(Note: This article is the last of a four-part series. The first three parts were edited versions of a series of questions by a reader named Rami, and my answers, in the comments section of the article, “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?” The fourth part is a response to a related Spiritual Conundrum that Rami submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life.)
For Part 3, click here.
In a spiritual conundrum submitted several months before the questions and comments that the first three parts of this article are based on, a reader named Rami said:
Hi Lee, I was hoping you could talk a little about sin, forgiveness, and what God expects of us? Does God necessarily have ‘expectations’ of us? That word might imply being held to a standard of behavior, and being punished for failing to fulfill the obligation to do so. But, might it be more meaningful to say that, for example, God wants and hopes for us to love one another, rather than expects us to love one another?
The implications of that are tremendous, and would completely redefine the way I understand the idea of sin, its consequences, and forgiveness. The idea that God forgives us, for example, would imply to me the idea of us having committed some offense against God, displeased God, or failing to live up to His expectations. But maybe the only offenses we commit are against ourselves and each other, and the only forgiveness we need is from ourselves and each other.
…and maybe God does not judge, punish, or forgive, but is the One who we chose to draw nearer to or further from, with an afterlife that is the fully realized manifestation of these choices that has nothing to do with ‘judgement’…? What does Swedenborg have to say about it?
God’s forgiveness was the main topic of Parts 1 and 2 of this article. In Part 4, we’ll cover the other questions about sin, judgment, punishment, and God’s expectations of us. Of course, these are huge topics, but I’ll pack in as much as possible to point out the general lay of the land.
So fair warning: this is a densely packed post!
Here are the main points we’ll cover in Part 4:
- Sin in the Old Testament generally means doing something God has commanded us not to do. But in the New Testament, it shifts toward doing something not just that God has commanded us not to do, but that we know is wrong and against God’s will.
- Judgment is not really a matter of God condemning us for sinning or rewarding us for being faithful. Rather, it is the light of divine truth from God shining into our soul and revealing our true nature, whether that is good or evil.
- Punishment, similarly, is not something God does to us, but rather the inevitable consequences of our engaging in evil and sin.
- God does not so much have expectations of us as aspirations for us, what we can become, and the love, joy, and peace we can experience if we are willing to commit our lives to doing what it takes to achieve our best potential.
What is sin?
It’s not surprising that there’s some confusion and uncertainty among Christians about exactly what “sin” is. That’s because the Bible itself uses the term “sin” in more than one way.
Sin in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, “sin” most commonly means doing anything that is against God’s commandments. The focus is on behavior. Even if the person doesn’t realize it’s against God’s commandments, it is still considered sin.
In fact, as prescribed in Leviticus 4:1–6:7 and Numbers 15:22–29, the “sin offerings” and “guilt offerings” commanded in the Old Testament were for “unintentional sin” (see Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 17; Numbers 15:22, 24–25, 27–28).
If the sin was willful and intentional, no sacrifice could atone for it. The person committing such a sin was to be exiled from the community:
But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or a foreigner, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt. (Numbers 15:30–31)
So intention was taken into account. But “sin” was defined as any action that was contrary to the Lord’s commandments, whether or not the infraction was committed knowingly and intentionally.
Having said that, the people were commanded to learn God’s commandments thoroughly, teach them to their children, and keep them front and center at all times:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6–9)
So for a regular member of the community, there was no valid excuse for not knowing God’s commandments.
Sin in the New Testament
As the Old Testament narrative gives way to the New Testament, the meaning of “sin” shifts from a focus on outward behavior toward a greater focus on inward knowledge, intention, and conscience.
While not entirely abandoning the Old Testament definition of sin as behavior that is against God’s commandments, in the New Testament sin is redefined to take into account the knowledge and intentions behind the behavior. For example in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said:
The slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. 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 12:47–48)
Here Jesus uses the example of a master and a slave—a very common relationship in those days. The slave who knew what his master wanted, but didn’t do it, will receive a much more severe beating, Jesus points out, than the one who didn’t know. So the awareness on the part of the person who commits the wrong action is critical to determining how serious that action is.
And even more specifically, in the Gospel of John:
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41)
In other words, people who are not aware that a particular action is wrong (those who are “blind”) are not sinners if they do it. But people who are aware that an action is wrong and do it anyway are sinners.
And the apostle Paul concludes a speech in Romans 2:1–16—about how our good or evil actions will determine whether we will receive wrath and fury (meaning damnation) or eternal life—with these words:
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:14–16, italics added)
In other words, people who do not have a clear and specific knowledge of God’s commandments will be judged, not so much by their actions themselves as by whether their actions were in accordance with or contrary to their conscience—which, as Paul says, will accuse or excuse them on their day of judgment.
So in the New Testament, the definition of “sin” shifts from being purely a matter of behavior to being a matter of behavior that is in accordance with or contrary to our conscience—meaning our knowledge and belief about what is good and right and about what God expects of us.
Evil is evil because it is harmful
Of course, our behavior still matters.
Even if we have no intention of doing any harm, if we do things that are wrong and harmful they still cause damage to others and to ourselves. We do have an obligation to learn what’s right and wrong, as expressed in the quote from Deuteronomy 6:6–9 above.
That’s because evil is evil because it is harmful.
God is not some capricious autocrat who makes arbitrary rules just to please the ol’ Divine Ego.
When God gives us a commandment, it’s because God knows that if we violate that commandment, it will hurt people.
God’s purpose in giving us commandments is always to provide for our wellbeing, and never merely for God’s glory. When the Bible tells us to stand in awe of God’s glory, its purpose is to make sure that we pay attention to what God is telling us for our own good.
We should understand, though, that many of the commandments in the Bible are specific to the type of culture in which they were given. For example, in Bible times a divorced woman was a social pariah, and was often driven into prostitution just to survive. Because of this harsh cultural situation, the laws about divorce given in the Bible were very strict. In New Testament times, Jesus made the divorce laws even stricter than those of the Old Testament in order to protect women against the whims of capricious husbands.
However, in present-day cultures in which no such terrible stigma is attached to divorce, and divorced women (and men, of course) can go on to live good lives, the laws need not be so strict. (For related articles, see: “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth” and: Is there a Biblical Basis for Wives Divorcing their Physically Abusive Husbands?)
Back to the main point, God’s commandments are all about steering us away from harm and destruction, and moving us toward what is good and constructive for us, both individually and as a society.
Sin, then, is doing things that cause harm, and especially intentionally doing things that cause harm. Such things are against God’s commandments precisely because they cause harm.
When we sin, we sin against God
One more point about sin.
While we can commit offenses against our fellow human beings, when we sin, we are sinning against God.
That’s because God, and not other human beings, is the source of all truth and justice, and of every commandment about what we should and shouldn’t do.
I know—human beings also make laws. And we do have to obey the laws of the land, or risk the consequences from human police, courts, and governments. But ultimately, all human laws are just or unjust based on whether or not they are in accordance with God’s laws.
And though human laws are binding upon our behavior here on earth, God’s laws are spiritual laws. They are binding not just on our behavior, but on our eternal soul. In the spiritual world, all laws are God’s laws. There, the angels simply articulate and carry out God’s laws.
Sin is a spiritual thing. In its most developed and truest definition, it is when we intentionally do what we know is wrong. In other words, sinning isn’t just a matter of the outward behavior that we humans can judge and punish. Rather, it is an inner attitude of mind and heart in which we willfully violate our conscience by acting contrary to what we know is good and right according to God’s laws.
So although we can commit offenses and crimes against the human laws that regulate our behavior here on earth, when we sin, that is a spiritual action in violation of God’s commandments and laws—all of which are meant to keep us from doing harm, and to lead us toward doing good.
The example of David and Bathsheba
As a Biblical example, consider king David’s actions in arranging for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle in order to cover up David’s adultery with Bathsheba. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25.
In the story, David breaks a whole slew of God’s commandments, chief among them being “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) and “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). In the process, he does deadly harm to a good and innocent man: Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, whom he causes to be killed in battle. He also makes an adulteress out of Bathsheba, and their first son dies as a result of the adultery. Further, he does great damage to his reputation and standing as the king of Israel, and to the people’s ability to respect him in that role.
Clearly, in this story David committed many offenses against his fellow human beings, and caused great harm to them.
And yet in Psalm 51, written in response to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, we read these words:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
(Psalm 51:1–4, italics added)
How could David, the traditional author of this Psalm, say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned” when he had obviously done serious harm to his fellow human beings?
Because it was God’s laws that he had broken, and God is the one to whom we must ultimately answer spiritually for our behavior.
God’s laws are designed to keep us from harming ourselves and others. When we knowingly and intentionally break God’s laws, we commit crimes and offenses against our fellow human beings, but we commit sins against God.
We’ve spent a long time on sin. Now we’ll move on to somewhat briefer considerations of judgment, punishment, and God’s expectations of us.
God’s judgment is seeing things in the light of divine truth
Here on earth, many things are not what they appear to be. And more to the point, many people are not who they appear to be.
Every day the news brings us stories of “fine, upstanding citizens” who are disgraced when a dark side of their character is revealed as their secret illegal and immoral actions are brought to light. These people had projected an image of themselves as moral and upright people when they were secretly anything but.
And then there are times when some “lowlife” is shown to be a fine, thoughtful, and caring person, such as in this story: Invest in Kindness: Reap a 5,000% Return!
As the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Especially in this mixed-up world.
One way of picturing God’s judgment is the classic scene of God sitting on a throne in heaven on Judgment Day, elevating some people to heaven and condemning others to hell based on their actions. See, for example Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46. Although Jesus uses human metaphors of kings and thrones, those metaphors do have a specific message: God will judge us according to our character and our actions.
How does God’s judgment work?
But exactly how does God do this? Is God really like a human king sitting on a throne in the Great Hall of some stupendous castle in heaven? Surely an infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent God has better things to do!
Jesus spoke in parables. His story of God judging on his glorious throne is no exception. By using this human imagery he was pointing to spiritual realities. God “on his throne” means God ruling over the “kingdoms” of heaven and earth based on divine truth.
We could spend a lot of time teasing this all out, but that’s not necessary for our purposes today. Instead, here’s a thumbnail sketch of how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) describes the process of judgment:
- For each of us, judgment is a process that begins as soon as we die.
- When we first arrive in the spiritual world, we live exactly as we had lived before here on earth.
- But as our life unfolds in the spiritual world, the outward image of ourselves that we project to others is gradually stripped away, and our true, inner character comes to light.
- By the time this process is complete, everything we say and do outwardly expresses exactly what we actually think and feel within ourselves.
This process takes place because the longer we live in the spiritual world, the more the light of divine truth shines on us, revealing what we are truly like inside.
Yes, in a sense God does judge us to heaven or hell. But God does not do this like some earthly king or queen who listens to the evidence and then decides whether the defendant will be exonerated or condemned. Rather, God shines the light of God’s truth on each one of us. That truth dissolves and strips away any masks that we may have put on during our earthly lifetime, exposing our inner soul and revealing our true character.
So God’s judgment is a matter of showing who we truly are inside by making our real character clearly visible both to ourselves (if we’ve been deceiving ourselves) and to everyone around us.
And according to Swedenborg, once that judgment has been completed, we voluntarily go either to heaven or to hell based on the character we have chosen and developed within ourselves during our lifetime here on earth.
For more on this process of judgment, see: What Happens To Us When We Die?
In short, God’s judgment reveals who we truly are. But we are the ones who choose to be that person, and we are therefore the ones who choose either heaven or hell for ourselves.
To use Rami’s words, our situation in the afterlife “is the fully realized manifestation of these choices,” and God’s judgment involves God shining the light of divine truth on us, making it clear to everyone, including ourselves, exactly what we have chosen.
Punishment is the inevitable consequence of evil and sin
The Bible commonly speaks of God rewarding the good and righteous with eternal life, and condemning the evil and sinful to eternal punishment, as in the story of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31–46 referred to earlier. And for those of us who believe this is going to happen literally as described in the Bible, it has the salutary effect of putting us on notice that we’d better get our lives in order or there will be serious consequences!
And in fact, if we continue to live selfish, greedy, evil, and sinful lives, there will be serious consequences.
Remember how I said earlier that evil is evil because it causes harm? And that God commands us not to do it because God doesn’t want us to get hurt?
Well . . . evil is evil because it causes harm!
If we engage in evil, it will cause harm, both to other people and to ourselves.
And if we willfully choose to live a life of greed, self-absorption, grasping for power, and taking revenge on those who cross us, it will cause eternal harm to our soul, and plunge us into an afterlife that involves much suffering and pain.
But it won’t be God who punishes us. Instead, it will be our own evil actions that bring punishment upon ourselves. As expressed in Psalm 34:21:
Evil brings death to the wicked.
Not God. Evil itself.
Evil involves rejecting God’s love and protection
How does this happen?
Here on earth, we see it happening all the time.
Jesus said, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In other words, violent people tend to die violent deaths when their enemies retaliate against them, or they die in shootouts with the police. Every day the news brings us stories of people who have engaged in dishonest, criminal, and violent behavior reaping the consequences of their actions.
The same principle applies in the spiritual world. But there it operates far more reliably and systemically than it does here on earth. In the spiritual world, no one can evade the consequences of his or her actions.
Evil is evil not only because it causes harm, but also because it is a rejection of God’s love, wisdom, power, and protection. God would love to protect even the evil spirits in hell from the consequences of their own actions. But God cannot do so.
Because when people willfully engage in evil and destructive actions, they are actively rejecting God’s love and protection.
God loves even the evil spirits in hell, and would dearly love to save them from their pain and suffering. But they hate God, and they bitterly resent any intrusion by God into their lives. God therefore respects their wishes, and does not intervene—at least, not until things get totally out of hand, and some intervention is necessary in order to prevent the destruction from going too far, and causing greater damage than the original evil actions warranted.
In short, because God respects our right to decide for ourselves how we will live, the best God can do for people who have chosen to live in hell is to limit their pain and punishment to something proportional to the particular types of evil actions that they have chosen to engage in.
In hell, the punishment always fits the crime.
Evil punishes itself—and one another
What actually happens in hell, Swedenborg says, is not that God punishes the evil spirits there, but rather that they punish one another. In fact, they love to inflict pain and suffering upon one another. That’s what being evil is all about, isn’t it?
Or they love to steal from one another. Or they love to engage in verbal and emotional abuse against one another. Or they love to engage in whatever their twisted pleasure happens to be—which always involves harm to others, and even to themselves.
So hell, as Swedenborg describes it, is like nations and governments continually wracked with intrigue, infighting, and revolution. Or it is like thieves continually stealing from one another. Or it is like couples constantly fighting in their homes as each strives to dominate and control the other. The list goes on and on.
In every case, it is the evil spirits themselves who inflict pain and punishment on one another whenever they see an opportunity. And that opportunity comes when others commit evil and destructive actions, rejecting protection from God and the angels, and opening themselves up to retaliation.
For more on this sad and sorry scene, see: Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
In short: punishment is not something God metes out, arbitrarily or otherwise, to those who engage in evil. Rather, punishment is the inevitable pain and torment that results from our own evil actions.
What does God expect of us?
But let’s end on a happier note.
What does God expect of us?
To answer this question, we need to understand that the only thing God feels for us is love. And God’s love is a desire to give us happiness and joy.
Yes, technically God does have other feelings toward us, such as happiness at our happiness, joy at our joy, and sorrow at our pain. But all of these are simply different forms of God’s love.
This also means that God does not feel anything towards us that conflicts with love—even if it may seem otherwise to us. For example, although the Bible talks about God’s wrath, “the wrath of God” is actually just what God’s love looks like to people who are fighting against God’s love. (See: What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?)
So God is never upset with us, never disappointed in us, never annoyed with us, never displeased with us, and so on. Sometimes it may look to us as if God feels these things toward us. And sometimes we need to think that God is angry and upset with us so that we’ll shape up and quit being such stubborn boneheads. But the reality is that God only ever feels love and concern for us, and for our happiness and wellbeing.
So when we talk about God’s “expectations” of us, it’s not like the expectations of parents who want their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers, and are disappointed when they become auto mechanics, construction workers, and retail store clerks instead.
God is happy with our achievements
What God really has for us is aspirations. God sees what we can become. And God wants us to achieve that, not out of some sense of pride that could be hurt, but because God knows that when we reach our fullest potential as human beings, we also achieve our greatest happiness and joy.
What about when we fall short of our greatest potential? Is God disappointed in us?
Yes, God is aware that we could have achieved more if we had wanted to. But instead of being disappointed at what we haven’t achieved, God shares with us the joy and satisfaction of what we have achieved. God doesn’t worry about what we might have accomplished, but rather takes pleasure in what we are accomplishing with our lives.
Being an auto mechanic, a construction worker, or a retail clerk is a good thing. These are good and useful jobs. And if we enjoy helping and serving other people as we do our work, God is happy that we have found something that we enjoy doing while being of service to our fellow human beings.
In other words, whatever we achieve with our life, if it gives us happiness and satisfaction, and it is our way of showing love for our fellow human beings—however humble it may be—it gives God joy, and God enjoys our life with us.
Here, then, is a general principle to walk away with:
God gives us exactly as much joy and happiness as we are able to receive based on our choices and our actions. Any less, and God would be stingy. Any more, and we could not bear it.
So heaven, like hell, is the fully realized manifestation of our choices, not because we provide anything for ourselves, but because God loves us, and in heaven God can give us every bit of light and love that we open up our soul to receive.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
- What Happens To Us When We Die?
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
HI Lee, thank you so much for replying back, and with your characteristic detail and rigor; I’m delighted to see that you’ve found this and previous conundrums worthwhile enough to build into a larger series that will hopefully assist other people with similar questions. I did want to briefly share some thoughts as to this one.
If I understand Swedenborg correctly, based upon your reply, it is upon death that Divine truth strips away our Earthly facade to reveal our inner character, and Heaven and Hell are what we freely choose so as to fully live the deepest, truest desires of that character. But as I’m sure you know, human beings are some pretty complicated creatures, with some pretty complicated motivations!
There may be many charitable, loving people who, say, at the same time enjoy indulging in casual, non-committed sex, or the casual abuse of drugs and alcohol. There many generous people who nevertheless maintain materialistic, gluttonous lifestyles; or outwardly loving people who inwardly despise and seek to hurt themselves. And then there are well meaning people who help people to sin under the deluded pretense that they are doing it in their best interest, such as selling them addictive substances or assisting them in the act of sexual seduction. If our choices shape our character into good or evil (or ones that are attracted to good or evil), how does Swedenborg account for the seeming moral complexity of each person’s character?
If trying to match a morally complex character to a fixed idea of good/Heaven and evil/Hell creates a theological problem, then maybe it’s one that the classical concept of Original Sin actually solves. That is, we are all inherently, equally evil, such that even our ‘good’ actions are guided by evil selfishness, with salvation being a gift that is freely given and that we must faithfully accept, distinct (but not separate) from our deeds. In that regard, your average non-Christian has the same Hellish fate as Adolf Hitler because, despite having lived two completely different lives, they are still both guilty of the same ultimate sin. And your average Christian has the same Heavenly fate as Mother Theresa because, despite having lived two completely different lives, they have both accepted the gift of salvation from their sins.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that this is a ‘solution,’ but both ‘traditional’ Christianity and Swedenborg accept an (ultimately) good/evil dichotomy, and if we’re going to view salvation in black and white terms, then we need to view our inner nature in black and white terms, and so I’m wondering if the idea of Original Sin/Salvation by Faith actually lines up more coherently with this thinking than Swedenborg’s ‘deeds not creeds’ (and not to oversimplify either).
Eager to hear your thoughts, Lee!
I’m glad you found these articles helpful, and thanks for your kind words. I’ll respond to your further questions a bit piecemeal in shorter comments to avoid the possibility that I’ll have to make yet another post out of these answers! 😛
First, you say:
Yes, although to be fully accurate, this takes place upon death if it has not happened already here on earth.
Some people, Swedenborg points out, are already fully at one right here on earth before they die. In other words, either they have a good soul and it is fully expressed in their outward words and actions already, or they have an evil soul and that is already fully expressed in their outward words and actions while they are here on earth.
We see this especially in some elderly people who no longer bother to conceal their real inner thoughts and feelings, whether sunny or grouchy, and just say and do what they think and feel, so that “what you see is what you get.”
Such people have no “masks” to strip away when they arrive in the spiritual world. They therefore skip over the process of revealing their true inner selves described in the linked article, “What Happens To Us When We Die?”
Such people instead go directly to their eternal homes in either heaven or hell as soon as they wake up in the spiritual world, because they have already accomplished here on earth the full unifying of their inner and outer selves that for most people takes place after death during a shorter or longer stay in the “world of spirits,” which is the intermediate area between heaven and hell in the spiritual world.
Is it really possible to be completely stripped of all external layers when existing in our physical plane as fallible humans?
Even those who live by “what you see is what you get” are still portraying some level of facade, even if minimally, since no human can be completely pure in current physical form, no?
I know many people who tout that specific attitude (including myself at times), yet I seriously doubt, regardless of age and experience, that the ABSOLUTE true nature of a person, as described and defined by Swedenborg, exists while mortal.
What people say is their attitude isn’t always their actual attitude. As Jean Giraudoux famously said, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”
Also, even for those in the spiritual world who have had their outer false fronts stripped away, it is still possible in various situations simply not to say what one is thinking. For example, in one of his stories of events witnessed in the spiritual world, Swedenborg describes some traditional Christian clerics whose real belief was that there are three Gods (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each being God and Lord by themselves) being unable to say “One God,” no matter how hard they struggled to get their lips to produce the words. But they are able to remain silent and simply not say what they actually believe. (See True Christianity #111.)
Back to your point, most people here on earth still do, as you say, have at least some slight bit of mismatch between their inner self and their outer self. So most people will need to spend at least some time in the world of spirits to get their outer self fully in accord with their inner self. But at least according to Swedenborg, there are some people, both good and evil, who accomplish that harmonizing of their outer with their inner self here on earth, and simply don’t need that transition time in the world of spirits. These are probably not people who proclaim themselves to be fully sincere and “what you see is what you get,” but people who simply go about their business saying and doing exactly what they think and desire.
According to Swedenborg, people who are profoundly malicious but put on an outward guise of goodness to deceive people are also cast directly into hell after death to protect innocent people from their malice.
For one of the places Swedenborg talks about these things, see Heaven and Hell #491. (In my remarks above I’m paraphrasing this and other statements he makes about this phenomenon.)
I have a question regarding terminology used in your reference,Heaven and Hell #491.
The words “cast” and “raised” are used regarding actions taken with/against people upon death and moving through the World of Spirits.
I certainly interpret “raised” as “lifted”, with an emphasis on assistance from God to the spirit in a positive sense. However, I interpret “cast” as a forceful, derogatory action taken, and this goes against the generalizations made consistently throughout Swedenborg’s teachings in that we “elect” our path to Heaven or Hell once in the spiritual world. We are not forced upon either path – we choose, and embark upon that path. Willingly.
Are there inconsistencies in translation or interpretation?
The use of the word “cast” implies punishment, and falls more in line with standard Christian beliefs and interpretations, rather than one’s soul “electing” Hell over Heaven as discussed by Swedenborg, whereby it would be our preference for such path and happily embark upon it, to either realm of destination, because it is our choice.
This seems to be rather contradictory.
As you say, the principle that people willingly go to their final homes either in heaven or hell is, like most things relating to human beings, a generalization. As a generalization, it’s a pretty good one. The Libertarians among us will like the spiritual world pretty well. But it’s not a total laissez faire utopia—especially on the hell side of the ledger. God and the angels do sometimes have to take forceful action to protect innocent people in the spiritual world from predatory spirits.
And yet, it ultimately still is the choice of those spirits. They did not have to become predators. Hardened criminals here on earth do, in a sense, choose to spend large chunks of their lives in prison because they choose to engage in behavior that society must protect itself from. So although in a few cases (according to Swedenborg), evil spirits actually are cast into hell, it was their own choices and actions that put them into a position in which that must happen.
I should also mention that what appears to onlookers to be happening in the spiritual world is often more symbolic and representational than literal. So although people looking on from a distance may see evil spirits being cast into hell, the evil spirits themselves may experience it as rushing into hell of their own accord, and even casting themselves headlong into hell. And Swedenborg, too, sometimes speaks in terms of the common appearance of things rather than the technical reality.
Finally, keep in mind that God provides the power for everything that happens, both in the spiritual universe and in the material universe. However, especially in the human realm, individuals can direct that power from God in one direction or another. And in the case of evil people and evil spirits, the life force that reaches them from God is twisted by them toward evil directions and evil ends. So although it’s not exactly false that God casts people into hell, what’s happening is that when power from God encounters insidiously evil spirits, it becomes a repelling force in which the evil spirits react against God’s presence and power, causing that power to sweep them downward toward hell like a tidal wave.
I little mind-scrambling, I know. But considering the weird phenomena physicists are discovering in the world of nature these days, wouldn’t it be a bit surprising if the spiritual world didn’t act in some strange and counter-intuitive ways as well?
A key idea in understanding the human good vs. evil duality in relation to the complexity of human motives and actions is Swedenborg’s concept traditionally translated as “ruling love,” and in some more recent translations as “dominant” or “leading love.”
Each person, Swedenborg says, consists of many different loves, motives, desires, beliefs, ideas, understandings, and so on, many of which are, in fact, contradictory to one another even within the same person.
However, each of us also has a “dominant love” that rules over all the other elements of our character, using them for its own purposes even when we are doing something else—and even if that something else appears to be contrary to our dominant love.
So, for example, a person whose dominant love is building up personal wealth may engage in many different activities during the day. He or she may be an active, contributing member of the community, and may have a reputation as a good and caring person. But for that person, all of this is simply a means to the end of making lots of cold, hard cash—for which having a reputation of being benevolent and civic-minded is a big plus. So although this person does engage in many different activities, some of which may outwardly appear to conflict with his or her actual dominant love (such as making generous charitable contributions to worthy causes) in fact everything that person says or does ultimately revolves around a desire to become wealthy. Though this person’s character may indeed be complex, with many facets, the desire for wealth is the underlying organizing principle that arranges all of the other facets of the personality to serve that primary goal.
Of course, here on earth our dominant love may be confused and in flux. After all, the whole process of being “born again,” or “regenerated,” is one of changing our dominant love from something self-centered and greedy to something that values God above all, and one’s fellow human beings at least as much as oneself.
In other words, some people’s lives are complex and seem confused because these people actually are in a confused and unsettled state of transition—a state that can last for years, and even decades, of our lifetime here on earth.
Our ultimate home in either heaven or hell, Swedenborg says, depends not upon our subsidiary loves, motives, desires, beliefs, and actions, which may indeed be a bit confused and contradictory. It depends, rather, on what we place on the “throne” of our being as our dominant love, around which all the other facets of our character will gather, and which all those other elements of ourselves will ultimately serve.
In the world of spirits, where we each go immediately after death, outer parts of ourselves that really don’t harmonize with and correspond to our true inner self—which is determined by our dominant love—will be stripped away before we go to our final home in either heaven or hell.
So on your examples of people who have good hearts (i.e., a good dominant love) but engage in particular behaviors that are actually destructive of others or of themselves, they will drop those behaviors during their transitional and preparatory time in the world of spirits, before moving on to heaven.
On the other hand, people whose dominant love is evil—self-centered, greedy, and so on—will drop the outer pleasantries and hypocrisies they used to engage in to accomplish their less-than-worthy goals, and will speak and act outwardly in full accord with their true inner motives, or dominant love.
This does not mean that our entire personality will be stripped away. Each human being is still a unique and complex character, and that won’t change. What changes is that we become fully who we truly are, and drop any masks, fakery, and pretenses with which we might have cloaked our real character and personality here on earth.
In other words, heaven does not consist of a whole lot of dreamy-eyed, lovey-dovey people who float around on clouds with vacant smiles while strumming out New Age music on heavenly harps. The people there have, if anything, even more clear, distinct, and idiosnycratic personalities than they did here, because there they don’t bother covering up their true thoughts and feelings in order to conform to social expectations.
So heaven is a very human place, and the people there are even more real, human, and unique than the people here on earth.
Hi Lee, thank you kindly for your follow up response. I can see a bit more clearly this idea of dominant love governing outer behaviors, but I still admit to some confusion. When you mention that we drop those exterior elements that do not correspond to our inner nature- such as acts that are destructive of ourselves or others- I thought it was our outward actions that forge our inner nature. That is, we choose evil through actions that our outwardly evil, and we so as such become inwardly evil. I’m not saying that someone with an otherwise good heart cannot occasionally or even persistently choose evil in one aspect of their life or another, but therein lies the issue I’m trying to get my head around, namely, the ultimate fate of good people who (in part or at tines) choose evil, and how that affects their inner nature.
Also, what of decisions unrelated to ruling love? Is that even conceivable? In the example of inwardly charitable people who choose casual sex, what is the relationship between their ruling love and that seemingly unrelated decision toward evil?
I know you have your hands full with this post Lee, so I’ll try to add to the conversation without overwhelming you with details, but is there in difference between inner self and inner nature? I understand that we are all created intrinsically good, so is a good inner self really just one that is harmonized with our naturally good inner nature? And is that done through deeds inspired by our inner nature, such that our inner self is what results? So much terminology!
I try to avoid getting too tangled in terminology. Words are meant to convey meaning and clarify things. Whenever they fail to do so, they have outlived their usefulness. Even Swedenborg is known at times to carefully define and distinguish between related terms to clarify exactly what he is talking about in a particular passage, and then in other places in his writings—even later on in the same book—completely ignore those careful definitions and use the same terms with different or more common meanings. Those Swedenborgians who try to carefully define each of his terms and then apply those definitions throughout his works end out making a mash of his theology, and drawing many faulty conclusions.
So I suppose we could make a distinction between the “inner self” and the “inner nature,” such as the “inner self” being our whole spiritual self, and our “inner nature” being the primary focus and direction of our spirit, as determined by the dominant love. But those definitions may or may not be useful depending on how those terms are used.
But more to the point of what I think you’re getting at, it’s not entirely true that “we are all created intrinsically good.” Since the Fall I would say, rather, that we are created intrinsically innocent, with the potential to become good, but that unfortunately, our natural tendency is instead to be evil in the form of being self-centered, greedy, and so on. We can see this in young children who are mostly concerned with their own pleasure and their own toys. For more on this, see these articles
So our inner nature starting out really is not naturally or intrinsically good, but rather we have the potential to become good. Balancing that is the fact that we did not choose the inner nature we were born with, and the teaching (of Swedenborg) that until we are self-responsible adults, our words and actions pursuant to that nature are not spiritually damning because we have not consciously chosen, as self-responsible adults, to live from our evil impulses rather than our good ones.
The process of child-raising and education, especially spiritual education, is one of providing example, instruction, and direction of children toward what is good, in order to counteract our inborn self-centeredness so that children arrive at adulthood with a clear sense of good and evil, and of their own role in choosing between them for their own life. For more on this, see: “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?”
So back to your question, the deeds we do, whether inspired by the good side of our inner nature or the evil side of our inner nature (because each one of us hits adulthood with both), will strengthen that part of our nature. Alternatively, evil deeds can be the occasion for learning the nature of evil, and making a decision not to think, feel, and act that way anymore.
Now I’ve said a lot of things, and raised a number of topics, so I’ll pause for now and let you respond as to whether any of this is helpful in addressing your questions and explorations here.
Spiritually speaking, our outward actions have meaning primarily as they reflect our inner motives and choices. Although it seems as if our behavior shapes our heart and our soul, it is actually the other way around: our heart and our soul shapes and directs our behavior. The behavior then becomes a foundation and support for the motives and choices from which they came. So our actions do matter, but spiritually they matter primarily as they reflect and support our choices and our motives.
About good people who sometimes make evil choices, the first question is whether they actually believe that those choices are evil. It’s common today for people to think there is nothing wrong with casual sex. And if they think there’s nothing wrong with it, then engaging in it is not a violation of their conscience, and does not drag them spiritually toward hell, even if there may be some unintended negative consequences—such as unplanned pregnancies and angry exes.
However, if they do believe that it’s wrong, and engage in it anyway, then it has more serious consequences. It still may not be damning. It depends upon the rest of their life, and what primarily drives their life (the “dominant love” again). Still, violating one’s conscience does cause us spiritual damage.
I would add that our sexual self is one of the more difficult areas of our life to really get under control. There are powerful, primal drives connected with reproduction. Many people simply aren’t able to get them under control and directed in healthy ways. So although sexual sin can be tremendously damaging—especially if it involves adultery—I also believe that God has a certain amount of tolerance and mercy on us imperfect humans who can’t always get our sexual drives under control and functioning healthily.
However, the power of the dominant love concept is that that is what will ultimately determine whether we are in heaven or in hell. Even if we aren’t perfect (and which of us is perfect?), if our primary motive and goal in life is good, the fact that we have some remaining unregenerate and evil parts of ourselves won’t damn us to hell. We’ll still have to work on it. And any seriously problematic parts of ourselves will have to drop away during our time in the world of spirits, before we go to our final home in heaven. But even there, we still continue to develop and perfect ourselves. Even the angels are not perfect, and even they need to continue to grow spiritually to eternity.
Hi again, Lee, and thank you (as always). This discussion concerns a matter that, quite frankly, is difficult to discuss, because it invites meditating on all the natural and created nuances of the human condition: the good we do, the evil we do, good primary loves but evil secondary loves, primary loves that are more good and evil than others (if such a thing is possible), and how this reflects who we internally are. More specifically, though, the difficulty concerns trying to map such a nuance filled life onto a dichotomous grid of good and evil, and of heaven and hell. For instance, a (simplified) understanding of Eastern ideas on reincarnation is that we each return in a different form dictated by the life we lead and lessons we learned in the previous one. Since there are a million and one ways to live your life and lessons to learn (or fail to learn), it makes sense that there are just as many forms in which to return. But imagine for a moment if there were only *two* possible beings in which to be reincarnated- it will seem difficult if not utterly impossible to distill a lifetime of moral nuance into one form without doing a theological disservice to one or the other.
It’s for that reason that I wonder if the traditional idea of original sin not only simplifies the issue but actually maps more coherently to the idea of heaven and hell, as we are according to that doctrine all internally evil sinners who are nevertheless redeemed and reconciled back to God provided we accept of Christ’s blood sacrifice, as opposed to a good and evil mixture that finds its appropriate home in the afterlife.
The idea of a dominant, guiding love does indeed seem to solve the ‘problem,’ though it does raise a couple of concerns I’m hoping you might address. When you state that, even in the after life, we still have to work out the evil of our condition (and forgive me if I’m misquoting you) do you think that can lend itself to a kind of spiritual complacency, where one believes that, so long as their dominant love is good, they can sin in other ways, even against their own conscious, and just work it all out in heaven after death (a lower heaven, but hey, still on the right side of death’s divide!).
Secondly, does this idea of continuing to develop after death infer a kind of ‘soul evolution?’ Because I’m not of the belief that the soul itself needs to evolve, but rather that the person who is clothing their soul needs to grow and develop so as to connect with their pure spirit (and this relates to the second question I dropped below this one, which I will get to after this one).
Finally (and this might be better reserved for a later discussion): when you describe someone who commits evil while still abiding by their conscience, is that actually their conscience speaking? I think the idea of one’s conscience is understood differently in spiritual terms than it is in material ones, whereby its ‘the seat of intuition,’ from which Divine wisdom flows- so can a properly informed conscience actually lead someone to evil? Or is it them suppressing their conscience and instead following the desires of their ego? This would actually be akin to the way some Evangelicals claim that no one is truly, innocently ignorant of Christ, but rather are in some way actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit. Okay, I’ve said plenty, and I wish to return the courtesy and allow you to respond back (to what you can, when you can).
About reincarnation, I’ve expressed my views on that quite fully in this article: “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation,” which I would recommend to your reading (or re-reading), especially since it would save me typing out various points relevant to this discussion.
I know it’s a long article. But it’s long because I attempted to put in a single article all of the major points relating to reincarnation vs. the Christian concept of a single life followed by either heaven or hell. (Of course, some topics did inevitably not make the cut.)
About the complexity of life and the “solution” of original sin:
Of course it is always easier to go for an explanation that simplifies things into stark blacks and whites such as “We’re all born guilty and damned to hell” with the solution “We are saved by the sacraments, grace, faith,” etc.
The problem is, human life is, in fact, fiendishly complex. Just looking at the human physical body, with all of its permutations, genetic predispositions, birth defects, diseases, capabilities, clusters of organs, not to mention the brain and the mind—to try to boil it all down into some simple formula that relieves us of having to think and ponder the human situation is oh! so tempting!
And I believe that is one of the main reasons such doctrines as original sin, salvation by faith alone, predestination, and so on were originated, and became so popular. It’s much easier to settle into a simple formula that sidesteps all of the human complexities and reduces human life to a black and white, on and off picture.
Unfortunately, that’s just not how human life works.
Yes, there is a dichotomy of good and evil. But as you mention in one of your comments, within both the good side and the evil side there are indefinite shades and levels, from just barely good to supremely good, and from slightly self-absorbed to hardened, committed, vicious evil. So it’s not a simple black/white, good/evil universe. It’s a universe with every shade and color from the blackest black to the most radiant light. Swedenborg speaks of good diminishing level by level until it comes to nothing, and then on the other side of that line evil beginning and increasing until it reaches the lowest levels of hell.
And it’s not even just a linear scale. It’s a vast landscape of good and evil, spread out over vast (spiritual) spaces of length and breadth, and stretching from low to high; and for every point on the vast, topographically complex, three-dimensional landscape of good, there is a corresponding opposite point on an equally vast, topographically complex, three-dimensional landscape of evil.
So even though there is a dichotomy of good and evil, it is anything but a simple black-and-white picture. It is an incredibly complex dual landscape consisting of all the variations and permutations of human character and human choices.
Reducing this all down to a simple “original sin vs. divine grace” or “salvation by faith vs. damnation in the absence of faith” simply doesn’t do justice to the great complexity that even this physical universe and material-world human society presents to us, let alone the even greater spiritual complexity of the human mind and heart.
I understand that many people simply can’t deal with that level of complexity, and therefore go for simpler “solutions.” And God allows for that. But if you truly want to plumb the depths of the human situation, I would suggest flushing out of your mind those simplistic “solutions,” and face the cosmic complexity that is our actual human life.
About the possibility of people becoming complacent if they think they can just fix everything up in the afterlife:
Certainly that is a possibility. And I believe that God allows for many people to accept simpler “shape up or ship out” concepts of salvation and damnation precisely because some people would get lazy if they understood how our spiritual life really works.
But the fact of the matter is that many people get complacent anyway. For example, a perennial problem with faith-alone theology is that people think, “Now that I have faith in Jesus, I’m saved, so why should I bother reforming my life?” It is, unfortunately, quite common for “born-again Christians” not to be very nice or even very moral people, but to think they’re covered because Jesus paid the penalty for their sins. So since it’s not critical for them to stop sinning, they’ll get to it when they get around to it, so to speak.
From the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology, there’s no warrant for complacency. Whatever spiritual rebirth we accomplish here on earth, that will shape the rest of our life to eternity. If we put out the minimum effort, yes, we might get “into the door” of heaven. But we’ll be the equivalent of menial laborers there. And if we’re satisfied with that, God still won’t turn us away.
No matter which way you slice it, the quality of our eternal life is in our own hands. If we’re willing to settle for less, we’ll get less. If we’re willing to put our shoulder into it and work hard, we’ll achieve more, and that will be reflected in the level of joy and satisfaction in life that we experience to eternity.
So the choice is not a simple good/evil choice. It’s also a choice of how good (or how evil) we want to be. And it’s also not just a simple, one-time up/down choice. It’s a whole series of smaller and larger choices at multiple forks in the road that, in the aggregate, determine precisely where on that vast landscape of heaven or hell we will spend eternity.
The choice(es) is(are) in our own hands.
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “soul evolution,” but here’s at least some response:
As I said in “God, Forgiveness, Freedom, and Hell – Part 3,” each of us does have an inmost soul that is never corrupted because it is beyond our ability to affect.
What I didn’t say in that article is that that inmost soul also contains the basic blueprints for our life. We are not born as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, upon which anything at all can be written. Just as our physical self has a genetic blueprint created from a unique combination of genetic material derived from both of our biological parents, so our soul also has a spiritual “genetic blueprint” that has great determinative effect on the nature of our self and character.
Of course, environment, not to mention our choices, do have a major effect on exactly how that blueprint will be expressed in building the actual reality of our life. But environment and choices work themselves out within the general directions and boundaries set by our spiritual genetics.
Another way of saying this is that we are not radically free. We have freedom along a continuum, or along opposite-facing “cones of uncertainty” that define how far we are able to deviate from a particular line in a particular good direction or an equal and opposite line in a particular evil direction.
(With thanks to: “Heading into the Cone of Uncertainty”)
Environment and our choices may push us to one or another edge of the cone, or keep us moving along its central area. But we can’t go just anywhere and in any direction because of that spiritual blueprint that exists in the “DNA” of our inmost soul—which is like the nucleus of the cell of our being.
Once we’ve finished our lifetime here on earth, that cone of uncertainty is pointed in an even more specific direction than it was at the time of our birth. Our “soul evolution” in the spiritual world will take place along that cone. Every new step and decision we make in the spiritual world will start a new cone of probability contained within the original one, and stretching out in the same general direction.
So yes, we do continue to “evolve,” or “regenerate” or develop spiritually in heaven, pushing our remaining evil more and more to the side, and moving closer and closer to God and to our fellow human beings. But there will be no radical change of direction. Only a development in the cone of probability set first by our spiritual genetics at conception, then by the whole series of environmental factors and choices that took place during our lifetime, and then continuing with the choices we make in the spiritual world, which will now, as I said, move within the cone of probability defined and delineated at the time of our death by our entire previous life in the world.
As an example from human society, if we opt to become a nurse, we can continue to become a better and better nurse, but we will never become a doctor. And if we become a doctor, we can continue to become a better and better doctor, but we will never become a hospital administrator. And so on.
So the soul itself, if you mean our inmost soul, does not evolve. It remains the same as it was originally created at the time of our conception, just as our physical genetics are set at the time of our physical conception. (And there is no genetic modification of our spiritual DNA!) But we as conscious beings—as angels—do continue to evolve and develop within the pattern set by that spiritual DNA, and the pattern set by our life and choices here on earth.
DNA is not a life. It is just a series of incredibly complex spirals within the nucleus of our cells. Our life as flesh and blood human beings within the pattern set by that DNA is our life. And just as we develop into a particular unique human being within the pattern set by our DNA, so we spiritually continue to develop to all eternity as a unique angel within the pattern set by our spiritual DNA and our lifetime here on earth.
Finally, about conscience:
Oh, how glorious it would be if our conscience were formed by a direct brain-dump from God!
Alas! It’s not so!
Yes, there do seem to be some “built-in” perceptions that we come equipped with standard.
But in reality, our conscience is developed throughout our childhood based on what we learn and are taught by word, by example, and by the daily trial-and-error of experience.
That is why people of different religions have different beliefs about what things are right and wrong. Some feel pangs of conscience if they go out dancing. Others think dancing is great! Some feel pangs of conscience if they are drafted into the army. Others have no beliefs hindering them from “fighting for God and country.”
The variety of beliefs about what is right and wrong among various people and in various cultures is truly staggering.
The main point is that although we can discern some general commonalities among most systems of morals and ethics, which are loosely defined by the second table of the Ten Commandments relating to human-on-human behavior, conscience is not a direct brain-dump from God, but rather something we build up in our childhood and youth based on what we are taught and what we experience in our particular culture and environment.
And it is according to that particular and unique conscience that we will ultimately be judged, or perhaps judge ourselves.
Even if some of the things we believe are evil are not actually evil (such as dancing!), if we believe they’re wrong, and continue to engage in them, that will be, for us, sin, and it will be damaging and destructive to our soul.
Of course, many of us as adults realize or decide that some of the things we were taught as children were wrong, and our conscience changes as a result, so that something we formerly believed was evil, and that formerly would have been sinful for us to engage in, no longer is sinful for us.
But the main point is that it is our particular conscience that provides for us the structure of right and wrong that we will either choose to abide by or choose to violate. For more on this, see: Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
So yes, our conscience can prompt us to do things that are actually evil, even though we believe that they are good and therefore do them in good conscience. And while they will still have evil effects, one of those effects will not be to damn us to hell, because our intention truly was to do what is good.
Of course, the hope is that in these cases we’ll realize that our conscience was mistaken, and will modify our conscience. But that doesn’t always happen. Some of the elements of our conscience are very deeply ingrained, and difficult to change. So it’s quite possible for us to move along, bull-in-a-china-shop style, without ever realizing that although we think we’re doing good, we’re actually doing a lot of damage.
That’s just one of the things that must be sorted out for us in the world of spirits after we die. There, for those headed to heaven, after their inner self is revealed, they go through a period of instruction in which they are taught what is true and false, and what is good and evil, to the extent that they are able to receive and understand it. They can then go on to heaven without busting up all the fine china there!
HI Lee, I see we’re at the point where we need to address different points in different posts, and I regret anything I’ve done to clog up the flow of our conversation! My only hope is that this type of exchange not only facilitates the flow of ideas but proves useful and readable to anyone of whom it may benefit. But there really isn’t all that much to add, save for a couple of points (and anything I’ve sidestepped I’ve done for the sake of brevity, not because I either didn’t find it useful or don’t feel it worth addressing).
First, yes, we’re definitely on the same page as to life and its inconceivable level of moral complexity, and I just want to be clear I’m not coming to you from the perspective that original sin is a solution; if anything, my hope is to underscore the struggle I have with trying to pair our infinite human shades of grey with an eternal black and white. Life is incredibly complicated, but *afterlife*….well, is still pretty complicated, but its complexity takes place in a simply divided domain of either heaven or hell. After all, Swedenborg contends all of our complexity boils down to a choice between heaven and hell, though we’re complicated enough such that it seems as though we choose both at the same timr! So sometimes I feel as though one of them has to give: either we have to accept an afterlife that’s every bit as complex as our human nature, or accept a nature that is as clear cut as heaven and hell. I’m not saying complex humans don’t ultimately map to heaven or hell, but getting my mind around that…is a challenge.
One thing I’m surprised that neither of us have mentioned in our discussion of choosing good over evil is the role of forgiveness. Forgiveness and repentance is always available to those who truly seek it, so while our decisions obviously affect our fate, it is through forgiveness and repentance that we’re (fortunately) not just the inevitable sum of everything we’ve done.
Regarding ‘spiritual evolution,’ this also ties into the very first part of this series, and I hope if it’s okay if we talk about it at some point over on that page. As for spiritual complacency, does this in any way fall short of the command to love God with all your heart? My inclination is to say that it does not, because while some would say ‘we can’t all be Mother Teresa,’ and simple fact is most of us *choose* not to be. There is always more we could do, but we make the choice to stop at a certain point. And that’s ok. I think?
As for conscience, I see what you’re saying about it not being a direct bump from God, but it seems as though the way you describe conscience is actually more consistent with a materialist understanding of it. Is there a different, spiritual idea of it, or spiritual equivalent of it, from which God doesn’t necessarily bump us, but flows through us, even if that light passes through the imperfect prism of our culture, experiences, history, etc?
To take the last subject first—conscience:
Of course, there actually is genuine truth, and the closer we are to it, the better and more effective our conscience will be. That’s why truth does matter, even though it is ultimately our heart, or loves and motives, that determine whether our final home will be in heaven or in hell.
There are many millions of people on this earth laboring under faulty consciences telling them that things that really aren’t evil or harmful at all are terrible sins that they must never, never, ever do!
One example is the idea that masturbation is a terrible sin. This has imposed much needless pain and suffering on countless people—and is a great example of Jesus’ statement that the religious authorities of the day “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). Most of the traditional religious strictures on masturbation are pure bunk and misinformation. But millions, if not billions, of people have labored needlessly under those strictures. That’s why I ended out writing not one, but two articles on the subject:
And that is just one of many examples of things that religious authorities, including Christian authorities, have taught are terrible sins that in fact are not evil at all. And when our conscience is based on false teachings, it can lead to tensions between conscience and reality building up to a breaking point, at which point we break out and do things that actually are evil. Witness the continual litany in the news of conservative Christian ministers, politicians, etc. who are caught consorting with prostitutes (sometimes female, sometimes male) or having affairs with their secretaries.
So yes, our conscience can be mistaken and faulty, and that does cause damage.
And that’s why it’s important to continue teaching the truth about God, the Bible, Christianity, good, evil, spiritual rebirth, human life, and so on.
Falsity hurts. It leads to darkness and confusion.
Truth helps. It leads to light and understanding.
And that is why, if the whole edifice of faulty and corrupt traditional “Christian” doctrine were to suddenly fall into a chasm tomorrow, it would not be too soon for me! 😛
To more quickly deal with some of your other points:
Yes, we do ultimately face a choice between good and evil. I simply don’t see anything wrong with that idea. We see it around us every day, and we face it every day. The fact that there are moral complexities and ambiguities does not take away the basic choice we have between good and evil. As I’ve already said in previous responses, the landscape of heaven and of hell is not a simple black and white, but is very complex. And yet, the basic choice between good and evil remains.
Forgiveness was one of the main subjects of the first two articles in this series, so I haven’t (so far) felt the need to discuss it further in these comments.
The two great commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These actually represent two major stages of our spiritual rebirth. To keep things simple for now, our general spiritual development moves at one point to love for our neighbor as our general “dominant love,” and then, if it continues to its full development, to love for God as our general “dominant love.” If we don’t make it far enough so that God is the conscious center of our being, but remain at the “humanitarian” level of love for our neighbor, we will find ourselves living in the “spiritual” heaven, which is the middle level of heaven. If we continue on to the stage of development in which God is the center of our conscious being, then we will find ourselves living in the “heavenly” (traditionally translated “celestial”) heaven, which is the highest heaven. The lowest, “natural” or “earthly” heaven is where people who simply do what they’re told as a matter of obedience live. In each case, we’re in heaven. But we’re in a lower or higher heaven depending on how hard we worked and how far we went on our spiritual journey.
I’m wondering though, about your last point: if loving your neighbor and loving God are two sides of the same coin, does, say, an atheist who expresses a profound love for their neighbor, in effect, love God as much as a believer who just thinks of it in more God-centric terms? Or is ‘conscious love’ the real distinction here?
And another word about conscience…is there any kind of ‘meta conscience’ outside of our background and our spiritual development? Something intrinsic to us that is connects to a larger truth, that pangs us when we mistake good for evil and vice versa? For instance, people often sit contemplatively and seek God’s guidance during times of moral difficulty- where does that guidance come from? Is it something that bypasses our worldly consciences?
Also, another thought about spiritual complacency: it seems to me that someone intent on ‘just getting into the door’ prioritizes getting into heaven above the true value of being charitable; being charitable is just a means to an end for someone who wants to graduate from Earth with a C-. To be fair, I do contrast this with someone who looks upon and is satisfied with their level of spiritual development (which is still problematic, but necessarily damnably so), but it seems that people who are truly charitable never stop ‘striving’, or instinctively respond and grow to the call of charity.
Just to quickly add on to this, I know that there exists various gradations of Heaven and Hell in Swedenborg’s writings, though are still nevertheless wrapped around singular ideas of good and evil. That said, please correct any misunderstandings I may have expressed regarding the any of the theological ideas I’ve touched upon.
Also, if there’s time and room, could you talk a little bit about the difference between salvation by works and Swedenborg’s idea of salvation? Is there one? The objection is that salvation by works appeals to our faulty, human sense of justice, and puts one on a morality treadmill, where you’re struggling in vein to produce enough good works to earn your salvation, which is utterly impossible to do. Salvation, therefore, is a gift that is unaffected by your deeds
This may be correct according to an orthodox understanding of Christianity, but Swedenborg’s is a bit more complicated considering Swedenborg views Heaven as the appropriate spiritual home for a heavenly forged character. So it’s ‘becoming what you are,’ rather than doing enough to gain entrance into heaven. Also, Swedenborg seems to accept, in accordance with this classical doctrine, that, no, there is nothing you can do *on your own* to earn salvation, but that all good works are done *by* the grace of God. Does that set it apart from the idea of ‘earning your way’ to heaven,’ since it’s ‘you’ but ‘not just you’?
I guess this wasn’t so quick.
Protestants often contrast “salvation by works” with “salvation by faith,” as if these were somehow in opposition to one another. But that idea is based on numerous fundamental fallacies. Faith and works are not opposed to each other, but rather work together in the process of our salvation.
As for a “morality treadmill,” traditionally referred to under the term meriting salvation, it is true that if we do good works in order to earn salvation, we are on the wrong track, and very well may not be saved if we keep it up, piling up good works in order to get into heaven.
However, the reality is that many, if not most of us do start on a virtuous life because we want to save our own skin—and God uses that starting point to get us going on the path to salvation. For more on this, see: Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson: “The Virtue of Selfishness”
But our real motives for doing good works should have nothing to do with earning or meriting salvation. Here are the basic valid reasons for doing good works from a spiritual perspective:
Notice that none of these have anything to do with earning salvation.
So one of the key Protestant fallacies about “salvation by works” is that “works,” meaning good deeds, function primarily to merit or earn salvation for us. That’s simply not true, as Jesus pointed out in this brief parable:
We don’t gain any “merit” for our good works. They’re simply what God created us to do; and the power and ability to do them comes from God, not from us. If we don’t do them, we have rejected God’s power and presence in our life. And we can’t be saved while rejecting God from our life.
Good morning Lee. Not a whole lot of time to get into this now, but I wanted to mention that I think the metaphor of the morality treadmill is used a bit differently than the way you’ve described it. When Protestants refer to deeds as a treadmill, it’s not a treadmill just because we do them to save ourselves and not out of love for God, but because there’s no number of good deeds that will ever be sufficient to earn salvation.
It’s like trying to earn enough carnival credits for that prize that costs infinite tickets: you can try and try and try and you’ll never get any closer. Likewise, trying to accumulate enough deeds to merit heaven is impossible, as ‘good enough’ is an illusion, as salvation is unmerited and undeserved, but rather is a gift that is given. Further, to say that one can earn salvation from God is inconsistent with salvation as an act of love, as it’s not because God loves us, but because we’ve met a salvation criteria.
That’s the gist of it at least, and I think Catholics also reject the idea of works adding to your salvation for this same reason. As far as Swedenborg is concerned, it might be a bit different, as heaven and hell are seen as the appropriate homes for souls with heavenly or hellosh dominant loves, in where they continue to grow, and the goodness which leads to heaven as something that is only done by God’s grace, and not on your own.
The fallacy is in the word “earn,” or the more theologically traditional word “merit.” We simply do not earn or merit heaven—by good works or otherwise. Being on a “works treadmill” is falling for the fallacy that the purpose of doing good works is to pile up enough good works to earn heaven for ourselves. That is a complete red herring.
“Earning heaven” has nothing to do with the relationship between salvation and works, and it has nothing to do with the purpose of doing good works.
I outlined the purpose of doing good works in my previous comment.
As for the relationship between works and salvation, it is much more organic than “buying our way into heaven.” In a sense, doing good works out of obedience, understanding, and love is salvation in that it is God’s love, truth, and power working in and through us. And being filled with God is being saved.
Being unsaved is precisely not being filled with God, but rejecting God from our life because our life is focused on our self, our personal possessions, our personal pleasure, and our personal status and power. We do evil and sinful things then because we are acting from ourselves and not from God, and we don’t care if we hurt others to achieve our goals. In fact, we rather enjoy stepping on others so that we can get ahead of them. Living like that is the very definition of damnation.
To be saved, we must push such self and ego to the side, and replace it with God’s presence in us, which makes us into a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Faith is simply the gateway by which this happens. By putting our faith and trust in Jesus (or God), we open ourselves to God’s presence in us. But that means nothing if God doesn’t actually enter us and fill us.
Faith alone, without works, is like opening the gate, but then nothing comes through it. For salvation to occur, it’s necessary not only to open the gate by believing and trusting in Jesus, but also to be filled with Jesus’ presence, which means feeling love for God and for our fellow human beings, and expressing that love in good works of kindness and service to our fellow human beings. That’s why James said that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).
Unfortunately, Protestants’ minds have been so scrambled by the “works = merit” canard that they can’t see straight or think straight about salvation, faith, or works. The same old tired, fallacious, non-Biblical slogans that have been drilled into their heads week after week and year after year grow bigger and bigger in front of their eyes, and keep spinning around and around in their heads, until they simply can’t see anything else.
I would urge you to break free from this dead-end and wrong way of thinking about good works. As long as these old Protestant fallacies keep sloshing around in your head, you’ll never be able to rightly understand the true relationships among salvation, faith, and works.
These fallacies have a strange hypnotic effect on the mind, making it impossible to think straight. I’ve spent many hours trying to break through these fallacies in the minds of people strongly inculcated with Protestant doctrine. But no matter how clearly I explain it, and no matter how pointedly I point out that these things simply aren’t said in the Bible, they cling doggedly to them, and are unable to see past them. Though they’re absolutely non-Biblical, people who’ve had these falsities drilled into their head by hearing constant preaching on them have an overpowering persuasion that these are pure Biblical truths. They can’t even read and understand what the Bible actually says because they’ve been so thoroughly hypnotized by what their preachers say the Bible says.
So don’t let those false doctrines trap your mind in endless circles of circular reasoning about works and merit. Once you get on that treadmill, it is very difficult to get off.
I don’t want to entirely short-circuit my planned article on the false foundations of faith alone. However, I’ll give you a Cliff’s Notes version here just because it may help to get your head around this issue.
The Protestant theology of “salvation by faith,” or “justification by faith alone,” is intimately connected with the idea that what Christ did on the cross was to pay the penalty for our sins by taking the punishment that we deserved.
When we “have faith in Christ” in Protestant theology, what we’re really doing, all fancy verbiage and apologetics aside, is accepting Christ’s “punishment” on the cross as a substitute for the punishment that we deserve for our sins. So the primary function of “justifying faith” in Protestant theology is to judicially nullify the just punishment for our sins by accepting that Jesus died instead of us.
This action (supposedly) turns God’s wrath at our sins into love for us because God’s justice is now satisfied by Jesus taking the punishment for our sins instead of us. So instead of seeing our sins, God sees Jesus’ payment of the penalty for our sins by his dying on the cross, and God therefore forgives our sins and admits us into heaven.
That’s what “justification by faith” really means in Protestant theology.
And it is dead wrong, completely non-Biblical, and totally unjust. In fact, punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty is specifically condemned in the clearest terms possible in the Bible itself. For example, Proverbs 17:15 says:
See also Ezekiel 18, which hammers home the point that “the one who sins is the one who will die.”
This doctrine of justification by faith is a terrible smear on the name and character of God, who is portrayed as a vengeful, bloodthirsty tyrant who must see the spilled blood of an innocent man—his own son, no less!—in order to exonerate the guilty from their sins.
It is a horrible, blasphemous doctrine.
But I’ll go into that more when I write and publish the article.
Yeah I gotcha Lee. In a weird way I actually feel a certain comfort in knowing that I’m not the first person to suggest conceptual parallels between Swedenborg and Protestant theology in some essential way that’s simply expressed in terms of a different scheme, as though I somehow ‘cracked’ Swedenborg. But I can tell you that it weighs on me because I’m closer to accepting Swedenborg’s interpretation of Christianity than I’ve ever been, and yet, it his objections rest on a misunderstanding of Protestant theology, then it calls into serious question his credibility, as he claims he was appointed to correct what had become corrupted teachings that it turns out he just misunderstood (and I’m boy saying he does- just that it’s a concern when dealing with these issues).
Another anchor to traditional ways of thinking is just how many scholarly heavyweights are lining the sidelines of Protestantism; I’m sure we can both list off Protestants who
are regarded as giants in the field of New Testament scholarship by both faithful and secular scholars alike. While this obviously doesn’t make them correct, it is very…intimidating accusing them of misreading scripture, and advancing ideas that have no Biblical basis.
In any case, you have been a great deal of help, and I think at this point it’s time to read and re-read the enormous breadth of content you’ve written and linked me to in order to better align my thinking (in whatever direction it goes).
I do think reading the various linked articles will help. It takes time to wrap one’s mind around new concepts. Filling them in with details from different angles helps. And eventually, if you stay on a track toward Swedenborg’s theology, you’ll want to read True Christianity which is Swedenborg’s own Summa Theologica of Christian doctrine, aimed at a Lutheran audience.
Meanwhile a couple of points in relation to your hesitations:
First, Swedenborg was not a cleric or a trained theologian—and he said that this was providential.
Swedenborg did grow up as the son of an outspoken Lutheran clergyman, in an overwhelmingly Lutheran country. So he was steeped in Lutheran teachings and practice, but in a more pragmatic, immersive way: he soaked it in from his father and from his culture. So his gut-level understanding of Lutheranism was as it expressed itself in a heavily Lutheran society and culture. He never went to seminary and learned the “mysteries of faith” taught there.
This, of course, led to attacks upon him from the “Evangelical” (Lutheran) clergy. You can read about a spiritual-world permutation of this in a story he tells in True Christianity #137. He was similarly attacked in this world by leading Lutheran (and other Protestant) clergy, who accused him of not understanding the intricacies of their doctrine.
This, he said, was providential for the reason I’ve mentioned to you earlier: once one’s mind is thoroughly inculcated in and ingrained with a particular doctrine, it is very hard to shake that doctrine, and accept a different one. One’s mind is almost literally shaped by the old, ingrained doctrine; changing it requires “rewiring the brain,” to use a more contemporary turn of phrase. So, Swedenborg says, the Lord did not allow him to go into the clergy, as his father wanted him to do, but he went into science, philosophy, and government instead—which is what he spent his active, working career doing.
It was only in his mid-fifties (after his father had died) that he returned to religion, due, he said, to a call from the Lord to take up a new task as a spiritual revelator. And when he accepted that call from the Lord, a little-documented aspect of his development from scientist and philosopher to spiritual seer took place.
That aspect is something now being studied by my uncle, the Rev. Dr. George Dole, who is a leading Swedenborgian scholar. I hope he will publish a book about it before he shuffles off this mortal coil (he’s in his 80s). Through close study of Swedenborg’s great but unpublished (by him) transitional work traditionally titled The Word Explained, we can trace his theological evolution from a rather traditional pietistic Lutheran to acceptance of the radically different theology that he published in his ensuing theological works, starting with Arcana Coelestia (Secrets of Heaven). And as my uncle’s study is showing, it was a wrenching struggle for him to leave behind the theology of his childhood and youth, and accept the new theology that was being shown to him by the Lord within the pages of the Bible.
In various of his letters, Swedenborg said, or intimated, that if he had had a seminary training, and had had the intricacies of Lutheran theology imprinted upon his mind, he would not have been able to abandon that theology or understand the new theology sufficiently to take on the new, spiritual task that the Lord had called him to do. So, he said, it was precisely because he was not a trained Protestant clergyman that he was able to open his mind to the renewed and restored Christian theology that he published in his theological works.
Therefore the charge that Swedenborg “did not fully understand” Lutheran theology actually has an ounce of truth to it. He had not been trained in its intricacies, and in one or two places he even said rhetorically that it was “beyond his comprehension”—by which he really meant that it simply makes no sense, being irrational and fallacious.
What he did have, as I mentioned above, was a practical understanding of how that theology worked out in the actual lives of real-live Lutherans living in ordinary society in an overwhelmingly Lutheran country (Sweden), not to mention a working experience of the other varieties of Protestantism—and of Catholicism to a somewhat lesser extent—from his extensive travels throughout Europe. So even if he had not studied or learned some of the hair-splitting intricacies of Protestant doctrine as expounded upon by their theologians in their theological treatises, he had a pragmatic understanding of what those doctrines meant in the lives of ordinary Lutheran laypeople.
Further, indefatigable scholar that he was, once he turned his mind to theology he educated himself on these subjects by reading and studying the leading contemporary (to him) statements of faith of Catholicism and (primarily Lutheran) Protestantism. You can see this in the opening sections of his commentary on the book of Revelation, traditionally titled Apocalypse Revealed in which he provides an outline of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Reformed (or Protestant) church, based on their own primary doctrinal statements. This study can be seen, for example, in the story recounted in True Christianity #137, linked above, in which he reads from the Augsberg Confession, which was (and still is) a standard Lutheran statement of faith and theology.
I, too, have been accused of not truly understanding the doctrine of justification by faith, by people who adhere to it. However, I have also had fairly extensive conversations and debates with its devotees, and I believe that like Swedenborg, I have a practical understanding of what it really means in the lives of ordinary Protestants—who also have not been to seminary to study its intricacies.
And I ask you, how should a doctrine be judged? Should it be judged by the elite few who write intricate treatises about its finer points? Or should it be judged by how it actually affects the lives of the great mass of ordinary followers of that religion and its theology?
My own view, which parallel’s Swedenborg’s, is that it is those “scholarly heavyweights lining the sidelines of Protestantism” who don’t truly understand their own doctrine. They have so immersed themselves in studying the individual trees and each one of their needles that they can no longer see the forest as a whole, and its true nature, extent, and effects. Or to use Jesus words, directed at the “intimidating religious authorities” of his day, they “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).
I do believe that those intimidating Protestant scholars have a fine understanding of the gnats of their theology, but they have missed the camel lumbering right through it. I believe Jesus’ words apply to them just as they did to the ancient Jewish scribes, Pharisees, and Sanhedrin that he attacked so thoroughly.
And I would encourage you, too, not to be intimidated by all that scholarship. The mind, once set on a faulty course, can follow that faulty course into all of its branches and intricacies, and immerse itself so deeply in those intricacies that it becomes totally convinced of its own correctness and supreme intellect and understanding. But if the starting premise is wrong, then everything that depends upon it is also wrong, no matter how finely it is worked out by theologically trained minds.
Another way of saying this is that hell is every bit as intricate as heaven. Focusing specifically on the truth of heaven vs. the falsity of hell, for every intricacy of truth, there is a corresponding intricacy of falsity. The fact that false doctrine can be hashed out into very fine detail does not make it true; all of those details are marshaled in support of the primary falsity. And even bits and bobs of truth are pulled into the system and used to support the primary false premise.
Or to use a physiological example, as intricate as the human body and its systems are, the diseases that attack those systems are just as intricate. They operate on a systemic level, and also attack specific organs in specific ways, and even attack the body right down to the cellular and sub-cellular level. The more we study disease, the more complex we realize it is. But it is still disease, not health.
So don’t be intimidated by the scholars who have studied the intricacies of these theologies. Like the “dominant love” that determines our spiritual home after death, there is what could be called a “dominant truth” or “dominant falsity” at the core of every theology. And like people whose dominant love is selfish and greedy, but who use good social graces and an appearance of honesty and civic-mindedness to give their selfishness and greed the appearance of benevolence and righteousness, theologies such as the Lutheran faith alone, penal substitution system do pull in various things that are true in support of their fundamentally false doctrine. This confuses the mind of the hearers, and gives that false theology a veneer of truth that causes theologians and ordinary people alike to accept it as true and right when it is actually utterly false, and even falsifies the true teachings that it marshals in support of its main thesis.
This brings me to the second point, for which I’ll start a new comment.
(. . . continued)
Protestant theology does include within itself various teachings from the Bible that are not false. So it’s not as though Luther is 100% wrong about everything he wrote, nor are Protestant churches 100% wrong about everything they teach.
However, to properly evaluate a theology, it is necessary to look at its core principles, around which the rest of the theology revolves.
For Protestant faith-alone theology, those core principles are God as a Trinity of Persons, justification by faith alone, and the penal substitution theory of atonement.
You can get lost in the thicket of trees presented by various Protestant clergy and scholars in support of their theology. But I would encourage you not to get lost in that thicket of trees, but rather to focus on the core teachings of that theology, which are primarily the three that I listed just above.
What you have to ask yourself is whether you truly believe that God is a Trinity of Persons, that we become righteous (“justified”) by faith alone, and that we are saved by the legal mechanism of Christ paying the penalty for our sins so that we don’t have to.
If we sweep aside all of the surrounding verbiage, that is the core around which everything in Protestantism revolves. And if those fundamental doctrines of Protestantism are false, then all the supporting argumentation falls to the ground as supporting false premises.
So don’t get lost in the details. Consider these three fundamental teachings of Protestantism:
These doctrines are where you need to focus your thinking mind and your perceiving heart, to determine whether you believe these things in your mind, and whether they satisfy your heart as good things to believe.
As for me, I believe that all three of these doctrines are utterly false. And after many years of studying the Bible very closely, I can say clearly and with conviction that not a single one of them is stated anywhere in the Bible.
You, however, will have to make up your own mind about these things.
Hi again Lee, thanks so much for that incredibly detailed background to the type of conversation we’ve been having. I don’t mean to sidestep it as though it’s not important (it is!), but I was reading over your earlier article ‘do atheists go to heaven?’ and I was wondering if you could port this discussion over to that article.
In an earlier comment, you outlined the layers of life into love, wisdom, and action, corresponding to belief, faith, and deeds in that same order. I notice at no point in that article did you say that an atheist- who in effect believes in God by virtue of charity- has *faith* in God by way of that belief. So it sounds as though the atheist has ‘the substance without form’ that you referred to earlier.
How does belief contrast with faith? You mentioned that Swedenborg would roll in his grave if he knew he was being paralleled with Luther, and I’m sure that Luther will feel the same way, so I’m trying to better separate them out. At the most basic level, even if they both propose ‘salvation by internal state,’ the issue of penal substitution will always divide them, so there’s that. But if there’s a meaningful difference between belief and faith, and Luther emphasizes salvation by faith (wisdom) whereas Swedenborg emphasizes salvation by belief (love) then I think I just might have figured it out…
I cannot move users’ comments from one post to another. So if you want to discuss issues and questions related to the Do Atheists Go to Heaven? article, you’ll need to comment there to initiate that discussion.
But briefly: Atheists do have beliefs. Those beliefs just don’t (consciously) include God. Atheists who go to heaven will generally be humanitarians of some sort, meaning that they believe in the goodness and worth of their fellow human beings, and therefore believe that they should devote their lives to making others’ lives better. So they don’t just “believe in God by virtue of charity,” but also by virtue of believing in what Jesus would call loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Just as with everyone else who is saved, it is a combination of love (for their fellow human beings), beliefs (of a humanitarian nature) and action motivated by that love and directed by those beliefs that causes them to be saved.
This is agree I’m gonna stop, Lee, not because I don’t feel as though you’re being helpful but because I think we’ve run the gamut where I (really, this time) need to synthesize it all.
That said, I don’t think I was being clear when I said ‘port over,’ as what I meant was to intersect that subject with the one we’re having. In any case, some quick comments, and while I (as always) appreciate any and all feedback, I hope you won’t see it as dismissive if I don’t reply back.
When I refer to ‘charity’ I mean it in the holistic, fully actualized way you described: love, into belief, action. I absolutely agree that you cannot actually isolate one from the other abs have them be real, and that’s still where I’m getting hung up. Outside of Swedenborg, outside of Luther, and more philosophically, it’s the simultaneous necessitating on that throws me off.
If you truly have love, you will truly have belief, because not having belief means you don’t actually have love, and not having love means you can’t truly have belief.
If you truly have belief, then you will act truly. And if you don’t act truly, you never had belief.
So action does not suddenly animate your belief, or make your belief real, because to truly act means you already truly have belief. And belief doesn’t animate love, because to truly have it means you already truly love.
If you were to tell me that an atheist truly loves their neighbor, then I would assume they act on that, otherwise they wouldn’t have it.
I agree, it’s a combination of things, but it seems the authenticity of one attests to the authenticity of the other, and traces back to an inner state, so I have a hard time understanding how salvation by inner state is not what we’re ultimately talking about, and if so, it makes me wonder: does Luther have the correct version of it? You addressed that already in terms of his legal understanding of it,
and that really helped, so thank you.
Tough, tough, tough, and I’m not sure why it’s so tough for me. Maybe I’m on to something, missing something, or obsessing over everything, but I think you at least have a very clear picture of where I’m at, though the resolution of this picture is much clearer thanks to your contributions, and I am truly indebted to you for it- many thanks, Lee.
You’re very welcome. I could comment further, but I’ll take your suggestion to let it rest for now. Once you’ve had a chance to digest all of this and integrate it into your thinking however it will be integrated, feel free to continue the conversation if you would find that useful.
Can I try a concrete example here Lee? Swedenborg would accept (as Protestants do) that faith without charity is dead faith, and charity without faith is meaningless. That might be where the similarities stop, as Swedenborg would contend that salvation is the unification of faith and charity. So what is ‘faithful charity’ doing? Does the deed, as faithfully inspired, ‘do’ anything?
Not to use a flippant example, if someone helps a little old lady across the street in a way that puts their faith into action, what is the act itself doing? It’s not ‘accumulating salvation credits’, for sure. Nor is it an act of being ‘good enough.’ Rather, it’s a reflection of the person you are, and the state that you’re in: you’re in a state whereby your faith is translated into action. You’re in a saved condition?
So it’s state-based salvation, as far as I can see. For Luther it seems like he argues for a different state, whereby it’s belief state, to which deeds don’t fulfill a requirement of salvation that’s in any way apart from faith. For Swedenborg, deeds, as a condition of salvation, seem to be a separate but intrinsically related to faith. You need to have faith to be saved, you need to be charitable to be saved, and although they’re to separate conditions, they need to exist simultaneously for salvation to happen. But you’re still saved on account of the state you’re in.
…but what does being in a state it faithful charity/charitably faithful actually mean? You have faith, you live it out, it fulfills two different but linked conditions of salvation, but what does that *amount* to? It seems as though it amounts to an authentic acceptance of Christ/God into your life, which is far as I can see is Swedenborg’s version of Sola Fide.
And that’s what Luther is arguing. Yes, acceptance by way of accepting his atoning sacrifice on the cross, but still a singular acceptance of Christ.
And that’s all I’ve got Lee. I’m not arguing that this is necessarily correct. Maybe I am misunderstanding both Luther and Swedenborg, but this is pushing me to the very limits of my comprehension, and I’ve not nothing left to muster.
Well . . . that was a little quicker response than I expected! 😉
But as always, I’m willing to keep hashing this out as long as you find my responses helpful.
I really do think you’re torturing yourself between two systems that simply aren’t compatible. You seem to be trying to make them compatible. And the effort is exhausting you and leaving you drained.
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to choose between them, because you can’t have both while retaining your sanity! 😛
I am reminded of Elijah’s appeal to the people in 1 Kings 18:21:
I believe that you are facing a similar choice between Swedenborg and Luther. You’ll have to decide for yourself which is “the Lord” and which is “Baal.” But they can’t both be right, because they flat out contradict one another.
I…think so? First off, I feel like I have no idea how to properly reply directly below the comment I’m replying to, so sorry for how jumbled and out of sequence this is. I’m also not trying to reconcile Luther and Swedenborg, actually- my concern is that they *are*, in essence, and without Swedeborg realizing it, parallel. It’s of no concern to Luther if his system is compatible or incompatible with Swedenborg’s. But Swedenborg claimed special dispensation, and if he is mistaken in both Luther’s theology and how his own theology is basically the same thing clothed in different language…well, that’s a problem.
But as for your explanations, I’m gonna use the simplest language possible in describing my understanding of it, so excuse it if it looks in any way ‘dismissively simplified.’ I think I may be confusing ‘inner state’ with an overall ‘state of being.’
So Swedenborg says we need a good inner state. He also says we need to do good. So it sounds like those are two different conditions of salvation: being good inside, and living good on the outside. But, thing is, they’re really linked. You can’t do something good if there’s not goodness on the inside. And if you’re good on the inside, then it stands to reason you will do good. Because if you don’t, then you weren’t. It’s like saying ‘I love my spouse.’ If you don’t do good for your spouse, then it shows you never loved your spouse in the first place. If you love your spouse, then I can infer you do good for them. Now, we make mistakes and have lapses in consistency, but that’s a different subject.
Faith and charity (if true) close and simultaneous, it almost sounds redundant to say ‘faith and charity.’ Because if you had one without the other, you actually wouldn’t have either, and so that’s a paradox. Your inner state may inspire your good outer state, but they happen at correspondingly the same time.
So I can see, then, that doing good deeds *does* add to your salvation in that it reflects your overall state of being- that is, you are a faithfully charitable person. It’s not that God is tallying up your good deeds, or that is weighing your particular deeds, but rather that you’re a *person* who has a faithful inner state who also lives that out through deeds- *that’s your state of being.* Now, I suppose specific deeds may correspond to different eternal states, but if we’re just talking about ‘getting into the door,’ you just need to be in a state whereby you do good.
Good deeds attest to your inner state, but it sounds like deeds also satisfy a requirement external, but linked, to faith. That last sentence is pretty critical: If faith is A, and works are B, the difference between Luther and Swedenborg would be:
Luther: You need A, to which B attests. B does not add to your salvation, but fulfills a requirement of A, and affirms that it is real. Protestants say: ‘you aren’t saved by your deeds, but you aren’t saved without them either.’
Swedenborg: You need A and B. B flows from A and attests to A, but you need to be in a state where you have satisfied both. So can we draw a distinction between ‘your inner state’ and ‘being in a state?’
But here’s the thing (oh there’s always a thing isn’t there): I can see how Luther is arguing for a state of being, too- it’s just that his idea of a salvation fulfilled state is one where you genuinely accept that Christ paid the penalty for your sins. I suppose you could call authentic belief an ‘inner state,’ though that’s not the same thing as ‘inner nature,’ and his idea of state of being doesn’t encompass your outer state (the way you live). Any closer?
I feel like I’ve thrown around a lot of similar but somewhat conflicting terminology in that last post, but if it helps, when I say ‘being in a state/state of being,’ I mean it to refer to ‘the person that you are,’ which encompasses who you are in the inside and what you do on the outside. Both need to be good, and while doing good depends utterly on accepting goodness within you, they are still two different (but essentially linked) conditions of salvation.
But wait, according to Protestant theology, doesn’t God declare you as righteous upon having accepted Christ’s redeeming sacrifice? If so, doesn’t that refer to an inner state, and not just a pardon for your sins?
Do you come from a Lutheran background yourself? Is that why Luther is so important to you?
I don’t, nor do I come from any Christian background (though I was raised in the Catholic education system). But I refer to him in order to more generally refer to Protestant theology, and all I ‘need’ is for Swedenborg to be fundamentally different from Luther, and I’m doing my best to see that. If they’re the same, it’s no big deal, except for one little detail: Swedenborg claims to have been ordained to dispel the Protestant corruption of Christian theology.
I’ve detailed one major difference after another between Swedenborg and Luther. The differences are massive and stark.
Luther’s signature doctrine was justification by faith alone. And there is no traditional “Christian” doctrine that Swedenborg spent more time and effort attacking and demolishing.
Of course, it’s possible that Swedenborg was so deceived and deluded that he didn’t even know his own mind, his own doctrines, and his own Lutheran doctrinal background. That is what you would need to charge him with to maintain that there is no real difference between his theology and Luther’s in the face of Swedenborg’s sustained attacks on Lutheran theology, and his utter repudiation of the theology of his own country and upbringing.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you think Swedenborg was so completely self-deluded.
As for me, I simply don’t see any significant points of agreement between Swedenborg’s theology and Luther’s, for all the reasons I have outlined so far, and so many more that whole books would be required to cover them adequately.
According to Swedenborg, the idea that God can suddenly declare a selfish and sinful person righteous is a pure fantasy. It would be like declaring a leopard to be a sheep, and thinking that the leopard is therefore no longer a leopard. Reality as God has created it just doesn’t work that way.
Being a selfish sinner is a systematic state of being. It can be changed only by a sustained, long-term process of spiritual rebirth in which that selfishness is removed step-by-step, and replaced with love for the neighbor and love for God.
So the idea that a person’s inner state can be changed in an instant from sinner to righteous person simply by God declaring it so is pure fallacy and illusion.
Yes, according to Protestant theology, that’s what happens. And Protestant theology is utterly false on this point, as it is on so many others.
So Protestant theology does teach salvation by inner state, then. that is, we have faith, and as such accept Christ’s sacrifice which makes us righteous and thus fit for heaven m. It may be a fantasy, but that’s still the nature of the doctrine.
This still contrasts with Swedenborg, I think, as it’s only ‘inner state’ and not the state if being- the whole of the person, including the fact that they do works- that factors into salvation.
But if a doctrine is in fact a fantasy and an illusion because what it claims to happen is in fact impossible and false, then it really doesn’t matter whether it’s somehow theoretically the same as or related to some other doctrine.
Why even bother with doctrines that are pure fantasy and falsehood? Why expend mental energy on them? It’s a total waste of your mental energy. It will only lead to confusion and insanity.
Isn’t the real question what’s true, and descriptive of how reality actually works?
There’s really no escaping the question of what you believe to be true.
I think because if he objects to the mechanism of salvation as being impossible (say, salvation by inner state), and yet advances what is essentially the same thing- that is, his ideas, conceptually, *translate* into the idea of salvation by inner state, then it’s a huge contradiction what he understood to be the purpose of his work.
I’m not saying it does, but it’s a great concern of mine, though I think I’m slowly working out the differences. I mean, you can see in each response how I’m trying to point out a meaningful distinction, but it turns out that each distinction is wrong, and yet, so is the idea that they’re essentially the same.
You’re right, this kind of wrangling can lead to a type of insanity, and I’m either missing the point to a point of madness, or it turns out that I’m on to something, and my stress comes from desperately wanting to believe that I’m not.
I fixed the typo that you corrected in your comment.
About the differences between Swedenborg’s and Luther’s doctrine on salvation, the easiest approach would probably be to read the old sermon of mine that I linked for you earlier: Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
It’s mostly non-technical, and the primary example given of the difference between the two systems is not precise, but the overall message and contrast between the two systems is, I believe, still quite valid, and easy enough to grasp from this sermon/article.
But I think I’ve got it figured out it I’m correct on Swedenborg’s ‘dual condition’ criteria for salvation. You need faith, you need works. They’re different, but inseparable. It’s not just an inner state, it’s your inner state put into action, and as such is an overall ‘state of being’
For Luther, you just need faith. You need works, but works are not a condition of salvation, but a condition for faith to be true, and faith is the only thing that counts. So it’s just an inner state- a faithful inner state- and not a larger state that encompasses works.
So both believe in that your salvation is dictated by the person you are, but one is all about your faith, and the other is about your unified faith and works. If I’m
still wrong, I just won’t come back for a good long while (not out of anger or frustration, but only because I’m not getting anywhere right now).
How much Swedenborg have you actually read? Have you read any of his full books?
It strikes me that perhaps what is needed is for you to spend the time to read and learn directly from Swedenborg what he does and doesn’t teach.
I would, of course, be willing to help you here and there along the way.
Though I would express it somewhat differently, I do think you’re on the right track that for Swedenborg, salvation is an overall “state of being.”
And though as I’ve explained before, I don’t agree that Luther’s idea of salvation involves a change of inner state as an essential component of salvation itself, I do agree that according to Luther, faith is the only necessity for salvation, and works only demonstrate that the faith was real, while not themselves contributing to salvation in any way.
This is a fundamental difference between Swedenborg and Luther.
I am finding it a little hard to understand why it’s so important to you that Swedenborg be not just another version of Luther. Or maybe more to the point, why, given the vast and stark differences between their two theologies, you seem still to be fearful that “underneath it all” Swedenborg really agrees with Luther even though he says he doesn’t. Though Swedenborg did grow up Lutheran, I don’t see how he could have more thoroughly and systemically rejected the doctrines of the religion of his parents and his country.
Why is this such an issue for you? You seem to be caught in an inward spiral of thinking that I don’t really understand—because it doesn’t make any sense to me that Swedenborg could somehow be just a warmed over version of Luther—but that you’re having great difficulty extricating yourself from.
I do think that perhaps reading some of Swedenborg’s works from cover to cover would help to alleviate your fears. Given your focus on these Protestant doctrinal issues, I would recommend starting with True Christianity.
Having said that, I’ll take another step back for a moment:
Although I believe Luther’s system is mistaken and contrary to the teachings of the Bible, I also believe that people who faithfully follow it in good conscience will be saved. They just won’t be saved for the reason Luther thought they would be saved.
Luther’s system does end out having people do good works. He just didn’t think they contributed anything to salvation, making that the exclusive province of faith.
But if, in fact, faithful Lutherans (and other Protestants) do both have faith and do good works because they believe that’s what their church, and by extension God, requires them to do, then they will be saved because . . . they have both faith and works, just as the Bible says we must have if we wish to be saved.
That is not why they are saved according to Protestant doctrine. Protestant doctrine says they are saved because they have faith that Jesus paid the penalty for their sins, so that they are judicially pardoned and no longer charged as guilty for their sins. The Bible doesn’t say that, but that’s what Protestantism teaches.
So salvation, in Protestantism, actually doesn’t involve a change of inner state in the one saved. Any change of inner state that happens—if it happens at all—comes after salvation, and is a result of salvation.
To make it clear exactly how and why this is true, consider a murderer who has just been acquitted in a human court of law. Does that acquittal change the inner state of the murderer? Not really. He’s still a murderer. He still hasn’t changed. He’s just been declared judicially not guilty. It’s possible that afterwards he’ll think better of what he did, and actually repent of his deeds. But being declared not guilty in a court of law changes nothing about his inner character. It only causes him not to have to go to jail or face the death penalty. It’s quite possible—and even fairly probable—that after being freed, he’ll go out and commit another murder before long. That’s because no inner change has taken place in him.
Similarly, being judicially pardoned for our sins actually changes nothing at all about our inner state. It’s possible that in gratitude for that pardon and forgiveness, we’ll change. But not all Protestants find that particularly necessary. Many of them continue to live exactly the same way they did before, so that not only is their inner state not changed, but their outer state is not changed, either. And although that’s not how it’s “supposed” to work, based on Protestant doctrine it’s rather hard to argue that the person isn’t, in fact, saved, because that person did accept and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for his or her sins. There is an inherent contradiction in a system that says we’re saved by faith alone, but then tries to tack on good works afterwards.
In Swedenborg’s system, such a dichotomy and contradiction is simply not possible. That’s because in Swedenborg’s system, salvation absolutely is a change in our inner state, which also brings about a change in our outer state.
In Swedenborg’s system, salvation is not judicial pardon so that we no longer have to suffer the penalty for our sins, as in Protestant theology.
Rather, in Swedenborg’s system, salvation is a process that consists of changing the whole person from being an evil, selfish, sinful person into a good, thoughtful, loving person. That inner and outer change is not a result of salvation as in Luther’s system. It is salvation.
In your example of helping a little old lady across the street, doing so does actually contribute to the person’s salvation. It is part of a process of a person who formerly would not have bothered with the old hag to someone who sees her as a human being, and wants to give her a hand. And actually doing that both embodies and strengthen’s the person’s process of salvation, which is the change from the uncaring person who just sees the old woman as a nuisance who’s getting in the way of his day to seeing her as the neighbor who is to be loved and served.
In Luther’s system, all of that would be a mere result of salvation, which in essence is judicial pardon. In Swedenborg’s system, that change of heart, mind, and behavior is the very process of salvation, and therefore is salvation.
Does that move things any farther along in your mind?
PS: Sorry for the unusual grammar and outright mistakes in it: I posted that via mobile.
No problem. And for those reading in, please be aware that this conversation proceeded on several fronts at once, so that many of the earlier comments appear lower on the page than comments made later.
Following up on that, and on your other points:
Luther really doesn’t teach “salvation by internal state.” Rather, he teaches salvation by judicial pardon based on professed belief: that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. Although he and other Protestant theologians may talk about how this changes our inner state, that change of inner state is not what saves us, but rather is seen as a result of salvation, which takes place solely by faith that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.
Swedenborg, by contrast, believes that a change of inner state is the primary meaning of salvation, and that this can take place only when love, faith, and action are all present and active in the person’s life.
So it’s also not true that Swedenborg “emphasizes salvation by belief (love)” (whatever that means). Love, in Swedenborg’s system, is always ultimately primary. But as explained in my previous comments and various articles here, love means nothing and is not real unless it is accompanied by truth (commonly called “faith” among Christians) and expressed in action.
In short: Luther actually does teach salvation by faith alone, from which, he taught, everything else flows. And that faith is not really an inner thing, but an expressed belief in a particular (false) doctrine about Christ.
Swedenborg, by contrast, teaches that salvation is a matter of accepting God’s love, truth, and power into our lives, so that we are completely transformed from the inside out. This is a process that takes place during our lifetime on earth, and it is salvation.
There really is no valid parallelism between the two, and no polarity by which one is all about faith and the other is all about love. Luther’s doctrine is focused solely on faith in a particular doctrine about Christ paying the penalty for our sins. All the rest is merely frosting on the cake.
Swedenborg’s doctrine is systemic, and involves the total being of the person, love, truth, and action, as essential components of salvation, not as mere results from one of the three that is the only one that actually saves us as in Luther’s system.
Now about your implied question here and explicit question via Spiritual Conundrum on “salvation by faith” vs. Swedenborg’s teaching:
After posting a couple of other articles relating to current events, I have in mind to post an article responding more specifically on this subject under the title, “The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone.”
“Salvation by faith,” commonly known as “salvation by faith alone,” and technically as “justification by faith alone,” is embedded in a greater theological framework on which it depends. That framework is the penal substitution theory of atonement. And it is as false as false can be—not to mention completely non-Biblical. It was a pure human theological invention. It started with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement, and proceeded to an even more false and fallacious doctrine. It is the basic atonement theory in Protestantism, originated by the founding theologians of Protestantism 1,500 years after last books of the Bible were written. It is never stated in the Bible itself, nor is Anselm’s satisfaction theory stated in the Bible.
To understand what “salvation by faith” really means, it’s necessary to put it in its doctrinal context, which is what I’ll do in that article. And then it should be quite clear that the difference between it and Swedenborg’s teaching about salvation, faith, and works is like the difference between night and day.
Meanwhile, I recommend that you read these three articles, which don’t exactly answer your questions, but do lay some of the groundwork and answer related questions:
Hi Lee, thanks for your reply. If Protestant Christianity were to undergo a dramatic reformation, and began to define what it means to have faith and believe in God in the much more inclusive, pluralistic way that Swedenborg does, would there be any major difference between the two theologies? Because they otherwise seem to be on the same page.
-Deeds do not merit salvation, nor do they add anything to your salvation.
-Deeds are ultimately a reflection of faith, and it’s faith that determines salvation. That is:
If you truly have faith, you will live faithfully.
If you live faithfully, you truly have faith.
-Good works are expected of us, but naturally flow from, and attest to, authentic faith, and by the grace of God; faith and works exist simultaneously and are two sides of the same coin.
So far, so good? If these are both ultimately two different versions of salvation by faith, what’s Swedenborg’s problem with the traditional doctrine? Is it the idea that we are saved by faith, or the narrow way that faith is defined, especially in relation to original sin?
I should also add, on the relationship between faith and works, that I think to say that one truly has faith *when* one acts, or that action creates or animates faith, creates a paradox whereby doing it creates faith, but to do it you had to have faith in the first place. So to better define my terms on this issue of faith and works, my understanding of faith is a heart that is naturally compelled, and intent upon acting, to service.
Have you read this comment of mine?
Not to put to fine a point of it, but asking, “If Protestant Christianity were to undergo a dramatic reformation,” wouldn’t its teaching be just like Swedenborg’s? is sort of like saying, “If a giraffe were to become a zebra, wouldn’t a giraffe be just like a zebra?”
Well . . . yes . . . but a giraffe is still a giraffe, not a zebra. And Protestantism still holds to justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and so on.
If it were to give up those doctrines and adopt Swedenborg’s doctrines, then of course it would be more like Swedenborg.
But it hasn’t, and it isn’t.
Now to take up your particular points:
The part before the comma is true. Nothing we do merits salvation.
However, the part after the comma, as commonly understood in Protestantism, is false. Deeds do add to our salvation by being a necessary part of salvation. Without them, we simply aren’t saved. There is no scenario in which we can be justified, saved, or find ourselves in heaven purely by faith, without deeds. Deeds are just as necessary to salvation as faith is. “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
It’s simply not true that deeds add nothing to our salvation. That is a Protestant fallacy. And it’s certainly not taught in the Bible. Just the opposite. The Bible teaches that we must do good deeds if we want to be saved.
Neither part of this statement is really true, especially as understood in Protestantism. And the second part is quite false.
Deeds are actually a reflection of love rather than of faith. Faith simply directs and qualifies our deeds.
And faith just doesn’t determine salvation. In an ultimate sense, God’s love (termed “grace” especially in Paul) is what determines our salvation. And it is God’s love in us that determines our salvation. That is, whatever is our dominant or primary love, that is what will determine whether or not we are saved. There is faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love, not faith (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Good works actually do not flow from authentic faith, though they may attest to it. Good works flow from love, through faith. The idea that faith is primary, and other things are secondary and flow from it, is simply false. Love is primary, faith is a means to express love, and good works are the expression of love through faith. Good works do not flow from faith, as Protestants say. Good works flow from love.
It appears that faith is first, because that is commonly what we experience first in time. But in fact, faith itself flows from a deeper love that we are not so consciously aware of. So faith is secondary, not primary, in salvation, even if we may consciously experience it first.
I do agree that faith and works exist simultaneously, or they are nothing. Faith without works is dead, and it does not justify or save us. Faith is no more important to our salvation than good works are. And the real determinant of our salvation is neither one, but rather the love that both of them flow from.
Faith simply is not the primary factor in salvation. Protestants are just plain wrong about this. And in making it primary, they are misunderstanding both the nature of faith and the nature of salvation.
I dunno Lee, maybe I’m either being too thick headed or I’m too caught up in a particular way of thinking to properly understand (in which case maybe I should come back to this conversation at a time when I’m not), but I can’t help but get caught up in some kind of apparent paradox between deeds adding to your salvation and already being saved. It’s been my understanding that in order to actually do charitable works (truly, faithfully charitable works) you need to already be in a state of regeneration. So how do deeds save you? You also mentioned that ‘deeds add nothing to your salvation’ is wrong as far as commonly understood in Protestantism, suggesting that I misrepresented their position, but then later said that ‘deeds add nothing to your salvation’ is a Protestant fallacy, suggesting that it actually is the position they hold. Maybe just a typo?
I’m not actually asking you to answer these questions or provide any additional responses at this point- more just to let you know where I’m at, and maybe it’s a point where I need to meditate on your answers awhile before asking for more of them.
Okay Lee, I’m gonna try to give this one more go before just packing it in (for now); if I’m way off the mark you can just let this one go, but it I’m finally getting it or am close, please, do let me know!
Swedenborg seems to draw almost no distinction between love/charity and belief. It seems for that reason how you pointed out the distinction between a rationalized atheism of the head versus that same atheist’s love of the heart.
So it seems then that someone who loves outwardly ultimately, in the most basic and fundamental sense, ‘believes’- believes in the love that flows from God, and believes in others as at least equally important as themselves. It’s a love that reflects and internal, heavenly state that, the authenticity of which is attested to by the way that love is projected outward. So it’s not as though the deeds are meritous in and of themselves, but they reflect a regenerated state.
So in that sense, it seems as though Swedenborg is advancing an idea of ‘salvation by faith,’ only it’s ‘salvation by love,’ which just the same thing as belief (faith versus love may be different, but I’m far too exhausted at this point to broach that one, as I imagine you are too).
What do you think?
I’m aware that the ideas I’m presenting require a radical change of thinking for those who have been exposed to or steeped in traditional Protestant theology. I don’t mean to be hard on you. It’s just that for those who have had a heavy dose of salvation by faith theology, there’s a lot to unlearn before it’s possible to learn and clearly see the truth.
That, incidentally, is why Swedenborg said it would be harder for Christians than for non-Christians to accept the genuinely Christian theology that he taught. Non-Christians have not had their minds confused and crystallized into a false theology and a wholesale falsification of the Bible as traditional Christians have. So non-Christians don’t have to unlearn an entire false “Christian” system of theology before learning a truly Christian one.
Now to respond to your comment:
Swedenborg does make a clear distinction between love/charity and belief/faith. He simply says that ultimately, the two must be together as one in order for either to be anything at all.
Perhaps it’s time to step back and return to the basics.
God, the universe, and everything, according to Swedenborg, consists of three “essential components” (for lack of a better translation of his original Latin):
You can read more about this in the article: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
Each of these is distinct from one the others:
Individually, none of these has any reality at all. Love without wisdom is like substance with no form. Wisdom without love is like form with no substance. Neither can actually exist. And both of these, if they don’t result in action, are empty and meaningless. And vice versa, without love and wisdom behind it, there is no action.
So although each is quite distinct from one another in character, none can exist in reality without the other two.
All of this can be applied to the role of love, faith, and works in salvation.
To say that we are saved by faith, but not by the other two, is empty verbiage. Such a thing simply is not possible. It is a castle in the air, with no substance or reality.
It’s not that faith is love. It’s that faith is nothing if it’s not with and from love. And neither one has any reality unless the two together are expressed in action.
This, once again, is what is stated so clearly in James 2:14-26.
Now, none of these things is really ours. They are all God’s in us. So we can’t take credit or “merit” for any of them. If we do, it is a form of spiritual theft from God—and we also corrupt them with a sense of pride and ego. That’s why Ephesians, for example, says that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9). The point it’s making is that we can’t claim salvation because we do good works. The good works we do are actually God’s in us:
So although we may feel as if we’re doing good works on our own, we must acknowledge that really the power and ability to do them comes from God, such that the good works are not really ours, but are God’s good works done through us.
Similarly, by ourselves we could not have faith, or belief. That, too, is God’s in us.
And to complete the picture, by ourselves we would have no love except selfish and greedy love. So our spiritual love—meaning love for the neighbor and love for God—is also God’s in us.
We can’t take credit for any of it. All of it is a free gift from God.
The question is whether we are willing to accept that gift.
We do that, not merely by having, or accepting, faith from God, but by having (through accepting from God) love, faith, and good works together. Unless we accept all of these from God, and make them a part of ourselves and our life, none of them means anything at all. But when we do open ourselves to all of these from God, and make them a part of our soul, our character, and our life, that is salvation.
So it’s simply not possible to be saved without having love, faith, and good works. It’s not that any of them is the same thing as one another. It’s that none of them can exist in reality without the other two.
Does this make it any clearer?
It might also be helpful to read, or re-read, this article: Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach
Yes, it does make things much clearer Lee, especially in terms of where I think I’m getting stuck: that is, the seemingly simultaneous state of all three when they are truly authentic. If you action is authentically good, it testifies to the love and wisdom behind it. If you have love and wisdom, then action must naturally follow, otherwise you never had love and wisdom in the first place.
The way you describe it sounds pretty sequential, but the true presence of one necessitates the true presence of the others. So if we are saved by deeds, it’s only because those deeds testify to the internal nature that inspired them, which is the same nature that saves us.
It almost sounds as though my idea of faith takes away our free will: that if you have faith, faithful living will follow. But besides that, what confuses me is how it parallels Protestant theology in one conceptual way: that our internal nature saves us, and deeds play a critical role insofar as they attest to and naturally fulfill a requirement of faith from which they flow (not because they ‘do anything’ per se).
I know you’re not trying to be hard on me, and likewise, I’m not trying to be difficult for you. It’s just that every time I try to get my mind around this I back myself into a paradox where Swedenborg isn’t all that different from Luther in terms of concepts, though radically apart in terms of details. But am I any closer?
Yes, I think you’re getting closer. (And you might want to re-read my previous comment, since I did some edits that might have overlapped with your reply.)
Keep in mind that Swedenborg grew up as a Lutheran. And he, too, had to struggle mightily to leave behind Luther’s theology. Perhaps it’s as a result of this that Luther’s theology is the one he attacks the most strongly in his theological writings.
Also, you are not the first to try to reconcile Swedenborg with Luther, and say they’re basically the same. But if Swedenborg heard that, he would be spinning in his grave.
Keep in mind that Luther’s theology is based on penal substitution. “Faith” for Luther means accepting that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. And no matter how much he talks about good deeds being the result of faith, his theology and his concept of atonement and salvation are diametrically opposed to those of Swedenborg. Luther’s concept of faith is a legalistic one in which we are let off the hook for our sins by accepting that Jesus paid the price for them. Swedenborg’s is one in which we repent and set aside the sins themselves, so that we no longer have to experience the “wages of sin, which is death” (Romans 6:23).
I wish it were possible simply to empty your mind of all that old Lutheran theology so that you could start fresh, without all the paradox and confusion. Unfortunately, it is going to be a harder path for you.
Oh, and I should have added this article, which is a slightly edited version of one of the first sermons I ever preached, way back in 1996: Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!? It doesn’t delve into origins and technicalities of penal substitution theory. It simply gives a layman’s view of what’s wrong with the common Protestant mantra that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, and talks about how we really are saved from our sins, in practical terms.
This question very well may not be relevant to this article series but I’ve been wondering what the writing behind you on the Fryeburg podium photo says? I assume it to be from Swedenborg.
Frankly Frank. 🙂
Hi Frankly Frank,
It is a framed copy of a traditional “New Church” (Swedenborgian) statement of faith. It draws on Swedenborg’s teachings, of course, but it is not a quote from Swedenborg’s writings.
“If there were no bible who would you be?”
If you were blind and could not read the bible who would you be?
If you were deaf and could not hear the words in the bible who would you be?
If you were on a deserted island with nothing but the skin on your body this is who you truly are.
Before the printing press and all those who were born before you without benefit of the bible these are people as they really were spiritually.
And this is who you really are as well today. Nothing has really changed from Adam, to you today, to what you are tomorrow.
That’s what I believe. So I don’t pour over the bible and live by it as a minute by minute guide on how to behave. Basically if I don’t believe it’s genuinely coming from my free will whether it’s to love God or my neighbor then I pretty much already know I’m not getting into heaven if I’m brutally honest about it.
I’d rather be who I truly am than some fake.
I guess that’s a little bit of heaven even while being in hell if one were like this I suppose. Knowing that I am who I am and there is no uncertainty left is a reward in itself. Maybe that’s why God supposedly said I’d rather you be cool than lukewarm?
Maybe what he really wants above anything else, what he values most, whether we choose heaven or hell, is to be our true selves for better or worse. He’d rather have us that way I think than phony balonies.
One thing I do really know though from this life is that everything has its price. One just has to be willing to pay it. And then live with it and accept it.
I think this is no BS reality. And I also think it carries on after we die.
Hi Frankly Frank,
Thanks for your thoughts. Of course, you are entirely free to believe whatever you want to believe, and to see and experience how that works out in your life.
I would suggest, however, that although stripping the human animal down to the basics does tell us something about what we are, it does not tell us everything about who and what we are. We are human because we are more than mere animals who live on deserted islands without society and literature, and having nothing more than “the skin on our body.”
Is everything that humanity has done with itself since we evolved upward from our early, animal state “not who we truly are”? To find out who we “truly are,” must we turn back the evolutionary clock to before we developed our higher brain functions, and began looking upward to God and spirit?
I don’t believe so.
Discovering “who we truly are,” in my view, does not involve stripping away everything human about us so that only the animal part (which we do still have) is left.
On the other hand, I do agree with you that God values authenticity in us, and does not enjoy masks, posturing, and fakery.
I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head about God wishing that we were either hot or cold, and not lukewarm (see Revelation 3:14-22). It is better for us to be fully who we actually are. Then, if who we are is not particularly good or admirable, we can clearly see that fact, and do something about it (if we wish to).
Because another part of being human is that we are not entirely determined by our genetics, instincts, and environment. We can make a conscious, rational choice to be something different than we are right now, and to do the work to become what we want to be instead.
Thanks for your great reply, Lee. It gives me pause to ponder this who we really are aspect further. I may have made things too black and white and simple when they’re not.
I’ve also noted that you repeatedly emphasize how complex we are as humans much less how complex things are in heaven and hell.
I’m starting to think that the more I know about spiritual things the less I truly know. I think even Einstein came somewhat to that same conclusion.
Hi Frakly Frank,
Glad to give you something to ponder further.
I think it’s possible to gain a fairly solid and reliable foundation of knowledge. Once that’s in place, there is no limit or boundary to the further knowledge, understanding, and wisdom that we can build onto it. What we know compared to what we don’t know is like a single drop of water compared to all of the earth’s oceans combined.