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Aversion to the Truth about Hell

It is a habit of man to shut his eyes to what is unpleasant, to ignore what he does not like to acknowledge, and to pretend that it does not exist. From "natural good" — from their inborn desire to avoid discomfort and responsibility — people often lull themselves into a feeling of security even in the face of real dangers. Parents may blind themselves to the faults of their children, and refuse to believe that their child could do anything wrong or turn out anything less than perfect. Nations have shown indifference to the encroachments of subversive influences until they suddenly find themselves in bondage. And the same danger waits upon every man in respect to his spiritual life. For every one is in a manner engulfed in the routine of the day's tasks and occupations and in the prospects of pleasure and enjoyment, and seldom stops to reflect on the many influences that are shaping his destiny. Indeed, one reason for this is that the most potent of these influences are invisible, stemming from heaven and from hell.

"No man can be regenerated unless he knows such things as are of ... spiritual life." And these he can learn only from Divine revelation. Among such necessary truths is this, "that there is a heaven and a hell, and that man is to live to eternity, in heaven if he has done well, in hell if he has done evil."1 "He who does not know that there is a hell and a heaven, nor that there is an eternal life, cannot even think about the life of heaven, nor apply himself to receive it. . . ."2

For this reason, Divine revelation discloses the nature, not only of heaven, but of hell — in the Old Testament by vague allusions, in the New Testament by more definite statements, and in the Heavenly Doctrine by extensive descriptions and doctrinal presentations. And it is the duty of the New Church not only to accept the unpleasant and tragic fact that the hells exist, but also to endeavor to understand what makes hell, how evil spirits are judged, and how the hells are governed so as not to defeat the Divine end in creation.

What is Meant by Hell

Our first question is, naturally, what we mean by "hell." Among many simple Christians, hell is thought of as a place somewhere in the physical universe, perhaps in the bowels of the earth, a place of everlasting torment presided over by a cruel Spirit called the Devil or Satan. Despite the inroads of skepticism, this is still the Catholic teaching. Others, less bound to the creeds and traditions of the past, tend to be silent about any personal Devil or on the whereabouts of hell. Many deny the existence of any hell, and — as an afterthought — doubt personal immortality altogether, confining their beliefs to the affairs of this world. And these latter, if cynically inclined, might offer the opinion that this mortal life is hell enough, or at least suggest that we suffer for our sins here and now.

And it is true that — just as the kingdom of God "cometh not with observation ... for behold, the kingdom of God is within you" — so the tyranny of hell is indeed an internal state, not an external place merely. But it is a state which proclaims itself in outward forms also, both on earth and in the other life. Hell, like heaven, starts as an internal state within the human mind. There is no other origin of hell than the mind of man. Hell did not begin with any race of fallen angels created before the beginning of the world. All the inhabitants of hell, as of heaven, are from mankind.3

This is a cardinal doctrine of the New Church. And it does away with any idea that some one Satanic Majesty rules over the pandemonium of the hells. In the work on Heaven and Hell., the section which treats of the hells begins with a chapter entitled "The Lord rules the Hells." Humanly speaking, we may be certain that if the hells were ruled by any one else they would be infinitely worse than they are. For evil, suffering, and punishment proceed not from the Lord but from man.

How shall we then define "hell"? The Writings give a great variety of definitions: Hell is the lamentable state of the unfaithful.4 Hell is evil, or sin.5 The delight of evil, perceived as good, is hell.6 Hatred, in all its varieties, makes hell.7 Evil and falsity, in their conjunction or mating, makes hell.8 The love of self is the infernal itself.9 Loves opposite to those of heaven constitute hell.10Hell is to do evil from an evil will — to will well to oneself and only from this to do good to others.11 Hell is to will to be above all.12 Where faith and love are not, there is hell.13 The denial of God, and in the Christian world, denial of the Lord's Divinity, makes hell.14 A natural affection of use, without the spiritual, bestows hell upon man.15 Hell is what is external separated from what is internal.16

Hell is the same as evil; but evil means, not wrong doing or harmful acts, but evil loves. Thus we are told in the doctrine that the love of self and the love of the world not only rule in hell but make the hells.17 The love of self and the love of the world are evil when they are separated from the higher loves —from the love to the Lord and the love towards the neighbor which rule in heaven. It is this separation which perverts the loves of self and the world and turns them against all heavenly uses.18

From what has been said it is clear that hell is not far off from man, but inflows into all human affairs, into all things of daily life, whenever man acts or intends or feels moved from a selfish impulse that rebels against charity. Here in the world this influx manifests itself in ugly forms — in unkindness and arrogance and private vices if not in open crime. We are warned to think and believe, when this influx begins to move us, that the evil we feel as the prompting of our own heart and nature really comes from hell, from the invisible presence of the sphere of evil spirits.19But to do so, we must be able to feel an aversion for hell — an aversion founded not on fears but on the rational knowledge of what the hells actually are like and what they are in their naked crudity when exposed to the light of heaven.

Hell as an Environment

Poets are often sensitive to truths when theologians hesitate. An unnamed poet is cited by B. F. Barrett:

"It is the soul's prerogative, its fate
"To shape the outward to its own estate;
"If right itself, then all around is well;
"If wrong, it makes of all without a hell."

And Milton has his Satan say,

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
"Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."20

Hell is a state of life. Yet it is also a "place," in that it appears as an environment as vivid and tangible as the physical world. The doctrine is that there is no time or space, no place, no actual distances or physical dimensions, in the spiritual world. But on the other hand, there is no life without sensation, and spiritual things are sensed after death even more acutely than physical objects. Every spirit has a body which feels itself constantly surrounded by spiritual objects, even as our mind, while thinking, is moving within a world of imagery drawn (in our case) from the memory and the imagination — a world at least to some degree independent of the physical world around us. This imagery takes on the form of mental space and mental time. In this world we can imagine only those things which have a basis in our own memory and our own sense-experience. But in the other life we can see represented around us the states of other spirits and angels and can be affected by these states, and even participate in the knowledge and the ideas of other spirits. In other words, we can then live not only in our own mental world but in that of others, by a direct spiritual experience.

Every spirit and angel appears in a form which testifies to his state at the time. Thus we learn that a spirit who has recently come into the spiritual world appears — even as to face and garments — as he did on earth; but as his state advances he begins to appear quite different, so that he could hardly be recognized. A spirit is seen as to his active state.

The objection might be raised that if our spiritual surroundings after death are like the imagery of our minds on earth, there would be little order and only an obscure connection between spiritual events. For does not our mental scenery shift in the twinkling of an eye, and is it not moved by every passing emotion, so that there often seems to be no consistency or sound connection in our imagination? But it is here that we find the great difference between life in the two worlds. This world is outwardly ordered by fixed progressions, or by apparent laws of interrelated physical effects, into which our mental life seems to be fitted in the best it can.

The spiritual world is governed from within — by spiritual laws which display spiritual effects from spiritual causes and thus order all spirits with reference to their reception of, and response to, the inflowing life that proceeds from the Lord. This means that they are all arranged according to their ruling loves, and are consociated according to the similarity of the delights of their loves, that is, in the mental environment that contains the kind of objects, images, thoughts and ideas which best feed and sustain their ruling love.

The fact that all spirits seek that common environment which best agrees with their delights, causes the appearance that the hells are far removed from the heavens. The approach of the heavens, or even of a few angels, to the hells would cause the devils excruciating torment. For it would mean the introduction of a totally opposite sphere of thought, a sphere of rational ideas which would challenge and destroy the illusions in which evil spirits take delight. Their environment would suddenly change. Their palaces would shrink to hovels, their gardens would turn into wastes. It is of mercy towards the hells that the Lord, by His spiritual laws, provides that hell, to all sensation, should be a place apart.

The Situation of the Hells

When spirits enter the other world they are usually instructed that they are in an intermediate sphere, called the world of spirits, that heaven is above them and hell under their feet. Indeed, the entrances to the hells, although normally kept shut, can sometimes be seen as clefts or caverns reeking with foul odors, or as smoking gulfs, at the circumferences of the world of spirits — the paths to hell tending obliquely underground.21 And it is a striking fact that man's rational mind while it is being formed corresponds to the world of spirits; while the lower, sensual and corporeal levels of the mind — which man has in common with the beasts and which by inheritance have been perverted into forms of self love and love of the world alone — bear a correspondence, at this day, with the hells.22

That the spiritual world, like the mind of man, contains many levels, is only to be expected. The hells, which are the results of the perversions of man's natural mind, are arranged in degrees, one below the other. This is a consequence of the ordering of each kind of evil spirits into the kind or type of mental life which best represents the level of motives and attitudes, falsities and phantasies, with which they have circumscribed their lives. All in hell have chosen this their level by confirming their evil as allowable and pleasant, confirming it in freedom and according to their reason. Just as none enter hell except from the world of spirits, where they are in full freedom of choice, so all evil spirits have once been rational; but they have deliberately abused their rationality and perverted their rational minds, so that all in hell are — in the eyes of heaven — more or less insane. But those in the milder hells, although no longer rational interiorly, can still appear rational in externals; and some live a tolerable life, able to reason about external things and control their imagination to some extent. Those in the middle hells are also able to appear somewhat rational in externals, or in matters of corporeal life. But those of the lowest hells, who are wholly corrupted, have nothing of rational restraint, for they are then like beasts living for the body alone.23

There are three hells — one below another. They correspond by opposition to the three heavens. The mildest hell is opposite the ultimate or natural heaven. The inhabitants of that heaven are in the good of faith, or in obedience to what they have accepted as the doctrine of their church, without much enlightenment. Those in the first hell would therefore be in disobedience to what they had known as right or true, and to be willing followers of evil leaders and of proponents of falsities. The spirits of the second hell are more interiorly evil — they are the opposites of the angels of the second heaven, who are in the affection of truth, in charity and in enlightenment. The second hell, in general, would thus be in the affection of falsities and in evils from falsities. They are not mere followers, but embrace false principles from an inordinate conceit of self-intelligence and propagate them with a cunning zeal in order to captivate the minds of other spirits and rob them of whatever remnants of truth and virtue they might still have. And finally, the lowest hell is opposite to the highest heaven, the celestial heaven where those dwell who are in supreme love to the Lord. The devils of this third hell are most malignant, being in hatred from the love of self — which is the utter perversion of celestial love.

Because the hells are formed in the natural and sensual degrees of man's mind, the entire world of spirits and the entire heaven "are as it were excavated beneath, and under them is a continuous hell" which stretches out under every mountain, hill, or plain.24Each society or community in the spiritual world may indeed be represented as forming three heavens, one above the other in separate expanses or on the surfaces of concentric globes; and below them a series of hells in three levels under the ground. "Those who are above dwell among themselves, as men dwell in cities in which hundreds of thousands are together."25

Thus it is clear that although the heavens and the hells are opposite and never mingle, yet the Lord coordinates them all within His imiversal economy of uses. For although these six levels are discretely separate, the society as a whole has reference to some single, distinctive use. To the interior sight of the angels, however, the spirits of hell are "sometimes" represented as walking upside down, as if inverted; as if they lived in the antipodes of the spiritual earth!26

Yet there is no single space-arrangement that can fully express this relationship of spiritual opposites, or the relation of the heavens to the hells. For there is no actual space in the spiritual world. On each level, the various communities of the hells are, moreover, distinguished according to their "quarters" — which answer to west, north, and south. In the eastern quarter there are no hells since the last judgment. It is true, in the other life, in general, what is said (through the psalmist) of man in particular: "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us."27 The spiritual east is where the Lord is; and all angels have the east before them, no matter in what direction they look; which is of course a paradox unless we consider that we do this ourselves in our mental life all the time, when, in our reflections, we turn our attention to all kinds of states and ideas without changing our own essential point of view.

The hells are thus — in a general way — recognized according to their situation in the various quarters. In detail, this is known to the Lord alone. But in general, the hells of the western quarter are known to be the worst, — for there dwell those who want to be worshipped as gods and who burn with hatred, cruelty, and revenge against all who do not acknowledge their supposed power over other souls. In the north and south are those who from a love of worldly things, live in the evils of avarice, cunning, theft and robbery and in hostility towards others. In the south toward the east are the abodes of haughty spirits who do not believe in the Divine yet are not so deceitful. The farther from the east the more horrible are the hells, and behind the hells are deserts and murky forest tracts in which malignant spirits roam like wild beasts.28

External Aspects of Hell

The hells may appear from above like deep abysses or like stagnant lakes, like caves or openings in the earth or under the mountains. But ordinarily the hells are closed up and not seen. The spirits who dwell in the plains and valleys of the world of spirits see each other until the good are separated from the evil. Thereafter evil spirits no longer see the good spirits, although the good can see the evil!29 But the hells below are not seen except by special permission. Yet this underworld, to those who visit it, would be seen as a place of oppressive heat or of extreme cold, of darkness and confusing horrors, a world gone to ruin by neglect and misuse, containing all those features which are harmful and abhorrent to man. The abodes of the infernals are miserable caverns, tumbling shanties, or half-wrecked cities, steeped in filth and encroached upon by poisonous jungles and marshes, full of decaying vegetation and ferocious beasts, pestiferous insects, snakes and rats and birds of prey. There are also vast forests, bogs and quicksands, and rocky deserts, angry seas and treacherous whirlpools, and regions subject to flood or volcanic eruptions. The soil itself is often septic, barren and foul, and the air is heavy with evil stenches.

But the almost incredible truth is that all this is what evil spirits love! Create for them a clean and fruitful paradise, and they would soon transform it into a filthy and ugly wilderness, in which alone they would feel at home. It seems impossible to imagine that they could enjoy the discomforts, deprivations, and sufferings which such wretched surroundings would bring about. Yet we must remember that an infernal spirit loves his own evils, arid a part of his environment is the projection of his own states of mind.30 It is the mental world in which he glories, and it contains all the evils which he has justified as good and delightful and thinks of as desirable because they give him a sense of power and self-importance.

The Writings give no justification for the notion that animals or plants are, like man, immortal. Yet there exist, in the spiritual world also, vegetation and animals of all kinds — more various even than on earth. But in the spiritual world they have no continuous or individual existence, but are created in correspondence with the active affections and thoughts of spirits and angels. They represent the mental background of the spirit, and change according to his changing states. The vegetation around a spirit is a cor-respondential or symbolic picture of those things of his understanding which he loves — the fields of fertile knowledge which he actively cultivates. Sandy wastes would represent accumulation of knowledge put to no use. The animal life which surrounds him represents the natural affections aroused in him.31 An angry spirit may at his first approach be seen as a furious tiger; a deceitful one as a snake or fox; a sensual spirit as a wallowing swine. An evil spirits proprium is seething with jungle instincts only slightly repressed. The bestial forms that are seen in hell are the lusts of the devils.

Interior, spiritual affections are human. Evil spirits are lacking in such affections. Yet on closer acquaintance even a devil takes on a human shape: for even evil spirits are not animals, but men, having human souls and interior mental degrees which, although not opened, are yet the media of a Divine influx which rules all that part of their spiritual constitution over which they themselves have no conscious control. And all evil spirits were once innocent babes into whom the Lord instilled remains of good and of truth, and these remains still keep open the power of thinking and the faculty of freedom.

Once, Swedenborg was taunted by a good spirit for talking to a devil. He silenced his critic with the words, "In speaking with him, I speak with his faculty of understanding, consequently with the Lord."32 For that faculty, which is from the Divine influx into every human being, is continually present, whether it is used rightly or not. For the same reason, evil spirits are seen in the human shape, although twisted and deformed. It is their natural affections which make them seem like beasts or worse, and cause them to be environed with ugliness and pollution. They love their own cupidities and falsities, which are mirrored in their surroundings.

If this were all, hell would not be hell. But from an overpowering instinct it is their delight to vent their evil lusts on others, to act as cruel beasts to others. And since they cannot find any good spirits to persecute or oppress, they meet up with others of their own ilk. They find their jungle or their desert infested with vicious breeds not of their own making. Their hostile neighbors ravage their abodes and make them suffer retributions and compel them by turns to shameful servitude, or the torture of realizing the futility of their own schemes of domination. How this continual rivalry and retaliation is controlled, will be discussed later. But we are here concerned with the fact that an evil spirit who loves his own evils also suffers from the evils of others who insidiously seek to injure his life by instilling worse evils into his mental realm — evils which seduce him into torments and bind him under alien powers which he had not reckoned with, evils which inflame him with lusts of revenge and desires for dominion that lead him into new disasters, to the delight of his persecutors.

Yet there is no escape. For the world in which he lives is that which he loves, even if it is vulnerable to assault from others like him. He suffers if he leaves the surroundings which he has built up. He is proud of them. He does not — when left to himself — see them as shoddy and hollow, as hideous and filthy; but until they are seen in the light of others, to him they are delightful, elegant, and admirable.

It is difficult to understand how this illusion could be possible, unless we realize that the environment in which a spirit lives is formed while he lives on earth; formed day by day, selected thought by thought, confirmed act by act, throughout life. Think of a mind which seeks on every opportunity to sink itself into lascivious thoughts and feeds its imagination on bawdy literature or vicarious crime; which finds its recreation in the daring sophistry of thinly disguised immorality; which feels pride in deceptions and profitable dishonesties; which harbors envies and rankling hatreds; and seethes with revenge or retaliation under a veneer of courtesy! Think of the mind which from the conceit of opinion is contemptuous toward any truth which cannot be proved with touch or sight, and feels itself the judge of right and wrong according as it favors selfish expediency! Is not such a mind a hell in lesser form? Does not such a man's spirit move in a world of filth and poisons and confirmed illusions, like those of an evil spirit?

It is to expose that hidden world, which slumbers in every man's proprium, that the Writings picture the hells with a stark and sometimes shocking realism. But over against all this, the Doctrine, by contrast, also unveils another realm; a kingdom of God which men might aspire to reach by the Lord's help, through the simple means of shunning evil and falsity and walking humbly before their Maker. This kingdom of Heaven is not of man's making. It is created by the Lord through the Divine truth which is given to mankind by means of a series of revelations. But it is formed in man's mind as a mental environment which — once established — becomes the home of his spirit; and this environment, not of phantasies, but of realities, containing all the riches of knowledge and all the delights of love, becomes after death objective and living as a domain of beauty and joy, which angels share together, and by sharing make more blessed to eternity.


1 HD 177

2 HD 178, HH 512:3

3 LJ 14

4 AC 5

5 AC 6279, AE 797:3, AR 62

6 DP 93

7 AC 693

8 AC 8481, HH 422, 425, 384

9 AC 1304e

10 AC 3957:8

11 AC 4776:2

12 AC 2654:5

13 AE 803e

14 DLW 13e

15 Love xvii:2

16 AC 10489

17 HH 554

18 TCR 395, 403, cp DLW 345

19 DP 320

20 Barrett, Heaven Revealed, Philadelphia 1885, p. 73

21 HH 428ff

22 HH 430

23 CL 442, TCR 34, cp DLW 274f

24 HH 588

25 LJ 27, AE 1133:5, cp 702:2

26 DP 300, AC 9128e

27 Psalm 103:12

28 HH 587, DLW 339

29 HH 583

30 DP, last par.

31 DLW 52

32 SD 3094


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


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19. Nature of Hells

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