Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
Near Death Experiences: Dying to Live
Those readers of Outlook with only a little knowledge of Swedenborg will have been made aware, especially in recent issues, that he wrote comprehensively on angels and life in the spiritual world. But it is quite likely that some will have doubts about his claim to write about another world from experience; some, perhaps, will be keeping an open mind on it.
It is not uncommon, even for those who have studied Swedenborg's writings for some time, to have difficulty in accepting this claim, despite the discovery that what he maintains are otherworldly experiences are all so logical. Many who are strongly attracted to his comprehensive teaching on religion and various aspects of Christianity find this claim of his a stumbling-block.
As regards material evidence that he did have extraordinary psychic gifts, there are several well-authenticated cases. One of the most well-known was his detailed report of a fire in Stockholm whilst in the company of fifteen people, although he was three hundred miles away in Goteburg. As this occurred in 1759, before rapid communication was possible, it was some days later before a messenger arrived with full particulars which tallied in every respect with Swedenborg's own account, even to the exact time that it had been extinguished.
The last twenty years or so have seen quite a change of attitude towards belief in a life after death, and a definite move in the direction of Swedenborg's teaching on the subject. This would seem to be the result of the publication of several books presenting the findings of trained scholars into what is now widely referred to as the 'near-death-experience' (or NDE). The first book of this kind, which appeared in 1975, was Dr.Raymond Moody's Life After Life ; this excited a tremendous amount of interest and became a best-seller. A condensation of it in Readers' Digest in April 1977 no doubt contributed to this.
However, Dr. Moody was not by any means the first writer on NDEs. Throughout history, cases have been recorded, even as far back as Plato. One of the first detailed accounts by a trained observer formed part of an address given to the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in 1937 by Lord Geddes, who was a professor of Anatomy. This was very convincing as it was his own personal NDE.
One of the more important researchers from the 1960s onwards was Dr. Robert Crockall who wrote several books detailing a considerable number of NDEs and 'out-of-the-body' experiences such as The Supreme Adventure (James Clarke, 1961), Intimations of Immortality (James Clarke, 1965) and What Happens When You Die (Colin Smythe, 1978). Many of the descriptions given by NDEers tally with those of Swedenborg. Indeed, in an article in 1962 Dr.Crockall compared several of those recorded in The Supreme Adventure with passages from Swedenborg, presenting similar teaching (Clairvoyant Confirmation of Psychical Communications by Robert Crockall, DSc. The Voice, Winter Quarter, 1962).
But, as already mentioned, the real interest in the possibility of experiences of an after-life started as a result of Life After Life in 1975. The importance of this book lay in Dr.Moody's qualifications (a Doctor of Philosophy with a medical degree) together with the fact that he came to the subject with a completely open mind as he was not familiar with the literature on occult and paranormal phenomena. He had first heard of an NDE through the personal experience of a professor of Psychiatry who gave a fantastic account to a group of students of what had happened to him. Then one of Dr.Moody's students described such an experience and he was struck with the similarity. As a result, he began a study of the experiences of subjects who had undergone clinical death and been resuscitated. His discovery after studying more than a hundred such accounts was that there was a striking similarity in what they all reported, despite the wide variation in the circumstances surrounding their brief period of death. He also followed up by studying reports of this kind from the past and wrote of some of these in his book. Accordingly, Life After Life includes a few pages on Swedenborg in which Dr. Moody stated that he had discovered striking parallels between contemporary near-death-experiences and what Swedenborg had written. Further, he added that none of the people with whom he had talked when compiling his book were even aware of Swedenborg's writings, and asks how is it that Swedenborg's revelations agree so well with the narratives of today's individuals who have come so close to death.
Following on Life After Life, Dr. Moody has written further books - Reflections on Life After Life and The Light Beyond. Other people, some with similar backgrounds to Dr. Moody, have repeated his first-hand research and come up with findings in line with his, and the number of books published on NDEs is ever growing. An outstanding researcher is Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an internationally respected expert on the psychological aspects of dying, and author of On Death and Dying. Incidentally, she wrote the foreword to Dr. Moody's Life After Life, and has witten and lectured considerably on the near-death-experience. She has gone so far as to say that "We now know beyond all shadow of a doubt that there is life after death". Familiar with what Swedenborg has written, she is basically in agreement with his teaching on life after death. Interest in NDEs is now so widespread that it has resulted in the establishment of an International Association of Near Death Studies which publishes a quarterly journal.
In Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg stated that it was under divine providence that he had written the book. In his preface, he wrote: "Today's churchman knows almost nothing about heaven, hell, or his own life after death... It has gone so far that even many people born in the church deny these things and ask in their hearts, 'Has anyone come back and told us?1 To prevent so negative an attitude (which is particularly prevalent among people with much worldly wisdom) from infecting and corrupting people of simple heart and simple faith, it has been made possible for me to be with angels and to talk with them person to person. I have also been allowed to see what heaven is like, and then what hell is like; this has been going on for thirteen years. So now I may describe heaven and hell from what I have seen and heard, hoping for the enlightenment of ignorance and the dispersion of unbelief by this means."
Does it not seem that, in the same way, it is under providence that mankind has been blessed this last twenty years with so much information through the near-death-experience regarding the act of dying and passing into the spiritual world.
Swedenborg's Heaven & Hell may
be obtained from the Swedenborg Society,
(to be) reproduced with permission from OUTLOOK (ISSN 0969-1049 INCORPORATING THE SWEDENBORG MOVEMENT NEWSLETTER) No.19, 1996.