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Part Three: The Nature of the Hells


Out of the confusion of modern life we hear the call of many persuasive voices which seek to dissuade us from feeling the reality of evil or sin. These voices — some bold, some cautious — proceed alike from the chairs of learning and from the pulpits of sectarians, as from marts of trade and from halls of pleasure. They ask in varying intonations, "What is evil?" "Is anyone really responsible for sin?" "What other hell is needed, beside our earthly pains and discomforts?"

These skeptical questions are indirect, contorted echoes of the age-old dogma of Predestination, which like the mythical hydra, grows a new head for each that is cut off. For the persistent fallacy within the dogma is that man is not free. And from that assumption it would follow, that the evil a man does is not his fault.

A man who rejects the religious falsity that God should predestine anyone to eternal damnation, might yet be attracted by the idea that an omnipotent God would instead arrange for a universal salvation, and permit no soul to be lost, however much steeped in evil. When he so argues, from the light of his own intelligence, and setting aside, at the time, the testimony of Divine Revelation, he fails to reflect that such a provision would also be an utter negation of human freedom and choice. For he is then thinking from a natural affection which seeks, above all, to avoid spiritual responsibility so as to be free to do as it pleases.

Man is usually not aware, at such times, that his wish-thought is not prompted by innocence and good-will. "It would be lovely," thinks the Universalist, "if there were no hell! but only good for all! a perfect consummation of the end of creation! a complete answer to any doubts about the mercy of the Lord!" "But wait," says the Christian Scientist, "would it not mean more than that? If God, by an act of omnipotence, could take away the possibility of the results of evil, why could He not equally prevent evil itself, prevent any evil from occurring? And if so, perhaps what we judge to be evil is not such, but all, even now and here, is good, and its evil aspects, such as war, crime, and disease, are only illusions born in our immature and earth-bound minds? Evil exists only in our imagination! Abstain from thinking anything is wrong, and — presto! all evil vanishes."

It is not only the universalists and the various sects of mental healing that can argue themselves into these imaginary heavens. The fundamental illusion comes from what the Writings call man's "natural good!" For this "natural good," which all flesh is heir to and which is sometimes brought to the fore through misfortunes and diseases or physical weakness and dependence on others, makes man kindred to the gentle animals, and urges him to think from impulse and confirm whatever pleasant fancy that may at the moment please the "natural" man, or help to dismiss his anxieties, or soothe his doubts about his own virtues. Man continually gravitates into this mood of natural good, which is keen to see what is delightful to the natural man. It takes the form of generous impulse, of courage, of gayety, of friendship, of pity, or of other virtues; but within, it always centers in self. It discourages self-exploration. It is superficial and fickle, unreliable. It turns away from the discipline of reason, and is carried away by persuasions "like chaff in the wind," being as easily led by evil as by good, provided the evil be presented as good.1 It is also called "good from proprium,"2 a good that is unable to serve as a plane for the influx of heaven. It is not to be confused with conscience.

From the nature of this "natural good" we may see that it lacks judgment. It is not instructed by truth, and therefore cannot recognize evil; nor can it recognize what is genuinely or spiritually good. From natural good one is apt to be blind to the faults of one's children, partial to one's family, biased against one's rivals. It lays one open to be imposed upon. It leads to credulity and self-deception, and to a misplaced optimism. And in the joy of conscious self-expression it forgets to inquire as to the wisdom of one's act or speech. It may often try to outdo charity itself in generosity!

Yes. Natural good can as easily join hands with atheism as with religion! It can feel quite indignant about the narrow-mindedness of the church and the uncomfortable coldness of rational common sense. It is also averse to the love of spiritual truth, because it prefers to judge doctrine by its own "feelings" and fickle states. Therefore "natural good" leads a man into spiritual darkness, and into a moral twilight where good and evil seem to blend into a vague, colorless sameness.

(Parenthetically: It is on such natural good that theatre audiences and fiction readers often love to feast. Mental food is there provided, salted with salt that has lost its saltness! Impulsive sentimentality there receives its undeserved laurels! Courage without judgment is vicariously enjoyed! Wishful thinking bears unreal fruit! Criminals are turned into heroes by a sudden act of sacrifice! Good and evil become so indistinguishable that everyone feels the better for it! For here humanity is weltering in its own imagination — each man enjoying by proxy what he cannot experience in person!)

It is this "natural good"—so abundant in all of us —that stands ready to respond to the subtle fallacies which hide the interior spheres of the hells. And they always lead, indirectly, towards a denial of any essential difference between good and evil, or to the doubt of the existence of any permanent evil, or — for that matter — of any eternal truth! It is like the serpent whispering to Eve, "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Is it not man, who, by eating of the fruit of experience, determines what is good and what is evil? Does not what is good in one age become evil to the next?

If this denial that evil is really opposite to good could be established in men's thoughts, the victory of the serpent would be complete; and there would be that profane marriage of heaven with hell, of which William Blake wrote! To save us from that, hell is permitted by the Lord to show its ugly features, not alone in disease and death, but through crime and war, through obvious sin and falsity. Yet evil is not exposed — in its eternal opposition to God — in any of these temporary events. It was necessary, when men began to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for the Lord Himself to reveal this eternal opposition and to teach in the written Word what was against His will, what was permanently contrary to His merciful purposes by which His creatures might enjoy His gifts of eternal happiness. He warned men against evil by forbidding certain symbolic acts which, if not shunned, would defeat His plan for their happiness. And when mankind still persisted in their evils, insisting on determining for themselves what evil was, He revealed, by His own mouth, the consequences of sin. Even in the New Testament, however, He spoke in symbols, and described heaven and hell in parables and similes. Hell He depicted as a place of darkness and disappointment, a lake of unquenchable fire, where the wicked would undergo eternal chastisement.

Christians have usually taken this quite literally. Modern Catholic textbooks brand as rashness any suggestion that the "fire of hell" is figuratively used,8 and insist that hell (and also "purgatory," a thing of their own invention) is in a place. Among Protestants, such orthodoxy is more rare, although the preaching of "hell-fire" is still the vogue among evangelists in terrifying their hearers into contrition. The Writings of course make clear that hell is a state rather than a place, and that whatever the appearance — its "fire" is actually the loves of self and the world, its darkness is due solely to the falsities which lead to willful ignorance. And it was left for a New Church man4 to remind us that the "eternal punishment" of the wicked, in the Greek text (Matthew 25:46), meant rather discipline than torture, and that the word used (kolasir), suggests "pruning," "checking," "tempering," "correcting"; which, of course, must be an eternal process in the hells; even though punishments are neither continuous nor everlasting.

* * * * *

The aversion of men to recognize the nature of evil has led thinkers in every age to seek for some way of evading the fact that it can persist permanently. In the ancient Orient such a way was found in the doctrine of "Nirvana;" according to which all creation, after an epoch, returns into its infinite source—leaving no trace, like a flame that has been "blown out." Another oriental phantasy, — of much influence even among Western peoples — is the doctrine of transmigration of Souls, according to which the period of man's choice is extended over many life-times, man's spirit being reincarnated, either as a higher or lower form of life, and re-born, as a king or a pauper, as a man or as a beast, until he attains the Nirvana of blessed extinction; unless the world is dissolved ere then.

A counterpart of the same idea is found among sects such as "Jehovah's Witnesses," who believe that at the impending Last Judgment, the wicked, whether dead or living, will be annihilated, leaving the newborn earth to be enjoyed by living and reincarnated saints alone. But this simple solution of the world's troubles did not generally find favor in the Christian Church, although there were many prominent Church Fathers and Christian preachers who believed in the eventual redemption or conversion of the hells. Among them were Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and many others, and later John Scotus Erigena. And in Swedenborg's lifetime, Lavater, who corresponded with Swedenborg, and Jung-Stilling, who wrote about him, also defended Universalism; as also William Law, the mystic. Later a Universalist church was founded, in 1770, in America, on the creed that all must pay their debts to God, but that a harmony of all souls with God will eventually ensue. As an organized movement this church is negligible; but their doctrine has greatly permeated the thought of our contemporaries, as if by a silent capillary attraction. For "natural good" stands ever ready to solve unpleasant problems by closing its eyes to the essential issues. And the essential issues are, first, What has the Lord revealed? and second, Can man have spiritual freedom if he is prevented from making his choice permanent?

Modern Christendom about us is more and more veering away from dogmas. It has "found a formula" for evading the force of the Gospel teachings. The idea of hell lingers in the theological schools, even though the fear of a personal Devil is very rare and the clergy have to reduce their flocks into very unsound emotional states before hell-fire has any meaning for them. The real underpinnings of religious motive are weakened by the influence of a popularized version of evolutionary teachings which present man as basically good, evil as a superficial disease due to the infection of the environment, and civilization, not religion, as the healer. "Give man what he wants, feed him and clothe him and amuse him and he will become good"— that is the general philosophy.

* * * * *

The demoralizing influence of the persuasion that the hells are eventually redeemed has penetrated even into the organized New Church. In the middle of last century, Thomas Lake Harris, by an apparent reception of the Writings, gained a number of leading New Church men as converts to his amazing form of spiritistic "celestialism." He claimed to divulge — in inspired doggerel verse — the celestial sense of the Word. And among his teachings was the redemption of the hells! A number of years later, Dr. W. H. Holcombe, the author of several popular New Church works, became a prey to a similar influence and a pretender to a "celestial" status, from the point of view of which he felt free to make good the supposed omissions of Swedenborg. He claimed that evil spirits could descend and corporeally obsess men who were fully regenerated, and that, by living in their organism, the sensual spirits would have a new chance for repentance; and this until all the hells were "redeemed!"

Even in more recent times the idea was revived. In 1898 to 1901, the Rev. Albert Bjorck carried on a seemingly able defense of the idea that a change of will can take place also with the devils in hell. Swedenborg's testimony to the opposite effect he dismissed by his claim that the law, by which such a change of state is possible with the devils, is a new law which came into operation only after the Second Advent had occurred!5 Later, however, he retracted these views.

That we should find those within the New Church who will defend the non-eternity of the hells is surprising; not because it is not quite natural that we should wish that evil would eventuallv cease; not because there is not with all of us that "natural good" which tends to escape from accepting realities; not because — with New Church men — the problem of combining the idea of Divine omnipotence with the permission of evil looms any less difficult when we are in states of merely natural thought; but because the Writings are perfectly clear in their teaching that if anv spirit from his free, will sincerely desires to repent and leave hell, he is given every assistance by the Lord. There is no question at all about the freedom of those who desire to come out of hell, for the whole endeavor, of Divine Providence is working in their behalf. But the question is whether a spirit shall have the freedom to remain in hell, remain in his evil loves and in their delights, if he chooses this course despite all the inevitable disadvantages which his choice implies.

It is easy for a man here on earth to say that he would prefer even annihilation to a life in hell. But no devil desires annihilation. He loves his own life — even more than any angel does. He treasures it above any angelic blessedness. The notion that any devil desires to leave his evil loves —or to leave hell except for the purpose of extending his power over others and to deceive credulous spirits—is a pure assumption, which could be confirmed only by Divine Revelation. And Divine Revelation denies that it is ever so.

Reason might put in a word here also. For if the choice of man, the freedom to choose and cultivate and confirm a ruling love, is not to lead man into the eternal fruition of such a choice and preference, but — after death — would be again reduced to a thing of no value, and be played upon by undesired circumstances and thus be cheated of its conclusion and fulfilment, with the certainty that whatever he decides, he would nevertheless be pressed back into one direction only — viz., to a subservience to the Lord's dictate: what feeling could man have but that his "freedom" is but a brief vanishing flash, like a match which flares up and then flickers out forever?

On the other hand, if there was no provision against a change of love with the devils, could there be any such safeguard for the angels? Could not they as easily degenerate, and fall into infernal loves, reducing the spiritual world into an uncertain, disordered chaos of beings who had no aim, no reason for living, no settled personalities or permanent qualities?

But enough of such speculations! It is because human freedom is the most real thing in creation that the Lord protects man's final choice and permits him to preserve what he has chosen. It is because of God's great love for the freedom which makes man the image of God, that it is provided "that no one's life can be changed after death, because it is organized according to his love and consequent works; and . . . that a change of organization is possible only in the material body, and is utterly impossible in the spiritual body, after the former has been cast away."6

All who come into the spiritual world are distinguished as to their quality of life by this test, that those who can be saved "can resist evils as of themselves," while the rest cannot do so.7 The "inmost of the Divine providence respecting heaven" is to lead each salvable soul to his own situation in the Grand Man of heavenly uses, and this is accomplished by means of his affection of good and truth which corresponds to that place and use. The Lord continually withdraws man from the deepest hell — whither he tends. But if any one cannot be withdrawn in freedom he is prepared for his own place in opposition to heaven, that is, for his own position in hell, so that his power for evil shall be counterbalanced by a corresponding heavenly influence. This, we are told, "is the inmost of the Divine providence respecting hell."8

Evil is the fruit of deliberate choice, and comes from a ruling love which is in actual organic relation to other subordinate evil affections. But modern man seems to find it increasingly difficult to regard it as more than a result of disease or a bad social environment. He finds it meaningless when the Writings speak of evils as the corrupt opposites to the grand organization of good loves that in actual uses displays the fulfillment of the Divine ends of creation. He does indeed recognize more obvious evils — theft, murder, crime and selfishness —when they threaten his own safety. Common perception persists among men, aided by many remnants of religious teaching. And there are of course multitudes of good people who cherish the general truths of the Word and obey the commandments there given. But the vision, even of these, is confused by the seductive influence of "natural good." For natural good looks at acts, not motives. It does not see that an evil love can express itself even through moral virtues, through loyalty and courage, industry and benevolence, through friendship and modesty and temperance and courtesy. It takes these things at their face-value, and is ready to believe that if one or two of these virtues are shown, an act must be genuine. It has little appreciation of the fact that unless the evils of the heart are uncovered and resisted, good works are not goods of charity. "Natural good" cannot recognize its own superficiality, and is satisfied with poor results.

The Writings certainly do not encourage us to judge of men's spiritual states or to go about suspecting their motives! But the Writings teach quite definitely that an evil is not shunned except from the Lord, or except it be seen as a sin against God. This is what "natural good" forgets. It does not see evil as a sin against God, but as an uncomfortable complication in human relations. Therefore the world balks at the idea of hell. There are no devils, no "villains of deepest dye," nowadays. No black and white, only shades of grey. The noblest love is traced to some ignoble jungle instinct, the coarsest brutality to an inferiority complex innocently acquired in childhood. How then can one speak of good and evil? They have both lost their inner meaning. And the chief virtue of a man of liberal education is "to give the devil his due." And while a Christian — if he emphatically condemns some evil — would be criticized for his harshness, as the Lord for His "hard sayings," yet if that Christian exercises tolerance and forgiveness towards an evil doer, it would very likely be mistaken (by natural good) for indifference to the evil done. And from that same "natural good" men find much to admire in the worst of their fellows, and find it hard to believe that an atheist, because he engages in philanthropy from professed self-interest or animal good nature, should not thereby have atoned for all his blasphemies and for the spiritual harm that he has callously done in robbing the innocent minds of others of their inner peace and comfort.

No. The world finds it hard to believe in hell, or in the permanent nature of evil. But the Doctrine of the New Church restores the necessary knowledge of what evil is. The Writings even list the acknowledgment that there is a hell, among the essentials of faith which every child must learn and later confirm.9

Evil being a perversion, it cannot be known except from good. "Good discloses evil."10 Evil is that which is contrary to the love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor. The loves of self and of the world are not originally, or in themselves evil; but by themselves—separated from spiritual loves—they are evil: they are evil when they dominate over, and destroy or harm these loves of heaven through which happiness and wisdom can alone be established among men.11 For then, the love of self comes into opposition to all the ends of creation.

Swedenborg, while conversing with two angels who had been brought up in heaven and were at a loss to understand how anything evil could exist, took care to explain that while good proceeds by degrees to a greater good or to a lesser good, and while evil similarly progresses to a greater or lesser evil, yet there is no relation or progression of good to evil, but that in every respect they were opposites. When the least of good becomes "nothing," "there springs up, on the other side, evil."12 Evil, conjoined with its falsity, is therefore said to be a nothing; "yet regarded in itself it is not nothing, although it is nothing of good."13

The Word describes the beginning of evil and sin as the eating by Eve and Adam of the forbidden fruit. For evil is a turning away from God and from His order wherein all things are subordinated to love and charity. And the all-inclusive falsity through which evil operates is the confirmed belief that one knows good and evil and becomes wise from oneself and not from God.14 In all evil there is therefore hidden an anger against the Lord and against the holy things of the church through which the Lord speaks and acts.15 From these things it is clear that evil is not an act but a motive or spirit, a perverse love centered in self, an attitude of utter opposition to good.

When this spirit of rebellious self-love was formed with men, hell came into existence, simply by perversion of true and good things into uses not in accord with a good end. Evil has no power except by truths and appearances of good. If it acts by manifest lies or falsehoods, it is impotent to do any harm to the good, but is as it were "laughed out of court." It then meets its judgment, its penalty, which is merely that its power to seduce the good is taken away and it must go elsewhere, seek a sphere where pretense and falsity are tolerated. So it is that the evil flock together to form hells, where the evil of one can find delight and power through the phantasies that rule in another.

While man still so desires, he is free to repent of evil and become reformed. No man is taken away from this opportunity by death, for the Lord foresees all possibilities of repentance. After death, however, he is led by his confirmed ruling love, and if this is evil, he is vastated of goods and truths. The law of Providence is that good and evil, truth and falsity, must not be mingled, but that good should be united to its own truth and evil to its own falsity. From the evil spirit, therefore, is taken away the truth which he had adjoined to his evil.

Yet there is with every devil of hell certain human graces left! Even a devil was once a tender, innocent babe, a docile child. And therefore remains of good and of truth were stored at the depths of his mind, as borrowed states reserved for whatever use the Lord might find for them. The definite teaching is that "the good and the truth which are not adjoined to evils and falsities, are not vastated." The remains, with the evil, are reserved by the Lord and withdrawn beyond man's reach, and are used—in the other life—to temper and modify the states of the spirit; and this a in order to maintain for him something of the power to think and I will, "so that there may be something human still left," and thus a communication with heaven!16 And note this sentence of Doctrine: "There is indeed a communication with heaven of the evil, even of those who are in hell, but no conjunction by good and truth; for as soon as good and truth flow down from heaven and come into hell, they are turned into evil and falsity, whence the conjunction is at once broken. Such is the communication."17

We gather from this that while an evil spirit is his own form of evil and falsity, yet he has always not only a human soul, still unperverted, but also an external man which is tempered and modified by remains which cannot enter his consciousness without being perverted, but which can unconsciously modify his life. Therefore the devils retain the use of their reason to differing extents; and evil spirits, like evil men, may have aversions for certain types of crime, "drawing the line" at one while rushing into another without hesitation!

Yet another law of mercy provides that when good and evil with a devil have been profanely mixed, both are removed from his consciousness, often by age-long sufferings, in order that the spirit may not utterly perish in the eternal tortures of a conflict of opposite delights.17a

Let us not think that, despite these endeavors by which the Lord ameliorates the lot of the evil, the devils are in such delights of their own that whether one chooses heaven or hell is of no moment! Hell is not a place of eternal torment. But neither is it a state of eternal delight. The very nature of their delights is to avoid the laws of order and the necessities of labor and justice. To do this, they retreat into a phantasy which cannot be maintained; or they inflict harm on others, to whose retaliation they are then subjected. And they are soon forced — in order to rebuild their phantasies upon some basis of truth — to labor under others, in return for shelter and food.

Punishments for excessive evil-doing bring the devils into new hells, described as "hells within the hells." By the torture of these penalties, which are administered by other devils, but moderated by laws, the offenders are cowed until they—from fear—consent to use self-compulsion and abstain from carrying their evils beyond a limit. Then they are taken out of these hells of punishment and returned to the hell of their ordinary routine life.

The devils rebel against their restriction, against the enforced labor which they are required to perform. Yet they are willing to undergo all this rather than give up the delights of their life's love. Even their punishments are permitted for their own good, and their own amendment. They "cannot indeed be amended as to interiors, but only as to exteriors."18 But so far as they are, by fears of consequences, brought into an external order, they have also the advantages which civil order brings; they can, in a fashion, perform spiritual uses of a vile sort, and thus become for the time a superficial part of the Grand Man of uses, and are so far lifted out of the state which is called "hell," the state of their interiors, to which they return again when their uses stop,19

This picture of hell is not so very different from the states of the life of corporeal and sensual men on earth: a life with its own peculiar pleasures, purchased at a price of the happiness of their neighbors and at the constant risk of retaliation; but a life which is preferred by choice, and cannot be ameliorated except on the surface. The fear of hell has its functions, and does indeed remove evils temporarily, but it does not implant goods of love and charity. What man does from such fear does not remain for long.20 With those who are in the good of faith there is no fear of hell and of damnation, but there is a "holy fear," which is an aversion to doing and thinking anything against the Lord and against the neighbor, or against the good of love and the truth of faith.21

But the doctrine about hell is revealed that we might see evils, know their source and origin, and thus be enabled to shun them in ourselves.


1 AC 6208, 5032, 7761, 8002, 8772

2 AE 458:8

3 See God and Creation, by T. B. Chetwood, S. J.; Benziger Bros., New York, 1928

4 C. J. N. Manby, The Eternal Duration of Hell, Carswell Co., Toronto, 1901, page 62.

5 Manby, op. cit., page 17

6 CL 524:2, DP 319, 326, BE 110:2

7 AE 116:5, 971:2

8 DP 68, 69

9 AC 2225, 5135:3

10 AE 239:3

11 TCR 394, 403-405

12 CL 444:3

13 DP 11, 19, CL 444:3

14 CL 444:4

15 AE 693:4

16 AC 1906, 7556, 7560

17 AC 7560

17a AE 1158, cp 1159; AC 301, DP 226

18 AC 6977

19 AC 696

20 AE 1133, 193:3, DP 139

21 AC 2826


The Spiritual World
Spirits and Men
Talks: Spiritual World
10Q: Life After Death


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