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?

Suffering is overcome by suffering

Bonhoeffer on Matt 26:39ff:

Jesus prays to the Father that the cup pass from him, and the Father hears the son's prayer. The cup of suffering will pass from Jesus, but only by his drinking it. When Jesus kneels in Gethsemane the second time, he knows that the cup will pass by his accepting the suffering. Only by bearing the suffering will he overcome and conquer it. His cross is the triumph over suffering.

Suffering is distance from God. That is why someone who is in communion with God cannot suffer. Jesus affirmed this Old Testament testimony. That is why he takes the suffering of the whole world onto himself and overcomes it. He bears the whole distance from God. Drinking the cup is what makes it pass from him. In order to overcome the suffering of the world Jesus must drink it to the dregs. Indeed, suffering remains distance from God, but in community with the suffering of Jesus Christ, suffering is overcome by suffering. Communion with God is granted precisely in suffering.

Suffering must be borne in order for it to pass. Either the world must bear it and be crused by it, or it falls on Christ and is overcome in him. That is how Christ suffers as vicarious representative for the world. Only his suffering brings salvation. But the church-community itself knows now that the world's suffering seeks a bearer. So in following Christ, this suffering falls upon it, and it bears the suffering while being borne by Christ. The community of Jesus Christ vicariously represents the world before God by following Christ under the cross.

[...] Bearing constitutes being a Christian. Just as Christ maintains his communion with the Father by bearing according to the Father's will, so the disciples' bearing constitutes their community with Christ [...] Jesus called all who are laden with various sufferings and burdens to throw off their yokes and to take his yoke upon themselves. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. His yoke and his burden is the cross. Bearing the cross does not bring misery and despair. Rather, it provides refreshment and peace for our souls; it is our greatest joy.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 83-84)