The Eternity of the Hells
by Rev. Prescott A. Rogers
[The] Lord Jesus Christ...came to earth in order to save the human race. He did this by subjugating the hells, by glorifying His Human, by judging the Israelitish Church and establishing the Christian Church, and by reordering heaven (see Doctrine of the Lord 3). In doing these things the Lord benefited every human being that had ever lived, whether in heaven, in the world of spirits, or in hell. He brought a stability and increased love and wisdom to the angels, He brought freedom and a greater ability to understand truths to the spirits, and He brought order to the evil spirits. This brief article addresses this last topic and tries to explain why the hells must be eternal if our Lord is a truly loving God.
The nature of love is to make others happy, and the nature of the Lord's infinite love, then, is to make everyone happy all of the time - even when a person does things to make himself unhappy. He created heaven in order to provide a place/state where humans might live in innocence, peace and joy. But when some people chose to reject Him, the Lord created hell so that they would be happy, because He knew that they would be miserable in heaven. Hell is not a place/state of eternal punishment. It is home to evil spirits where they might be comfortable, content, etc. It is where evil spirits want to be. The Lord does not send anyone to heaven or to hell. He simply allows people to use their freedom and reason to choose a society where they will be the most happy they can and want to be. This is demonstrated in the testimony of Swedenborg that evil spirits are allowed to go to heaven if they wish, but after being there for a while they grow tired of the place and feel suffocated by the spheres of the angels which disagree with the sphere of their own ruling loves. So by their own choice they return to their hellish society where they feel fine. They could have stayed if they had wanted to do so.
The teachings about ruling loves are very important when trying to understand how a loving God could create eternal hells. A ruling love is just that, for it rules over all the other loves a person has. Regeneration is the process of forming a good ruling love, of subordinating all the other good loves, and of removing those rebel loves which oppose goodness. And degeneration is the same process, but by it a person achieves an evil ruling love with his other evil loves subordinated to it and his former good loves removed so that they no longer can disturb him. The Lord does this to prevent spiritual harm to the good loves and to the person who truly does not want goodness. He does it because He loves that person.
A ruling love is not thrust upon us. We choose it freely and with great affection. Once we have formed it we would rather die than give it up. It becomes the very essence of our consciousness and of our lives. The Lord does not ever prevent anyone from regenerating and going to heaven. And if He could raise all the evil spirits into heaven without doing them harm, He would. But He can't, because the evil spirits won't let Him. Their ruling loves are what they love the most, and they are the last things they would give up. Evil spirits stay in hell because they truly want to do so.
Once a person regenerates or degenerates he is perfected in his ruling love to eternity, for this is what increases his happiness to eternity. An angel acquires truths by which his good loves are perfected or are made more genuine. An evil spirit learns by means of temporary punishments and by rewards to control his evil loves so that he does not harm others. He is conditioned into becoming a useful citizen to his society, even when he does not love his fellow citizens. He is willing to serve society for the sake of rewards and in order to avoid punishment. The greatest reward he receives is his ability to fantasize within strict guidelines. He is not allowed to think harmful thoughts or to harbor evil intentions, for he would then act on them and cause others to suffer. The Lord in His mercy does not want others to suffer, but rather protects evil spirits from each other by means of external order provided by angelic supervisors under His direct auspices. As soon as an evil spirit does harm, he is caught and appropriately punished. Fairly soon he realizes that he can never get away with a crime. He chooses for himself not to do what is harmful and so avoid punishment rather than satisfy his evil lusts and be punished for it. He learns to fantasize with increasing powers as to the results of what it is he wanted in the first place. Instead of stealing, a thief learns to fantasize that he possesses what it is he wanted to steal. In this way his lust is satisfied and so his ruling love is fulfilled - without harming others.
The evil spirits are truly happy, although their happiness is not nearly as great as the angels' is. Angels can do whatever they want whenever they want, for in this way they and the people they love and serve become happier. Evil spirits cannot do what they want, but they can fantasize what they want, being left in freedom to live the life they choose under the conditions of no harm to others, unless the others ask for it - as we humans on earth too often do.
The notion has appealed to some in the New Church that the hells are not eternal. I believe this notion exists because of the descriptions of punishments given to evil spirits as recorded by Swedenborg. No loving God would allow such things, unless there was a loving reason for the punishments. That Divine reason was to bring the evil spirits into order so that others would no longer suffer at their hands unwillingly and so that they themselves could be happier.
Hell is an institution for the criminally insane. Evil spirits have evil ruling loves from which they have committed crimes and from which they would love to commit more crimes if they could get away with them. And they are insane from their rejection of the Lord's wisdom. When the criminally insane take over their institution they are extremely cruel to others, including each other. They think that they would be happy being freed from the caring nature and the watchful eye of their director and their guards. This is the conclusion of their insanity. But in fact they are much more miserable as anger and other emotions are expressed without restriction. They become victims themselves.
This was the situation in hell at the time of the Lord's first advent and of His second advent. He came on earth to restore hell to order so that the evil spirits there could be protected from each other and come once again under His loving power and care, much more so than before the advent. He revealed the Heavenly Doctrines to Swedenborg so that by means of them hell once again could be restored to order and its inmates relieved from experiencing their own evils. Swedenborg's descriptions of the punishments are primarily from the time of the Lord's restoration of order in hell. Punishments are the only way to bring a sensual person back into order (as rewards are used to maintain that order), and evil spirits are all sensual humans. Now that the hells have been reduced to order and we humans no longer stir them up to the extent that our predecessors did at the time of the two advents, the evil spirits for the most part have learned to live within the limits of their lives imposed on them by the Lord for the sake of order and happiness. And they are happy to do so. They want to live in hell. They love it in hell. And the Lord in his infinite mercy makes sure that their happiness is protected and enhanced.
IMPORTANT TO KNOW
Nothing is more important to a person than to know whether he has heaven within him or hell, for he is going to live forever in one or the other. (Arcana Coelestia 7181)
-New Church Life 1994;94:67-71