My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The 'World of Spirits' in the Bible

Here is a link to the audio of a doctrinal class I gave on this topic.
Doctrinal Class Audio.

Below is the paper:

In the Bible one can clearly find the concepts of Heaven, Hell, and an after-life. What those things mean is debatable in different Christian circles. Is Heaven the place where angels live, or the place where good people go when they die? Or both? Is Hell the same as Sheol and Hades? Is it where evil people go, or where unbelievers go? Is the ‘resurrection’ that is spoken of a physical resurrection or a spiritual resurrection? What happens to us right after we die? Do we go to Purgatory, or some sort of ‘waiting place’? Do we sleep until the 2nd Coming? Do we get punished for our sins, or rewarded for our good deeds? Do we have a body after death? Is the after-life like this world or completely different? Unfortunately the answers to these question are not so clear from the letter of the Bible.

In the New Church we have the clear teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg which describe in great detail what happens after death. In general we know that after death we become a spirit in the World of Spirits, which is between Heaven and Hell, where we are greeted by angels. We then progress through stages of externals to internals for the purpose of uniting our inner loves and outer behaviors into one. If these are good, then our remaining evils and falsities are ‘vastated’ or emptied out, and we are instructed in the ways of heaven, and then led to our home in heaven. If our loves and behaviors are evil then the remaining good and true things in us are ‘vastated’ or emptied out, and we then find our home in hell.

But one of the repeated concepts that Swedenborg describes is that the doctrines for the New Church have their foundation in the letter of the Old and New Testaments. So are there any passages that describe this World of Spirits in the Bible? We know there are relatively few because very often people who die “do not know anything about life after death, heaven, or hell except what they have learned from the literal meaning of the Word” (HH 495). This paper will attempt to provide an overview of some of the passages in the Bible which illustrate the concept of the World of Spirits. It will not be a comprehensive study, but more of a survey, which I hope to continue at a later date.

The paper will be structured around an attempt to answer five questions: “What? Where? When? Who? and Why?” In other words: “What happens to us after death? What does the Bible say about it? What is it like? What happens there? Where is this World of Spirits? When do people find themselves there? Who goes there? Who lives there? Who can see it? and Why does it exist?

What happens to us after death? What does the Bible say about it? Throughout the course of history readers of God’s Word have debated about whether there is a physical or spiritual resurrection after death. During Jesus’ day, the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, while the Pharisees did. It could be that in both cases they were referring to the physical resurrection of the human body on this earth. Although the following passage seems to indicate that the Pharisees could have believed in a spiritual resurrection: “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection - and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.” (Acts 23:8) And while many Christians today believe in a spiritual after-life, many fundamentalist Christians believe in a physical resurrection at the end of times. From a New Church perspective, the passages in the Bible which refer to resurrection are referring to a spiritual resurrection into the World of Spirits, which is what Jesus meant when He said to the Sadducees, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they... are like angels of God in heaven.” (Matt 22:29-30) And the concept that the ‘resurrection’ is a spiritual thing is also supported by these passages:

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?”... All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. ... So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. ... It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. ... However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. ... Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 15:35-50)

So if this is true that our resurrection is a spiritual one, then what is it like when we are resurrected? Do we go straight to Heaven or Hell, or is there an intermediate place first? Some parts of Christianity have believed in something called purgatory, which is not mentioned in the Bible. Swedenborg says that purgatory is a fictional concept (AR 784), however the ideas of purgatory that many Christians have today are strikingly similar to Swedenborg’s descriptions of the World of Spirits and the process of vastation. The following is taken from the Wikipedia page on purgatory: “Purgatory is the condition or process of purification or temporary punishment in which, it is believed, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for Heaven.” The main difference would be that while heaven-bound spirits are vastated in the World ofSpirits, they are not punished like devils in Hell are.

One of the possible Biblical foundations for the idea of the World of Spirits is in the concept of Hades or Sheol. Technically speaking ‘Hades’ in the New Testament and ‘Sheol’ in the Old Testament refer to the abode of the dead, rather than the abode of the damned (‘Hell’). This can be seen in the following passages:
“For You will not leave my soul in Sheol” (Psalm 16:10)
“For great is Your mercy toward me, And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” (Psalm 86:13)
“And he said:“ I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. “ Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:2)
“The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.” (Revelation 20:13)

The concept of fire and punishment are often associated with Hades/Sheol, which could be similar to the painful process of vastation in the World of Spirits described by Swedenborg. However in the following story Hades is associated with Hell.

A very common description of the after-life can be found in the well-known story told by Jesus of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ (Luke 16:19-31). It is said that when Lazarus died, he “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” It is often thought that this refers to Heaven. When the rich man died, he was “in torments in Hades.” It is often thought that this refers to Hell. Then Abraham says that “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” In the Writings of Swedenborg it says that this ‘great gulf’ is the World of Spirits (TCR 475).

Another common description of the after-life can be found in this passage in the book of Revelation: “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” (Revelation 6:9) The commonly understood concept here is that these are people who have died, but are being held in limbo, and not in either Heaven or Hell. The Writings confirm that this is a description of good people who were trapped in the World of Spirits by evil spirits before the Last Judgment (AR 325).

We know from the Writings that in the World of Spirits we are examined as to what our life was like, and what our loves are (AR 866-868). This concept is described in this passage from Revelation: “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)

Where is the World of Spirits? We’ve already shown how the resurrection is a spiritual one. This implies that the ‘place’ we ‘go’ to after we die, is a spiritual ‘place’ rather than a physical place. This can be seen from these passages:
"My kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36)
"The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20, 21)

Given that it is not a physical place, we also know from the story of Lazarus that the concept behind the World of Spirits is that it is an in-between ‘place.’ We know from the Writings that the World of Spirits is a place where the ways to Heaven and Hell open up to people (AC 3477, HH 534). This concept is illustrated in this passage:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt 7:13,14)

One of the things that the Writings describe happening in the World of Spirits is a process called vastations, in which evils and falsities are removed from good spirits. This doesn’t happen ‘everywhere’ or ‘all the time’ in the World of Spirits, but only in certain stages or states. So there is a specific ‘place’ reserved for this state or process. The Writings say that in the Bible this is referred to as the ‘Lower Earth’ (AC 699, 1106, 2759, 4728, 7090, 8039 AR 552, 845, 856). Depending on the translation this may appear as the ‘lower earth,’ the ‘lower parts of the earth,’ the ‘lowest parts of the earth,’ the ‘depths of the earth,’ or even simply the ‘earth.’
“My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” (Psalm 139:15)
“Then I will bring you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of old, and I will make you dwell in the lowest part of the earth, in places desolate from antiquity, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you may never be inhabited; and I shall establish glory in the land of the living.” (Ezekiel 26:20)
“You, who have shown me great and severe troubles,Shall revive me again, And bring me up again from the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 71:20)
“So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him....Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time. Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. ... But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.” (Revelation 12:9,12,13,16)

When does this happen? Do we go to the World of Spirits right after death? After some sort of ‘rapture’? After a long period of ‘sleep’? Do we go after the 2nd Coming or the Last Judgment? The Bible seems to indicate that we enter this phase pretty soon after death:
"After two days will He revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight" (Hosea 6:2).
"Today you will be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43)
“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (Eccl. 12:7)
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27)

If we don’t heed the Lord’s words about His kingdom not being of this world, then we might begin to take passages in the Bible too literally and assume that things like the Lord’s 2nd Coming and the Last Judgment will happen physically on this earth.

Who goes there? Who lives there? The existence of supernatural beings is very clear in the Bible from the common usage of such terms as spirits, angels, devil, satan, ghosts, souls, and demons. The question is: Does the Bible say whether these beings are people who have died, or are they non-human beings? In the New Church it is believed that all of these beings are people who have died. Does the Bible agree with this claim?
“The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection - and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.” (Acts 23:8)
King Saul spoke with the spirit of Samuel after he had died. (1 Samuel 28:13)
“Those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, ... are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection." (Luke 20:35-36)
“You have come to ... the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:22-23)
Throughout the Bible, angels are referred to as ‘men’(human) (John Odhner)
"Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels" (Hebrews 13:2).
“And I fell at [the angel’s] feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 19:10)
"The measure of a man, that is of an angel" (Revelation 21:17).
“For our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)

Who can see into the World of Spirits? There are numerous stories throughout the Bible of people on this earth being able to see and talk with spirits and/or angels, and have visions or dreams of heavenly things. Some of these include the men that appeared to Abraham and Lot, Jacob’s ladder, the angel that wrestled with Jacob, Joseph’s dreams, the angel that appeared to Samson’s parents, the angels that appeared to the women at Jesus’ tomb. Visions into the spiritual world were seen by many of the prophets, including John’s visions in the book of Revelation (AR 945). There are a number of places where the Bible explains that this is possible because of a person’s spiritual eyes being opened:
“Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face.” (Number 22:31)
“And Elisha prayed, and said, “LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17)
“Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:31)
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.... Then I turned to see...” (Revelation 1:10,12)

Why does the World of Spirits exist? Why not instant salvation or damnation? Why is there an intermediate state? The Writings of Swedenborg describe many reasons for this state which all seem to point back to the Lord’s eternal mercy. The Lord wants to give us every chance to choose Heaven over Hell.

But even so, it is better if we repent in this world, because in a general sense this is true: “If a tree falls to the south or the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall lie.” (Ecclesiastes 11:3) Our life and loves after death continue as they did in this world (AC 8991, DP 277).

The Lord warns us in the Bible that we have an internal and external part of us, and that they can be different: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.” (Matt 23:25) And so there is a time in the World of Spirits for a person’s internals to be revealed (HH 507).

“For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:2,3)
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” (Matt 12:36)

The last stage in the World of Spirits, for people who are going to heaven, is a stage of instruction in which they are given truths, and in the Bible they are given white garments (HH 519).
“He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Revelation 3:5).

There are many more passages from the Bible which can illustrate the concept of the World of Spirits. Hopefully this survey of some of them can be useful in seeing the Biblical foundation for the concept of the World of Spirits.

Monday, February 7, 2011