As a Catholic school student growing up during the 1940s, I was taught to fear Purgatory nearly as much as Hell. It was just as horrific as hell, the “flames” just as searing, the despair and anguish just as great. The only difference was that it was not an eternal state. I might plan on spending years, possibly decades, perhaps even centuries, purging my sins in the fires of Purgatory, but eventually I would be released and experience the bliss of Heaven. Hell, on the other hand, was going to last forever.
Martin Luther certainly didn’t care much for Purgatory. It was the primary issue iving rise to his break with the Catholic Church. He rebelled against the corruption involved with buying indulgences to shorten one’s sentence in Purgatory. But rather than attempt to make sense of Purgatory, Protestantism offered us a black-and-white afterlife, a dichotomy that is even more difficult to swallow than the Catholic view, one in which good and evil are absolutes. You are judged righteous and go to Heaven or wicked and go to Hell. There is no middle ground. Since most of us emerge as a blend of spiritual goodness and materialistic badness, one can only wonder how such a judgment can possibly be administered. Is there a threshold of righteousness? Would a just and loving God reward a person who barely makes it over the threshold with eternal ecstasy while condemning the person who just misses that threshold with eternal damnation?
Traditional Jewish beliefs don’t help much in charting the afterlife, as there are different schools of thought within the overall Jewish umbrella, one school not even believing in an afterlife, another school believing in it but not concerned with it, and still other schools with varying degrees of concern. One school of believers holds that after death only the very righteous go to Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). The average person goes to an intermediate state, apparently Sheol, for punishment and/or purification, while the wicked go to Gehenna, a place of eternal punishment. Sheol seems to be the equivalent of the Catholic Purgatory, although some Jews believe Gehenna to be the intermediate state.
So much of interpreting afterlife teachings is a matter of semantics, and we are left to wonder how much distortion there has been of the original writings by those translating them and passing them down over the centuries. For example, in John 14:2, Jesus is quoted, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you.” Greek scholars tell us the Greek word translated to “mansions” originally meant a stopping place or a temporary abode. This seemingly suggests a number of “abodes” between the traditional Heaven and Hell, pointing to a Purgatory of some kind, but the usual self-serving orthodox Christian interpretation is that Jesus was referring only to Heaven, that place or state where all the righteous settle in.
Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century polymath and mystic who claimed to have visited the afterlife realms, wrote that he discovered infinite diversity in “Heaven” and “countless communities” during his clairvoyant explorations of the spirit world. Here again, we are left to wonder how his words were interpreted and translated.
Edgar Cayce, the famous American “sleeping prophet” of the last century, told of taking a tour of many realms during one of his out-of-body experiences. He described how he encountered a stream of light he knew he must follow. In the lower or darker realms he saw “forms” that were floundering or lost and seeking the light. As the light grew stronger and stronger, he arrived at a place where individuals appeared much as they do today. Some seemed content, while others were striving for greater knowledge and light.
A recurring theme in the many books that grew out of Spiritualism, so popular during the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, is that the afterlife is not the humdrum Heaven and horrific Hell that so much of orthodox religion has taught, but rather it is made up of many planes, realms, spheres, levels, whatever name we choose to give them. We spiritually evolve from the darkest planes to the lighter ones, the Earth life being an opportunity to hasten progression in that evolution. In the very lowest sphere, we find spirits so “earthbound” in their thought that they don’t even know they are “dead.” These earthbound spirits failed to develop any significant spiritual consciousness while in the flesh and are living in a dream world. It is like having a nightmare in which all one’s transgressions play out before you. It is a “fire of the mind.” But, this earthbound condition is, according to Spiritualism, by no means eternal. With help from above, but mostly by his own volition, the earthbound spirit can gradually “awaken” to his condition and advance to a higher sphere.
Just above the earthbound level, according to Spiritualism’s teachings, is a state in which spirits who developed a modicum of spiritual consciousness while in the flesh find themselves. It is as if they are in a stupor, awake at times and dreaming at other times. It has been likened to a person being absorbed in a movie, forgetting that it is just a movie and fully experiencing the emotion displayed on the screen. When the emotion becomes too great, the person might shift back into normal consciousness, reminding himself it is just a movie, before again drifting back into the unreality of it all. This state, called “Borderland” by some Spiritualists, is thought to be the equivalent of Purgatory. In effect, the spirit is seeing and experiencing the negative acts of his lifetime during the unconscious state, then reckoning with them in the conscious state. Once he or she has fully examined all the negatives, the spirit advances to the third realm, referred to as “Summerland.”
But Summerland is not a state of pure light. It is not “Heaven.” It is between the pitch dark of the earthbound spirit and the pure light of the fully evolved spirit, a gray area, one in which the more average person—the individual who was neither especially righteous nor especially wicked during the earth life—finds himself. The conditions are much like those on the Earth plane, though not material. It is a thought world but one more real than the material world, we are told by the communicating spirits. The spirit in Summerland continues to learn and progress to higher levels, all said to be increasingly beyond human comprehension.
Progression from one sphere to the next is believed by many to involve reincarnation—being reborn in the Earth life—but various teachings suggest that spirits can evolve and advance from one sphere to the next without reincarnating; that is, they can progress by education and good works in the spirit world.
According to a number of Spiritualistic sources, Swedenborg continued to teach after his death in 1772, communicating through various mediums, including George T. Dexter, a New York physician. On May 22, 1853, Swedenborg communicated that the moral condition of the spirits of the lower spheres does not appear to differ materially from the moral condition of the unprogressive man in our world. “They may, it is true, have moments when their spirits yearn for the brighter spheres beyond their dark plane, when conscious of its birthright, the soul awakens to a sense of its own degradation, and realizes its true situation,” he communicated through Dexter, “but they live and act as unprogressive man does, daily performing their accustomed round of malicious action, and carrying out the designs of their blunted perceptions; and it is not till some event, out of the ordinary occurrences of life, arouses them completely and opens their understanding to the reception of truth, that they begin to progress. There is so little difference in the whole action of spirit-life from your life, except that one step forward has been made.”
Swedenborg went on to say that spirits in the lower spheres live as if they do not realize there is anything beyond their own misty dwelling places, and as if they are incapable of being impressed with what is good and what is true.
Francis Bacon, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century English scientist and philosopher, partnered with Swedenborg in communicating through Dr. Dexter. On September 25, 1853, one of the circle sitters, a Mr. Warren, asked Bacon what impelled spirits in the lower and darker spheres to choose to go there and remain there indefinitely. “The reason is obvious,” Bacon replied. “The great law of like attracting like obtains throughout the whole of the spheres. When a departed spirit enters into the spheres, he is at once attracted where he finds congeniality of place and persons. They could not be happy in the bright spheres. They could find no enjoyment where there is either virtue or goodness. Thus their first efforts are to locate themselves where the acquired attributes of mind in all its workings may be gratified. Their bodies are gross and their minds still grosser.”
Bacon added that there is in this condition of both body and mind a state which rejects magnetically all above and that they are compelled to take a place appropriate for their moral advancement or lack thereof. He said that the law of affinity is manifest as much in the higher spheres as in the lower and that no spirit can become bad all at once or good instantly, going on to say that the law of progression and retrogression is in full force in all spheres.
Not long after the messages came through Dexter, Robert Hare, a renowned inventor and professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, received similar messages. As he came to understand the afterlife environment, there are many gradations between the lowest degrees of vice, ignorance, and folly and the highest degrees of virtue, learning, and wisdom. When we cross over to the other side after physical death, we take our place based on what Hare called a “moral specific gravity.”
Although Hare set out to debunk mediums, he soon came to realize that, while there were frauds, there were genuine mediums between the living and the “dead.” He began asking communicating spirits about their abodes, their modes of existence, their theological doctrines, and diversities of their situations. He was told that there are seven spheres, the terrestrial sphere occupied by humans being the first, while the second sphere is where depraved spirits find themselves until they can begin the process of purification that allows them to ascend to higher spheres. When spirits reach the seventh sphere, they are entitled to enter the supernal Heaven. He was also informed that there are no visible boundaries between spheres, but spirits have a peculiar sense which makes them understand when they are passing from one sphere to another.
Hare was informed that the spheres revolve with the Earth on a common axis around the sun, but they are not dependent on the sun for either light or heat. Rather, the spirit receives light and heat from his internal or spiritual correspondence. Moreover, there is no division of time. “Although we, like you, are constantly progressing toward perfection, our ideas of time and the seasons differ widely from yours; with you it is time—with us, eternity,” Hare’s deceased father informed him. “In the terrestrial sphere, a man’s thoughts, being bounded by time and space, are limited; but with us they are extended in proportion as we get rid of those restrictions and our perceptions of truth become more accurate.”
Hare initially couldn’t conceive of living in an eternity even under the most favorable conditions we encounter on Earth. It would no doubt get pretty boring after a time, he reasoned. “The most favorable idea of Heaven given in Scripture seems to be that which identifies it with Paradise,” Hare wrote. “In other words, a most beautiful garden. But who would conceive an eternal residence in one garden, however superlative its attractions, as desirable?” As Hare was informed, however, it is human arrogance—the belief that we in the flesh can understand everything—that limits us, and we make a serious mistake in applying our limited terrestrial mentality and conditions to the celestial realms. In other words, they are beyond human comprehension.
Swedenborg is said to have been among the advanced spirits who communicated with Allan Kardec, a French educator and philosopher who began investigating mediums in 1854. They answered questions on every conceivable subject, including God, pantheism, universal space, biblical accounts of creation, reincarnation, relationships beyond the grave, possession, the fate of children beyond the grave, spirit influence, war, capital punishment, slavery, dreams, free will, suicide, and fear of death, to name just some. As for Heaven and Hell, they informed Kardec that these are only symbols representing the extremes in the afterlife environment.
“The situation of spirits and their way of looking at things are infinitely varied, according to their various degrees of moral and intellectual development,” Kardec explained what he had been told by the spirits. “Spirits of a high order generally make but short sojourns upon the earth; all that goes on here is so paltry in comparison with the grandeurs of infinity, the matters to which men attribute most importance appear to them so puerile, that the things of this earth have very little interest for them, unless they have been sent to it for the purpose of quickening progress of its people.”
Swedenborg is said to have been one of 49 advanced spirits comprising a “soul group” communicating through the mediumship of William Stainton Moses, a Church of England priest who discovered his mediumship in 1872 while investigating mediums and initially assuming they were all fraudulent. “There are states and conditions to which souls naturally gravitate, and in those states or spheres there are divisions,” Moses was informed. “Souls attract souls by congeniality of pursuit, by similarity of temper, by remembrance of previous associations, or by present work. To some, life is more active; to some, more contemplative. They are different, yet equal in grade.”
Moses was also told that the spheres are, indeed, separate states, and each has its own characteristics and peculiarities. He was cautioned about mistakenly trying to picture them like places in our world since humans are incapable of picturing them as they really are.
Whether Purgatory is the “Borderland” of Spiritualism—the second sphere—or encompasses all of the varying shades of gray between the earthbound level and the highest sphere, seems to be a matter of definition. However we define it, it makes much more sense than the dichotomous Heaven and Hell of orthodox religion. If the Catholic Church had offered various shades of gray, I might be still be a Catholic.