According to Emanuel Swedenborg, will a good person who rejects Jesus go to Heaven?

From the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology, this is a trick question.

Technically, according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), anyone who rejects Jesus (“the Lord,” as Swedenborg refers to him) cannot go to heaven.

However, Swedenborg’s definition of “rejecting the Lord” is quite different from the usual Christian definitions.

By the usual Christian definitions of “rejecting Jesus,” yes, according to Swedenborg someone who has rejected and even mocked Jesus can go to heaven.

That’s why it’s a trick question (but a good one!): because it all depends on your definition of “rejecting Jesus.”

Let me explain.

1. Swedenborg rejected the Trinity of Persons

First, it is necessary to understand that Swedenborg utterly rejected the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God—which is the foundational doctrine of most of the rest of Christianity.

He said, instead, that there is one God, and that Jesus Christ is that God. So although Swedenborg does state that there is a Trinity in God, he says that that Trinity is in a single Person of God, and that Jesus Christ is that one Person. For more on this, see my article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

Therefore, in Swedenborg’s view, anyone who believes in God is, in fact, believing in the Lord, or Jesus Christ, because there is no other God to believe in. Here is how he puts it in Divine Providence #330:5:

Someone could point out that they [non-Christians] do not know the Lord, and that apart from the Lord there is no salvation. But no one is saved because of knowing about the Lord. We are saved because we live by his commandments. Further, the Lord is known to everyone who believes in God because the Lord is the God of heaven and earth, as he tells us in Matthew 28:18 and elsewhere. (link added)

So from Swedenborg’s perspective, Muslims who believe in Allah are believing in Jesus Christ even if they do not call Allah “Jesus Christ” because Jesus Christ is the one God of heaven and earth. This means that for a Muslim, rejecting Jesus—or “the Lord” in Swedenborg’s terminology—would mean rejecting Allah. And Muslims who reject Allah cannot go to heaven (according to Islam and Swedenborg) because they are rejecting God as they know God.

Muslims, Swedenborg says, can go to heaven if they believe in God (Allah, as they call God) and live a good life according to the teachings of their religion. As Swedenborg says in the same section of Divine Providence:

It is an insane heresy to believe that only those born in the church are saved. People born outside the church are just as human as people born within it. They come from the same heavenly source. They are equally living and immortal souls. They have religions as well, religions that enable them to believe that God exists and that they should lead good lives; and all of them who do believe in God and lead good lives become spiritual on their own level and are saved. (Divine Providence #330.5)

2. Swedenborg rejected the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of Atonement

Second, it is necessary to understand that Swedenborg’s view of Atonement and salvation departs fundamentally from Catholic and Protestant views.

It has only been for the last thousand years of Christianity, since Anselm, that some Christians (primarily Roman Catholics) have believed that Christ somehow stood in as a substitute for us in satisfying God’s need for honor and justice.

And it has only been for the last five hundred years of Christianity, since the Protestant Reformation, that any significant number of Christians (mostly Protestants) have believed that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross—something that the Bible never actually says.

Swedenborg rejected both of those theories of atonement as false and non-biblical. His view was much closer to the Christus Victor view of salvation that was the primary theory of atonement for the first thousand years of Christianity. (Unfortunately, the Wikipedia articles on Penal Substitution and Christus Victor are not very good. The Penal Substitution article is particularly weak on the history of that doctrine.)

In Swedenborg’s view, Jesus Christ made salvation available to all people everywhere by conquering the power of evil, the Devil, and hell and bringing them under his personal control. Without this, all people would have been spiritually destroyed by the mounting power of evil, which had reached its peak at the time of the Incarnation.

Because of Jesus’ battles against and complete victory over evil and hell, God (AKA Jesus Christ) was able to restore the balance between good and evil, so that every human being everywhere on earth now has the freedom to choose God and goodness over hell and evil. And all who do so, according to Swedenborg, are saved.

This would not have been possible without the spiritual work Jesus Christ accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection. The Crucifixion was not salvation. Rather, it was only the final battle, by which Christ achieved final victory over the Devil, or hell.

Because of this view of salvation and atonement, from the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology there is no need for non-Christians to believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins. The fact that Jesus did die for our sins is sufficient to secure our salvation, without the need for human belief in it. Rather, it is necessary for humans to believe in God and live according to God’s commandments—which, as the next item points out, is one and the same thing in Swedenborg’s view.

I realize this may raise many more questions. I am simplifying Swedenborg’s doctrine on these subjects in the interest of time. For Swedenborg’s own full presentation of these doctrines, please see the first volume of True Christianity.

3. Swedenborg defined “faith” as “the beliefs you live by”

Third, it is necessary to understand that Swedenborg defines “faith,” or “belief,” quite differently than many traditional Christian definitions of faith.

In Swedenborg’s view, faith is inseparable from charity, meaning action.

Another way to put it is that for Swedenborg, “faith” is not a mere intellectual belief or assurance that something is true. Rather, faith is the belief that we live by. In this, he is very much in line with the Apostle James’s views on faith:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14–17)

From Swedenborg’s perspective, having faith in Jesus necessarily includes living by what Jesus teaches, because what we really believe is what we live by.

By the same token, rejecting Jesus means not living by what Jesus teaches. And although believing explicitly in Jesus is one of the things the Gospels teach, from the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology this is primarily for the purpose of inducing Christian believers to live according to Jesus’ teachings.

The most important teaching of Jesus, and therefore of Christianity, is expressed in Matthew 22:35-40:

One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Based on this teaching of Jesus, Swedenborg says that those who believe in God and love God, and who love their neighbor as themselves, are saved and go to heaven no matter what their religion. These people, Swedenborg says, truly believe in the Lord (Jesus Christ) because they are living according to the central and most important teaching of Jesus Christ.

4. Rejecting Christianity does not necessarily mean rejecting Jesus

Fourth, it’s necessary to understand that according to Swedenborg, many non-Christians, including Muslims and Jews, reject Christianity and Jesus for two basic reasons:

  1. They see Christians living evil lives, which gives Christ a bad name.
  2. They view Christianity as polytheistic because of the doctrine of three persons in God (which is false, in Swedenborg’s view).

Swedenborg believed that it was necessary for Christianity to be completely renovated, and to reject the fundamental falsity of a Trinity of Persons in God before it would become acceptable to many believers in firmly monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam.

And Swedenborg believed that it was necessary for Christians to live by their religion instead of merely giving it lip service while living evil and self-centered lives, and thus giving Christianity a bad name.

So Swedenborg considered the rejection of Jesus among Muslims and Jews to be excusable because Christianity itself had become corrupt, and had presented to people of other religions a false picture of Jesus.

He looked forward to the day when a renewed and restored Christianity would present a true and belief-worthy picture of Jesus Christ as the one God of heaven and earth, who loves and saves all people, of every religion, who believe in God and live lives of love and service to their fellow human beings according to the teachings of their own religion.

This form of Christianity, he believed, would in time draw all nations to the beauty and power of the Christian faith, and to the belief that Jesus Christ is indeed the God and Savior of all.

(Note: This post is an edited version of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)

For further reading:

About

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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6 comments on “According to Emanuel Swedenborg, will a good person who rejects Jesus go to Heaven?
  1. Brian Lauthen says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’ve been a long time Swedenborgian. The Trinity is a tricky question when I get asked by other Christians. I usually have to take out a sheet of paper and I do a little diagram. I make a triangle with three stick figures on each end and label one God the Father, another God the Son, and the other God the Holy Spirit. And then I ask to make sure, “Is this how you would represent God.” They say yes.

    Then I draw one big person and label it, “Jesus Christ, the Lord”. Then I draw a triangle within and label the ends of the triangle, God the Father, God the Son, and the other God the Holy Spirit.

    I then explain that their is only one person, Jesus, the Lord, who is God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a Trinity of Aspect/Function of one person, and not a Trinity of Persons. (It’s kind of like how I am one person, but I can be called a father, a son, a husband, a teacher, etc. It just depends on what aspect or function of me is being discussed.)

    God the Father is the Infinite, Eternal Aspect of God that is everywhere, everytime, completely beyond our finite comprehension.

    God the Son is the visible aspect of God that he allows us to see. It would include as he is in his human form (why Jesus was refered to as the Son of God), it would include the sun in the spiritual heavens which you can see, it would also include the Word which you can see and read. I would even include the picture of the Lord that you have in your head is an aspect of God the Son. Most people when they pray to the Lord have some type of a human image in their head.

    God the Holy Spirit is the invisible aspect of God that we feel all around us. This is the aspect of God that is proceding from the Lord and doing everything around you, but you can’t visibly see it. The Holy Spirit is keeping the universe around you working, guiding everything according to the Lord’s purpose.

    Well at least that is what I tell other Christians.

    Brian

    • Brian says:

      @Brian Lauthen: I do like your example! A former boss of mine who was Baptist, once explained the Trinity like the 3 forms of water; solid, liquid, and vapor. I always thought that was clever because it showed that the Lord could be different depending on what state we think of him, while always being one in the same.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Brian,

        It’s true that the Lord can be different to us depending on how we are thinking of the Lord, and what state of mind we’re in. However, as I say in my comment to Brian Lauthen below, the entire Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is present in all of the different ways God appears to us. So whether God manifests as “solid,” “liquid,” or “steam,” it is the entire Trinity manifesting in those forms, not one “member” of the Trinity.

        It is surprising that the comparison of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the three states of water (solid, liquid, and gas) persists so strongly in traditional Christianity.

        Why surprising?

        Because this example is contrary to the traditional Christian doctrine of God as a Trinity of Persons. It is more of a modalist or Sabellian view of the Trinity. And modalism is rejected as heretical by almost all of the traditional Christian denominations, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.

        And yet the three states of water are commonly used as an illustration of the Trinity by Christian ministers and laypeople alike. It just goes to show that most Christians–even most Christian ministers–don’t really understand the doctrines of their own church. Perhaps that’s because their church’s official doctrine of a Trinity of Persons is self-contradictory and incomprehensible. So they go for easier illustrations that make sense to their minds.

        It doesn’t hurt to think of God as appearing like the three states of water. After all, everything in the universe, including everything in nature, is an expression of the nature of God. However, this should not be confused with the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in God. For more on this distinction, see the article on Swedenborg and Oneness Pentecostalism that I linked in my comment to Brian Lauthen below.

        Thanks again for all your comments here!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian Lauthen,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

      Yes, the Trinity is tricky–especially since a false view of the Trinity has reigned in Christianity for the last 1,700 years or so. This has skewed Christians’ thinking about God, and made it difficult for them to have a clear idea of who God is.

      That’s why I love Swedenborg’s simple, clear statement that the Trinity in God is like the soul, body, and actions in us.

      Anyone can quickly and easily understand this concept of the Trinity in God.

      As this concept of the Trinity is filled in with more details of the Father (the divine soul), the Son (the divine body), and the Holy Spirit (the divine action), it settles and clarifies our thinking about exactly who the God of the Bible is. It causes the many statements about God under various names, and the statements in the New Testament about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to fall beautifully into place in our minds.

      I would suggest, however, being careful in thinking of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being like the different functions, or roles, of who you are, such as father, son, husband, teacher, and so on. Though it’s natural for us to think of them that way because of our experience of the same person being both a father and a son (and it doesn’t do any harm if it’s held to lightly), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as presented in the New Testament are not different roles of God, or different ways God appears to us. That is a Sabellian or “modalist” concept of the Trinity, which Swedenborg does not support.

      To clarify the difference, I’ve just posted here yet another answer I wrote on Christianity StackExchange: What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?

      Yes, God does have different roles, such as Father, Savior, King, Priest, Comforter, Hero, Prince of Peace, and so on. However, all of those roles involve the entire Trinity. They all come from the Father, and are expressed by the Son through the Holy Spirit. So the Father role of God should not be confused with the Father in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not modes or roles of God, but rather “essential components” (Latin essentialia) of God. These three essential components are inseparable from one another, and are present in all of the many and various roles of God.

      So when God relates to us as a Father, all of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–are relating to us as a Father. It’s the same when God is relating to us as Savior, Comforter, Teacher, and so on.

      Having said all that, I do very much like your explanation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the second half of your comment.

      Thanks again for your good thoughts!

  2. Brian says:

    Getting a bit back on topic, I did want to share my thoughts about a good friend of mine who recently denounced his Christianity and has taken up Buddhism. He was raised in the Lutheran Church and I remember his confirmation from when we were in high school over 20 years ago. It was a really big deal to him; many proud friends and family members.

    The thing that saddened me the most about his decision is that I believe he’s gone this route because of the bad image that some Christian groups are receiving in the media by picketing funerals for fallen troops and such. I suggested to him that any religious group can get the message mixed up and do lousy things for what they believe are the right reasons. Can you imagine how hard it would be to be Muslim in this day and age?

    I’m sure Buddhism teaches some sound philosophies, and he certainly seems no different than the good friend I’ve always known; maybe even more confident in himself somehow. It just bugs me a bit that he might have chose this for some flimsy reasons or that maybe he’s partially closed himself off from a more solid form of spirituality.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      Yes, it’s hard to see friends and family abandon our faith for another one. I recall one ardent Swedenborgian couple, now deceased, who struggled greatly when their only child, a son, became a Buddhist in his adult years. And yet, as you say, he remained the same wonderful, quirky person he had been when we knew him as a teen.

      It is comforting to know that no matter what religion a person joins or belongs to, God is still present there. That person can still grow spiritually and find his or her way to heaven. See my article, “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?

      Yes, it’s sad to see people leave Christianity because of the loathsome actions of some “Christians.” And yet, the important thing is that each of us find a spiritual path that works for us, and helps us to grow into a better and more loving person. If Buddhism currently does that better for your friend than Christianity, that is something to celebrate rather than to lament.

      It is also fairly common for people to leave Christianity, then return to it later in life when they have worked through whatever issues they may have had with Christianity. They commonly come back with a broader and more mature perspective on Christianity. Sometimes it is necessary to reject the old, faulty view of Christianity by leaving Christianity altogether. This clears the decks, so to speak, so that eventually a new and better form of Christianity may be able to take its place.

      That’s also why I’m not terribly concerned about the rise of atheism in the world today. It’s all part of the process of clearing away the old, false religion to make way for a new and truer form of religion. In relation to this, here are a couple of articles you might find interesting:

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