Throughout the ages, the afterlife has been pictured in many different ways—more ways than we can possibly list here. Christians alone have pictured heaven as:
- The endless pleasure of intelligent and witty conversation with other angels
- Perpetual feasting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the twelve Apostles
- Relaxing in the everlasting springtime of garden paradises while breathing in the fragrant odors of beautiful flowers and enjoying the delicate taste of delectable fruits
- Ruling over the masses as fabulously wealthy and powerful kings and queens
- Praising and glorifying God to all eternity in vast, ornate cathedrals, complete with powerful organ music and inspiring hymns sung with thousands of fellow worshipers
In more recent years, under the influence of near-death experiences together with the mystical strains of various eastern religions, conceptions of the afterlife have grown even more fantastic. One account has us flying on the wings of giant psychedelic butterflies through vast Technicolor panoramas. Or, as inhabitants of the astral realms, we may be seen as diaphanous beings of light wafting around and through one another as we engage in mysterious dances that manifest the harmony of the spheres.
Now, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with any of these activities. For the most part, they’re harmless enough—though I’m not so sure about all those kings and queens! And I have it on good authority that whatever our idea of the afterlife may be, we’re given the opportunity to try it out after we die, and see how we like it.
Even for people who have a less fantastical idea of what the afterlife might be like, I suspect that it’s common to think that death will bring about huge changes in our life.
Perhaps it will.
But I’m here to tell you that the afterlife will not be as different as you think. In fact, in the ways that count the most, the afterlife will be a seamless continuation of whatever your life has been here.
That should get us to thinking about just what we’re doing with our life here on earth.
Let’s look at the afterlife based on:
- the Bible,
- rational thought, and
- human experience.
Angels in the Bible
The Bible doesn’t offer much in the way of descriptions of the afterlife—and the descriptions that it does give seem more symbolic and allegorical than literal in their message.
What the Bible does offer is quite a few stories of people on earth encountering angels from heaven. And though those angels may be presented as powerful and even radiant beings, the general sense is that they are just as human as we are, and that they engage in the same sorts of activities as we do.
Consider one of the first angel encounters in the Bible. In Genesis 18, Abraham (whose name was then Abram) encountered three angels, who are variously identified as “men,” “angels,” and “the Lord.” The sense that we get from the story is that these were three angel emissaries through whom the Lord spoke to Abraham.
What did Abraham do when he saw these three men standing near him? He treated them just as he would any earthly travelers who came his way. He offered them water to wash their feet, and food and drink to satisfy their hunger and thirst. He then stood by and waited on them as they ate.
In fact, there’s nothing about the story to indicate that Abraham saw these three guests as anything other than men—human beings—who were visiting him at his tents. No wings, no shining garments, no lightning bolts zapping trees.
Yes, they bore a message from God. But what’s most striking about these three men is how similar they were to any other honored guests Abraham might have encountered in his various encampments. They ate and drank with him, then rose up to engage in conversation with him on important subjects that would change the course of Abraham’s life, and the life of his wife Sarah.
If we turn from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we find a scene in which an angel is showing the Apostle John visions of future events in the spiritual world.
Not once, but twice (in Revelation 19:9–10 and Revelation 22:8–9) John was so overwhelmed by the experience that he fell at the angel’s feet to worship him. In each case, the angel stopped him. “You must not do that!” he said. “I am a fellow servant with you and your companions, the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (John 22:9). The angel places himself the same level as John—a mere human being—and on the level of all of his fellow believers and prophets.
Yes, angels in the Bible are presented as powerful beings. But they are also presented as very human beings, who are simply inhabiting the next world rather than this one.
In fact, the angel speaking to John went on to say something fascinating about this:
Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. (Revelation 22:10–11)
You would think the angel would say that evildoers should repent, and that those who are filthy should clean up their act. But in the eternal world where he was living, that’s not how it works. There, people continue to live to eternity according to whatever character they have developed here on earth, whether evil or righteous, whether filthy or holy.
It just makes sense
Now let’s look at the afterlife from a rational perspective.
Consider the thought that this temporal world is a training ground and a place of preparation for our life in the eternal world. And consider the thought that God is probably pretty good at designing this world to prepare us for the spiritual world.
Now ask yourself this question: If God wanted this world to train and prepare us effectively for the spiritual world, would God make this world very different from the spiritual world, or very similar to the spiritual world? Which would prepare us better?
To use a human analogy, think of the time-honored practice of apprenticeship—or as it is often called these days, internship. In any practical career that involves skills and experience, the most effective way to prepare neophytes for the job is to immerse them in the job under the supervision of those who are actively engaged in it as a career.
- Physicians don’t go directly from the classroom to their own medical practice, but spend a year or more as interns (or residents) learning the ropes while practicing under regular doctors.
- Students who graduate college with an MBA commonly take entry-level jobs at various financial firms or other business in which they are trained on the job, preparing them to rise up to higher business management positions.
- Airline pilots must put in a certain number of hours flying with experienced pilots before they are licensed to fly airplanes on their own.
If we humans are smart enough to train people for responsible positions by giving them on-the-job training and internships, don’t you think God is at least as smart as we are?
God has, in fact, designed this world to give us practice in all of the same things that we will be doing in heaven.
If you want to get some idea of what heaven will be like, look around you. Once you die, you’ll be doing many of the same things you do here. That’s especially true of activities that involve serving your fellow human beings. Heaven is all about loving and serving one another in useful, practical, and spiritual ways.
What those who have been there say
Now let’s look at heaven and the afterlife based on the experience of those who have been there.
The most plentiful source of such experiences is the increasingly common phenomenon of near-death experiences. And at first glance, the reports of people who have died, visited the spiritual world, and come back to tell us about it may make the spiritual world look very different from this world. Often these brief glimpses into the afterlife leave those who experience them amazed and spellbound by the powerful experience of love and light that they have had in their brief encounters with eternity.
And don’t get me wrong: the spiritual world is a beautiful place, full of powerful experiences.
However, near-death experiencers are something like tourists in the spiritual world. What do tourists flock to see? The magnificent structures and beautiful vistas that the countries they are visiting have to offer.
And yet, while the tourists are oohing and aahing at the country’s greatest wonders, its ordinary citizens are working away at their jobs, taking care of their children, going grocery shopping, and playing a game of tennis or going to a rock concert.
To get a more realistic picture of what the afterlife is like after the initial wonder wears off, we need the experience of someone who has spent a long enough time there to see what life is like once things settle down.
That’s where Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) comes in.
Unlike those who have had a brief glimpse into the spiritual world in the course of a near-death experience or a vision, Swedenborg, according to his own account, spent nearly three decades—from his mid-fifties until his death at age 84—visiting and exploring the spiritual world.
It took him a while to get acclimated. In his earliest writings about the spiritual world, he was still figuring out the lay of the land, how it all worked, and what to call the various regions, spiritual beings, and phenomena that he saw there.
Swedenborg’s most famous book, Heaven and Hell, was published over a decade after his spiritual eyes were opened. By that time, he could write confidently, from extensive experience, about heaven and the daily lives of angels in the various regions of heaven.
And he does describe some wonderful things. For example, in the spiritual world, all you have to do is think about someone that you really want to see, and you will be present with them instantly.
It is also possible to see and hear things over vast distances.
Wait a minute . . . . That’s not very different from what we can do now, is it?
In many ways, our fancy modern telecommunications gadgetry is just our technological way of doing what angels and spirits have been able to do in the spiritual world for thousands of years.
But back to the point, despite the fact that heaven has many wonders, and gives us many capabilities that we don’t have here on earth, perhaps the most striking thing about Swedenborg’s descriptions of everyday life in heaven is how ordinary it all sounds.
Angels get up in the morning, eat, go to work, come back home and enjoy an afternoon or evening of recreation, eat dinner, and go to bed. They have their Sabbath days in which they attend services where they listen to preachers. They have other events and celebrations that they enjoy. And yes, they even play tennis and go to concerts.
If you read through Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, even with all of the wonders described there, the overwhelming sense is that angels and spirits really aren’t all that different from people here on earth. They engage in all of the same activities—though perhaps with a bit more clarity and single-mindedness than many of us do here on earth.
Our life in heaven is a continuation of our life on earth
If there’s anything Swedenborg wants to impress upon us about what our life will be like in the afterlife, it is this: In the afterlife, we will continue to be exactly the same person that we have become through our life here on earth.
I don’t know about you, but I often have thoughts like this: “Yes, life is a pain here, but it’s only temporary. Once my time comes to move on to the next life, all of my struggles will be over, and life will be wonderful.”
Maybe so. At least, I certainly hope that at least some of our struggles will be over. Doesn’t the Bible say that we will have rest from our labors? (Revelation 14:13).
It is really talking there about our inner labors—our mental and emotional struggles over who we will be as a person. By the time we move on to the spiritual world, our general character and course will have been set by our life and choices here on earth.
That character is what we carry with us into the spiritual world. Consider what Swedenborg says in Heaven and Hell #461:
As spirit-people, we enjoy every outer and inner sense we enjoyed in the world. We see the way we used to, we hear and talk the way we used to; we smell and taste and feel things when we touch them the way we used to; we want, wish, crave, think, ponder, are moved, love, and intend the way we used to. Studious types still read and write as before. In a word, when we move from the one life into the other, or from the one world into the other, it is like moving from one place to another; and we take with us everything we owned as persons to the point that it would be inaccurate to say that we have lost anything of our own after death, which is only a death of the earthly body.
In other words, in every way that really counts, we are exactly the same person after we die as we were before. And we will pursue exactly the same sort of life that we pursued in our heart and mind—and through our hands—while we were here on earth.
My final words for you today, then, are short and sweet:
Do you want to have a good, happy, and loving life with your fellow angels in heaven to all eternity?
If so, then start building that life within and around you here on earth. Because whatever life you build here on earth, that’s the life you will carry with you into the spiritual world . . . and that’s the kind of life you will continue living to eternity.
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