Pain, Punishment, Prison, and Hell

In the course of a discussion on the recent article, “How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth,” a reader named Frankly Frank said:

“And hell is not a punishment”…….

I dunno about that one, Lee.

There are vivid accounts from Swedenborg where in one example he describes IIRC two angels holding a hell detainee off the ground by the head and feet and then “twirling” them back and forth repeatedly in opposite directions so that their spine felt like it was being torn apart. Yeah, I think that could be called “punishment” but if it isn’t I’d hate to see what qualifies. (lol?).

I don’t see how a spade here isn’t a spade. And I don’t see how one honestly could interpret that it’s actually God’s love and not punishment in that particular scenario as an easy way out to explain it either. Bottomline hell is inherently a PRISON. Aren’t prisons defacto punishment?

Frankly Frank was responding to something I had said in an earlier comment. You can read the whole comment thread starting here.

"El Chapo" inside the Altiplano maximum security prison

“El Chapo” inside the Altiplano maximum security prison

Yes, hell is a type of prison. And yes, there are punishments in hell.

But as I had said in previous comments, the main purpose of hell is not to punish evildoers, but rather to provide them with a place where they can live in the way that they want to live—or at least, as much as that’s possible given the self-defeating nature of their desires and actions.

This post is an edited and expanded version of my own long comment in response to Frankly Frank’s statement and question above.

TL;DR: Even if prison is a punishment, and even if there are punishments in hell, both prison and hell are more about protecting the innocent from being victimized than they are about punishing criminals. There’s no other way to effectively accomplish this, because hardened criminals are going to victimize innocent people if they are allowed access to them. And yet, pragmatically speaking, prison and hell really are the choice of those who go there.

Now let’s look at all that twisting, twirling, pain, and punishment.

A graphic description of a punishment in the spiritual world

About that rather nasty sounding punishment, I presume you’re referring to what Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) wrote in Spiritual Experiences #1696:

There is a punishment, which I saw—and I was grieved at seeing it (I did not know who it was). In front of the spirits he has distressed and offended, he is stretched out horizontally and rolled like a scroll from the left to the right, quite rapidly, then across in a different position, and so on, in almost every position, so that he is seen by all. Sometimes he is half-naked, dressed in clothes with which he tries to cover himself up, because he had been of that character in life. Thus he is turned in a horizontal position toward many quarters, being rolled around with the spirits looking on, and in this manner he is made to feel shame—evident from the fact that he does not want to be stripped of clothing.

He is likewise rolled around in another way, namely, head over heels, thus in a manner as when the axis is revolved not along the axis but crosswise to the axis. Then again, he is also rolled horizontally both to the right side and to the left, and then—and this is painful—to the right, like an axle being restrained. For two forces are in action, one turning around, the other going counter to it, being thus held back from the direction it is turning. This causes a pulling apart, and thus pain, due to the action of two forces while turning in one direction. The punishment develops from his defect and its fantasy and is a result of it, thus it comes from the defect and images it, which is amazing.

First, it’s necessary to understand that Spiritual Experiences is more of a journal than a finished work. It was not something Swedenborg planned to publish—though he did draw on the material in it for his published works. Spiritual Experiences was written over a period of two decades, from 1745 to 1765, and left in manuscript. The earlier parts were written while Swedenborg was still getting his bearings in the spiritual world, when he did not yet fully understand what he was seeing and hearing there.

Spiritual Experiences has to be read with this in mind, and with some caution about drawing hard-and-fast conclusions based on what is written there. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of fantastic and fascinating material in Spiritual Experiences! It just needs to be read in light of Swedenborg’s later, published works, where he writes with more experience under his belt and a better understanding of what it all means.

About that particular description in Spiritual Experiences #1696, although angels are mentioned in the previous section, they are not mentioned in connection with the punishment itself. And the following section makes it pretty clear that it is spirits, not angels, who are doing the monitoring and punishing. (You can read the sections before and after by clicking the “previous” and “next” buttons at the above link.)

“Spirits” here could mean fairly recent arrivals in the spiritual world who are still living in the “world of spirits” (the intermediate region between heaven and hell), and have not yet gone to their final homes in heaven or hell. Or it could mean evil spirits.

Who does the punishing in the spiritual world?

Once again, in the earlier parts of Spiritual Experiences, Swedenborg had not completely gotten his bearings in the spiritual world, so it’s not always clear exactly what he’s talking about. In his later works he usually identifies punishing spirits as evil spirits. He does, however, sometimes mention good but strict spirits who punish wrongdoers in the world of spirits in an effort to reform them. The punishers in Spiritual Experiences #1696 could have been this type of spirit.

Angels are capable of inflicting pain upon evil spirits who manage to venture up into heaven for less than noble purposes. But they do this more to protect themselves and scare the evil spirits away than to punish them. Angels have no desire to inflict pain on anyone. And in general, the pain is the result of the heavenly aura of love and truth that surrounds angels hitting the hellish aura of hatred and falsity that surrounds evil spirits, and inflicting pain due to the extreme dissonance of that collision of opposites. This is how angels protect themselves from being harmed by evil spirits.

In hell itself, punishments are not meted out by angels, but by other evil spirits. Evil spirits enjoy inflicting pain on others, and are always looking for an opportunity to do so. They get that opportunity when someone does something evil, which opens them up to retribution and punishment. And since evil spirits in hell love to do evil, and are always doing it whenever they can, there are indeed many punishments in hell.

If angels are involved at all, it is not to inflict punishment, but rather to stop evil spirits from getting completely out of bounds in the punishment and pain they inflict upon one another. The angels whose job is to serve as “prison guards” in hell are there primarily as a moderating influence, to keep the usual clash and conflict of hell from breaking out into an uncontrolled riot and conflagration.

For habitual wrongoers, pain and punishment is inevitable

So yes, there are punishments in hell. And no, the evil spirits in hell do not like everything about their existence. What criminal wouldn’t love to engage in a continuous life of crime without ever having to get arrested and imprisoned, or whacked by a competing crime ring, or suffer any negative consequences whatsoever?

Unfortunately, that’s just not how life works.

And even though criminals may not think of themselves as choosing to be in prison, consider this: When hardened criminals get out of prison, they regularly re-offend, committing the same crimes as before, and landing themselves right back in prison.

What would you call this?

In effect, they are choosing the punishment by choosing to commit the crimes. There is no reality in which people could commit all sorts of evil and criminal actions with no consequences. Any society that allowed this to happen would rapidly destroy itself. Nothing would be left but bodies in the streets.

Evil always has consequences, whether or not we experience them right away.

In short, when we choose the evil, we choose the whole package.

Surgeon General's Warning

Surgeon General’s Warning

Every time smokers buy a pack of cigarettes in the United States, they also buy the Surgeon General’s Warning on the side of the package. Many other countries require similar warnings.

Does it stop people from smoking?


Regular smokers ignore the warning and light up anyway, knowing very well that their smoking will most likely lead to a slow and painful death down the road.

You simply cannot do damaging and destructive things without causing damage and destruction. Evil is evil precisely because it is damaging and destructive. So when we choose evil, we are also choosing its consequences: pain, suffering, punishment, and misery.

These consequences may come immediately or they may come many years later.

But they will come.

And we know it—even if we ignore it and try to fool ourselves about it.

Evil people go to hell by their own choice

There’s really no excuse for the evil spirits in hell. You don’t get to hell unless you consciously and intentionally choose evil over good, knowing full well that it is evil, and knowing very well that bad things will happen as a result of this type of behavior.

No criminal is stupid enough not to realize that if he or she gets caught, there will be very unpleasant consequences such as prison, serious physical injury, or death. In fact, in countries that have a reasonably humane justice system, getting caught by the police and put in jail is generally preferable to getting brutalized or killed by the wrong victim who comes back for revenge.

Criminals make their choices knowing the risks. And the reality is that if you continue to act in an evil and criminal way, sooner or later those risks are going to become a reality. It’s just a matter of time.

So we can cry all we want for the evil spirits in hell. But nobody goes to hell without having chosen that life. Unlike in the material world where governments and courts are often corrupt, there are no miscarriages of justice in the spiritual world. No one goes to hell through a divine clerical error, nor does anyone get off on a legal technicality. The people who go to hell are those who knowingly and intentionally choose an evil life, being well aware of the implications and consequences of their choices, and having the ability to make a better choice if they so desired.

The “Baretta” theme song, by El Chicano:
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”

Truly evil people enjoy their evil actions

Although there are some people who veer off into a destructive and criminal life due to a completely screwed-up childhood or a damaged and malfunctioning brain, there are others who could very well have done something else, but who chose a life of crime because they liked that idea better doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Some criminals enjoy their life of crime. They aren’t criminals due to a mental illness or a shockingly bad childhood. (People who do horrible things due to forces beyond their control do not go to hell.) They are criminals because they truly enjoy gaining pleasure, money, and power for themselves at others’ expense.

  • Have you ever heard about a rapist who enjoys raping women (or men)?
  • Have you ever heard about  a thief who enjoys stealing?
  • Have you ever heard about a hit man who enjoys knocking people off?
  • Have you ever heard about an embezzler who enjoys skimming off as much money as possible?

These are the people who end out in hell.

And once they have made these choices and hardened themselves into a life in which they get their pleasure from inflicting pain and loss on others, there is no turning back—especially once they reach the spiritual world. It’s not that they aren’t allowed to leave hell. It’s that they have no desire whatsoever to do so. They sneer at good-hearted spirits and angels who try to remonstrate with them. And if they could, they would treat them exactly as the robbers treated the man who was later helped by a Samaritan:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. (Luke 10:30)

They would do this because that’s the sort of thing they enjoy doing to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches. (But in the spiritual world, God protects angels and good spirits from them.)

This is also what Jesus was talking about when he said:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)

Punishment is not the purpose of hell

So are there punishments in hell?

Yes there are.

But is punishment the purpose of hell?

No it isn’t.

The punishments in hell are simply an unavoidable consequence of the evil choices and actions of the people who live there. And those punishments are not inflicted upon them by angels, still less by God, but by their fellow evil spirits.

God does not want to punish anyone. And in fact, God doesn’t punish anyone, nor does God send anyone to hell, despite appearance to the contrary. Rather, God allows hell to exist so that people who have chosen evil will have somewhere to live that fits the motives and character they have chosen for themselves.

The purpose of hell is also to protect the innocent. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Do evil spirits really choose hell?

Could evil spirits get out of hell?

Theoretically, yes. No one is forcing them to be there. Not in an ultimate sense.

But in order to get out, they would have to make a different choice. They would have to choose to live from love, truth, and goodness rather than from hatred, falsity, and evil. And they have exactly zero interest in making such a change in themselves.

Technically speaking, they don’t “choose” to be in the prison of hell any more than technically speaking, criminals on earth “choose” to be in prison. They would rather be out wreaking havoc on good and innocent people.

But practically speaking, both criminals on earth and evil spirits in the spiritual world do choose to be in prison, or in hell. They choose to live in such a way that prison, or hell, is the only place they can live long-term. This is simply a reality because no society that failed to isolate and contain its hardened criminals could survive, let alone thrive. Not even the society of heaven.

So whatever the abstractions and technicalities may be, the pragmatic reality is that ultimately, choosing evil means choosing prison—if not here on earth, then certainly in the afterlife.

Another pragmatic reality is that in the afterlife, it’s not long before people who have chosen evil simply can’t stand to live anywhere else but in hell. If they try to stay anywhere else for very long, they begin to experience excruciating pain, they start to suffocate, and they feel as if they’re going to die. So they fling themselves back into their own home in hell, where they can breathe freely again.

Jesus described the same phenomenon in figurative language when he said:

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18)

(About Satan, please see: Is there Really a Devil? Why??)

In the spiritual world, people who love evil cannot breathe in the atmosphere of heaven, where everything reeks of goodness and love.

The primary purpose of prison and hell

Yes, prisons are de facto punishment.” But the primary purpose of prisons isn’t punishment. That is a secondary purpose. Prisons exist primarily to protect the innocent from the guilty.

We cannot let murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers, and so on wander around scot-free. If we do, they will kill, rape, steal, and embezzle away, and cause massive damage to many innocent people.

In some societies, people who engage in terribly damaging behavior receive the death penalty, not only as a punishment and a deterrent to others, but to ensure that they never harm another innocent person again.

Other societies have decided that the death penalty is unacceptable.

How can these societies prevent hardened criminals from hurting more and more innocent people?

Life in prison without the possibility of parole is the only other foolproof option. That’s because as soon as you let hardened criminals out of prison, they will immediately start looking for opportunities to get back into their old life of crime, and will once again start victimizing people. It’s what they do.

Of course, some people who go to prison do think better of their actions, and begin a new life when they get out.

But the people in hell are not casual offenders, nor are they about to think better of their actions. They are hardened criminals. And in hell there can be no death penalty because everyone is already dead.

If they were willing to live in such a way that they did not endanger and victimize innocent people, they could walk right out of hell. In fact, many of them are allowed to walk right out of hell, especially in the early stages.

Unfortunately, as soon as they do, they start victimizing people. This brings the inevitable consequences of excruciating punishment and pain, as described in Spiritual Experiences #1696 and elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings. And then they throw themselves back into hell in order to escape that pain and get back into an atmosphere where they can breathe freely.

Evil spirits choose hell by their actions

So do evil spirits choose to be in prison?

In a word: Yes.

They choose to be in prison by their actions, just as criminals on earth choose to be in prison by their actions. They know the law. They know that if they’re caught they’ll end out in prison, or worse. And they go ahead and do it anyway.

Isn’t that, in all practical reality, choosing to be punished, and choosing to be in prison?

And if you don’t believe me, take a listen to this: “Don’t Do the Crime,” performed by Kam feat, Above the Law, from True Crime: Streets of LA: The Soundtrack.

Warning: contains seriously foul and disturbing language

For further reading:


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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Posted in The Afterlife
6 comments on “Pain, Punishment, Prison, and Hell
  1. Frankly Frank says:

    Wondering if there’s sleep in hell. And if so are dreams in hell only nightmares? (lol?)

    ‘Cause I gotta tell ya some of the happiest sojourns in this life IMO is having a great dream. I could sleep for a million years right now, wake up once in a while, streeeeeetch, go back to sleep for another 200,000 years or so, and dream on. I could take that for heaven even. 🙂

    Frankly Frank

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      Yes, people in the spiritual world sleep just as people on earth do. And I presume they also dream just as we do. And I bet the ones in hell have some epic nightmares, too! And that the angels have some amazingly good dreams. And it wouldn’t surprise me if evil spirits have some good dreams also, and angels an occasional nightmare.

      I’ve often thought of dreams as sort of like being in a spiritual movie theater. It’s not real life in the spiritual world. But it’s a holographic theatrical production of themes running through our deeper mind. And psychologists who study sleep and dreams tell us that dreams help us to stay mentally balanced and healthy. Why wouldn’t that continue in the spiritual world?

      So I think you can look forward to some great dreams in the spiritual world. Not so sure about sleeping all the time, though! 😛

  2. Rob says:

    Do people in heaven dream? Do they dream of the people they love who are in hell?
    Would that be a nightmare?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yes, people in heaven dream. But the memory of those whom they had loved on earth but who chose hell instead of heaven fades away over time. Angels are not focused on their past life and relationships, but on their present life and relationships.

  3. Duane Armitage says:

    Hi Lee,
    Hope you’re doing well! I have been rereading some of your posts. Do you have one where you definitely say “how” to get to heaven?
    Best to you and thanks for everything !

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