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When we die, we make a choice. The choice isn’t a spur of the moment decision—it’s a reflection of our deepest desires. And it’ll set a precedent for how we experience eternity.
This choice is between heaven and hell, and eighteenth-century spiritual teacher Emanuel Swedenborg learned that it rests in our hands. In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose break through some common misconceptions about hell and explain what it’s really like.
It seems like it’s difficult to square the idea of hell with the concept of a loving God. But if you understand hell’s true nature, you can see how it is actually proof of a loving God.
The first misconception is that people are condemned to hell. Instead, people choose this path.
The Lord is leading every spirit toward himself through angels and through an inflow from heaven, but spirits who are absorbed in evil resist strenuously and virtually tear themselves away from the Lord. They are drawn by their evil—by hell, that is—as though it were a rope; and because they are drawn and want to follow because of their love of evil, it follows that they freely cast themselves into hell. (Heaven and Hell §548)
So when Swedenborg talks about people being “cast into hell,” he’s describing how their own passion for evil casts them there.
They are entering voluntarily, and the ones who are doing so out of a burning desire for evil look as though they were diving in headfirst. This is why it looks as though they were being thrown into hell by divine power. . . . The Lord does not throw anyone into hell. We throw ourselves in, not only while we are living in this world but after death as well, when we arrive among spirits. (Heaven and Hell §548)
The second misconception has to do with the idea of burning in hell. Hell’s fiery pits aren’t necessarily literal—they’re correspondences to a deeper meaning.
Hellfire means all the craving to do evil that flows from love for oneself. (Heaven and Hell §573)
Those in hell don’t burn from hellfire—their evil desires cause them to burn from hatred.
Everyone in hell cherishes hatred toward others in her or his heart and bursts out in savagery whenever there is the strength to do so. The acts of savagery and torture are what are meant by hellfire, because they are the results of their obsessions. (Heaven and Hell §573)
The third misconception is that hell is a place of torment. It’s not a happy place, but that’s because it’s a place for people who love evil to do what they love.
That same fire also means the kind of torment that occurs in the hells. This is because the impulses that arise from that love are urges to wound people who do not offer respect and deference and reverence. To the extent that rage takes charge, and the hatred and vengefulness that come from rage, people are driven to attack others viciously. (Heaven and Hell §573)
This sounds like a miserable mess, but angels are working to make things a little easier.
The angels have the hells under their control and keep all things there in check—and this ability comes from the Lord—otherwise the torments would be perpetual and their state extremely deplorable due to the horrendous condition in which they are. (Spiritual Experiences §4596)
Like everything else in the universe, this process serves a
purpose, with divine providence creating a careful balance.
Another way the Lord lessens the suffering in hell is through usefulness. Since people in hell want to hurt each other, and they crave that conflict, they really desire to be there. So the Lord provides ways for those in hell to be put to good use.
The Lord never sends anyone to hell but wants to lead everyone out. Still less does he inflict pain. Instead, since evil spirits actually run to get there, the Lord turns all the punishment and torment to good and puts it to some use. No penalty can ever exist unless the Lord has some purpose in mind for it, because the Lord’s kingdom is a realm of purpose and usefulness. But the purposes that hellish spirits can serve are ignominious. When performing those services, they are not in as much pain, but when they cease to be useful, they are returned to hell. (Secrets of Heaven §696)
With a better understanding of these misconceptions, we can now start to explore hell.
The way the spiritual world is set up, there are no gates to hell from heaven. Instead, these gates appear in the neutral world of spirits, where they are only visible to evil spirits if they are open.
In heaven’s light, you can see what these evil spirits truly are.
Sometimes, that means they have pretty monstrous appearances that reflect their harmful desires, but the Lord mercifully allows them to look human to each other.
Seen in any of heaven’s light, all the spirits in the hells appear in the form of their own evil. Each one is in fact an image of her or his evil, since for each individual the inner and outer natures are acting as a unit, with the deeper elements presenting themselves to view in the outer ones—in the face, the body, the speech, and the behavior. So you can tell what they are like by looking at them. In general, they are forms of contempt for others, threats against people who do not revere them; they are forms of various shadings of hatred, or various forms of vengefulness. Savagery and cruelty show through from within. (Heaven and Hell §553)
So to recap, people in hell have chosen to be there, burn only with their own passion for evil, and punish only each other. Meanwhile, angels are doing their best to improve life for those in hell and provide paths for redemption. But we can even be a part of this process right now here on earth: by acting against hell’s influence on our hearts and minds, we can resist fueling hell and open our inner selves to heaven.
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About Swedenborg & Life
In a lighthearted and interactive webcast format, 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.
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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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