On the surface, free will might seem like an odd spiritual topic. Except in extraordinary circumstances, we have control over our bodies; we can move around and speak voluntarily, and we can also think whatever we want, even if circumstances prevent us from expressing those thoughts. But spiritual free will is another matter entirely, as Swedenborg explains:
It is generally recognized that we have a freedom to think and intend whatever we wish but not a freedom to say whatever we think or to do whatever we wish. The freedom under discussion here, then, is freedom on the spiritual level and not freedom on the earthly level, except to the extent that the two coincide. Thinking and intending are spiritual, while speaking and acting are earthly.
There is a clear distinction between these kinds of freedom in us, since we can think things that we do not express and intend things that we do not act out; so we can see that the spiritual and the earthly in us are differentiated. As a result, we cannot cross the line from one to the other except by making a decision, a decision that can be compared to a door that has first to be unlocked and opened. (Divine Providence §71)
Thinking and intending—which those familiar with Swedenborg’s thought might also recognize as willing and understanding—may not seem like inherently spiritual activities, but he emphasizes that the ability to make rational choices is the cornerstone of spiritual development, or regeneration. Our spiritual state isn’t simply the result of a single action or decision; it comes with years and years of consistently choosing one path over another.
For example, in the book A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge spends years inflicting suffering on others for his own profit, until one night he’s confronted with the consequences of his actions and has a change of heart. That’s great, Swedenborg might say, but by consistently choosing to put his greed first, Scrooge has done spiritual damage to himself. It’ll take a lot of internal work—consistently trying to do good—before he can really turn himself around.
Whatever we choose to do freely becomes a part of us. Swedenborg tells us that a rational choice—one that comes from considering our options and everything that we’ve learned—has more spiritual impact than an impulsive action. And actions that we’re forced to take against our will have the least impact of all. In the same way, people who aren’t able to make rational decisions, whether it’s because of mental or physical illness or due to more fleeting conditions like rage or intoxication, aren’t held spiritually responsible for their actions—even though they might be held responsible on a personal or criminal level!
But why give people free will at all? If you were a supreme deity setting out to design a universe, would you allow people to have the choice to hurt each other? Or, to put it another way, why create a world where innocent people suffer at the hands of evil people?
Now you might suppose that the free choice granted to human beings in spiritual matters is a mediate cause of evil, and therefore that if free choice of this kind had not been granted to us, we would not be able to sin. But, my friend, stop for a moment here and consider whether any human being could be created so as to be human without having free choice in spiritual matters. If this were taken away from us, we would be statues and no longer human. (True Christianity §489:2)
That’s the first part of Swedenborg’s answer: the ability to make conscious decisions is what makes us human. If we weren’t able to think, feel, and decide what to do, or not to do, then we’d be no different from a rock.
The second part of Swedenborg’s answer has to do with why we were created that way: the purpose of humanity—in fact, the purpose of the whole universe—is for us to all have the potential to go to heaven, where we can live with God forever. In Swedenborg’s cosmology, heaven isn’t just clouds and harps; it’s a vast community of souls who consistently chose love over hate, and who are bound together by all the different types of love that they have for every living thing. God wants that community to keep growing forever, and so he’s always trying to find ways to draw us toward it.
[I]f we on the earthly level were deprived of the freedom to intend evil and to make it seem reasonable by rationalizations, that would be the end of our freedom and rationality and of our volition and discernment. We could not be led away from our evils and reformed, so we could not be united with the Lord and live forever. That is why the Lord protects our freedom the way we protect the pupil of our eye. The Lord, though, is constantly using our freedom to lead us away from our evils, and to the extent that he can do so through our freedom, he uses that freedom to plant good things within us. In this way, step by step he gives us heavenly freedom in place of hellish freedom. (Divine Providence §97)
But in order for this to work, people must be able to understand the difference between good and evil—which sometimes means experiencing evil firsthand so that we can clearly see the consequences of evil actions—and then we must be able to freely choose to be good. Only then have we made love a part of who we are, and when that happens, we’re on the road to heaven.
The Lord is present with us through our human freedom, in that freedom, and with that freedom, constantly urging us to receive him but at the same time never removing or taking away our freedom, since . . . no spiritual action that we have taken stays with us unless we freely chose to take it. Therefore you could say that our freedom is where the Lord dwells with us in our soul. (True Christianity §498)
For more about free choice in spirituality, see our short video “True Freedom”; our more in-depth video “Spiritual Freedom”; or “Heavenly Freedom vs. Hellish Freedom,” which takes a deep dive into a passage from Swedenborg on this topic. You can also read more about it in our blog post “Finding Your Inner Freedom.”
For Swedenborg’s own take on the subject, you can download his book Divine Providence for free in our bookstore. And for a more contemporary view, the incomparable Swedenborgian theologian George F. Dole’s Freedom and Evil: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Hell is also available in our bookstore.
If you’d like to know more about why bad things are allowed to happen, visit our divine providence page and the list of resources there.