And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the
Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and behold the mountain was full of
horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
We live in what seems to be a relatively safe and stable part of the world, geographically
speaking. We have seen lately the effects of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the
Philippines and of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and tonight we could probably glimpse the
flooding in the Midwest. The shoreline of the Cape here is fragile, as we have recently
been reminded, but by and large we live quite comfortably with the assumption that nothing
very violent is going to happen.
For all the headlines we read, this feeling goes beyond concerns with the weather. We may
lock our houses and our cars, but we move about unarmed and most of the time without
looking over our shoulders. In the present age, we even seem to have come to believe that
any illness that strikes us should be curable, that we should have some kind of divine
guarantee of a full term of years.
Then when troubles do strike, we are ill prepared. We immediately ask what has gone wrong.
That seems to be a perfectly normal thing to do, and perhaps it is; but it betrays a
mindset that is open to question. When we ask what has gone wrong, we are asking to
understand the hidden causes or purposes of the events that are distressing us. If those
hidden causes or purposes are as important as we think they are, we are rather tardy in
searching them out. We should surely have been just as diligent in trying to understand
why things went right before. If we had, at least we would become aware of our ignorance
before troubles come, which might lessen the shock.
The New England cleric Jonathan Edwards, a contemporary of Swedenborg, is most widely
known for a sermon on "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." This is unfortunate, because
there was much more to his theology than this, but even then it was the bad news that
grabbed the headlines. In any case, he asked his hearers to imagine themselves walking on
a rotting floor above a cellar filled with fire, never knowing just when the floor might
give way underneath them. Those were, of course, the days when mortal illness might strike
at any time, when it was rare for a family not to have suffered some untimely loss.
Our Old Testament text offers the other side of this same image. Elisha's servant thought
they were doomed by the hostile army surrounding them, but when his eyes were opened, he
realized that powerful forces for good were present and active.
These two images may serve to give substance to one of the more familiar principles of our
theology. In his insistence on our individual freedom and responsibility, Swedenborg
attributes it not to our own strength, but to the Lord's providence. Specifically, he sees
us as kept in a balance between heavenly and hellish powers, powers that could sweep us
away if they were not kept under control. If we were to revise Jonathan Edwards's image,
we might see ourselves as walking along a country lane with hedges on both sides.
But our theology takes us a good deal further than this. It describes us as already
existing beyond those hedges. Let me quote at some length from True Christian Religion:
 But to make it comprehensible how we can be kept midway between heaven and hell and
thereby in the spiritual equilibrium from which we have freedom of choice, let me offer a
The spiritual world consists of heaven and hell. Heaven then is overhead, and hell is
beneath the feet--not, however, in the center of the globe which we inhabit, but below the
lands of the spiritual world, which are also of spiritual origin, and therefore not
extended [spatially], but with an appearance of extension.
 Between heaven and hell there is a great interspace, which to those who are there
appears like a complete orb. Into this interspace, evil exhales from hell in all
abundance; while from heaven, on the other hand, good flows into it, also in all
abundance. . . .
 Because this interspace is so large and because it appears to those who are there like
a vast orb, it is called the World of Spirits. Further, it is full of spirits, because
everyone after death goes there first, and is there prepared either for heaven or for
hell. There we are among spirits, in company with them, as formerly we were among people
in the world.
476. Everyone, from infancy even to old age, is changing locality in that world. . . .
477. We are kept in this great interspace, and midway therein continually, for the sole
purpose that we may have freedom of choice in spiritual things, for this is a spiritual
equilibrium because it is an equilibrium between heaven and hell, therefore between good
and evil. . . .
People who have had near-death experiences testify consistently that they see life
differently afterwards. It is not just that they have lost any fear of dying, but that
they have a different attitude toward living. One of them put it this way:
At this time . . . I was a typical high-school fraternity brat. . . . But after this thing
happened to me, I wanted to know more. At the time, though, I didn't think there was a
person who would know anything about this, because I had never been out of this little
world that I was in . . . All I knew was that I felt like I had aged overnight after this
happened, because it opened up a whole new world for me that I never knew could possibly
exist. I kept thinking, "There's so much that I've got to find out." (Raymond Moody, Life
after Life [NY: Bantam, 1976], P. 89.)
If there is one thing of which our theology should convince us, it is that we have a
tremendous amount to learn. We normally see only the surface of ourselves, others, and the
world. We have only a dim sense of the undercurrents that in fact determine the larger
course of events. We have a wealth of information about the spiritual world which is "the
world of causes," but that is general information. It does not tell us what is going on
there right now.
Every once in a while, I find myself wondering what life must have been like for
Swedenborg during his last twenty-eight years. Think of it for a moment. he was, daily or
nightly, conscious in the spiritual world, where the light was clarity itself, where the
people one found together were people of like minds and interests, and where the actual
nature of those people was clearly visible. Then he would be back in this world, in a
light that was darkness by comparison. Good people might look ugly, strong people weak,
evil people beautiful, and weak people strong. Any given grouping would be likely to
represent widely divergent qualities, to include people who at heart wanted nothing to do
with each other. It must have at times seemed a world of utter confusion.
Now suppose for a moment that the Lord is trying to guide us toward an awareness of what
life, eternal life, is all about. He cannot convince us by forcing the truth upon us,
since that would be contrary to his own nature. He must try to prompt us to start asking
questions, to stop taking the surface appearance of things for granted. He does not want
misfortunes to come upon us, but we present a major problem in this regard. We don't seem
to want to ask the hard questions until things go wrong. When life is kind to us, we just
take it for granted. Obviously, we are special people, we deserve our good fortune. We
read about the people who are flooded out, or whose families are devastated by random
crime or by unexpected illness, and we feel immune.
If we could take our theology more seriously, we would find this kind of attitude
profoundly embarrassing. Given our resistance to asking the necessary, hard questions,
given the ease with which we accept a sense of security that we have not earned, it must
be an immensely patient Lord who nudges us so gently. If that Lord were anything like the
self-righteous tyrant of the hellfire and brimstone preacher, we would not be allowed our
complacency for a moment. Misfortune would be the order of the day, until we woke up to
our superficiality and started to live for eternity here and now.
Troubles will come to us all. If nothing else happens, we will encounter the increasing
limitations of old age. It is one thing to be assured, in a general way, that the Lord is
with us when troubles come, that our Lord knows how we feel because in the incarnation he
experienced life as we do. But more than that, if we can allow ourselves to suspect that
we need those troubles, they will be far easier for us to bear. It is not a case of bad
things happening to good people. It is a case of ordinary people, mixtures of good and
bad, being brought up short, being faced with something that will not let the mind rest.
The worst thing we can do then is to wallow in self-pity, to see ourselves as the
righteous Job suffering undeserved woes. In this case, we are worshiping an unjust God.
The next worst thing we can do is to see ourselves as receiving from God's hand a
punishment that we richly deserve. In this case, we are worshiping a God who is legally
just, but merciless. If in fact we worship a Lord who is infinitely loving and infinitely
wise, whose love and wisdom are not in conflict with each other, then we can feel
ourselves not condemned or approved but challenged to understand.
We live in a dim and puzzling world. Just out of sight is the world of clarity that awaits
us after death. Because of the ambiguities of this realm, we are free, and can make a hell
of heaven or a heaven of hell. Misfortune is the call to wake up, to open our eyes, to
see, if you will, that those who are for us are more than those who are against us, and
that the mountains around us are full of horses and chariots of fire.