The idea of punishment of hell seems unbelievable because these days we are less likely to see good and evil; no black and white, only shades of grey. People say if human beings are inherently good, then just take them away from a bad social environment, treat disease, or give them what they need, and they will be happy and useful.
If doing bad things is caused by environmental circumstances rather than individual moral choice, then surely an eternal punishment after death would be unjust? And if you balk at the idea of evil then you may dismiss the idea of hell and the punishment of hell.
What to do with criminals
But who would disagree that there are villains around stealing, embezzling, and murdering? Is their crime always just as an uncomfortable complication in human relations rather than as an offence against a standard of right and wrong, good and evil?
Kinds of evidence about an afterlife
There is some evidence about the afterlife in the remarkable similarities in the way the near death experience is told by many individuals. Also there are the accounts of modern mediums of what they have been told by spirit communicators about life after death.
This information tallies with the meticulously written up reports of the eighteenth century writer Emanuel Swedenborg about his own psychic experiences of what he termed “the spiritual world” which lasted during the last twenty-seven years of his life.
A punishment of hell witnessed
Swedenborg describes one of his psychic visions. He saw inside a building where there was a court for a judge. A certain person came along who is described as ‘a lover of self’ and sat on a kind of throne. He believed he was admitted into the place so he might be the judge.
There was a crowd of people there who went around the throne, some crawling underneath. As a consequence the spirit became invisible. The crowd made fun of him, by sitting near him and over him.
At length the judge came along and sat down. His cheeks became fiery and we are told that this was a sign not only that he was the judge but also that he would administer judgment.
He inquired whether anyone had committed evil. Some were arraigned and sentenced to punishment – what might be called a punishment of hell. The rest were commended and let go. The judge tolerated everyone making fun and having their jokes, only they must not do wrong to anyone. They were afraid of him because of his power. If you treasure peace of mind, such a bedlam can perhaps be described as a hell.
No punishment of hell for crime committed on earth
This and many other experiences convinced Swedenborg that, in the next life, no-one suffers any punishment of hell for crime done in the world. Punishment and the fear of punishment is only used when needed as a deterrent if spirits were to deceive, steal from or abuse their companions with more evil intent than they did before their bodily death.
Some religious writers have spoken about infernal torments in hell as the stings of conscience on the part of remorseful souls when they are convicted of sin. However Swedenborg says people who have led spiteful and selfish lives may have regret for getting found out but no repentance because they have no real deeper conscience about right and wrong, other than concern about how they are viewed by others.
Swedenborg compares a heavenly state of mind with a hellish one. The former is an attitude of ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘loving one’s enemies’. However the latter is an attitude of ‘an eye for an eye’ and getting even with one’s foes. This then he says is really the punishment of hell. If, and only if, a malicious person does something horrid towards another individual beyond what has been done to him, he is immediately open to punishment or persecution from other spirits who do so with impunity.
Apparently fantasy can be a punishment of hell. Swedenborg observed proud spirits filled with their own importance as academic scholars. They lived in underground libraries wanting to be left to their studies and to escape responsibilities of life. But as they read, the candles went out!
Another proud person had contempt for others and became inflated like a balloon that grew to fill the universe – until he had no place to go!
Swedenborg was repeatedly told by evil spirits that “they would rather a thousand times live in hell than out of it.” Nowhere else could they indulge in their sole delight, which was to see others suffer and thus boost their own sense of importance. Nowhere else could they escape the light of truth, which spoiled their selfish plans and dispersed their cherished fantasies. For them to be allowed to enter heaven would be more aversive and unpleasant than whatever punishments their hellish companions could administer.
Swedenborg claimed that punishment of hell applied in the next life do not go on continually for ever. They are not retributions for sins committed on earth, but disciplinary reactions to criminal acts that selfish and cruel people commit in hell. Thus punishments in hell cease when external order has been restored.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems