Eternal Life

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 31, 1999


Genesis 28:10-17 Jacob's dream of a ladder

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

Matthew 7:21-27 Entering the kingdom of heaven

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Heaven and Hell #493 Death is only a crossing

In our first stage after we die, our condition is like what it was in the world, since at that point we are involved in the same outward concerns. We have a similar face, voice, and spirit, and so we have a similar moral and community life.

This is why at that point we are entirely unaware that we are not still in the world, unless we pay attention to the things that have happened to us, and what we were told by angels when we were awakened--namely, that we are now a spirit.

So one life continues into the other, and death is only a crossing.


Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. . . . When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." (Exodus 28:13, 16, 17)

A little over a week ago, Gladys Wheeler, one of the angels of our church, ascended that ladder into heaven and disappeared from our sight here on earth. Her memorial service on Tuesday was a tribute to the good, loving, and useful life she lived here on earth. Of course, we will miss her--we have missed her since she had to move out of Bridgewater, and now we will miss her even more, knowing that we cannot see her anymore until we ourselves ascend that ladder. And yet, when a person like Gladys dies, having lived a good, long life, we also have a sense of comfort in knowing that she has finished her work on earth, and is now ready to move on to her eternal home in heaven.

Even in our feelings of sadness and loss, we can rejoice in thoughts of Gladys rejoining her beloved husband Hermon, whom she has missed during the almost thirty years since he died. She had recently mentioned to her family how much she missed him; now the two of them are back together again, catching up on everything that has happened to one another during their time apart. (And yet, I suspect that in spirit, they were never far apart.) We can be happy for Gladys as she sees once again so many of the friends and family members who have gone before her. And we can be happy for her as she regains the full use of her body--now a spiritual body--and enjoys the active, useful life she loves.

Skeptics and cynics would scoff at such thoughts, sweeping them aside as wishful fantasies. "Who has ever gone there and come back to tell us?" they might ask. As it turns out, we Swedenborgians have a good answer to that question! (Not that they would believe us anyway.) For we believe that Emanuel Swedenborg did indeed go to the spiritual world and come back to tell us about it--and not just once, but for nearly thirty years, from his mid-fifties until he died at age eighty-four. His most popular book has always been Heaven and Hell, in which he describes in detail both the heavenly and the hellish realms, as well as the in-between state that we enter when we first die, which he calls "The World of Spirits."

This morning, as our thoughts linger on our dear friend Gladys and her recent departure from this world, I would like to take you on a journey through the World of Spirits and beyond, following in a general way the path that Gladys is now walking along as she finds her way to her home in heaven. In her case, I suspect the path will be a short one, since she didn't have many rough edges left that still need to be smoothed off before joining the angels. Other people may take longer.

In Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg describes three stages that we go through after we wake up in the spiritual world, as we make our way toward our heavenly home. The first is a stage of living in our outer self, the second is one of living in our inner self, and the third is one of learning and preparing ourselves for heavenly life. After we have gone through these three stages, we are ready to move into a community in heaven where we will spend eternity with those we love most. I should mention, however, that if we have chosen a hellish instead of a heavenly life for ourselves, we go through only the first two stages, and skip the third as we head downward to be among those who have destructive motives and desires similar to our own. The reason for this will become clear as we go along.

When we first die, we are ushered into the spiritual world by angels of the highest heaven--angels whose lives are ruled by God's love in their hearts. Those of you who have been present when someone died may have experienced the incredible feeling of peace that often accompanies death. It goes against many of our notions of death, but Swedenborg tells us that this feeling of peace comes from the heavenly angels who are with us when we die. For a few moments, those who are with the dying person may have the wonderful privilege of feeling that gateway of heaven opened, and that angelic peace flow into their own souls.

But soon after we wake up in the spiritual world, Swedenborg says, we go back to an outward life very similar to the one we had in this world. We cook and eat, sleep and wake up, work and play, and go through the same kinds of thoughts and feelings that we do day in and day out here on earth. In fact, in this first stage after death, our lives are so similar to what they were here that we may not even realize we have died! Of course, if we believe in an afterlife, and if we paid attention to the events surrounding our death, we will know. But those who are not so attentive, or who don't particularly believe in an afterlife, may continue for some time believing they are still living on this earth.

And yet, funny things sometimes happen to clue us in. One time Swedenborg was in the World of Spirits talking to someone who had recently arrived there. This fellow was a bit of a skeptic. He kept asking Swedenborg, "What's a spirit?" "What's a soul?" "I don't know what a soul is." At that point Swedenborg, with his dry wit, told the man that he himself was a spirit--as he could realize from the fact that he was up above Swedenborg's head, and not standing on the ground. "Can't you tell?" Swedenborg asked. Whereupon the terrified man rushed off yelling, "I'm a spirit! I'm a spirit!" (Arcana Coelestia #447)

One way or another, we begin to realize that something deeper is happening to us. Any outward masks of behavior that do not really fit with what we are like inside begin to come off. Soon we are in the second stage of our transition to our final home: we are in the stage of living in our inner self. As this stage progresses, everything about us is transformed into a perfect image of our true inner self. If we have chosen a life of selfishness and greed, whatever outward politeness and decorum we may have put on to fool others is now stripped away, and we are revealed for the hellish creatures that we are. We then rush downward to be with people of like minds, skipping the third stage of learning and preparation because we are unwilling to learn or be taught anymore.

But most of us, I believe, choose to put love, not selfishness, at the center of our lives. And if this has been our choice, then in our second stage after death the rough edges that have remained part of our outward character, the bad habits we have picked up along the way, the confusion of goals that we sometimes experience here, all melt away as our entire lives become a reflection of the love for others and for God that is the true center of our being. If we have not been sure what our purpose in life is, and what our special gifts and talents are, this all becomes clear during this stage of opening up what lies deep in our hearts.

At this point, we are almost ready for our heavenly home. But even though we have reached clarity in our character and goals, we still have things to learn about what heavenly life is all about. Having spent much of our lives on earth learning how to get along in the material world, we need to spend some time learning how to get along in the communities that make up heaven. So we spend a longer or shorter time at the ultimate graduate school, learning how to graduate into our own highest degree of love and service.

Finally, after a longer or shorter time spent going through these stages, we find our way to a community of angels who share our deepest values and our goals. And when we enter that community, we know that we are among our dearest friends, and that we have found our true home. This is where we will spend eternity, not because anyone has told us that it is where we must stay, but because our heart and mind together tell us that this is exactly where we love to be, and these are exactly the people we love to be with. By this time, we have discovered what we love to do, and we enter into the joy of serving God and one another in our own unique way. People like Gladys who loved to be active and useful remind us just how good and how pleasant it is to be doing work we truly love.

This is our path from physical death to eternal life. We can take comfort in knowing that Gladys and others who have recently died are on this path to the joy of angelhood.

Yet there is more in knowing about this journey than simply helping us to accept death. The ideal that Swedenborg presents to us is that we will not need to go through these stages after death, because we will have already gone through them here on earth. We do not need to wait until after we die to prepare ourselves for eternal life; we have an entire lifetime here on earth to make those preparations. And the more we focus on preparing ourselves for eternal life, the happier we will be, both here and hereafter.

Our journey after death gives us some hints on how to go about preparing ourselves. We all start out in life concerned more with outward than with inward things. If we wish to grow spiritually, we need to shift our primary focus from the worldly concerns of houses, cars, clothes, and other material possessions to the inward concerns of love and compassion, understanding and kindness. When we allow those deeper values to shape our entire lives--heart, mind, and action--then we are entering the second stage, of opening up our inner life, while we are still living in the material world. And as our awareness opens up to deeper realities, we will seek out and learn the things we need to know to become angels here on earth. Then we will realize, with Jacob, that no matter where we happen to be, "This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Amen.


©Jim Warren

Music: On a Distant Shore
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer