Dante and Our Obsession with Hell
While we don’t have a record of when the poet Dante Alighieri was born, many historians have dated May of 1265 his likely birth month based on autobiographical records, including his most famous work, the Divine Comedy. This is a poetic tale that begins in hell (Inferno), moves through purgatory, and finally ascends to paradise for a beatific vision. According to T.S. Eliot, both Dante and Shakespeare share the mantle of being the fathers of modern literature.
But Dante is remembered for more than his artistic and poetic acumen. The first part of the Divine Comedy, Inferno, is a best-selling classic on its own, and through it, we can observe the religious context and conflicts of Dante’s day. Throughout the centuries, “Inferno” has also played a large role in the development of Christianity, particularly in the Western Medieval church.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s the abbreviated version:
Midway through his life, Dante finds himself in a dark forest, lost both spiritually and literally. After being warned, famously, “abandon hope all ye who enter here,” our hero descends through with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide. While certainly meant poetically, the medieval imagination took Dante’s work as far more literal and didactic. Dante travels through Limbo where virtuous non-Christians such as Virgil and Socrates dwelt and subsequently travels through each of the nine circles of hell until he meets Satan, frozen in the center of the earth. In each circle of hell, Dante explains the sins committed and the nature of the punishment. Upon first reading of this first section of the Divine Comedy, I was left with the impression that this is the worst comedy ever.
But for a medieval Italian poet, there were only two kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies. A comedy wasn’t necessarily “ha ha” funny but always ended with a happy ending (as opposed to a tragedy). We do ourselves a great theological disservice when we stop reading after Dante’s “Inferno” however because while Divine Comedy as a whole ends well and provides the promise of paradise, the first section ends in overwhelming tragedy.
Even so, “Inferno” remains popular in its own right. Surely Dante would want us to follow the procession from hell, purgatory and into paradise for the Beatific Vision. But what he intended, and what history has fixated on, tell two different stories. While literary critics can perhaps explain why the Inferno is superior to the other two, I am content to see in Dante the obsession and codification of hell.
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One doesn’t need to dig too far into the literary criticism and theory to understand why “Inferno” plays to both our fears and curiosities. Our conception of, and fascination with, the “other place” has its genesis early in the life of Christianity: from the 6th century inclusion of “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed, to the Church Fathers who disagreed vociferously on the nature of hell and the afterlife, through Dante’s allegorical interpretation. But with a variety of views on the afterlife, especially regarding punishment, why has Dante’s Inferno cast such a long shadow over our western conception of hell? Perhaps it is the elegance of the poetry or the fact that it was a work without any parallels. As Dante travels down through his nine circles of hell, with sinners and sins ranked, we watch from a safe distance, possibly with a bit of Schadenfreude (a happy feeling that it is them, and not us who deserve such a fate). It seems to play to our desires to see evil punished, or at least the “evil” that others do. Dante and the Western church after him have been both obsessed with ranking sins, doling out appropriate punishments in the afterlife, and watching it all from a safe distance.
The Hebrew Bible is notoriously short on details regarding the afterlife. Whether an undefined Sheol or a vague “Abraham’s bosom,” the Old Testament Saints were unable to see into that farther country. The New Testament is also surprisingly short on details regarding the afterlife. While a parable or eschatological saying might hint at ultimate rewards, blessedness, or punishment, it seems that Jesus was less concerned with the details than Dante.
An exegetical study of the New Testament would distinguish between “Gehenna,” “Hades,” and the rarely used “Tartarus.” While we might say with confidence that “Gehenna” is some kind of judgment and “Hades” is a shadowy place for souls in transition, we should learn to speak with the ambiguity of Scripture, when it seems to be presenting us with such ambiguity. Frankly, the afterlife – specifically for the nonbeliever – is unclear, and it seems that God wants it that way for now.
Unfortunately, if we stop with Dante’s “Inferno” we may be attempting to peek into the inner sanctum of the Godhead, trying to decipher who will end up where, when and what their punishment might look like. While fixating on hell may make us feel better about ourselves at the moment, the tragedy is that stories or best guesses about the afterlife do not give us the good news.
And the good news is that we needn’t traipse through hell because Christ did it for us (1 Pet. 4:6). We don’t need to wonder with uncertainty in purgatory because in Christ we have the eternal “yes” of God (2 Cor. 1:20). While Dante may have assumed he would meet a Roman poet to escort him through the afterlife, I’m assuming that in 1321 when Dante met his maker, he was surprised that, with Jesus leading the way instead of Virgil, the trip was a lot shorter than he expected. And we, like Dante, can expect to hear on that day that we are translated from this life to the next: Well done my good and faithful servant, on account of Christ the gates of paradise have been opened.