Swedenborg describes creation as made up of two separate and yet coexisting “worlds”: the natural world and the spiritual world. The natural world includes everything you see around you—the grass, the sky, houses, other people, your own body, and so on. The spiritual world consists of the unseen realities that we do not fully encounter until after death: heaven, hell, and the world of spirits in between.
In the spiritual world, people have bodies, live in houses, enjoy community life, and are surrounded by landscapes are like those of Earth, with familiar plants and animals. However, things work very differently in spiritual reality. Everything there is vivid and much more alive. What we see responds to what we are thinking. We always have all the time we need. Particular individuals are only as near or as far away as our thoughts of them, and thinking of a person or place can actually bring us there.
In short, while the spiritual world might not seem very different from ours at first, Swedenborg describes a realm where the inner state of individuals are reflected in their surroundings and where all life originates from, and is sustained by, the love and wisdom of the Lord.
In his book Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg says that he was allowed to experience the process of dying and being awakened in the spiritual world so that he could tell people on earth what it was like. He describes how angels sat beside him, unseen by most because angels are in the spiritual world. These angels stayed with him throughout the entire transition, surrounding him with loving thoughts. He experienced the transition from a physical existence to a spiritual one as though his eyes were being opened for the first time. He was then able to see into the spiritual world. (Click here to read the entire passage in Swedenborg’s own words.)
Swedenborg says that once awakened to spiritual realities, a person might experience a number of different things, depending on what type of life he or she has led. Most people start in the world of spirits.
Swedenborg calls the realm we enter immediately after death the world of spirits, an intermediate realm situated between heaven and hell. It can be thought of as a “sorting out” zone from which spirits go to either heaven or hell. He describes three states that people might pass through in this realm.
In the first state, people are essentially the same as they were in life. They have all of their memories, they have the same beliefs and attitudes toward things, and they may even manifest the same surroundings that they had on earth. Swedenborg says that this is why some people who have died aren’t even aware that they are in the spiritual world, and may try to deny it if they are told so by an angel.
When people first enter the spiritual world, they often meet friends or relatives who crossed over before them. Spouses will be reunited, although not necessarily forever. The spiritual world is a place where a person’s inner nature becomes the whole of their being. If two people were truly of one mind on earth, they will live together as spouses in heaven too. However, if they were not happily married, or if their personalities are fundamentally different, they will eventually part ways. Those who did not find love on earth, Swedenborg says, will eventually find their perfect match in heaven—no one is ever alone unless they wish to be.
Friends and relatives become the new arrival’s guide to the spiritual world, and, with the help of good spirits, the person’s true inner nature will gradually be revealed. This first state might last anywhere from a few hours to a year or more, depending on how long it takes for a person’s outer nature (what they outwardly say and do) to harmonize with their inner nature (what they truly feel and believe). Anyone who has become totally transparent in this life, whether transparently loving or transparently hateful, is fully ready for either heaven or hell, and goes straight in.
In the second state after death, the person becomes aware of the deeper parts of his or her inner nature. They start saying what they really think and act according to what they feel without worrying about appearances or making other people happy. They act according to their inner values—the way someone on earth might act when nobody else is watching or when they’re sure they won’t get caught. People who are truly good inside will be kind and generous to others, while people who are inherently evil will be openly selfish and cruel. While we can all be generous or selfish sometimes, inherently good spirits will reject the selfish thoughts and work to rid themselves of those impulses, while inherently evil spirits will justify their bad behavior and thereby embrace it as part of themselves.
At this point, like is drawn to like, so the sorting out begins. No “judge” passes sentences of guilt or innocence—we seek out kindred spirits because that is where we feel at home.
For people who are ready for heaven, there is a third state, a time of instruction. It is a time for learning about heaven and how to lead a life that allows one to experience it. At this point, the person is already in touch with the community in heaven where he or she will ultimately live, but still has a lot to learn about that community—what it does, how the individual can contribute to it, how the community can fill the individual’s needs, and so on. Swedenborg goes into great detail about the lives of angels, which you can read more about on our angels page.
People who have joined a community of evil spirits, however, will continue to descend farther and farther into hell until they reach those people who are most similar to them. Swedenborg points out that this is not a punishment; it is simply the place where they feel the most comfortable. If they have freely chosen a path that is the opposite of love and wisdom, there is nothing more the angels can do for them. The most merciful thing to do is to let them live the life they have chosen.
It’s important to note that all human beings arrive in the spiritual world as equals. Regardless of their religious background or their personal beliefs, regardless of their nationality, gender, or race, all people have an equal chance to go to either heaven or hell. That decision is made by the individuals themselves, in the form of every choice they’ve made to act in either a loving way or a selfish way.
Swedenborg tells us that heaven has three levels: the heavenly or celestial, the spiritual, and the natural. In keeping with the oddity of space and time in the spiritual world, he will interchangeably describe these three levels as progressing either upward or inward.
It’s common to visualize heaven as being far above us and hell as being far below us. Because it is difficult to think apart from time and space, Swedenborg also speaks in those terms. He teaches that we are surrounded by the world of spirits, with heaven above us and hell below us; those in the “highest” heaven are “closest” to the Lord, while those in the “lowest” hell are described as being farthest away. These spatial terms are useful when we consider that in common speech we say things like, “I feel very close to my cousin, even though she lives very far away.” We know that we are speaking about spiritual affinity, not geographical proximity.
At the top of everything, at the highest point, is the Lord, whom Swedenborg describes as a living sun radiating divine good and truth throughout creation.
Swedenborg, however, does not limit himself to this top-down paradigm. He also describes heaven as being human in form, with individual communities corresponding to the function of the organs in our body. (For more on this, see the page on the Universal Human.) In this view, the Lord is the center of the body, not in the literal sense of being part of its anatomy, but in the more spiritual sense of being at the “core” of the being, sustaining it just as we are sustained by our souls.
Heaven, then, is not so much a place as a collective entity made up of good people who perform an important use, much as we ourselves are made up of individual cells and atoms that are essential to the full functioning of our body. The animating force of heaven, as well as of living creatures on earth, is God’s love and wisdom. God, for Swedenborg, is not a remote being who created the universe and then retired to heaven; on the contrary, God is the very essence of life, love, and wisdom itself, the source and sustenance of all that exists. In brief, God is closer to us than the beating of our heart and the breath of our nostrils. But we only experience this closeness to the extent that we align ourselves with God’s will. This is what opens us to the influx of God’s love and wisdom—also called heaven.
While Swedenborg describes heaven as being a place of inexpressible joy and peace, he also warns that people who are not ready to experience a certain level of heaven will feel uncomfortable, even sick, and will be forced to retreat back down to lower levels until they have been properly prepared. This is even truer of spirits who are bound for hell.
Hell is, simply put, the part of creation that is farthest away from the Lord. If we visualize heaven as being in the form of a human being as described above, hell would be the area beneath that being’s feet.
The popular image of hell is a place of fiery torment, a pit into which God casts sinners as punishment for their crimes. The picture that Swedenborg paints is very different.
Firstly, he says, God does not judge anyone or condemn them to hell in order to punish them. Rather, it is human beings themselves who choose hell by consistently choosing to act selfishly or cruelly toward others. In other words, no one is ever sent to hell for a single act—but embracing an evil action, justifying it rather than repenting and seeking forgiveness, is the first step on the road to hell.
In Swedenborg’s experience there is no one Devil or Satan who is the counterpart to God, but he refers to the inhabitants of hell as “devils” or “satans,” and they can play the same role, tempting human beings on earth to do wrong (just as angels can try to influence them to do right). Nor is it God or the angels who torment people in hell, but people in hell who torture each other, lying and manipulating and inflicting pain on others in an attempt to dominate them and gain power.
Like the angels in heaven, all devils were once human beings; there are no beings in either heaven or hell who were not once living on earth. To angels, the inhabitants of hell are twisted and misshapen and live in buildings that are ugly, filthy, and have a horrible stench. However, to the inhabitants of hell their surroundings seem pleasant, and to each other they can even be attractive. Devils, therefore, prefer hell to heaven, and would not choose to live anywhere else even if they were given the option. They find heaven repulsive, and cannot stand its light for even a few moments. They perceive heavenly teachings as sickly sweet and may dismiss good people as being too idealistic or impractical.
Hell has different regions and levels just as heaven does, and Swedenborg will often refer to “the hells” in the plural. The deepest hells are also the darkest and coldest (since the Lord is the source of light and heat in the spiritual world). The only light and warmth in hell arises from the fires of malice that emanate from its inhabitants. Those who live in the deepest hells are the ones who embrace evil on the innermost levels of their being, who love themselves more than anything else, and who find great delight in inflicting pain on others.
Related Video Discussion
Swedenborg and Life “The Afterlife” playlist showcases hour-long discussions about Swedenborg’s view of the afterlife from our popular livestream series.
The “Swedenborg on the Afterlife” page has videos, excerpts, and downloads that explore this topic.
Heaven and Hell is Swedenborg’s classic work describing the nature of the spiritual world; you can download an electronic copy or buy a print copy in our bookstore. The book has been abridged into its essentials (without changing Swedenborg’s words) in Afterlife.
In Window to Eternity, Bruce Henderson condenses Swedenborg’s writings on the afterlife into a short but powerful book.
For a more light-hearted look at the afterlife from a Swedenborgian perspective, try Albrecht Gralle’s book Getting into Heaven—and Out Again.