Is There Really Life on Other Planets?

(A slightly modified version of material taken from the introduction to The Shorter Works of 1758: New Century Edition)

By Richard Smoley

It would seem that Swedenborg had some clear objectives in mind when he published New JerusalemLast Judgment, and White Horsenamely, to set out the teachings of the new church, to describe the judgment that had taken place in the world of spirits in 1757, and to underscore the fact of an inner meaning in Scripture. The fourth of these shorter works of 1758, Other Planets (in earlier translations called Earths in the Universe), has the aim of showing, first, that the universe exists to populate heaven, and second, that the Lord is worshiped everywhere. Swedenborg uses the ongoing debate about other worlds to achieve these very Swedenborgian objectives. Like everyone else before him in this debate, Swedenborg in his scientific phase comes across the immovable barrier created by the lack of empirical evidence.

The Man from Mars by Frank R. Paul
The Man from Mars by Frank R. Paul

It would prove otherwise in Swedenborg’s theological period. At this point, Swedenborg does attempt to provide empirical evidence for the existence of other worlds and other beings—the evidence being his own spiritual experiences, as the full title of his book indicates: The Earthlike Bodies Called Planets in Our Solar System and in Deep Space, Their Inhabitants, and the Spirits and Angels There: Drawn from Things Heard and Seen.He begins Other Planets by describing his experiences with spirits from the planets known in his time: Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and the Moon (in that order). He then proceeds to beings from planets outside the solar system, of which he enumerates five. He does not seem to know of any [other] planets in our solar system, in keeping with the knowledge of his day: Uranus would not be discovered until 1781, nine years after his death.

These experiences differ radically from later encounters with extraterrestrial creatures, whether one believes such encounters real or imagined, in one chief respect: Swedenborg is not dealing with these beings as they lived in physical form, but rather with their spirits. Nonetheless, he makes it clear that these spirits originally had physical bodies on their respective planets, just as inhabitants of Earth have, and thus he is able to learn about and even view these planets for himself.

Swedenborg does not appear to be interested in drawing general scientific conclusions about beings from other worlds, or what their nature might imply for scientific knowledge; rather he limits himself to concrete descriptions of these inhabitants, their patterns of mind, and their way of life. He does, however, draw theological conclusions. His work has two chief purposes, which he himself states when he quotes Other Planets in his major work of 1758, Heaven and Hell: “To let people know that the Lord’s heaven is vast and that it is all from the human race, and also that our Lord is recognized everywhere as the God of heaven and earth” (Heaven and Hell 417:7).

The first purpose is expressed slightly differently when it actually appears in Other Planets. Here he says it is to show that “not enough people come into heaven from our world” to fulfill all the roles to be played in heaven. We on earth, says Swedenborg, “are relatively few, so people from many other planets are needed as well. As a result the Lord has provided that the moment there is any deficiency” of quantity or type of people to fulfill the roles in the heavenly order, “people from another planet are immediately summoned to fill the need, so that the proper proportion is maintained and heaven therefore stands firm” (Other Planets 9). Since the heavenly order resembles a human being (called by Swedenborg the homo maximus, the “greatest” or “universal human”) these roles are often identified by parts or functions of the brain or body. The spirits of the planet Mercury, for example, supply “memory, but specifically the memory of abstract concepts, apart from things that are earthly and merely physical” (Other Planets 10).

The second purpose of Other Planets is to confront “the scandal of particularity”[1] as it applies to the topic of other inhabited worlds. This “scandal,” generally expressed, is the question of how any person who does not have access to knowledge about Jesus Christ can ever have the faith in Christ necessary to be saved from an afterlife in hell. In Europe in Swedenborg’s time, the scandal was already perceived as a threat to Christianity as a consequence of the growing knowledge of vast non-Christian cultures in the far-flung regions of the earth. The popularly held notion that there must be intelligent life on other planets greatly exacerbated the problem. Why would God have created distant planets if their inhabitants were doomed to hell through mere ignorance of the Christ who had lived, suffered, and died on earth? Such an expanded view of the universe made the most basic tenets of Christianity look too limited and particular to be plausible.

Swedenborg directly addresses this scandal in the opening of the book: “As for the worship of God by the inhabitants of other planets, generally speaking any who are not idolators acknowledge the Lord as the only God.” To this he adds the clincher: “Everyone who worships the Divine in human form is accepted by the Lord,” or, in other words, is saved from hell (Other Planets 7). He buttresses this assertion by giving many specific instances of the acceptance of the Lord by inhabitants of other worlds (see Other Planets 40, 65, 70, 91, 98–99, 107, 110, 141, 154, 159, 162).[2] And if that is not enough to meet critics of Christianity head on, he supplies an entire chapter (Other Planets 113–122) explaining “why the Lord wanted to be born on our planet and not on some other.” He also sketches the alternative: in Other Planets 161–164, he describes the spirit of a benighted preacher from earth who had refused to believe there were other planets precisely because of the particularity of Jesus’ birth on our world. Swedenborg’s treatment makes clear how wrongheaded he finds this attitude to be.

Given the vast fascination people have had throughout history with the supposed influence of planets on humankind, it seems necessary to look for some connection between Swedenborg’s descriptions of these spirits and the characteristics of the planets as they were portrayed in the Western esoteric tradition and in astrology. In general the similarities are visible but faint. See, for example, a typical description of the characteristics of Mercury by Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535):

Mercury is called the son of Jupiter, the crier of the gods, the interpreter of gods, Stilbon, the serpent-bearer, the rod-bearer, winged on his feet, eloquent, bringer of gain, wise, rational, robust, stout, powerful in good and evil, the notary of the Sun, the messenger of Jupiter, the messenger betwixt the supernal and infernal gods, male with males, female with females, most fruitful in both sexes, and Lucan calls him the arbitrator of the gods. He is also called Hermes, i.e., interpreter, bringing to light all obscurity, and opening those things which are most secret.[3]

Some traits of this occult Mercury are echoed in Swedenborg’s Mercurial spirits: in their collection and retention of impressions from many worlds (see Other Planets 15) they can be said to have a kind of role as messengers; moreover, like the itinerant messenger of the gods, they “do not stay in one place, . . . but roam throughout the universe” (Other Planets 24). On the other hand, unlike the communicative Mercury of the occult philosophy, “bringing to light all obscurity,” Swedenborg’s Mercurians have a “custom of not giving direct answers to questions” (Other Planets 39), and “have a distaste for verbal speech” (Other Planets 17).

Although these resemblances are faint, we can still ask whether Swedenborg was somehow influenced by this occult philosophy, which was then much more widely known and respected than it is in our day. The answer is difficult to give, and will certainly vary with one’s approach to Swedenborg’s writings as a whole. Those who take his writings as the fruit of interaction with the Divine may feel strongly that he was reporting his own spiritual experiences and that he was not at all influenced by these earlier traditions. A more skeptical reader, on the other hand, might be willing to see some traces of this influence on Swedenborg, as might someone who feels that inspiration can draw on what is available in one’s memory. It is not a question that we can settle here.

It may also be instructive to correlate Swedenborg’s description of these planetary inhabitants with Dante’s astrological schema in The Divine Comedy, which is particularly evident in the Paradiso. In his ascent through the concentric spheres of the planets (Dante’s schema is based on Aristotle’s), Dante encounters souls at every level that embody the virtues of that planet. The Moon, being the most rapidly changing of the heavenly bodies, is the realm of the inconstant. Mercury is the realm of seekers after glory. Venus, the planet of love, is the domain of lovers; the Sun is the realm of the wise; Mars, of the warriors of the faith; Jupiter, of just rulers; Saturn, of contemplatives. While not absolutely identical to the occult schema in Agrippa’s Renaissance text, it is certainly close enough, and serves as a reminder that this model was widely diffused in the classical and medieval worlds.

All of this is very far from Swedenborg. He does not take the planets in their traditional astrological order; his descriptions of the beings of each planet bear only a faint resemblance to their astrological correspondents; he does not view his own journey in the form of an ascent; nor are the planets spheres of heaven. His extraterrestrials are human, or humanoid, with faults of their own. Mercurians, “because of their wealth of knowledge,” are more inclined to pride (Other Planets 16). On Jupiter, (traditionally the most benign and beneficent of all the planets) we find practitioners of a sinister priestcraft, who “call themselves holy ones and demand . . . that their servants . . . call them ‘lords,’” and who prohibit these servants from “worshiping the Lord of the universe, saying that they themselves are ‘mediating lords’ and that any requests made to them will be forwarded to the Lord of the universe” (Other Planets 70:1). On Venus, those from the side that faces Earth “are savage and almost feral,” as well as “stupid, with no interest in heaven or eternal life” (Other Planets 108).

On the whole, however, the inhabitants of Swedenborg’s other worlds seem to be better and kinder than those on Earth. Those who inhabit the side of Venus that faces away from Earth are “gentle and humane” (Other Planets 107), while Mercurians are, apparently in a good way, “completely uninterested in earthly and bodily things” (Other Planets 12). Spirits from Jupiter “are much wiser than spirits from our planet” (Other Planets 61:1). Those from Mars “are among the best of all spirits from the planets in our solar system” (Other Planets 85). Those from Saturn are “upright and modest” and “profoundly humble in their worship” (Other Planets 97–98). Swedenborg does not mention the moral characteristics of the spirits of the Moon, perhaps because he was deliberately curtailing his description of them; it is unusually brief (Other Planets 111–112).

One last characteristic of these extraterrestrial spirits is worth noting. They do not seem in the slightest bit technologically advanced. Of the spirits from Mars, we learn that “on their planet they eat fruit from trees . . . ; they also eat vegetables. They wear clothes that they make from the fibers of the bark of particular trees” (Other Planets 93). Indeed the inhabitants of Jupiter seem somewhat apelike: “They do not walk upright like the inhabitants of our planet . . . , but help themselves along with their hands” (Other Planets 55:1).

Taken as a whole, the lives of these beings seem to resemble that of the primitive humanity of the classical Golden Age, or Swedenborg’s “earliest church,” and in fact he explicitly makes that analogy in regard to the Jupiterians (Other Planets 49). The modern notion of technologically advanced extraterrestrials is completely absent, and, for Swedenborg, unnecessary. Contemporary speculations about extraterrestrials, focusing as they do on visitors to our planet from other planets, presuppose technological sophistication: they could not reach us if they were not far more advanced than we. For Swedenborg, no spaceships are required to encounter extraterrestrial beings in the world of spirits.

In sum, Swedenborg’s vision of other worlds reveals three main themes. The first two are the explicit purposes he mentions himself: the necessity for other worlds in order to furnish the full population of heaven, and a refutation of the charge of particularity. The third is an emphasis on certain core values—notably the need for moral sincerity and the need to acknowledge the primacy of spiritual as opposed to earthly reality. His little book in fact often proves to be not just a telescope that reveals other worlds but a mirror that shows us the relative moral and spiritual backwardness of our own.

Swedenborg’s insistence that his encounters have taken place in the spiritual plane and not on earth have meant that his visions have had very little influence on the subsequent debate regarding extraterrestrials. Moreover, there is no evidence at present for life-forms in this solar system that even remotely resemble humans.

One’s response to these facts will vary with one’s attitude toward Swedenborg’s thought as a whole. Again, it is not possible to take a position on this matter here.[4] However literally or metaphorically one wishes to take his encounters with the spirits of planets from this solar system and others, they remain an integral part of his powerful and all-encompassing spiritual vision.

Some Theories about the Problems Posed by Other Planets

One might think there could be only one position that could be taken about the claims made by Swedenborg about human life on other planets. But in fact there are any number of theories offered by subsequent commentators attempting to reconcile his assertions with current science. The following five major strands of hypotheses are offered for interested readers; but this list is by no means exhaustive.

  1. Swedenborg was misinformed for any of several reasons. That is, his incorrect identification of the planets associated with spirits was a result solely of deductions based on insufficient information. Among such conjectures is the possibility that the angels, presumably the heavenly source from which Swedenborg learned the names of the planets he describes (see Other Planets 10), were themselves imperfectly informed.
  2. Swedenborg intended Other Planets most importantly to deal with theological questions; its spiritual meaning is paramount, no matter what we think of its literal validity. Some of the critics who abandon the literal truth of Other Planets come very close to saying that the work is fiction written for a didactic purpose.
  3. Swedenborg was describing the conditions of spirits in the world of spirits, not on physical planets.
  4. The facts about extraterrestrials described in Other Planets somehow remain literally true, despite apparent scientific evidence to the contrary. For example, it has been maintained that the inhabitants of the planets in question have now died off or live out of sight underground, or that they possessed some kind of gaseous bodies while living.
  5. Swedenborg was not misinformed, nor is modern science incorrect. The discrepancy arose from Swedenborg’s attempt to understand and explain his visionary experiences in light of the material world as he knew it. This complex theory maintains that knowledge about the planets in the spiritual world cannot“agree with” knowledge about the planets of the material world.

Richard Smoley is a director of the Swedenborg Foundation. He is the author of a number of books, including Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition and the forthcoming God Now: A Fresh View of Ultimate Reality. He is also editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. His website is innerchristianity.com.

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Notes

[1] The sense of the word “scandal” in this phrase is an old one; it means “a stumbling block to, or something that hinders the acceptance of, religious belief, specifically Christian.” The phrase “scandal of particularity” seems to have been first used by the German Bible scholar Gerhard Kittel in 1930 (see Oxford English Dictionary, under “scandal”) to describe the challenge to acceptance of the Christian faith offered by the particularity of the Incarnation of God in a single human being in history. It has since been applied more broadly, as here. The term scandal in this sense ultimately derives from the Greek word σκάνδαλον (scándalon), “trap,” “snare,” used in about a dozen New Testament passages, such as Galatians 5:11.

[2] The worship of the Lord is strongly implied in a few other passages besides those listed, especially Other Planets 130. The spirits described there know about the Lord but do not “dare to worship him”; instead they worship him at a remove, through an angelic community the Lord has assigned to look after them.

[3] Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Translated by James Freake and edited by Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn, [1533] 1993), 427.

[4] A few of the theories concerning the discrepancy between Swedenborg’s statements about life on other planets and our current scientific knowledge are summarized below.

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