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If the world ended, you’d think you might have noticed. The common view of the last judgment is apocalyptic, with the earth left in ruins. According to eighteenth-century Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, this isn’t quite right. In fact, the Last Judgment may have taken place just a couple of centuries ago.
In this episode, host Curtis Childs and featured guests delve into Swedenborg’s fascinating accounts of a spiritual Last Judgment. We won’t find prophecies of fire and brimstone here—instead, he stressed God’s infinite love and mercy.
As with many things, Swedenborg defines judgment in a different way than most. In his view, a spiritual judgment comes when a church—a group of people who share values—faces its end times, meaning that the members of the group have lost their love.
There are many reasons why a Last Judgment occurs when the church is at its end. The main one is that when this happens the equilibrium between heaven and hell begins to fail—and with that equilibrium goes our freedom, and once our freedom is gone, we can no longer be saved. Without freedom we are drawn toward hell and lack the option of being led toward heaven. (Last Judgment §33)
These last judgments are foundational shifts in the spiritual balance that cause a full restructuring of the system. Swedenborg writes that two Last Judgments have already occurred. The first was the flood described in the story of Noah and his ark, and the second was the coming of Jesus.
The Last Judgment that Swedenborg describes in his writings was the end of the Christian church. “Wait,” you might say. “I’m pretty sure the Christian church is still a thing.” Hang on. All will be revealed. In the meantime, we need to take a closer look at what exactly a “judgment” is all about.
Since evil is outstripping good as the church comes to an end, everyone is then judged by the Lord, the evil are separated from the good, and everything is put back into order; a new heaven is set up, and a new church on earth as well, and in this way equilibrium is restored. This, then, is what the term Last Judgment refers to. (Last Judgment §34)
Dr. Jonathan Rose talks about those who were to be judged—and those who were exempt. It’s important to note that among the people who were exempt was everybody living on earth. This is a key point in Swedenborg’s theology of the Last Judgment—the judgment takes place in the spiritual world, and it only affects people who are currently in the afterlife. That’s why we on earth don’t see any of the outward signs traditionally associated with the end of the world.
Even in the spiritual world there are many groups who are not included in the judgment: people who died before the coming of Jesus, for example, and people whose nature is completely good or evil. Once you count out all the exempt souls, the only group left to be judged is made up of people in the afterlife who are inwardly evil but outwardly good.
The next section goes into when exactly the, er, last Last Judgment happened. But first, a word from one of our fans about looking inside yourself and sifting the rocks from the soil that nourishes spiritual growth.
Circa . . .
The Last Judgment is a sort of mass-restructuring of heaven. In fact, as Dr. Jonathan Rose shares, the trigger for a Last Judgment is that evil people become so numerous in the afterlife that they’re like “a spiritual smog” blocking out heaven.
In the spiritual world, a Last Judgment does resemble the events described in the Bible, and in fact Swedenborg writes that everything described in the heavenly meaning of the book of Revelation has actually already happened.
A Last Judgment takes place not in the physical world but in the spiritual world, where everyone who has lived since the beginning of creation is together; and because this is the case, no one [in the physical world] can tell when a Last Judgment has happened. Everyone expects it to happen here, believing it will change everything in the visible heaven, everything in the physical world, and the whole of humankind. To prevent the people in the church who believe this from continuing to live in ignorance; to prevent people who think about the Last Judgment from having to wait for it forever, which will lead in time to an erosion of their trust in the things said in the literal meaning of the Word about it; and therefore to prevent many from losing their faith in the Word, I have been allowed to see with my own eyes that the Last Judgment has already taken place.The evil have been cast into various hells; the good have been raised into heaven; and in this way everything has been brought back into proper order, restoring the spiritual equilibrium between good and evil, and between heaven and hell. . . . The Last Judgment began early last year—1757—and was carried to completion by the end of that year. (Last Judgment §45)
When Swedenborg describes the Last Judgment, he breaks it down by religion, but it’s important to remember that you can’t just judge people by their religious background. We’re all individuals making our own choices. If we put together a pie chart of people from different religions and looked at it from a heavenly perspective, it would look something like this:
What happens during a judgment? Remember that the group being judged is a mix of good and bad (or heavenly and hellish). Judgment, then, means assessing people’s true character, separating the good inside that person from the evil, and then sending the person to the place that matches their true character—whether it’s heaven or hell.
Got all that? Time to dive into the correspondence between what the Bible says about the Last Judgment and what Swedenborg saw.
To start things off, here’s a segment that compares verses about the Last Judgment in Matthew to the inner spiritual meaning described by Swedenborg.
Next, Curtis tackles Revelation 21:1, which describes a new heaven and a new earth. This doesn’t mean that the old heaven went away, Swedenborg explains; what it means is that there were people with evil intentions who used the truths they learned to create a false heaven, and people with good intentions who put their faith in these false teachers. When the Last Judgment came, all these people had to be sorted into the real heaven and hell.
So if false teachers created a false heaven to mislead people, why didn’t God stop them? Dr. Jonathan Rose explains.
That was the situation at the time of the Last Judgment—a false heaven full of people who couldn’t get to heaven because they put their faith in the wrong teachers but who didn’t deserve to be in hell. Then everything reached a tipping point . . .
The Mountains Overturned
Swedenborg discussed the Last Judgment with a focus on specific religions—especially denominations within Christianity. The Last Judgment he witnessed in 1757 dealt with the end of the Christian church as he saw it.
One type of bad behavior that Swedenborg saw within the groups being judged is represented in the Bible by Babylon:
“Babylon” means everyone who wants to use religion to control others. Trying to use religion to control others is trying to take control of their souls and therefore their spiritual life itself, using as means the divine principles of the religion. In a general sense, then, Babylon means all people who have control as their aim and use religion as the means of achieving it. (Last Judgment §54:1)
Swedenborg listed other types of corruption that were practiced by religious leaders of his time: saying that they alone had the power to forgive sins or grant entry into heaven, or using their position to amass personal wealth and power. Despite these corruptions, there was still good being done.
While he didn’t focus on religions outside Christianity, Swedenborg did emphasize that good people of all faith traditions went to heaven:
However, people of other religions who in the world have worshiped God in human form and have lived caring lives in accord with the principles of their religion are joined to Christians in heaven, because they more than the others acknowledge and revere the Lord. The most intelligent ones come from Africa. The number of Muslims and people of other religions I saw was so immense that it would have to be counted in millions. Yet the judgment on such an immense number took only a few days, because once people had been brought into their own love and faith, their true nature was instantly determined, and they were taken to kindred spirits. These events establish the truth of the Lord’s predictions about the Last Judgment: “Then they will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and sit down in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). (Last Judgment §§51–52)
Coming from a Protestant tradition, Swedenborg had his share of critiques aimed specifically at these denominations, although these criticisms could apply to people of any faith tradition: that they attended church, read the Word, and listened to sermons, but they didn’t apply any of what they learned to their lives. In other words, they embraced a faith without love.
All who externally lived as Christians while paying no heed to Christian conduct were outwardly united with the heavens, but inwardly with the hells. (Last Judgment [Continuation] §18)
Swedenborg describes what happened during this part of the judgment in detail, with the good being separated from the evil.
Once again, Curtis emphasizes that the Last Judgment is not about punishment or rejecting people; it allows good people to join others like them in heaven.
The Impact on Us
While this happened in the spiritual world, what happened on earth?
The state of the world from now on will be very much the same as it has been up to the present. This is because the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not impose any change on the earthly world with respect to its outward form. So the business of civil life will go on afterward as it did before; there will be times of peace, and treaties, and wars as there were before; and other things characteristic of communities on both a large and a small scale will continue. . . . As for the state of the church, though, this is what will not be the same from now on. It will be similar in outward appearance, but different with respect to what lies within. Outwardly, the churches will continue to be divided as they have been, each will continue to put forward its own body of teaching as it has in the past, and the religions among non-Christians will continue to be much the same as they have been. However, from now on the people in the church will have greater freedom of thought concerning matters of faith and concerning spiritual things that have to do with heaven because their spiritual freedom has been restored. Everything in the heavens and the hells has now been brought back into its proper order . . . (Last Judgment §73:1, 2)
Even though there might not have been a dramatic change, Swedenborg does tell us that what happens in the spiritual world affects what happens in the earthly realm. Dr. Dan Synnestvedt discusses how the Last Judgment in 1757 may have changed earthly religions, social justice, and technologies across history. It was around that time that there was an seismic shift in how people saw human rights: that children shouldn’t be forced into hard labor, that slavery as an institution was wrong, that women and minorities deserved equal rights, and that using military force to oppress other nations was wrong. If any of these things were the result of a Last Judgment, it had a more long-lasting impact than any of the cataclysmic events described in the Bible.
The Church is like a human being, having a soul and a body, as does heaven also. The symbolic Church, which consisted only of outer observances, represents its body, for which reason it will also die so that the inward Church may come forth, which likewise will die so that the more inward one will come. (Spiritual Experiences §2259)
It’s all an essential piece of humanity growing up as a species.
- Are there people who are inwardly good but appear outwardly evil?
- How does this perspective fit with the Great White Throne Judgment in the book of Revelation?
- If the main influence in Swedenborg’s day was Christianity, is it wrong to question that his experiences are shaped by his own beliefs instead of truth (whatever that is)?
- Would you agree that it’s happening right now and will continue to happen? I feel the world is moving further towards heaven.
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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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