Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?

Here is a question that a reader named Lara asked in a comment on the article, “Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?”:

I was wondering why so much of your site and the large majority of your beliefs about God, heaven and hell and Jesus are based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg? Why do you think that he holds special precedence in knowing the mind of God? after all he was just one man who believed he had undergone a spiritual experience from God, which many many other people throughout history have also claimed. I was just wondering why your site and theology weigh so heavily on his thoughts, even almost more than what the Bible has to say? If you could give me some points on why you take his ideas and experiences as unquestionable truth that would be much appreciated!

Thanks for the great question, Lara!

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg

Between 1749 and 1771, Emanuel Swedenborg published twenty-five books written in Latin, which was the universal scholarly language of the day. He wrote but never published almost as many additional volumes, some of which were first drafts for books he later published. These books tell about the deeper meanings in the Bible, Swedenborg’s experiences in the spiritual world, and the true meaning of Christianity as he understood it.

Ever since, readers and followers of Swedenborg’s teachings have debated exactly what to make of his writings, and how Swedenborg’s teachings relate to the Bible and to the mind of God.

The Holy Bible

The Holy Bible

Having grown up steeped in the Bible and in Swedenborg’s teachings, I have spent many years pondering these very questions. It’s not enough to believe something just because that’s what you were taught. To make beliefs truly our own, and feel that we can trust them, we must weigh them against other possibilities, consider them from a rational perspective, and measure them against our own experience of life.

Of course, Christians must also measure them against the Bible. As pointed out in the article, “Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach,” Swedenborg’s basic teachings pass Biblical muster in a way that many traditional Christian teachings simply do not (see the article, “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach”).

This article will focus more on Swedenborg’s writings themselves: what they are and what they are not, how they are different from the Bible, and why Swedenborg’s teachings are worth paying attention to.

Here are some key points:

  1. Swedenborg’s writings are not unquestionable, inerrant truth.
  2. Swedenborg’s experience in the spiritual world was unique in known history.
  3. Swedenborg’s inspiration from God was very different than that of the Bible writers.
  4. Even if we don’t realize it, our understanding of the Bible depends on human teachers.
  5. Swedenborg’s teachings are not an addition to the Bible; rather, they help us understand the Bible.
  6. Only you can decide whether Swedenborg’s teachings are worth paying attention to for you.

Let’s take a closer look. It’s a lot of material to cover, and it’s going to take some time. However, it will answer the question of why this website draws so heavily on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, and what particular perspective on his writings, and on the Bible, is behind the articles here.

1. Swedenborg’s writings are not unquestionable, inerrant truth

Let’s dispose of this one right away.

It’s true that some of Swedenborg’s followers view his writings as infallible, inerrant truth direct from God in a way very similar to fundamentalist Christians’ view of the Bible. In doing so, they are making the same mistake about Swedenborg’s writings that fundamentalists make about the Bible. (See the article, “The Bible: Literal Inerrancy vs. Divine Depths of Meaning.”)

The reality is that if any truth were to come to us direct from God, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. Pure truth as it exists in the mind of God is far beyond the capacity of our limited human minds to grasp. If we were to experience it even for a split second, it would be so powerful that it would vaporize us, body and soul. It would be like learning about the sun by flying into the middle of the sun. We wouldn’t survive the encounter.

When spiritual sages and near-death experiencers say that they had a moment in which they saw and understood everything in the universe, I’m sure they believe it. What they experienced was far beyond our ordinary consciousness here on earth. But their experience was still only a pale shadow of the pure, universal truth that is in the mind of God. We humans simply don’t have the capacity to handle the infinity of God’s mind.

The idea that any revelation or spiritual experience could be pure truth straight from God is an illusion. The reality is that all divine truth must be heavily filtered and dimmed to bring it down to a level of intensity that we humans are able to bear. This is true of the Bible. It is also true of Swedenborg’s writings. When the Bible says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15), the Hebrew could also be translated as, “You are a God who veils himself.” That veiling is to protect us from the full intensity of God’s love and wisdom, and dim it down to a level that we can handle.

How God does this is a complex process, involving many nested layers of reality. But the simplest version is that in order for God to speak to us, God must speak through human minds, and use the contents of those minds to veil, clothe, and express the divine truth that God wants to communicate to us. This means that in all forms of revelation from God, there is both a divine element and a human element.

In the case of the Bible, the human element comes from Hebrew culture and history, and later from Hebrew and Greek culture and history. God used the individual and cultural experiences of the Bible’s authors to express divine truth to us in a form and a language that our finite human minds can grasp and understand. (For more on this, see the article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”)

In the case of Swedenborg, the human element comes from Swedenborg’s northern European culture, mind, and experience. Swedenborg was a brilliant man. His IQ is considered to be among the highest in human history. He studied all the science and philosophy known in his day. He also had a practical mind. He devoted much of his life to matters of industry, business, and government. Yet as brilliant and accomplished as he was, he was still just an extraordinary human being, with a limited human mind.

In short, Swedenborg’s writings do not contain unquestionable, inerrant truth. They contain the best understanding of divine truth that one of the most brilliant minds of all time was able to grasp and express in human language, as guided by God.

Some things Swedenborg was wrong about

That’s the abstract, theoretical version. Let’s bring it down to practical examples.

During his teenage and adult years up to his fifties, Swedenborg studied all the known sciences of his day, and wrote groundbreaking books on many of them.

However, he lived two and a half centuries ago. Obviously, science hadn’t developed to the level that it has today. He did not have access to the advanced tools and techniques of science that we do now. Though some of his scientific ideas were ahead of his time, such as his theories about the formation of the solar system, the structure of crystals, and the function of the neurons in the brain, others have since turned out to be mistaken.

Here are some scientific ideas Swedenborg thought were true, which we now know are wrong:

  • There are human beings living on every planet in the universe, including Earth’s moon and all of the rest of the planets in our solar system.
  • Insects, rodents, and even large mammals can be created instantly by spontaneous generation.
  • The child of a black father and a white mother will be black; the child of a white father and a black mother will be white.
  • All plants are male; the earth supplies the female element for the germination of new plants.
  • Red and white can be combined in various ways to produce all other colors.

When it comes to society and religion, Swedenborg was also far ahead of his time in many ways. Yet his writings are not free from some of the prejudices and mistaken ideas of his time.

Today we are used to living in a worldwide society composed of many different religions. In Swedenborg’s day, that wasn’t the case. Almost everyone Swedenborg knew was Christian, along with a scattering of Jews—who were heavily discriminated against. He had very little knowledge of Islam or any of the Eastern religions. As a result, some of his statements about Jews, Muslims, and the religions on the main continents of Asia and Africa are either mistaken or sound prejudicial by today’s standards.

To give just one example, Swedenborg thought that Muslims could accept Jesus as the Son of God while still holding to their religion. However, the Quran, which is the holy book of Islam, states that such a thing is not only impossible, but blasphemous.

On the positive side, unlike almost all other Christians of his day, Swedenborg believed that non-Christians could go to heaven just as easily as Christians. It all depends on whether they live a good life according to the teachings of their own religion, he said. (See “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”) Swedenborg was far from a narrow-minded bigot. But he did pick up some of the errors and prejudices about other religions and cultures that were rampant in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe.

We could go on about other areas where Swedenborg’s writings contain social, scientific, and religious errors that were common in his day. But this should be enough to show that just as in reading any other author, we must read Swedenborg’s writings with our thinking mind switched on and in gear.

Swedenborg himself never asks us to believe anything he says just because he says so. He appeals to the Bible, to rationality, and to experience. He asks us to think it out and consider whether this or that thing he says has the ring of truth about it. If it makes sense to us, then we can accept it as truth. But we should not accept anything Swedenborg says that doesn’t make sense to us, or that we know not to be true.

2. Swedenborg’s experience in the spiritual world was unique in known history

It is true that many, many people throughout history have claimed to have had spiritual experiences.

Far from being a problem for readers of Swedenborg, this is a comforting thought.

If Swedenborg were the only one to have had experiences of the spiritual world, it would be hard to accept his reports as believable. But since not just thousands, but millions of people have had glimpses of the afterlife, or heard voices and felt influences from there, we can have much more confidence that the spiritual realm is real, and not just the fantasy of a few deranged minds. (For more on this, see “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?”)

And yet, if we read many of the accounts people have written about their experiences in the spiritual world, we will quickly discover that they do not all agree with one another.

  • Some see Jesus. Others see angels or other spiritual beings according to their own beliefs.
  • Some say reincarnation is real. Others say reincarnation is an illusion.
  • Some say there is an eternal hell for evil people. Others say everyone eventually ends out in heaven.
  • Some see thousands of people streaming through the pearly gates of heaven. Others see no such thing.

With all these differing reports about the spiritual world, how can we believe any of them? And why should we pay any more attention to Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world than to anyone else’s?

First, we should expect that those who have brief glimpses of the spiritual world will come away with very different accounts.

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Consider what would happen if we blindfolded a dozen Americans, airlifted them to a dozen different places in Australia, blindfolded them again an hour later and airlifted them out, and then asked them to describe Australia. Here’s how some of those accounts might come out:

  • Australia is a bustling city with a unique and beautiful opera house situated on the water.
  • Australia is a picturesque community where people speak English with an odd accent.
  • Australia is a lush semi-tropical environment teeming with strange animal species not seen anywhere else.
  • Australia is a massive rock formation surrounded by a vast, forbidding desert in which few people could survive for long.
Uluru - Ayers Rock

Uluru – Ayers Rock

Now consider that the spiritual world is far vaster and more varied than Australia. In fact, it is more vast and varied than the entire physical universe.

Is it really reasonable to expect that everyone who goes there will report the same thing about what it is like?

Why is Swedenborg’s experience different?

What is different about Swedenborg than any other person in history is the length and clarity of his experiences in the spiritual world.

Thousands of people hear the voices and sense the presence of the spirits of people who have died and moved on to the spiritual world.

Swedenborg visited their homes in the spiritual world, sat down to dinner with them, attended their community events, and talked face to face with thousands of angels, spirits, and demons for hours and even days at a time.

Millions of people have had brief experiences in the spiritual world lasting a few minutes, hours, or days.

Swedenborg spent the last third of his life—almost thirty years—able to be fully conscious in the spiritual world at will. During that time he traveled extensively, and visited many different regions of the other world.

Yes, of course, this is what Swedenborg claims. However, I am not aware of anyone else in history who has even claimed to be fully conscious in the spiritual world day in and day out for nearly thirty years.

Why does this matter?

Consider the example of visiting Australia.

Whose account of Australia would you trust more:

  1. Someone who has had long-distance phone calls with many Australians?
  2. Someone who has actually visited many Australians in their homes and communities?
Bunbury, Australia

Bunbury, Australia

Whose account would you trust more:

  1. Someone who took a one week guided tour of Australia?
  2. Someone who lived and traveled extensively in Australia for several decades?
Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian Devil

Swedenborg can offer unique insight and experience about the spiritual world because he actually lived and traveled there for nearly thirty years. This gave him enough time to get himself acclimated to that world, explore some of its many and varied regions and environments, and put together a fuller and more coherent picture of it than anyone else in history has been able to do.

Yes, Swedenborg had a brilliant and gifted mind. And he was a seasoned explorer, having traveled widely in Europe during his lifetime. These things helped to make him a sharp-eyed observer of the spiritual world.

But beyond that, the sheer length and depth of his first-hand experience in the spiritual world sets him apart from anyone else in history who has ever glimpsed the spiritual world, or heard voices from it.

3. Swedenborg’s inspiration from God was very different than that of the Bible writers

Now let’s turn to the questions about Swedenborg and the Bible.

It’s true that some followers of Swedenborg’s teachings consider his writings to be an extension of the Bible, and even give his writings more authority than they give the Bible.

Swedenborg himself never said any such thing about his books. He was very clear about what the Word of God was—and it did not include his own writings.

Beyond that, the idea that Swedenborg’s writings are an extension of the Bible, and are themselves the Word of God, completely misses the point and the purpose of both the Bible and Swedenborg’s writings.

What Swedenborg did say was that he was called by the Lord God Jesus Christ to receive and publish teachings that would play a key role in the promised Second Coming of the Lord.

This Second Coming would not take place in person. God had already done that in the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels. There was no need to do it again. Instead, it would be “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24). In other words, Jesus Christ would come spiritually into people’s hearts, minds, and lives in a new way.

Swedenborg’s job was to be a witness to that Second Coming, and to deliver news of it, along with a renewed understanding of Christianity and the Bible, to people on earth. Here is his own brief published account of what the Lord sent him to do:

The Lord cannot manifest himself to everyone in person, as has been shown just above, and yet he foretold that he would come and build a new church, which is the New Jerusalem. Therefore it follows that he is going to accomplish this through the agency of a human being who can not only accept these teachings intellectually but also publish them in printed form.

I testify in truth that the Lord manifested himself to me, his servant, and assigned me to this task; after doing so, he opened the sight of my spirit and brought me into the spiritual world; and he has allowed me to see the heavens and the hells and to have conversations with angels and spirits on a continual basis for many years now. I also testify that ever since the first day of this calling, I have accepted nothing regarding the teachings of this church from any angel; what I have received has come from the Lord alone while I was reading the Word. (True Christianity #779)

By “the Lord” Swedenborg means the Lord God Jesus Christ. By “the Word” he means the Bible.

What is the difference between Swedenborg’s writings and the Bible?

This quote from Swedenborg may raise more questions than answers. For now, let’s focus on what it says about Swedenborg and his writings as compared to the Bible.

In particular, Swedenborg says that God chose him for this task because he could accept these teachings intellectually and publish them in print.

The Bible writers were a diverse lot. Some of them, such as Moses and Luke, were well-educated for their time, and had a mind of their own. Others were more like simple-minded country folk who responded to God’s call. None of them truly understood that they were delivering the very Word of God to humankind.

Yes, some of the Biblical prophets realized that God was speaking to them, and they delivered God’s messages to their people. But they thought they were just speaking to their own people. They had no idea that they were speaking to billions of future people in many widely different cultures.

And none of the Bible writers fully understood the messages from God that they were delivering to the world.

For example, none of the writers of the Old Testament understood that their history, their laws of sacrifice and ritual cleansing, their poetry, and their prophecy all spoke on a deeper level of the future life of the Lord Jesus Christ. That understanding came only after Jesus lived and died. (See, for example, the anonymous letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, and its reinterpretation of the ancient Jewish Temple, priesthood, and sacrifices as prophecies of Christ.)

In other words, the authors of the various books of the Bible were generally unaware of the true nature of what they were writing. They were not aware that God was delivering through them a book that would become the ­Word of God in human clothing.

By contrast, Swedenborg was clearly aware of his mission and how it fit into God’s plan for humanity. God showed him the vast sweep of human spiritual history, and the great depths of meaning contained in the Bible.

Unlike the Bible writers, for Swedenborg to do his job he had to be able to accept teachings from the Lord intellectually. In other words, he had to be able to understand what God was saying to him, and why. He also had to have the ability to publish them in printed form.

A simple way of saying this is that God spoke through the Biblical authors, but God spoke to Swedenborg. That’s because the Bible and Swedenborg’s writings have two very different jobs to do.

The Bible compared to Swedenborg

Christians tend to think of the Bible as a book of teachings about God and salvation.

For the most part, that is a misconception.

There is actually very little clear and explicit teaching in the Bible. Most of the Bible consists of mythic and cultural history, prophecies, poetry, laws, and stories. One reason different Christians and Christian churches have such a hard time agreeing on the Bible’s teachings is that the Bible isn’t about teaching. It’s about life.

The Bible is above all the story of our relationship with God. For the most part, it doesn’t teach us about God and salvation. It shows how God and salvation work by telling us the story of how God has reached out to us, spoken to us, and guided us through thousands of years of human history.

Yes, there are some explicit teachings about doctrinal things in the Bible. But if we think that’s what the Bible is all about, we’re missing the great depths of divine love and wisdom that it offers us.

The Bible is not about filling our heads with correct teachings. It is about God reaching out to our hearts, minds, and lives with the story of God’s love for us, and how we can be a part of that love. And if you can believe it, every word of the Bible contains deeper meanings that tell us about the mind and heart of God. (See “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”)

Swedenborg’s writings are very different.

They are explicitly intellectual writings full of teachings about God, the Bible, and the spiritual world. Swedenborg stated that in order to do his job, he must be able to accept teachings intellectually from the Lord.

Swedenborg’s writings do also contain a lot of first-hand experiences and stories about the spiritual world. But even his most famous book, Heaven and Hell, starts out with a heavy dose of teaching about the nature of the spiritual world and the way God governs it. And whenever Swedenborg gets into conversations with angels and spirits, the topics always seem to turn toward theological discussion and debate.

The whole point of Swedenborg’s writings is to teach us about God, the Bible, and how to live for heaven. Swedenborg opened his brilliant, well-trained mind to the Lord’s teachings, and did his best to deliver those teachings to us in written form, just as God commanded him to do.

In short:

  • The Bible is a collection of books about our human experience of God’s presence, which also contain some teachings about God and salvation. It gains its greatest power from the deeper meanings within it, and the spirit of God flowing through it.
  • Swedenborg’s writings are a collection of books teaching us about God, the Bible, and salvation, which also contain some experiences of God and spirit. Its meaning and message are explicitly spelled out right in its plain words and teachings.

The Bible has great depths of spiritual and divine meaning hidden within it, reaching all the way to God. With Swedenborg, what you see is what you get.

It should be clear from this that the Bible is far greater than Swedenborg’s writings.

  • The Bible is the very Word of God in written, human form. There is no end to the divine love and truth contained within it. It surpasses every other book in the world.
  • Swedenborg’s writings are a message about God, spirit, and the Bible delivered by the mind of a brilliant human being who was willing to serve as God’s messenger when God called him to perform that task.

4. Even if we don’t realize it, our understanding of the Bible depends on human teachers

Now let’s deal with the idea that this website is based on the teachings of Swedenborg rather than on the Bible.

This is a common charge made by traditional, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians against those who have accepted the teachings found in Swedenborg’s writings.

The irony is that the beliefs of the people who make these charges are also based on the teachings of human beings, and not simply on the Bible itself. It’s just that they usually don’t realize that.

Years ago I spent an entire day sitting down with a fundamentalist Christian and debating our different views of Christianity, the Bible, and salvation. When I mentioned to him that his belief in salvation by faith alone came from Martin Luther (1483–1546), he denied it. He said that this teaching was from the Bible.

However, when I asked him to show me a passage in the Bible that says we are saved by faith alone, he couldn’t do it. That’s because it simply isn’t there. And when I showed him James 2:24, which specifically denies salvation by faith alone, he argued that in that case the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says. James is a real problem for those who claim that the Bible teaches that faith alone saves.

This young man did not even know where his own beliefs came from.

Salvation by faith alone was one of the teachings that Martin Luther came up with in order to distinguish the Protestant Church that he was founding from the Roman Catholic Church from which he came. For 1,500 years before Luther, faith alone was not part of Christian teaching.

And yet, Protestants who believe in salvation by faith alone think it comes from the Bible.

It doesn’t.

It is a human teaching and interpretation originated by a specific human being: Martin Luther.

The same can be said for almost all of the major teachings that Christians of most churches and denominations believe are the teachings of the Bible:

  • The idea that there is a Trinity of Persons in God was developed by various Christian leaders, probably starting with Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) over a century after the last books of the Bible were written, and gaining strength with the first Council of Nicaea in the year 325 and the Athanasian Creed a century or two later.
  • The idea that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins (called “satisfaction theory”) was developed by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) a thousand years after the Bible was written.
  • Salvation by faith alone was developed by Martin Luther in the 1500s.
  • The idea that we are predestined by God either to heaven or to hell was initially proposed by Augustine (354–430), and developed into a full-fledged doctrine by John Calvin (1509–1564) over a thousand years later.
  • The idea that the Bible is literally true and inerrant was developed by various evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders in the 1800s and 1900s.

These are just a few of the many teachings that millions of Christians believe they get from the Bible, which in fact come from various human theologians and church leaders throughout history. In fact, most of the key teachings that have been accepted by the world’s Christians simply aren’t in the Bible (see “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach”).

Unfortunately, most Christians have not studied the history of their own religion. They have never learned where their beliefs actually come from.

We need human teachers in order to understand the Bible

The reality is that the Bible is a very complex book. What else would we expect from a book that expresses in human language the infinite mind of God?

The reality is that none of us is capable of understanding the Bible by ourselves. To learn what it means, we all rely upon others who have read and studied the Bible. No one reads the Bible in a vacuum. Everyone who reads the Bible also reads or listens to teachings about it from various ministers, teachers, authors, and theologians in order to gain a better understanding of it.

The reality is that no matter who we are and what particular religious doctrines we believe in, those doctrines came from human beings who were more or less inspired and enlightened, and who taught their understanding of the Bible to others—who eventually taught it to us.

It’s a catch-22, isn’t it?

In order to understand the Bible, we must rely upon other human beings who read the Bible in order to understand it.

So how can we know what the Bible itself teaches? Even if we read the Bible for ourselves, we still read it through the lens of the things we have been taught about the Bible.

The reality is that there is no such thing as pure Biblical teaching, without human interpretation. The Bible itself was written through human beings, in particular human cultures. And it has been read and interpreted by many different human beings in many different ways throughout the thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history.

Christians simply cannot turn off their brains and blindly believe whatever is presented to them by their ministers as “Biblical teaching.” And yet, anyone who tried to read the Bible cold would not be able to understand it very well.

We must use the thinking minds God gave us to study the Bible and the various human interpretations of it, and decide for ourselves what is the best way to understand the Bible.

The question is not whether to follow Swedenborg or the Bible. Everyone follows some human teachers. If you say I’m just following Swedenborg, I’ll say you’re just following Tertullian or Anselm or Luther or Calvin.

It’s a useless argument.

The real question is which human beings we think were most enlightened in their interpretation of the Bible?

That is something each one of us must decide for ourselves.

For my part, I am willing to put the depth and power of Swedenborg’s interpretation of the Bible and the teachings of Christianity up against any of those other Christian theologians. I believe Swedenborg came closer to understanding the true nature of God, the Bible, Christianity, and salvation than any other human being in the two thousand year history of Christianity.

You may believe differently.

But please understand that your beliefs, just like mine, are influenced by particular human beings and their interpretation of the Bible. We’re all in the same boat that way.

There is nothing wrong with paying attention to Swedenborg’s teachings as we seek to understand the mind of God. It is part of God’s plan for us to teach one another about God, the Bible, and the life that leads to heaven until that beautiful day dawns when “they will no longer teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:34).

5. Swedenborg’s teachings are not an addition to the Bible; rather, they help us understand the Bible

By now I hope it is clear that the articles on this website are not based on the idea that the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take precedence over the Bible.

The Bible is the Word of God. God is personally present in it, speaking to us, reaching out to us from infinite, tender divine love, and guiding us toward a more loving, more enlightened, and more spiritual way of life with our fellow human beings.

In particular, the Gospels contain the story of God coming to us on here earth as the Lord Jesus Christ, fighting against the evil and falsity that engulfs our world, and offering us a pathway toward the light and warmth of God’s presence and salvation.

Swedenborg’s writings can never do what the Bible does. Nor do they need to. We already have the Bible. It is a complete Word of God in itself, from Genesis to Revelation.

What Swedenborg’s teachings do offer is to help us to understand the Bible more fully so that we can experience the Lord’s presence for ourselves more powerfully as we read its pages.

Swedenborg’s writings do not replace or add to the Bible. They are like an amazingly detailed tour guide to the Bible written by someone who has experienced its depths for himself, with the Lord as his guide.

For Christians, the center of everything is the Lord Jesus Christ. Swedenborg’s writings are like a series of road signs guiding and directing us through a complex and confusing tangle of conflicting beliefs—all of which claim to be the truth—toward our true destination, which is God’s presence in the Bible and in our own hearts, minds, and lives.

6. Only you can decide whether Swedenborg’s teachings are worth paying attention to for you

Obviously, everything here is my own understanding of things. I am not asking you to believe it just because I say so, any more than Swedenborg asks people to believe what he writes just because he says so.

There is ultimately only one true teacher, and that is God. For Christians, it is God’s presence in us as the Lord Jesus Christ. We humans can only offer one another thoughts and ideas that provide raw materials for God to work with in teaching and guiding us from within.

All I ask is that if you are interested and willing, you approach Swedenborg’s teachings with an open mind, explore them for yourself, and consider whether the beliefs and interpretations they offer have the ring of truth about them for you.

Swedenborg himself turned to Bible, and to the Lord as his guide, when he delivered to the world the teachings contained in his writings. As you read the articles on this website, I encourage you to do the same.

Read the Bible for yourself, and see whether the things we say here ring true to its words. Listen to what God is whispering to you in your heart, and see if it is supported by the thoughts we offer here.

And of course, we encourage you to read Swedenborg’s books for yourself. Heaven and Hell is always a good place to start. For other recommendations, see “Who was Swedenborg? What should I Read?

If you find something here and in the teachings of Swedenborg that helps you to understand God and the Bible better, and to turn your life more and more toward loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself as Jesus taught (Mark 12:28–31), then the thoughts and ideas presented here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life will have done their job.

For further reading:

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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13 comments on “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?
  1. Doug Webber says:

    Nice long piece about Swedenborg, Lee. I think it is about time that the New Church recognize he was not infallible, nor are his writings scripture. I would classify his writings as “Divinely influenced” not “Divinely inspired” – in that he was influenced to speak on certain topics in the same manner as the apostle Paul. Thus his writings get classified in the same way as the epistles: explicit doctrinal teachings, but not symbolic in the same manner as scripture.

    While his writings are a gem in helping to understand scripture, nevertheless every religion has a tendency to put a box around itself. Catholics will focus only on Catholic writings, same for Protestants, same for Orthodox. So I find it useful to take some other view or theory, and guided by what we know determine what is true, and what is false. For most other writings its a mix. For example, using the symbolism we can interpret ancient myths, or our own dreams.

    As for points where Swedenborg is wrong, I will skip the first point as we disagree on that. But when he says plants are male, the earth is female, I think he was stating that from a symbolic perspective – ancients used to call the earth their mother. Thus there is this story from ancient Rome where several leaders travelled to Greece and asked who would be the next king of Rome. The Oracle said, “The first one to go home and kiss their mother.” Brutus, on hearing this, feigns a trip and falls, kissing the earth. However its quite possible Swedenborg took this symbolism and then jumped to a false scientific conclusion.

    As for red and white being primary colors, that is the case in the spiritual world, and that comes also from others who have had personal revelations. Red is love, and white is truth.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I agree about Swedenborg being parallel to Paul, in that his writings are doctrinal, and not in the style of the Word of God. Like Paul’s writings, Swedenborg’s do not have symbolic and spiritual meanings within them. They are written to explain things more clearly than can be done in the Word itself, so that a new spiritual era can take shape. However, Swedenborg had the advantage of greater and more continuous access to the spiritual world, and to clearer guidance by the Lord. Several times Paul mentions having no guidance from the Lord on a particular topic, and therefore giving his own opinion. Once Swedenborg started publishing Secrets of Heaven, there is no such uncertainty or hesitation on his part.

      Incidentally, though this article is written for a general audience–as is everything on this website–it does include some refutations of common beliefs about Swedenborg’s writings among people who belong to one or another of the church organizations that follow Swedenborg.

      Swedenborg himself threw his net wide. He used not only the Bible, but ancient and modern philosophers and theologians, not to mention the best science of his day, in building his case for the teachings contained in his writings. It’s too bad that many of his followers seem to think it’s unnecessary to stay current with advances in science, philosophy, and religion.

      About life on other planets, along with many scientists today, I believe it’s out there. The only question is how common it is.

      On this topic, Swedenborg picked up on an avenue of thought that was very common in his day: where there’s a planet, there must be human life. But that is a simplistic view, possible only when our scientific knowledge about cosmology, solar systems, and planets was in a rudimentary phase. We now have far greater and more detailed knowledge of how the large scale universe works. The evidence is overwhelming that most planets simply don’t have the right conditions to support life–and even fewer have the right conditions to host a complex ecosystem that can support advanced, intelligent lifeforms.

      Those religious and mystical types who continue to cling to the old, now disproven idea that every planet can and does support life will find themselves increasingly marginalized as science continues to move forward, and our knowledge about the planetary conditions required for life continues to build.

      I believe that much of the UFO literature is based on things that were experienced with people’s spiritual senses, not their physical senses. The idea that these things are physically out there misses the point. It’s a classic case of spiritual mythology and the workings of the human psyche superimposing themselves on physical reality, resulting in people believing in things that are scientifically impossible, against all scientific evidence.

      To understand what’s really going on, it’s necessary to gain a full understanding of Swedenborg’s teachings about how spiritual and physical reality work in general, and specifically the relationship between the human mind (or spirit) and body. There are a lot of people walking around thinking that experiences that actually took place in the mind and spirit were physical events instead. That has led to a lot of confusion, and to a continued (and unnecessary) breach between science and religion in various quarters.

      Having said all that, the main point of those examples of errors in Swedenborg’s writings was not to press any particular scientific points. It’s possible that Swedenborg was being purely metaphorical about plants being male and the earth being female. It’s also possible that even in the spiritual world, all colors do not literally come from red and white. The main idea, as you say, is the spiritual significance of the two colors.

      The issue the article highlights with that list is that Swedenborg does make scientific errors based on the limited science of his day. He is not infallible. The sooner the more traditional and conservative of his followers recognize this, the better.

      The idea that any revelation is 100% true and infallible is a superficial, low-level way of reading the text. If we know how the earth was physically created, so what? It’s fascinating, but from a spiritual perspective it’s nowhere near as important as how we humans are re-created spiritually through the process of rebirth as taught by Jesus and expanded upon by Swedenborg.

      Reading sacred texts as literally infallible misses 90% of their message. Even Swedenborg’s writings, in which the meaning is largely right in the plain words of the text, are meant to point to spiritual realities and understanding, not teach us about science, history, and culture.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Here is an example of how the science in Swedenborg’s day simply wasn’t advanced enough to provide a good basis for determining whether or not life can exist on a particular planet:

      In Other Planets (traditionally titled Earths in the Universe) #167, Swedenborg is wrapping up his description of a fourth planet outside our solar system. He says that this planet is very small, having a circumference of “five hundred German miles.” This equates to about 2300 of our now-common English miles. By comparison, the earth is 24,901 miles in circumference at the equator, and Earth’s moon is about 6,786 miles in circumference. So this planet described by Swedenborg as inhabited is about 1/3 the size of Earth’s moon.

      The problem is, a planet that small would have insufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere, or even to hold liquid water on its surface. If it didn’t freeze, it would boil away rapidly into space. Such small planets simply do not have the necessary conditions to support an advanced ecosystem. Even the Moon, at three times its diameter, does not have sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere or to keep liquid water contained. And if my vague recollection of high school geometry is correct, the volume, and therefore the mass and gravity, of a planet increases or decreases proportionally to the cube of its diameter. So this planet would have only 1/27 the gravity of the moon. Anyone on its surface who jumped too high might go floating right off into space!

      In short, such a small planet would be an airless wasteland, incapable of supporting life.

      And yet, Swedenborg describes lakes, streams, fields, sheep, flowers, houses, men and women, and a relatively small sun beaming its rays down genially upon them all.

      We now know that the complex, lush ecosystem Swedenborg describes simply cannot exist on a planet that small. For comparison, this planet would be about the size of Uranus’s moons Ariel and Umbriel, and slightly smaller than Saturn’s moon Dione. Like Earth’s moon, all of these small planets are airless, with desolate, cracked or crater-pocked landscapes. Planets that size simply cannot support complex ecosystems on their surface. The most we hope for on any of the other planets in our solar system is simple, microbial life in some sheltered pockets.

      However, in Swedenborg’s day the science of planetary gravitation, atmospheres, and related phenomena had not yet been developed. He did not realize that he was describing an impossibility, since the science required to realize that was not available to him.

      I’m aware of various fancy mental gymnastics and loop-de-loops of logic that various followers of Swedenborg have engaged in in their attempts to hold onto the idea, against all scientific evidence, that there are people on all the planets as Swedenborg says. All this does is make them look foolish to anyone who actually knows anything about how planets work, and what conditions are necessary to support life on a planet. A fifth-grade astronomy enthusiast could easily point out their mistakes.

      This has all been worked out fairly carefully by scientists and astronomers. Though there is some wiggle room around the edges of our knowledge in this area, the vast bulk of planets in existence fall far outside the possible limits of being able to support intelligent life. They’re too big or too small, too close or too far away from their sun. A planet must be within a certain size range, and within a certain distant range from its sun (called colloquially “the Goldilocks zone”), in order to support life.

      It’s time to accept that Swedenborg was mistaken on this point, and move on.

      • Doug Webber says:

        Yes, when I saw some opinions on the infallibility of Swedenborg’s writings, my reaction was “where did THAT come from?” I still don’t get it. So of course he makes errors, no doubt about it – not just in science, but also the Latin translation of the Hebrew he used had errors in it, and just very plain factual historical errors – such as the date of the Nicene Council I believe. The importance is that he reveals the keys to unlocking the symbolism, and recognizing HOW the BIble is Divinely Inspired. That is what is important here. He has basically provided the proof to showing how the Bible is Divinely Inspired. No one else has done that. Ever. That is a question that constantly pops up.

        But as for life on other planets, the “Goldilocks Zone” assumption is incorrect. See “Circumstellar Habitable Zones for Deep Terrestrial Biospheres” for life underground at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2013/pdf/2931.pdf published in 2013. We are surface dwellers and we assume everyone else is. Also see, “Was Venus was once an inhabitable planet?” at http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Venus_Express/Was_Venus_once_a_habitable_planet. We also now know Mars once had oceans and rivers. So of course I am not saying the surfaces are inhabitable, that’s obvious. Swedenborg simply got in touch with some intelligences and reached the false conclusion that the planet was inhabited on the surface. There are “things” floating out there, some very large (around Saturn), and Swedenborg may have simply just got in touch with them.

        As for their connection with spiritual phenomenon, I have seen accounts where one group is spiritually advanced. They can, quite frankly, do what Swedenborg did at will, that is commonplace for them. The account was published in 1952 and in that published account they said a “Great Disaster” involving our nuclear power would happen in 1986. And we all know what happened at Chernobyl. Swedenborg of course wrote a negative opinion on prophecy, and there of course he was a bit wrong on that as well as sometimes it is permitted. As for miracles, they still happen as well, but within the private audience of typically the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Doug,

        Yes, the important things in Swedenborg’s writings are the explanation of the spiritual meaning in Scripture, the renewal of Christian doctrine on a true Biblical and rational foundation, the revelation of the true nature of the Lord God Jesus Christ, and the revealing of the real nature of the spiritual world and the afterlife. All the other, non-spiritual elements in his writings are simply vehicles to deliver the spiritual content. The fact that the matrix has flaws does not detract from the value of the precious gem of spiritual understanding enlightenment offered in Swedenborg’s writings.

        As for where the idea of inerrancy in Swedenborg’s writings came from, I think there are certain character types that require black and white thinking in order to keep themselves on the strait and narrow. It was probably inevitable that there would be fundamentalists among the followers of Swedenborg.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Doug,

        Thanks for the links to those two articles. However, to be clear, those articles are not suggesting that there might have been advanced, intelligent life on Venus, or that advanced, intelligent life can develop deep underground on certain planets outside the regular habitable zone. They are raising the possibility that simple, low-level life might have been possible on Venus in its early stages, and may be possible deep underground on certain planets that are outside of the zone in which advanced ecosystems can develop on the surface.

        About Venus, even if it was briefly habitable, there simply wasn’t enough time for advanced life forms to develop. It took about 4.5 billion years for intelligent life to develop on earth. Any life on Venus would have reached only a rudimentary stage before the planet became uninhabitable.

        I’m aware of conjectures that the people believed by Swedenborg and others to exist on other planets in our solar system and elsewhere may not be on the surface, but may be underground. I find this unconvincing scientifically. I doubt you will find any reputable exobiologist who would accept the idea that intelligent life could develop miles below a planet’s surface. For one thing, there simply isn’t enough space down there. Most of the simple, low-level life forms they’re talking about would develop in cracks, crevices, and small openings deep underground.

        In the case of Swedenborg’s descriptions, with the possible exception of the Moon (whose lack of atmosphere Swedenborg was aware of), the underground hypothesis simply doesn’t work. Wherever he describes the physical features of a planet’s living space, it is an earth-like, surface environment, not an underground one. These people see the sun and stars above their heads, and they inhabit houses in the middle of forests and fields, complete with domesticated animals, oceans and lakes teeming with fish, and so on. It’s very clear that Swedenborg saw these places as earthlike environments. If they had been underground habitats, that fact would have been fascinating to him, and there’s no way he would have left it out of his descriptions.

        All of what I’ve read that attempts to support the idea that the other planets in our solar system have inhabitants strikes me as grasping at straws in an attempt to stretch scientific knowledge as far as possible in order to allow for something that is scientifically impossible. It’s really no different from fundamentalist Christian Creationists who grasp at every quasi-scientific “fact” they can find to support their young earth theory, when the science supporting an old earth is simply too overwhelming to be mistaken.

        I’m aware that science can be mistaken too. But there comes a time when the evidence is so overwhelming that it’s time to admit that previous views were mistaken. I believe we’re now far past that point when it comes to all the planets in our solar system being inhabited, and every planet everywhere in the universe being inhabited. These ideas simply cannot be supported anymore by any scientific and rational person. They are holdovers from a previous age, before we developed a fairly sound and detailed understanding of how planets and solar systems work.

      • Lee says:

        About these people who could do what Swedenborg did, I’d have to see names and titles. Many people have claimed to be able to do what Swedenborg did, and even to be more advanced than Swedenborg. But when they’re looked into they usually turn out to be little more than spirit mediums.

        As for prophecies of material-world events, those strike me as parlor tricks, not real enlightenment. It’s sort of like popular astrology: If you make vague predictions, something’s bound to come up that will look like its fulfillment. The human mind has an amazing ability to come up with fanciful and far-fetched explanations of how a particular prophecy really does apply to certain events that in fact aren’t all that much like the actual words of the prophecy. Or the actual words of the prophecy are so vague that they could apply to any number of events.

        It also helps to make a high volume of prophecies and predictions. Then at least a few of them are bound to come true. I came across an article saying that the U.S. military fired 250,000 rounds of ammunition in Iraq and Afghanistan for every enemy soldier killed. Fire enough “bullets” of prophecy, and some of them are bound to hit their target. Those are the ones that “count.” People dig them up and get all excited about them, while ignoring the far greater number of prophecies that missed.

        Real enlightenment is about spiritual realities, not material events. Though some people get excited about a few stories of Swedenborg revealing secret material-world information to well-known people, he considered those incidents to be trivial. For the most part, he politely declined requests for information that would “prove” the reality of the spiritual world to materialistic minds. In my opinion, “proofs” of clairvoyance, prophecy, and so on by correctly predicting future material-world events are worse than useless. They distract the mind from things that are truly significant.

        The main event, Swedenborg said, is the new spiritual light now dawning on this world.

  2. Thanks for an interesting piece on your views on Swedenborg and the bible!

  3. Nevada Sample says:

    Hi Lee,

    RE: Swedenborg having been wrong about:

    “There are human beings living on every planet in the universe”

    I think maybe it is useful to distinguish between Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences …..

    6695: I have not spoken with the inhabitants themselves of these planets,
    but with the spirits and angels who had been inhabitants of them;

    [My comment: 'had been inhabitants' ... maybe billions of years ago?
    When conditions supporting life were much different?]

    …… and his earthly reasoning and personal opinions ……..

    6697: How can anyone who knows these facts and thinks from reason, say that these are empty bodies!

    [Another comment: What really surprised me, having recently read a lot about other people's current opinions about UFOs and aliens, was this ....]

    6701: the inhabitants of one planet are of a totally different genius from those of another;
    nor are they associated together in the heavens

    Thanks, Nevada Sample

    • Lee says:

      Hi Nevada Sample,

      Thanks for your comment.

      (For those not familiar with Swedenborg’s writings, the numbers in Nevada Sample’s comments are references to various numbered sections in Secrets of Heaven, which is the largest of the theological works that Swedenborg wrote and published.)

      It’s true that Swedenborg says he spoke with the spirits of people who came from those planets rather than with the people currently living on those planets. However, for some of them he was also allowed to see what things were like on the planets themselves.

      But beyond that, current scientific knowledge makes it overwhelmingly unlikely not only that there is any intelligent life currently existing on any of the other planets in our solar system, but also that there ever was any intelligent life on any of them. Though there may have been relatively brief periods on some of them–such as Venus and Mars–in which simple forms of life could have developed, those conditions did not last anywhere near long enough for a complex ecosystem capable of supporting higher lifeforms to develop.

      About “empty bodies,” the science of cosmology and astrophysics simply wasn’t developed enough in Swedenborg’s day to provide any understanding of how uninhabited planets can and do contribute to the universe’s ability to host inhabited planets. To Swedenborg, an uninhabited planet looked useless. But now, with a more advanced understanding of the long and complex processes needed to produce solar systems with planets capable of supporting advanced lifeforms, we can see those “empty planets” in a whole new light.

      Just a few examples:

      • It probably took two or three generations of stars forming, going through their life cycles, and going nova before the universe had enough heavy elements in it to form the rocky, metal-cored planets capable of supporting life that now orbit later generations of stars. Heavy elements are formed only in the later part of a star’s life cycle, when the star’s vast supply of hydrogen has already fused into helium, and the star starts fusing progressively heavier and heavier elements before finally getting to iron, and then coming to an explosive end, creating still heavier elements in the process, and scattering some of this material out into interstellar space.
      • Gas giant planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune can be thought of as giant chemical laboratories producing massive quantities of organic compounds that future planets can use as building blocks for life. These compounds seed the local area of space when their sun burns out and drives much of this material out into space in the process. The compounds are then available when that material later re-coalesces to form a future solar system.
      • Comets and asteroids crashing into the earth during its early stages probably delivered most of the water required to form its oceans and thus create the conditions necessary for life to develop.

      Nothing in the universe is wasted. But intelligent life is an incredibly complex achievement. Producing it takes tens of billions of years and vast stretches of space in which many highly complex and specific processes take place that are necessary for the development of life on a fraction of the total number of planets in the universe.

      About heaven and civilizations of different “geniuses” (an old word for character types), one thought that’s struck me lately is that our common conception of a cozy little heaven consisting of the equivalent of one solar system is way off.

      If we consider how vast the physical universe is, and that it is produced through the spiritual universe, doesn’t it stand to reason that the spiritual world (perhaps it should be called the spiritual universe) is actually much vaster than the material universe?

      If so, then the people gathered there from any one planet are probably aware of only a tiny fraction of the total extent of the spiritual universe in which they live. There will be trillions of other civilizations of which they know nothing.

      A few groups and cultures in the spiritual world do enjoy traveling to other regions and exploring “strange new worlds.” But most are content to stay in their own homes and communities. They have no particular desire to learn about cultures and civilizations very different from their own. Hence the general lack of communication or association among the people there who come from different planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

      However, the spiritual universe is still all bound together by God’s universal presence and God’s arrangement of the many different worlds and civilizations of heaven into one harmonious whole.

  4. Agbaje, Gideon O. says:

    Thanks Lee for the expose. It’s a reality that spiritual and scientific knowledge do not only become more accessible but clearer with time. Comparing the information obtained in the early 19th century to that of 21st may not be fair. However, the document Arcana Celestia is talking of things that cannot be seen by physical eyes. This cannot be disputed, just like the experience of John in the Island of Patmos.
    I am happy that Swedenborg could not be described as perfect or infallible. Only God is perfect. Swedenborg to the best of my knowledge was not out to create a sect or doctrinal believes outside Jesus Christ. Let us all continue to look unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Gideon,

      Good to hear from you again. I enjoy hearing your thoughts. We humans are continually growing in knowledge. If we didn’t have better scientific and spiritual understanding today than we did 250 years ago, that would be a sad state of affairs!

      I agree that Swedenborg was not out to create a sect, and that the doctrines he taught were intended to focus our understanding and attention on the center of all: the Lord God Jesus Christ.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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Earlier Posts
Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly, Fryeburg, Maine, August 2012

Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly

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