we want to see.
Once we have an idea about something and it takes root in the subconscious mind, our brain causes us to notice it more in our lives. The brain is constantly filtering information, helping us to notice certain things and ignore other things. We have to; without this mental filtering there would be far too many bits of information for us to cope with. . . . The fact is, we notice what we look for, not what is necessarily there. (“We Seek What We Look For”)
Swedenborg learned similar things about the spiritual world.
In general, when the premise is wrong, only falsity can result from it, because everything conforms with the premise. As a matter of fact . . . those who confirm themselves in principles of this kind concerning faith alone, and who have no charity, lack any interest in the many things the Lord so often said about love and charity. They seem not even to see those statements. (Secrets of Heaven §1017:2)
So psychologically speaking, we’re most likely to find what we’re truly looking for. Let’s look at the original passage in question, which comes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Enter through the narrow gate, for broad is the gate and open the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who walk along it; confined is the path and narrow the gate that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13–14)
According to Swedenborg:
The way that leads to life is not narrow because it is difficult but because so few people find it. (Heaven and Hell §534:3)
So the path isn’t narrow because it was designed to be hidden or exclusive, but because there are few who look for it and take the time to travel it.
And as we learned earlier, people will just find what they’re looking for.
People who worship themselves and the material world think that rank and wealth are the highest possible joys, the only possible joys, joy itself. If they think at all about God because of their first childhood religion, they call these things divine blessings; and as long as they have no higher aspirations than this, they believe that God exists and worship him. However, there is something hidden in their worship that they themselves do not know about, an assumption that God will keep raising them to higher honor and greater wealth. If they do achieve this, their worship tends more and more into superficiality until it drifts away, and eventually they trivialize and deny God. They do the same if they lose the respect and wealth on which they have set their hearts. In that case, what are rank and wealth but problems to these evil people? They are not problems to the good, because they do not set their hearts on them. They focus rather on the service or the good that respect and wealth can help them accomplish. . . . The Lord tells us that there are many people who are loves for themselves and the world and few who are loves for God when he says, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in through it; but tight and narrow is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13–14). (Divine Providence §250:1–2, 5)
These gates to heaven and hell aren’t physical entryways—they’re within us, and we can open them or close them if we wish.
As for the symbolism of a gate, there are two general kinds of gate in each of us. One lies open to hell and lets in the evil and falsity from there. In that gate stand hellish demons and spirits. The other lies open toward heaven and lets in the goodness and truth from there. In that gate stand angels. So there is a gate that leads to hell and a gate that leads to heaven. The gate to hell opens to people who wallow in evil and falsity, and only through chinks all around them overhead does any light from heaven enter, enabling them to think and reason. The gate to heaven, on the other hand, opens to people who devote themselves to the goodness and truth that come from there. There are two paths that lead to a person’s rational mind: a higher or more inward path that gives access to goodness and truth from the Lord, and a lower or more outward path through which evil and falsity sneak in from hell. The rational mind itself lies at the meeting-point of the two paths. . . . To turn to specifics, the gate of your foes [in the Bible] . . . is the gate we have in our earthly minds. When we are thoroughly earthbound, when we have not been reborn, evil and falsity occupy this gate. Another way to put it is that evil demons and spirits stream in through this gate with all their evil cravings and false convictions. When we become spiritual, though, or in other words, when we are being reborn, evil and falsity (or evil demons and spirits) are driven from that gate (or from that part of our mind). Once they have been driven off, goodness and truth, or neighborly love and faith, take over. . . . This happens to each of us individually when we are being reborn and likewise to anyone who enters the Lord’s kingdom in the next life. It also happens to people in general, or in other words, to the church, which is composed of many people. . . . This shows clearly that the gate of heaven is the place where angels live in us—that is, where goodness and truth coming from the Lord touch us. There are two gates, then, as noted above. (Secrets of Heaven §2851:2–4, 15)
This passage discusses rebirth, which we’ve also discussed in these previous episodes:
- “Repentance: How to Be in Heaven Now”
- “Regeneration: How Radical Love Is Born”
- “The Day-to-day Process of Our Salvation”
I was once shown the way to heaven and the way to hell. There was a broad path leading off to the left or north. There seemed to be a great many spirits traveling along it. In the distance, though, I could see a fairly large boulder where the broad path ended. Then two paths led off from the boulder, one to the left and the other, on the other side, to the right. The path to the left was narrow and confined, leading around through the west to the south, and therefore into the light of heaven. The path to the right was broad and open, leading obliquely down toward hell. At first, everyone was clearly following the same path as far as the large boulder at the fork; but at that point they parted company. The good turned to the left and started along the confined path that led to heaven. The evil did not even see the boulder at the fork but fell over it and hurt themselves. When they got up, they rushed along the broad path to the right that led toward hell. Later, the meaning of all this was explained to me. The first path, the broad one where so many good and evil people were traveling together, chatting with each other like friends with no visible difference between them, pictured people who live similarly honest and fair outward lives, with no visible difference between them. The stone at the fork or corner where the evil people stumbled, from which they rushed along the path to hell, pictured divine truth, which is denied by people who are focusing on hell. In the highest sense this stone meant the Lord’s divine human nature. However, people who acknowledge divine truth and the divine nature of the Lord as well were taken along the path that led to heaven. . . . Paths in the other life picture the thoughts that flow from our aims or intentions. The paths that are presented to view there answer exactly to the thoughts of our aims, and our course follows the thoughts that flow from our aims. This is why you can tell the quality of spirits and of their thoughts from their paths. (Heaven and Hell §534:1–3)
Because the afterlife shows the truth of matters, it’s much more clear which paths are good and which are bad and therefore, too, the nature of our thoughts and plans.
I said that representations are constantly appearing in the heavens and that they involve wisdom’s deepest secrets. The ones that people on earth are able to see in the Word’s literal meaning are as meager by comparison as the water of the ocean is to the water of a tiny pond. What the representations appearing in the heavens are like can be seen from a number of earlier eyewitness reports and also from the following. As I watched, several individuals were presented with a portrayal of the broad way and the narrow way mentioned in the Word, the broad way leading to hell, and the narrow way, to heaven. The broad way was planted with trees, flowers, and other plants that looked lovely and pleasant on the outside, but hidden among them lay different kinds of snakes and serpents, which they did not see. The narrow way was not as visibly beautified with trees and flower beds, instead appearing austere and dark, but along it were little angel children beautifully decked out, in the most charming possible parks and gardens—although these too they did not see. They were then asked which way they wanted to go. They said the broad way, but immediately their eyes were opened, and they saw snakes on the wide path but angels on the narrow. Then they were asked again which way they wanted to go, and this time they silently hesitated. The more open their sight was, the more they said they wanted to go the narrow way, but the more closed it was, the more they said they wanted to go the broad way. (Secrets of Heaven §3477)
Going with what you believe to be right, then, could make all the difference between finding the narrow path and taking the broad path.
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on these ideas.
The gates we hear about in popular culture seem like big, imposing doors designed to block us out of where we want to be, but the truth is the opposite. As already mentioned, we contain the gates to heaven and hell within us, and we decide when and where to open them. We get what we look for, so if we seek heaven, we will find it.
Jonathan: Hellish interference
At the beginning of the episode, we asked how you can find heaven on earth. Here’s what viewers had to say:
- In our hearts – Sheila Montomery
- In how we treat others – Matthew Bush
- It’s everywhere it’s how we look at things. Our mental state of love or fear – Bawnabrat
- Looking inside and when I’m balanced and harmonious with surroundings then I feel like I’m in heaven – Light
- I think Heaven is what calms the storm – Tacitus
- We can look for heaven in right relationships. – Carrie
- I look for Heaven in the opportunities to give love unconditionally. – Pete Dawson
- Reaching inside to partner with God to focus on what God is giving/asking you today to do for others and being childlike in trusting that process. – Jon Childs
- We can see heaven by noticing goodness from surroundings and from ourselves. Such as strangers’ friendly smiles and the good decisions we make and beautiful natural senses we used to take for granted – rainlion0
- I see heaven from helping my mother when needed, and from holding my sister’s carer’s six week old baby. – Matthew Boreham
- We can experience a glimpse of heaven by moments of joy or peace particularly when it’s shared with another. – Kendall M.
- I’ve never really tried to look for Heaven here on Earth, but am always open to the moments when it finds me! – Jan
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!
Related Swedenborg & Life Videos
“Beliefs, Evil Spirits, and the Power of Prayer?” (Good Question!)
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About Swedenborg & Life
In a lighthearted and interactive 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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