Dante Alighieri wrote the narrative poem, The Divine Comedy, in the late 1300s. The poem is divided into three parts: Inferno (hell); Purgatorio (purgatory); and Paradiso (heaven). It is widely considered to be the greatest literary work in Italian history, and is counted among the world’s best literature. While relatively few people today have read it, Western culture and Christianity have been profoundly influenced by it. More specifically, The Comedy has influenced Western ideas about hell.
Dante was, by all accounts, a Christian and, while the Comedy derives largely from his imagination, it also represents the theology of his time. For Dante and his culture, hell was a place of torment established for those who had lived wicked lives on earth. The best-known line from the poem is the inscription over hell’s gate, which ends with the phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” or, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
What comes as a surprise or even an offense to many is that the idea of hell as a place of torment is virtually absent from the Bible. The Bible certainly speaks about judgment. It even says in many places that the wicked will be thrown into an everlasting (or unquenchable) fire. But somehow, there has been what I would call and interpretive misalignment with respect to the fire. While the passages state that the fire is unquenchable, interpreters have decided that those thrown into the fire would survive it in an everlasting affliction. This is strange, given that, in all human experience, that which is thrown into a powerful fire is burned to ashes. Think: cremation.
Ironically, at one of the low points in the history of the Church, “heretics”, “witches” and such, were actually burned at the stake. You would think the visual proof of the fires would have resulted in some revision of thought about hell’s impact. Apparently not. Perhaps, as some say, the wicked are merely spirits and the fire they endure is a searing affliction of their souls. Or perhaps it is thought that God provides the wicked with imperishable bodies, the same as has been promised to the elect.
There is one biblical, historical account of individuals surviving a roaring fire. In that account, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were thrown into a raging fire for refusing to worship the image of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. An angel joined them in the flames and, after awhile, the three men walked out of the fire, unsinged and not even smelling of smoke. Based on this passage, one might be tempted to believe that the ability to survive fire is a reward from God, in recognition of righteousness.
There is one other biblical account that speaks clearly of hell as a place of fiery torment. This example comes from the allegory of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Much has been inferred from this account about the literal nature of hell. This is certainly error. When considering metaphors, parables, or allegories, extracting theological principles from their various elements is a sure way to generate confusion and falsehood. The essence of the story is a condemnation of the religious establishment and its love of power, money, and luxury. The particulars of the story reveal how it cannot be understood literally or historically. The rich man is described as being tormented in the flames of hell, but he is also described as holding a conversation with Abraham, across a great chasm, as if they were comfortably chatting across a dinner table. The rich man says he is in flames and is tormented, but the only specific allusion he makes to his suffering is a parched tongue, for which he requests a few drops of water. Of course, any tongue that desperate for water would be incapable of conversation in the first place. There are numerous other elements in the allegory that prove it is not a literal account of anything, much less a revelation about the nature of hell. But the idea of hell being a place of torment took hold in Western culture, and one of the primary reasons was Dante’s literary masterpiece.
Can The Divine Comedy be understood as a “Christian” writing? Clearly it was written within a Christian culture, and its structure of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven was intended to describe the Christian view. But was it orthodox? We should begin to be suspicious about this when we see that Dante’s vision has him escorted through hell by the Roman poet, Virgil. Dante considered Virgil to be his mentor, so it was natural for him to choose him as his guide through hell. While scholars believe Virgil may have been acquainted with Judaism, his religious thought was primarily rooted in Roman paganism. In any case, Virgil lived before Jesus and would certainly not have had any insight into Christianity.
What about Purgatory? Is that a Christian concept? Purgatory was formalized at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, so the idea was a bit of a latecomer. Protestant churches have subsequently repudiated the concept of Purgatory as extra-biblical. It remains one of the major points of contention between Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church. Note that Dante’s writing was done about a century after the Roman Catholic church formalized the concept.
And what about heaven? Dante’s guide through the Paradiso was Beatrice. Who was Beatrice? For Dante, Beatrice represented an idealized woman, and he imagined her to represent the splendor of Christian revelation itself. Apparently, Dante had known and been enamored of a real Beatrice since when he had met her at age 9. She is usually identified as Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a noble Florentine family. Unfortunately for Dante, she married Simone de’ Bardi and died at the age of 24. So, not that we should disparage obsessive, romantic love, magnified and protracted by the absence of a real relationship…well, maybe we should disparage it. But, in any case, we certainly should hesitate to accept proclamations about the nature of heaven that are inspired by a delusional passion.
But, back to the primary concern, the Inferno. Christians appreciate the Inferno for drawing attention to the fact that there are negative consequences that are specifically related to sins. Arrogant, careless drivers eventually end up in serious accidents. Sexual promiscuity often leads to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted children, abortions, broken homes, as well as cynicism about the connection between sex and love. Those who steal frequently suffer the violent repercussions of those who are unhappy about having their property stolen. And so it goes, generally, for all evil behavior.
But we cannot read Dante without noticing that many of those he places in hell are individuals he despises. For example, Pope Boniface VIII made a concerted attempt to increase the political might of the Catholic Church. This made him a political enemy of Dante, who advocated a separation of church and state. Dante settled his score with Boniface by placing him within the circles of Fraud, in the bolgia of the simoniacs. Filippo Argenti, a Black Guelph and thus a political enemy, was placed in the River Styx, along with all other wrathful people. Guido da Montefeltro, an advisor to Pope Boniface VIII, was promised anticipatory absolution—forgiveness for a sin prior to commission. Dante placed Da Montefeltro in the eighth bolgia of the eighth circle of hell.
Whether Dante had good reasons to publicly criticize selected contemporaries is not the issue. The problem lies with Dante imagining that he could determine who would end up in hell. Christianity recognizes that salvation is by grace and that none who enter heaven are deserving. Since all Christians are undeserving of heaven and, yet, forgiven, the Christian is to respond with grace towards others. It is not for Christians to wish punishment on the wicked. It is for Christians to pray for the wicked in hopes that they will repent, become contributors to society, and join in the everlasting fellowship of the Kingdom. Furthermore, the activity of judging who will end up in heaven or hell is a forbidden practice. God reserves judgement for himself, for the obvious reason that he is the only one whose judgement is guided by all knowledge.
There is a streak of vindictiveness that permeates the Inferno. This vindictiveness and Dante’s creativity in designing punishments to “fit” crimes have both carried forward into 21st century culture. We live in a world that does not believe in hell or in God or in judgment and, yet, echoes of Dante remain. Consider the following humorous examples: “If there is a hell, it is modeled after junior high.” – Lewis Black. “Maybe there is no actual place called hell. Maybe hell is just having to listen to our grandparents breathe through their noses when they’re eating sandwiches.” – Jim Carrey. “Heaven is where the French are chefs; the Italians are the lovers; the British are the police; the Germans are the mechanics; and the Swiss make everything run on time. Hell is where the British are the chefs; the Swiss are the lovers; the French are the mechanics; the Italians make everything run on time; and the Germans are the police.” – anonymous. “Was Dad in hell, which might be very much like his own home? Boxes of junk around, an eternity of small thoughts and stupefying routines, dumb jokes, endless polkas played by a band with two trumpets, both slightly sharp.” – Garrison Keillor. A cartoon has a devil talking to a woman shopper. “This is hell, madam. Everything you try on will make your butt look big.” A newsman is interviewing a Congressman. “Congressman, the country is going to hades in a hand basket. What are you going to do?” “Invest in hand baskets.” A devil is orienting a new arrival. “The good news is you can smoke wherever you like. The bad news is that you’ll be smoking because it will be you that’s on fire.” The Divine Comedy is a brilliant work of art, but it is the Inferno that people find most interesting. No one talks about or remembers the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. I don’t think it’s justice that captures readers—it’s vindictiveness, it’s the creativity applied in the making of people miserable. It’s a venture into sadism.
Dorothy Sayers provided a highly regarded translation of the Divine Comedy. She noted, “Dante has grasped the great essential which is so often overlooked in arguments about penal reform, namely the prime necessity of persuading the culprit to accept judgment. If a man is once convinced of his own guilt, and that he is sentenced by a just tribunal, all punishment of whatever kind is remedial, since it lies with him to make it so; if he is not so convinced, then all punishment, however enlightened, remains merely vindictive.” I puzzle over this observation by Sayers. While it seems to be a relevant insight for penal reform on earth, it’s difficult to see how this applies to a hell where all punishments are permanent. In a permanent hell, whether a person comes to recognize his guilt is irrelevant. Remediation is not possible. Repentance is pointless. One is only left to wonder whether the punishments actually fit the crimes, or greatly exceed them. There is no penal purpose to be found in Dante’s vision of hell.
But if the Divine Comedy is not a particularly Christian work, just where did it come from? It doesn’t take a great deal of looking to see how very much the Inferno owes to Greco-Roman mythology. We’ve already noted Dante’s appreciation for the pagan, Virgil. There are other examples of pagan influence, such as Charon, who Dante appropriates from Greek mythology. Charon is an old man who ferries souls across the River Acheron to Hell. Then there is Minos, a king of Crete in Greek mythology. In the Inferno Minos is a giant beast who stands at the second circle of Hell and judges which circle of Hell each new arrival is to be sent to. Dante makes references to a myriad of characters, myths, and legends that take place in Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Allan Gilbert, in his book, “Dante’s Conception of Justice”, is pretty sure of Dante’s thought sources. “If we would enter into Dante’s conception of justice, we must follow the road prepared by St. Thomas. With our admiration of the Divina Commedia we may properly mingle gratitude to the mediaeval scholar whose patient analysis of Aristotle furnished fuel to the fire of Dante’s genius.” The Divine Comedy is a product of syncretism. Dante’s heavy reliance on Greek mythology resulted in a great work of art that represented Christian thought at the time, but which was also heavily influenced by Aristotle. In short, the Inferno represents a very muddled version of Christian theology.
The Divine Comedy is a great piece of literature and an important work that, much like Shakespeare and the Bible, has permeated Western culture. Reading it is extremely helpful to those who wish to understand the culture in which they are planted. But it also must be understood for what it is: a great work of fiction. If we are to understand the true nature of hell, the Inferno must be set aside as a source of confusion, much more than as a source for understanding.