Swedenborg Study.com

Books, articles, sermons and blogs online, based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg


The Lord alone rules the universe. He rules heaven, which is called His kingdom, and He also rules the hells, where His government is under continual challenge. How the Lord in His infinite wisdom can do this — and indeed with the greatest of ease1 — transcends human and angelic understanding. For it implies an infinite foresight and an infinite power. Yet some of the modes of His government are revealed.2

The universe is a work cohering from primes to ultimates, and contains ends, causes, and effects in an indissoluble connection (TCR 47). It is created in discrete degrees, as circumferences, one after another, which the Lord rules as one continuous thing, animating and actuating them unceasingly, as easily as a man, from his understanding and will, animates and actuates his body.3

This would be impossible unless all things of the two worlds, the spiritual and the natural, were constantly maintained in order. And order implies distinctions and subordinations. Therefore the heavens are distinct, coordinated one with the other and subordinated according to discrete degrees which correspond to each other and communicate only by influx. The Lord governs them from within, or by influx from primes to ultimates, thus by continual mediations. And from the heavens in their order the Divine influx proceeds into the hells that lie below.4 All this influx takes place according to correspondences.

But if this governing influx takes place according to "correspondences," how then can the hells be ruled? Or — to rephrase the question — how can the hells "correspond" to the heavens?

The answer is made in the Writings. They "correspond by opposition." For evil is nothing but a perversion or misuse of something good. And since each heaven and every society in heaven stands for a definite and distinct good or use, there are — at least potentially — as many hells or infernal societies as there are heavens.5 This does not mean that the heavens could not exist without the hells. Human freedom did not originally require any equilibrium between good and evil, for there is just as much freedom in an equilibrium between greater and lesser goods. But the fact is that as soon as a hell is formed or an evil is committed, this hell or this evil finds itself counteracted by the heaven or the good which it opposes. This is so in general and in particular.

"The Lord continually arranges that all kinds and species of good and truth in the heavens shall have opposite to them in the hells evils and falsities of the kinds that correspond to them by opposition." "Opposite must fully correspond to opposite that there may be an equilibrium."6

The Two "Kingdoms" of Hell

When we reflect, therefore, that the heavens are distinguished into two kingdoms, the celestial and the spiritual, it is not surprising that the hells are also divided into two dominions, signified in the Word by the names Devil and Satan. Opposite to the celestial kingdom of heaven stands the diabolical "kingdom" of hell. Opposite the spiritual kingdom of heaven stands the satanic kingdom of hell. These perverse realms are called "kingdoms"; but they have no kings to rule them, nor have they any real coherence except by their opposition to their heavenly counterparts. The dominant quality of the diabolic kingdom is the love of self; that of the satanic kingdom is the love of the world.

The hells are divided into three degrees or levels of degradation — three hells one below the other. Each of these hells represents the extent to which an evil spirit has descended into evil of his own choice and freedom; even as the three heavens represent the actual progress which good spirits have made in regeneration. But when the Writings mention a distinction of heaven into kingdoms, the reference seems to be to the manner of a spirits regeneration and to his inborn and hereditary genius, over which man or spirit has no control. The celestial kingdom seemingly consists of such as have been regenerated by receiving truth in their will — which was the case especially in the celestial church of most ancient times when as yet evils had not become hereditary and the will had not yet become wholly perverted.7 The diabolical kingdom of hell would thus consist especially of those evil genii who act secretly and invisibly by insinuating their evils into the will of another. Such are the hells of the most ancient people; but also many at this day become genii.8

The spiritual kingdom of heaven consists of those who are reformed by the truths of faith and have received a new will or conscience in the understanding. This new way of regeneration was characteristic of the Ancient Church; and "unless the Lord had reduced the human race into this genius or into this state, no man could ever have been saved."9 In general, men of our race at the present day are of this spiritual genius; which is the reason why they can be regenerated only with difficulty. But still there are races with celestial traits, like the Africans; and children are born of various genius — celestial or spiritual or intermediate.10 It may therefore be concluded that it is heredity which largely determines whether a man is destined for the celestial kingdom of heaven or for the spiritual; although he can modify his genius to a certain extent as his personality develops.

If this be so, it would appear that if a man chooses evil for good, his native bent would determine the infernal kingdom to which he most inclines. The satanic kingdom is that toward which men of the spiritual genius are most easily led. The evil spirits of this kingdom fight against anything that encourages the affection of spiritual truth, inflaming men instead with an infatuation for what is false and perverse, darkening the light of reason and inducing anxieties and torments.11

The inhabitants of the diabolical kingdom, are called devils. These, from an evil will, love to do evil, generally from a love of exercising power from a love of self. They become foolish, from lack of self-restraint. Those in the satanic kingdom are in evils from the understanding, and are called satans or, simply, evil spirits. Their love is to confirm evil by all manner of falsities hatched from the pride of their self-intelligence. And they eventually become insane. The devils have usually lived in crime, open or hidden, and have thus rejected all acknowledgment of God from their hearts. The satans have confirmed themselves in favor of nature, and so denied God.12

As to situation, the diabolical kingdom, comprising three hells, one lower than the other, appears in the west on each of these levels of the spiritual world; and since a good spirit faces the east, these devils seem to act upon him from behind. For they seek to arouse the slumbering will of his inherited nature and to inflow secretly to move him to those spontaneous or impulsive actions which — the Writings tell us — are governed from the cerebellum, or the hind-brain. Since this circumvents the exercise of man's reason and freedom, the worst genii of this kingdom are confined to their hells most strictly, and if any are permitted in the world of spirits they are accompanied by moderating spirits. It is said that in hell such genii lead a silent and solitary life, and sit brooding upon a single continuous thought by which they seek to rule others.13 Thus they attempt to hold others in some fretting suspicion or hatred or in some interior phantasy of evil.

The satanic kingdom, which is opposite to the spiritual kingdom of heaven, is situated, in its various degrees, toward the north and south. Those hells are not so deep nor so grievous as the diabolical hells. They are described as "at the sides" and "in front," that is, in front of the diabolical hells.14 The love ruling with the satans is thus more external — being especially that of possessing the wealth or goods of others from a love of the world, which they indulge with every sort of art or artifice. They delight in dishonesties and thefts, taking a pride in cunning. With them it holds true that nothing is sweeter than stolen fruit.

The two infernal kingdoms are connected by an influx from the hells of the love of self into the hells of the love of the world. And there is an intermediate genius of evil spirits who as it were transmit the influx.15 Yet this communication by influx does not mean any intermingling, and because all who are evil are in constant rivalry and friction, the hells are kept separated from each other in various ways, to prevent them from destroying one another. Each hell is hidden from the others by fogs or watery abysses, or are confined in other ways.16

Diversity of the Hells

Thus the hells are most exactly distinguished from each other and into societies as innumerable as the species and kinds of evils. They are counted in the hundreds of thousands; and this apparently from our earth alone.17 Some of the hells of Venus, Mars, and other earths are also described. The pagans, the Moslems, the Jews, the Papists, and the Reformed have their own special hells, as do the people of previous ages, of the Ancient Church and of the Most Ancient Church.18 What separates them is of course the utterly different ways of thinking which characterizes different civilizations and religions and races.

But in all ages the evils into which men have fallen take certain general forms which are recounted in the ten commandments. Thus there are hells for adulterers and sirens, for thieves and the avaricious, for the cruel, for the deceitful, for hypocrites, obsessors, sorcerers, and blasphemers, etc. And the Writings also name certain hells from their appearance — as "the filthy Jerusalem," "Gehenna," the cadaverous hells, the urinous and excrementitious hells, the slimy hells, the fiery hells, and so forth. And below all the hells is the pit of the profaners, spirits who were once reformed and then fell back into the loves from which they had abstained. These are neither in heaven nor strictly in hell. They are neither men nor women, and appear as black, emaciated bodies, unable to think or will, each a mere shell of his former self. All their good has been profaned, for evils have so mixed themselves with good that they cannot be separated but must both be shriveled away into relative unconsciousness.18a

The Pleasures of Insanity

The life of the internals can take many forms, all repulsive, all ending in failure and disappointment. The human pursuit of happiness is largely dependent on the mutual relations between men and women. Just as heaven is defined as the conjunction of good and truth and is therefore the home of conjugial love, so every hell is in "the connubial connection" of evil with falsity and is the abode of scortatory love in all its ugly varieties.19 Spiritual adulteries find their expression in all manner of illicit relations, so that the hells display all kinds of sexual perversions, many of which are described in Swedenborg's private Diary.

There are no marriages in hell, and no permanent partners. In infernal societies the men are generally separated from the women. But at the end of his labor in some infernal workshop, a man is permitted to seek out some one prostitute.20 Or he may be "delivered over" to some one harlot who, if necessary, by phantasy assumes alluring beauty or innocence, ready to be seduced. Promiscuity seems to be forbidden, at least in some hells.21

There is neither mutual love nor any mutual respect between the sexes, but a contemptuous rivalry by which each seeks to dominate the other by compulsion or subtle cunning. Their sex-life is sordid, and by degrees its fever is turned into coldness, hate, and aversion, into rejection, blasphemy, contention and open fights. For adulterous love is fiery in externals, but cold in internals, and ends in frustration, impotence, and unhappiness.22

A graphic picture of hell is the description in the Writings of the so-called "infernal marriage," in which the two partners are held together by a stubborn desire to make each other miserable through exquisite tortures, living by turns in pretended friendship in order to find opportunity to humiliate and reduce the other into subjection. And it appears in such cases that the man, despite his pride of reason or strength and his rankling hatred, is no match for the obstinate persistence of a woman who can subject him to the yoke of her authority by methods with which he cannot cope.23

It is therefore hardly credible that Swedenborg was repeatedly informed by evil spirits that "they would a thousand times rather live in hell than out of it." But nowhere else can they indulge in their sole delight, which is to see others suffer and thus boost their own sense of importance.24 Nowhere else can they escape the light of truth, which spoils their evil plots and disperses their cherished phantasies and thus causes them far greater torture than their companions can administer. Nowhere but in hell can they escape contact with the sphere of conjugial love, innocence, and charity from heaven, which causes them nausea and aversion.

The Milder Hells

We must not think that all hells are equally grievous. There are degrees of evil. Man's lot after death depends largely on how far his rational faculty has been warped by his selfish loves. An evil spirit can be kept out of the sphere of phantasy and be retained in a relatively mild hell, if he can still listen to reason. And just as in this world a man's rational — or his sense of perspective — is judged by what he laughs at, so we find that evil spirits may discover how insane they are as often as they laugh.25 Where bitter malice has bitten deep into the soul the rational mind becomes utterly deranged. But less vicious evil — such as we observe in men of weak character who simply "follow the multitude" in doing evil and do it with little reflection, preferring an irresponsible life of pleasure to any worthwhile work — such evil does not utterly destroy their reason, even though they misuse it. And it seems that at times their saving grace, which prevents their becoming worse, is a residue of a sense of humor. For Swedenborg relates that he once visited "a certain hell where they were not so very evil." He saw a room in which many were assembled, and adjoining it was another apartment belonging to a judge. And there came a pompous spirit much in love with his own importance who solemnly seated himself on a kind of throne, believing that he was meant to be judge. But no sooner was he seated than pandemonium broke loose: the others sneaked behind him and some crawled across under the throne and some sat on top of him and made fun of him in various ways and — strange to say — made him invisible not only to Swedenborg but also to himself. Finally, the real judge came and took his seat. He is described as very tolerant of their practical jokes, but insisted firmly that they must not do evil to anyone. They had tremendous respect for him, for he had great power. And they cheerfully sought out the evil doers and surrendered them to be judged. Some were arraigned and sentenced, the rest were commended and let go. Apparently there was little resistance to authority; which made it one of the milder hells. But to any one who treasures peace of mind, such a bedlam can certainly be described as a hell.26

Punishments as Deterrents

Hell can be spoken of in two ways—as an abode into which the wicked long to come to indulge their delights and do not desire to leave; or as a place in which evil spirits suffer torments and punishments from which they long to escape. There is a proverb about those who wish to eat their cake and have it also. This is precisely the case with evil spirits. They want to be free to do evil and also to escape the consequences of evil. And when those unpleasant consequences come, they blame it on the Lord and call them "punishments," or argue that if there was a God, He could prevent those results from occurring.27

The doctrine of the New Church is very definite, that the Lord predestines no one to hell, nor condemns any one to hell, nor punishes any human soul. He seeks continually to take away the causes of human misery and the causes that lead to what appears as infernal punishments. He seeks continually to elevate man's spirit from the hells, and lead evil spirits so far as is possible to a milder hell. He ordains also that no man should undergo any punishments for the hereditary evils with which he is born.28 But He cannot prevent spirits from suffering the results of the evils which they in their freedom confirm and insist on perpetrating. For by the doing of evils man removes himself from the Lord's protection.

Evil punishes itself.29 What we call punishment is merely the result of an evil going to its extreme and overreaching its power; exceeding its limit.

Here we should note the fallacy of the widespread idea that infernal torments are the stings of conscience on the part of remorseful souls when they are convicted of sin. Evil spirits have no conscience. If they had they would be saved; for the possession of a conscience implies a new will in the understanding and a desire to act according to what is known as true and good, just and fair. Evil spirits can feel remorse. But remorse is not repentance; it is only the regret which a criminal feels when he recognizes that he is facing disaster.

The Lord continually pardons. But forgiveness does not take away the results of evil. Hell is indeed a state in which an evil spirit meets up with recurring punishments, mostly from his own victims who retaliate whenever he commits a trespass against them. But the Lord does not retaliate.

The Law of Retaliation

The law of heaven, which is the source of angelic blessedness, is the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you." The same law rules in hell: whatever an evil spirit has of peace, decency, order, or comfort, he has by an external compromise with others, by letting them alone if they let him alone, by cooperating with them so far as they cooperate with him. But each devil maneuvers to turn this law to his special advantage. He does not really recognize the "rights" of others, only his own. He wants more from others than he gives them. He twists the moral law out of balance. So he does evil to others, accusing them of doing evil to him. And he claims the right to visit on them revenge for what they do to him. The heavenly law is thus turned into the infernal law of retaliation, which demands evil for evil, stripe for stripe, a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. This is the law of hell, and also to some extent the law of civic society on earth.

And this is permitted in hell. An evil spirit is not punished for retaliating to the exact extent of the evil another did to him. The trouble is that the evil spirit does not feel satisfied with any law. He wants to go his enemy one better. He wants to exact two stripes for a stripe, two teeth for a tooth! And the law of infernal justice is renounced for an endless chain of growing provocations.

But the law still stands. If a devil does evil towards another beyond what that one has done to him he is immediately open to punishment or persecution from all quarters, and those who punish him do so with impunity — and enjoy this to the full.

The law which rules in hell is thus not a golden rule but a rule of iron. Its immediate purpose (or at least its effect) is not to inculcate charity but to instil fear of evil doing. It is not a law that is loved, but one that is dreaded. The Writings therefore say that the Divine truth, which proceeds from Divine good as a sphere and encloses and contains the heavens, extends also into hell; but they who are there do not receive it as coming from Divine love, but as truth separate from love. The law is therefore constantly resented as an enemy. "The sphere which guards hell is a sphere of Divine truth separate from Divine good . . . Such a sphere reigns in hell in the external form, but still it is in internal form a sphere of

Divine truth conjoined with Divine good, through which those there are guarded lest one inflict evil on another beyond measure."30

The law of retaliation, which is the law of external order as it is understood and enforced in the hells, was among the laws, judgments, and statutes promulgated from Mount Sinai by the Lord. As such it is a Divine law which contains written in it an internal sense perceptible to the angels. It was this internal sense which the Lord referred to in the sermon on the mountain when He said: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."31

Seemingly, the Lord thereby abrogated the law of retaliation as a law for the internal church. Yet it is noted in the Arcana Coelestia that, although some of the Mosaic statutes have been "abrogated as to use at this day," and some of them "ought wholly to be observed and done," the law of retaliation, which was so obviously necessary among the Jews, is among those precepts which may still "serve a use" if so desired (si libet).32 The golden rule is the law of the internal church. But the civic state still enforces order through the fear of penalties, which to the law-breaker appears as retaliation. Nations still stand poised to let loose retaliatory destruction on an aggressor. With the world in its present state, individuals blame their own private retaliations also on necessity and self-defence. But the law of retaliation which governs through fear of reprisals and maintains external order by keeping evil and crime within certain limits by balancing evil against evil — is still utterly barren of spiritual results. In order to break the chain of retribution, one must cease to retaliate and turn the other cheek. And this must be done, not from a craven fear but from the spirit of forgiveness — from a love of the neighbor and respect for his freedom and welfare.


1 SD 2234

2 AE 726 (1), DP 201f, SD 2737

3 Wis. xii. 5, Ang. ld.

4 AE 702:2

5 HH 541

6 AE 1043:2, cp DP 69

7 AC 4712f, 483, 5113:3, 3432, 4493:2, 310, 608, 6701, SD 5518e

8 AC 310, Cor. 38, SD 5574, 5577

9 AC 608e

10 AC 736e, 2300f, SD 5518e

11 AC 1820, AE 655:2, DLW 273:3

12 AR 387, CL 380

13 AC 8593, 8622, HH 579, SD 639, 5572, 5574

14 HH 544, DLW 273:3

15 AC 9671:3

16 AC 8237

17 SD 4922

18 Coro. 38,45

18a AE 1158:3

19 HH 422, CL 429, cp De Conj. 93

20 De Conj. 54, 62, CL 192e

21 AR 153:10, CL 505, 510, 512, 54, 521, cp 79:5; SD 6106:4

22 AE 991, 1003e, De Conj. 9e, CL 514e

23 SD 4745, De Conj. 62, CL 291f

24 SD 5830, CL 524:4

25 SD 6034, HH 578

26 SD 5932

27 AC 8700

28 AE 989e, HH 342

29 AC 696, 967, 6997:6, 8223:3, 9033:2, HH 509

30 AC 9498, 9534, cp 10188

31 Ex. 21:25, Matt. 5:38 seq.

32 AC 9349


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

• Back • Home • Up • Next •


20. Government of Hell

Webmaster: IJT@swedenborgstudy.com