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.