The spiritual truth about reincarnation

Swedenborg gained insight into the spiritual framework that underlies all creation. When you get to know this framework, then ideas in the theory of reincarnation begin to make sense . . . when understood spiritually and not physically. 

Why we’re born and how we get a spirit

Reincarnation theory says: We return to the physical universe repeatedly through our spiritual growth.

Swedenborg learned: Earth life serves as the womb to form the basis for our individual souls, and the basis from which we will continue to grow and evolve to eternity.

The key difference is to understand that our spiritual body is separate from our physical body. 

We form our spirit and spiritual body through our life in the physical body; being born into the physical world gives our spirit an essential initial foundation for eternal life.

Here’s what you need to know about the spiritual body:

  • Our spiritual body has to be formed within our physical body
  • All angels and spirits are first born into the material world, into the physical and time-bound things that are the outermost and final substances of creation
  • It is essential to our eternal life that we are born into these final substances
  • These outermost and final substances are stable and constant
  • Truth and goodness (spiritual substance) is what makes up our spiritual body. It flows into us from the Lord through the spiritual world
  • That inflow needs a foundation or container, which is our physical body
  • These final or “inward substances” hold the substance of our spirit together
  • Civic and moral forms of goodness and truth that we are involved in in our earth existence serve as the container for the inward substances
  • We need this foundation to then grow into deeper and higher things
  • All this makes it so that we can be continuously existent and permanently our unique self

You only need one physical life to get a spiritual body, but that spiritual body will continue to grow and evolve to eternity, which we’ll explore more below. First let’s explore some other key tenets of reincarnation theory and how they fit within the spiritual framework Swedenborg observed.

What about Karma?

Karma and reward or punishment 

Reincarnation theory says: We are rewarded or punished according to each of our deeds.

Swedenborg learned: Evil and goodness each carry their own reward and we develop our intentions while in this world.

The essence of karmic reward or punishment is true, but only in the spiritual world, where there is no time and space. We develop our nature in this world, and spiritually, evil has its own punishment and good has its own reward.  

Every evil brings its own punishment with it. They are united; so whoever is involved in something evil is involved in the punishment of the evil as well. Still, no one suffers any punishment for evil things done in the world, only for current evil deeds. It boils down to the same thing, though, and makes no difference whether you say that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the world or that we suffer punishments because of our evil deeds in the other life, because after death we all return to our life, which means that we are involved in the same kinds of evil. This is because our nature is determined by the kind of physical life we led.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §509

So it’s not a one-to-one tally of evil vs. good. We align ourselves with evil and goodness depending on our conscious choices over the course of our whole lives.

The details of our outer circumstances aren’t a basis to make spiritual judgment. This is true in the spiritual world, but in the physical world providence is working in outermost things, which looks like chance or what people could ascribe to karma.

The truth is, we’re not alone in this life, making choices in a vacuum. We have divine providence on our side, working in our favor even as it respects our freedom.

Here’s what to know about divine providence: 

  • All the details of our earth life are the means for our salvation and eternal happiness
  • The Lord’s providence governs all things
  • Temporal things are only a means for the Lord leading us in eternal things
  • So things like wealth and worldly success aren’t a matter of “reward” but only a means
  • Providence isn’t about retribution, it’s about maintaining our freedom and providing the means for our spiritual growth and salvation
  • All good is from the Lord and all evil appears to be on account of permission, which is providence allowing harmful things we do in freedom because God can bring good out of them and use them toward our reformation and salvation
  • Most things which happen under providence appear to us as if they took place by chance

So things can seem like karma, good or bad, but the truth is divine providence is active in every detail of existence, but differently depending on whether God wills for something to happen or foresees it and provides for it to ultimately serve God’s purpose, which is our eternal happiness. 

Divine providence consists of the fact that it is constantly allowing things to happen for a purpose and is permitting only things that serve that purpose, nothing else. It is constantly examining the evils that are allowed to emerge, separating them, purifying them, banishing the ones that do not suit its purpose, and lifting them away in ways we cannot see.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence §296[8] 

Karma and Heredity

Reincarnation theory says: The troubles we experience on earth is us paying a debt for misdeeds in a past life.

Swedenborg learned: The troubles we experience on earth are a result of the baggage of our heredity. We’re not personally responsible for the baggage we’re born with (tendencies toward certain bad habits). Only for what we do with it. But it still has to get stirred up and purified out of us, and this happens through the troubles that our heredity attracts into our lives. Even angels who grew up in heaven still have an evil heredity.

To prevent children [in heaven] from having a false notion about themselves after they have grown up in heaven—a belief that the good that surrounds them is from them and not from the Lord—they are let back into their hereditary evils from time to time and left in them until they know and recognize and believe the way things really are. . . . We are not at fault for our hereditary nature. We suffer punishment for any actualized evil that is ours—that is, for whatever hereditary evil we have claimed as our own by acting it out in our lives. The reason grown-up children are let back into the state of their hereditary evil is not to punish them. It is to make sure they know that on their own they are nothing but evil and that they are borne from hell into heaven by the Lord’s mercy, that they are in heaven not because they deserve it but as a gift from the Lord. This prevents them from inflating themselves over others because of the good that attends them, for this is in opposition to the blessing of mutual love just as it is against the truth of faith.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §342

On the positive side, our particular hereditary “baggage” becomes an arena, a training ground, through which we grow spiritually strong and capable and wise.

Anytime we overcome negative hereditary tendencies, we gain potent spiritual strength and can actually affect the heredity that gets passed to the next generation.

Karma and the length and quality of our journey

Reincarnation theory says: If we are not making concentrated spiritual growth effort during earth, we have to return to earth over and over in a long, long journey of gradual improvement. Or, we can make concentrated effort during this earth life, and shorten the journey to a release from reincarnation cycles, and enter heavenly bliss.

Swedenborg learned: We can do minimal work during earth life, and then have a very long, slow, gradual improvement toward a heavenly state. Or, we can make concentrated effort during earth life and shorten the purification processes in the world of spirits, which shortens our journey to a release from the lower self and to heavenly bliss.

Both perspectives involve cycles, because cycles are core to the spiritual growth process.

Spiritual purification cycles

We said in the beginning that we only have one physical body but our spiritual body grows to eternity. It turns out, our spirit, along with the shape and form it has in the spiritual world, a.k.a. our spiritual body, goes through spiritual growth cycles that look a lot like reincarnation! 

Changes of state have big impact

It’s the order of things that we get purified by going through cycles. In heaven, it happens with changes of state that are like the cycles of the seasons or times of day.

By alternations of delight and discomfort, [angels’] perception of and sensitivity to what is good become more and more delicate. [The angels] have gone on to say that the Lord does not produce these changes of their states, since the Lord as the sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom. Rather, they themselves are the cause, since they love their sense of self and this is constantly misleading them.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §158

Where the cycling happens

Reincarnation theory says: We go back into new earth life to get more purified.

Swedenborg learned: We go back into earthly state of mind in the world of spirits to get purified.

Some purification methods that Swedenborg witnessed involve an angel coming down into the world of spirits for a while, which means, coming down into an earthly state of mind to get some negative things in their character stirred up and recognized, so they can be purified of that negativity. It’s like getting reincarnated into world of spirits.

While in world of spirits, we can sometimes forget about life in heaven, which is like having a past life you can’t remember.

It is remarkable how one spirit was in a middle state, as if alternately on both sides for short intervals, in heaven as an angel, and outside of heaven as a spirit. When in heaven, he said he did not like to live as a spirit, when a spirit, that he did not like to be in heaven, because he at once forgets the previous state.

Hence it can be known what the condition of some who are in heaven is like. Sometimes bodily elements fight with heavenly ones, so that they love neither the one kind nor the other. Therefore, when this gives rise to anxiety, that is, this balancing of heavenly and bodily elements, causing something like fermentation, then that spirit is let back into the state of his previous life, until he feels bored with it. Then this spirit, who had already long ago been gifted with the ability to live among heavenly beings, is once again admitted into heaven, so long as bodily elements do not prevail. For his abilities are then balanced. When the heavenly ability prevails, he is gifted by the Lord with heaven: and this is what is given by the Lord and added over and above his prior life, which is not taken away.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Spiritual Experiences §1332

The process of purification goes on to eternity as individuals get closer and closer to the Infinite God.

What about past lives? 

Reincarnation theory says: We can have memories surface from past lives.

Swedenborg learned: Spirits and angels can share memory with each other and with us.

Angels and spirits actually have memory just as we do. If a spirit were to talk with us from his or her own memory, then it would seem to us entirely as though the thoughts were our own, when they would really belong to the spirit. It is like remembering something that we have never seen or heard. I have been granted knowledge of the truth of this by experience. This is why some of the ancients were of the opinion that after some thousands of years they would return to their former life and all its deeds, and that they had in fact returned. They gathered this from the fact that sometimes a kind of memory would come up of things that they had never seen or heard. This happened because spirits had flowed from their own memory into the images of these people’s thoughts.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §256

Swedenborg describes that sometimes spirits who are with us think that they *are* us, living our life. 

All spirits in general when they are with a person do not know but that they are people on earth. But there are others who want to be the person and entirely occupy his or her body, and then regard the person they are with as having no body.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Spiritual Experiences §3019

Knowledge and information is more fluid in the spiritual world and we inhabit that world already in our minds.

Understanding the influence of spirits helps to make sense of the wild and convincing thoughts and ideas that can spring up in our minds.

Wrap Up

There is spiritual truth to the ideas of reincarnation theory. When understood within the larger framework of spiritual reality, we can get a better sense of the purpose of our lives in this world and where we’re headed from here. What do you think? Tell us how these ideas land with you in the comments!

To explore more of the concepts related to these ideas check out Does God Control Good Luck to learn more about divine providence, and check out Your Spiritual Body to learn how it develops and changes as it grows. To learn about the influence of spirits in our minds check out The Angels and Evil Spirits With Us.

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