Death and Rebirth: Introduction

In 1975 Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life. It became an instant bestseller, sparking an intense popular interest in near-death experiences (NDEs) that has continued to grow ever since. Suddenly there was new light shining on a part of human experience that had been shrouded in mystery before. Suddenly we had up-do-date reports on the afterlife from ordinary people.

Though Moody’s was the first popular book on NDEs, it was not the first material to be published containing descriptions of what happens to us when we die. Various articles and a few books had already been published touching on the subject of NDEs in the years leading up to Moody’s book. There was a quiet buildup of investigation and reporting leading to the wide open door of Life After Life.

Even before that buildup though, there had long been texts containing descriptions of what happens to us when we die. For example, from the East we have The Tibetan Book of the Dead. From Africa we have The Egyptian Book of the Dead. In the West we have Heaven and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg. In this book I will focus on Swedenborg’s descriptions of the transition begun by death, putting them in a wider context and exploring their meaning for our spiritual growth during our lives.

When Emanuel Swedenborg began his career in the early 1700s he had no thought of visiting the spiritual world or becoming a spiritual seer. Though he was the son of a prominent Lutheran bishop, his fascination was with science and engineering—and that was where he wanted to make his mark on the world.

He did exceptionally well. Soon after his studies were finished he was appointed to the Swedish Board of Mines, which oversaw the most important industry in Sweden. Swedenborg served faithfully in this post for many years, doing everything from creating mining regulations to descending into the mines themselves to conduct inspections and suggest improvements.

When his family was ennobled by the Swedish queen, as the eldest surviving son Swedenborg took a seat in the House of Nobles of the Swedish Parliament. He served in this post for the rest of his life, whenever he was in Sweden. His contributions to the Parliament showed a pragmatic concern for the well-being of his country.

Even with these important posts he was not satisfied. His mind was restless. He wanted a comprehensive grasp of science and human nature. He studied all the sciences of his day, and wrote groundbreaking books and articles on mechanics, engineering, mathematics, physics, cosmology, metallurgy, chemistry, anatomy, psychology, and many other subjects. Due to his scientific work, he was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. (See The Swedenborg Epic, by Cyriel Odhner Sigstedt. London: Swedenborg Society, 1981, p. 162.)

As time went on, he focused his studies increasingly on the human body. By this time he had set a difficult task for himself: he wanted to find the human soul. He thought he could do this by studying the body. But the more painstaking his researches, the further he seemed to be from finding the soul.

When he was in his mid-fifties, he went through a spiritual crisis, marked by many vivid dreams and visions. He said the Lord appeared to him and gave him a new mission: to study the spiritual realm. He tells us that God then opened his spiritual eyes so that he could be conscious in the material world and the spiritual world at the same time.

It was a difficult struggle for Swedenborg to give up his hopes for worldly fame and go on a spiritual journey. He knew he would be attacked and ridiculed by many educated and influential people. Still, he accepted God’s call, and for the last thirty years of his life he wrote on spiritual rather than scientific subjects.

This resulted in extensive and detailed descriptions of the spiritual world—including an account of what it is like to die and the changes we go through afterwards. Many of these descriptions are contained in his most popular book, Heaven and Hell. Others are scattered throughout the thirty plus volumes of his religious writings.

Swedenborg described several stages that we go through when we die. The chapters of this book take up each of Swedenborg’s stages in order. For each stage, there is a brief introduction, an abridged version of Swedenborg’s description of that stage, and my own thoughts on how this relates to our spiritual growth. Along the way, I will draw parallels with NDEs as described in various books on the subject.

(Note: This is the Introduction to my book Death and Rebirth, first published in 2005 and currently out of print. This text and associated artwork are copyright 2005 by Lee Woofenden.)

For Chapter 1, click here.


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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10 comments on “Death and Rebirth: Introduction
  1. Dave Harvey says:

    The Bible says only 144000 people will go to Heaven and everyone else will be reborn on Earth . This does not tie on with Swedenborgs findings does it ? How can you dispute the word of God in the Bible ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment and question.

      I am aware that the Jehovah’s Witness organization says this.

      But the Bible itself simply doesn’t say it. In fact, it says the opposite. It is the JW organization that “disputes the word of God in the Bible.”

      As I’ll explain in a moment, if we read the book of Revelation literally (which is not a very good idea), it says that the 144,000 are on earth, and that the great multitude from all nations that no one can count is in heaven. So even with a literal reading of the Bible, the JW organization has it exactly backwards.

      There are two places in the Bible, both in the book of Revelation, where the 144,000 are mentioned. Here they are, quoted in full:

      After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

      And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:

      From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,
      from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
      from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

      (Revelation 7:1–8, italics added)

      Notice that all of the action associated with the 144,000 here is taking place on earth, not in heaven.


      Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless. (Revelation 14:1–5, italics added)

      Once again, notice that this passage focuses on the earth, not on heaven.

      In particular the first verse says that the 144,000 were with the Lamb on Mount Zion. Now, Mount Zion is located in Jerusalem right here on earth. It is often used in the Bible to refer to Jerusalem, or to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the ancient Israelites built their Temple to Jehovah. So if we read the book of Revelation literally, the 144,000 are with the Lamb on earth, not in heaven.

      In short, neither of these passages says anything about the 144,000 being resurrected to live in heaven. Everything associated with the 144,000 happens on earth, and they themselves are described as being at Mount Zion, which is on earth.

      Further, if we read Revelation literally, the 144,000 will all be Jews, not Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not descended from the twelve tribes of Israel. They are not biological Jews. They come from all different races and nationalities. So the JW organization is just plain wrong to claim that the 144,000 spoken of in the book of Revelation will be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather, they will be Jews.

      Meanwhile, the very next verse after the ones quoted earlier from Revelation 7 says:

      After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9, italics added)

      Now, the throne of the Lamb is not on earth, but in heaven, as we read in Revelation 4:

      After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! (Revelation 4:1–2, italics added)

      The chapter goes on to describe the one on the throne, and all of the elders and creatures around the one on the throne, praising him and giving him glory. Exactly who is seated on the throne is a little complicated when Revelation is taken literally. In various places in the book both God and the Lamb are mentioned as sitting on the throne. But it is clear enough that the Lamb’s throne is in heaven, not on earth.

      This means that John saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” in heaven, not on earth.

      So once again, if we take the book of Revelation literally, as JWs generally do, it is exactly the opposite of what the JW organization says. According to Revelation, the 144,000 are with the Lamb on earth, in or around Jerusalem, and they are all Israelites (Jews). And the great multitude of people from all nations (i.e., non-Jews) that no one could count are surrounding the Lamb in heaven.

      If religious organizations are going to take the Bible literally, they should at least read it accurately.

      The JW organization is ignoring the plain words of the Bible in favor of their own human doctrinal inventions. They claim that the Bible say things it simply doesn’t say—even if the book of Revelation and similar passages elsewhere in the Bible are read as literally predicting future events that will take place on earth.

      However, the book of Revelation was never meant to be taken literally. Everything John describes in it he saw in heaven, not on earth. So the idea that the events described in the book of Revelation are going to take place physically on this earth has no support whatsoever in the book of Revelation.

      It helps to understand that the Greek words traditionally translated “heaven” and “earth” can also mean “sky” and “land.” John says he saw everything when he was “in the spirit.” So the “sky” and “land” (“heaven” and “earth”) that he mentions in the vision are the sky and the land of the spiritual world, not the sky and the land of the physical world.

      For more on this, please see:
      Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?

  2. AJ749 says:

    Hi Lee

    What do you make of people who agree that swedenborg had out of body experiences but compare them so they are of the same level ?

    So in a sense swedenborgs experience are the same as Ashleys from Chicago who has had out of body experiences to the spiritual world

    • Lee says:

      Hi AJ749,

      Thanks for your comment and question.

      Here are two question in response: Did the out of body experiences to the spiritual world of Ashley from Chicago go on for twenty-seven years? And was Ashley from Chicago prepared for her spiritual experience by deeply studying the sum total of the science and philosophy of humankind?

      Comparing Swedenborg’s extensive experience in the spiritual world with that of Ashley from Chicago, who probably spent all of an hour or two, or perhaps a few days at most, in the spiritual world, is like comparing someone who borrowed a friend’s telescope and looked at the moon, planets, and stars through it for a few days to an astronomer who has spent his or her entire career studying the cosmos using the full array of advanced earth-based and orbital telescopes and other scientific instruments. See the section titled, “2. Swedenborg’s experience in the spiritual world was unique in known history” in the article, “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?

      And did Ashley from Chicago spend four decades mastering all the known sciences, and write books about many of them, before spending nearly three decades traveling in the spiritual world, and writing another forty or fifty volumes of material on spiritual subjects? Did those volumes address some of the most difficult questions and problems of human life, offering new rationally and morally satisfying answers to them? Did Ashley’s voluminous writings cover the gamut of tough philosophical issues from a position of having studied the great philosophers and theologians of history? Did they offer an new way of reading the Bible, resolving all of the difficulties, contradictions, and scientific impossibilities that result from a literal reading of the Bible?

      In short, are the brief spiritual experiences of Ashley from Chicago really on the same level as the extensive spiritual experiences of one of the greatest and most broadly learned minds of all time?

      • AJ749 says:

        Lee that makes absolutely the most sense , i just find it really annoying that those who say they had OBEs and visited the spiritual world or in other words the world of spirits think they know how the spiritual world works and how it affects humanity and then they discredit swedenborg

        • Lee says:

          Hi AJ749,

          The world is full of “instant experts”: people who have one or two experiences, or read one or two books, and think this makes them experts on a particular subject. The reality is that if you want to become skilled, knowledgeable, and expert on something, you have to put in the time and the work. Swedenborg put in the time and the work. Most of his detractors did not.

  3. AJ749 says:

    Hi Lee it makes sense what you say, do you also think that they all say different things to each other as well indicates that the furthest they could go is the world of spirits ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi AJ749,

      It’s not so much that they only go as far as the world of spirits, as that they aren’t in the other realm long enough to move out of a transitional phase into a settled residency in the spiritual world.

      According to Swedenborg, when we die we are initially met by the highest, heavenly angels. This is the reason for the supreme warmth and peace that so many NDEers report when they enter the spiritual world. And it is an experience of heaven. However, it is temporary. Before long, people who die permanently leave these heavenly angels, and go through a succession of lower angels before settling into a life in the world of spirits, where they reside for a longer or shorter time before moving on to their final home in heaven or hell.

      Very few people who have experiences of the spiritual world, most commonly through an NDE, are in the spiritual world long enough to move out of the initial temporary, transitional phase. This means that they do not have any experience of what “regular life” is like in the spiritual world, regardless of whether that life is in the world of spirits, in heaven, or in hell. Relying on their version of what the spiritual world is like would be like relying on someone who flew to Africa for a few days, and then flew back, to tell us what it is like to live in Africa. Yes, they’ve been to Africa. But they haven’t lived in Africa. They simply don’t have the experience of living in the place that they are reporting about.

  4. K says:

    Before one has consciousness as a single person was there God’s consciousness before then, or eternal oblivion? In other words, if one could do real “regression” to the time before birth, would they arrive at God’s awareness before then? Or would it just be nothing?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Of course, God’s consciousness pre-exists ours, and is the ultimate source of ours. So in a sense, if we did “real regression” to a time before our present life, then yes, we would arrive at God’s consciousness. On another level of “real regression,” we would go back to our biological parents’ consciousness, since that is the more immediate source of our existence and consciousness.

      But just to be clear, our individual consciousness does not exist before our conception and birth. In neither case would we be regressing to anything that is us. Each new conception and birth is the beginning of a brand new consciousness that has not existed before. It is not the recycling of a previously existing created (non-God) consciousness. Both God’s consciousness and our parents’ consciousness continue to exist. Meaning those previous consciousnesses are not transformed into ours, as in reincarnation theory, but ours is a newly created consciousness.

      For a related article, please see:
      The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation

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