Throughout his theological writings, Swedenborg emphasizes the importance of personal choice—of taking responsibility for one’s actions regardless of one’s circumstances. In Heaven and Hell section 364 he writes:
Poor people do not get into heaven because of their poverty but because of their lives. Our lives follow us whether we are rich or poor. There is no special mercy for the one any more than for the other. People who have lived well are accepted; people who have lived badly are rejected.
Poverty can actually seduce people and lead them away from heaven just as much as wealth can. There are many people among the poor who are not content with their lot, who covet much more, and who believe that wealth is a blessing; so when they do not get what they want, they are enraged and harbor evil thoughts about divine providence.
In a footnote to the phrase “. . . who believe that wealth is a blessing,” he adds that wealth and status can be either a curse or a blessing, and therefore both good and evil people might have what we tend to think of as a privileged life. He expands on that thought in Divine Providence section 216 and following, where he points out that love of money and social status for its own sake leads to the ultimate curse: hell. It’s only when wealth is combined with a love of service that it becomes a blessing—a sentiment Pope Francis would surely applaud.
So what, according to Swedenborg, is the root of evil? He describes it concisely in his short work Life, sections 92–93:
Everyone knows on the basis of the Word and teachings drawn from it that from the time we are born our self-centeredness is evil and that this is why we have an inborn compulsion to love evil behavior and to be drawn into it. We are deliberately vengeful, for example; we deliberately cheat, disparage others, and commit adultery; and if we do not think that these behaviors are sins and resist them for that reason, we do them whenever the opportunity presents itself, as long as our reputation or our wallet is not affected.
Then too, we really enjoy doing such things if we have no religion.
Since this self-centeredness is the taproot of the life we lead, we can see what kind of trees we would be if this root were not pulled up and a new root planted. We would be rotten trees that needed to be cut down and thrown into the fire (see Matthew 3:10; 7:19).
This root is not removed and a new one put in its place unless we see that the evils that constitute it are harmful to our souls, and therefore want to banish them. However, since they are part of our self-centeredness and therefore give us pleasure, we can do this only reluctantly and in the face of opposition, and therefore by doing battle.
So, Swedenborg tells us, it’s not social inequality that leads to evil, but rather our own inherent selfishness. It’s the choices that we make and our response to difficult situations that determine whether we will ultimately end up in heaven or hell.