Dante’s “Inferno”

Categories: Preacher's Blog

Dante’s Commedia is an imaginary guided tour of the afterlife from a Catholic perspective. The first volume, Inferno, takes the reader through hell. The second volume, Purgatorio, takes us through Purgatory. And Paradisio, the third volume, takes us to heaven. Dante sees all three and comes back to write about it.

Dante’s guide through two-thirds of this trip, is Virgil, the author of the Aeneid. Virgil’s story, as well, includes an imaginative trip to the netherworld by Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, and founder of Rome. If you were to consult some of the commentary work done on Dante’s Commedia you would find that much of Dante’s characterization of hell is taken from theologians like Augustine rather than the Bible. In my opinion, very little of it mirrors what I find in the New Testament. The New Testament does not reveal much, though it is enough to convince me that it is a place or condition I want to avoid at all cost.

Thirty-four cantos (songs) make up the Inferno. We are introduced to character after character that populate the nine circles of hell. The further down you go, the worse the crime. Dante does not restrict himself to populating hell with historical people either. You will also find imaginary characters and mythical beasts. Dante’s Inferno is populated with high officials from the Catholic church including a Pope and Archbishop from his day—men who were associated with “Simony”—the sin of purchasing an official church office. There is also no small number of politically corrupt people in hell who once lived in Florence.

When you compare the population of hell in Dante’s Inferno with the population of hell as it is spelled out in the New Testament, there are some stark differences. For example, Dante gives name after name of political and religious leaders he has consigned to hell. The writers of the New Testament rarely mention names.

Jesus is explicit when he identifies “the eternal fire” as having been prepared “for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Some of those who enter “the eternal fire” with them will be those who did not feed the hungry, or give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked or visit those in prison” (25:42ff). In this particular context, I think Jesus has in mind our brethren who are hungry, or thirsty, or naked or in prison for His sake.

Simon the sorcerer wanted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit and Peter said, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” But Simon was not in hell. Peter told him to repent, and Simon asked him to pray for him (Acts 8:20-22). (This is the story that gives “simony” its name.)

Did Simon repent? One thing the Inferno has in common with the New Testament is their agreement on the fact that Hell, in part, is for the impenitent. People are in Dante’s hell for not repenting. The hell we read about in the New Testament is for the same.

What about Judas? He is characterized as a thief who did not care for the poor (John 12:6). He betrayed the Christ (Matt. 10:4). He hanged himself (Matt. 27:5), and is called the son of perdition (John 17:12). He died lost.

There are other names associated with the afterlife—not hell, necessarily. Paul is caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-10). Jesus tells us something about the afterlife in the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:191-31), but the one named in this account is in Paradise and not in hell or torment like the rich man whose name we do not know. The Apostle John tells us that the beast, the false prophet, and the dragon will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20). He also tell us that outside the gates are “the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (22:15). But, again, no names.

The New Testament does not typically give us the names of the lost—unlike Dante’s Inferno.

If you were to venture to write an epic poem about the afterlife, in particular, of hell, would you be so bold as Dante to name names?

Author: Chino Church of Christ

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