I read Dante for the first time in my ninth grade English class at McNeil High School. I have hazy memories of my teacher lecturing about the first few circles of Dante’s inferno, but the mental image of the ninth circle has been seared on my mind. I can always picture Dante’s Satan, frozen in ice from the waist down, flapping his ungodly wings. My teacher told us that the Emperor of Hell wanted to ascend back into heaven. In his hubris, he wished to fly upward back to his celestial origin. Perhaps he wanted to fight God again and win this time. But the cold air from the flapping of his wings kept the lake frozen and himself stuck.
The next time I heard someone mention Dante was in my freshmen Bible class on the New Testament. My professor taught us about the word “Gehenna,” the trash heap in the Valley of Hinnom where children had been sacrificed to idols (2 Chronicles 33:6). For the rest of my time in seminary, a professor might make an offhand remark contrasting “what the New Testament actually says about hell” and “what we get from Dante.” My overall impression was that Dante was not your friend if you wanted to know the truth about hell.
These memories all came to mind when I started 100 Days of Dante, the world’s largest Dante reading group. Starting September 8th and ending on Easter 2022, the reading group takes on three cantos from the Divine Comedy per week. If you’re interested, listen to Ralph Wood teach on the first Canto here. The reading group has finished the Inferno, so I thought it would be good to reckon with what I was taught about Dante.
I remember now that some of my professors were making a rather mild point. If there was such a thing as the New Testament’s view of hell, my professors said that it was obscure. They told me that biblical scholars don’t really know if the authors of the New Testament had a firm grasp on the details of hell. Does hell exist? What is hell like? How long do the damned stay there? Don’t go to the New Testament to find a clear treatise with answers to these questions. I got the impression from my teachers that any knowledge about the details about hell is like deciphering the numbers in the Book of Revelation. It was my understanding that real scholars would humbly acknowledge that hell is shrouded in mystery.
Dante, I was told, thought the Bible’s picture of hell was crystal clear. Some of my professors weren’t surprised by Dante’s confidence. He was just a product of his cultural milieu, which included the Roman Catholic Church in general and Thomas Aquinas in particular. At best, my professors credited Dante with a vivid imagination. At worst, Dante was seen as responsible for making hell “medieval” in the pejorative sense of the word.
The most negative comments about Dante didn’t come from my professors, but from fellow seminarians. We believed that Dante wasn’t just overreaching. He was simply wrong about hell. We (i.e. Enlightened Graduate Students) knew that Christ and the New Testament would be opposed to Dante’s image of hell. Gehenna was just a trash heap, “hell on earth” as it were. If there is a hell in the afterlife, it is temporary and all souls will eventually end up in heaven. Even if we didn’t wear a badge saying we were universalists, we basically turned hell into a different kind of purgatory. In the end, hell would be emptied and love would win.
What really got under our skins was the pastoral problem we believed Dante created. Through his influence over Western Christianity, Dante gave us a bad inheritance, the false idea that hell is a place of eternal pain. Sure, the Florentine may have been a poetic genius, but he has been and continues to be a theological stumbling block. We never lumped Dante in with Arius or Marcion, but he was only a few steps away from the arch-heretics.
These are the criticisms, most of of which I shared at the time. My goal now is to offer a defense of Dante, a specifically pastoral apologia rooted in Scripture and the tradition. My thesis is simple: Dante is not the bad guy.
Let’s start off with a question. Whose teachings might have inspired Dante? He was undoubtedly influenced by the Catholic Church. However, given that he put some popes in the deepest circles of hell, it is difficult to argue that Dante was simply parroting the teachings of the medieval church. The inescapable answer is that Dante’s images of hell leap off the pages of the gospels.
Where did Dante come up with the image of a fiery hell? He read it in the gospels, where Our Lord preaches, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt 5:22). The Greek word for fire is πυρός, where we get “pyro” and “pyrotechnics.”
Why are so many of the occupants of Dante’s inferno weeping? In the ninth circle, traitors’ tears are frozen onto their faces. Is it unreasonable to believe that Dante found this image in the words of Jesus? “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:28).
Why does Dante think the sinners in hell are stuck forever in their doom? Because the Bible told him so. In his famous parable of the sheep and goats, Christ says some “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). If all Christians believe heaven is eternal, why would Dante think hell is temporary? It makes sense that Dante’s hell is permanent.
Perhaps the first centuries of Church Fathers read Jesus differently than Dante. Maybe when Constantine came along (that royal symbol of all things bad in church history), biblical interpretation took a turn for the hellish. We could look back, read biblical commentaries, and find a theological “fall” from universalism to something more gloomy.
This “turn” or “fall” never happened. The classic interpretation of hell is present far before Constantine.
- In the early second century, Ignatius wrote, “Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him” (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1–2).
- A few decades later in 150 AD, Clement wrote, “If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment” (Second Clement 5:5).
- In the next century, Hippolytus wrote, “To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment” (Against the Greeks 3).
- In the early 300s AD, Lactantius wrote, “The sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding forever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire” (Divine Institutes 7:21).
The great theologians and doctors of the church repeat this interpretation of Christ’s words over and over again.
Outside of the biblical text, Dante had another great reason to believe in hell. Dante’s church professed its existence in the Apostles Creed: “He descended into hell.” Dante actually wrote the story of Christ’s descent into the Inferno. In Canto 12, Virgil explains to Dante the Pilgrim that a mass of boulders tumbled down because Christ’s harrowing of hell triggered an earthquake.
“Perhaps thy thoughts are of this ruin’d steep / Guarded by the brute violence, which Have vanquish’d now / Know then, that when I erst Hither descended to the nether hell / This rock was not yet fallen. But past doubt (If well I mark) not long ere / He arrived, Who carried off from Dis the mighty spoil / Of the highest circle, then through all its bounds / Such trembling seiz’d the deep concave and foul, I thought the universe was thrill’d with love / Whereby, there are who deem, the world hath oft Been into chaos turn’d: and in that point / Here, and elsewhere, that old rock toppled down.”
Christ’s teachings, the Fathers’ writings, and the Apostles’ Creed all shaped Dante’s Inferno, not the other way around. Dante had an imagination beyond what many of us could ever achieve, but Dante’s Inferno was not a theological departure from his predecessors nor an invention in the 1300s.
I’m also a pastor, so I can’t help thinking about the people in the pews. Don’t we all know Christians who hate the doctrine of hell? Are pastors cruel to their parishioners who don’t need another hell-fire-and-brimstone sermon after a childhood full of them? Haven’t we all known a friend interested in our faith who walked away because hell was a bridge too far?
These anecdotes are real and tragic. My point is not to minimize these challenges. However, my recent experience has changed my perspective. When I have preached about hell at my church, my parishioners appreciate it. They don’t put a fist in the air and say, “They’re all gonna burn!” They nod their head like a patient hearing a doctor give them a straightforward and difficult diagnosis. They’re glad I’m talking about hell – not because it’s easy to hear, but because it’s true.
Other Christians (who aren’t so safe and secure in Austin, Texas) have been glad to hear about hell, but for a different reason. Miroslav Volf writes in Exclusion and Embrace about the connection between the violence of war and God’s divine judgment. “I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone to people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.” He concludes: “It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.” In other words, divine judgment is good news to those who have been the victims of human depravity.
Bracketing my anecdotal experience, I think it’s often assumed rather than proven that hell is a “hard teaching” in our culture. Some of the data we have gives us a more complicated picture. Pew Research conducted a Religious Landscape Study in 2014 and included questions about hell. In 2014, they found that 58% of adults believed in hell in 2014, including 27% of unaffiliated, religious “nones” who believed in hell. Married people, praying people, and parents were more likely to believe in hell. Smaller household incomes meant that you were more likely to believe in hell.
But even if hell is real and many Americans believe in it, a pastor might say that the Christian in the pew may not need to know about Dante’s version of hell. However, Dante the Pilgrim was similar to the average Christian in the pew. He was terrified of exploring the stinking funnel of hell. We see him faint multiple times during his pilgrimage. And yet, Dante was glad he went all the way to its depths in order to come out the other side.
In other words, our fear of hell is exactly what we need to explore.
In many of the circles of hell, Dante the Pilgrim expresses hesitancy about moving to the next circle. He doesn’t want to go further, but Virgil pushes him along so that he confronts the reasons why people from his hometown end up in hell. Dante should not walk away from these condemned souls feeling righteous about his own virtue. Dante is not self-righteous or self-assured. The sins punished before his eyes look a whole lot like his sins, for which he has but time left on earth to address.
For example, in Canto 30, Virgil rebukes Dante for watching two damned men feud with each other. Dante has the vulgar desire to watch their fight and enjoy their dispute. But because of Virgil’s rebuke, Dante the Pilgrim discovers that he has a sinful tendency to watch petty arguments like a voyeur peeping through a window.
As we read Virgil reprimand Dante, we should feel the rebuke ourselves. Do we enjoy watching petty arguments play out on Twitter? Do we obsessively read the comment box below a blog post? Do we love drama in our office and gossip at church? Reading Dante’s Inferno is like looking in a mirror that shows you the ugliness of your own soul.
Who reads Dante and walks away confident in their own goodness? The more likely scenario is to put down the Inferno and walk away sad. We hope we don’t walk away like the rich young ruler who intends to hold onto his wealth and lose Christ. We hope to fall at Christ’s feet, aware of our wickedness, and plead, “Have mercy upon me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
Dante shows us that Sartre is wrong. Hell is not other people. Hell is yourself – the Self swamped by sin. Hell is getting stuck in a static and permanent rejection of God. Without Dante’s help, we might think Hell is an external and cruel punishment from God. With Dante’s help, we see that each and every sinner chose their fate in their life and after their death.
Indeed, hell is “the truth seen too late,” at which point you can’t repent, change, or turn. Dante wants you to read his book and, while you still can, repent and turn to the loving God who made you. Dante starts his story “in the midway of this our mortal life,” which is an ancient version of a mid-life crisis. Dante is saying, “You still have time!”
Rod Dreher got the message from Dante and wrote about it in his book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher read through the Inferno when he was in his own dark wood. At the time, he could only see the sins of his family. Dreher was like the Pharisee crying out to God, “Thank you that I’m not like them!” (Luke 18:11). Dante helped guide Dreher to look inward at his own sin. That’s why the Inferno is not a medieval invention of cruelty. The whole Divine Comedy is medieval medicine. Reading Dante will shine a light in every dark crevice of your heart.
Dante is not the bad guy. He was willing to stare into the Abyss to be open to the sanctifying grace of God. It’s no wonder that at the bottom of hell, Dante and Virgil climb up Satan’s torso to then, all of a sudden, feel a total reversal of gravity. After reaching rock bottom, these two pilgrims have “passed through” the center of the earth and, after crawling through a hole, land at the foot of the island of Mount Purgatory.
By confronting the wicked rot that is deep in our minds and hearts, we experience purifying fire of God’s love. If we are willing to look into the deep recesses of our soul where foul creatures reside, Christ can drive them out. In this respect, Dante is our Guide as Virgil was to him. In other words, Dante is your friend.
- There are Christian annihilationists like Edward Fudge who believe hell is permanent, but not conscious. There are Christian universalists like David Bentley Hart who make great arguments that all will be saved. My point is that Dante continues the trajectory of a majority of great Christian thinkers who think hell is conscious and permanent, not that all other interpretations are self-evidently false. ↑