Tag Archives | hell

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).

Hell | Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton“Hell” can be described as a perpetual alienation from our true being, our true self, which is in God.

—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1972), 7.

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.

The Infernals | John Connolly

  • The Infernals © 2012
  • Atria Books: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 311 pages

I’ve thought about reading more Connolly ever since The Book of Lost Things. In Lost Things he treats fairy-tale motifs with terrifying realism. In The Infernals, he travels the opposite direction, treating the idea of Hell as a big joke.

The Infernals is the story of how Samuel Johnson is threatened by one of the arch devils of hell (who happens to wear a blonde wig and has started hanging curtains in ‘her’ lair). The whole problem started in the previous book in the series, The Gates, where the CERN Collider accidentally opens a rift between earth and hell. Fortunately, you don’t have to read the first book in the series to follow this one.

Connolly’s dry sense of humour imbues every line, including the chapter titles (e.g. Chapter 1: “In Which We Find Ourselves in Hell, but Only Temporarily, So It’s Not All Bad News”). His wit particularly shines in the footnotes where he comments with wonderful sarcasm on the true stories that underlie some of the science fiction themes in the main text.

Despite his wickedly dry sense of humour, this book feels average. The characters are too flat to empathize with and the plot is too predictable to grab you. I place this in the same category as Terry Pratchett. Good for a laugh.

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.

Dante’s Divine Comedy | Seymour Chwast

I enjoyed every minute of Chwast’s take on Dante’s Divine Comedy. He managed to adapt and distill a masterpiece without exploiting or dumbing it down.

At 128 pages, this whirlwind tour that takes you through a Canto or two per page. Even so, the drama doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, if you’re planning on reading the original it would be worthwhile to leave this volume open beside it to keep you grounded in the flow of the narrative.

There were many opportunities for a graphic artist to exploit the imagery. I mean, where else do you read about people swimming in pools of excrement as poop rains down from the sky? Chwast’s economic style fairly evoked the imagery without degenerating into crassness. (I can only imagine what would have happened if Crumb tried to do this!)

This was my first encounter with Seymour Chwast’s art. It will not be my last.

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided at no cost through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program.

Forfeiting the Image of God | N. T. Wright

Here’s Wright’s understanding of hell (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary © 1986):

Unless we are to rob human beings of all meaningful responsibility for their actions, and to underplay the utter holiness of God, hell must always be at least a possibility. The presence in the world of much dehumanizing evil – dehumanizing to its practitioners even more than to its sufferers – indicates clearly enough how we may understand it. . . . Those who choose to live without God will one day find that they have forfeited their likeness to him.

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