Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Maria:
Ever since I encountered Swedenborg, I’ve struggled with the mechanics of the afterlife: it sounds both beautiful and terrible. I’ve been told we forget much of our life on Earth and can’t remember the people we’ve loved. When I’ve expressed disturbance at the idea, the answer tends to be “you won’t care, you’ll find better people and will feel like you always had them, etc.” I’m sick to tears of the “it’s like growing apart from dear friends as you mature” simile, because it isn’t the same thing at all.
Say we’ve been open and genuine and generally dedicated to being who we are truly in life. Say we’ve built real and healthy relationships, loving and warm. Will it still be “bye, I’m off on my own way and I’ll forget you!” after passing the stage of the spirit world? Even if our loves are different, will we simply never see or know these people again?
With all due respect to my fellow Swedenborgians, some of them have not quite gotten the message about what the afterlife is really like. Many of them are still affected by the old, outdated view of heaven as a totally alien world where we have some sort of wispy, ethereal existence that is completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced here on earth.
But that’s not how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) describes the afterlife at all. Instead, he describes it as a seamless continuation of our life here on earth. We take with us everything that makes us the unique person we are. And we live a life very much like the one we had lived here on earth, only better (assuming we have chosen heaven over hell).
Although Herbert Hoover’s ideal of “rugged individualism” has taken on almost mythic meaning in much of today’s society, the reality is that we humans are not islands unto ourselves. We are community beings. Our loves, ideals, beliefs, identity, and character have no meaning or reality on their own, but only in the context of our complex web of relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and other people in our community.
This means that we take with us into the afterlife not only our individual character, but also the many and varied relationships in which that character exists and is formed. So it should be no surprise that Swedenborg describes heaven as an intensely human community. And the relationships we leave behind are not the ones we love, but the ones that don’t feed our soul, or that turn out not to be what we thought they were.
Let’s take a closer look. Along the way we’ll explode a few common Swedenborgian myths about the afterlife.
The afterlife is a continuation of this life
The Bible doesn’t provide a whole lot in the way of descriptions of the afterlife. It is much more concerned with how we live this life. That’s because our state in the afterlife depends upon what sort of life we have lived in this one.
However, people are naturally curious about what the afterlife will be like. And they naturally turn to the church to learn about the afterlife, since that’s the sort of thing that the church is supposed to know a lot about.
Unfortunately, traditional Christianity really doesn’t know much about the afterlife, precisely because the Bible doesn’t say much about it.
Over the centuries, Christian theologians have come up with many theories about the afterlife in order to fill in that gap. Most of those theories are based on rather materialistic ideas about human existence that require us to have a physical, material body in order to have any real, substantial life at all. So in traditional Christianity heaven is generally pictured as a wispy, ethereal place where the disembodied spirits of the deceased spend eternity in rapturous contemplation of the glories of God.
If nothing else, the afterlife is traditionally seen as something completely different from our life here on earth.
Then, in the middle of the eighteenth century, Emanuel Swedenborg published his most famous book, Heaven and Hell. And our concept of the afterlife hasn’t been the same since.
Swedenborg reported that contrary to traditional Christian belief, when we die, we don’t lose anything that makes us who and what we are except for our physical body. And even that isn’t as much of a loss as we might think, since in the spiritual world we have a spiritual body that is every bit as real, tangible, and anatomically correct as our physical body is here in the material world.
Not only that, we continue to live very much the way we had on earth. We live in a house or apartment in a town or city that has roads, public buildings, parks, workplaces, and everything else that we have here on earth—including, of course, a whole bunch of other people!
The main change is that as time goes by in the spiritual world, our true inner self comes out more and more, until we look, act, and speak outwardly exactly as we think and feel inwardly. In short, in the spiritual world we become precisely the person we are, both inside and out. Our inner self—meaning our true character, feelings, beliefs, and so on—becomes visible for everyone to see. In the spiritual world, before long we can no longer hide our true inner self behind an outward public mask.
When this process of our true self being revealed is complete, we go either to heaven or to hell based on the choices we have made and the person we have become during our lifetime on earth. And even in heaven or in hell, we get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go about our daily work (or mayhem), and live in a thriving human (or inhuman) community. For more on all of this, please see these articles:
- The Afterlife: It’s Not as Different as you Think!
- What Happens To Us When We Die?
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
Heaven is a community
One of Swedenborg’s key teachings about heaven is that it is a community of people who all love God, love one another, and have jobs that involve serving their fellow human beings. And though most of the jobs Swedenborg describes are what we would now identify as service jobs, and especially jobs in education, the overwhelming sense is that life in heaven really is a lot like life on earth, only much better.
One of the ways life in heaven is very much like life on earth is that we have friendships and relationships there. Contrary to traditional Christian theology, Swedenborg said that most angels are married. And by the same token, angels have a community in which they live, and a circle of friends that they have their closest relationships with.
What would human community be without friends?
Remember, we are the same people after we die as we are before we die. And our friendships are an important part of who we are.
So let’s look more closely at what Swedenborg actually says about our friendships in the afterlife.
Some friendships do end in the afterlife
Those Swedenborgians who say that in the spiritual world our friendships on earth fade away and we forget all about them are probably thinking of passages such as this one:
It often happens that after death friends meet in the spiritual world, and remembering their friendships in the former world think that they will then resume the friendly relations they had before. But when their association, which is merely based on outward affections, is noticed in heaven, they are parted in keeping with their inward affections. Then some are sent away from that meeting to the north, some to the west; and each is removed some distance from his friend, so that they do not ever see or recognize each other again. For their faces are changed in the places where they live, so as to become a picture of their inward affections. This makes it plain that in the spiritual world it is inward affections that link people together, not outward ones, unless these are in unison with the inward ones. (Marriage Love #273.3, italics added)
So yes, some of our friendships from earth do end in the spiritual world.
But notice that Swedenborg is here speaking of friendships that are based “merely on outward affections.” In other words, Swedenborg is talking about superficial relationships.
He is talking about friends who inwardly, in their true thoughts and feelings, have very little in common with one another.
Superficial friendships, Swedenborg says, come to an end in the spiritual world. There, our true inner character comes out, so that eventually we no longer even recognize people with whom we had surface-level friendships, but nothing deeper in common.
In the afterlife, friendships are based on inner similarities
Here is another place where Swedenborg explains this a little more fully. Note that when he speaks of “the world of spirits” he means the area of the spiritual world where we first arrive after death, before going either to heaven or to hell.
After we die, [when] we arrive in the spiritual world, . . . we are still together [with people who are inwardly unlike us] and can talk to anyone when we want to, to friends and acquaintances from our physical life, especially husbands and wives, and also brothers and sisters. I have seen a father talking with his six sons and recognizing them. I have seen many other people with their relatives and friends. However, since they were of different character because of their life in the world, they parted company after a little while.
However, people who are coming into heaven from the world of spirits and people who are coming into hell do not see each other anymore. They do not even recognize each other unless they are of like character because of a likeness in love. The reason they see each other in the world of spirits but not in heaven or hell is that while they are in the world of spirits they are brought into states like the ones they were in during their physical lives, one after another. After a while, though, they settle into a constant state that accords with their ruling love. In this state, mutual recognition comes only from similarity of love, for . . . likeness unites and difference separates. (Heaven and Hell #427, italics added)
Here Swedenborg adds the other side of the picture: that although differences in inner thoughts, feelings, and character separate people who had been friends and acquaintances in the world, similarities in inner character brings people together.
Here is what Swedenborg says about people who share inner similarities:
Kindred souls gravitate toward each other spontaneously, as it were, for with each other they feel as though they are with their own family, at home, while with others they feel like foreigners, as though they were abroad. When they are with kindred souls, they enjoy the fullest freedom and find life totally delightful. (Heaven and Hell #44)
Isn’t this how we feel about our closest friends here on earth—the ones with whom we have shared our inner thoughts and feelings, and found that they share the same kinds of thoughts and feelings?
Swedenborg goes on to say:
Further, people of similar quality all recognize each other there just the way people in this world recognize their neighbors and relatives and friends, even though they may never have seen each other before. This happens because the only relationships and kinships and friendships in the other life are spiritual ones, and are therefore matters of love and faith. (Heaven and Hell #46)
Many of us have had this experience right here on earth: of meeting people with whom we have an instant connection, so that it feels like we’ve known each other all our lives even though we have just met.
These friendships are based on an inner, spiritual connection. These are the sorts of friendships Maria talks about in her question: “Say we’ve been open and genuine and generally dedicated to being who we are truly in life. Say we’ve built real and healthy relationships, loving and warm.”
Remember, heaven is not a totally different place than earth. In heaven, the inner closeness of common character and perspective on life draws us together, while the inner distance of conflicting attitudes, perspectives, and worldviews drives us apart.
That’s not true only in heaven. Right here on earth, if “we’ve been open and genuine and generally dedicated to being who we are truly in life,” then we will form our friendships based on our true character and self, and on the true character and self of those with whom we become friends.
These friendships are not the ones that Swedenborg says fade away in the spiritual world so that we don’t even recognize each other anymore. These close and deep friendships are the ones that we keep even in the afterlife because they are based, not on external, superficial connections, but on deep connections of heart and mind.
Is it possible that we’re mistaken about some of our friends?
Yes. It can be a real shock to find out that someone we thought we knew turns out to be a completely different person.
But when we have built up a close friendship with someone over the years, and that friendship has stood the test of time and become only closer and deeper, we come to know the spirit of that person. That friendship will last in the afterlife, because it is based on a connection of mutual love, understanding, and commonality of spirit.
There is not a whole new batch of people in the afterlife
It’s not as though in heaven there is a whole new batch of people that never existed before.
Every angel in heaven and every evil spirit in hell, Swedenborg says, was once a human being living on this earth. So the people who are now living on this earth are some of the same people with whom we will be sharing heaven (or hell) in the afterlife.
And people who grow up in similar times and with similar experiences tend to develop similar characters. Swedenborg speaks of people from ancient times who still live together in community with one another:
I have been told by angels that those who lived in the most ancient times live today in the heavens, arranged by households, by families, and by tribes in much the same way as they had lived on earth, with hardly anyone missing from their households. (Marriage Love #205)
Doesn’t it make sense that even today, people whose character is formed by similar cultures, experiences, and events here on earth will retain that similarity of character in the afterlife?
Yes, of course, there is a wide variety of people on this earth. Some of them really aren’t our cup of tea. And in the afterlife, we’ll be living at a great distance from such people, and will have little or no contact with them.
But those with whom we’ve shared our life and our experiences, with whom we’ve grown into the person we are today, and with whom we’ve become very close at a heart level—these will be among the people we share our life with in heaven as well.
In Swedenborg’s writings, this is clear from his statements in Marriage Love that couples who have truly, inwardly loved one another here on earth continue to be happily married to one another to eternity. And what’s true of our closest relationship with the one we love most of all is also true of the other friendships that have become a part of the deep fabric of our lives.
Friendships for people who live in different parts of heaven
Some Swedenborgians seem to think that if people live in different parts of heaven from each other, they will forget all about their friendship.
We know that’s not true on earth. Especially today, with our modern communications technology, we maintain friendships with many people who live very far away from us. We even maintain friendships with people whose minds and hearts work quite differently than our own.
By traditional Swedenborgian principles, this couldn’t happen in heaven.
But Swedenborg himself tells of an experience in the spiritual world that proves otherwise:
One morning after I woke up, I saw two angels coming down from heaven. One was coming from the southern part of heaven and the other from the eastern part . . . . When they reached the lower regions below the heavens, they ran toward one another as if each were trying to be first [to reach the other]. They hugged and kissed each other. I heard that when these two angels lived in the world they formed a bond of deep friendship. Yet now one was in the eastern part of heaven and the other was in the southern part. (True Christianity #386)
The fact is, heaven has even more advanced communications “technology” than we do here on earth. And angels also have excellent memories. So although the memory of superficial friendships does fade away because such friendships are no longer of any interest to the angels, the memories and connections formed by “deep bonds of friendship” remain in heaven even among people who have settled in different parts of heaven because they think and feel differently than one another.
In heaven, deep friendships remain
In heaven, simply thinking about a person makes that person present to us even if she or he might live a vast distance away. So in heaven, any time we want to visit with an old friend, we are free to do so.
It’s easy to draw faulty conclusions from reading a few passages in Swedenborg’s writings and thinking we know what he’s talking about. But it’s important to read everything he says about a subject throughout his writings. And when it comes to the deep friendships we form on earth, it’s simply not true that in the spiritual world we will forget all about all of our dear friends and replace all of our friendships on earth with different ones in heaven.
Remember, heaven is a kingdom of love. When genuine, deep, mutual love develops between and among people, that’s something that can never die to all eternity. In fact, these deep human connections are the very fabric of heavenly life and heavenly joy.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
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