'After death, our ruling affection or love awaits each one of us… Hell is never the same for any two people, nor is heaven.'
Swedenborg Society in London
Who was Swedenborg?
Spotify Podcast: Swedenborg and Life
Book content from Swedenborg Foundation
Heaven and Hell (1758)
Emmanuel Swedenborg
In Summary

All things correspond in Swedenborg’s universe—including heaven, hell, and the heart of man. We create our eternal destinations in our own image, choosing our fate. Sadly, many of us will continue, as we did in this life, to choose what is not best for us.


Not many people have literally gone to hell—or at least, not many have returned to talk about it. Dante made the journey there and back again, as did a few figures in Greek mythology, and, of course, there’s always Jesus, who descended to the dead. Yet these were quick visits, with Christ returning on the third day, Dante awaking from his dream, and Hercules returning after he wrestled Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld. In contrast, Emanuel Swedenborg claims to have spent thirteen years in ongoing communion with the afterlife, flickering back and forth between heaven, hell, and Earth. What makes him even more unique is that he insists he is not, in fact, unique; that all of us are in constant conversation with the afterlife; that every person has heaven and hell within them. Based on his decades-spanning visions of the afterlife, Swedenborg penned his most famous work, Heaven and Hell (1758).

Born in 1688 in the wake of the Scientific Revolution, Swedenborg might at first seem an unlikely candidate for mystical visions. He undertook rigorous medical and scientific research in chemistry, physics, algebra, metallurgy, and anatomy. His intellectual accomplishments were in fact so widely recognised that he was elevated to Swedish nobility by Queen Eleonora (who changed his name from Swedberg to Swedenborg), yet he somehow found a way to combine the detail-minded nature of his scientific background with the more poetic and prophetic voice bursting from deep within. Forging an enigmatic hybrid of the modern and mythic, Swedenborg managed to capture the popular imagination in a time of telescopes and steam engines, branding ‘enlightened’ society with his shared vision for centuries to come. Heaven and Hell went on to influence countless thinkers and authors, inspiring a reactionary chain that included William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.


According to Swedenborg, there is only one God. Our complex universe came into being through emanating outward in degrees from this unified and ‘otherworldly source.’ As such, there are also degrees and spiritual gradations of heaven, hell, and Earth. Angels—who were once humans—serve as intermediaries between these higher and lower levels. Now, since all things derive their being from God, one might assume that God created evil. However (in Neo-Platonic and Augustinian fashion), all good comes from God, while all evil comes from humanity, who freely chooses to sin.


While a term like ‘sin’ may quickly invoke images of judgment and wrath, Swedenborg’s God does not send anyone to hell. On the contrary, there is an open invitation to heaven, with the masses simply preferring hell, for the air and radiance of heaven is painful for those who prefer darkness. Thus, humans choose to go to and stay in hell, which may seem odd at first, until we realise that we often choose the things we know will harm us (e.g., destructive relationships, soul-crushing jobs, addictions). Now, heaven and hell may be real and external places, but they are fueled and forged in our own image. After death, ‘our ruling affection or love awaits each one of us,’ with our loves colouring in our personalised heaven or hell. We create and choose the hell we long for, with the self-destructive nature of our longings revealed when stretched thin over eternity.


This parallel between our desires and our reality, and between our earthly choices and our eternal destination, are indicative of the broader ‘correspondences’ in Swedenborg’s universe. Everything seems to correspond or connect with something else, showing how all things are a microcosm of the Creator and his creation: ‘In a word, absolutely everything in nature, from the smallest to the greatest, is a correspondence.’ For example, each individual is said to be a heaven — with our body parts corresponding to different levels of the afterlife — and the joy of heaven is said to be constituted by and derived from an individual (i.e., God). In turn, each angel is said to be a former human, and each human is made in the image of God. Furthermore, since everything on Earth also corresponds to something in the afterlife, we breathe here and now the fumes of hell or the altar smoke of heaven. Though we’ll all dwell in heaven or hell one day, heaven and hell already dwell in us now.  


For many, the captivating power of Swedenborg’s vision enabled Heaven and Hell to become a surprisingly popular work, one which continues to subtly colour and influence contemporary theology, as well as cultural depictions of the afterlife today.


Aside from these doctrinal considerations, Swedenborg’s text may also be of interest to those struggling to tame their inner demons and align them with a heavenly life, as well as to those who are looking for a holistic cosmos—a cosmos in which no part is isolated from the meaningful whole, and even the most insignificant of things correspond to, and are microcosms of, the divine.

Further Reading By This Author

While Heaven and Hell remains Swedenborg’s most popular work, he nonetheless published a great deal beyond it, including New Jerusalem, Secrets of Heaven, Divine Love and Wisdom, Divine Providence, Worship and Love of God, and True Christianity.

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