A couple years ago a Swedenborg reader named Sue from San Francisco asked me a question. She had been thinking about an incident in which a 17-year-old gang member from Oakland had been shot and killed in a San Francisco ghetto.
How is life fair when some kids grow up in comfortable, loving households while others grow up with poverty, violence, and abuse? Don’t kids who were loved and cared for have a better chance at heaven than those who experienced violence and neglect instead of love?
My first response was that no person who dies in their childhood or teen years goes to hell. They are all raised by loving and wise angel parents, and grow up to become angels in heaven themselves.
Why is that?
And what about those who make it to adulthood? Given that there is not a level playing field here on earth, is life really fair?
The key to understanding God’s eternal justice is conscience. If we live according to our own conscience we will go to heaven, not to hell. But that needs some explaining.
Sue from San Francisco asked:
San Francisco has its ghettos and project housing and I’ve often thought their location was especially cruel. The residents of our projects have million dollar views of nearly the entire Bay Area to mess with their minds. Many feel so segregated that they have no hope of joining the beautiful regions of SF. It’s bad enough to live in abject poverty. It’s torture to do so adjacent to the wealthiest, most beautiful region on earth. (It’s sort of complicated but my work has me traveling down there a lot these days.)
The project housing in Hunter’s Point is dilapidated such that many of the structures have been red-flagged as uninhabitable. Even so, people squat in the abandoned barracks. The city has little control over the tenants. Even in active, in-use units most windows are boarded over. The only paint on these structures comes in the form of graffiti, and very vile graffiti at that. The pathetic plant life—patches of unruly weeds and a few diseased trees—is actually to be admired considering the toxic chemicals polluting the soil. (This area was an old navy ship yard.)
Crime has dissipated, but there was a time when gunfire was so rampant that the police installed sensors everywhere to help them determine the origin of gunfire. This tool allowed them to pinpoint which housing units were involved.
Two years ago, a 17-year-old kid came over to SF from Oakland on a cold January night in order to kill one of the members of the Hunter’s Point housing project. Instead, this young man was himself shot at 2 a.m. and keeled over into the weeds where he’d staked his position. It was an insidiously cold night. Not so cold as to pull one into a merciful sleepy death, but cold enough to invade the bones and make a person mightily uncomfortable.
The sensors notified the cops that shots had been fired in that area. The cops, however, upon going to the scene in the dark, did not see the injured Oakland kid. Believing that the gunfire was random without causing injury, the cops drove off. The Oakland kid’s body was found in the morning. The coroner ruled that the shots were not immediately fatal but did impair him. He had lain awake or semi-conscious for approximately 3 hours before finally dying at around 5 a.m.
I think about that Oakland kid. I wonder what he thought about when he was lying in the weeds. I wonder what he wished for. I wonder what he regretted. I wonder if he thought about God. What a miserable way to die at such a young age after such a harsh existence on earth!
We are born into the natural world with a mission, so to speak, to regenerate [be spiritually reborn] into better people. If we exercise our free will to regenerate, the regeneration process takes time.
It seems to me that life is unfair in this regard, and it is sort of where I take issue with God. A person born into a loving, healthy family will have greater odds of regenerating, growing into a loving healthy adult, and thus living a life that leads them to heaven.
Some people, however, have the bad luck to be born into bleak circumstances. They never knew love. They were never given love. They were neglected. How can a person love if as a child or young adult they never experienced love? Some people are in situations where they must struggle just to survive: kill or be killed. Some people have only experienced subjugation, so not knowing any different, they in turn subjugate others.
Is not our place in the spirit world dependent upon how we lived our life in love and charity to others here in the natural world? I believe a person has to experience love and charity in order to be able to give it. To offer up a specific example, what about that gangbanger who got shot to death in the projects at age 17? What can that person expect in the afterlife if he never knew love here? And had no incentive or opportunity to regenerate?
I recognize the need for freedom and why God allows it, but it strikes me as an exceedingly unfair system where children are concerned. Some people get a head start on the path to a good afterlife. Others get no chance at all.
First, let’s be clear on one thing. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We send ourselves to heaven or to hell by what we choose as our motives and beliefs, and by the things we do based on those motives and beliefs. (For more on this, see the article, “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”)
How does God’s judgment work?
Despite appearances, the surprising truth is that God’s judgment is not about condemning us, or even about exonerating us. It’s about shining the clear light of divine truth on our hearts, minds, and lives so that we and everyone else can see clearly whether we have made ourselves innocent or guilty by the way we have lived our life. If we have made ourselves guilty by living a selfish, greedy life regardless of how it hurts anyone else, we will have judged ourselves to hell, and that is where we will go of our own free will.
There is plenty of support for this in the Bible, but this is not the place to get into it. For now I’ll just give you one great example of how the Bible puts the ball solidly in our court as to whether we live or die—which spiritually means whether we go to heaven or to hell. Moses is speaking to the people on behalf of God:
“Look here! Today I have set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. . . . Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19. Read the whole passage: Deuteronomy 30:11-22.)
Now about your question, here are a few basic principles:
- The default option is heaven.
- People can go to hell only if they consciously choose to do so.
- That choice must be made as a self-responsible adult.
- All children who die are raised by angels and become angels themselves.
Children and teens who die go to heaven
Your gangbanger who gets shot at 17 will end out in heaven, not in hell, no matter what he’s done. He is not yet an adult, and he is not held responsible for the influences that have made him into who he is without his choice or consent.
It’s a fuzzy line exactly when someone actually becomes an adult and is truly responsible for his or her own choices. Swedenborg seems to like the Old Testament formula of adulthood starting at age 20 (see, for example, Numbers 1:1-3; 14:26-35; Leviticus 27:1-8). I tend to think it is the time when we become independent from our parents and self-supporting. In the case of teens who end out taking care of themselves sooner than they ought to because they’re not brought up in a good family or atmosphere, I tend to think it still doesn’t happen until they hit 20 or so.
I believe teens are still acting largely in reaction to their circumstances, and don’t start making lasting, inner choices for themselves until they’re out of their teenage years.
Thinking about all the babies and children dying of disease and starvation all around the world, it is a terrible situation, and one that should be corrected. It really is best if we humans can grow up in this world, reach adulthood, and make a conscious choice about where we will live to eternity. Besides, no child should have to suffer like that.
However, all of those children who die in terrible circumstances will receive the kind of full and loving care that they could not be provided with here. They will have angel parents who care for them and raise them up to be angels themselves.
If we humans cannot take care of our children, and we allow them to die, God and the angels will take them from our hands and raise them properly in the spiritual world.
Ghetto kids who die will also be cared for by angels who love them—though some of the older and more mixed up kids may need a bit of “tough love” before they straighten out and fly right. The job of angel parents and guardians is not necessarily an easy one. But it does carry the satisfaction of knowing that whatever circumstances a child or teen may have come from, he or she will in time find an eternal home in heaven.
I believe that teens go to heaven no matter what their experience has been, and no matter what they have done under the influence of that experience.
Teens are still children, even if they are “half adults.” They are precious beings, and I do not believe that God will allow any of them to go to hell if they die before reaching full adulthood and becoming fully responsible for their own choices and actions.
Is life fair?
The issue of eternal fairness is not really a thorny theological issue for me. The principles that Swedenborg lays down are so clear, so fair, and so loving that I have full faith that God is eternally loving and fair to all human beings.
I have more trouble with just how low God allows things to sink here on earth, and just how black and brutal the experience of many innocent people, including children and teens, is here on earth, than I do with the issue of eternal fairness.
Seeing how so many children grow up in starvation and malnutrition, or enduring physical and sexual abuse, or simply growing up in a toxic atmosphere of shaming and blaming and general lack of love, breaks my heart.
We humans, not God, are the ones who create all these evils. And we humans must clean up the mess we have created—God will not enter as a deus ex machina and do it for us.
But it is still terrible for so many millions of innocent children and teens, not to mention adults. In many ways, the children and teens who die are the lucky ones. They are going to a better place, where they will be loved and cared for and brought up in an atmosphere of light and warmth.
Here is a more challenging principle that Swedenborg offers:
If God sees that a particular person has no hope of finding his or her way to heaven, or that there is no hope that a particular person will reform, but instead will only get worse, and go to a deeper hell, God will allow (not cause) that person’s life here on earth to end early rather than allow them to continue living when the only possible outcome is that the person will end in hell, or in a worse hell than she or he is already in.
This, too, is part of God’s mercy in limiting the amount of damnation and pain we humans can inflict upon ourselves.
Unfortunately, many of us who perfectly well could choose to go to heaven choose not to do so. And God will not take away that choice, even if God sees that we will misuse it and choose hell. Rather, God will not allow us to be in a situation where the evil forces upon us are so overwhelming that our freedom is taken away, and hell is our only choice.
A more useful and practical corollary to this principle is:
If we’re still alive, we can still go to heaven
Every single person still living on this earth has a possibility of going to heaven, and that possibility exists right up to the moment of death. (Although genuine deathbed repentance is extremely rare, it is still a possibility.)
I believe this should inform our treatment of every single person on this earth, hardened criminals included. Every person still alive on this earth is a person whom God sees as a possible angel. And I believe our approach to every person, including those caught in the tangles of our penal system, should take this into account.
Certainly we need to punish criminals’ misdeeds and protect the general population from them. We cannot be lenient with people who have demonstrated their willingness to harm others.
At the same time, I believe they should be treated with all the respect and humaneness that they deny to others, to the limit of what can be done while still controlling their destructive behavior. And I believe they should always be treated as people who could reform themselves if they chose to do so.
Moving away from hardened criminals, I believe that children, teens, and adults should similarly be penalized for misdeeds, but should always be treated as people who can make a free choice to live in a better way. This should be done with respect, not with a shaming “You know better than that!”
My approach is generally to convey this message: “It’s your choice. If you choose to engage in that kind of behavior, you’re going to reap the consequences. But you are perfectly capable of making different choices, and things will go better if you do. Your fate is in your own hands.”
Now to get to the main part of your question.
Here are two more basic principles:
- We go to heaven or hell based only on our freely made choices.
- We are not held responsible, nor are we given credit, for any of the circumstances of our environment or upbringing. Bad influences will not cause us to go to hell, nor will good influences gain us access to heaven.
Since the second statement is perhaps the most surprising, let’s look at it first.
Good breeding will not get us into heaven
Swedenborg identifies the good character that comes from growing up with a good upbringing in a good environment as “natural good.” And he says that nobody gets into heaven because of natural good.
The good manners and good habits that come from a good upbringing are not our choice. They are just something that was molded into us by our upbringing. So they are not spiritual virtues, but natural ones.
In fact, we can use these natural virtues as a way to press forward our own agenda more effectively. People with good breeding, politeness, and a natural ability to treat people kindly and graciously tend to get along better and go farther in this world. They can use that to amass a fortune or gain power for themselves just as much as they can use it to accomplish good for the neighbor.
So our naturally acquired good character does not gain us access to heaven. Only what we consciously decide to do with it does. If we use a naturally good character only to gain money and power for ourselves, in the end we will find ourselves firmly ensconced in hell, stripped of the veneer of good breeding that we had acquired and cultivated in the world.
Bad influences will not send us to hell
By the same token, no evil and destructive influence from our childhood or our environment condemns us to hell. We are not responsible for the circumstances of our birth and upbringing (reincarnationist theory to the contrary notwithstanding). And God does not hold us responsible for things that we are not responsible for. Simple enough?
What we are responsible for in either case is the choices we make within the circumstances of our upbringing and our life. And those choices will be judged, not by some absolute standard, but in relation to the values—sound or not so sound—that we ourselves have adopted as “good and true” based on what we were brought up with and what we were taught.
Let’s take a look at your gangbanger, but let’s say he survived to 25 instead of getting shot at 17.
Living by our conscience is the key
What are his values? What does he consider good? Let’s set aside obvious values of money, power, sex, and so on that people in all walks of life go for. Even in gangs there are codes of conduct. Generally it is the same sort of code that obtains in organized crime families.
A key part of that code is loyalty to your “family,” whoever that may be. People outside the family are expendable. They don’t count. If you kill them, that’s not bad; it’s just what you do if necessary. But you are honor-bound to back up, protect, and not cheat on the members of your own gang.
Now, that’s a moral code. It may not be a terribly good one, and it may be very narrowly applied, but it does distinguish between good behavior and bad behavior toward at least some fellow human beings.
If that gangbanger dies at 25, he is not going to be judged by the standards that someone brought up in a comfortable middle-class environment is judged by. Rather, he is going to be judged by whether he lived honorably according to the only code of ethics that he knew—which was the gang code.
Did he back up his fellow gang members? Was he willing to take a bullet for any of them? Did he split the loot with them, and not cheat them when he had the opportunity to do so?
In short, did he put someone else’s—anyone else’s—wellbeing before his own? Or did he do everything purely out of his own desire for money, power, and sex, not caring who he hurt in the process, even if it meant turning on his own gang?
Assuming he was honorable according to his own code, he will end out in heaven, not in hell.
A conscience for heaven
However, he obviously can’t live by a gang code in heaven. He’s going to have quite a lengthy stay in the third stage after death, and those angel instructors are going to have their work cut out for them! Our third stage after death, as described by Swedenborg in Heaven and Hell, is a stage in which angels teach us what we need to know in order to live in heaven. For more on this, see the article, “What Happens To Us When We Die?”
But the basic reason he will be in heaven and not in hell is that he was willing to subject himself to a law that he saw as greater than himself, rather than placing himself above everyone and everything else. And if he is willing to place some sort of law above himself, and live according to it because that is the right thing to do, he will eventually come to accept a better law than the one he was given in the particular environment he grew up in.
Essentially, he will go to heaven because he lived according to his conscience (see Romans 2:12-16). Anyone who does this is accepted into heaven after having his or her conscience re-formed according to the genuine spiritual truth of heaven.
Those who are willing to follow the law of their conscience will also be willing to follow a higher law when they see that there is a better law than the one they grew up with—and that this better law comes from God.
For a related article, see “Lee Boyd Malvo: Human Justice vs. Divine Justice.”