Should we fear death? Will we be harshly judged and condemned for our sins? Or will we experience eternal peace and joy? The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg offer a fair, yet merciful picture of what we can anticipate in the world to come. Swedenborg explains that after death, we immediately come into the presence of the Lord. This presence fills us with a greater sense of peace, as well as a greater clarity about the troubled areas of our lives. In a sense, this clarity is what the “judgment” is all about. It’s a chance for us to look more closely at our heart, mind and the actions we’ve taken. As we read in Jeremiah 17:10, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways.” There are three elements here: our heart, mind, and ways. All three are taken into account. It’s not only about what we’re doing; it’s the way that our deeds come from the state of our heart and mind.
It can be of great comfort to know that mistakes from our past will not keep us out of heaven. Instead, the Biblical view of salvation encompasses the whole direction of our lives. “If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, [and] keeps all My statutes... he shall surely live..... None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he shall live” (Ezekiel 18:21, 22). We see the reason why in the Lord’s statement: “Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” (23). Although we can choose a hellish life, it’s not anything that a loving God would want us to experience.
According to Swedenborg, there are multiple stages to the clarification process we undergo after death. Soon after we die, he explains, we receive a warm, loving welcome from the Lord. In this presence of love, we experience a kind of pre-evaluation of our lives. Following this comes further evaluation and treatment. This process is described allegorically in the book of Revelation.
In the first three chapters of Revelation, the Lord appears in person to John, and then says, in effect, to the seven churches, “You’ve done some good things; you’ve done some things that weren’t so great; I invite you to repent.” Next, seven seals are opened, then seven trumpets sound, and then seven bowls are poured out. These can be seen as the various phases of evaluation and treatment we go through when we are in the Lord’s presence.
Amazingly enough, our digestive tract demonstrates a similar order. Food enters our mouth, and we enjoy the taste and sensations. This is similar to the welcoming nature we experience upon entering the spiritual world. The food then goes through multiple processes of being filtered to take away the harmful and unnecessary elements. This can be compared to the way we learn to remove or let go of the harmful ways we’ve been thinking or acting. And just as the food’s nutrients are then ready to be absorbed and used by the body, we also become prepared to enter our useful new life in a heavenly society.
This clarification process, spiritually speaking, works to break off what’s evil and false from what’s good and true in us. If we don’t get all the junk out in one phase, we get another chance in the next.
According to Swedenborg, the purpose of all of these levels is to prepare us for heaven. If we have anything whatsoever in us that is good or useful, the Lord wants us to be utilized in heaven. Even if every other part of the digestive tract found us hard to deal with, heaven’s “large intestine” may find that we contain at least some water or vitamins.
What is doing this spiritual digesting? Swedenborg explains that it’s the body of the Lord—the kingdom of God. The heavens spend a tremendous amount of energy searching to see if there’s anything redeemable in us. If we contain anything good, they’ll find it.
It’s empowering to remember that we are the ones that get to decide what we will let go of. In Romans, Paul agonizes about this struggle between his inner and outer self. He says at first, “I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:14), but later declares, “With the mind I myself serve the law of God” (7:25). In effect, he gets to decide whether to be the matter that is rejected or the food. We too get to decide that. The only way to go to hell is to insist on identifying with the evil and falsity. We have to be determined because to get to hell we have to pass through the entire digestive system of heaven. Hell is never a place we are predestined to go, or sent against our will.
In fact, Swedenborg says the only kind of predestination is predestination to heaven (Divine Providence 329–330; see also 1 Timothy 2:3–4). The whole process of life is set up to invite us into heaven. It behooves us while we are here to start the process of repentance, reformation, and regeneration. Let’s not go through our whole lives only to find that we have no nutritional value whatsoever. Let’s develop a little value now by laying aside some of the evil we see in ourselves and allowing the Lord to work some goodness into our hearts.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Rose is a pastor in Bryn Athyn, PA and works as a translator of Emanuel Swedenborg's works.