Since heaven derives from innocence, its opposite, hell, would have to signify non-innocence. In other words, those who believe in self-power without relying on other-power will always fall into hell. When my ego’s purpose suddenly arises, I shoot into hell like an arrow. The purpose of the ego, according to Swedenborg, is self-love and worldly love. When the vault of hell is opened, the raging fire and smoke that one sees rising up is what springs from the blaze of these two loves. Those who are in hell in bodily form are completely consumed by these flames. As I said before, there is also heat in heaven, the heat of divine love. However, this heat is like the warmth of spring, and once this warmth flows into the blaze of hell, the blaze cools and becomes extremely cold. The heat of heaven acts in this mysterious way. Flowing from the depths of the Divine is a power that cannot be judged by human perception.
Swedenborg was allowed by the Lord to witness hell. A portion of his record reads:
The hells are everywhere, and their entrances, when looked into, appear pitch black. But those who dwell in them think it to be bright. This is because their eyes are adapted to this degree of light. The cave openings first extend inward, and then twist obliquely. Some plunge downward into a bottomless abyss, and appear like the caves of wild beasts. Other hells seem like the ruins of houses and cities after conflagrations.
The spirits living here are engaged in unceasing quarrels, enmities, fightings, and brutalities. Throughout the scorched city, bands of thieves and robbers swagger about. In some of the hells there are nothing but brothels, filled with every kind of filth and excrement. Again, there are thick forests in which spirits roam like wild beasts, and where, underground, there are dens into which those flee who are pursued by others. Some are wastelands where there is only sand. There are those who flee as far as such places. In particular, those who contrived intrigues and deceits while in the world are driven into the desert, where they must spend their lives.
I believe there is no one who has written as minutely about the nature of heaven and hell as Swedenborg. Dante skillfully applied his art, and he should be recognized as an exponent of medieval beliefs; but Swedenborg, with an intellectual faculty forged through science and with his amazing power of imagination and insight, exhaustively described the spiritual world. At first his writing seems ridiculous, but as you read on, you are drawn into it. Although it might contain a number of fantasies, it undoubtedly includes many truths as well.
Swedenborg said that heaven arises from love toward the Lord and knowledge of the Divine. Hell, conversely, is realized through love of self and love of the world, as well as through consciousness of both these loves. Heaven and hell are opposite poles. Recognizing these poles, Swedenborg made human beings the mid-point. Self-love means grabbing pleasure from others and gathering it only to yourself. Worldly love is the desire to make another person’s possessions your own. Those in the midst of this sort of love may wish to share their own enjoyment with others; but since the focus of that motive is still themselves, they do not increase the enjoyment of others, but instead reduce it. Swedenborg said he personally experienced this in the spiritual world. Before Swedenborg applied himself to religion, he was a prominent scientist, so he did not give abstract explanations. He taught through his own observations. Thus, in the spiritual world, he sensed that when an egotist merely approached a heavenly society, the level of enjoyment among the angels in that society would decline. Swedenborg said the degree of this decline was proportional to the intensity of self-love felt by infernal beings. He never explained by way of argument or speculation, but with the attitude of a scientist describing actual experiences. In this respect, he had a unique worldview.
Heaven is divine love, and hell is self-love, while we, in between, must decide our lot for ourselves. Swedenborg called this freedom equilibrium. I find it interesting how his choice of the word “equilibrium” demonstrates that he was a scientist. In any case, we are free and may head toward the love of heaven or love of hell as we please. Without free and independent action, true regeneration and salvation are not possible. Without freedom, we cannot act according to our own love. Love that flows from the internal originates with the Lord; but when we do not act from this love, we never attain our true life. Because the external comes from memory, it works only through thought, and conceptual living cannot save people. In all cases, it is necessary to express the internal will, for it is in this that correspondence with heaven may take place.
from Swedenborg, Buddha of the North by D. T. Suzuki