By Karin Alfelt Childs
No bones about it: Emanuel Swedenborg was a Christian. He states in his books that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God and that Jesus Christ is the one who saves people and brings them to heaven. Swedenborg also wrote that people do not have to be part of the earthly Christian belief system to go to heaven. How do we reconcile these two seemingly opposite statements?
The important thing, from Swedenborg’s perspective, is to be someone who inwardly follows Christ, not outwardly. Someone can belong to the Christian religion and profess a belief in Jesus Christ and yet live in a way that’s totally contrary to Christ’s teachings. Those people, Swedenborg tells us, cannot get into heaven. That is why Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
On the other hand, there can be people who have been born into a religion that worships the Divine by a different name, or who have become so turned off by hypocrisy in the earthly Christian religion that they cannot find God there. But such people can nevertheless be living in the way Christ taught us to live: by loving God and their neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40); by refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1–5); by resisting evil in their actions, thoughts, and feelings (John 8:34, Matthew 5:22); by working out their differences with others before coming before God (Matthew 5:24); by treating others the way they themselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12), etc. Regardless of their outer, earthly beliefs, they are inward followers of Christ, and after death they will recognize the Lord as the one they have been following all along. Swedenborg’s experiences led him to understand that when the Bible talks about the “name” of Jesus Christ, it means the quality or character of Christ. That is what we must follow in order to be able to recognize the Lord after death.
That’s why on earth, we should be paying attention not to someone’s outer belief system, but rather to the kind of life they are leading. This is what is looked at by the Lord and the angels after death, says Swedenborg, and this is supported by others who have had spiritual or mystical experiences. For example, in Lance Richardson’s near-death experience story “The Message” he also describes good people from many different earthly faith traditions having no problem with recognizing the loving presence of the Lord after death. The variety in earthly religion is something that the Lord is pleased with, because the Lord’s love is not petty and exclusive, wanting people to “get it exactly right.” If so, none of us could make it! In fact, Swedenborg saw many Christians in the afterlife unable to get into heaven because they were so sure they already “had it right” that they were unable to open their minds to learn the ways in which they were mistaken about God (which, of course, can happen in any religious belief system).
Swedenborg tells us that God looks at the heart, the intent, the effort. The Lord’s love is big and all-encompassing and all-inclusive. The Lord wants people to be able to follow whatever earthly religion suits them best as being a tool for forging a relationship with God, according to background, circumstances, and disposition. Christ is not the exclusive character that he is often made out to be. Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for the whole human race.