Free speech. Free thought. Free religion.


By New Christian Bible Study Staff

Sunrise over a field of grain.

Freedom of speech. Freedom of thought. Freedom of religion. They're important. They're in the news. How do they relate to Christianity? Let's start thinking through it.

What does the Bible have to say about them?

Take John the Baptist as an example. He was the essential free speaker, the "voice of one, crying in the wilderness", preparing the way for God. He spoke freely, declaring a new, living religion. But then Herod stepped in, captured him, imprisoned him, and killed him. John (I have something I must speak freely about) is the good guy; Herod (I don't like your speech) is the bad guy.

In Daniel 6:7-23, there's the famous story of Daniel and the Lions' Den. Daniel was cast to the lions because he was speaking freely -- praying to Jehovah, not to King Darius -- against an edict of the government. Daniel's the good guy. Darius, until he repents, is the bad guy.

Perhaps the most powerful Biblical example is found throughout Jesus's ministry, which required freedom of speech -- the freedom to form, teach, and create a new religion. His free speech revolutionized the thoughts of his listeners. And, what did the powerful religious leaders of the day do? They accused him of blaspheming. They tried to trap him. To get him to recant. To be quiet. He knew that he couldn't do that; His mission was to bring new truths to a thirsty world.

There's a great "free speech" scene during Jesus's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, in Luke 19:37-40:

"And when He was already near to the descent of the Mount of Olives, all the multitude of the disciples rejoicing began to praise God with a great voice for all the works of power that they had seen, saying, 'Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!' And some of the Pharisees from among the crowd said to Him, 'Teacher, rebuke Thy disciples.' And He answering told them, 'I say to you, If these should be silent, the stones would cry out.'

These are pretty clear examples. The Bible values freedom of speech.

Free speech and free thought are closely related. Deep communication is a big part of what makes us human. Humans developed the ability to have large scale cooperation through shared stories. If we can't speak freely, we lose the ability to communicate real thoughts, and we lose the ability to share new ideas, and our potential drops away.

Here are three excerpts from Swedenborg's works that relate to this:

"...when free speech and freedom of the press are curtailed, freedom of thought, that is, of examining matters in a full and complete way, suffers as well.... Our higher understanding, then, adapts itself to fit the amount of freedom there is to say and do what we are considering." (True Christian Religion 814).

"No one is reformed in a state of intellectual blindness, either. These individuals, too, are not aware of truths and do not know about life, because it is our discernment that must instruct us in these matters and our volition that must act them out. When our volition is doing what our discernment tells it to, then we have a life in accord with truths; but when our discernment is blind, our volition is blocked as well." (Divine Providence 144)

"No one is reformed in states where freedom and rationality are absent." (Divine Providence 38)

I was talking about this with a friend, and he reminded me that there are grey areas, where some freedom and discernment exist, but they are limited. I think he's right; we're mostly living in these grey areas. There are probably rare cases where freedom and rationality are at zero -- maybe when someone is in a coma. And I doubt if anyone has 100% freedom or discernment. In some ways, this makes free speech and free thought even more important. Life is not crystal clear, or free, and things that can help us as we seek understanding and freedom are really precious.

The example of Helen Keller bears on this. She called the day that Anne Sullivan arrived at her house "my soul's birthday". In her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), Keller described the moment when she realized that the motion of Anne's fingers, spelling w-a-t-e-r into her hand symbolized the water that she was pouring over her hand:

"I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.... The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!"

Helen Keller also said, “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”

Free speech and free thought need each other. And... what about religion?

Religion is a core set of thoughts. If you're not free to speak, your thinking is trammeled. If you're not free to think, how can you hope to get to the core ideas about why we exist, and what we are going to do -- how we are going to live? Religion is at the heart of it. Even if you reject religion altogether, you're still living by some sort of belief system, even if it's materialistic or nihilistic.

If you're told what you have to believe, it doesn't usually work out very well. There's a natural tendency to rebel. We need that freedom to figure things out for ourselves.

Albert Einstein said something that speaks to this:

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.”

Paul Schilpp, "Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist (1949) ‘Autobiographical Notes’"

And... here's another excerpt from Swedenborg's work, Heaven and Hell:

In a word, anything that does not enter us in freedom does not stay with us, because it does not belong to our love or intentions; and anything that does not belong to our love or intentions does not belong to our spirit. The actual reality of our spirit is love or volition - using the phrase "love or volition" because whatever we love, we intend. This is why we cannot be reformed except in a state of freedom. (Heaven and Hell 598)

M. Scott Peck reinforces this idea:

There is no such thing as a good hand-me-down religion. To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.
M. Scott Peck - Road Less Travelled

Finally, let's go back to see what the Bible says about it, in these two passages:

Saul of Tarsus was persecuting Christians -- trying to destroy their freedom of religion. He had a miraculous conversion experience that led him to be renamed Paul, the great Christian teacher and evangelist. (Acts 9)

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were persecuted - thrown in a fiery furnace - for worshipping in their own way, denying the edicts of Nebuchadnezzar. They were saved by an angel, who kept them from being burned. (Daniel 3)

Wrapping it up...

It's pretty clear that free speech, free thought, and free religion are part of the same fabric. They're very much part of being human. They're well supported in the Bible. They've been woven into the better governments of our time.

We need to take good care of them. They're necessary for us to be able to learn truth, and reject falsity -- and to "Cease to do evil, learn to do good." (Isaiah 1:16)

From Swedenborg's Works


Divine Providence #38

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38. No one who is caught up in the pleasures of cravings for evil can know anything about the pleasures of desires for what is good, the delight that fills the angelic heaven. This is because these two kinds of pleasure are absolute opposites inwardly and therefore just under the surface, even though they differ very little on the surface itself.

Every love has its own pleasures. A love for what is evil gives us pleasure when we are caught up in its compulsions. This holds, for example, for loving adultery, vengeance, cheating, theft, or cruelty, and among the worst of us, for loving blasphemy against the holy values of the church and spouting venomous nonsense about God. The wellspring of these pleasures is a love for being in control prompted by a love for ourselves.

These pleasures come from compulsions that obsess the deeper levels of our minds and flow down from there into our bodies, where they stimulate filthy reactions that excite our very fibers. The result is a physical pleasure prompted by mental pleasure in proportion to our compulsions.

[2] After death, in the spiritual world, we can all discover the identity and nature of the filthy things that excite our physical fibers. In general, they are like corpses, excrement, manure, sickening odors, and urine. The hells are overflowing with filth like this. (On their correspondence, see material in Divine Love and Wisdom 422-424.) Once we enter hell, though, these filthy pleasures turn into dreadful things.

I mention all this to aid in understanding the nature and quality of heavenly happiness in what follows. We recognize things by their opposites.

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Table of Contents
Angelic Wisdom about Divine Providence 1-26 The Lord's Divine Providence Has as Its Goal a Heaven from the Human Race 27-45 In Everything That It Does, the Lord's Divine Providence Is Focusing on What Is Infinite and Eternal 46-69 There Are Laws of Divine Providence That People Do Not Know 70 It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Act in Freedom and in Accord with Reason 71-99 It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Put Aside Evils in Our Outer Nature, Regarding Them as Sins and Doing So in Apparent Autonomy, and That This Is the Only Way the Lord Can Put Aside the Evils in Our Inner Nature and in Our Outer Nature Alike 100-128 It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Not Be Compelled by Outside Forces to Think and Intend and So to Believe and Love in Matters of Our Religion, but That We Should Guide Ourselves and Sometimes Compel Ourselves 129-153 It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Be Led and Taught by the Lord, from Heaven, by Means of the Word, and Teaching and Preaching from the Word, and That This Should Happen While to All Appearances We Are Acting Independently 154-174 It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Not Sense or Feel Anything of the Working of Divine Providence, but That We Should Still Know about It and Acknowledge It 175-190 Our Own Prudence Is Nothing--It Only Seems to Be Something, As It Should. Rather, Divine Providence Is All-Inclusive Because It Extends to the Smallest Details 191-213 Divine Providence Focuses on Eternal Matters, and Focuses on Temporal Matters Only As They Coincide with Eternal Ones 214-220 We Are Not Granted Inner Access to the Truths That Our Faith Discloses and the Good Effects of Our Caring Except As We Can Be Kept in Them to the End of Our Life 221-233 Laws of Permission Are Also Laws of Divine Providence 234-274 Evils Are Permitted for a Purpose: Salvation 275-284 Divine Providence Is for Evil People and Good People Alike 285-307 Divine Providence Does Not Charge Us with Anything Evil or Credit Us with Anything Good; Rather, Our Own Prudence Claims Both 308-321 Everyone Can Be Reformed, and There Is No Such Thing as Predestination 322-330 The Lord Cannot Act Contrary to the Laws of Divine Providence, Because to Do So Would Be to Act Contrary to His Own Divine Love and His Own Divine Wisdom, and Therefore Contrary to Himself 331-340
From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Apocalypse Revealed 630

Divine Providence 45, 58, 123, 202, 253, 323

   Swedenborg Research Tools

Related New Christian Commentary

Thanks to the Swedenborg Foundation for the permission to use this translation.

From Swedenborg's Works


Divine Love and Wisdom #422

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422, 18. Love that has been cleansed in our discernment becomes spiritual and heavenly. We are born earthly, but to the extent that our discernment is raised into heaven's light and our love into heaven's warmth along with it, we become spiritual and heavenly. Then we become like a Garden of Eden, bathed in the light and warmth of springtime.

Our discernment does not become spiritual and heavenly. Our love does, and when it does it makes its spouse, discernment, spiritual and heavenly as well.

Love becomes spiritual and heavenly through a life in accord with the truths of wisdom, truths that discernment teaches and illustrates. Love absorbs these truths not on its own but by means of discernment, since love cannot lift itself up unless it knows truths; and it can know truths only by means of a discernment that has been lifted up and enlightened. Then love is lifted up to the extent that it loves these truths by doing them. It is one thing to discern, that is, and another to intend; or it is one thing to speak and another to act. There are people who understand truths of wisdom and utter them but still do not intend and do them. When love, then, puts into practice the truths of light that it discerns and utters, then it is raised up.

Simple reason shows that this is so. After all, what are we when we discern and utter truths of wisdom while we are living--that is, intending and acting--contrary to them?

The reason love becomes spiritual and heavenly when it has been purified by wisdom is that we have three levels of life, levels called earthly, spiritual, and heavenly. These were discussed in part 3 of the present work [236-241]. We can be lifted up from one to the next; but we are not raised simply by wisdom. We are raised by a life in accord with wisdom, because our life is our love. So to the extent that we live in accord with wisdom we love it; and we live in accord with wisdom to the extent that we purify ourselves from those unclean things we call sins; and to the extent that we do this, we love wisdom.

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Table of Contents
Divine Love and Wisdom 1-3 God alone--the Lord--is love itself, because he is life itself. Both we on earth and angels are life-receivers. I will be offering many illustrations of this in works on divine providence and life. 4-6 Divinity is not in space. Given the divine omnipresence--presence with everyone in the world, with every angel in heaven, and with every spirit under heaven--there is no way a merely physical image can compass the thought that Divinity, or God, is not in space. 7-10 God is the essential person. Throughout all the heavens, the only concept of God is a concept of a person. The reason is that heaven, overall and regionally, is in a kind of human form, and Divinity among the angels is what makes heaven. 11-13 In the Divine-Human One, reality and its manifestation are both distinguishable and united. Wherever there is reality, there is its manifestation: the one does not occur without the other. In fact, reality exists through its manifestation, and not apart from it. 14-16 In the Divine-Human One, infinite things are distinguishably one. It is recognized that God is infinite: he is in fact called the Infinite One. But he is called infinite because he is infinite. 17-22 There is one human God who is the source of everything. All the elements of human reason unite in, and in a sense center on, the fact that a single God is the Creator of the universe. 23-27 The true divine essence is love and wisdom. If you gather together everything you know, focus your mind's insight on it, and look through it carefully from some spiritual height to discover what is common to everything, the only conclusion you can draw is that it is love and wisdom. 28-33 Divine love is a property of divine wisdom, and divine wisdom is a property of divine love. On the divine reality and the divine manifestation being distinguishably one in the Divine-Human One, see 14-16 above. 34-39 Divine love and wisdom is substance and is form. The everyday concept of love and wisdom is that they are something floating around in, or breathed out by, thin air or ether. Hardly anyone considers that in reality and in function they are substance and form. 40-43 Divine love and wisdom are substance and form in and of themselves, and are therefore wholly "itself" and unique. I have just given evidence that divine love and wisdom is substance and form, and I have also said that the divine reality and its manifestation is reality and manifestation in and 44-46 Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created. The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. 47-51 Everything in the universe was created by the divine love and wisdom of the Divine-Human One. The universe, from beginning to end and from first to last, is so full of divine love and wisdom that you could call it divine love and wisdom in an image. 52-54 Everything in the created universe is a vessel for the divine love and wisdom of the Divine-Human One. We acknowledge that everything in the universe, great and small, has been created by God. 55-60 All the things that have been created reflect the human in some respect. There is evidence for this in every detail of the animal kingdom, in every detail of the plant kingdom, and in every detail of the mineral kingdom. 61-64 The useful functions of everything created tend upward, step by step, from the lowest to us, and through us to God the Creator, their source. As already stated [52], these "lowest things" are all the elements of the mineral kingdom--various forms of matter, some stony substances, some saline, 65-68 Divinity fills all space in the universe nonspatially. Nature has two basic properties: space and time. In this physical world, we use them to form the concepts of our thinking and therefore the way we understand things. 69-72 Divinity is in all time, nontemporally. Just as Divinity is in all space nonspatially, it is in all time nontemporally. Nothing proper to the physical world can be attributed to Divinity, and space and time are proper to the physical world. 73-76 Divinity is the same in the largest and smallest things. This follows from the two preceding sections, from Divinity being nonspatially present in all space and nontemporally present in all time. 77-82 Angelic Wisdom about Divine Love 83-88 Warmth and light emanates from the sun that arises from divine love and wisdom. In the spiritual world where angels and spirits live, there is just as much warmth and light as there is in the physical world where we live. 89-92 That sun is not God. Rather, it is an emanation from the divine love and wisdom of the Divine-Human One. The same is true of warmth and light from that sun. "The sun that angels see" (the sun that gives them warmth and light) does not mean the Lord himself. 93-98 The spiritual warmth and light that result from the emanation from the Lord as the sun form a single whole just as his divine love and wisdom do. Part 1 explains how divine love and wisdom form a single whole in the Lord. 99-102 The sun of the spiritual world is seen at a middle elevation, as far from angels as our physical world's sun is from us. Many people bring with them from our world an image of God as high overhead and of the Lord as being in heaven among its angels. 103-107 The distance between the sun and angels in the spiritual world is an apparent distance that depends on their acceptance of divine love and wisdom. All the illusions that are prevalent among evil people and simple people come from appearances that have been taken as facts. 108-112 Angels are in the Lord and the Lord is in them; and since angels are vessels, the Lord alone is heaven. Heaven is called God's dwelling and God's throne, so people think that God lives there like a monarch in a realm. 113-118 The east in the spiritual world is where the Lord is seen as the sun, and the other directions follow from that. Now that I have discussed the spiritual world's sun and its essence, its warmth and light, and the Lord's consequent presence, I need to talk as well about the regions of that world. 119-123 The regions in the spiritual world are not caused by the Lord as the sun but by the angels, depending on their receptivity. I have stated that angels live in distinct regions, some in the east, some in the west, some in the south, and some in the north. 124-128 Angels always face the Lord as the sun, so south is on their right, north on their left, and west behind them. All these statements about angels and the way they face the Lord as the sun should also be understood as applying to us spiritually, since we are spirits as to our minds, and angels if 129-134 Everything in the deeper reaches of angels' minds and bodies alike is turned toward the Lord as the sun. Angels have discernment and volition, and they have faces and bodies. Further, there are deeper levels of discernment and volition and deeper contents of their faces and bodies. 135-139 Every kind of spirit turns toward her or his ruling love in the same way. First I need to define "angel" and "spirit." Immediately after death we come into a world of spirits that is halfway between heaven and hell. 140-145 The divine love and wisdom that emanate from the Lord as the sun and constitute heaven's warmth and light is the emanating Divinity that is the Holy Spirit. I explained in Teachings for the New Jerusalem on the Lord that God is one in both person and essence, consisting of a trinity, and that 146-150 The Lord created the universe and everything in it by means of that sun that is the first emanation of divine love and wisdom. "The Lord" means God from eternity or Jehovah, who is called the Father and the Creator, because as explained in Teachings for the New Jerusalem on the Lord, the Lord 151-156 The physical world's sun is nothing but fire and is therefore dead; and since nature has its origin in that sun, nature is dead. In no respect whatever can creation itself be attributed to the physical world's sun: it is due entirely to the spiritual world's sun. 157-162 There would be no creation if it were not for this pair of suns, one living and one dead. Generally speaking, the universe is divided into two worlds, a spiritual one and a physical one. Angels and spirits are in the spiritual world, and we are in the physical world. 163-166 The goal of creation--that everything should return to the Creator and that there should be a union--becomes manifest in outermost forms. First of all, I need to say something about "ends. 167-172 Angelic Wisdom about Divine Love 173-178 There are levels of love and wisdom, consequent levels of warmth and light, and also levels of atmosphere. Without a knowledge that there are levels, what they are and what they are like, what is to follow will be incomprehensible, since there are levels in everything that has been created; 179-183 There are two kinds of levels, vertical levels and horizontal levels. Knowing about levels is a kind of key to unlocking the causes of things and probing into them. In the absence of this knowledge, hardly anything can be known about causes. 184-188 Vertical levels are matched in kind, with one following from another in sequence like a purpose, a means, and a result. Since horizontal or gradual levels are like levels of light to shade, warmth to cold, hard to soft, dense to sparse, coarse to fine, and so on, and since we are familiar with 189-194 The first level is the sum and substance of all the levels. This is because the levels of every subject and every object are matched in kind, and they are matched in kind because they have been produced by the first level. 195-198 All processes of perfection increase and rise by and according to levels. I have already explained that there are two kinds of level, horizontal and vertical, in 184-188 above. 199-204 In a sequential arrangement, the first level is the highest and the third the lowest, while in a simultaneous arrangement, the first level is the center and the third level is the circumference. There is a sequential arrangement and a simultaneous one. 205-208 The final level is the composite, vessel, and foundation of the prior levels. Examples of the principle of levels that is under discussion in this part have thus far been drawn from various things that occur in our two worlds--levels of the heavens where angels live, for example, levels of the 209-216 The vertical levels find their full realization and power in their final form. I explained in the preceding section that the final level is the composite and vessel of the prior levels. It follows from this that the prior levels find their full realization in their final level. 217-221 There are levels of both kinds in everything that has been created, no matter how large or small. There is no way to offer visible examples of the fact that the largest and smallest things of all are made up of distinct and gradual, or vertical and horizontal, levels, because the smallest 222-229 There are three infinite and uncreated vertical levels in the Lord, and three finite and created levels in us. The reason there are three infinite and uncreated vertical levels in the Lord is that the Lord is love itself and wisdom itself, as explained above [28-33]. 230-235 These three vertical levels exist in each of us from birth and can be opened in sequence. As they are opened, we are in the Lord and the Lord is in us. The existence of three vertical levels in us has not been widely recognized before. 236-241 Spiritual light flows in within us through three levels, but not spiritual warmth except to the extent that we abstain from evils as sins and turn to the Lord. What I have presented thus far indicates that light and warmth emanate from the sun of heaven, that sun, described in part 2, that is 242-247 If that higher level, the spiritual level, is not opened in us, we become focused on the physical world and our sense impressions. I have just explained that there are three levels of the human mind called earthly, spiritual, and heavenly; that these levels can be opened in us in sequence; that 248-255 In its own right, the earthly level of the human mind is a continuum, but because of its responsiveness to the two higher levels, it seems to have distinct levels when it is raised up. 256-259 The earthly mind, being the envelope and vessel of the higher levels of the human mind, is reactive. If the higher levels are not opened, it acts against them; whereas if they are opened, it acts with them. 260-263 The origin of evil is in the abuse of the abilities proper to us called rationality and freedom. By rationality, I mean the ability to discern what is true and therefore what is false, and to discern what is good and therefore what is evil. 264-270 Evil and false things are absolutely opposed to good and true things because evil and false things are demonic and hellish, while good and true things are divine and heavenly. On first hearing, everyone will admit that evil and good are opposites, and that the distortions of evil are opposite 271-276 Everything in the three levels of the earthly mind is enclosed in the works that are done by our physical actions. The information about levels conveyed in this part may serve to disclose this hidden principle, namely that everything proper to our minds, to our volition and discernment, is 277-281 Angelic Wisdom about Divine Love 282-284 The Lord from eternity, or Jehovah, could not have created the universe and everything in it except as a person. If people have an earthly, physical concept of the Divine-Human One, they are utterly incapable of understanding how a human God could create the universe and everything in it. 285-289 The Lord from eternity, or Jehovah, brought forth the sun of the spiritual world out of himself, and created the universe and all its contents from it. Part 2 of the present work dealt with the sun of the spiritual world, and the following points were made there. 290-295 There are three things in the Lord that are the Lord--a divine element of love, a divine element of wisdom, and a divine element of service. These three things are made visible outside the sun of the spiritual world--the divine element of love through its warmth, the divine element of wisdom 296-301 The atmospheres--three in number in each world, spiritual and physical--in their final forms terminate in the kinds of material substance characteristic of our earth. In 173-176 [173-178] of part 3, I explained that there are three atmospheres in each world, the spiritual and the physical, 302-304 There is nothing of absolute Divinity in the material substances that make up earth, but they are still derived from absolute Divinity. On the basis of the origin of earth as described in the preceding section, we may conclude that there is no trace of absolute Divinity in the earth's material 305-306 All useful functions, which are the goals of creation, are in forms, and they get these forms from the material substances characteristic of earth. All the things I have been talking about so far--the sun, the atmospheres, and the earth--are simply means toward goals, and the goals of creation 307-318 From a functional point of view, everything in the created universe is in our image; and this testifies that God is human. The ancients called the individual person a microcosm because each of us reflects the macrocosm, that is, the universe in its entirety. 319-326 All of the Lord's creations are useful functions; and they are useful functions in the sequence, on the level, and in the specific way that they relate to humanity and through humanity to the Lord, their source. I have already made the following points on this subject. 327-335 Evil functions were not created by the Lord. Rather, they came into being along with hell. All good things that find expression in act are called functions, and all evil things that find expression in act are also called functions. 336-348 What we can see in the created universe bears witness to the fact that nature has brought forth nothing and brings forth nothing. Divinity brings forth everything from itself, and does so through the spiritual world. 349-357 Angelic Wisdom about Divine Love 358-361 Volition and discernment, the vessels of love and wisdom, are in the whole brain and every part of it and therefore in the whole body and every part of it. This will be explained in the following sequence. 362-370 There is a correspondence between volition and the heart and between discernment and the lungs. This will be presented in the following series. 371-393 From the correspondence of the heart with volition and the lungs with discernment, we can learn everything that can be known about volition and discernment or love and wisdom--everything, therefore, that can be known about the human soul. 394-431 The nature of our first stage after conception. No one can know what our first or primal stage in the womb after conception is like because we cannot see it. Further, it is composed of a spiritual substance that is not visible in physical light. 432
From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Apocalypse Revealed 343, 681, 708

Divine Providence 8, 15, 38, 165

   Swedenborg Research Tools

Thanks to the Swedenborg Foundation for the permission to use this translation.