God, Forgiveness, Freedom, and Hell – Part 1

(Note: This article is the first of a four-part series. The first three parts are edited versions of a series of questions by a reader named Rami, and my answers. The original versions appear in the comments section of the recent article, “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?” The fourth part will be a response to a related Spiritual Conundrum submitted earlier by Rami.)

In a recent comment, a reader named Rami said:

Hi Lee, sorry if you’ve dealt with this in the article, but could you elaborate a bit on the relationship between Divine forgiveness and freely insisting upon hell because of the hellish life we’ve led? What does it mean to be pardoned if hell is something we choose ourselves? It would seem to me that the idea of God’s forgiveness for our sins characterizes our afterlife as something determined by whether or not we repent and receive it, and condemnation to hell as not only an inner condition we burden upon ourselves. Have I misunderstood Swedenborg in this regard?

Here is my response, originally made in this comment:

Hi Rami,

Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions. I’m a little unclear about what you mean by, “and condemnation to hell as not only an inner condition we burden upon ourselves.” Is that what you meant to write? If so, what, exactly, do you mean?

However, I’ll take a stab at what I think you’re asking.

(Warning! Mind-bending material ahead!)

Here are two general principles Swedenborg offers in relation to your question:

  1. God’s will is for all people to go to heaven, and God never condemns anyone to hell.
  2. However, God will not override and nullify our freely made choice to go to hell rather than to heaven.

Does God change his mind when humans repent?

Many Christian (and also some non-Christian) concepts of salvation are based on the idea that God changes his mind when humans repent and believe in Christ (or God). The idea is that before we repent and believe, God is angry at us and judges us to hell, whereas after we repent and believe, God’s attitude changes toward us, so that now God has mercy on us and saves us from hell.

There’s a reason people believe this. There’s even a reason that the Bible itself (not to mention various other sacred texts) contains many statements that make it sound as if that’s how it works.

People who are in a low, earth-bound spiritual state need to believe that God is angry at them and will punish them if they sin. If they didn’t believe this, they would have no “fear of God” whatsoever—which really means no respect for God—and would think that they can do with impunity whatever selfish, evil, and destructive things they want. They would thumb their nose at a “weak” God who has neither the will nor the power to punish them.

That’s why God allows us to think that God is angry at us, judges us, and sends us to hell. God knows that without such a belief, many of us would never turn our lives around. For people in a low spiritual state, fear of God’s wrath can be a great motivator!

But according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) the reality is very different.

The reality is that God is never angry at us, never condemns us, and never sends us to hell. It’s just the opposite! God is pure love, and God feels nothing but love for us—though that love is tinged with sorrow when we choose to speak and act in evil and destructive ways, to our own pain and ruin.

The reality is that God never changes his/her mind toward us. God is eternally the same, and never changes from anger to mercy based on human actions. Rather, God always feels and acts toward us with love and mercy, and never with anger and condemnation.

The change is in us, not in God

The change that takes place when we move from damnation to salvation is not a change in God, but a change in us.

That change involves our turning around from being driven by ego, self-absorption, greed, and selfishness to being motivated by love for God and love for our fellow human beings. This does not bring about any change in God. Rather, it brings about a change in us, from a state of rejection of God’s love and forgiveness to one of acceptance of God’s love and forgiveness.

God’s forgiveness is constant; our acceptance of it is not

To bring this to bear on what I think is your question:

God’s forgiveness of us is constant. There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how evil, that will cause God not to love us and forgive us.

Even if we insist upon hell through hellish choices and a hellish life, God still forgives us. Even if we choose to make our eternal bed in hell, God continues love us and forgive us to all eternity. However, when we make our bed in hell we refuse to accept God’s love and forgiveness because our heart, mind, and life are turned away from God, and we reject everything that comes from God. Whatever does make it through to us from God, we twist into our own hellish form.

In short:

  • God’s forgiveness of our sins is not determined by us or by our actions. It is a constant, always flowing from God to us.
  • But our acceptance or rejection of that forgiveness is determined by us and our actions.

Human action vs. divine action

So far this may make it sound as if we, and not God, determine everything when it comes to our future life in either heaven or hell.

And that’s how it’s supposed to look to us.

If we didn’t have a sense that we determine our own fate, we would not be human. Instead of making decisions and taking action, we would just hang down our hands and expect God to do everything, while we did nothing.

That’s not what God wants.

So God does give us the ability to choose between good and evil, and puts that choice—which determines our eternal fate—into our hands.

From a human perspective, yes, we burden ourselves with hell, and we also make our own choice for heaven.

Heaven is God’s work; hell is our work

However, Swedenborg clarifies that if we go to heaven, it is actually God’s work, whereas if we go to hell, it is our own work.

Another way of saying this is that all good and truth come from God, and are God’s in us, whereas all evil and falsity come from human beings, and are our own in us. (However, even evil and falsity are merely human-twisted forms of God’s good and truth. They do not have any independent existence of their own.)

Why does this matter?

Because if we do make a choice for heaven, it is due to God’s presence and power that we are able to make that choice, and follow the pathway to heaven.

When we choose heaven, God provides the power

Nothing good and true that we have is our own, or is self-generated. It all comes from God. So if we make a choice for good, all we’re really doing is opening ourselves up to the good (and the forgiveness, which is really the same thing) that God is continually offering us, and that continually flows into us from God just as much as we are willing to accept it.

In other words, we are like a light switch. We can turn the switch on or off, but we don’t provide the power. God does. If that power from God were not flowing through the power lines, what would happen when we flipped our switch to the “heaven” position? Absolutely nothing! Without God’s presence and power, human society would be like a city whose power grid has gone dark.

This means that seen from a divine perspective rather than a human perspective, neither forgiveness nor salvation is something that we humans do for ourselves.

By ourselves it’s actually true that we contribute nothing at all to our own salvation, as traditional Christians often say. That’s because everything that saves us—love, wisdom, forgiveness, and so on—comes from God, and is God’s in us. None of it is our own. We can’t claim credit for any of it. The very power to make the choice for good is God’s gift to us, and is continually maintained in us by God.

If God were not continually present with us and flowing into us in this way, we would all rush headlong into the thick darkness of hell, like a city gone dark. That’s what would happen if there were no power or influence from God, and our salvation truly depended upon us.

Human beings are containers

One way to picture this is to think of human beings as containers, or cups, created by God. We did not make ourselves, nor did we determine our own form or capabilities.

What we can do—because God has given us this ability—is turn the cup one way or the other, so that it is either right-side up or upside-down.

  • If we turn the cup right-side up, the cup that is us is turned upward toward God, and is open to receive and be filled by the love, wisdom, and power that flows down to us from God.
  • If we turn the cup that is us upside-down, God still flows down to us with divine love, wisdom, and power, desiring to fill us; but because the bottom of the cup is facing upwards, everything that flows toward us from God bounces off the bottom of the cup, flows down either side, and goes right past us without filling us. We are open only to the evil and false influences that flow up to us from hell below.

So according to Swedenborg, two things are simultaneously true:

  1. Our salvation depends entirely on our making a choice for good rather than for evil.
  2. Our salvation is accomplished entirely by God, and not at all by ourselves.

These may seem contradictory. And traditional Christian theology—especially Protestant theology—has gotten badly off track precisely because its theologians have been unable to resolve this apparent paradox.

Believing and acting as if by ourselves

Swedenborg resolves the paradox using the mind-bending phrase, “as if by ourselves” (Latin: sicut a se). We are, he says, supposed to:

  • believe the truth and do what is good as if we were doing it by ourselves and by our own power;
  • but recognize that in reality, everything good and true in us is God’s, not ours, and is done by God’s power working in and through us.

None of what we do is actually done by us, even though it feels as if we are doing it—and that’s how it’s supposed to feel to us!

Acting as if by ourselves, even though the power to act comes from God, is what makes us human.

This could lead to a whole book’s worth of further response to your questions, which really are excellent ones!

I’m not prepared to write a book on the subject at this particular moment. So for now I’ll refer you to two more articles that might help.

About the mind-bending issue of exactly who and what we are in relation to God, and what God does vs. what we do, see this article: Containers for God.

And about forgiveness vs. acceptance of forgiveness, but addressed in terms of our relationships with one another as human beings, see: Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness. The same principles covered in that article apply to our relationship with God, and to God’s forgiveness of us.

I hope all of this addresses your questions in at least some measure. If I’ve missed what you were asking, or you have further questions and ponderings, please don’t hesitate to come back at me. These are great questions, probing some of the deepest issues of spiritual and divine reality, and the relationship between God and human beings. It takes a lot of mental bending and stretching to get the ol’ mind wrapped around ’em! For me, it is an ongoing process. I understand these things better as the years go by, as life experience piles up, and as I become gradually less foolish.

For Part 2, click here.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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