(Note: This article is the third of a four-part series. The first three parts are edited versions of a series of questions by a reader named Rami, and my answers. The original versions appear in the comments section of the recent article, “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?” The fourth part will be a response to a related Spiritual Conundrum submitted earlier by Rami.)
For Part 2, click here.
Also, I really appreciate the illustrative value of likening our relationship to Divine grace to that of a cup, but I would like to ask a hopefully clarifying question about what it might imply: if a cup turned away from God is analogous to rejecting the goodness that flows from God, does that person necessarily still ‘experience’ that goodness, but just refuses to acknowledge it for what it is? Is there an ‘inner self’ that is always aware of one’s Divine nature and the Divine realities that are constantly at work within it, and a human, worldly, ‘outer self’ that can reject and try to suppress this awareness, making the outer self the only self? If it’s appropriate to look at the human being as composed of two ‘selves,’ is it even possible for the inner/higher self to ever really be closed off to God? Is the cup always filling, only it’s us who choose to not acknowledge this, and allow that goodness to flow upward into our lives and ultimately the lives of others?
Here is my response, originally contained in this comment, but with a major new segment and illustration added:
The example of the cup is, of course, a simplification of an immensely complex reality. It gives the general idea, and in that way it’s a good example. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
To get right to it, Swedenborg says that every human being, angel, and spirit (good or evil) has an inmost level, which Swedenborg calls the “soul” when he’s using that term in a technical sense. (He also uses the word “soul” in the more common sense as a synonym for the human spirit as a whole.) About that inmost soul:
- It is in direct communication with God, being the place where we receive our life from God.
- It is beyond our conscious awareness. As I picture it, our inmost soul is the vantage point from which we would look at everything else if our consciousness were raised to the highest level possible for us. And like the eye, it cannot see itself.
- It is beyond our reach or ability to affect, so that it is preserved pure and inviolate in everyone, even the worst devils in hell.
- For evil people and evil spirits, then, it is not corrupted, but rather is closed off from below.
- However, even in evil people and evil spirits, some life from it seeps down through the somewhat porous barrier that closes it off from the rest of the person, which is what makes it possible for us to continue to live, and to have eternal life.
When we build a barrier against God
To fit this into the cup analogy, the cup that we can turn right-side up or upside-down is not our entire self. It is only the lower, conscious part of our self. Even if we turn that conscious part of ourselves upside-down, we still have an uncorrupted inner soul that receives life from God, and transmits enough of that life through a somewhat porous “bottom of the cup”—which is the barrier we erect against God—so that we can continue to live.
Unfortunately, as that life passes through the pores in that barrier, it is twisted from good into evil by our own evil nature (which is the barrier), so that by the time it reaches our conscious awareness and our active life, it is evil and destructive rather than good and constructive.
And yet, it still keeps us alive.
Even evil spirits require inflow from God
To tie this in with your earlier questions, in this way God’s forgiveness, which is a function of God’s love, maintains in existence even the evil spirits in hell. Without God’s love and forgiveness continually flowing in, evil spirits, too, would cease to exist.
More practically, if it weren’t for God’s influence on them, they would plunge down into lower and more evil levels of hell than they currently inhabit. Even in hell, God is continually keeping the spirits there from slipping downward into still worse hells. So although the evil spirits in hell block and thwart the will of God to raise them out of hell and into heaven, God’s will is still done in preventing them from falling into even worse hells, meaning into even more evil lives.
Where do we build our barriers against God?
To round things out, the barrier that we put up against God may be erected anywhere along the range of levels between our inmost soul and our outmost, most sense-oriented life. And it is erected above the highest level of our life that we have reached and corrupted. The levels of our spirit above that barrier are not corrupted; they are simply undeveloped.
This is important because the higher the level of our spirit that we reach and corrupt, the deeper into hell we plunge ourselves. So it is a law of divine providence that we are not allowed to regenerate, or be spiritually reborn, beyond the level that we are capable of maintaining to the end of our life. For an extended essay on this, see Divine Providence #221-233.
Those who corrupt their higher levels
People who do gain access to the deeper levels of their own spirit through regeneration, but then backslide into evil and corruption, commit what Swedenborg calls “profanation,” which is the mixing together of spiritual good and evil. Their lot in hell is the worst and most grievous, since they have destroyed the higher, spiritual and heavenly levels of themselves, compared to most people who only destroy the outward, earthly and world-focused parts of themselves.
To get an idea of what “profanation” means—or corruption, in more contemporary language—consider these examples from human society here on earth:
A corrupt priest or politician can do far more damage than a corrupt factory worker or sales clerk. That’s because the priest has gained access to spiritual power over parishioners, and the politician has gained access to political power over citizens. This is why society rightly comes down much harder on corrupt clergy and politicians than it does on laypeople and on ordinary citizens—even if they have committed the very same offenses. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).
Yet even for those who have profaned and corrupted their higher, spiritual levels, there is still a barrier between those destroyed levels and their inmost soul, which remains uncorrupted, and continues to serve as a conduit for life to flow into them from God.
We live in the parts of ourselves that we are conscious of
Back to your questions, although evil people and evil spirits do have those higher, uncorrupted levels—or at least an inmost, uncorrupted soul that is in communication with God—because of the barrier that they have erected between themselves and those higher levels, they have no conscious awareness of those parts of themselves.
From their own perspective, it is as if those levels of their own spirit did not exist. Their entire conscious life and experience is lived in the lower parts of themselves of which they are conscious—which are the same parts that they have corrupted and turned toward evil.
So for all practical purposes, their life consists entirely of the life of the evil parts of themselves that are below the aforementioned barrier.
Having said that, occasionally, according to Swedenborg, the devils in hell are allowed to experience their higher selves temporarily, when they have some legitimate reason for wanting to go up to heaven, such as to help angels “realize” how much better life is in hell (as the evil spirits in hell think), or to provide object lessons on what evil and hell are all about for newly arrived spirits in the “world of spirits,” where all people first go after death.
When this happens, the evil spirits are able to see quite clearly how evil, corrupt, and vile their life in hell is. However, it is only their intellect, or thinking mind, that temporarily rises above the barrier that normally prevents them from having any experience of their higher self. Their heart, or loves and motives, remains situated in the evil desires that keep them in hell. And since the head and the heart cannot be long separated in the spiritual world, they soon sink back down into the community of hell where they live, and resume their evil lives. Before long they have either forgotten all about their brief experience of a higher awareness, or have twisted it into a false picture of what actually happened.
And so, once again, their life is lived only in the lower, corrupted parts of themselves.
As human beings, they still have the capacity to see things from a higher perspective, since those higher parts of themselves do still exist. But they rarely if ever actually experience those levels of themselves for one simple reason: they don’t want to. They are perfectly content to live the sordid, corrupt life in their lower self that they chose here on earth.
We cannot live in undeveloped parts of ourselves
And this brings us to a final point.
Even if evil spirits did want to live in those higher parts of themselves (which they don’t), it is no longer possible for them to do so.
Because they never developed those levels of their spirit.
The tower of life
For an illustration of this human reality, consider this brief parable of Jesus:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28–30)
Here Jesus is using the building of a tower as a metaphor for the building of our character and our spiritual life.
Towers, of course, are built from the bottom up.
Have you ever watched a skyscraper being built?
Here’s what it looks like:
The first thing the builders do is dig a great big hole in the ground to lay the pylons and foundations on which the skyscraper will be built. Although to casual passers-by it may look as if not much is happening during this time, in fact it is a critically important part of the construction process, on which everything else depends.
The construction workers then build the ground floor on top of the foundation, and proceed upward floor by floor, or section by section, building each part of the tower on the part below it.
That’s the only way a tower can be built.
It’s also the only way our life can be built.
We must first lay the foundation, then build one floor after another of our character and life on top of that foundation. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the overall process (for those who actually go through with it), skipping the floor-by-floor account:
- First, ideally in our childhood and teenage years, we learn the basics of what human life—especially human moral and spiritual life—is all about. This is the foundation on which we will build our character and our life.
- Then, as young adults, we get our outward life in order, and become productive, working members of society, contributing our part to the practical good of the whole.
- In our middle adult years we begin to move inward into our thinking mind. We focus more and more on the deeper issues of justice, truth, and the purpose of life. We contemplate how we can best love and serve our neighbor, our community, our nation, and even humanity as a whole.
- Finally, in our elder years, we fully open up to our beating heart. We no longer only realize that loving God and loving our neighbor is the ultimate meaning of our existence, but we actually feel and are moved by that love in everything we do.
In building ourselves into a fully developed and fully human being, we cannot skip any of the steps. Just as in the building of a physical skyscraper, we must first build the foundation and the lower levels so that we can build the higher levels on top of them.
Our building stops where we stop building on earth
But what if, as Jesus says, we have not “counted the cost” of building that tower? What if we are not willing and able to complete what we have started? What if we build only the first few floors, or only the first half of the tower, and then “run out of money”—meaning we no longer have the will or the desire to go any farther in building our character and spirit up to the higher levels that we are capable of achieving?
The “tower” of life that we will live in after we die is the tower of character that we have built here on earth.
This is where we do our building.
When we die, we stop building our tower, and start living in it.
Anything we don’t build here on earth is like architects’ plans that were drafted on paper but never expressed in steel, glass, and wood. It exists in theory. We can even take a peek at the blueprints. But since we never actually built it, we cannot live in it.
This physical world is where we form the structure of our eternal life.
However high we build our tower during our earthly lifetime—whether only to the level of outward behavior (good or bad), or to a higher understanding of our life and mission, or to the highest level in which we are moved by heartfelt love for God and for our fellow human beings—that will determine the height of the heaven in which we live to eternity.
Of course, we can still have a very good life in heaven even if we haven’t built our tower up to the higher levels. Even in heaven, God needs laborers as well as teachers, philosophers, and caregivers.
On the flip side, if we corrupt any or all of these levels of our tower of character after we have built them, it will determine the depth of the hell in which we will live to eternity after we die. You see, hell is an upside-down, corrupted, and distorted mirror image of heaven. What angels have built upward, evil spirits have built downward.
We are building for eternity
As expressed poetically (and energetically!) in the old Sunday School hymn “Building, Daily Building,” here on earth we are building the character in which we will live to all eternity. Once we die, we will have neither the desire nor the ability to develop any part of ourselves that we did not at least begin to open up and develop here on earth.
Yes, we will do far greater things in heaven than we ever accomplished here on earth. But we will achieve these accomplishments by working within and from the tower of character that we built for ourselves—or more accurately, that God built in us with our active cooperation—during this earthly lifetime.
That is why our life here on earth is so crucial, and so precious.
For Part 4, click here.
For further reading: