by John Stamps
Today we stand with Dante and Virgil in front of the gates of Hell. We hear the horrible shrieks, cries, and groans coming from “the bad seed of Adam.” If you know anything at all about Dante, you know these (in)famous lines from Canto 3:
I am the way into the city of woe
I am the way into eternal pain
I am the way to go among the lost.
Justice caused my high architect to move:
Divine omnipotence created me,
the highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me there were no created things
but those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Dante offers a tragic parody of the words of Jesus: “I am the way . . .” Step into Hell and you have lost all hope, truth, goodness, beauty, and life. These are hard words. You have lost your way forever. Dante paints before our very eyes a terrifying vision of God’s omnipotence, justice, and . . . gulp . . . His love.
Fred Sanders, professor of theology in the Torrey Honors College at Biola University, in his video on Canto 3 asks one powerful—but horrific—rhetorical question after another:
Question. What moved the divine architect to establish the gates of hell?
Question: What power made them?
Answer: Divine omnipotence.
Question: From what source?
Answer: The highest wisdom.
Question: To what end?
Answer: Primal love.
My bones chilled as I listened to this litany of question and response, question and response. Primal love? Are you kidding me? The earnest 21st century reader of Dante might be seriously confused here. But Dante here is simply being perfectly faithful to the Thomistic view that there is a necessity for divine punishment, and that punishment is done out of ultimate love, which is a purely western medieval (and juridical) notion. Tony Esolen helpfully notes:
The just punishment of the wicked is an act of charity toward them (justice and charity cannot finally be at odds), even when that punishment does not or cannot result in their correction. At least it restrains them from deeper depravity.
No wonder God sounds like a cosmic sadist and Christians sound like masochists, even with the best of intentions. Virgil comments to Dante, at this layer of the Inferno, heaven has driven out the cowardly sinners, “to keep its beauty pure.” And no wonder so many of us feel completely unworthy to enter Heaven. I do not belong in this Heaven. But I don’t think I belong in this Hell either.
In Dante’s dystopian cosmos, without Hell, there is no divine order, no divine justice. And what type of love is this? It’s the power “to do whatever it will.” Nobody and no thing can shirk the omnipotence of God. Hell is a terrifying place. What you loved in life—to be free from God—has become God’s ironic and eternal judgment upon you in Hell: “Justice Divine so goads and spurs them on, that what they fear turns into their desire.” So be careful what you want. You might just get it.
Thus our inheritance in the Christian West. If St Augustine haunts your theology, it’s difficult indeed to resist falling into visions of double predestination, human depravity, and eternal damnation.1
But there’s a very different story we can tell. It is truly good news.
Every single Pascha in every single Orthodox church in the world, we make our own detour into Hell and find it replaced by the Kingdom of God in all its glory, goodness, and light. The King of Glory busts down the gates of Hell and plunders it of all its trophies. We enter inside. The crucified Lord descended into Hades before us. He freed the entire human race from Hell and He bound and conquered Death.
Hell is empty.
Not one single dead person is left.
None. No, not one.
All of Hell is emptied out. No tortured souls. No shades crying out in sorrow. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead on the third day, has evacuated Hell of its trophies.
Instead of Virgil, St John Chrysostom acts as our tour guide every Pascha. He joyfully proclaims:
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante would be shocked (but delighted). But no cross-carrying Christian should be.
Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
St John’s paschal sermon is the most powerful five minutes in all Christian theology. I say that without any equivocation, hesitation, or mental reservation. Golden mouth indeed. Jesus Christ the risen Lord has opened the doors of salvation to all.
Let me stipulate from this point on—no commentary on the remaining Cantos in the Inferno indicates my approval, tacit or otherwise, of Dante’s eschatology. We have a different story to tell, a quite different faith to narrate.2
 If you don’t believe me, just read his Enchiridion. It’s the best condensation of Augustinian theology I know, written by St Augustine himself.
 If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. Read his full-length treatment, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective.