Rev. Thom Muller
I will begin my reflection by meditating on the following passage from Emanuel Swedenborg’s Divine Providence:
“Everyone is created to live forever in a happy state. This is a corollary, since the One who wants us to live forever wants us to live in a happy state as well. Otherwise, what would eternal life be? Love always wants what is good for others. Parents’ love wants what is good for their children; a groom’s or husband’s love wants what is good for his bride or wife; our love in friendship wants what is good for our friends; so why not divine love? Further, what is goodness if it is not pleasing, and as for divine good, what is it if it is not eternal bliss?” -DP §324 (1)
So why the demon with a pokey stick? Why aren’t we in a state of constant bliss and love and connectedness? Because union requires at least the appearance of separation. We have to remember, regeneration, to Swedenborg, and thus heaven, is the process of UNION with the divine. And because love of dominion, love of control, is a love that is completely foreign to the Divine, we must choose to unite. And he likens this to human love and sexuality. You can live in an arranged marriage and be just fine externally. But unless there is true affection, a true spiritual union is literally impossible.
Now, does the insistence on freedom of choice in Swedenborg’s theology simply solve the problem of human evil? Does it explain why some people, without their own fault, have a so much easier time on this physical plane than others? Does it satisfactorily answer the Theodicy question, the question of why God allows evil? To me, it doesn’t. It’s too complex. But it makes me reflect on spiritual freedom, my own and that of others.
Swedenborg believed that there are always layers of meaning, and as you may know, my perspective is that the Writings have that inner corresponential meaning. On a literal, or natural level we can choose (or not) to believe that what Swedenborg saw in his vision is literal reality. I want it to be, honestly, to me it seems like the perfect combination of complete, unconditional love, and yet a deep respect for our spiritual agency and individuality. To someone else, his cosmology might sound absurd or nonsensical. That’s ok. Cosmological thinking is an ego-based level of thinking anyways (not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, it’s just a “lower” level of spiritual insight…). It’s all about time and space and the mind body complex… “Where will I be? What will I look like?” Valid, but not essential.
But for what it’s worth, what Swedenborg believed, and invites us to consider, is that in this whole literal narrative that he comes out of his visions and mystical experiences has at its core an unconditionally and indiscriminately loving deity which wants everyone to reunite with it and gives everyone the opportunity to do so. We all get to truly self-actualize, we all end up, eventually, in a place where we feel comfortable. On a spiritual level, God does not and will not compel us to do anything, does not impose anything onto us, and does not place us anywhere for reward or punishment (another dynamic which would be completely foreign to Swedenborg’s theology).
This is essential. Hell is NOT a place of punishment. In fact it is NOT a place of suffering. It is a place people freely choose to inhabit in the here and now, because it resonates with their inner disposition – if this disposition is centered around selfishness and falsity. Further, there is no simple dualism between heaven and hell. Heaven is reality, hell is falsity. It is not an even playing field. One is, the other exists only in our perception.
This is important stuff. But more important is the more subtle and yet arguably more powerful and profound layer, the interpersonal layer. Regardless of whether we resonate with the outer meaning of Swedenborg’s afterlife narrative, we can apply its spiritual sense to our every day live and our interactions with each other, which is where the real spiritual growth starts, not in abstract metaphysical thinking but in active love and kindness and truthfulness, those divine qualities we can embrace and channel. That’s how the abstract becomes concrete and enlivened. It’s where the rubber hits the road.
Swedenborg believed that this regenerative process, that channeling of divinity, and in fact uniting ourselves to divinity by means of living love and truth, is available to us regardless of our religion or spiritual tradition. In fact he talks about how important it is that there are different “natural level” religions and ideas and beliefs and concepts that are uniquely suitable to us as individuals. And of course he believed that all religions have a place in heaven and that even heaven is a place of religious and philosophical diversity, except everyone is primarily concerned with being kind and being truthful FIRST.
And there’s that super important element, once again, we ought to leave each other in freedom about this. Can we truly walk through life and acknowledge our own limitedness? Can we be mindful of moments when we are, perhaps even with good intentions, superimposing our own beliefs on others? “Wouldn’t it be great if this person stepped out of THEIR hell into MY heaven?! THEY’d be so much happier there!”
I think it’s a great source of guidance for us as community. As I hope you know, the Swedenborgian Church is not a community in which you are expected to conform, to believe, to adhere to some kind of dogma. What connects us, should connect us, is a common commitment to becoming more loving and truthful. And yes, to engage ideas that come out of Swedenborg’s works, but not as a prescription, but as an impulse for reflection. Matters of faith ought to be left to personal conscience, he writes in Secrets of Heaven §1799 (2). When we try to force our own ideas or beliefs or interpretations onto each other, we’re not only missing the mark, but actually doing spiritual harm to each other and ourselves.
An even deeper level of meaning, I believe, is that this whole dynamic is speaking to us individually and our intimate union with the divine. These are all processes that are occurring INSIDE of us (which, importantly, is not a place of distance from others, but of closeness…). It’s about our reunion with the Divine. There’s an even deeper level that can’t be expressed here…
To me, Swedenborg’s concept of Heaven AND Hell has been a source of comfort, of hopefulness, of relatability. It is a radically different view of these states or realms, one that is completely reconcilable with a God who cannot and does not punish, and respects our agency to inhabit the spiritual states we freely choose, and it acknowledges the complexity of our spirit and psyche.
The Lord Does Not Cast Anyone into Hell – Spirits Cast Themselves In: Some people cherish the notion that God turns his face away from people, spurns them, and casts them into hell, and is angry against them because of their evil. Some people even go so far as to think that God punishes people and does them harm. The real teaching which is from the spiritual meaning of the Word, teaches something else. It teaches that the Lord never turns his face away from anyone or spurns anyone, never casts anyone into hell or is angry. –HH §545 (2)
(1) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
(2) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven, Vol III. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2022.
(3) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.
Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at the Swedenborgian Society of the East Bay at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary, in El Cerrito, CA, as well as senior editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of spirituality and psychology, interfaith theology, and the Western esoteric tradition. A native of Germany, Rev. Muller was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies and Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.