Wrestling with Dante’s “Inferno”

A couple years ago I picked up a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy and started reading through it one book a year. Having recently finished the collection, I’ll share my thoughts on the different sections over the next couple weeks.

Dante’s Inferno opens on Dante (who is the main character) as he wanders through scary woods and chased by wild animals. He’s eventually rescued by the legendary poet Virgil, who claims that a heavenly woman named Beatrice asked him to take Dante on a journey that will save his soul. Soon the journey begins with a descent into hell.

As the two poets descend through the many layers or circles of hell, they meet a host of different figures in a plethora of different fates. These punishments are often related to what their sin on earth was (i.e. the violent are constantly tortured via violent means). The deeper they go, the viler the sins, the harsher the judgments.

Reading through Inferno was an arduous undertaking for me, and not just because of the old English structure of the translation I read. I found myself wrestling with the idea of hell itself.

I believe there is a hell, though I doubt it’s anything like Dante’s imagination. I believe it is a place of torment and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Now that’s an easy thing to say, but when reading a fictional account of it, I start to think about it as a reality and it becomes uncomfortable. Is hell really necessary? Couldn’t God find another way for punishment?

I think, as a person of faith, there’s a couple answers that can be given. Primarily, God is just and He knows what He is doing. There is a reason for hell as there is a reason for earth. Tied to this, we could spend all day asking “why” about a variety of things, questioning God’s will. But what good could this do? We can’t change reality, and it won’t change for us simply because we don’t understand it.

Finally, I think the question of hell finds an answer in Jesus. Yes, hell exists, but you don’t have to go there. Jesus came so the great divide between us and God could be bridged. He broke the power of sin, death, and hell and now holds out a nail-pierced hand to pull us up and away from the sleepless fire. I praise God that He rescued me from such a horrid fate and given me life to fill me for eternity.

Maybe that doesn’t make hell any less uncomfortable to consider…but, then again, maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

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2 thoughts on “Wrestling with Dante’s “Inferno”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll look forward to reading more about the book. I have never read it, but I’m familiar with some of the idea behind it. When you think about hell, you do become uncomfortable…and like you say, maybe its supposed to be that way. I’ve heard that most of the great revivals in history were also linked with preaching on this topic. So we should think about it.

    1. It’s a hard book to recommend. I think you can read it for its classic value or even what the story is trying to convey, but I’d recommend a more recent translation.

      And I agree, hell is a hard topic, which we probably don’t hear enough about.

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