Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

The 'Limbus' in Swedenborg

Extracts from article "On Immortality" by Rev. Hugo Lj. Odhner. 
New Church Life 1960;80:5-13, 64-72,111-121

The Doctrine of the "Limbus"

The term is Latin, and occurs only once in the Writings. It means a border, or fringe, or hem, or edge. The reference is to the border substance of the natural world, the inmosts of nature; where nature as it were touches the spiritual world, or where the body is immediately responsive to the influx of the spirit. Unless we know something of the function of this border substance we cannot come to understand why man's memory and thus man's spirit can be preserved from dissolution when the body dies. As an introduction to the teachings about this link between the spirit and the flesh we shall cite the following from the work The Divine Love and Wisdom:

"Man's mind is his spirit, and the spirit is the man, because by the mind is meant all of man's will and understanding, and these are in principles in the brains and in principiates [or derivatives] in the body; therefore they are all things of man as to their forms.... For the first thread of the human form or the human form itself with each and everything thereof, is from the beginnings from the brain continued through the nerves. . . . It is this form into which man comes after death and which is then called a spirit and angel, and who is in all perfection a man, but a spiritual man. The material form that is added and superinduced in the world is not a human form from itself, but from the spirit to which it is added and superinduced that man may be able to perform uses in the natural world, and also to draw unto itself from the purer substances of the world a fixed containant of the spiritual things, and thus continue to perpetuate life ...." (DLW 387, 388)

Thus man is born in an earthly body not only to perform uses in the world, but — and this is of primary importance — in order that his spirit may draw a subtle natural substance unto itself and fashion it as a permanent containant for his spirit. Concerning this we read in the work The Divine Providence:

"The conjunction of temporal and eternal things with man is the Lord's Divine providence.... It is from Divine providence that man by death puts off what is natural and temporary, and puts on what is spiritual and eternal. . . . Extremes and ultimates are containants; and these are in the natural world. Hence it is that no angel and spirit was created immediately but that they were all first born men.... From this they have extremes and ultimates which in themselves are fixed and stable (stata), within which the interiors can be held together in connection. But man at first puts on the grosser things of nature; from these is his body. But these things he puts off by death, and retains the purer things of nature which are nearest [or next] to the spiritual things, and these then are his containants.

"Inasmuch as the extremes or ultimates of nature cannot receive spiritual or eternal things . . . he retains only the interior natural things, which agree and conform with spiritual and celestial things and serve them as containants . . . ." (DP 220)

It is clear that it is by birth that man first puts on and appropriates these interior natural things in which his spirit may dwell not only during life on earth but forever. But whence are they derived? What function do they serve during man's life? And what is their relation to the spirit after death?

These questions we shall consider in our next [section].


In [the previous section] we began a consideration of what there is in man's constitution that is immortal. It was shown that immortality has its origin in the Lord, who has created man with an inmost soul which is appropriated to him at his birth in the natural world. Man's spirit is thus born at the same time as his body.

Through this fact, the birth of a man may be seen as a very important event! It is the beginning of his mind, the beginning of consciousness and of the formation of the memory, which is the basis of individual or proper life. Without memory, man's life could not be marked off from all the currents of life which affect him. Nor could his spirit awaken after death as the same person, if he had not carried with him all the mental experiences that had occasioned the formation of his character.

Yet the question left unanswered was: How is this memory preserved after the body has died and his brain has decayed? We indicated that the answer lies in the doctrine of the "limbus," which speaks of the existence of a plane of substance taken from the inmosts of nature to serve as a "containant" for the spiritual things that compose man's mind or spirit. The need for such a containant is shown in the work The Divine Providence; (No. 220) and other teachings indicate that an angel created directly into the spiritual world — not having obtained, by a life on earth, such a containant or "limbus" from nature — would not be any more permanent than the correspondential objects around the angels. But whence does this containant come? And how is it formed?

The Source of the Substance of the Limbus

The general source of the substance of the "limbus" is said to be "the inmosts of nature"; (Wis. viii: 4) "the purer substance of the world"; (DLW 388) or "the purer" or "purest things of nature," (DP 220; TCR 103) "nearest to spiritual things." (DP 220) But what could this mean? Doctrine tells us that nature's substances are created in discrete degrees, one composite of the other. Recently, scientists have assured us that the matter we handle is indeed composed of masses of molecules, held together by mystical bonds which no one really claims to understand; and that these molecules, in turn, are constituted of elemental atoms which are infinitesimally small, yet which are ordered like miniature solar systems in which incredibly mobile electrons whirl like planets around a center of nuclear particles. The Writings speak of three successive "atmospheres" from which three degrees of matter originated. (DLW 302) These atmospheres are the active forces which are the mediate causes of all natural phenomena. The highest, most universal of these spheres originates the force of gravity, (LJ post. 312) and may thus be taken as the "inmost" of nature; for in theory, the original form of matter must be conceived as gravitational fields of force. However this sphere may be conceived, it would somehow answer to what is called the "purest things of nature" out of which the "limbus" is said to be formed.

But how can the spirit of man draw unto itself, from the inmosts of nature, such a substance? Obviously this formation of a "containant" of the spirit must be an organic process, a process begun even before birth.

That there is such a type or degree of substance in the seed from conception is, in fact, indicated in the work Conjugial Love, (No. 183) where it is stated: "In the seed of man is his soul in a perfect human form, veiled over with substances from the purest things of nature, out of which the body is formed in the mother's womb." And a further teaching is given in The True Christian Religion, to the same effect: "I shall add this arcanum, that the soul . . . is the very man. . . . The body is only a covering of the soul, composed of such things as are of the natural world, but the soul indeed from such things as are in the spiritual world. Every man, after death, puts off the natural which he had from the mother, and retains the spiritual which he had from the father, together with a certain border (limbo) from the purest things of nature around it . . . ." And it explains that "in the seed of every one from which he is conceived, there is a graft or offset of the father's soul in its fullness, within a certain covering from the elements of nature through which the body is formed in the mother's womb. . . ." (No. 103)

The substance is thus at hand in the very seed for the formation of what later is to be the "limbus" of the eternal spirit. It is the purest substance of nature — able to convey the soul and serve as its first embodiment. But what use does it serve during man's life on earth?

To understand this we must realize that the soul, as a spiritual substance, forms itself into three discrete degrees, which in the Writings are called the celestial, the spiritual and the spiritual-natural. These three degrees are in every man from birth, and are meant to be opened successively. (DLW 236) The lowest, which is called the spiritual-natural or ultimate spiritual degree, (DLW 345) operates in the organics of the physical brain and body, and there it prepares for itself the natural mind — the mind which man consciously uses in the world. It is this natural mind which contains the memory of earthly things. It is in that degree of the mind that man has sensation, memory, imagination and reason, and that he forms his attitudes towards good and evil, by an exercise of conscious choice.

The two higher degrees of the mind — the celestial and the spiritual — are beyond man's consciousness while on earth, even though they can be opened and furnished to receive the Lord's influx by regeneration. It is told that these higher degrees derive their form "solely from the substances of the spiritual world." (DLW 270) But "the natural mind consists of spiritual substances and at the same time of natural substances." (DLW 257, 260) It is "woven from the substances of both worlds, in the brain where the mind resides in its primes. . . ." (DLW 273) Here-in the natural mind — the spiritual substances of the spirit are closely associated with the inmost natural organics of the brain, and make thought and sensation possible. The changes of state in the physical structures of the brain give the soul an occasion for interpreting their meaning and use. And volitions and intentions in the spiritual substance of the mind are also able to direct the energies and movements of the body in correspondence with the states of the spirit.

All through man's life on earth, the subtlest natural substances distilled in the inmost recesses of the brain and the nervous system act as the agents of the spiritual substances which think and will. The spirit, through these most subtle essences of nature, is present throughout the body. Hence we read: "The spirit of a man is not a substance that is separate from the viscera, organs and members of the man, but it cleaves to them in conjunction; for the spiritual accompanies every stamen of them from the lowest to the inmost. . . ." "That man after death is equally a man . . . is because his spiritual is adjoined to his natural, or the substantial of the spirit to the material of the body, so aptly and unitedly that there is not a fibrilla, stamen, or least thread from these where the human of the spirit is not a one with the human body. . . ." (Wis. vii: 2, 4) Death is nothing but a separation of the natural substance from the spiritual.

The spirit or mind is, in one sense, present throughout a man's body. But the common center towards which all sensations travel, and from which all motor impulses proceed, is the brain. Within the subtle organics of the brain the natural mind becomes conscious of the states of the body and the world and organizes a memory of all its sensations. And in the brain the lowest or ultimate spiritual adapts the purest things of nature into a permanent basis, in which the mental states of memory, thought and affection are represented in an image by corresponding motions.

It is therefore said: "Man's natural mind consists of spiritual substances and at the same time of natural substances. From the spiritual substances, but not from the natural substances, comes thought. . . ." (DLW 257) And to make it clear that the natural substances — which are thus for all practical purposes an operational part of the natural mind while man is living in the world — are not destroyed along with the body, which, brain and all, decays in the grave, it is added: "These [natural substances of the natural mind]recede when man dies, but not the spiritual substances; wherefore, after death when man becomes a spirit or angel, that same mind remains in similar form in which it was in the world." (Ibid.)

Thus the spiritual substance — which is the real natural mind — remains, while the natural substances associated with it, "recede" or fall back. Being natural they can certainly not enter the spiritual world! (DLW 83, 88) But they do not perish. Instead they "recede" — withdraw from that intimate relation which they had with the spiritual substances while in the life of the body. For in the material body, all man's conscious thought was tied in with changes in these natural substances of his brain. But after death the spirit is freed from this dependency, and can perceive things apart from nature; can directly perceive his spiritual environment, to which he formerly had been blind! He can see other spirits and can commune with them through a spiritual medium which has nothing in common with space or natural substance. He is released into "another world where there are other functions, and other powers and abilities, to which the quality of his body there is adapted." (AC 5078: 40 For he is now in a spiritual body.

What this spiritual body is like, as described in the Heavenly Doctrines, we hope to consider more fully in our next article. But our interest at this point is in the question as to what happens to "the natural substances of the natural mind" when they so gracefully "recede" to allow the spirit a fuller freedom. The teaching in The Divine Love and Wisdom thus continues: "The natural substances of that mind, which, as was said, recede by death, make a cutaneous covering of [or for] the spiritual body in which spirits and angels are. By means of this covering which is selected out of the natural world, their spiritual bodies subsist, for the natural is the ultimate containant: thence it is that there is not any angel or spirit who was not born a man. These arcana of angelic wisdom are here adduced, that the quality of the natural mind in man may be known. . . ." (No. 257)

It is clear from this that the purest things — or inmost things — of nature, selected and organized in the interiors of the brain as the natural basis of the memory, are the very substance which is elsewhere called the "limbus." "Every man, after death . . . retains the spiritual which he had from the father, together with a certain border (limbo) from the purest things of nature around it . . ." (TCR 103)

The departing spirit retains this "border." Nowhere do the Writings say that he takes it along into the spiritual world! For nothing natural can enter, or be a part of, the spiritual world. Yet he retains it, and its use is likened to that of a cutaneous covering for (or around) the spiritual body — which seems like a very intimate function. If we were literalists we might here evolve a rather grotesque picture of a spiritual body which, being spiritual, is not in space, but which has a skin made of natural substance! It is reasonably clear, however, that the Writings here employ a comparison. The living flesh which we carry is surrounded by a skin, or cutaneous covering. The skin is our boundary, the nether limit of our individuality. And while the body is living, the surface of the skin, or cuticle, consists of cells of flattened epithelium which gradually are deprived of life and dry up like scales and flake off. Yet without this covering of almost lifeless skin our bodies could not withstand the impact of the world or be protected from undue influences. In a parallel way the spiritual body is protected by the "limbus" as by a cutaneous envelope Its obvious use is negative — to fix the corporeal memory so that it can no more change!

But another teaching makes this more clear. Speaking of the necessity that man be born on an earth, the little work Divine Wisdom goes on to say: "That spirits and angels thence derive that they can subsist and live to eternity, is because an angel or spirit, from the fact that he was first born a man in the world, draws with him that he subsists; for he draws with him, from the inmosts of nature, a medium between the spiritual and the natural, through which he is limited so that he might be subsistent and permanent. Through this he has a relationship (est illi relativum) to those things which are in nature, and also something correspondent to them." Why the "limbus" is called a "medium" between the spiritual and the natural, is then explained: ""Through this also spirits and angels can be adjoined and conjoined to the human race, for there is conjunction, and where there is [such a] conjunction there must be a medium. The angels know that there is such an intermediate, but as that intermediate is from the inmosts of nature, and the expressions of language are from the ultimates of nature, it can be described only by means of abstract terms.." (Wis. viii: 4, 5)

Let us note well that the "limbus" is not here given any role in the spiritual world as a medium in the intercourse of one spirit with another. It has a definite role in fixing the personality of a spirit. But it is a medium between spirits and men. We presume this to mean that when a spirit is exerting an influence on, or influx into, the mind of a man, there is an activity in the limbus of the spirit and a communication set up in the inmost sphere of nature which affects the natural substances of the natural mind of the man, or those inmost organics of his brain which are on the same level or degree and in a receptive state. But all this is in the realm of speculation, since little is known factually of the innermost substances of the brain or the inmosts of nature.

Indeed, the "medium" is from the inmosts of nature, and this "cannot be described except by abstractions." In recent times many scientists seem to have been forced to a similar conclusion. The hypothetical ingredients of the atom are admittedly mental constructs. Science shies at any mechanical models, but describes the inner sphere of nature in "a sheaf of mathematical formulae" — to borrow a phrase from Sir James Jeans.

But the New Church man must attach importance to the teaching that the immortal persistence of our personality depends on an inmost natural substance which is organized during his bodily life on earth. What natural substance is this?

This question occupied Swedenborg's mind at least ten years before he was called to his spiritual office. The growing skepticism among the learned led him to attempt to prove that there existed within man's body an inmost substance which was so subtle and perfect that it could not be affected by the destructive forces of disease or death. It was the purest substance, derived from the highest or universal aura of nature and organized by man's mind into a correspondent form. In The Economy o f the Animal Kingdom he called it "the spirituous fluid," and asserted that "no corporeal language could adequately express its nature." "I should," he wrote, "be obliged to resort to analogues and eminences, by abstraction from the things brought out by sense, in which case even truths savor of hypothesis." (1 Econ. 650, 2 Econ. 167)

This eminent and transcendental fluid was next to the soul or spirit, and was the soul's agent in the body. But after death it would be "emancipated from the bonds and trammels of earthly things," and, immortal, retain its organization. On its substance would be impressed a form corresponding to the man's character as to his reception of love and wisdom. It would even retain the record of all his earthly life. (Econ. 314) Swedenborg's speculations were, of course, not final. Yet he clearly perceived that man was born on earth because he needed to procure from nature "a containant" for his spirit. And he realized that the nature of this inmost containant could be grasped only by abstractions and by a sort of "mathematical philosophy of universals"!

There are so many things in nature beyond our understanding that we cannot afford to scoff at the idea that the inmosts of our brain substance can be organized into an image of our entire sensory history, a permanent record of our sensations and actions. A lecturer's words may be transferred to a magnetic tape, where they are stored in the form of magnetic charges ready to be re-translated into words at any time. Our brains also are charged by all the sensations we experience, year after year. Is it so hard to believe that these sensations, by the intent and power of the Creator, are also preserved for an immortal record in a substance which defies even death itself?

The question might be asked, "Where then does the ‘limbus' go at death?" That it remains in nature is not to be doubted. Yet what does its locale matter, if its substance is not affected any more by the changes of nature; but remains, independent, in a realm of simples, beyond the corpuscular universe of atoms and molecules which are within the narrow range of our sensory experience? At least, so we may surmise on the basis of what we now know of doctrine and of science. For all we know, the "limbus" might be a structure of wave-patterns, the form of which we can describe only by abstractions, and which is perpetually redintegrated without losing its characteristic uniqueness. If any one thinks this to be impossible, let him reflect on the fact that the whole pattern of a future man and his hereditary peculiarities are actually contained within the microscopic germ-plasm, which is not in the form of the body, yet in a perfect human form which, as to its interior structure, is known, it is said, to the Lord alone!

In one of his early commentaries, Swedenborg speaks of death in these words: "First of all there is released, from its connection with the earthly things which are properly called the body, that substance whose essence is mediate between the natural and the spiritual. This takes with it, because it encloses, that superior substance whose essence is spiritual and which is called the intellectual mind. . . . This, in turn, encloses man's principal and purer substance the essence of which is supra-celestial and which is properly called the soul. . . ." (WE 3058)

And the Spiritual Diary notes that at death "that of man which is vital is gathered together in a moment even if parts of the body were scattered over a thousand miles." (SD 1099) "As soon as the interiors of the body grow cold, the vital substances in the man are separated from the man, wherever they are, even if enclosed in a thousand labyrinths. . . . Nothing of the vital substance can remain in corporeal and material things. . . ." (SD 1104)

The vital substances here spoken of seem to refer to the limbus as well as to the spirit itself. For the limbus is still living, even as the body was living, from the soul. Yet the limbus is a natural substance, and thus has no spiritual attributes, no mental powers. It is not the mind, not the soul: its only attributes are those of nature, thus of motion; even though these motions, or potentialities to motion, are like the magnetic stresses on the recording tape which may be referred to as invisible wave-patterns rather than movements.

The limbus is physical. The angels never see it, they only know that it exists. It is not to be identified or confused with the spirit or even with the spiritual body. Yet it serves the spiritual body of man as a natural basis and gives it a certain "permanence" and "fixity." We also read that through it the spirit has "a relativity to those things which are in nature." In this life, such "relativity" is possible because the memory — which is the ultimate of the mind or spirit — has a basis in the natural organisms of the brain. The limbus must therefore be that which fixes the order of the corporeal memory for the after-death man.

Let us, then, dismiss any idea that the "limbus" is identical with the mind we use in this world, or with the spirit which lives to eternity in the spiritual world. We must learn to think spiritually of the immortal soul which is raised into the world of life on the third day after death. Man rises into that world, not in a limbus, but in a spiritual body, which has been formed during earth-life "by the truths and goods which flow in from the Lord through the spiritual world and are received by man within such things as are from the natural world and are called civil and moral." (TCR 583)

That the limbus takes no real or active part in the life of spirits among themselves — as it would if it were the actual skin or cutis of their spiritual bodies — is clear. And since the limbus gives fixation to the corporeal memory of man, which marks the lowest or sensual degree of his mental life, it is even said that with those in hell, the "limbus" is above and the spiritual below! (TCR 103) Not that the evil spirits live below their own skin! But by them the natural ideas and delights which once belonged to the life of their corporeal memory, are valued above spiritual things. That the hells are within the sphere of the natural degree of the mind only — the degree formed in juxtaposition with natural substances — is doctrinally certain. (DLW 345, 270, 274, 275)

www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org