Is there a Swedenborgian Devil?
Swedenborgians don’t talk about the devil very often. And there’s good reasons for that. It’s not really something that plays much of a role in Swedenborgian cosmology or spirituality. It’s kind of like the trinity: the times he talks about it is usually in the vein of “well, in the Christian church people believed a), but it’s really meant to mean b)…”
Swedenborg did not believe that there was an entity such as the devil. I’ll let him elaborate to start off my reflection:
“People in the world still believe that there is a devil who rules the hells and that he was created as an angel of light but was cast into hell with his gang after he led a rebellion. The reason for this belief is that the Word talks about the Devil and Satan, and about Lucifer as well; and in these cases the Word is understood literally.
However, in these passages the Devil and Satan mean hell. The Devil means the hell toward the rear where the worst people live, the people called evil demons; and Satan means the hell that is toward the front where the less malevolent people live, the people called evil spirits. Lucifer means the people who are from Babel or Babylon, the ones who extend their control all the way into heaven.
We can also see that there is no devil to whom the hells are subject from the fact that all the people who are in the hells, like all the people in the heavens, are from the human race, that there are millions there from the beginning of creation to the present day, and that everyone there is the kind of devil he or she became by opposition to the Divine while in the world.
Some people cherish the notion that God turns his face away from people, spurns them, and casts them into hell, and is angry against them because of their evil. Some people even go so far as to think that God punishes people and does them harm. They support this notion from the literal meaning of the Word where things like this are said, not realizing that the spiritual meaning of the Word, which makes sense of the letter, is wholly different.
So the real doctrine […], which is from the spiritual meaning of the Word, teaches something else. It teaches that the Lord never turns his face away from anyone or spurns anyone, never casts anyone into hell or is angry.” *
–Heaven and Hell §544-545
The times he uses the term “devil” or “satan”, he is referring to what he would consider obsolete beliefs, or uses it collectively, to mean “hellish communities”, communal states of spiritual darkness, within the overall cosmology of the heavens and the hells, which are states of being we inhabit while we are still on the earth.
So obviously the question of evil is addressed pretty thoroughly by Swedenborg. After all his best-seller is not called “Heaven”, but “Heaven and Hell”. One thing to note here that’s very different from a lot of other teachings is that Heaven and Hell are not places of reward or punishment. They are the states we freely choose to pursue.
Swedenborg is a strictly unitarian theologian. The idea of the one-ness of god plays a huge role. I already mentioned his rejection of tripersonalism, the idea that there is one god in three persons, which is a common understanding in many traditional forms of Christianity.
A view which is still commonly held in the Christian world, especially among its more literalist/fundamentalist manifestations, is this strong sense of dualism. The notion that there is God and there is the Devil, and they are these kind of polar forces which are constantly trying to win over our souls. Not only is the power of darkness often presented as an equal force, there often are implications that on this earthly realm, it is primarily darkness that reigns. The whole idea of “the world” as inherently bad. And of course, another idea Swedenborg strongly rejects, original sin. The idea that we are so much doomed to sin and darkness that we need some kind of “ransom sacrifice” to make us worthy of heaven. These according to his theology, are hellish beliefs. Heaven requires no dogma, no religion, no faith, and certainly no entrance fee. It is open to all who truly wish to enter into its state of unconditional love and care. We have free will to commune with any spiritual society we please, be it heavenly or hellish.
A necessary appearance…
Sometimes, it’s tempting to understand Swedenborg’s idea of heaven and hell in a dualistic way as well. I remember one of those cool trippy editions of the writings from the seventies. It had this picture on the front with this globe and on top of it was this angelic, Christ-like figure, and on the bottom, just mirrored, it had some kind of satanic creature. While it was really cool art, I think it misrepresented a core element of Swedenborg’s view of heaven and hell. Heaven and hell, according to Swedenborg, are not equals. They are anything but equal.
Yet, the APPEARANCE OF DUALITY is essential to our earthly spiritual experience while we are bound in this physical body. It falls into the category of “necessary appearances” (see Divine Providence §310***)
Besically, necessary appearances, in Swedenborg, are beliefs and perceptions which are ultimately false, but serve a fundamental function in our psycho-spiritual reality. The appearance of a seeming balance between heaven and hell, an equal playing field, serves the purpose of maintaining our freedom of choice. In fact, he claims that this dynamic is the reason for the first advent of the Christ, who had to restore balance between the two realms by means of his human-divine incarnation of god-consciousness. Just like the false but useful appearance that we are the sources of our own being, the appearance of a duality of good and evil serves as a tool for our eventual transcendence of the latter.
Good and Evil are not two polar forces pulling at us. Heaven is reality, hell is falsity.
I think the image that best illustrates Swedenborg’s concept of good and evil, of heaven and hell, is the image of the sun, his most common image of the divine. The relationship between good and evil is like the relationship between light and shadow.
Light, in an of itself has power, it has life, it is animated and animating. It is SUBSTANTIVE. Meaning, it has a substance of its own. Evil is like the shadows our body creates when exposed to the sun. It has no substance of its own. It’s a distortion created by something blocking the free flow of light. In short, Good IS truth, evil IS falsity. In other words, hell is charactarized by distortion and delusion, Heaven is characterized by truth.
Swedenborg goes so far as to say that God is the only thing which is truly substantive. Absolutely nothing else has life from itself. From an ant to a flower to a human being, the animating force which truly gives life and substance is Divine Love and Wisdom. If we wanted to be radically non-dualist, which I like to be, you could say that God is the only thing which TRULY exists.
So what’s the use of even bothering with this whole hell language? Can’t we just stick with Divine Love and Wisdom?
What would be so wrong with a book called just “Heaven”, not “Heaven and Hell”?! I personally think we would be missing out. Because what characterizes our human experience is the experience of light and darkness, as I think all of us can attest to.
Evil might not be substantive, it might only be a distortion of divine reality, but it sure is real in the sense that we are confronted with it daily as a matter of experience. All of our lives are characterized by an interplay of light and darkness. They “mark the set times, the days, the years”, as we read in Genesis. Without the presence of darkness, at least as a concept, we can’t move towards, and embrace and reflect the light.
Is God the cause of evil?
This does NOT mean that God causes darkness or pain or sadness. Or that he somehow uses them to test us. They simply come with the package of the ego, the proprium, the notion of ourselves as a separate entity, which is subject to suffering and death. Could it be that if nobody was there to consciously ask the question “is this right or wrong?” “true or false?”, is this “good or bad”, could it be that these two seemingly essential realities are really just a product of our distinctly human imagination? After all, what seperates us from other animals is our excessive self-awareness and self-identification. Our discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad as somehow transcentent realities?
The first time that Satan or evil comes into play in Abrahamic mythology is in the Garden of Eden, which, to Swedenborg and other esoteric thinkers, is not a historical place, but a metaphor for our original, animalistic state. Adam and Eve are just sort of chillin. And than this random lizard person comes and tells them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Note that it’s not the tree of evil, but the knowledge of good and evil. It is the tree that creates the egoic mind, which discriminates between the two. Also note that I did mean to say lizard person, not snake. Because if you think about it, it isn’t until after the “snake” tells eve and seeadam to eat the fruit, which, we should note, they eat of their own volition because it looks delicious, that God decides to curse the snake and have it crawl around on its belly. So that to me means that before that, it presumably had arms and legs, and it spoke English, I mean Hebrew. 😉
And it is here that what we know as the “human struggle” begins. It is not only something that comes with the package of being human, it is what makes us human, and enables us to seek out the light amid the darkness, I think with the ultimate aim of transcending both.
There was a kind of mystical experience which I had that really changed my own understanding of this idea. I was at a Mahayana buddhist temple up in Mendocino County in California, and had just meditated inside. And I walked out into the garden and meditated some more there. I reached this state of total calm, bliss, and sense of unity with creation. And as I was soaking in this experience, I noticed a beautiful bird of paradise, which was walking along the hedge I was sitting next to. And as it walked, it was picking up little bugs from within the hedge and eating them. And I noticed something profound in me. I noticed that this almost morbid display of earthly reality did absolutely nothing to interrupt the state of bliss and connectedness I was experiencing. It just was.
It was neither good nor bad, it just was. The taking and the giving of life. I had no sense of separation between myself, the bird, and the bugs. We all just WERE.
Those, I believe are glimpses of heaven. Glimpses of eternity, where we get temporarily pushed out of the egoic mind into the state of one-ness and timelessness.
Some people believe that we can permanently inhabit this state while still alive on the earth. I find this very hard to swallow, and I’m not aware of anyone I’ve been convinced was in a permanent heavenly state. Light and darkness are what makess us human, and allows us to rtruly experience growth, love, and re-connection. In our spiritual life, I truly believe we don’t have to focus on evil and darkness. Swedenborg thought that God was unable to even perceive sin and evil, a major difference between the egoic state and the state of god-consciousness. I believe that in Christ, we have an example of someone inhabiting both realms, and integrating them, calling us to do the same. A fascinating piece of Swedenborgian theologiy is that Christ, too, was not fully aware of his own divinity until the very end of his earthly journey. He struggled with the same inner devils as we do, and seriously and painfully struggled against his own inner darkness, setting the ultimate example of transcendence and eventual God-realization by “divining his human”. As we read in True Christianity §89 : “In his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do.”**
I believe that deep down, evil truly has no substance, no form, but is a perversion of divine truth.
We are not born evil. But some of us are denied our deeply engrained heavenly longings from an early age on: Comfort, safety, motherly and fatherly affection, acceptance, benevolence… and we develop skewed, distorted ways of seeking those out and in fact perpetuating our own trauma by hurting others. We are all, to one degree or another, on a misguided quest for light.
It’s easy for us to demonize. To project. To attribute our own faults and those of others to some abstract evil force or entity. But by doing so, we de-humanize not only the perpetrators of evil, but their victims as well. After all it is the de-humanization of people that is often at the core of harmful, controlling or dismissive actions.
I believe that we are all programed for, and destined for heaven. It’s not that it’s a straight and narrow path. It’s that the conditions of earthly life can be incredibly deceptive.
I invite us all to observe the next time we call something evil. In ourselves and in others. And rather than responding with condemnation and shame, let’s see if we can look beneath the face of evil and hate, and see the face of hurt, the face of darkness in desperate need of light. And when we can, let’s see if we can shine that light, knowing that darkness cannot withstand it.
Can we befriend our inner (and outer) devils?
What if we radically shifted our perspective, and stopped seeing evil as an entity, or a force, in and of itself, and looked at it as perverted, distorted light. What if we saw “evil” through our angelic eyes, which, according to the old Swede, see the true source, the true good, in all beings, and desire their happiness. I recall a friend taling about a beautiful tradition which exists in various cultures, including Tibetan Buddhism and African Animism: When making offerings, such as food, to deities and heavenly beings, some food is also set aside and offered to the demonic spirits, to the side. They are not ignored. They are acknowledged, and treated from a truly heavenly angle: one of care, compassion, and generosity. We can’t fight shadow with shadow. Within ourselves and with each other. I know that that’s going to be a lifelong struggle for me, but it’s a fight that’s worth fighting.
Swedenborg did not shy away from paying attention to his inner demons. He had countless conversations with them, without identifying them as originating in himself, without personal attachment. I think of him as a “holy watcher”, an observer who exposes himself to the full depth of spiritual reality, warts and all, as a means to cultivate that which brings us closer to the Source. Can we do the same? And can we do it with our angelic minds and hearts, which befriend, and never judge?
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Swedenborg, which brings us back to what truly lies at the core of his mystical theology:
“God shows mercy to everyone, loves everyone, and wants to make everyone happy forever.”**** –Arcana Coelestia §904
*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan S. Rose. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
****Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.
You can read and purchase all of the above works by Emanuel Swedenborg here: https://swedenborg.com/bookstore/new-century-edition/
Rev. Thom Muller is managing editor of Our Daily Bread at spiritualquesters.org, as well as pastor of Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, CA. His passions include interfaith spirituality, comparative mysticism, and the Western Esoteric Tradition.