How Many Hells did Swedenborg Say there Are?

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

Question:

In his essay “The Red Angel,” the British writer and literary critic G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) wrote:

If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg.

What is Chesterton talking about? How many hells did Swedenborg say there are?

Answer:

G.K. Chesterton is here referring to Swedenborg’s common (for him) and somewhat unusual (in general religious writing) expression “the hells.”

In his voluminous theological writings, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) spoke both of “hell” in the singular and of “the hells” in the plural, depending on the context and the point he was making. In fact, based on context and subject matter, there are three general answers to the question of how many hells Swedenborg said there were:

  1. One hell
  2. Three hells
  3. Too many hells to count

This arrangement draws on the philosophical and esoteric concept of “macrocosm and microcosm,” which is a fairly common theme in Swedenborg’s theological writings.

1. One hell

As in general religious usage, Swedenborg commonly refers to “hell” in the singular. For example, his very first reference to hell in his published theological writings occurs early in his first published theological work:

I have been taught about the different kinds of spirits, the situation of souls after death, hell, (or the regrettable state of the faithless), and heaven (or the blissful state of the faithful). (Secrets of Heaven #5, italics added)

In the opening paragraph of his treatment of hell in his book Heaven and Hell he uses both the singular and the plural in referring to heaven and to hell:

In the earlier discussion of heaven, it was made clear throughout (particularly in #2–6) that the Lord is the God of heaven and that the whole government of the heavens is in the Lord’s hands. Since the relationship of heaven to hell and of hell to heaven is like that of two opposites that act against each other, with the action and reaction yielding the state of equilibrium within which everything exists, in order for absolutely everything to be kept in this balance, it is necessary that the ruler of the one be the ruler of the other as well. That is, unless the same Lord controlled the attacks of the hells and restrained their madness, the balance would be destroyed; and if the balance were destroyed, everything else would go. (Heaven and Hell #536, italics added)

In Swedenborg’s usage “hell” in the singular refers to the entirety of hell, including all of its regions and parts—which are also individually referred to as “hells.”

2. Three hells

In line with Paul’s reference to “the third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2, Swedenborg stated that there are three heavens, forming three levels one above the other, or three rings of a concentric circle:

There are three heavens, very clearly distinguished from each other. There is a central or third heaven, an intermediate or second one, and an outmost or first. These follow in sequence and are interdependent, like the highest part of the human body, the head; the middle, or torso; and the lowest, or feet; or like the highest, middle, and lowest parts of a house. (Heaven and Hell #29)

Similarly, he said that there are also three hells opposite to these three heavens:

Because there are three heavens overall, there are also three hells overall. There is a deepest hell that is opposite to the inmost or third heaven; there is a middle hell that is opposite to the middle or second heaven; and there is a highest hell that is opposite to the outmost or first heaven. (Heaven and Hell #542)

Note that since hell is a distorted and inverted reflection of heaven, the highest, or least malevolent hell is opposite to the lowest, or least exalted heaven; and the lowest, or most malevolent hell is opposite to the highest, or most exalted heaven—similar to a mountain whose upside-down reflection appears in a lake.

3. Too many hells to count

In addition to speaking of all of heaven and all of hell collectively in the singular as “heaven” and “hell,” and in addition to speaking of there being three heavens and three hells overall, Swedenborg also stated that heaven and hell are divided into myriad communities, each of which is referred to as “a heaven” or “a hell” in its own right.

Further, even each individual angel can be referred to as “a heaven,” and by extension, each individual evil spirit in hell as “a hell.”

About heaven being distinguished and divided into communities, Swedenborg wrote:

The Heavens Are Made Up of Countless Communities

The angels of any given heaven are not all together in one place, but are separated into larger and smaller communities depending on differences in the good effects of the love and faith they are engaged in. Angels engaged in similar activities form a single community. There is an infinite variety of good activities in heaven, and each individual angel is, so to speak, his or her own activity. (Heaven and Hell #41)

About each angelic community and each individual angel being a heaven, Swedenborg wrote:

Each Community Is a Heaven in Smaller Form and Each Angel a Heaven in Smallest Form

The reason each community is a heaven in smaller form and each angel a heaven in smallest form is that the activity of love and faith is what makes heaven. This good activity is in every community of heaven and in every angel of a community. It does not matter that this activity is different and distinctive everywhere, it is still the activity of heaven. The only difference is that heaven has one activity here and another there. So whenever anyone is raised into any community of heaven, they say that he or she has arrived in heaven. They say of those who are there that they are in heaven, each in his or her own. All the people who have arrived in the other life realize this; so individuals who are standing outside or below heaven and looking off into the distance where there is a gathering of angels say that heaven is there—and over there as well.

It is rather like the situation of officials and functionaries and servants in a royal palace or court. Even though they live individually in their dwellings or in their rooms, some higher than others, still they are in a single palace or a single court, each one involved in a particular function in the service of the king. We can see from this what is meant by the Lord’s saying that “in my Father’s house there are many dwellings” (John 14:2) and by “the stories of heaven” and the “heavens of heavens” in the prophets. (Heaven and Hell #51)

Later he applies the same principle to hell:

Because hell is differentiated into as many communities as heaven is, there are also as many hells as there are communities of heaven. As each community of heaven is a heaven in smaller form (see #51–58), so each community of hell is a hell in smaller form. (Heaven and Hell #542)

Although I am not aware of any place where Swedenborg stated explicitly that each evil spirit in hell is a hell in smallest form, the inverse parallelism that he established between heaven and hell suggests that the same principle would apply to hell as well.

Based on this, if Swedenborg spoke of each community of hell as “a hell” (in smaller form), and by extension, if even each individual evil spirit in hell could be considered “a hell” (in smallest form), then according to Swedenborg there are too many of these smaller and individual hells to count.

What was Chesterton talking about?

This, I suspect, is what Chesterton was referring to when he wrote:

If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg.

Chesterton was apparently using Swedenborg’s countless hells as a rhetorical device to convey with a touch of wry humor the idea that small children can conjure up in their imaginations more scary monsters than it is possible to count.

(Note: This post is a slightly edited version of an answer I originally wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer 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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Posted in The Afterlife
8 comments on “How Many Hells did Swedenborg Say there Are?
  1. Hoyle says:

    How many hells are there? As many or as few as you want. The concepts of heaven, hell, God, afterlife, etc., are strictly figments of our imaginations. Swedenborg was, in large part, a product of his times just as we all are. He was certainly a great thinker, theologian, author, and possessed of other fine qualities, including degrees in physics, mechanics and philosophy. On top of that he was a “good ol’ boy” well liked by those who knew him. Wikipedia has a very good summary of the life of Swedenborg.

    Like many great thinkers throughout history, Swedenborg was possessed of some quirky ideas. At the age of approximately 56, he began having strange dreams and “visions”. He claimed to have had a dream in which the Lord appeared to him and appointed him to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Bible. One of S-borg’s subsequent works included the claim that the second coming of Christ had begun in 1757 and completed that same year and that he had witnessed it. These ideas were presented in his book “The Heavenly Doctrine”. In “Earths of the Universe” S-borg stated that he had conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus and the Moon as well as spirits from other planets beyond our solar system. Some of the “conclusions” he reached as a result of having dreams and visions were utterly preposterous. For sake of brevity, I will not list additional outlandish claims he made which can be viewed on Wikipedia.

    It could hardly be a coincidence that many church founders and religious leaders claim to have had visions from God which form the basis of their subsequent beliefs on the subject. Joseph Smith, Muhammad, Jim Jones, Swedenborg, Brigham Young, Jesus, various Popes, Native American Medicine Men, Ann Lee and the Shakers, Joanna Southcott, Mary Baker Eddy, Rebecca Jackson a black Shakers, Jemima Wilkinson, John Starkweather, John Alexander Dowie, The 1700s and early 1800s were an era of when visionaries and prophets were popular and attracted large followings.

    Like Swedenborg, if a visionary was well educated, intuitive, well spoken, well written, and a “salesperson”, their chances of attracting followers was greatly increased. It also provided as “free pass” to those who were either incapable or unwilling to think on their own. . “Godly Plagiarism” is a beautiful, ripe fruit easily plucked from its tree.

    Do not fear drawing your own conclusions but fear those who strive to make them for you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Hoyle,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your easy and breezy tone, while not agreeing with your general attitude that anyone who claimed spiritual experiences must have a few screws loose. You, of course, are free to believe that if you wish. But that will only limit your access to knowledge about anything other than the conditions of this physical universe. See: “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

      In response to some of your more specific points:

      Swedenborg was evidently not a very good “salesperson.” He published most of his works anonymously, and only began putting his name on them rather late in the game, when it became publicly known that he was the author of these works. Even then, he made no particular efforts to gain a following. He mostly confined himself to sending his books to various seminaries and libraries, and making them available for purchase very inexpensively. And though they did create a great stir, they produced very few followers for Swedenborg during his lifetime—and for that matter, not even all that many after he died, compared to the much larger following of some of the other colorful personalities you have listed.

      Swedenborg himself insisted that nothing should be believed on mere authority—his own or anyone else’s. Rather, he said, things should be believed only when they are seen and understood for oneself. People who simply believed what others taught them, he said, were possessed of a shallow “historical” faith, not a real faith.

      About Swedenborg’s book on life on other planets, see my article, “Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life.” Though Swedenborg was clearly wrong about the other planets in our solar system being inhabited, there is a long history of thinkers who believe that there are other inhabited planets in the universe, and many respected scientists today believe it is only a matter of time before we find them. So although Swedenborg’s specific view that all planets must be inhabited by intelligent life was faulty, the greater principle that there are likely other inhabited worlds in the universe is still a very live possibility in the minds of many thinking people.

      And once again, Swedenborg advised against accepting uncritically anything anyone—including himself—says. For more on the nature of Swedenborg’s writings, from my perspective, see: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?” As in reading any author, it is best to read Swedenborg’s theological writings with one’s thinking mind engaged, and not just blindly believe everything he wrote.

      And about the Last Judgment and the Second Coming, see: “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?

      It’s easy to reject as outlandish ideas that go beyond our current thinking and conceptions of the universe. It’s harder to take them seriously, and to expand our mind to encompass a greater understanding of God, spirit, and the cosmos in which we live. If you prefer to ridicule and make fun of ideas that you do not agree with and apparently do not fully understand, that is your choice. I prefer to take a larger view.

      • Hoyle Kiger says:

        Thank you for the feedback and the discussion. Far too many shy away from these type of exchanges.

        Everyone, including Swedenborg, is 100% correct in their own beliefs. I neither agree nor disagree with Borg’s conclusions. Who am I to judge? Nor is it my intention to ridicule anyone for their beliefs. However, I do believe in looking at the big picture that surrounds one’s point of view, especially when it is adopted by others. Based upon my reading of some of your earlier posts, it appears we both agree religion and faith is a collage of ideologies without limits. My scrutiny of other’s ideas and points of view is heightened when attempts are made to objectify and quantify the abstract nature of our existence and life’s purpose whether it be Swedenborg or anyone else.

        I encourage everyone to seek spiritual insights, not “answers”, through self-realizations however they may be acquired. Above all, be true to yourself.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          I’ve never been one to shy away from a good discussion or debate. Though these days I do my best to engage in them only when I think some good can come of it.

          I’m not sure what you mean by saying that “everyone . . . is 100% correct in their own beliefs.” Since some beliefs conflict with and flatly contradict others, that seems a stretch. Reality does have definite and specific characteristics, I believe.

      • unoo says:

        I always thought if there was 1 afterlife that’s true, Swedenborg would be the best of them all. But he said some weird stuff about aliens, I read a criticism about him (so Idk if true) that said he saw them in the same clothing that people of his area wore. Why would aliens be dressed like 1800’s Sweden?

        • Lee says:

          Hi unoo,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.

          Swedenborg did write about speaking with people from other planets in the spiritual world, including the then-known planets in our solar system. If he did speak with aliens, obviously he was wrong about some of them coming from our solar system, since we now know that none of the other planets in our solar system can support advanced life forms. For more on this, see my article, “Aliens vs. Advent: Swedenborg’s 1758 Book on Extraterrestrial Life.”

          As for the clothes they were wearing, I’m not a clothing historian, so I can’t say if his descriptions match clothing styles in 18th century Europe. My impression is that most of them are dressed fairly simply, in what we might call peasant garb. And though popular science fiction generally has aliens wearing mod and outlandish garb, I see no particular reason why people of the simple, non-technological cultures Swedenborg described as inhabiting other planets wouldn’t wear similar types of clothing. Peasant garb is pretty basic and functional. On at least one planet he describes the clothing as something like a wrap around the body, which presumably did not match what people in the 18th century wore, except perhaps in Asia, with which Swedenborg wasn’t particularly familiar. Anyway, there are only so many practical ways to clothe the human body. I don’t see why human-shaped aliens would wear clothing in ways we have never conceived of before. Just a few of my own thoughts on the subject.

          About Swedenborg’s writings in general, and how I view them, please see: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?” Swedenborg never claimed to be infallible. As with reading any author, it is good to read with our thinking mind engaged, and not just blindly accept everything he says as authoritative and true just because he said it.

        • Unoo says:

          Thank you. I find your blog very helpful

        • Lee says:

          Hi Unoo,

          You’re welcome. Glad to hear it!

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