Death and Rebirth, Chapter 1: The Experience of Dying

For the Introduction, click here.

There is a difference between Swedenborg’s experience and the experiences of people who have come close to dying and have returned. When Swedenborg described the spiritual world and the process of dying in Heaven and Hell, he already had years of regular, almost daily, consciousness in the spiritual world. By the time he wrote his description of the experience of death he was familiar with the spiritual world, and had a sense of perspective on the dying experience.

Because of this, and because he was a sci­entist to the core, Swedenborg’s descrip­tions are more analytical than those of many present-day NDEers, most of whom had never experienced the spiritual world before. The descriptions of the death pro­cess given by NDEers are probably closer to what you or I might experience as we die. Most of us do not have previous experience in the spiritual world. We will approach death in a state of mind more like that of ordinary folks who nearly die and come back to tell of their experiences.

Meanwhile, here is a description of the process of dying as experienced by a West­ern mind trained in both material and spir­itual reality.

Waking Up From Death

From Heaven and Hell #445–52
by Emanuel Swedenborg

When our body can no longer perform its functions in the physical world, expressing the thoughts and feelings of our spirit (which we have from the spiritual world), we say that we die. This happens when our lungs stop breath­ing and our heart stops beating.

Yet we do not die, but are only separated from the body that had been useful to us in the world. We ourselves continue to live. I say we ourselves continue to live since we are not human because of our body, but because of our spirit. It is the spirit within us that thinks—and thinking together with feeling makes us human.

This means that when we die, we only pass from one world to another. Because of this, when “death” is mentioned in the Bible its deeper meaning is re-awakening and contin­ued life.

The deepest connection of our spirits is with our breathing and the motion of our heart. Our thinking communicates with our breathing, and the feelings of our love commu­nicate with our heart. So when these two motions stop we are immediately separated from our body. These two motions—the breathing of our lungs and the beating of our heart—are the links. When they are broken, our spirit is on its own. Since our body no longer has the life of its spirit, it grows cold and decays.

The deepest communication of our spirits is with our breathing and the motion of our heart because all our vital motion depends on these two functions—and not merely in a gen­eral way but in every single part of our body.

Our spirit stays in our body for a little while after the separation, but not past when the heart has completely stopped beating. This happens in different ways depending on the the cause of our death. Sometimes the heart continues to beat for a while; other times it stops after a short time.

As soon as the heart stops beating we are awakened—but only the Lord does this. By “awakening” I mean leading our spirit out of our body and bringing it into the spiritual world. This is traditionally called “resurrec­tion.” Our spirit is not separated from our body until the heart stops beating because our heart corresponds[1] to the feelings of our love, which is our real life. Our vital warmth comes from love. So as long as this connection con­tinues there is a correspondence, and the life of our spirit remains in our body.

I have not only been told how we wake up from death; I have been shown through experi­ence. I have actually gone through it so I could know exactly what it is like. I lost touch with my physical senses almost as if I were dying. But I still had all of my inner life and ability to think, so I could pay attention and remember what happened to me—which is the same as what happens to us when we wake up from death.

I noticed that my body’s breathing was almost taken away, though my inner spiritual breathing continued, along with a slight, quiet physical breathing. My heartbeat started to communicate with the heavenly realm, since that realm is connected with our heart.

I saw angels[2] from that realm, some at a dis­tance, and two sitting at my head. They took away all my own feelings, but I kept my think­ing and awareness. I experienced this for sev­eral hours. Then the spirits who were around me left, saying I had died. I noticed an aro­matic odor like an embalmed body. When heavenly angels are nearby, the dead body seems aromatic. Spirits sense this and cannot approach it. This is how evil spirits are kept away from our spirit when we are first brought into eternal life.

The angels who sat by my head were silent, communicating only with my thoughts. When we receive their thoughts the angels know our spirit is ready to be drawn out of our body. The angels shared their thoughts with me by looking at my face. This is how people in heaven share thoughts.

Since I could still think and be aware of things so that I could remember how waking up from death happens, I noticed that the angels at first asked whether my thoughts were like the thoughts of people who are dying, who usually think about eternal life. They wanted to hold my mind in these thoughts. I was later told that our spirits are kept in the last thoughts we had when our body dies. This lasts until we go back to the way we had thought from our predominant feelings in the world. I was especially given to sense and feel that there was a drawing out and pulling away of the inner parts of my mind—meaning my spirit—from my body. I was told that this was from the Lord, and that it causes us to wake up from death.

The heavenly angels who are with us as we are being awakened from death do not leave us, since they love each one of us. But when our spirit can no longer be with heavenly angels we start wanting to leave them. When this happens, angels from the Lord’s spiritual realm come to us. They give us the ability to see. Before, we had not seen anything, but had only thought things. I was shown how this happens.

I saw an angel there seem to roll a covering off my left eye toward my nose to open my eyes and give me sight. It does seem to us as if this is what happens, though it is only the way it appears. When the covering was rolled off I saw some light, but it was dim. It was like looking through my eyelids at daybreak. This dim light seemed to be heavenly warmth. I was told, though, that this happens differently for different people.

Next I felt something soft rolled off my face, and then I was able to think spiritually. The feeling that something was being rolled off my face was also merely the way it looks. It means that our material thought has now passed over into spiritual thought. The angels are very careful not to let in any ideas about waking up from death that do not have a sense of love about them. Then they tell us that we are a spirit.

After the spiritual angels give us the ability to see they offer us everything we could possi­bly want in this situation. They also tell us as much about the other life as we are able to understand. But if we do not wish to be taught we want to get away from those angels. The angels do not leave us; no, we leave them. Angels love every one of us. They love nothing better than doing good things for us, teaching us, and leading us into heaven. This gives them their greatest joy.

When we leave them, good spirits welcome us. They also offer us every kind of help. But if we had lived on earth in a way that made it so that we could not be together with good spirits we also wish to get away from them. This goes on as many times as it takes for us to come together with spirits who are completely har­monious with our life in the world. Then we live with them—and surprisingly enough, we live the same way we had lived on earth.

However, this first stage of our life after death does not last more than a few days. I will describe in the next chapter how we are led from one stage to the next, and finally either into heaven or into hell. I know these things also from a lot of experience.

I have talked with some people three days after they died, when they had already been through the experiences I just described. I have even talked with three people I had known in the world. I told them that their mortal remains were now being prepared so that their body could be buried. When they heard me say “buried,” they were struck with astonish­ment. They said that they were alive, and that those people were merely burying what had served them in the world.

Afterwards they were absolutely amazed that when they had lived in their body they had not believed there was this kind of life after death—and especially that practically everyone in the church had not believed it.

People who in the world had not believed that there was any life after physical life are very embarrassed when they realize that they are still alive. But those who had convinced themselves that there was no afterlife get together with people who believe the same thing and are separated from people who had faith. Most of them are connected to some hellish community because they also deny the divine and are contemptuous of spiritual truth. As much as we convince ourselves against the eternal life of our soul we also convince our­selves against heavenly and spiritual things.

* * * * *

This is how Swedenborg describes the pro­cess of dying. Like NDEers, he regained consciousness in this world afterwards so that he could tell people who are still on earth about it. Though his experience hap­pened over two hundred years ago, it is similar in many ways to the experiences of people today who have NDEs. It is also dif­ferent in some ways.

Before going into the meaning of this experience for our own spiritual growth, I would like to explore some of these similar­ities and differences. To do this, I will com­pare Swedenborg’s experience with the pattern of common elements experienced by NDEers. This pattern was initially out­lined by Raymond Moody,[3] and later stud­ied more rigorously and systematized by such scholars as Kenneth Ring[4] and Bruce Greyson.[5] These writers are careful to point out that no NDEer experiences all of these elements. In the same way, Swedenborg did not experience all of them. I will focus par­ticularly on the five stages of the NDE as described by Kenneth Ring, while bringing in other common elements along the way.

NDEers often say that words cannot describe what they have experienced. They sometimes say there are “more than three dimensions” to the experience. In Moody’s terms, the experience is “ineffable.” Swe­denborg does not mention this when he describes his death experience, but read what he says about some newly arrived spirits in the spiritual world:

There were certain souls recently arrived from the world who, on account of the assumptions they had adopted during their lifetime, doubted whether things of this sort could possibly be found in the next life where there is no wood or stone. They were brought up to [a certain] place, and from there they talked to me. In their amazement they said that it was beyond description, that they could never think of any way of representing how far beyond description it was, and that forms of joy and happiness shone from every detail—and this in ever-changing variety. (Arcana Coelestia #1622)

Even if the people who come back from death cannot completely describe what they experienced, they tell us that it is the most amazing thing that ever happened to them.

People who are dying often hear some­one pronounce them dead. Usually it is a doctor or nurse or somebody at the scene of an accident. For Swedenborg, it was the angels who were with him. In his words, the angels with us “tell us that we are a spirit.” For most of us, dying is such a new experience that we may not even realize what is happening. Being told that we have died can help us to understand these strange and new experiences.

A few NDEers experience some kind of sound as they are dying. It may be a loud ringing noise, a banging, buzzing, or whis­tling noise, or something else, such as music. Sometimes it is pleasant and some­times it is unpleasant. Though Swedenborg does describe noise and music in the spiri­tual world, he does not mention it during his experience of dying. He does talk about an odor—the odor of an embalmed body—associated with his experience. NDEers rarely mention odors.

Usually, though, NDEers describe a feel­ing of great peace and quiet that comes over them as they are dying. Here is what Swedenborg has to say about the peaceful­ness of angels:

There are two inmost elements of heaven: innocence and peace. They are called inmost because they come directly from the Lord. . . . These two elements, inno­cence and peace, come from the Lord’s divine love, and affect angels from their very core. (True Christian Religion #182)

Swedenborg felt this deep inner peace when he was with angels. It was part of his experience of dying, as it is for many today who almost die and come back. This sense of peace is the main characteristic of Ring’s first stage of the NDE.

A common thread that is present among Swedenborg and NDEers at this point in the experience is a sense of leaving the physical body behind. This body separa­tion brings the NDEer to the second stage described by Ring.

Swedenborg did not encounter this in the way many NDEers do: as an out-of-body experience. NDEers often say they looked down on their own lifeless body, and on the people and things around it— perhaps from some kind of spiritual body that was different from their physical body. Swedenborg talks in similar ways about the physical and spiritual bodies, but his usual experience was that when people were in their spiritual bodies they did not see any­thing in the physical world.

An interesting parallel to the out-of-body experience is Swedenborg’s conversa­tions with three of his friends who had recently died. When he tells them that their body is being prepared for burial, they are struck with amazement. They are still alive! That body is only something they had used while they were in the world. This type of detachment from our physical body is com­monly reported by NDEers. They some­times speak of looking down on their body as if it had nothing to do with them. Others find it confusing to be out of their bodies. Perhaps they are feeling some of the amaze­ment that Swedenborg reports to be com­mon among those who have just arrived in the spiritual world when they see that they are still very much alive even though they are not in their bodies.

NDEers who lose awareness of their physical surroundings often enter a black void or “dark tunnel.” Ring calls it “enter­ing the darkness,” which forms his third stage of the NDE. This is a feeling of float­ing in or moving through a dark space. Not all NDEers experience it, even when they have an other-world experience. In Swe­denborg’s case, it is more implied than described: at first he did not have the use of his eyes; only later did he gain the use of his eyes and see the bright world in which he then was.

Once NDEers go beyond the physical world into the spiritual world, practically everything they describe has parallels in Swedenborg’s spiritual world experience. Ring’s fourth stage takes place on the other side of the darkness: “seeing the light.”

The most vivid form of seeing the light is encountering a presence that Moody called “the being of light”—a name that has stuck, though as Ring points out NDEers themselves more often refer to it simply as a “presence.” This presence or being of light is definitely personal, but not like any per­son we have ever met. There is a dazzling light coming from it. The light is brighter than any light we have ever seen here, yet it does not blind us or hurt our eyes when we see it. It is as though the light is a sense of radiating love, warmth, and understanding. Meeting this being is such a powerful expe­rience that NDEers often identify the being with the highest spiritual beings they knew of from their own religious tradition: God, an angel, Jesus, and so on. Others see it as all the universe comprehended together.

Swedenborg says two angels from the highest heavenly realm are with us when we die. His description of these angels reflects what NDEers experience as the being of light:

I have seen angelic faces of the third heaven, whose quality was such that no artist, with all the artist’s skill, could impart enough of that kind of light to the colors to capture a thousandth part of the light and life you can see in their faces. (Heaven and Hell #459)

Swedenborg commonly describes spiritual light and warmth as a sense of love and understanding flowing among people and between God and people. This is the light that NDEers experience coming from the being of light.

There is also a tantalizing hint in Swe­denborg that perhaps he thinks it is indeed God who meets us initially when we die. He says, “As soon as the heart stops beating we are awakened—but only the Lord does this.”

As Swedenborg mentions in his death experience, there is communication with this being, but not in words. He says, “The angels who sat by my head were silent, communicating only with my thoughts.” They did this by looking at his face. This type of direct communication of thoughts goes on as long as we are with the being of light. It is a communication full of love, compassion, and mutual understanding.

The being often asks a question. It may be hard for NDEers to express exactly what the question is. Sometimes they say the question is “Are you ready to die?” Other times it seems more like “What have you accomplished with your life?” These both seem to be the same question, only expressed differently. Swedenborg says the angels kept him in “thoughts that were like the thoughts of people who are dying,” which is probably the same thing. It is nat­ural for us to be thinking about our lives and our readiness for death as we are dying.

The being of light does not ask this question about life accomplishments to confront or condemn, but to cause us to think deeply about our lives. Along with the question there may be an incredibly fast review of our whole lives. Some NDEers say they saw every detail of their lives; oth­ers say it was only the high points. It is almost always very fast and very vivid. Usu­ally they see themselves doing things from another person’s perspective, and not as if they were experiencing it themselves at that moment.

Swedenborg does not describe this pro­cess as vividly as NDEers, but he does talk about angels bringing out of our memory what we had done in this life and showing it to us, as in this quote from Heaven and Hell #462b.8:

I have even heard the things that a person thought during the course of a month seen and reviewed by angels out of that person’s memory, a day at a time without error—things recalled as though the per­son were engaged in them at the time they happened.

According to Swedenborg, nothing we have ever done or experienced is hidden from the angels. This agrees with what NDEers say about the being of light. Fortunately, the being of light loves us completely while going through these things with us. There is no condemnation for anything we have done, but an effort to help us learn from it. To the being of light, love and learning are the two most important things.

NDEers who do not meet the “presence” or “being of light” often say they meet peo­ple they had known on earth who have died. These people may serve some of the functions the being of light otherwise would, such as getting the NDEer to reflect on his or her life and to make a decision about whether to return. Swedenborg also had the experience of meeting deceased friends and relations. He said, “I have talked with all my relations and friends, as well as with kings and dukes, not to men­tion scholars, who have met their fates” (True Christian Religion #281).

Often people who have this experience of meeting friends or relations in the spiri­tual world also experience Ring’s fifth and final stage of the NDE: “entering the light.” This is the deepest stage. When they first “see the light,” most NDEers do not become aware of another world around them. Those who go on to enter the light are able to see the scenery of what they describe as another world—what Sweden­borg calls the spiritual world. They describe incredibly beautiful fields, lakes, moun­tains, forests, and buildings all in such vivid colors and bathed in such clear, bright light that they often say there are no words in our language to adequately describe what they saw. In Heaven and Hell Swedenborg describes the scenery of the spiritual world in great detail, including its plants, animals, buildings, and human communities.

Swedenborg recounts the process of dying as it would be if we were continuing on into the other life. Unlike NDEers, Swedenborg could stay in the other world even while he was living in this one, so he did not describe what it is like to come back. NDEers do experience this, though. A few of them talk of reaching some kind of visually represented border or limit. It may be a door, a fence, the other side of a lake, or simply a line. They know that if they passed beyond the border, they would not come back to earth. For others, instead of a visual border there is a point at which a choice is made, either by the NDEer or by the person or presence he or she met there. Still others simply felt they were pulled back into their body without any sense of a choice. Of course, those who are still here to tell us about it did come back, whether or not it was by choice.

Coming back to earth after visiting the spiritual world can be difficult. Once we have experienced the beauty, joy, light, and love of that world, this world can seem dark and painful. Yet most NDEers come back with a new sense of the spiritual depth within, and a sense that they have work to do here. Experiencing the spiritual world does not automatically transform us into angels. It only gives us a glimpse of the path. That path lies through learning to understand and love one another.

* * * * *

In the final chapter of his book Broca’s Brain, called “The Amniotic Universe,” Carl Sagan says:

Every human being, without exception, has already shared an experience like that of those travelers who return from the land of death: the sensation of flight; the emergence from darkness into light; an experience in which, at least sometimes, a heroic figure can be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory. There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth.[6]

Sagan uses this insight to speculate on whether NDEs are a re-creation of the birth experience by the human brain—thus calling into question whether they are actu­ally experiences of an afterlife. People who have had vivid NDEs might reply, “You have not had an NDE. I have. It was real.”

Yet the same insight can lead us in an entirely different direction. As people of many different religious traditions have known for ages, the parallel between physi­cal birth and physical death has a deeper cause. Each is an experience of birth: physi­cal birth is our birth into the material world; physical death is our birth into the spiritual world.

This connection between birth and death has been a part of our cultural heri­tage as well. When my son Christopher was born at home in July, 1995, his heart was not beating. The midwives performed CPR and revived him. A few weeks later one of the midwives came by for a visit. As we talked about the experience of Chris’s birth, she mentioned that midwives used to be present at both births and deaths. The same people who attended new births into this world also attended the transition, or birth, from this world into the next.

Like The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other accounts of our experiences at and after death, Swedenborg describes various stages that we go through when we die. We can use these descriptions as literal accounts of what we experience when we die. Using a similar parallelism to that between birth and death, we can also take the descriptions as a metaphorical account of our processes of spiritual death and rebirth: what we experience on our path of spiritual birth and growth during our life on earth. This is the parallelism I would like to focus on for the rest of this book.

It might help to pause a moment and consider what our spiritual level is. Our material level includes our physical body and the physical aspects of everything we say and do in the material world. Our spiri­tual level exists, not apart from, but within our material level while we are living here on earth. It is the level of our human rela­tionships and interactions with other peo­ple and with God. Our words and actions are physical, but the love and understand­ing (or lack of them) that they express are spiritual.

This means that our spiritual growth is our growth in love for and understanding of other people, and our expression of that growth in our relationships and interac­tions with them. Our spiritual growth does not happen in isolation from others but in community with others. As we grow closer to other people spiritually we also grow closer to God.

Back to the parallelisms I mentioned before, these rest on two properties of the physical/spiritual universe that are present in many religious cosmologies, and espe­cially well developed in Swedenborg: the macrocosm/microcosm and correspon­dences.

The concept of macrocosm/microcosm states that small things are images of large things, and vice versa. The universe is reflected in each individual human being, animal, plant, and rock, and in each part of each one of them. This means that the whole universe and any part of it also reflects an individual human being, animal, plant, rock, and so on. Each part of the universe reflects every other part of the uni­verse. This characteristic is part of the very fabric of the universe. William Blake expresses this in his Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

“Correspondence” is Swedenborg’s word for the relationships that exist among the various levels of reality. We live in a multi-layered universe. There are the big levels: God, spirit, and matter. Within each of these there are other levels reflecting the big levels of the universe. In God there is love, wisdom, and action. In spirit there are the same levels as in God. And in matter there is substance, form, and action or existence. Using the principle of macrocosm/micro­cosm, we could find each of these levels within anything we cared to contemplate, from the community of all humans on earth down to a single bone cell in our body.

Things on different levels are distinctly different from each other. Spirit is not the same as matter. God is not the same as spirit. Yet they are intimately connected with each other. If they are different, how can they be connected? How can they com­municate with each other? Swedenborg describes this as happening through corre­spondence.

Correspondence is not a mere symbolic link: “A equals B.” It is a living relationship. It is the way God’s character is expressed on the spiritual level, and spiritual realities manifested on the physical level. For exam­ple, a hug is not merely a cultural symbol denoting affection for another person. It is a direct physical expression of warmth and caring through close physical contact.

Similarly, physical birth and death are not merely symbols of spiritual rebirth; they are a living physical expression of the realities of spiritual birth and growth. It is no coincidence that the experiences of birth and death parallel each other. Through macrocosm/microcosm and correspon­dences, they are both physical manifesta­tions of the same spiritual reality. So let’s explore the passage of death and see what it could mean for our own spiritual rebirth.

Using the parallel between death and birth, we will consider the moment of physical death to be the moment of a spiri­tual birth within ourselves. This may be the time we first turn from a material to a spir­itual focus, or it may be a new birth in an already developing spirituality. For now we will look at the experience of dying as a parallel to the first beginnings of our con­scious spiritually-oriented life.

Our approach to physical death can come in many different ways. For some people there is a long and gradual physical decline ending in death. For others there is an accident or severe illness and death comes suddenly, with little warning. This reflects our various approaches to the tran­sition from a materially oriented life to a spiritually oriented one. Some of us experi­ence a gradual decline in our sense of satis­faction with a materialistic life. Physical pleasures that used to consume us lose their savor. Gradually the sense that something is missing grows, until we feel that there is very little left that is truly alive in the way we have been living so far.

For others, the death of our materialistic self comes quickly. A close friend or family member dies, a relationship breaks up, we lose the job we have held for years, and suddenly the material things we had been so engrossed in no longer seem so impor­tant to us. Suddenly we find ourselves look­ing deeper for answers to life’s questions.

No matter which way we approach it, at some point we realize that we want and need a spiritual level in our life. This, corre­spondentially, is the moment of our death in the physical world and our new birth into the spiritual world.

Usually it is not an easy transition. In the experience of physical birth we are com­pressed and forced through an opening that seems smaller than it ought to be. The transition of spiritual rebirth also goes through a “small gate and a narrow road,” in Jesus’ words (Matthew 7:14). Like a baby in the womb, we have grown comfort­able with our previous way of life. The change can be difficult, but it is a change we must make if we are to move on to the next stage of our growth.

In our experience of death there may be hard passages. There is the physical pain that often accompanies death, the grief at the loss of our loved ones, and the fear of what might come next. At the moment of death there are often feelings of confusion and emotional discomfort among those who float out of their bodies but remain at the scene of their deaths. There is the com­mon experience of the black void or “dark tunnel,” which can be bewildering. After­wards there may come an examination of our past life—which can be painful if we have lived in hurtful ways, or if we realize that the “good” things we had done in our life came from egotistical motives.

All of these have their parallels in the experiences we may have at the time we move from a materialistic to a spiritual life. It hurts to make changes within ourselves. We grieve the loss of the pleasure we used to get from our old, familiar habits. We are anxious about what we will do next, and where we will go. We are still with our old friends and family members, and though we see them about their normal business, they may not recognize the changes that are taking place in us. We may feel that there is a barrier between us and those we used to know; we can see them, but they cannot see us anymore. We may feel that we are pass­ing through a “dark night of the soul,” as described by John of the Cross.[7] As we look at our past life in a new light we may recoil, sometimes with a sense of guilt and shame, from the things we have thoughtlessly or maliciously done to others, or from harm­ful and abusive thoughts and feelings we have nursed inside of ourselves.

We may even decide we are not ready for this transition, and go back to our former ways of life for a longer or shorter time. But as with those who come back from an NDE, our life will still be changed after­wards. We will never be able to go back to exactly the way we were before. There will always be a sense that there is something more to life—something that we need to return to sooner or later.

Most of us, though, having started a spiritual path, do not go back. We continue in the new direction. And before long we receive support and inspiration. At the other end of the dark tunnel there is a new light that is brighter than anything we have ever experienced before. We begin to see new meaning in our lives that had been completely beyond us up until now. We have a new direction and new purpose.

We also have human and divine support. Some of us have a direct encounter with a being of light. This may be an experience of communion with God or it may be a deep connection with another human being who has developed to a high level of spirituality and helps us in our transition. Others of us see loved ones who have “died” before us—meaning we now have a new and deeper relationship with those who have already begun their spiritual paths and have been waiting for us to begin ours. We may still grieve the loss of old friendships, but they are replaced by new and deeper ones, sometimes with the same people, but often with new friends.

At this point in our transition the dark­ness and confusion has turned into joy and brilliant light. We feel that we have at last arrived at our true spiritual home. Not so! We have only taken the first few steps on a long spiritual journey. After the initial con­suming experience of spiritual birth we set­tle back into our life. This may turn into a real anticlimax. We may even think after­wards that nothing has really happened— that everything is exactly the same as it was before.

This is where it helps to understand the next stages of spiritual growth. There are many ways to look at those stages. One of them is to continue with Swedenborg in the stages he says we go through after death.


[1] Swedenborg uses the word “correspondence” to de­scribe the living relationship between two different levels of reality—usually the material and the spiritu­al. In this relationship, “correspondence” is the way spiritual things manifest themselves on the material level.

[2] Swedenborg saw angels not as a separate creation, but as human beings who have lived on earth and gone on to heaven after their physical death.

[3] Life After Life, by Raymond Moody, Jr. (New York: Bantam, 1975).

[4] Life at Death, A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience, by Kenneth Ring (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1980).

[5] “The Near-Death Experience Scale: Construction, Reliability, and Validity,” by Bruce Greyson; in The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspec­tives. Bruce Greyson, Charles P. Flynn, Ed. (Spring­field, Il: Charles Thomas, 1984).

[6] Broca’s Brain, by Carl Sagan. (New York: Random House, 1974) p. 304.

[7] As found in John of the Cross, Selected Writings. Kieran Kavanaugh, Ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).

(Note: This is Chapter 1 of 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 2, 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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Posted in Spiritual Growth, The Afterlife
24 comments on “Death and Rebirth, Chapter 1: The Experience of Dying
  1. Barbara L Dion says:

    My beloved husband died on February 2, 2018, just recently. He had blood clotting in his legs but had lived through a heart aneurysm in 2012. He collapsed on a golf course in town and was rushed to the ER. Many blood clots were discovered in his legs and he required surgery. He was transferred to Rehabilitation Center where he spent almost two months. He was sent home with professional medical, rehab, visiting nurse, occupational therapists and physical therapists arriving daily. All seemed well until he was started on Coumadin, which resulted in hemorrhagic bleeding…resulting in his demise. His last words to me, while at home, were, “Why are you calling the paramedics?” although I did not hear ‘paramedics’ but insert it here as he was aware of emergency vehicles being contacted. He was brought to UMass Medical where he was treated for a few days. He could not respond to physician commands to move his hand (although he did it once) by turning his hand and raising his thumb. He also tried to move his hand when I commanded him to but did not quite manage it.
    Tom was transferred to Rose Monahan hospice home. I went to see him but did not stay all night as it was told to me by staff at UMass that people can live from two days to several days. I did visit him but am ashamed to admit that I went as a ‘child’ and not a mature woman. I talked to staff, cleaning staff, as well to a wonderful gentleman who said that Tom may be able to ‘return’ to life. Was he an angel? My heart breaks that I left Tom after my first meeting, and not not knowing when he would pass on, I heard from a nurse the following morning Tom had passed at 4-thirty in the morning, I believe it was the very next day. Help me, Jesus for my lack of maturity and not making sure that I was with Tom when he passed…and thank you for sending the kind man who said Tom looked strong and handsome.
    Can Tom forgive me? Did he know I was there? Did he wonder where I was when his time came to leave?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Barbara,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your husband’s death, under such difficult circumstances. Losing someone close to our heart is always difficult. But when there are complications and missed opportunities and regrets, it’s even worse.

      Those regrets don’t go away easily. But your husband will still be in a good place, and he knows that you love him even if you weren’t there at the time he passed from this world to the next one. We don’t know just when death will come. It’s not always possible to stay with a loved one 24/7. So I hope you won’t beat yourself up too badly. That’s not what your husband would want for you.

      Meanwhile, he is still with you in spirit, just as you still are with him. Yes, he knows you are there. And yes, he can forgive you. He can now see things much more clearly than here on earth, and is more focused on the bigger issues of life. His questions are being answered. And he is more interested in your ongoing love than in a momentary lapse that kept you from being there at his moment of death.

      None of this will take away your grief at his passing. It’s hard to be separated from the one we love the most. But I hope you will in time be able to forgive yourself and focus less on your missing his moment of death and more on the relationship you two have had—and will continue to have when it comes your time to pass on to the other world. See:
      Will Happily Married Couples be Together in Heaven?

  2. Thanks for sharing. I always find this topic very interesting. Lately, I’ve been watching a tv series based on stories people share of their NDexperiences. I would hear of a story here and there years ago about people claiming to have returned from the dead. I wasn’t sure what to think. Nowadays the stories are plentiful due to communication advances in technology. The numbers are enough for me to consider their experiences a real possibility, instead of assuming they were making it up.

    • Lee says:

      Hi mentalhealthparenting557347020,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Glad you found this chapter interesting.

      Yes, by now so many people (many thousands, if not millions) have had near-death experiences that it’s hard to maintain that they’re all just making it up. Especially not when there are so many similarities in the experiences they describe that cut across cultural, social, and religious lines. Not that there aren’t a lot of differences too. But taken as a whole, there is a stunning coherence to the stories and experiences that would hardly be possible if they were all just spinning tall tales.

      From my perspective, the simplest and most logical explanation is that these people actually are having real experiences of the spiritual world. But I know that’s hard for a lot of people to accept. Yes, people who don’t believe there’s any such thing as God and spirit cannot accept it. But even many believers don’t accept NDEs because they don’t agree with established religious dogma about the afterlife.

      However, I believe that NDEs are a major confirmation of the age-old belief that there is more to life than this physical world, and that when we die, our spirit will go on to live in a very real and very human world. You can read some of my reasons to believe this, contrary to the skeptics, in this article:
      Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

      If you have any further thoughts, or questions, as you read, feel free to comment on any of the articles here. Meanwhile, Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  3. Rami says:

    Hi already, thanks for sharing this passage on the matter. Swedenborg’s descriptions of the relationship between the spirit and the functions of our bodies raise some interesting questions in light of technology, particularly life support systems. While the heart is beating and lungs breathing, it would seem that it no longer does so out of the spiritual expressions that Swedenborg has described in this passage, and is instead merely automated by a machine. Do you think, then, that people in those states have already gone to the spirit world well before their life support systems are discontinued and they are physically dead? Or do we remain living humans in the physical world for as long as we are physically alive?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Good to hear from you again.

      In answer to your questions, as long as we are still alive, our spirit is still associated with our body. It is the spirit that gives life to the body. It doesn’t matter if mechanical devices keep the heart and lungs operating. Without the spirit animating the cells and organs, those machines would not be able to keep us alive. They’re simply doing the work that some of our muscles would normally do. In concept, it’s no different than having a prosthetic arm or leg that does the job our natural arm or leg normally would.

      Although the person’s spirit is still connected to the body as long as they are kept alive, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have some consciousness in the spiritual world. If they are in a persistent vegetative state such that their physical senses are not operating normally and they’re not conscious in this world, it’s quite possible that their spiritual senses are already in operation, and they are having some sort of conscious awareness in the spiritual world. However, since they are still connected to their physical body, they will not be free to move on to a full life as a spirit living in the spiritual world.

      It’s also possible that people in a coma have only a dim awareness, perhaps like a person dreaming. We don’t know a lot about the mental state of people who are in a coma. We do know, though, that sometimes they are aware of their physical surroundings even if they’re unable to speak or to move their physical body. People who are apparently unconscious on the operating table or in a hospital bed are sometimes able later to recount what was said and what was going on around them while they were believed to be entirely unconscious. So beware what you say and do around an unconscious person! 🙂

      In general I believe it’s best to allow people to die when their body can no longer function on its own and they are unable to have any kind of conscious life here on earth. Why hold onto people when effectively their life here is already over? Better to let them move on to the spiritual world. And even for those who don’t believe in an afterlife, what’s the point of keeping someone’s body alive when their mind is already gone?

      It’s different, of course, if people are still conscious, aware, and able to live a life here. Then, even if their body is severely compromised and their physical mobility and effectiveness is limited, people may prefer to stay here for the sake of family, friends, and so on, and to continue their life here on earth until it is truly over. Plus, as long as we’re still living a conscious life on earth, we can continue making progress on our spiritual journey of rebirth, or “regeneration” in traditional Christian terms.

  4. Foster Caldaroni says:

    Hi Lee, Did Swedenborg mention anything about people being able in the afterlife of traveling back in time to witness historical events?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Foster,

      I’m not aware of any place where Swedenborg spoke of such a thing. To my knowledge, the idea of time travel wasn’t much of a thing in Swedenborg’s day.

      He did talk about visiting people in heaven who had lived in earlier eras of human history, so that they were present for events that are now history to us. However, since these people are now in the spiritual world, they no longer focus on historical events, but on the moral, religious, and philosophical ideas of their time period in history.

      This also means that it’s fairly unlikely that most people living in the spiritual world would have much interest in witnessing historical events. They are more interested in the history of ideas.

  5. Anubhab says:

    Hi lee,so if spiritual world exist, so what happened to people who dies millions of years ago are they still there.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anubhab,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Good question!

      The general answer is yes, they are still living in the spiritual world. Eternal life means eternal life, which means living forever.

      However, one big unanswered question is just when in our evolutionary history we made the transition from being mere animals to being human beings with spiritual awareness and moral freedom, and therefore an eternal soul. Current archaeological evidence based on burial sites and other indicators suggests that we began having an awareness of the afterlife, and having other spiritual ideas and practices, somewhere between 45,000 and 200,000 years ago. (See Wikipedia -> Evolutionary origin of religions -> Prehistoric evidence of religion.) Based on that, it’s unlikely that there is anyone in the spiritual world from millions of years ago on this earth. Maybe from a couple hundred thousand years ago at most.

      • Anubhab says:

        Thanks for replying,but this raise a basic question, so only the rituals we practice makes us a member of the spiritual realm.
        If yes,then those who didnt what happens to them are they just a extension in that world,
        As i come from hindu culture, i have read gita,bible,even quran. So if we are destined to go to that world so why are we praying different gods. I believe that ideolodies of almost every give me a inner peace. So why this different.
        (By the way something eerie is happening to me from last week,that why i am here, if you want i could share it)
        I was too skeptic about spiritual realm but after this incidents i am in a dilemma.
        Thanks for replying

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anubhab,

          You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

          It is not that the rituals we practice make us members of the spiritual realm. Rather, the rituals show that we have an awareness of the spiritual realm. It is our ability to think about God, spiritual beings, the afterlife, good and evil, right and wrong, and to make choices about how we will live based on that spiritual awareness and ability, that makes us members of the spiritual realm.

          Lower animals do not have that awareness and ability. Their thoughts, feelings, and choices (if they can be called choices) are limited to the things of the material world, such as food, warmth, shelter, reproduction, companionship, and so on. They are unable to have a conscious relationship with God because they have no concept of God or of the spiritual realms. And they act, not based on moral choices made between good and evil, but based on their instincts, experiences, and their environment. That is why unlike humans, animals do not go on to live in the spiritual world. They are adapted only to this world. (But see: “Will We See our Pets Again in Heaven?”)

          Humans do have the ability to think about God, spiritual things, good and evil, truth and falsity, right and wrong, and to make choices based on that ability. We are adapted not only to the physical world, but to the spiritual world as well. That is why we continue to live consciously in the spiritual world after we die.

          About different religions and gods, please see: “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?” There are all different religions and beliefs about God because there are all different kinds of people. God gives each culture and each individual a religion or belief that enables them to turn their lives toward God and spirit rather than only toward the world and its physical pleasures and social engagements.

          About what you’ve been experiencing, feel free to tell the story here if you wish. You might also be interested in this article: “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

  6. Ray says:

    Hi Lee. I’ve been wondering if the bible references the world of spirits in anyway or if it only became known after Swedenborg’s visit there. When reading certain passages, so many things stick out to me. For example, at the end of Revelations, God actually implies he wants people to live the way that makes them happy.

    The angel tells John to let the sinners be sinners, which obviously means preach to them, but don’t force or coerce or threaten them to change. However, so far, I can’t find anything that even implies a world of spirits exists. Am I still missing some thing

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ray,

      Great points! It’s very clear that the Bible gives us freedom to choose between good and evil, and that God will not force anyone one way or another.

      Perhaps I could dredge up some Bible passages that are references the world of spirits. But honestly, the Bible really doesn’t tell us much about the afterlife at all. And what it does tell us is mostly metaphorical rather than literal. The Bible is mostly concerned with how we are to live in this world so that we will make our home in one of the many “mansions” (also not literal) of heaven.

      • Ray says:

        That is a good point. I still think it refers to the afterlife too much. I still think revelations refers to the individuals journey into the spirit world, but even then, it mainly refers to a person’s spiritual regeneration in this world.

      • Ray says:

        The verse is “let he who is unrighteous be unrighteous still, and he who is filthy let him be filthy still, and he who is righteous let him be be righteous still, and he who is sanctified let him be sanctified still”.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ray,

          Yes. Tremendous verse in support of the freedom God gives us to be good or evil, according to our own choice.

  7. Ted W Dillingham says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’ve just started your Death and Rebirth book and wonder when Swedenborg’s Death/Reawakening experience happened relative to the 2nd coming? Was it before or soon after? Perhaps the differences from then to now reflect heaven getting better at awakening or perhaps just adapting to different belief systems of today vs then?


    • Lee says:

      Hi Ted,

      If you mean the description of Swedenborg experiencing what it is like to die, that is taken from his book Heaven and Hell, which is part of the theological writings that were delivered to us as the objective element of the Lord’s Second Coming. Not that Swedenborg’s theological writings themselves are the Second Coming, as some Swedenborgians believe. Rather, the truth delivered in those writings is the most specific historical expression of the Lord’s Second Coming. Meanwhile, individually the Lord’s Second Coming happens in us whenever we accept and live by the divine love and truth that the Lord gives us, which means in happens whenever we are born again from the Lord.

      Really, the differences between what Swedenborg described and what NDEers describe is mostly in the details. The overall experience is very similar. But some details such as the membrane being rolled off the left eye, and the particular odors that Swedenborg smelled, seem idiosyncratic to his own individual experience. No two NDEs are exactly the same, either. Personally, I think it’s best not to get too hung up on the details, but to recognize the larger understanding and truth about the nature of death that Swedenborg was delivering to us.

      • Ted W Dillingham says:


        Sorry, I think I misspoke. I said 2nd coming but was thinking of the Last Judgement that Swedenborg says happened in 1757 vs his experience of death and entry into the spirit world. Do we know when his death / rebirth in the spirit world happened?


        • Lee says:

          Hi Ted,

          Ah. Swedenborg originally wrote down this experience of dying on March 1, 1748, in his unpublished diary now called Spiritual Experiences, starting at #1092. This was almost a decade before the Last Judgment occurred in 1757. He first published it the next year in the first volume of Secrets of Heaven, starting at #168. I’ve added the links in case you want to read those earlier versions.

        • Ted W Dillingham says:


          Thanks. I find it interesting and sometimes useful to speculate on what actually was happening during the original creation (early chapters of Genesis), Jesus’ three days in hell, and during the Last Judgement described by Swedenborg. It would appear that these events are a reordering of relationships probably among communities but also individuals and may have tangible effects on earth beyond reordering the spirit communities.

          In an earlier conversation (Jan 14,2022) you said: “Another way of saying this is that God has made room in the universe for finite beings that are therefore distinct from God, who is infinite, and room for these finite beings to have the ability to decide and determine their own future state. This ability exists most fully in human beings, and less and less fully as things go down the ladder through the animal realm, the plant realm, and the mineral realm.” which also would allow a reordering among different kinds of entities in the totality of the spirit world.

          Do you know of any works that discuss more specifically details of these reorderings?


        • Lee says:

          Hi Ted,

          First, I should mention that the Catholic doctrine of “the harrowing of hell” rests on a very slim biblical foundation. The Bible doesn’t actually say that Jesus was in hell between his crucifixion and his resurrection (which also wasn’t three days as we reckon it today, btw). It says that “good tidings were proclaimed to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6) and that he “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9). But “the dead” doesn’t necessarily mean people in hell, and “the lower parts of the earth” is not the same as hell.

          What did happen in that general time period (not necessarily while Jesus was in the tomb) was, as you mention, a reordering of the spiritual world, which was part of the Last Judgment that happened at that time. The Last Judgment that Swedenborg observed in the spiritual world in 1757 was a more thorough and final reordering of the spiritual world, which will now be maintained permanently. For his published descriptions of the events that took place during that Last Judgment, see Swedenborg’s books Last Judgment and Supplements (traditionally Continuation of the Last Judgment). The link is to the Swedenborg Foundation page of the New Century Edition Portable Edition of these two books.

          As for changes this would bring about in the material world, at the end of Last Judgment Swedenborg makes this bold prediction:

          The state of the world from now on will be very much the same as it has been up to the present. This is because the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not impose any change on the earthly world with respect to its outward form. So the business of civil life will go on afterward as it did before; there will be times of peace, and treaties, and wars as there were before; and other things characteristic of communities on both a large and a small scale will continue. (Last Judgment #73)

          You can read the rest of his statement about “the state of the world and the church from now on” in the linked number and the one after it, which are the last two sections of Last Judgment. He does say that the state of the church will be different because people’s spiritual freedom has been restored. We can see the effects of this in the freedom that people today feel to join this or that church, or to not be part of a church at all, based on their own thought and decision about what they believe to be true. The church can no longer impose its understanding of God and spirit on the people.

          In short, outwardly things in the world continue on much the same as they did before, but inwardly things are quite different. This only gradually changes the outward state of the world. For more on that, please see:

          Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?

          As for reorderings of other entities in the spiritual world, this would follow from the reordering of human beings (angels and spirits) in the spiritual world at the time of the Last Judgment. Everything in the spiritual world reflects the spiritual state of the people there, both good and bad. When things change for the people there, everything else in the environment of the spiritual world changes as well.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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