For Chapter 1, click here.
In his Forward to The Tibetan Book of the Dead John Woodroffe says:
Life immediately after death is, according to this view, as Spiritists assert, similar to, and a continuation of, the life preceding it. As in Swedenborg’s account, and in the recent play Outward Bound, the deceased does not at first know that he is dead. Swedenborg, who also speaks of an intermediate state, says that, except for those immediately translated to Heaven or Hell, the first state of man after death is like his state in the world, so that he knows no other, believing that he is still in the world notwithstanding his death.
It may seem strange that after such a powerful experience we could possibly think that nothing had happened, and we had not died yet. But as Swedenborg and others have observed, this is a common phenomenon. Perhaps we will think the experience was just an especially vivid dream or hallucination, as many skeptics have claimed about NDEs in general. Or we may forget all about it in the press of the everyday life we have returned to. It requires a shift of consciousness to comprehend that our lives have changed completely and forever. This change of consciousness often takes time.
And so after our initial experience of death Swedenborg says we usually go back to a life that is very similar to the one we had left behind.
Living Still Behind Our Mask
From Heaven and Hell #491–98
by Emanuel Swedenborg
We go through three stages after death before we come into either heaven or hell. The first is living in our outer self, the second is living in our inner self, and the third is getting ready. We go through these stages in the world of spirits.
Some of us, though, do not go through these stages. As soon as we die we are either carried up into heaven or thrown down into hell. If we have already been prepared for heaven by being spiritually reborn in the world, we will be immediately carried up into heaven. If we are reborn and prepared in this way, as soon as we shed the crude physical aspects of ourselves along with our bodies we are immediately carried up to the angels in heaven. I have seen people carried up this way an hour after they died.
But if we have been inwardly malicious while outwardly appearing to be good, so that we filled our destructiveness with deceit and did good things for deceitful reasons, we are immediately thrown into hell. I have seen some people like this thrown into hell as soon as they died. One very deceitful person went head downwards and feet upwards. Others went in different ways.
There are also some people who are banished to caves as soon as they die to separate them from people who are in the world of spirits. They are let out and sent back in from time to time. This will happen to us if we have acted maliciously against the people around us while pretending to be good neighbors.
However, there are not very many of these kinds of people compared to those who stay for a while in the world of spirits. The world of spirits is where we are prepared either for heaven or for hell in God’s orderly way.
The first stage is one of living in our outer self; we begin it right after we die. Each of us has an inner and an outer part to our spirit. The outer part of our spirit is how we stay connected with our body in the world—especially our face, talking, and movements—so that we can be in community with other people. But the inner part of our spirit—which has to do with our intentions and the thoughts that come from them—is rarely expressed in our face, conversation, and gestures. From the time we are very young we get used to showing friendship, good conduct, and sincerity while hiding the thoughts of our own intentions. We get into the habit of living an outwardly ethical and community-oriented life no matter what we are like inside. Because of this we hardly know what we are like inside, and we do not pay any attention to it.
Our first stage after death is a lot like our life in the world, since we are then involved in outward things in a similar way. We have a similar face, way of talking, and mind, so we have a similar ethical and social life. This is why at that point we do not realize that we are not still in the world. That is, we do not realize it if we do not pay attention to what happened to us when we were being awakened, nor to what the angels said to us then: that we are now a spirit. So one life continues into the other, and death is only a transition.
Since our spirit is like this just after our life in the world ends, our friends and others who had known us in the world recognize us. They recognize us not only from our face and the way we talk, but also from the aura of our life that surrounds us, which they can feel when they come near us.
In the other life, whenever we think about other people we get a picture of their face in our thoughts, and also many things about their life. Then the person we were thinking of becomes present with us just as if we had summoned him or her. This happens in the spiritual world because we communicate our thoughts there, and there is no space of the kind that exists in the physical world.
So when we first come into the other life all our friends, relatives, and acquaintances recognize us. We talk with them and get together with them depending on the kind of friendship we had with them in the world. I have often heard how happy people were when they came from the world and saw their friends again, and how happy their friends were to see them.
Married partners usually get back together and greet each other joyfully. They stay together for a longer or shorter time depending on how happy they had been together in the world. If they had not had a real marital love for each other—a love that united their minds from heavenly love—they separate after they have been together for a while.
If the minds of married partners had clashed and they were inwardly hostile to each other they break out into open antagonism and sometimes fight with each other. Still, they are not separated until they reach the next stage, which will be covered in the following chapter.
As I just mentioned, recently arrived spirits live almost the same way they had in the world. They do not know anything about what life after death is like or anything about heaven and hell, except some things from the literal meaning of the Bible and from Bible-based preaching. They are amazed that they still have a body and all the senses they had in the world, and that they see the same kinds of things. Soon they want to know what heaven and hell are like, and where they are.
Their friends tell them about what eternal life is like and bring them around to different places and introduce them to different people. They show them cities, gardens, and parks— often magnificent ones, since the newcomers enjoy these sights in the surface-level state of mind they are then in.
They are occasionally reminded of how they had thought while they were still living in the world about the condition of their soul, about heaven, and about hell. After a while they become angry that they had had absolutely no knowledge about these things, and that the church had been ignorant of them as well.
Almost all of them want to know whether they will go to heaven. Most of them think they will because they had lived in an ethical, law-abiding way in the world. They do not realize that both bad and good people act the same way outwardly; both do good things for other people, go to church, listen to sermons, and pray in the same way. They are completely unaware that it is not the outer actions and worship that count, but the inner spirit from which the outer actions come.
There is hardly one in a thousand who knows what our inner self is, and that heaven and the church are in our inner self. Even fewer know that our outer actions get their character from our intentions and thoughts, and from the love and faith within these that is their source. Even when taught, they cannot comprehend that our thoughts and motives are what count, not what we say and do. Most people from today’s Christian world are like this when they come into the other life.
Still, good spirits examine these newcomers in various ways to see what they are like. This must be done, since as I just said, in this first stage bad people say just as many true things and do just as many good things as good people. They do this because when they were in the world they had lived an outwardly ethical life, since they had lived in a country with a set of laws. Also, by being outwardly ethical they could gain a reputation for honesty and fairness, winning people over and in this way becoming rich and famous.
The main way to distinguish between good and bad spirits is to notice what they pay attention to. Bad spirits listen eagerly when people talk about superficial matters, but hardly listen at all when the conversation is about deeper things that have to do with spiritual and heavenly truth and goodness. They do listen to these things, but with very little attention or enjoyment.
Another way to distinguish them is that spirits often turn toward certain neighborhoods. When they are left alone they follow paths that lead to these neighborhoods. What neighborhoods they turn toward and what paths they take to get to them shows what kind of love leads them.
All spirits who arrive from the world are put into connection with a particular community in heaven or in hell, but only in their inner self. This inner self is not seen as long as they are living in their outer self, since their outer self covers and hides their inner self—especially with those who are inwardly bad. Later on though, when they get to the second stage, their inner self shows clearly. Then their inner self is opened up and their outer self goes to sleep.
* * * * *
Back to our life on earth, we may think that once we have gone through a spiritual birth things will never be the same. And in a sense they won’t. But life goes on. We still have a job, and bills to be paid. If we were in a troubled relationship before, we will still be in a troubled relationship. We still have the same likes and dislikes.
Within days or weeks of the time we make our first spiritual step, things may go back to just about the way they were before. We may find the familiarity to be comforting, or we may find the lack of change to be disheartening. Either way, we soon realize that our spiritual journey has just begun—and that we still have a long way to go. Some Christian traditions hold that being “born again” is a one-time dividing line between being “saved” and “unsaved.” For Swedenborg, rebirth is a process that begins with the initial spiritual birth and continues through all the stages of human growth.
So here we are back in our everyday life. What has changed? Really, the only thing that has changed is the direction we are heading. Whereas before we were headed down a materially-oriented path, now we are heading up a path leading in a spiritual direction. Both paths start at the same place: in our ordinary, everyday life.
As with the first stage after death, initially nothing much changes. We still live the way we did before, with the same relationships and responsibilities. But our inner attitude toward them has begun to change. Though things look outwardly the same, inwardly we are in a “new world.” It is only a matter of time before there will be some changes in our outward life as well. But those come in the next stage.
Meanwhile, one of the main discoveries we make is that spiritual living involves many of the same outward actions as materialistic living does. We do not need to renounce the world and live in a monastery in order to live spiritually. Our everyday life is the stage on which our spiritual life happens. We grow spiritually within the matrix of our relationships and our life in the community. Outwardly these may look no different than before.
It is important to establish this for ourselves, since we may think that once we head in a spiritual direction everything will be taken care of automatically, and we will no longer have to work and struggle. But Swedenborg insists that the heavenly, spiritual life is not a lazy one but an active, useful one. This first stage after our initial experience is like God reminding us, “Yes, you still have work to do.”
Because our outward life is similar, we can resume our relationships with those around us on the same basis as before. Whereas when we were initially going through the rebirth experience we may have felt estranged, now in this stage of an outwardly similar life we can go back to much of how we were before, and re-establish ourselves as a part of the community. We may not even notice a break—and others almost certainly won’t.
Still, even though our outward life looks similar, we know we have changed inside. And we wonder about exactly what the changes will be. We begin to talk to those who have gone before us on the spiritual path and ask questions about what spiritual living means. We explore, and begin to get a vision of how magnificent the spiritual life can be. But we are not yet aware of the deep inner struggles we will need to pass through before we realize that vision.
In this stage we also begin to take stock of ourselves. Unlike before, as we go about our daily business now we begin to observe the things we say and do, and the thoughts and feelings behind them. We notice what is good about ourselves, and also what needs improvement.
This is another reason we needed to return to our former outward life. That life in some way expressed our inner self—both the good parts and the bad parts. Before we can begin to change the bad parts, we need to recognize them clearly within ourselves. So this is a time of observation and learning about ourselves in preparation for the hard work of spiritual growth that lies ahead.
Before we go on, it might be useful to pause and consider the nature of good and evil. Some people find it off-putting to read of hell as well as heaven in Swedenborg’s books. Isn’t hell a cruel, old-fashioned idea? Who can believe in fire and brimstone?
For Swedenborg hell, like heaven, is not a literal location but a state of mind and life. Heaven is the atmosphere we create within and around ourselves when we love others and wish to make them happy. Hell is the atmosphere we create within and around ourselves when we love only ourselves, and consider others to be merely stepping-stones or obstacles on the way to fulfilling our own desires for dominance and material possessions.
Though Swedenborg does talk of people being “thrown into hell,” in other places he explains that this is only an appearance. In True Christian Religion #650 he says:
The Lord is never angry. The Lord never takes revenge, hates, condemns, punishes people, throws them into hell, or tempts them. He never does evil to anyone.
In fact, we throw ourselves into hell when we turn our backs on love and understanding—meaning we turn our backs on God and other people. God always wishes to lead us out of our personal hell, but will not force us if we steadily refuse, insisting on remaining in our hellish state of mind and life. This means that hell is not a creation of God, but a creation of human beings. God allows us to turn our heaven into a hell because God values our freedom above anything else.
Why is our freedom so important? Because without it none of our relationships—either with God or with the people around us—could be real. It would have been easy for God, like a computer programmer, to hard-wire us only to love and never to hate. But as with a marriage relationship, if we do not choose the love, how real is it?
Since all love and all understanding come from God and are God, the only way we could have a choice about our relationship with God is for there to be an alternative to love and understanding. Evil and falsity come when we turn away from God’s love and understanding, twisting them into something they were never intended to be.
Ironically, evil and falsity exist because God loves and respects us enough to want us to make our own free choice about whether we will have a relationship with God or not. Choosing a spiritual path is choosing to build a closer and closer relationship with God. In the process, we build closer and closer relationships with each other.
What about those who choose the path of selfishness and materialism? Will they ever turn back again toward a spiritual path? Or will they continue forever in the negative and destructive direction they have chosen? This is a vexing question that has caused great controversy both within Christianity and among the various faiths around the world. Swedenborg stated that hell is eternal for those who ultimately choose it. But it is important to understand that if there is an eternal hell, it is because we want it that way, not because God does.
In reading Swedenborg’s statements on hell, then, we have to make the conceptual adjustment outlined above. We have to see it, not as a place God sends those who break divine law, but as a place we ourselves create and inhabit if we decide to go in a destructive direction rather than a constructive one.
This places a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, whether we look at it in terms of going to heaven versus going to hell or in terms of our life’s course here on earth. Nobody else is going to determine the direction we eventually head in. Even if we choose to blindly follow someone else’s lead, that is still our choice—and we can change it at any time. If God is not going to decide where we are going, and no Devil is going to decide where we are going, that puts responsibility for the direction of our life squarely on our own shoulders.
This can be scary. But it can also give us tremendous power. Once we throw off the idea that our fate is in someone else’s hands, we can begin the job of determining our own fate. We can’t change the laws that govern the universe. But we can decide whether we will live in harmony with those laws or at odds with them. Trying to thwart the laws of the universe will lead to our own destruction, while aligning ourselves with those laws will put great power in our hands. We may still be bound by external circumstances, but we can change our inner attitude toward those circumstances— which might help to change the circumstances themselves.
When we go through a spiritual birth we are making a choice to align ourselves more closely with the spiritual laws of the universe—which are the same as God’s laws. However, we still have ahead of us the work of sorting out what in ourselves is and isn’t heading in a spiritual direction, and jettisoning those parts of ourselves that are going the wrong way. That is the subject of the next chapter.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1960) p. lxxiv– lxxv.
(Note: This is Chapter 2 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 3, click here.