Hell on Earth

Last week I shared some thoughts on why I think you should read Dante’s Divine Comedy. Today I want to argue that this centuries-old poem provides a helpful way to think about the way we Christians encounter suffering in our lives today.

First, the obvious: Everybody suffers to one degree or another. And none of us enjoy it.

Suffering, especially the more extreme kind, is so unpleasant to experience, or even to think about, that it causes a great many people to question God’s goodness, or even God’s existence. But the surprising truth is that other people’s suffering causes them to draw closer to God. Suffering seems to cut us one of the two ways - either drawing us toward or away from God. Dante’s universe is no different than ours in this respect.

In Dante’s vision of the afterlife, he journeys through hell and purgatory on the way to the heavenly Paradise. In the pit of hell he descends through nine circles representing sins falling into a few broad categories: incontinence (think out of control desires), violence, fraud, and treachery. Then on his trip through purgatory he ascends up seven terraces of a mountain, with these seven terraces representing the classic medieval seven deadly sins.

The denizens of hell and purgatory seem, at first glance, to have a great deal in common. For one thing they are all sinners, and each of these sinners is suffering. On top of that, they are all suffering in ways that are poetically fitting for those who have sinned in the ways that they have (for instance, the lustful in hell are blown around by a great tempest, just as in life they were ‘blown about’ by their uncontrollable desire). No one in any of these locales is exempt from the suffering experienced there, with the sole exception of the pilgrim Dante and his guides through the geography of the afterlife.

But the differences between the shades Dante finds in hell and purgatory are even greater than their similarities. As Dante descends deeper into the pit of hell, the suffering increases, as does the despair and the self-involvement of the souls encountered there. The shades in the Inferno are more selfish, self-focused, and self-deceiving as the poem progresses. And the poet, who began his journey full of sympathy for the damned, begins to understand that these souls are here for a reason. CS Lewis once suggested that the gates of hell are locked, but they are locked, from the inside. As we journey with Dante deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent that this is the case in Dante's imagination too. The people here aren’t having a good time by any measure, but what they are experiencing is the only thing that makes sense as an extension of their lives on earth. They are where they are because of who they are, and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. If they were offered a helping hand, an opportunity to change, another chance at grace, they would unhesitatingly refuse it.

Purgatory is an altogether different kind of place. The sinners there are all destined for the heavenly paradise - though it may take them many years to arrive there. While they show some character flaws lower on the mountain, these flaws disappear as Dante makes his climb, and even the most flawed sinner at the base of the mountain is full of joy - even in the midst of great suffering. They are repentant, and they pray and sing to God, and show hospitality to Dante and a great sense of duty to their burdens. Their generosity and joy and words of praise were very affecting to me, especially early on in the Purgatorio. That may be because the poet was in rare form early on in the work, but I think maybe I was just experiencing a bit of literary whiplash - moving from the depths of despair in the shadows of Satan's wings to the joy of those imperfect but grace-filled souls embarked upon a journey toward communion with God.

To sum up, the damned of hell and the saved in purgatory are both suffering, and neither of them would have it any other way. The enormous difference is what they are doing with that suffering. One group is stuck, the other group is moving. But the thing that makes a difference, I think, for Dante, is that the one group is focused on themselves, while the other is focused on the divine Love that is their destination, their Ultimate Goal.

When things don't go your way, where do you put your focus?

Why you should read Dante

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I first read Dante’s Inferno junior year of high school, and I remember being fascinated by it. A complex mishmash of references to ancient history, mythology, the Bible, and Christian history, combined with far too many obscure references to 14th century Italian politics made it one of the most difficult books I'd ever read at the time. But it was also one of the most transcendent.

Which is sort of ironic when the book in question is about a literal journey through hell.

I doubt I understood a quarter of the Inferno those many years ago, but I nonetheless found it enthralling. There was something deep there that was worth exploring. So I even attempted to continue exploring it: for instance reading the explanatory notes in the back of Pinsky’s translation inspired me to pick up a copy of Augustine’s Confessions<link> for the first time. But interestingly I never took the plunge in attempting to read the other two thirds of the Divine Comedy, the greater work of which the Inferno is only the first, if most famous, part.

That recently changed. I'm not sure what demon or angel possessed me, but last Fall I decided I would reread the Inferno. I had such an amazing time on my second tour through Dante's hell that I decided to give purgatory and paradise a shot.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
— Inferno I:1-3

If you are so inclined I highly recommend you do the same. (These are the editions I bought: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.) This is the story of a man in a mid-life crisis, trying to find his way in life, struggling with who is, why he is alive, and what he's supposed to do with what remains of his life. You probably don't think of yourself as someone who would be into medieval Italian poetry. But if you're interested in life and theology and following Jesus then you should really give Dante a chance.

He is guided by the Roman poet Virgil on a journey through the deepest and darkest of what humans are capable of and the despair that results, and then he comes out the other side only to climb up the mountain of purgatory and eventually continues to ascend through paradise toward God.

I don't really believe in purgatory, but Dante's Divine Comedy is only partly a picture of the afterlife, so I think you'll find that little is lost there. Much more than a book about eternity, the Commedia is about our lives here and now, our struggles with temptation and sin, and our efforts to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). Anyone attempting to follow Jesus in this life will struggle with such things. I want to suggest that Dante can be a guide for you on your way through whatever dark wood life might take you through.