The Eternity of Hell
by Rev. Kenneth O. Stroh
It is the universal teaching of the Scriptures that man's eternal reward is meted out to him in accordance with his works. No one can be admitted into heaven by the Divine mercy apart from the means of salvation. For the Divine mercy operates only according to the laws of the Divine Providence. Thus he who learns to love the Lord and tries to live a life in accordance with the teachings of the Divine Word will find his eternal abode among the blessed in heaven; while the man who has lived his life in willful opposition to the Divine scheme will discover his eternal lot among the damned in hell. "For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then shall He reward every man according to his works." (Matthew 16: 27)
That man's eternal lot is determined by his life in this world, and that it cannot be changed after death, is clearly taught in the Heavenly Doctrine also.
To human thought this has sometimes appeared as an injustice. The possibility of lasting happiness in heaven is not so much disputed. But questions regarding hell have frequently been asked. "Though some human beings during the short period of their life on earth have abused the freedom of choosing between good and evil, why should they forfeit forever the possibility of willing what is good? Must they remain eternally in an infernal state. Is this not unjust, especially when you consider the great strength of hereditary inclinations to evils of all kinds? If the Lord is truly merciful, would He allow anyone to suffer the tortures of hell forever? Does not a loving father punish his children only in order that they may change their ways and return once more into his favor? If the omniscient Lord can foresee that a man is going to choose the life of hell, why did He create him in the first place? Are not all men predestined to heaven?" So have asked many men in ages past and present, and the question has even been disputed from time to time by members of the organized New Church.
From this way of reasoning it would seem that God foresees that man is ultimately destined for heaven, yet allows him to live through the trials of earthly life and to suffer unspeakable tortures for ages upon ages in hell before he reaches his final destination. But would this be mercy? If it were certain that all men would finally attain the heavenly goal, why were they not created angels in the first place, rather than having been left to flounder for a time on waves of earthly, selfish passions and lusts, and perhaps to suffer for untold centuries in an infernal region? Could this be the scheme of a merciful and loving Father? If so, wherein lies His Divine justice?
The teaching of the Heavenly Doctrine is very positive, that no man can be reformed after death: he must remain forever such as he had been inwardly during his life in the world. The reason for this is also given. Swedenborg was told by the angels that after death man can no longer be reformed by instruction, as he can be in the world, because the lowest plane of life is lacking to him, the ultimate plane which provides for his thoughts and affections that fixity without which there can be no freedom of choice in spiritual things: Spirits may indeed be instructed in the other life; the knowledge, intelligence and wisdom of the angels progress to eternity. But each receives instruction only in the degree that his mind is receptive; and this degree of receptivity is determined by the extent to which the interior degrees of his mind have been opened or closed during life on earth. The character of the man cannot be changed after death. Infernal love can never be changed into heavenly love, because they are directly opposite to each other. This is what is meant in the Lord's parable by the words of Abraham to the rich man in hell: "Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us that would come from thence." (Luke 16:26) All those who go to heaven remain there to eternity, and all who choose hell remain there to eternity.
Indeed no one ever desires to change his life after death. So to desire would be to wish a change of character, to long to become some one else-which no one really wants to do. Such a change would involve a change in man's will or love, when yet the will is the man himself and his thoughts only as far as they proceed from and agree with his will. It is therefore his ruling love that continues after death, and this can in no way be changed to eternity if the spirit is to remain human.
The power of man's ruling love is described by the case of many spirits observed by Swedenborg:
Man after death is his own love or his own will - the will is the man himself. This fact is further illustrated in the Writings by descriptions of how spirits are recognized and their quality known from the nature of the loves and affections that shine forth clearly from their faces. As soon as men after death enter the world of spirits they are examined to discover their quality, and are then joined to those who are in a like love: those in heavenly love are joined with a heavenly society, while those in evil loves are joined with an infernal society. Yet most spirits must be prepared before they may inhabit the dwelling prepared for them in their own society. For while their internal quality may be known, there may be habits they have formed and to which they have clung, habits that do not agree with their true character and loves. In the other life no one is allowed to hide his true nature for any length of time; hypocrisy is not permitted. And the spirit must rid himself of all habits, thoughts and external affections that do not agree with his ruling love. He, as it were, must become completely himself.
This is but a normal process. For everyone, man or spirit, inwardly grasps for those things that are in harmony with his loves, and tries to avoid what is not. Some spirits, however, have a difficult time ridding themselves of habits that .do not agree with their true character - and this either from previous ignorance of the troth, or from a desire to feign the good of life for selfish purposes. Yet whatever does not make one with a spirit's ruling love is eventually separated from him. From one who is in good everything inharmonious is taken away, and he is thus let into his own love. It is the same with an evil spirit, with the difference that from the evil truths are taken away, While from the good falsities are taken away; and this goes on until each becomes his own love. He then seeks out his own abode, finds it of his own accord, and cannot, yea, does not wish, to change it to eternity. He has received his reward, as the Lord promised, according to his works.
Works derive their quality from the love that motivates them. Works done from a heavenly love are heavenly, for what is done from angelic love is done from the Lord and everything done from the Lord is good. But deeds arising from infernal love are infernal, for what is done from this love, which is that of self and the world is done from man himself, and everything done only from and for man is in itself evil. These works, or more properly, this love in act, is what makes the true character of man, is what makes his very life. And so it is love in act, or the very life of man, which endures after death. Since everyone is his own love, to change that love in a spirit would be to take away his very life.
Thus it is that even though devils and satans may undergo dire punishments, for a time, and so may be brought eventually to lead an orderly life, yet their infernal loves are never taken away from them, else they would have no life. The Lord does not wish anyone to remain in infernal torment forever. He allows punishments only for the sake of amendment of life, for the sake of a good end. Yet devils are punished, not that they may be led out of hell, but that they may be led to live an orderly and useful life, albeit unwillingly, and this in hell.
The Lord is indeed a merciful God. He loves all equally, the evil as well as the good. He desires to save everyone, and in this desire His infinite love goes out in its fullness to everyone. Each person has a certain measure that is capable of being filled with good and truth in the other life. "But some have a greater measure, some a lesser. This measure is procured in the world by the affections which are of the love." (AC 7984) And to the extent that the measure has been enlarged or limited, to that extent only can it be infilled in the other life. Wherefore the Lord said: "Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom." (Luke 6:38)
The Lord wishes to give in full measure to everyone, but He also wills that man shall receive actively. In order to receive and reciprocate the Divine love man must be in freedom. Therefore, as the Lord has life in Himself, so has He given to man the appearance that he, too, has life in himself. Without this appearance man would not be in freedom to receive and reciprocate the Lord's love; and without freedom of choice man would become an automaton. If he is to choose good in freedom there must also be the possibility of doing evil, else freedom is not real; and without real freedom man would have no delight in life.
Herein lies the key to the real nature of heaven and hell. For as delight is the all-in-all of man's life, so is delight the all-in-all of both heaven and hell. Those in heaven have the delight of good and truth, while those in hell have the delight of evil and falsity. For all delight belongs to love, and love is the life of man. Wherefore, according to the quality of his love, such is the quality of his delight. The heavens and the hells are in opposite delights, because in opposite loves. Therefore the Writings tell us, "if you know what delight is, you will know what heaven and hell are, and what is their quality." (CL 461)
Certainly the character, the very life of man, is determined by the nature of the things in which he finds delight; and he finds delight in those things which he loves, which he freely chooses to love. It is true that the devils cannot actively indulge in their delights without fear of punishment; they are thus led to live an orderly and useful life. But the curse of hell is that they perform uses from fear rather than from delight.
However, they do find delight in imagining the things they love to do; and after they have been reduced to order they are not punished except when their imagination becomes worse than they themselves had been while on earth, or when they try to do the evil things they are imagining. While that life is one of continual frustration, only in it can they find whatever of happiness they are capable of receiving. To lift them out of hell into heaven would be to change their life into that of someone else. For heaven is where angels take delight in performing uses to the neighbor; and while a devil may be forced to perform uses, he cannot be forced to take delight in them, because forced delight is no delight.
When a man is tempted to question the doctrine of the eternity of life in hell, then, he may remember that no one is in hell who has not in freedom chosen to be there. The devils are in the happiest state possible to them, because they are living their life. They are living the life of their delight, as far as the Lord can permit. To live any other life would not be to live at all.
Thus we should give thanks that the Lord has created man in the appearance of self-life in order that he may be free. For this freedom is the most precious thing of human life; wherefore neither angels nor devils ever lose the appearance that they have life in themselves, though the angels acknowledge that the Lord is the source of all life. The Lord is thus present eternally with His mercy, not only in heaven but also in hell; protecting amending and leading-preserving unharmed those inmost receptacles of life that cause both angels and devils to be human. "If I ascend up into heaven [O Lord] Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139: 8-10)
-New Church Life1974;94:110-11