Very bad people have always been with us. In many mythological and religious traditions, hell is a place of judgment i.e. endless torture and punishment for bad conduct during life on earth.
But these days, hell has got a big problem and, like the idea of evil, isn’t much talked about outside religious circles. Although many people suppose there may be a dark side to life, they doubt whether a hellish supernatural existence is anything more than the product of medieval imagination. They reasonably cannot see how a God of love could condemn anyone to hellish suffering however bad they had behaved. Nor can they understand how a God of justice could allow anyone to be endlessly punished in hell for any misbehaviour done during a short life-time on earth.
Hell on earth
To my mind, something like hell on earth is real enough. We see the social evils of life on news reports of corruption, deceit, and violence. I guess we each have had some ugly moments in our private lives when we have been filled with fantasies that no one must know about.
“Whatever concept we have of hell, whether the burning pits of myth or just some vague world of horror; it’s enough to scare us, because we know we have something of hell in us — its selfishness, its hatred, its deceit.” (from Window to Eternity by Bruce Henderson)
So I am saying hell can be both around us and within us.
Is anyone evil enough for hell?
History show us there have been saints and villains. People whose virtues outshine all their minor lapses and slips. And also those whose vices dominate their character despite a few less unattractive traits.
Actually, there is no shortage of appalling candidates in history; such very bad people as Robespierre in France, Hitler in Germany, Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Caligula in Rome and the list can be greatly extended. Some bad people are renowned for cruelty, depravity, mass murder, rape or pillage and so on. And it is commonly thought that there are many more people who don’t figure in history books whose life has been dominated by crime, an attitude of contempt, or a selfish manipulation of others.
However, you might think that most of the population, including yourself, are actually a mixture of good points and serious faults — conscientious and generous yet self-indulgent and resentful, or kind and forgiving yet unfaithful and greedy.
I would suggest that this heady mix can resolve itself into some over-riding motives. As we exercise our inner freedom in adult life, do not the desires that rule our lives become more consistent and we begin to form for ourselves our own character although this is sometimes hidden even from ourselves?
Emanuel Swedenborg has written about extrasensory experiences of being with bad people who had died and who were conscious in a spirit realm. He comments that at the start of the next life the values that deep down rule one’s heart will come more clearly to the surface and unrelated feelings, pretentiousness and difficulties become dormant.
In other words the good and bad elements to one’s makeup become separated. He argues you cannot both be caring towards loved ones whilst wanting to use them for your own ends. You can’t expect to enjoy sexual fantasies with different partners if you delight in a close sexual relationship with one person.
In other words, all thoughts incompatible with one’s main desire are set to one side. He says a separation process takes place setting aside what is hellish for those of a basically heavenly disposition and a setting aside what is heavenly for those of a basically hellish character.
Swedenborg maintains that the really bad at heart are suited to a realm of the afterlife he calls ‘hell’ which he says is home for very bad people who being totally self-centred want to deceive, steal or be nasty because they will stop at nothing getting their own way no matter what might be the cost to another person. They find the heavenly life of kindness and honesty not conducive to the selfish character they have formed for themselves whilst in the world. So Swedenborg says that when they are actually allowed into the fringe of heaven, they feel most uncomfortable and rush back to the hellish society of like-minded people where they can be themselves.
In other words no one is condemned to live in hell.
According to this account
1. You will only go to a hellish society if you want to:
2. Those who prefer to do so don’t go there until they have no shame about behaving badly in the company of others of a similar ilk.
3. Any suffering in hell is due to the ongoing selfishness and ill-will amongst its inhabitants rather than punishment for bad conduct on earth. More information
4. In the light of heaven, hell appears to be a place of ugliness and squalor but to those there, who find it suits them, there is little awareness of this.
5. To allow those who wish to turn their backs on the heavenly way can be seen as an act of mercy rather than condemnation.
I do believe that this account solves the problem of hell. For if true, it shows that people create their own hell and that just as God forces no one to lead the heavenly life, so no one is condemned to the life of hell.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems