The subject of hell brings up a lot of questions. 

But when we understand the design of how the spiritual world works, we can get clear on exactly what hell is like, why it exists, and who chooses to go there. 

That’s right – it’s a choice! That’s one of the principles of the way the spiritual world works: we determine our spiritual location. By the end of this read, you’ll know why that is, as well as everything else you need to know to understand hell.

Here’s the deal:

No one is ever condemned to hell. 

Anyone who resides in hell has chosen it willingly. That’s why hell exists in the first place! God provides a spiritual home for everyone. The Lord’s will is for everyone to be in heaven, but if a person has entirely rejected everything of goodness and truth, and instead loves what is evil and false, then the Lord allows for that person to live in hell.

The Lord is leading every spirit toward himself through angels and through an inflow from heaven, but spirits who are absorbed in evil resist strenuously and virtually tear themselves away from the Lord. . . . They freely cast themselves into hell. . . . They are entering voluntarily, and the ones who are doing so out of a burning desire for evil look as though they were diving in headfirst. This is why it looks as though they were being thrown into hell by divine power. . . . The Lord does not throw anyone into hell.

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The realms of heaven and hell are separate from each other because of the nature of the spiritual world. Everything there is a matter of love and thought. Everyone in the spiritual world is organized relative to one another based on what they love. Evil spirits can’t spend long in heaven before having trouble breathing because the atmosphere itself goes against what they love.

Every type of love that is within us exudes a delight by which it makes itself felt. This delight is exuded first into our spirit and then into our body. The delight that comes from our love and the enjoyment that comes from our thinking go together to constitute our life. . . . As a result, heaven is most precisely arranged according to all the varieties of love for what is good, and hell, in exactly the opposite way, is arranged according to all the varieties of love for what is evil. This opposition is why there is a great gulf between heaven and hell that cannot be crossed [Luke 16:26]. The people who are in heaven cannot stand any of the odor from hell. It causes them nausea and vomiting, and threatens to render them unconscious if they breathe it in. The same thing happens to the people who are in hell, if they cross the midpoint of that great gulf.

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So how many hells are there? There are as many as there are varieties of love for what is evil. No two are the same! And they are all organized by love.

Like heaven, hell is differentiated into communities. In fact, there are just as many communities in hell as there are in heaven, since each heavenly community has an opposite number in hell, for the sake of the balance. However, the communities in hell are differentiated according to their evils and consequent falsities because the communities in heaven are differentiated according to their good will and consequent truths.

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Hell is located opposite to heaven, but that doesn’t mean you’re locked in one place and can’t move around in the spiritual world. It means that if you go into a realm that doesn’t accord with what you love, you get so deeply uncomfortable that you can’t stand being there. 

So the purpose of hell is to provide a spiritual realm where spirits who love what is evil and false can live within the constraints of the regulations on hell (more on this below) in which their ability to harm others is seriously curbed.

But you might be wondering:

Is hell a place of torment and eternal suffering?

The truth is when observed from the outside, hell is not a great place to exist because there is a lot of mean stuff that goes on there, but everything that happens there is arising from the wills of the people who reside in hell. 

For the people in hell, they are getting to live out the desires of their will (within certain limitations), and this necessarily means that they are trying to do harm to others.

From each hell there breathes forth an aura of the cravings that obsess its inhabitants. When this aura is sensed by people who are obsessed with a similar craving, it touches their hearts and fills them with delight because the craving and the delight are inseparable – whatever we crave is delightful to us. This is why spirits turn in that direction and are impelled there by their hearts’ delight. . . . In the spiritual world we are all incapable of resisting our impulses because the impulses come from our love and the love comes from our intent and the intent comes from our nature, and we all act from our nature there.

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Spirits in hell are allowed to attempt to act on their will, but they then receive the consequences of their actions. This is another law of the spiritual world. The harm done by people in hell acting on their impulses is allowed only so far as it can actually be used by God within the system of hell to keep the spirits in hell restricted.

Everything in the other life, overall and in particular, exists in such perfect balance that evil punishes itself. In this way, evil contains its own penalty. So does falsity, which rebounds on the person who subscribes to it. We each bring on ourselves our own punishment and torture, and at the same time we bring on the diabolical crowd that inflicts it. The Lord never sends anyone to hell but wants to lead everyone out. Still less does he inflict pain. Instead, since evil spirits actually run to get there, the Lord turns all the punishment and torment to good and puts it to some use. No penalty can ever exist unless the Lord has some purpose in mind for it, because the Lord’s kingdom is a realm of purpose and usefulness.

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Given this scenario, what happens in hell really?

When spirits voluntarily or freely arrive at their hell and go in, they are accepted cordially at first and think they have arrived among friends. This lasts only a few hours, though. All the while they are being probed to find out how crafty they are, and therefore how powerful. Once this probing is complete the attacks begin in various ways, getting more and more severe and intense. The intensification is effected by their being taken farther and deeper into hell, since the farther and deeper you go there, the more malevolent are the spirits. After these attacks, the malevolent spirits begin to torment the newcomers with punishments until finally they are reduced to slavery. However, since rebellious movements are always arising (everyone there wants to be greatest and burns with hatred against everyone else, which keeps generating new attacks), the scene is constantly changing. The people who were enslaved are released and offer their support to some new devil for the subjugation of others. Then the ones who do not surrender and yield their obedience are tortured in various ways, and so on and so on.

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That may sound pretty miserable.

But here’s the kicker:

A characteristic of hell is that things don’t look as bad as they really are to the people in hell.

It does need to be known, though, that hellish spirits look like this in heaven’s light, but that they look human to each other. This is a gift of the Lord’s mercy, so that they do not look as repulsive to each other as they do to angels. However, this appearance is deceiving, since the moment a ray of light from heaven is let in, these human forms turn into the monstrous ones that they are essentially, the forms just described, because in heaven’s light everything appears as it really is. This is also why they avoid heaven’s light and dive into their own illumination, an illumination like that of glowing coals or, in places, like burning sulfur. This light, though, turns into pure darkness when any ray of light from heaven flows in. This is why the hells are described as being in gloom and darkness, and why the gloom and darkness mean the kinds of malevolent distortions characteristic of hell.

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The reason this is the case is because, in the spiritual world, “for all of us, our eyes are adapted to receive the light we live in” (Divine Providence 167).

The nature of our understanding determines the nature of our light, and each one of us will come into his or her own light after death. We have no sight in any other. In the spiritual world, where we are all spiritual even in respect to our bodies, our eyes are adapted to see in their own light. The love of our life makes an intelligence for itself and therefore a light as well. Love is actually like the fire of life that gives off the light of life.

Divine Providence 167

In the light of heaven, everything appears as it really is. This means that when seen in the light of heaven, evil spirits look monstrous, but when left to themselves in their own light, they don’t look so bad. 

It is possible at times for a spirit or angel to “probe visually into the depths and examine their nature with no coverings in the way” (Heaven and Hell 586).

Watch this clip to get a taste.

Hear this firsthand experience of what it’s like living in hell from a particular devil.

Now this may all sound crazy but:

There is a system to hell. It’s not just total chaos. The Lord governs hell. There are different layers to this government.

How God governs what happens in hell:

1. There is a general impingement of divine good and divine truth from the heavens through which the general effort that flows out of the hells is restrained and controlled.

Divine goodness and truth from heaven influences hell and keeps it in balance.
One way hell is governed is by the influence of divine good and divine truth flowing in.

2. There is a specific impingement from each heaven and from each community of heaven.

heaven and hell are interconnected such that individual communities in heaven govern their opposites in hell.
Individual communities in heaven govern communities in hell by their connected influence.

3. The hells are governed by means of angels who are given the ability to look into the hells and check the insanities and riots there. Sometimes angels are sent there, and their very presence brings matters under control.

Angels sometimes are sent to mitigate what happens in hell
Some angels are given access to hell in order to intervene in matters there.

The main force of government in hell though is through the fear of punishment that the spirits themselves have.

In general, though, all the people in the hells are governed by their fears, some by fears sown and still in place from the world. However, since these fears are not adequate and gradually weaken, they are governed through fears of punishment, which are the primary means of preventing them from doing evil. There are many kinds of punishment there, milder or more severe depending on the evil [they are restraining]. Most of the time, the relatively malevolent spirits are in power, having gained control by their experience and skill; and they are able to keep the rest in servile obedience by punishments and the fears that these give birth to. These dominant spirits do not dare go beyond fixed limits. We do need to realize that the only way of controlling the violent rages of people in the hells is through fear of punishment. There are no other means.

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People in hell fear torture for their evil actions.
In hell, the spirits’ own fear keeps their behavior in check.

Everything is done to mitigate the harm that evil spirits would like to act out. The Lord maintains a balance.

The angels continually hold the hells in subjection to themselves, and temper all things there, and this from the Lord; otherwise, the tortures would be perpetual, and the states in the highest degree deplorable, by reason of the cruelty in which they are.

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Listen to this firsthand account of people in hell describing their experience:

People in hell are up front about what it’s like to live there.

So what it boils down to is:

The idea of hell you get from the Bible is misleading if you take it literally.

Probably the most famous characteristic of hell is the idea that it is an eternal fire. This comes from what hell is like in the Bible. In Revelation Chapter 20 the beast, the false prophet, the devil, death, and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire, which burns with sulfur, and it is written that they will be tormented there forever and ever. 

Hell according to the Bible gives us the common description of a Christian hell that we are all familiar with. The traditional doctrine of hell gives you the sense that if you’ve sinned, you’re going to hell, and when you get there you are tortured forever. But that’s not how it works. It’s about what you love most of all. Anyone in hell has chosen to be there freely because it’s where they can live out what they really love. 

When the Bible mentions fire and burning, it means the kinds of drives for evil that people in hell have. So hellfire really means “all the craving to do evil that flows from love for oneself” (Heaven and Hell 573).

And this is also why the description of the lake of fire is coupled with torment: 

That same fire also means the kind of torment that occurs in the hells. This is because the impulses that arise from that love are urges to wound people who do not offer respect and deference and reverence. To the extent that rage takes charge, and the hatred and vengefulness that come from rage, people are driven to attack others viciously. When this impulse is inherent in everyone in a community where there are no external restraints, no fears of the law or of loss of reputation or position or profit or life, everyone attacks everyone else out of sheer malice. The strong conquer and subject the rest to their tyranny, cheerfully torturing any who do not surrender. This latter delight is integral to the delight in tyranny to the point that they are of equal intensity. This is because sadism is inherent in hostility, envy, hatred, and vengefulness, which as already noted are the evils of a love of cruelty. All the hells are communities like this, so everyone there cherishes hatred toward others in her or his heart and bursts out in savagery whenever there is the strength to do so. These acts of savagery and torture are what are meant by hellfire, because they are the results of their obsessions.

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So, 

Instead of burning in hell, spirits insist on acting from evil desires. 

Instead of suffering there, evil punishes itself. God is always at work to relieve and mitigate suffering while respecting our freewill. 

But since aspects of what we love and think are displayed visually in the spiritual world, someone’s passion can take on the look of actual burning.

What’s the bottom line?

There is nothing you can do that is a straight ticket to hell. It’s about your intention. No act or choice in our lives determines our fate after death. It is our intention and the overall arc of our lives that aligns us more with heaven or hell. If we have anything of goodness or truth in us, the Lord and angels will try to bring that out and help us choose it over any evil inclinations we have. But it can’t be forced. Either way, we have to be willing. 

Want to know the best part?

It’s not about what happens after we die anyway! Heaven and hell are states of mind we can adopt or resist right now by reflecting on our own minds and making conscious choices.

Hell is when we put our self-interest and personal gain as the highest priority at the expense of others. It is a love of being in control from a sense of self-importance; all forms of harm and false ideas arise from this source. 

Heaven is when we surrender our love for being in control to the possibility of loving others, being a part of a larger belonging, and serving the common good. God’s will is to free us from hell and fill us with love and wisdom, or in other words, bring us into heaven. And during our lives in this world, we are given every chance to shift our focus and open to divine love. 

We ourselves close heaven to ourselves [while we are in this world], by rejecting faith and living an evil life. But even if we do this, we are still constantly kept in a state that leaves open the possibility of repentance and turning our lives around. The Lord is always present and exerting pressure on us to accept him.

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The Lord is constantly mitigating the influences of hell and wills for us to be in heaven, but we are free to resist that. 

This is why this world can seem like hell, because with our choices we can bring either more heaven or more hell into the world. You are already growing your connection to heaven right now when you resist acting on harmful impulses and instead strive to align with the will of divine love. We don’t have spiritual power over others so it is up to each of us to do our own inner work.

We have the freedom to reject God's protection by doing evil.We are all protected from hell by the divine.
We are protected by God but are free to reject that protection if we choose to do evil.

So hell is not defined by the external factors that we associate with hell: torture, burning in fire, eternal suffering. The true meaning of hell is more intuitively recognizable than that. It’s a spiritual orientation: closing ourselves off from the influences of heaven and rejecting what is loving. That’s the real meaning of hell. The choice is yours.

Here’s what you learned:

11 Facts About Hell

No one is ever condemned to hell.

God provides a spiritual home for everyone.

There is a system to hell; it is governed by the divine.

Anyone in hell has chosen to be there freely because it’s where they can live out what they really love.  

Evil contains its own penalty. 

No penalty can ever exist unless the Lord has some purpose in mind for it and can put it to some use.

God is always at work to relieve and mitigate suffering while respecting our freewill. 

Instead of burning in hell, those in hell insist on acting from evil desires. 

There is nothing you can do that is a straight ticket to hell.

It is our intention and the overall arc of our lives that aligns us more with heaven or hell.

Heaven and hell are states of mind that we can adopt or resist right now.


But what do we know about hell? This information came from Emanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences: twenty-nine years spent being conscious of the spiritual world and the physical world at the same time, studying it like the scientist he was. Learn more here!

Hope you enjoyed this description of hell! Maybe now you know more about hell than you did before! Let us know in the comments!  

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2 comments

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  • Hi OTLE Staff, This past month as been bad, my mother passed away which is hard enough but I had a dream of her. I saw her from a distance but when she spoke to me it was like she was right next to me. She said “Tell them they don’t want to come down here”. Then the dream was over. I don’t know if it’s from the Lord or evil spirits. She just passed away 9/28/20 and to think she’s in hell bothers me. But maybe she is wanting me to warn my brothers and sisters. Can you help me to figure this out. Thank you, Shara Palmer

    • Oh, Shara, I’m so deeply sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you. I believe that dream is not presenting the truth. Very often, dreams during a time of grief are a reflection of the dreamer’s own worries and feelings, so I think this dream is influenced by evil spirits wanting to cause you worry. Please do not worry. Over 27 years of vivid spiritual experiences, Swedenborg witnessed that all people are lovingly welcomed by the Lord and angels. People do go through a process of reviewing their life, and do go through some realizations and struggles to get purified, but it’s all for the sake of freeing up their heart and soul in order to move toward heaven. So it is possible that your mom is doing some processing, but not that she is in hell. Someone in hell would not be concerned about anyone else.

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