Swedenborg’s Apocalypse . . . Now?

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

 

By Richard Smoley

 

In Last Judgment, we see Swedenborg occupied with one of the most persistent themes of human thought: the end of the world, treated, in the Judeo-Christian context, principally in a literary genre known as apocalyptic.

Today the word apocalypse has, in popular diction, come to refer to the end of the world. It did not originally have this meaning. The word comes from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις (apokalypsis), which in its most basic sense simply means “uncovering” or “disclosing.” The term has been applied to “revelations” of two somewhat connected types: (1) the eschatological (dealing with the end of the world and the judgment of the dead); and (2) the mystical, usually involving some kind of otherworldly journey. The first is by far the better known, largely because of the influence of the Book of Revelation, whose title, drawn from the first word of the original Greek of Revelation 1:1, is in fact apokalypsis.

The origins of the apocalyptic genre are obscure. [According to] Harvard Sanskritist E. J. Michael Witzel, many of the world’s mythemes can arguably be traced back well beyond the beginning of written history. Some of these, he contends, even date back to the time when the whole human species still lived in Africa. Witzel claims that there is a more or less consistent narrative (he even calls it a “novel”) that can be found in the myths and scriptures of the peoples of Eurasia, North and South America, and even Polynesia. From these commonalities, he argues that this narrative very likely dates as far back as 40,000–20,000 b.c.e. Using a name taken from the field of geology, one that was applied to the ancient protocontinents, Witzel calls this the “Laurasian” mythos. It encompasses the history of the world from the generation of the gods to the end of time. As such, it recapitulates the human life cycle from birth to death: “Laurasian ‘ideology’ seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correspondence of the ‘life’ of humans and the universe” (E. J. Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, [New York: Oxford University Press, 2012], 422).

We can see apocalyptic emerge in the Hebrew Scriptures in the following way. The background is an explicit covenant between God and the nation of Israel, described at length in Deuteronomy 27–28: “If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1); conversely, a list of curses are detailed that will beset Israel if it fails to keep its side of the agreement (Deuteronomy 27:15–26).

There appears to be little eschatological import in this covenant, at least as it was initially understood: the provisions solely apply to the fortunes of the nation as a whole. But by the time of the prophetic writings (the eighth century b.c.e. onward), the orientation shifts. Many of these writings denounce the sins of Israel and Judah, with warnings about the devastation that must ensue if the people do not repent.

In this period we find the first full-blown apocalyptic text, and the only one to appear in the Hebrew Bible: the Book of Daniel. In many ways, Daniel sets the tone for the apocalyptic genre as a whole. We find [the] prophecy in Daniel 10–12, which foretells the coming of “the abomination that makes desolate” (Daniel 11:31). What Daniel predicted did not take place in literal terms. The coming of the “abomination of desolation” did not portend the end of time.

For Christians, the next significant apocalyptic document (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) appears in the synoptic Gospels. Known as the Apocalyptic Discourse or the Little Apocalypse, it displays two prominent features: (1) it foresees the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and (2) it predicts the imminent end of the world. From the point of view of mainstream scholarship (which does not admit an inner meaning to Scripture), the relation of these two events is by no means clear from the texts themselves.

Certainly in the early days of Christianity apocalyptic expectation was extremely high. The earliest New Testament text, 1 Thessalonians, seems partly intended to assuage the fears of Christians who were worried about the fates of their loved ones who died before Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). Paul’s attempt to comfort them—“the dead in Christ shall rise first”—shows the intensity of apocalyptic hope in the earliest days of Christianity.

Finally, there is the centerpiece of the apocalyptic genre—Revelation. Much about this extremely influential text is problematic or obscure. At any rate, if Revelation, or a substantial portion of it, can be dated to the era of the Jewish War (66–73 c.e.), we see a striking commonality among the major apocalyptic texts in the Bible: they all predict that the crisis in which they were written—which had not yet played itself out—was the harbinger of the end. Since these texts all came to be accepted as sacred scripture by the Christians, the background for intense apocalyptic expectation has always been present in Christian thought. It has resurfaced in more or less every generation from the first century to the present.

Swedenborg breaks with the apocalyptic tradition, however, in at least two major respects. Most exegeses of Revelation have focused on one of two possibilities: (1) that the prophecy concerns events in the author’s time, that is, in the first century (this is the standard scholarly view at present); or (2) that it predicts events that will transpire on earth in the very near future. Swedenborg’s analysis points neither back to the first century nor ahead to the future; he claims that the Last Judgment has just happened in the previous year, 1757.

Even more fundamentally, he also breaks with the ancient Laurasian mythos of a birth and death of the world. Last Judgment begins with the statement—radical in the Christian theology of Swedenborg’s day as well as in our own—that “‘Judgment Day’ does not mean the end of the world.” The text goes on to state that “the reproduction of humankind on earth will never cease” (Last Judgment, title of §6) because “humankind is the seedbed of heaven” (Last Judgment 7). Swedenborg also insists that our earth is only one of “hundreds of thousands of [inhabited] planets in the universe” (Last Judgment 10:3)—which is even more remarkable in that the idea of planets in other solar systems (now called exoplanets) would remain merely a matter of speculation till the late twentieth century.

As noted above, the Laurasian mythos is in many ways a recapitulation of the life cycle of the individual human. Current scientific cosmology, with its Big Bang and its posited end of the universe in either a Big Bust (in which the universe condenses and ultimately collapses on itself) or a “heat death” (in which it will end in a state of maximum entropy), seems very much like the same mythos transmuted into scientific terms.

Swedenborg stands in contrast to this position. In his theological works, he generally shows little interest in the physical creation of the universe: the main significance of the creation account in Genesis, he contends, does not lie in its recounting of physical processes. “The inner sense of the first chapter of Genesis deals in general with the process that creates us anew—that is to say, with regeneration—and in particular with the very earliest church” (Secrets of Heaven 4).[1] He does seem to assume that human history had a starting point—for example, the “very earliest church” obviously occurs shortly after such a beginning. But he does not delve into how the universe was created or “how we got here.” As for the future history of the cosmos, he does tangentially refer to it; for example, in Last Judgment 7, 11, he says that “so far, heaven is made up of relatively few people,” implying that it will continue to grow. But he has no belief or interest in the end of the world and even denies that it will take place: since “the full extent of heaven, which exists for the sake of angels, is so vast that it cannot be filled to eternity” (Last Judgment 11), the process of filling it will never be complete.

Consequently, Swedenborg emphasizes, “A Last Judgment . . . must take place in the spiritual world and not in the physical world” (Last Judgment, title of §28). This judgment takes place when “a church comes to an end,” which occurs “when there is no longer any faith within it,” and still more importantly, when “there is no caring” (Last Judgment 35). The “Last Judgment” that has just happened took place in a pseudo-heaven (Last Judgment 2, 46:3, 49, 59:4, 65–72) in the world of spirits, the intermediate realm where souls go after death as their ruling love (tending either toward heaven or toward hell) begins to be sorted out. It applied only to those spirits who died between the previous judgment (at the time of Christ) and Swedenborg’s time; those from other eras were already in heaven or hell. Before this latest judgment, Swedenborg says, all those people born in the previous eighteen centuries were kept in the world of spirits who were “capable of pretending outwardly to lead a spiritual life—to represent it in moral behavior as though spirituality were really there inside them, no matter what the faith and the love inside them are actually like” (Last Judgment 59:1). This situation created an imbalance in the unseen worlds: because hell works on the mortal world through the evil people in the world of spirits (Last Judgment 34, 73:2), it then gained a great influence over the living; and not only over them, but over certain good spirits in the other world (Last Judgment 62). A “Last Judgment” was necessary in order to make sure these hypocritical evil people in the world of spirits departed for hell, and thus the proper balance of good and evil influence could be restored (Last Judgment 34, 69).

The term “Last Judgment,” as used by Swedenborg, can be somewhat misleading. “Last” usually implies an ending for once and for all, but Swedenborg, as we have seen, insists that “a Last Judgment has taken place on our planet twice before,” described in the Word by the Flood and the coming of Christ to earth (Last Judgment 46).

One focus of the judgment that Swedenborg understands as having taken place in his own era, as described in Revelation, is how “Babylon was destroyed” and “how the people meant by the dragon were cast into an abyss” (Last Judgment 45). Swedenborg understands “Babylon” as generally representing “everyone who wants to use religion to control others” (Last Judgment 54:1). He specifies the Roman Catholic Church in particular as exhibiting this tendency: “The Babylon the Book of Revelation is talking about, though, is . . . generally understood to be part of the Catholic world” (Last Judgment 55:1). The “people of the dragon,” on the other hand, refers to those in the Protestant church who believe in “faith alone.”[2]

Again, because this judgment takes place in the realm of spirits and has little to do with the church on earth, Swedenborg says that the Christian church as a whole “will be similar in outward appearance,” and “the churches will continue to be divided as they have been” (Last Judgment 73:2). Anything beyond that is purely a matter of speculation: even the angels “do not know what is to come, because knowing the future belongs to the Lord alone” (Last Judgment 74). The only effect that will be felt on earth is that “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” (Last Judgment 73:2).

Because Swedenborg so strongly emphasizes inward goodness as opposed to mere outward behavior or doctrinal belief, he asserts that there were any number of non-Christian people in the world of spirits, including Muslims and people of other religions, who could be taken into heaven. Most strikingly, considering the racial biases of the age in which Swedenborg lived, he asserts that “the most intelligent ones come from Africa” (Last Judgment 51).

Swedenborg’s portrait of the new age, while far from identical to those of earlier visionaries, shows themes and concerns that he holds in common with them. One is spiritual freedom. Another is the imminence of the new age: many if not most apocalyptic prophecies, including Revelation itself, stress that they apply either to the present time or to a very near future. Unlike most other apocalyptic visionaries, however, Swedenborg discounts the likelihood of any observable changes on earth—“the state of the world from now on will be very much the same as it has been up to the present” (Last Judgment 73:1). This approach has certainly saved him from being proved wrong; in fact, by and large, what he predicted has come true. The past 250 years have seen remarkable increases in religious freedom, not least in the Christian 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] It can be assumed he continues to hold to the theory about the creation of the solar system sketched in his scientific works. Evidence for this can be found in True Christianity 35:7–9 (= Marriage Love 380:7–9), where he essentially restates his pretheological theory. But the creation of the physical world is not the focus of his interest in these later passages, which consist of philosophical and theological disputes.

[2] For mention of the dragon, see Revelation 12:3–17; 13:4, 11; 16:13; 20:2. Those who constitute the dragon, according to Swedenborg, are “the people in the Protestant church who make God three and the Lord two and who separate charity from faith, making the latter saving without the former at the same time” (Revelation Unveiled 537:1).

 

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