Good, Evil, and Free Will—You Decide

Swedenborg Foundation

by Hanna Hyatt

If you have begun to dabble in Swedenborg’s many works, you might have seen references to influx, a term that’s often rendered as “inflow” in newer translations. Are you curious about influx? Have you wondered how this divine influence relates to free will? What does Swedenborg say about how the interplay between good, evil, and freedom impacts a person’s spiritual life?  If you want to know more, you’ve arrived at the right place!

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It is common knowledge that we can’t reach out and grab part of the sun. We can only feel the sun’s light through layers and layers of atmosphere. Swedenborg compares the physical reality of the earth with the spiritual reality of heaven and hell. In the same way that approaching the physical sun would destroy our bodies, he tells us that coming into direct contact with God—whom Swedenborg describes as love itself—would completely overwhelm us. We need the layers of separation to turn an immense energy into a nurturing, sustaining force.Swedenborg focuses on this comparison in his book Heaven and Hell, where he describes the nature of the Lord’s love, the relationship between physical and spiritual reality, and the Lord’s goal for humanity: to receive his love and “pay it forward” by behaving in loving ways toward others. Swedenborg writes that God’s love reaches humanity through angels, who help human beings reach the Lord. Once loving ideas and concepts reach people, their minds and souls receive God’s love, which begins to influence the way they perceive the world.

Through his spiritual experiences, Swedenborg found that before people can begin deciding whether or not they want to act on that divine influence, three important processes must happen backstage: the combination of influx, evil influences, and freedom.

Influx

Influx happens when the Lord’s love reaches people’s minds, and Swedenborg writes that our lives depend on it: “We could not survive for a moment if the influx from the spiritual world were taken from us” (New Jerusalem #277). The life-sustaining force that flows into us from God, he continues, is love. If we embrace this love and try to listen for the “little voice” of conscience that it produces, it provides the loving thoughts and inclinations that enable us to love others and embody good ideas. These are our good influences, also known as influx.

If influx were our only influence, we would be nothing more than vessels for the Lord’s love, without any ability to decide how to act or even think. Goodness would be thrust upon us, and we would not be free. We would be nothing more than very loving robots. Swedenborg writes that the Lord protects us against this by allowing us to be exposed to evil.

Evil Influences

Swedenborg focuses on the love of self as one of the primary hellish loves. He notes that the Lord gives us the ability to love hell through all the ways we can love ourselves—valuing success and popularity, making idols of our strengths, and admiring ourselves above all others. With this idea, the Lord allows hell to reach into our lives and influence us, just as his influx influences us. By allowing us to suffer from other people’s selfish decisions, Swedenborg says, God gives us the tools to recognize this behavior as evil. In this way, the Lord gives us freedom to choose between good and evil and make our own decisions.

Swedenborg writes that evil influences are the only way that human beings can be free. While the Lord is providing all good things through heaven, hell is providing us with fuel to love ourselves and the world, to reject all good things and love evil. These two forces working in opposition give us two paths to choose between, and those choices form our character.

Freedom

Through our thoughts and through our values, the Lord’s love meets the influences of hellish love. We have the freedom to think that we want to love others and that we want to love ourselves—which in Swedenborg’s theology are two mutually exclusive things—without skipping a beat. We are the mixing bowl where everything good and bad jumbles together, making it hard to figure out and isolate the good or the bad. From situation to situation, we apply both good ideas and bad ideas, usually with mixed motives and confused influences.

That confusing concoction is called freedom, and Swedenborg tells us that the Lord adores it and protects it fiercely, as Swedenborg notes in his book Divine Providence: “The Lord protects our freedom the way we protect the pupil of our eye” (#97).

We are able to make decisions freely if and only if our heads are breathing the air in the sky with the angels and our feet are planted solidly on the ground, where hell can reach us and influence us. Swedenborg uses this airy imagery to illustrate the Lord’s love for our freedom: “Taking away human spiritual freedom would be like removing the wheels from coaches, the air-catching arms from windmills, the sails from ships” (True Christianity #482).

For people struggling with selfish impulses or negative emotions, influx also allows for divine love and good influences to flow in and provide support. It also supplies us with everything we need to connect with hell. If we go through life searching for the good and the Lord’s love, Swedenborg says, the Lord will continue to open our hearts and minds and allow us to receive more of his love. This leads to an apparently contradictory yet key principle of Swedenborg’s theology: The only way we can freely choose to follow the Lord is if he allows us to leave him.

A recurring image from Swedenborg’s writings is that the Lord’s sunlight warms us, just as the air we breathe fuels us and the ground we stand on gives us balance. We need all influx, evil influences, and freedom to be able to think and act for ourselves—that, he explains, is the only way that human beings are able to love the Lord from their own hearts and minds.

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