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When answering viewer questions in “Good Question: Suicide, the Rapture, and Dating in the Afterlife?”, there was one interesting question we didn’t have time to answer:
I wondered what the number 144,000 in the book of Revelation means, with the seals on their foreheads.
Does this mean that only 144,000 people will make it to heaven, as some have claimed? In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose work together to unpack this idea with the spiritual teachings of eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.
Jonathan sees a lot of value in practicing humility. To connect with God and even other people, we need to have room in our hearts for more than ourselves. Curtis agrees, and adds that he sees order itself as a beautiful practice. Getting things tidy and in the right shape helps us connect with the designer of the universe.
In Swedenborg’s understanding, the book of Revelation is symbolically describing an event in the spiritual world that took place in 1757. This judgment was actually one of many, and it had reverberations in the physical world. This is a huge topic in Swedenborg’s writings, but the important thing to understand for the purpose of this episode is that when Swedenborg talks about a “last judgment,” he’s describing an event that happens in the spiritual world, not our own world. It’s a kind of cleansing that occurs when there are so many people in the afterlife with false beliefs that it causes an imbalance and threatens the stability of heaven itself, and so the Lord must step in and restore the balance. Although this has happened many times in history, Swedenborg describes witnessing the most recent one personally in 1757 (you can read his firsthand account in his short work “Last Judgment.”)
The first part of this event was described in the book of Revelation by the opening of the seven seals, a process that uncovered the true qualities of everyone in the world of spirits. We’ve discussed the meaning of the seals before in two separate episodes:
- The Meaning of the Book of Revelation: The Four Horsemen
- The Meaning of the Book of Revelation: The Souls Under the Altar
When the sixth seal was opened, it unleashed a cataclysm that signified the breakdown of a corrupt religion in the world of spirits. The good people had to be protected while the evil worked itself out. Here’s how it’s described in the Bible:
After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of Israel. (Revelation 7:1-4)
Luckily, Swedenborg broke down every element of these verses into its symbolic components.
What does all that mean? Curtis and Jonathan break it down in the next section.
So who are the 144,000? Let’s dig deeper into Swedenborg’s experience of this judgment.
The important concept to start with is that this isn’t an exclusive club. The seal of the living God is all about love of others and doing our best to understand their perspective, so being one of the people who bear that seal is to embody that love and understanding.
Revelation 7:4. And I heard the number of those who were sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand symbolically means all those who acknowledge the Lord as God of heaven and earth and who, from the goodness that comes from love, embrace truth in the teachings that come from him through the Word. Such people are symbolically meant by the hundred and forty-four thousand from the twelve tribes of Israel because “the twelve tribes of Israel” means a church made up of people who embrace goodness and truth from the Lord and who acknowledge him as God of heaven and earth. The number one hundred and forty-four thousand means all of such people. This number means the same as twelve because it is the result of multiplying twelve by twelve and then multiplying by one thousand—any number multiplied by itself and then by ten, one hundred, or one thousand, means the same as the original number. (Apocalypse Revealed §348)
The 144,000 embody all of the ways that God’s love can be expressed in this world. Their acknowledgement of the Lord means that they have love for the Divine and faith on a deep level.
The number 144,000 itself, Swedenborg says, means the same as twelve. By this point, we know that everything in the Bible has a symbolic correspondence, so twelve has to be more than just a number. In fact, there’s some math involved:
- The number three symbolizes everything connected with truth.
- The number four symbolizes everything connected with goodness.
- Multiply them together, and you get twelve—everything connected with truth, grounded in the goodness of love.
These biblical verses also mentions twelve separate tribes of Israel. What do those represent?
Sealed out of every tribe of Israel symbolically means the Lord’s heaven and church are made up of such people. Tribe means religion that is focused on leading a good life, and every tribe means the church in respect to every form of goodness that comes from love and every truth that comes from this goodness, these two being the basis of leading a good life. In other words, there are two things that constitute the church, namely, goodness that comes from love and truth that comes from the church’s teachings. The marriage of these two is the church. The twelve tribes of Israel represented, and so came to symbolize, the church in respect to this marriage, each tribe representing some universal truth derived from goodness, or some form of goodness derived from truth, within this marriage. However, the meaning of each individual tribe has not been revealed to anyone until now. Since their symbolic meaning depends on the way they are connected, this could not have been revealed without the holy meaning that is concealed within them in combination being profaned by some poorly stitched-together explanation. (Apocalypse Revealed §349)
Each of the twelve tribes represent different qualities that are core to people who live for love and truth. These qualities might be present in different religions, or different traditions within religions, but they all share the same overarching characteristic: love of others married to a desire to put that love to work in the world.
But wait, there’s more! In the next verse in Revelation, there’s a reference to a “great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, people, and tongues.” (You can see the scene illustrated at the bottom of the screencap above.) So who is that multitude surrounding the 144,000?
Revelation 7:9. After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number symbolically means all those left were the kind who could not be “counted” but who will nevertheless be in the Lord’s new heaven and new church. They are the ones who make up the lowest heaven and the external church, and only the Lord can know how good they are. . . . Furthermore, the Lord has an inner and an outer church. Those referred to as the twelve tribes of Israel are the ones who make up the Lord’s inner church. The ones we are now talking about, though, make up the Lord’s outer church, and they cling inseparably to those who were “counted” above, as the lower part of something clings to its upper part, e.g., like a body to its head. Consequently, twelve tribes of Israel symbolically means both the higher heavens and the inner church, while these people who could not be counted symbolize the lower heavens and the outer church. (Apocalypse Revealed §363:1, 3)
The original 144,000 represent the people who make up the innermost levels of heaven, whereas the multitudes are from the lower levels of heaven. But don’t judge them by their location—just as the head can’t do much without the body, so are all parts of heaven essential to the whole. In fact, Swedenborg goes on to map out exactly what parts of the body the different tribes of Israel correspond to.
It’s some pretty heady stuff, but Curtis points out that there’s a way to apply it to our individual lives: We can choose, through the type of life we live, where we end up when we reach the spiritual world. If we embrace the deep love and faith of the people in the highest heavens, we can go there, too. It’s not just for the elect few—it’s somewhere that everyone can go, no matter where they’re from or what spiritual tradition they were born into.
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on these ideas.
So what’s the takeaway from this episode? It’s ironic that the 144,000 number that some believe is all about exclusivity is in fact entirely about inclusion. Living for love is all you need to join that multitude.
Jonathan: First experiences after death
Curtis: Love and wisdom
At the beginning of the episode, we asked for qualities that connect us with God. Here’s what viewers had to say:
- keep his commandment – Big Country
- Compassion – Matthew Bush
- pray first, before all the anxiety and angst hits. – M Tarquini
- humility, innocence, contentment, gratefulness – Jon Childs
- The release of expectation and humility – Stephanie MoDavis
- Being receptive to divine love and wisdom that comes from the Lord. – mtp358
- Humility! – Terra Ray
- Love & Truth – Wyldman82
- Love and Humility – Mina Stacey-Smith
- Ask God for a connection and be open to how God appears. Like in a neutral way, not commanding, but inquiring. – Patty Prescott
- Love our neighbor, not judge others, quieten the mind so you can hear, abide in the Lord, follow his direction not your own. – Dawnabrat
- the question reminds me of my grandma who was very humble and loved everyone, she would help anyone whenever they needed…..I think her qualities connected her to God, and she was blessed – Bonnie Bowers
- LOVE EVERYONE AND FORGIVE PEOPLE – Angel Shining
- find each day where I can be useful and helpful. – Ellen Potter
- Discipline – Shane’s Aegis
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!
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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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