This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
What can modern and postmodern seekers learn from an epic journey to hell written seven hundred years ago by an Italian poet who was as influenced by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil as he was by the Bible? A great deal! In the Inferno, Dante lays out four principles about hell and the sinners who dwell there that have the power to speak to and challenge seekers who might not otherwise read a Bible or go to church. First, Dante helps us to understand that evil is not a positive or actual thing in and of itself, but a privation or lack of good. That is why everything that Dante encounters in hell represents a perversion of something on the Earth or in heaven. Second, the sinners in hell lack the ability to confess or repent because they have become fixed in their sins; just so, drug addicts or people caught in a life of serial promiscuity find themselves trapped in a self-destructive cage from which they lack the power and desire to escape. Third, the sinners are actually eager to enter the inferno, for hell promises to give them exactly what they want: their sin and themselves forever. Finally, hell is a sad place that houses for eternity humans who have wasted away their God-given gifts, often by refusing to take part in the historical process through which God works. Modern seekers cannot understand how a loving God could send someone to hell; Dante can help them to see that hell is, ultimately, something that we choose.
Of all the traditional doctrines of Christianity, the one that is perhaps most difficult to explain and defend is the doctrine of hell. How, the skeptic asks, can a loving God send someone to hell? Do our sins really merit eternal punishment? Why doesn’t God just save everyone? Though answers to these questions can be sought in the great philosophers and theologians of the church — Athanasius and Gregory, Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Edwards and Wesley — such answers often do not resonate with modern seekers.
Indeed, I have found that Dante’s epic poem Inferno (c. 1320) can provide a more effective vehicle for helping moderns (and postmoderns) understand and wrestle with the nature of sin, hell, and damnation. Rather than propound a systematic doctrine of the afterlife, Dante takes us deep into the human and divine drama, helping us to see and know sin for what it is and for what it does to us on a spiritual, emotional, and psychological level.
Let us consider four general principles that Dante incarnates for his readers through his fictional but highly imaginative and insightful journey through hell.
HELL IS A PERVERSION
Like Augustine before him, Dante treats evil not as a positive or actual entity but as a privation or lack of good. Too many moderns think of goodness in passive, negative terms. They imagine a good person as someone who sits quietly at home and makes sure not to drink or smoke or sleep around. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite.
Goodness is the primary and active force; evil is a falling away from good. Goodness is not the absence of evil; evil is the absence of good. Satan is incapable of creating anything; he can only take what God has created and twist or corrupt or destroy it. In works such as The City of God, Augustine explains this vital theological doctrine in abstract, philosophical terms. In Inferno, Dante lets us experience it dramatically and viscerally.
In Dante’s vision of hell, everything is a perversion of something in heaven or on Earth. Thus Satan, whom Dante imagines trapped in ice at the center of the Earth, is depicted as having three heads. Dante depicts him like this because Satan represents, in part, a perversion of the Triune God. Likewise, many of the beasts that guard the levels of hell — the half-man/half-bull Minotaur, the half-man/half-horse Centaurs, and the half-man/half-reptilian Geryon — are composite creatures. As such, they stand as perversions of the Incarnate Christ, who was not half-man and half-God but one person with two complete natures — truly God and truly man.
That hell is a perversion is a truth that greets the reader at the same time it greets Dante and his guide (Virgil). As they pass under the gateway of hell, they read these words inscribed above it: “I am the way into the city of woe. / I am the way to a forsaken people. / I am the way into eternal sorrow” (Canto 3, lines 1–3; John Ciardi translation). Unlike the various “I am” claims that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John — I am the Bread of Life; the Good Shepherd; the Light of the World; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life — the threefold “I am” on the sign leads to death, despair, and damnation. Indeed, the famous last verse of the sign sums up perfectly the consequences of a life given over to sin: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (3.9).
Punishment to Fit the Crime
If moderns are to understand hell, then they must first understand what sin does to us. Sin twists and mangles everything that it touches. It does not increase our hope or joy or individuality but rather transforms us into a parody of what we were created to be. In one way or the other, all the punishments in Dante’s inferno are themselves perversions, outward embodiments of what sin does to our soul. The Old Testament seems to suggest that leprosy eats away the skin (external) in a way that is analogous to how sin eats away the soul (internal). What is implicit in the Bible is made explicit in Dante’s punishments.
That is why the sinners guilty of fortunetelling must march in an endless circle with their heads turned around on their necks “so that the tears that burst from their eyes / ran down the cleft of their buttocks” (20.23–4). Modern readers may be shocked by how explicit and “crude” Dante is in this passage, but he must be so if he is to make plain how sin distorts our God-created humanity. We were not meant to look forward by means of sorcery but to place our trust and faith in God today and rest our hope on His promises. When we violate that trust, we put an unnatural twist in our soul that is analogous to the unnatural twist in the necks of Dante’s fortunetellers.
Just before meeting the fortunetellers, Dante and Virgil come upon the simoniacs, men who bought and sold church offices for their own personal profit. Since one of the major roles of the clergy was to perform sacraments such as baptism and chrismation (anointing with oil), Dante fashions for the simoniacs a punishment that perverts both sacraments. Thus, the sinners are thrust headfirst (“baptized”), not into water, but into stone. Then, if that were not torment enough, their feet are anointed with burning oil that causes them to kick their legs in ceaseless pain.
Yes, the torments endured by the fortunetellers and simoniacs represent a kind of punishment to fit the crime — getting their just deserts, we might say — but the truth goes deeper than that. The sin does more than bring about the punishment; the sin actually creates the punishment. Or, better, since sin cannot create anything, it takes the joy for which we were meant and perverts it into a mockery of that joy.
SINNERS YEARN FOR HELL
Only once we understand the perverse and perverting nature of sin can we move on to understand something shocking upon which Dante insists: that the sinners are eager to cross over into hell. According to Greek mythology, dead souls must cross over the river Acheron to get into the underworld, but they cannot cross unless they are ferried over by Charon, the dreadful ferryman of the dead. The reason the ancient Greeks put coins on the eyes of dead bodies was to provide them with payment for Charon, lest they be doomed to wander on the far shore of hades and never find eternal rest.
Since Dante’s hell, unlike the Greek hades, is a place of active suffering, one would expect Dante’s sinners to stay as far away as possible from Charon. In fact, in Dante’s telling, the sinners, though they blame everyone but themselves for their predicament, nevertheless crowd around the ferry. How can this be? What would make the sinners yearn to be taken across the river into a place of punishment and pain?
Dante helps us to understand this seemingly contradictory behavior by describing all the sinners as people who have lost the fear of God. Most people who have some familiarity with the Bible will know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but they may not realize that the fear of the Lord is also something that, quite literally, keeps us on track. When we lose a proper reverence and regard for our Creator, we stray off course and fall prey to our own evil lusts and desires.
Borrowing a simile from Virgil’s Aeneid VI, Dante compares his sinners to migrating birds. Birds do not migrate because they have arrived at a rational decision or because they have chosen a good option over a bad one; they migrate because their instinct drives them to do so. Just so, when we lose the fear of God, we become slaves to our own base instincts and are driven in directions that cause us grief and pain.
Here is how Dante describes the insidious process in three memorable, if disturbing lines: “And all pass over eagerly, for here / Divine Justice transforms and spurs them so / their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear” (3.121–3). Is it possible — and not only possible theologically but psychologically as well — that someone could yearn for the very thing he fears? It is, and not just in hell; the insidious process begins on Earth.
The man who is caught up in drug addiction will bankrupt himself and sacrifice his family and career in order to acquire more of the illegal substances that are destroying him. The woman who bounces from one abusive relationship to the next embraces again and again the same choices that have hurt and traumatized her so many times before. The child who is driven by hatred of his parent eventually will wrap his identity around the very hatred that is preventing him from leading a happy, healthy, and whole life.
Today we would describe such people as being imprisoned in self-destructive patterns of behavior. Seven hundred years ago, Dante fully understood such patterns and extended them into the afterlife. It is no coincidence that in about half of the punishments in the inferno, the sinners move in a circular motion. Although in heaven the circle represents perfection, in its perverse, hellish form, it represents futility. Dante’s dead sinners, like live addicts today, are trapped in an eternal repetition compulsion from which they have lost the power, or the desire, to escape.
HELL AS NARCISSISM
But that is not surprising, since Dante’s hell offers sinners exactly what they want; or, to put it more accurately, it offers them the logical outcome of their choices. Rather than engage the perennial theological debate between predestination and free will, Dante takes us into the twisted souls and desires of his sinners. The fact of the matter is that none of the sinners want to be in heaven, because heaven means spending eternity with God, and none of the sinners want to be in the presence of God.
If there is a single defining trait that all of Dante’s sinners possess, it is narcissism. The sinners neither love God nor their fellow man. They love only themselves and their sin. Romantic-minded readers who first encounter the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in the second circle of hell often are tempted to envy their fate. Rather than be separated from each other, Paolo and Francesca are locked together in an eternal embrace as they are blown round and round by a mighty wind. How can this be a punishment?
Well, if Paolo and Francesca really loved each other, their punishment might seem a blessing in disguise. But the sad reality is that neither loves the other. Indeed, neither is capable of loving the other. The two, we learn, began their adulterous affair after reading together the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Their sin was not prompted by a reaching out in love to the other person. It is not each other that they desire but the fictional adulterers in the story. Francesca, who tells the story to Dante, is not in love with Paolo but with Lancelot. Which is to say, she is really in love with the idea of love. Which is to say, she is ultimately in love with herself.
The hard, intractable narcissism of Dante’s sinners is perhaps best conveyed through the character of Farinata, who dwells in level six, the circle of heresy. As Farinata and many of his fellow heretics denied the afterlife, believing that the soul died and was buried with the body, their punishment is to lie crammed together in burning coffins. As Dante converses with Farinata, one of the other souls, Cavalcanti, peeks out of the coffin to see what is happening.
Due to a misunderstanding, Cavalcanti believes that his son has died. In sorrow and despair, he falls backward into the burning coffin. When this happens, Farinata expresses neither sympathy nor concern for this grieving man with whom he will spend eternity. Instead, he continues to tell his story as if Cavalcanti did not exist. His narcissism prevents him from interacting with, or even acknowledging the presence of, anyone outside of himself.
The Death of Fellowship
I’ve often heard people jokingly say that they want to go to hell because all of their friends will be there. Dante gives the lie to that joke. There is no friendship in hell, for everyone is utterly obsessed with themselves and their sin. Fellowship and community are nowhere to be found: only an endless musing on the self, a turning inward that builds an impenetrable wall against all love, mercy, and grace.
This generation of young people may not be familiar with Farinata and Cavalcanti, but most are quite sensitive to the destructive nature of Farinata’s narcissism. That is why one of the worst insults a Millennial or a Generation Z can say to someone is, “It’s not all about you.” In saying such a thing, they are exposing in others — and, more often than not, themselves — a profound egocentrism, an unwillingness to move out of themselves or to see things from a perspective other than their own.
Many who level this charge against others will, in the next breath, reject the Christian doctrine of hell, either dismissing it as a fairy tale or arguing that it is inconsistent with the supposed loving nature of the Christian God. But hell marks the logical outcome of a soul that builds its identity around the belief that “it is all about me.” Such a soul will necessarily reject heaven, even if it were offered to him freely, for such a soul hates nothing more than a God who sees and knows all.
Jean-Paul Sartre was only half right when he quipped that hell is other people. For the narcissist, hell is indeed other people, for he desires communion only with himself and his sin. But for the Christian who surrenders to God and who moves out of himself in love toward others, heaven will consist, in great part, of other people.
Dante’s paradise radiates with heavenly fellowship and communal praise. His hell too is filled with large groups of people, but no feelings of warmth or shared gratitude exist among them: each lives in a universe of one, untouched by empathy, camaraderie, or joy.
People who object to hell often will point out that though God hates sin, He nevertheless loves sinners. That is true, but it misses a point about hell that Dante dramatizes so powerfully. In hell, there is no longer a distinction between sinner and sin, for the sinner has become his sin.
HELL AS A PLACE OF WASTE
Hell is indeed a place of sadness, loneliness, and dehumanization. It is also a place of waste. In addition to committing active sins, the sinners in Dante’s inferno have squandered the gifts that God bestowed upon them. Though this aspect of hell may seem less spiritual and psychological than the previous three, it has the virtue of speaking to all readers of Dante’s epic: even those who are atheists and do not believe in an afterlife.
For the fact remains that all people are born with at least one talent. Many of those people may not recognize God as the source of their talent, but they usually possess an intuitive sense that they are duty bound to make use of it. Dante speaks to that sense when he depicts hell as a place of waste.
At one point in their journey, Dante asks Virgil what the source is of the rivers of hell. Virgil replies that on the island of Crete there stands a giant with a golden head, a silver chest, a bronze waist, and iron legs. Dante patterns his description of the giant on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2, but he adds to it one telling detail: the giant weeps tears that flow into the ground and become the rivers of hell.
As the giant in Daniel represents the kingdoms of humanity, Dante can only mean that the rivers of hell are formed from the tears of humanity. Hell, for Dante, is a sad place of wasted opportunities and frustrated dreams. It is the final resting place of the lazy servant in the Parable of the Talents who buries his talent in the ground and is cast by the master into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:14–30).
Ultimately, all the sinners in hell have wasted, or corrupted, their gifts. Still, the nature of that particular sin is most clearly embodied in the fifth circle of hell. There, in the realm of the sullen, Dante encounters souls fixed in mud, who chant over and over again the same futile litany: “Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun; / in the glory of his shining our hearts poured / a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun; / sullen we lie forever in this ditch” (7.121–124).
The Need to Take Sides
Dante’s Inferno provides a much-needed wake-up call for a slothful society that lacks gratitude and accountability. His depiction of sinners as people who have wasted their God-given gifts speaks powerfully to our culture of entitlement. It not only points to Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, but to all those other parables in which a master returns suddenly from a long journey and demands a reckoning from his servants.
And something else. Dante lived the last two decades of his life in exile from his beloved Florence because of partisan strife. Given that biographical detail, one might expect Dante to favor apolitical people who mind their own business. After all, if no one ever took sides, there would be no factionalism, no banishments, and no wars.
So it would seem, but not for Dante. After he and Virgil pass through the gate of hell, they find themselves in a hazy vestibule, where they meet the souls of the opportunists, those who refused to take sides in life. Around they run through a thick haze, ever pursuing a flag that ever eludes them. As they run, gnats bite them incessantly, causing them to break out in welts from which pus flows down to their feet, there to be devoured by maggots. Clearly, Dante considers opportunists to be the moral refuse of the universe. They are given no place, either in heaven or hell, because they have blinded themselves from understanding that God is not a divine watchmaker who wound up the universe and then abandoned it, but is intimately involved in the course of human history.
Too many moderns think that virtue is a passive thing, that it means a boring, sheltered life where one avoids lust, gluttony, wrath, and avarice. Dante gives the lie to that misperception. Virtue is active and passionate; it involves itself in the world, using the gifts that it has been given to help move history in the direction that God desires.
Louis Markos, PhD, professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his eighteen books include Atheism on Trial (Harvest House, 2018) and Heaven and Hell (Wipf and Stock, 2013).