What Happens To Us When We Die?

The Magical Mystery Tour

In our modern materialistic age, people sometimes claim that there is no real information about the spiritual world.

That’s not true! There is a huge amount of information available about the spiritual world.

One of the clearest and most extensive sources of information on the afterlife was first published over 250 years ago: Heaven and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg. It offers a guided tour of heaven, hell, and our journey to one or the other after death.

Here’s a short version of that journey:

  • Once we lose consciousness in this world, everything is warm and peaceful, because we are attended at death by the wisest and most loving angels.
  • We then go on to a life much like we had here on earth—so much so that we may not even realize we have died.
  • Sooner or later, our true inner self comes out, and is visible for all to see. We can no longer pretend to be someone we aren’t. It is now clear whether we’re headed for heaven or for hell.
  • If we’re headed toward heaven, angels teach us what heaven is like before we actually travel to our own eternal home there.

Who says no one has come back to tell us?

Have you ever heard this one? “We don’t know anything about the afterlife because no one has ever come back to tell us about it.”

Either the people who say this haven’t been paying attention, or they simply don’t want to believe in an afterlife.

Some people used to think that Emanuel Swedenborg was the big exception to that old saying. Then we all found out back in 1975, when Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life, that thousands of people have had the experience of dying and coming back to tell about it. Many of them give vivid descriptions of what it was like to die and enter the spiritual world. And though every story is different, there are common threads running through them all. By now, so many books have been published with descriptions of near-death experiences that there’s really no excuse to keep on repeating that old canard about “no one has ever come back to tell us about it.”

Of course, skeptics say that all those people were just hallucinating because their brains were low on oxygen . . . and so on, and so forth. For those who don’t want to believe, there will always be ways not to believe. Jesus himself said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from death” (Luke 16:31).

Yes, it’s possible for people to harden their minds against the afterlife so much that they’ll reject and explain away all the evidence pointing to its existence. That is part of our human freedom in spiritual matters, which God always protects for us.

But if you are open to the possibility of an afterlife, there is plenty of information out there. In fact, over 250 years ago the scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) published a detailed tour guide of the spiritual world based on extensive personal experience. What you’ll find in this article is just a small taste of the rich smorgasbord of knowledge about heaven, hell, and the world of spirits that you’ll find in his most popular book: Heaven and Hell.

For now, we’ll just look at what it is like to die, and what steps we then take on our journey toward heaven . . . or toward that other place.

The World of Spirits:
Grand Central Station of the Spiritual World

Some people believe in purgatory, where we pay for our sins before going on to heaven. There is no such place, says Swedenborg.

Instead, there is a halfway station that Swedenborg calls “the world of spirits.” It is called this because it is so vast as to be a world all its own, and it is made up entirely of the spirits of people who have recently died. This is where we get sorted out and routed to our eternal home in a process that may take minutes, days, weeks, months, or years—but at most a few decades.

The world of spirits looks and feels almost exactly like earth. In fact, it looks so much like earth that it is very common for people who have died to think they have not died at all, but are still living in the material world. There are even cities and towns there that match the cities and towns of this earth.

However, even though there is the appearance of permanent human dwellings in the world of spirits, it is by nature a temporary place for everyone living there. It is where we go right after our death because most of us are not quite ready for heaven or hell when we first die. We must go through a period of transition to prepare ourselves for our permanent home.

That period of transition comes in three stages—though the third is only for those who are headed for heaven. Let’s take a closer look at the process of dying and the three stages after death as described by Swedenborg.

What is it Like to Die?

Like most who describe their experiences of dying, Swedenborg says that once we lose consciousness in this world, death is a very peaceful experience. That’s because we are attended on the other side by the most loving and wise angels, who keep us enveloped in a peacefulness and a loving warmth that goes beyond anything we have ever experienced before.

At first we simply sense the angels’ thoughts and feel their love in our minds. But soon our spiritual eyes are opened, and we say goodbye to those warm, heavenly angels and begin our journey into the spiritual world. We are guided by lower angels—first more intellectual ones who answer our questions, then more pragmatic ones who guide us to our (temporary) homes and activities in the world of spirits.

Our First Stage After Death:
The Stage of Outward Life

At that point, we settle into a life very much like the one we had lived on earth. Why? Because that’s where our mind and heart are—and in the spiritual world, our thoughts and feelings determine our surroundings.

In fact, we may or may not even realize that we have died. Perhaps the experience of dying now seems to us like a particularly vivid dream. But everything around us looks pretty much the same, so we put it out of our mind and go about our daily business. We get up and go to work, go home, eat, relax in front of the TV or at the computer, and head to bed when we’re tired.

Maybe it will seem strange to us that we are no longer with the people we had been with here on earth. But it is amazing how the human mind can convince itself of things. And if we have not believed in an afterlife, we will probably convince ourselves that we are still living on earth.

If we have believed in an afterlife, though, we will accept the news when those first angels who guided us through the process of dying tell us that we have died and are now spirits. We then naturally want to see what the spiritual world is like. And of course, we want to see our family members and friends who have died before us.

We do have an opportunity to see and talk with everyone we had known who has gone on to the spiritual world. Just thinking about them brings them close to us—though at first we will probably experience this as their visiting us or our going to visit them in their homes. If we have been married and our spouse had died, we get back together and resume our life together. And of course, we can see children, parents, grandparents, and other friends and relatives who have died.

This existence similar to our life in the world continues for a longer or shorter time, depending on how strongly we cling to our former material existence.

Sooner or later, though, things begin to change.

Our Second Stage After Death:
The Stage of Inward Life

As long as we are living here on earth, we can think and feel one way, but say and do something else. We can hate someone’s guts, but treat them politely. Or we can love them and tell them that we don’t.

During our second stage after death we lose this ability to pretend to be one kind of person when we are different inside. Step by step, any outer masks that we had worn on earth, any false external personas, melt away from us, and our true self is exposed.

By the time we have gone through this second stage after death, we will always say exactly what we think, and we will always express our real feelings about the people and things around us. We may still be able to stop ourselves from saying or doing anything at all. But we can no longer lie, and we can no longer pretend we love what we hate and vice versa.

This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops” (Luke 12:2–3).

No one in heaven or in hell is allowed to speak and do what they do not think and feel. Any external politeness we have adopted without the internal kindness and consideration that it corresponds to will be stripped away. On the other hand, any external gruffness that conceals a heart of gold will also be stripped away.

By the time we are finished with this stage, each one of us will be a case of “what you see is what you get.” Even our physical appearance will change so that our very features express our inner character. That is why angels appear so beautiful, while devils appear so hideous.

Our Third Stage After Death:
The Stage of Learning

For people who are heading to hell, there is no third stage. They are so full of themselves that they do not believe anyone can teach them anything. So they reject any attempts of angels and good spirits to teach them. Once their inner selves have been fully revealed and they are just the same outwardly as they are inwardly, they rush down to their final homes in hell because that is where they most want to be. Hellish spirits prefer the company of other hellish spirits.

For those heading to heaven, though, there is a third stage. This is where we learn the ways of heaven before we actually go there.

It’s like going to live in a foreign land. Before we go there, it is a good idea to learn the local language and customs so that we’ll be able to get along in our new home.

The fact of the matter is that the churches here on earth have done a poor job of training people about heaven and what it is like. That’s because they have not known much about it—and what they have “known” is mostly mistaken. On the other side of the coin, most people have been so busy just getting along in this world that they haven’t taken advantage of the information that is available about heaven and how to live there. As a result, few people arriving from earth have any real knowledge about the ways of heaven.

So if our heart is good, after we have become outwardly exactly what we are like inwardly, we are taught by angels all the basics that we need to know about what makes heaven, and what we need to do to live there. There is no need to learn any new language because everyone in the spiritual world speaks the same spiritual language. But there is a need to learn such things as the fact that heavenly joy is not sitting on a throne being fanned by scantily clad beauties and having handsome waiters serving us peeled grapes . . . but that real heavenly joy is the joy of serving others, and the satisfaction of doing God’s will.

Of course, we will continue learning more and more about God and heaven to all eternity. But by the time we have gone through this third stage after death, we have the fundamental understanding we need to move into our homes in heaven.

Heading Toward Heaven

Once we are prepared in this way, we see a path open up before us. We eagerly follow it for a longer or shorter distance until we arrive at our own community and our own home in heaven. There, we are greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by those already living there. We instantly feel that we have known them all our lives, and that this is our true home.

And of course, by this time we will have found our true spiritual partner, if we hadn’t already on earth. We will continue living with him or her in a full and rich marriage relationship that becomes closer and deeper to all eternity.

Do we stop learning and growing? Not at all! Are there no more difficult tasks to accomplish? Certainly not! We will still use all of our human capabilities to the fullest, and we will always be challenged to do greater things. But we will do them willingly and with great energy, because these will be the things we love to do, and we will be doing them with the people we love most.

This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden

For more on the afterlife, see:


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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22 comments on “What Happens To Us When We Die?
  1. Richard Neer says:

    Hello Lee,

    From Swedenborg:

    This new thing should be added to these observations: that these two are not even separated by the death of one, since the spirit of the deceased husband or wife continues to live with the husband or wife who is not yet deceased. And this continues until the other one’s death, when they meet again and reunite themselves and love each other more tenderly than before because they are in the spiritual world. Love in Marriage, no. 321

    I see this as a contradiction to one passing into the ‘World of Spirits’ immediately upon death. You’ve said, as has Swedenborg, that upon death the soul enters the World of Spirits and can find there (or call upon) previously deceased friends and loved ones to visit with simply by thinking of them. And, that the soul remains there for a period of time, possibly many years, before getting ‘sorted’ and guided onto its final destination. And there, in that place, is where the surviving spouse will reunite with the first, upon their own death.

    This puzzles me. As we continue here on Earth, the soul of our departed spouse is supposedly experiencing this arena, your “Grand Central Station”, so to speak. If re-acquainting with one’s deceased spouse really can’t occur until after the survivor’s death, then the first paragraph above seems a contradiction in stating the first’s spirit stays with the survivor until their death. If that were the case, when does all the re-acquainting happen for the first soul with all others before it?

    Also, wouldn’t that also be a bit awkward for the remaining spouse should he or she find love again during their remaining life?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Richard,

      Good questions.

      It helps to understand that even while we are living here on earth, our spirit is associated with one or another community in the spiritual world, even though we are not usually visible there to its regular inhabitants.

      So when Swedenborg says that the spirit of the deceased partner remains with the spirit of the one still living on earth, this does not mean that the deceased partner remains somehow earthbound until the other partner dies. Rather, it means that the spirits of the two are still connected to one another in the spiritual world, even if there is not an actual visible and tangible presence. It’s more like a feeling of still being together the other person in spirit even though they are physically absent.

      Then, when the surviving partner dies, and he or she becomes fully conscious and present in the spiritual world, the two meet again, and resume their in-person relationship, as Swedenborg states.

      I say that we are not usually visible in the spiritual world while still living on earth. However, occasionally, when people living on earth are deep in thought on spiritual subjects, they will appear to other spirits in the spiritual community that they are associated with. They will seem to be walking along deep in thought, but will vanish if anyone tries to talk to them. This suggests to me that those who have left behind a husband or wife may occasionally catch fleeting glimpses of their spouse in the spiritual world, but will not be able to touch or interact with them until the other spouse, too, has died.

      Is all of this difficult for the one who has died, also? I think for most people it probably is. But life isn’t always easy, even after we’ve died.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Richard,

      Love in Marriage #321 is in the context of Swedenborg’s statement at the beginning of the section that “Those who have lived together in real married love do not want to marry again, unless for reasons not connected with married love.” So the general idea is that people who have found and formed a relationship of genuine, spiritually based marriage love will not want to remarry–so that situation wouldn’t arise.

      Of course, even Swedenborg recognizes that it’s more complicated than that. As he says, some people do remarry for pragmatic reasons. And others simply don’t do well being single–which seems especially so for men.

      If a person who feels a genuine spiritual connection with a deceased spouse does remarry for social and pragmatic reasons, it’s likely that the second marriage will dissolve after death.

      If he or she does form a marriage in which there is real love, though, the situation could get complicated. For more on this, see the article:
      If You’ve been Married More than Once, Which One will you be With in the Afterlife?

  2. Hiroyuki-Kei says:

    Hello Lee,
    i’ve read some of your old articles and let me tell you they’re very appealing to me.
    I mean, somewhere in my heart a hope rose that i can see my god in afterlife.
    Now what i understand that no matter from which religion you belong, if you do not find your god in what most of people believes then you may experience your god from your own..RIGHT?
    Let’s say for example, im christian but i didnt find my god in jesus what my parents or neighbours taught me to, instead i find my god in something, lets say an animal or an illustration or a person or a fictional thing. It doesnt matter how you define god as long as you have the love and faith…isnt it? Correct me if im wrong.
    It would be more clear if i explain you a bit. In Japan, some people including me belongs to shintoism but we never portraited god/goddess from our religion’s. Instead we worship our own favourite fictional characters(anime) as god/goddess.
    Now i know it’s funny to a lot of people but this is the fact.
    So, i want to know will our fictional characters come to life when we go to afterlife, will we stay with them there forever?
    Im eager to know the fact.
    Thank You, Lee.
    Im looking forward to your answer.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Hiroyuki-Kei,

      The important thing from my perspective is whether the being you picture as god or goddess leads you to live a good and virtuous life with your fellow human beings and in your community.

      As you say, we humans have many different views of God. I am a Christian, so I see Jesus as God. As I’ve said in other articles, I believe that all who worship God are worshiping the same God, which I believe is the Lord God Jesus Christ.

      However, I understand that many people of other religions and cultures see it differently. The question we will be asked after we die is not what God we worshiped, but whether we loved our fellow human beings and took care of their needs. See Matthew 25:31-46.

      About seeing your particular gods/goddesses in heaven, I do think that is possible. However, over time, if you truly want to know God, I believe you will see your god/goddess as a particular expression of the one God of heaven and earth. So I believe that the particular god/goddess is likely to fade in comparison with the presence of the great God of the universe that you will then feel.

      However, Swedenborg does describe some people in heaven who still use images or representations of particular “deities,” or really, of particular virtues of God, to help them approach the God of the universe. So it is possible that you will see the figure of your god/goddess in heaven as a way to approach and be connected with God.

  3. Jenny says:

    Hi , I’ve recently come across your site and I am so grateful . I feel you have documented so much of what I have felt for years and of course much much more . I am so looking forward to delving deeper into your opinions .

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jenny,

      It’s nice to have you here. I’m glad the articles here are speaking to you! If you have any questions as you read, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  4. Ashley says:

    How would Swedenborg explain the verses: To be absent from the body is to be present wither the lord by Saint Paul? I don’t see that anywhere in Swedenborgs wrightings.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ashley,

      I presume you’re talking about 2 Corinthians 5:8. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 Paul is talking about our earthly body and our struggles here on earth, where we are separated from the Lord in the material world, compared to our spiritual body in the spiritual body where we will be present with the Lord.

      Swedenborg doesn’t comment specifically on these verses, except that he quotes 2 Corinthians 5:10 several times to show that Paul, like James, rejected faith without good works, and taught that we will be judged by what we have done, whether good or bad, and not just by what we believed.

  5. Ashley says:

    Paul say all of use will appear before the judgment seat of the lord. Does Swedenborg conferm this?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ashley,

      Not a literal judgment seat, of course. God does not actually sit on a throne. But yes, all of us will face our day of judgment figuratively, when, after we pass from this life, our true character and nature is brought to light, and we reap the rewards or the consequences of what we have one with our life here on earth.

  6. Ashley says:

    But yes, all of us will face our day of judgment figuratively, when, after we pass from this life, our true character and nature is brought to light, and we reap the rewards or the consequences of what we have one with our life here on earth.

    Do you mean how we treated or mistreated our fellow man?

  7. Mamta dias says:

    Dear Lee Hello! three weeks back I lost my mother, she got a heart attact. I still can’t believe that she is no more. Life without her is just impossible, I myself will become a mom soon she was so excited and was suppose to come to stay with me but unfortunately this happened. I just want to know if in any form I can see her or feel her or if she can see me. I feel desperate some time to talk to her. please help me how can I move further in my life. thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi Mamta dias,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m very sorry to hear about the death of your mother, especially just before you yourself are about to become a mother. That is very hard.

      Though you may sometimes feel your mother present with you, and she will be able to have a sense of how you are doing, it’s best not to try to contact her. You must now move on with your own life, with her voice and love still within you, and build your own life on the foundation she built for you.

      For more specifically on your situation with a beloved parent dying, please see this article: “What Does it Mean When My Parents Die? Will I See Them Again?” I hope it will be helpful to you.

      Meanwhile, our prayers are with you as you grieve the loss of your mother, and as you welcome your child into the world.

  8. Valentina says:

    Hello Lee, I have been reading most of your articles, in one of them you said that when we die, we get a spiritual body that is as much real as this one, do you get exactly the same body, sex, ethnicity etc? What happens if your current body has proven to be problematic in the physical word and you don’t want it? Do you still get the same old body? Thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi Valentina,

      That’s a somewhat tricky question to answer, because in the spiritual world your body reflects with full accuracy what’s in you mind and heart. So if your current physical body reflects your self-image and your actual character, it’s likely you’ll have a similar body in the spiritual world. But if your current physical body is very far from your image of yourself and your actual character, it’s likely that you’ll have a very different body in the spiritual world.

      For many, if not most people, their sex and ethnicity is a key part of their identity and their character. So I would say that in general, people will be the same sex and ethnicity in the spiritual world as they are here on earth.

      However, many, if not most people who have some sort of physical disability do not consider that to be an essential part of who they are, and would prefer to be without that disability. Ditto for people who are overweight, underweight, have a genetic disease, or simply a weak physical constitution that causes them to be sick a lot. These sorts of physical body characteristics that are not part of a person’s core identity, or that they could let go of without too much trouble, will not be part of that person’s spiritual body.

      Here are two articles that say more about your question:

      Beyond that, assuming we are headed to heaven, our spiritual body is in general better than our physical body. For one thing, it is made of spiritual substance rather than physical matter, so it is lighter and more fully responsive to our thoughts, feelings, and intentions than is our physical body here on earth. There is nothing about it that doesn’t fully express the person we are inside.

  9. Valentina says:

    Also, if a person commits suicide will God be mad at them?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Valentina,

      The issue isn’t really whether God will be mad at a person for committing suicide, but rather the forces that drove that person to suicide. God loves everyone, saint and sinner alike. But some people turn their backs on God and won’t accept God’s love.

      My sense, however, is that most suicides are driven by desperation and despair, not by any evil intentions on the part of the person who commits suicide. And yet, going to the spiritual world does not change who we are. So committing suicide won’t necessarily get us away from what caused our desperation and despair, which is often within ourselves. We may well still have to deal with the very same unresolved issues on the other side. That’s assuming the suicide wasn’t a result of terrible physical and emotional abuse by the people around us. In that case, the abuse will stop, and healing may be faster than for those who have inner demons driving them to suicide. Even those people will have better help on the other side than they got here. But they will still have to face and work through their inner issues.

      I should add that any brain chemistry issues that are distorting a person’s thoughts and emotions will also be taken away in the spiritual world, though there may be a transition period before the person is fully healed and able to move forward with full mental health.

      For more on suicide, see my article, “Does Suicide Work?

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