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Dante's Inferno

What did the early Church think of Hell?

We start with the Church Fathers and are perhaps surprised to discover that their views on Hell are much the same as Jesus' views.

Justin Martyr: We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire. ("First Apology" 21).

Irenaeus: The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. ... [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, 'Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,' they will be damned forever. ("Against Heresies" 4:28:2)

Tertullian: After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending. ("Apology" 18:3)

What of the troublesome Origen? As we discovered in an earlier article, here things start to change. To recap, he proposed universal salvation or universalism, which said that, since God is love, everyone (including Satan) will find salvation, even if this is after death, and the whole Creation would return to a state of pure spirit. So, for this Christian philosopher, God's love will triumph and none will go to Hell.

Where did he get these strange ideas from? It is down to the way that he viewed the ability of people to make decisions, the concept of free will. The usual Christian view is that we all have the capacity to either accept or reject God and our eternal destination depends on that decision. But Origen was heavily influenced by Plato who stated that free will was not a case of choosing between good and evil, but merely doing the best one could according to how educated or mature you were. For him there was no such thing as evil, so people never chose to do evil things, they were simply acting out of ignorance. So our soul would be continually re-born in different bodies until it lost this ignorance, learnt to do good all the time and achieved salvation! It sounds a bit like re-incarnation except that, in Plato's system, there was no chance of ending up as a goldfish or an elephant. But Christian it certainly was not!

We move on to Augustine, the Catholic touchstone. He certainly believed in Hell, which is not surprising as he was the theological founder of Western Christianity, who introduced systematic teaching on original sin, the fall and predestination. His view on infants was interesting and revealing and was a result of disagreements he was having with an English gentleman known as Pelagius. Pelagius denied original sin, inasmuch as Adam merely set a "bad example" for us, contrasting with Jesus' "good example" thousands of years later. Each of us therefore had perfect free will to choose between good and evil, without the taint of a sinful nature or the need of the grace of God. Regarding the death of those too young to have had a chance to consciously sin, Pelagius said that the infant would not go to Hell, but to another nicer place, usually known as Limbo. Augustine differed in this and emphasised the need for infant baptism, to ensure a passage to Heaven, otherwise the infant was going directly to Hell, albeit to a milder punishment than an adult would experience.

Augustine even thought he knew where Hell was; under the Earth. He's not alone in this thinking, after all it is also known as the underworld. As we move into the medieval period, through the superstition of the Dark Ages and the subsequent ecclesiastical control of the Catholic Church, Hell becomes a place much discussed by the chattering classes, as well as the great unwashed of the day. The medieval equivalent of J. K. Rowling, John Grisham and their ilk was an epic poem by the Italian, Dante Alighieri. It was the Divine Comedy, the first part of which was titled Inferno, the Italian word for "Hell".

In Inferno, Hell becomes nine circles of suffering, entered by Dante and his guide, the Roman poet, Virgil. They enter on Good Friday, on a search for God and exit on Easter Sunday. These nine circles are inhabited by those being punished for various sins, including the lustful, the gluttonous, hoarders, the wrathful, heretics, the violent, frauds and traitors. Each sinner is punished in an ironic fashion, for instance fortune-tellers have their heads on back to front, unable to see what is in front of them! As they progress, the severity of the sins increase and the circles get smaller, until, at the centre of the Earth, they find Satan himself. Of course none of this is from the Bible; it is allegory. For Dante, Hell was populated by famous people from his day and earlier, including many from the Church, including Pope Anastasius II (heretic) and Andrea de' Mozzi (bishop and homosexual). Interestingly, the first circle visited is Limbo, inhabited by those who died before Jesus lived, where he meets, among others, Aristotle and Plato.

Dante's poem has made a huge impact right to the present day, interpreted for a less literate generation, through the mediums of movies and computer games. T.S. Eliot, the 20th Century poet, claimed that Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern World between them! Inferno is said to have inspired the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings. Others have even said that without Dante there would be no Twilight Zone, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.! Work that one out for yourself (it's beyond me!)

So perhaps, for subsequent generations, the landscape of Hell owes more to this work of fiction than it does to the sparse narrative provided by the Bible. Now, I wonder what the Protestant Reformers thought ...?

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)

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