Tag Archives | heaven

The Divine Comedy | Dante Alighieri

The cover of Dante's The Divine Comedy

I’ve been lost in the forest before. The worst that has ever happened to me was a bit of confusion and a late supper.

When Dante got lost …

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

(Inferno, I:1-6)

Instead of making it home for dinner, he took an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. He begins in fear, he ends in love:

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, XXXIII:145)

I’ve been meaning to read this classic for years. When I saw Barnes & Noble’s beautiful leather-bound edition, I couldn’t resist.

Reading it was a challenge. It’s not every day you read a Nineteenth century English translation of a Fourteenth Century Italian text in verse! With the help of a dictionary app and SparkNotes, I fell into the rhythm of the poem and began to understand it. Reading the text aloud (even muttering the cadence under my breath) helped immensely.

I’m not qualified to comment on the literary merit of this classic, or the translation. I’ll keep my comments to theological issues.

Go to Hell!

Dante wrote his masterpiece in exile. He found himself on the wrong side of political power and was banished from his home in Florence on trumped-up charges (xi).

The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, which refers to the joy taken at someone else’s misfortune. It’s not a very flattering quality, but one Dante seems to enjoy. When he arrived in the sixth circle of hell, he wandered around tombs that held heretics who were tortured.

Upon a sudden issued forth this sound
From out one of the tombs; wherefore I pressed,
Fearing, a little nearer to my Leader.

And unto me he said: “Turn thee; what dost thou?
Behold there Farinata who has risen;
From the waist upwards wholly shalt thous see him.

(Inferno X:28-33)

The character from the crypt was none other than Farinata, his real life political enemy. What do you do with a political enemy from earth? Stick him in your literary hell! This is where an annotated text is very helpful (unless you’re up-to-date with the people of Fourteenth Century Florence).

Unfortunately, Dante’s pattern for dealing with some of his enemies has been followed many times in church history. Instead of doing the hard work of loving your enemy, it’s easier to just demonize him.

Highway to Hell

My edition of The Divine Comedy is filled with illustrations from Gustave Doré. These illustrations taught me something: hell is far more exciting and interesting than heaven. Inferno is far more frequently and graphically illustrated than Paradiso.

This attitude—the idea that heaven is boring and hell is exciting—is still around. Perhaps AC/DC popularized it the best:

Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
Goin’ down
Party time
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell

Dante’s hell is full of all sorts of interesting (if sadistic) tortures. Some people are burned alive, some turn into trees whose limbs are pecked at by Harpies, some are boiled alive in a river of blood, some are shat upon. Literally. Poop falls from the sky. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with Dante!

If you squint, you can read this torture as divine justice in the light of God’s holiness. Realistically, it’s another sad example of schadenfreude. Someone needs to go back in time and give him a copy of VanBalthasar’s Dare We Hope?

Disembodied Heaven & the Impassable Deity

I always knew that I disagreed with Dante’s view of hell. I was surprised by how much I disagreed with his heaven—and his Trinity!

Dante’s God is an Aristotelian construct mediated by Aquinas:

O grace abundant, by which I presumed
To fix my sight upon the Light Eternal,
So that the seeing I consumed therein!

Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All infused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.

Withing the deep and luminous substance
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold color and of one dimension,

(Paradiso XXXIII:82-84, 88-90, 115-117)

God, for Dante, is an immovable point of perfect light. Three circles symbolize the Trinity, with three different coloured lights. All manifold colours emanate from this point. The heavenly spheres (the planets), all rotate around this point as do the various levels of heavenly worshipers. There is nothing to do in heaven but to be consumed in contemplation.

That sounds spiritual, but it’s nowhere near biblical. Biblical metaphors include a throne with a blood-stained lamb. Biblical metaphors speak of a river with trees of life lining the banks. Dante’s God is a philosophical idea. I’ll stick with the Holy One of Israel who breathed his breath into this dust and called it good.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a challenging and interesting work to read. Just don’t confuse literature with theology.

—Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).

Divorce of Earth and Heaven | Howard A. Snyder

Christians rightly celebrate the gospel promise of eternal life. That promise, though, is not ultimately about escape from earth but about the new creation that heals the divorce of earth and heaven.

—Howard A. Snyder with Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 33.

The Dead Redeemed | Wendell Berry

I imagine the dead walking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven.

—Wendell Berry, A World Lost in Three Short Novels, 326.

Sick Taste | Thomas Aquinas

As the tongue of a sick man cannot taste good things … so the soul infected with the corruption of the world has no taste for the joys of heaven.

—Thomas Aquinas in Thomas Merton, What is Contemplation?, 23.

Love Wins | Rob Bell

Rob Bell sure knows how to create a stir! Like Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, Bell has turned over some hot-button doctrinal issues held by the evangelical (and specifically the neo-Reformation) world. I’ll confess: I stopped reading Bell after his second book because I realized I had already read most of the cited works in his bibliography. I bought this one because of the Twitter war the promotional video launched.

If you want to take a short cut and find out just what he believes about Heaven and Hell (and the fate of every person who ever lived), Mars Hill Church has written a nice little two page FAQ.

If you’re an evangelical Christian who wonders what all the fuss is about, here’s the issue: Rob Bell suggests that God could allow people a chance to repent after death. That’s it. That’s what all the exaggerated zeal is about.

If you only stick with the summaries, you’ll miss something. That would be a bit like asking for a bullet list of points from one of Jesus’ parables because you’re more comfortable with lists than narrative. Rob Bell excels at narrative. The entire book reads like a long Nooma message.

I would encourage anyone concerned about heaven and hell to give this book a read. Don’t just read it to pick apart Bell’s theology, either. Ask God to reveal himself to you as you walk through the various chapters. Whether you agree with him or not, we Christians all have something to learn from each other.

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