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How do we know what hell is like? We have assumptions and sayings, connecting hell with fire, suffering, torture, and torment. But don’t we also know that God is love? Doesn’t punishment to these extremes seem to contradict the nature of God’s love? In this episode of Swedenborg and Life, host Curtis Childs and special guests lead us through an examination of the uses of hell, focusing on the good things that can come from the order within hell and the way the Lord uses it to protect good things in people. This episode helps us to rethink our assumptions about the punishment and torment of hell and consider why hell plays a role in God’s design. Hell must do something good or else God’s love for humanity wouldn’t allow it to exist. What good thing could hell do?
Hazmat Suit Required
Swedenborg talks extensively about heaven and hell, describing them both in ways that sound like a near-death experience. Throughout his books, Swedenborg discusses the structure of the afterlife, looking into the design of heaven and hell. This means that even in the structure of hell do we see divine love and order. So how do we see divine love in hell?
To start with, we have to talk about good and evil. In the world, human beings can choose between selfish, harmful action and selfless, altruistic action. There is always potential for selfishness or evil. But evil can vary in big ways—how evil is evil? What is it like?
From [the] description of divine love’s essence, you can also see what the essence of diabolical love is like; it becomes visible by contrast. Diabolical love is a love for oneself. This is called love, but seen in its own right it is really hatred. . . . All who are in hell carry love for themselves in their heart . . .—True Christianity §45
Swedenborg points out that people must hold themselves away from this selfishness, or it will begin to impact us and start to motivate us in negative ways. We see this when restraints get relaxed—when the rules disappear or the guidelines are gone. Guest Dr. Greg Rose brings in his expertise in the political arena, especially in dictatorships, where the focus is always on the leader. The cult of personality takes over, and the focus is always on that one person. You see statues and images constantly, taking one person and elevating them above all others. Dr. Rose talks about his experience visiting the palace of Saddam Hussein. His face, likeness, and initials were showcased all over the palace—on the walls, on the floors, and as statues in the hallways. This example shows the power of selfishness that isn’t stopped by any regulation or rule—it steamrolls over all other things in its path. Evil works for destruction of all, except the self. In hell, “the most intense pleasure of [evil] life is to punish, torment and inflict pain on each other” (Secrets of Heaven §695).
How could we ever deal with that? If that kind of selfishness ever took over, it could destroy humanity because it knows no boundaries. Swedenborg writes that God keeps hell from overwhelming people by setting up division in hell that separates it and keeps it from controlling us.
The Final Language
To understand hell, we have to first understand what hell is not. Curtis first defines hell in opposition to how it is typically viewed:
Hell is NOT revenge.
Hell is NOT uncontrolled.
Curtis notes that God does not take revenge against people who have failed him; his divine love cannot take revenge. Hell is also not about uncontrolled carnage and destruction. Hell is tightly controlled and monitored, and things are only allowed to happen if something good can come of them. Hell would love to be an uncontrolled expression of carnage, rage, punishment, torture, and torment; but it can never be so.
Some people cherish the notion that God turns his face away from people, spurns them, and casts them into hell, and is angry against them because of their evil. Some people even go so far as to think that god punishes people and does them harm. They support this notion from the literal meaning of the word where things like this are said, not realizing that the spiritual meaning of the Word, which makes sense of the letter, is wholly different. So the real doctrine of the church, which is from the spiritual meaning of the Word, teaches something else. It teaches that the Lord never turns his face away from anyone or spurns anyone, never casts anyone into hell or is angry.—Heaven and Hell §545
Now, we’ve landed in the spiritual meaning of the Bible. To learn more about this aspect of Swedenborg’s work, visit our YouTube episode focusing on What the Bible Is.
Anyone whose mind is enlightened perceives this while reading the Word simply from the fact that the Lord is goodness itself, love itself, and mercy itself. Good itself cannot do harm to anyone. Love itself and mercy itself cannot spurn anyone, because this is contrary to mercy and love and is therefore contrary to the divine nature itself.—Heaven and Hell §545
God is love. It doesn’t matter what you do because God is still love, even if people are bad. But love towards a person doing bad things looks different than loving a person doing good things. It wouldn’t make sense for God to burn with rage toward his own people.
But wait. Is all punishment gone? How do we fit punishment in with this idea of love?
Evil spirits are punished severely in the world of spirits to keep them terrified of doing evil. This too seems to come from the Lord, but still no punishment there does come from the Lord. It comes from the evil itself, since an evil is so closely united to its punishment that they cannot be separated. The hellish mob craves and loves nothing more than inflicting harm, especially punishing and torturing, and they do inflict harm and punishment on anyone who is not being protected by the Lord. So when something evil is being done from an evil heart, since this rejects any protection by the Lord, evil spirits assail the evildoer and inflict punishment.—Heaven and Hell §550
Curtis shows a visual representation of God’s protection for each individual person. God is always protecting every person unless they want and love evil and reject God’s protection. The more we reject love, the more we pull hell toward us. Curtis explains how angels and evil spirits view people differently, both looking at the things they love to see in people. Angels focus on the good, while hell focuses on the bad.
Watch a segment of our show called Your Brain is Spamming You, where we look at the ways heaven and hell impact the human brain.
But wait. Curtis reminds viewers of the main question in front of us: Why is punishment allowed to happen in hell? Couldn’t God stop harm in another way? That’s why this part of the video is called “The Final Language.” If you’re in hell, it means that you have pushed away everything good. There is only one language that can reach people that have chosen this path, and that language is the threat of punishment. Swedenborg talks about interacting with evil spirits who are looking for evil things to do and his experiences trying to deter them from evil—punishment is the only way to stop that kind of evil. These punishments have to come from love to stop the evil from overtaking everything.
They Know Not
This section of the video looks at two things that hell does:
Otherwise they would infest communities of good people and inflict violence on the system of order established by the Lord, which ensures the welfare of the universe.—Secrets of Heaven §967
This kind of evil is mindless—it doesn’t care about causing any destruction. It must be separated from people, and God uses the mechanism of hell to keep it separate from any people it could overwhelm and use.
In Swedenborg’s travels to different hells, he sees the ways that evil is kept at bay, through restricting hell and keeping it from reaching people. Swedenborg talks about three main examples: from hellish spirits separated by a large rock covered in mist and delusion to evil spirits that want to flow into the minds of people and control them to those who spent their lives in hatred and cruelty and are kept in the deepest, cadaverous hell. All of these groups are kept away from people to protect us from their overwhelming influence.
Bring Good from Evil
The Lord can turn hell into something good by dividing it up and putting it into order, creating useful functions of hell. Providence ensures that only things that can lead to good are allowed to happen in hell. Everything that happens must be able to have some good come out of it. Now, this does not make evil spirits happy. They want to cause destruction.
For more about the way bad things happen, watch our video called Why Bad Things Happen.
Quality of Life
Hell creates the happiest life possible for the people that are in hell. However, it’s not possible to be incredibly happy if you reject everything that is good—but these evil spirits have as much happiness as they can handle. Swedenborg describes his experience with the delights allowed in hell, like adultery, theft, and lying. These spirits talk about knowing the rules and continually pushing them in a frustrating cycle.
At this point in the show, Curtis shows us an extreme example from True Christianity §661 that sums up the totality of the hellish experience (send the kids away for this one, folks!) An evil spirit has grabbed on to all the diabolical beliefs and acts as though his delusions are correct. It’s laughable that he would believe in this, but he is allowed to think that they are greater than everything else, but there are limitations. Divine order lets them live out their fantasy as long as they don’t hurt anyone.
Curtis reminds us that Swedenborg talks about two primary evils: love of self and love of the world. Swedenborg writes about seeing these evils in spirits in his book Conjugial (Marriage) Love. He talks about the fantasy involved in these spirits and their insane obsession with wealth. They believe they each have all the wealth, even though they know that it’s not logically consistent and doesn’t make sense.
Lastly, Curtis describes the contrast between heavenly joy and hellish indulgence. Indulgence reigns in hell, while true happiness comes in heaven—this heavenly joy is incomparable to anything on earth. Each individual shares and spreads this joy, helping protect the other angels from hell and spreading warmth and happiness to everyone. Swedenborg writes about feeling these extremes, from the divine mercy of heaven to the hellish love ruling in hell.
The quality of the delight of the love of commanding was perceived, namely, that the sweetness within it is ineffable. From this sweetness man believes that it is heaven and heavenly joy, when yet it is hell. This delight is also turned into what is direful. It is similar with the love of doing evil, the love of hatred and revenge, the love of theft, and also the love of adultery, and their delights. Man does not know that when, by means of reformation by the Lord, these delights recede, then for the first time the delights of heaven enter in; which delights infinitely surpass the former. Nor does he know that the delights of those evils are then undelightful and stinging. Before reformation he does not know that such is their quality.—Last Judgment §242
Curtis leaves viewers with Swedenborg’s humorous description comparing the pleasures of cravings for evil with the pleasures of desires for what is good.
Questions from Viewers
In the last segment, Curtis answers these questions from our viewers:
- Can you visit earth when you’re in the spiritual world? Like oversee your funeral or anything?
- Swedenborg states that the hells were filled with Christians during his time . . . is it possible for those who read and acknowledge his writings to end up in hell? If so, how does one avoid such a state?
- Are there different types of hell-stages like there are in heaven?
- Is hell permanent? Because I feel like some spirits would get tired of being evil.
- So what does Swedenborg say about the Final Judgment? Is it a correspondence and if so, what?
- Do you think Hell is a state of mind and Heaven is a state of being?
- Are there people who are irremediable going to hell, or there is something we can do to prevent that and take them to heaven or at least to the world of spirits? Speaking of persons that we love.
- What denomination does Swedenborg align with the most?
- Why the separation of evil (from the good) in the world of spirits but not on earth?
- So evil spirits are punished, but if after punishment they change, can they go to heaven? Or are they kept in hell forever?
- My autistic cousin delights in all things rebellious and has no empathy. But wouldn’t death heal his autism and make him better? Could he heal in hell and go to heaven?
Keep sending in your questions; they are great!
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About Swedenborg and Life
Host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death in a lighthearted and interactive live webcast format.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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