By Morgan Beard
In his writings, especially his classic Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg paints a picture of hell that might surprise you. The popular image of hell is of a place where people are condemned by God to suffer for all eternity as punishment for their sins. But Swedenborg says that hell is a choice: evil people go there voluntarily because it’s a mindset from which they can be free to do what makes them happy—even if what makes them happy is to hurt other people. The suffering in hell isn’t inflicted by a race of supernatural demons whose job is to punish the wicked; instead, it comes from being surrounded by people (now in spirit form) who are the very definition of evil:
Picture a community made up of people [who are] all totally in love with themselves, not caring about others unless they are allies, and you will see that their love is no different from that of thieves for each other. To the extent that they are acting in concert, they embrace each other and call each other friends; but once they stop cooperating, once anyone resists their control, they attack and butcher each other. If their deeper natures—their minds—are probed, it will be clear that they are full of virulent hatred for each other, that at heart they ridicule anything fair and honest and even ridicule the Deity, tossing it aside as worthless. (Heaven and Hell §560)
Hell is a place where people spend all their time trying to control and manipulate each other in order to gain power and esteem, and they find joy in thinking of ways to torment each other. All of the spirits in hell were once human beings, but they are people who have rejected anything good or loving that might have been in them while they were living on earth. They’ve fully and openly embraced the self-love and contempt of others that were their primary motivations while they were alive.
I was reminded of this description a couple of years back when, researching a different topic, I happened across a white supremacist chat forum. I expected that there would be a lot of hateful language and ideas expressed toward women and people of a non-Caucasian background, but what I didn’t expect is that they would be equally hateful toward each other. Almost every statement made on the forum was immediately attacked by someone else, even by people who agreed with each other, and they often used their personal knowledge of each other to make the attacks more painful or the threats more immediate. It was an absolutely perfect earthly illustration of Swedenborg’s description of hell!
There are other ways that hate groups reflect the behavior Swedenborg describes in evil spirits. For example, in a style guide for a prominent racist website, as described in this article from the Huffington Post, the author outlines how “lulz”—a term that originated from the reference to “laughing out loud,” or “LOL”—are used to make their message easier to swallow:
The tone of the site should be light.
Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred.
The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor—I am a racist making fun of stereotype of racists [sic], because I don’t take myself super-seriously.
And later, with regard to dehumanization:
There should be a conscious agenda to dehumanize the enemy, to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths. So it isn’t clear that we are doing this—as that would be a turnoff to most normal people—we rely on lulz.
Again, if the article is entirely serious, it should not contain dehumanizing language. Dehumanization is extremely important, but it must be done within the confines of lulz.
Compare this to Swedenborg’s description of hellish spirits:
They do not fight by arguing against what is good and true. (That kind of fight is useless, because if they were beaten a thousand times they would continue to stand firm, since there is no end to the supply of arguments undercutting goodness and truth.) Instead, they pervert what is good and true, setting it aflame with the fire of appetite and delusion, so that for all we know we share their appetites and delusions. They also seize on some unrelated pleasure in us and feed the flames with it. In this way they very deviously infect and molest us. So skillfully do they work, as they spread their contagion, that if the Lord did not help us we would inevitably believe them. (Secrets of Heaven §1820:3)
It’s hardly a revelation to say that these aptly named hate groups are hellish, but this type of behavior—mocking and even dehumanizing people for laughs—goes beyond that limited example. In an article from Psychology Today on the motivation behind negative Facebook comments, researchers found that people who “troll” others online tend to attack people they perceive as socially superior—people who threaten their own sense of superiority. They have not only a psychopath’s sense that it’s fine to manipulate people to get what they want, but they also have a high degree of empathetic perception that enables them to figure out what will most disturb others. Sound familiar?
In Swedenborg’s description of hell, we see not a faraway place in another world, but a psycho-spiritual condition that we can encounter right here on earth. And in writing about how evil spirits work in the spiritual world, he gives us a model for how we can deal with that same dynamic in this world. Evil spirits can’t stand to be in heaven—or to spend too much time around angels—because of the intense love that surrounds them. The evil spirits might still attack, but divine love is stronger than they are, and it inevitably drives them away.
The nature of hateful people, whether it’s in this world or the next, is that they never stop attacking. They find it funny to cause pain to others. But if you can create a heavenly “safe space”—where everyone involved agrees to do their best to manifest divine love—it makes it hard for hateful people to thrive. Next time you find yourself confronted with hate, how would focusing on love instead change the dialogue?
For more on the nature of hell, check out our video “What Is Hell Really Like?” , or the short clip “Evil Spirits Make Things Worse For Themselves” on the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel. To read straight from the source, you can download a copy of Heaven and Hell for free from this website.
Morgan Beard is the executive director of the Swedenborg Foundation.