Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 3

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?
Answer: Justice.

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

 

Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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14 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 3

  1. Ed says:

    And yet, St. John Chrysostom is one of the foremost proponents of everlasting punishment. What are we to make of this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • TJF says:

      Dunno. Same way Augustine wrote some of the most profound and beautiful prose I’ve ever read. We’re all broken until the age to come.

      Liked by 2 people

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Ed,
      My own completely uninformed historical-critical hunch is that the paschal homily of St John Chrysostom is a “received” text attributed to him. Alfayev admits as much on page 198-199 — his name is “linked” to the sermon.
      One of the functions of pseudepigraphal authorship is it gives instant credibility to a document that otherwise might not get the hearing and attention the writer wants on its own merits. That said, the paschal homily is a perfect capstone to the Holy Friday-Holy Saturday-Pascha liturgies.
      But you’re right about the “historical” St John Chrysostom, as near as I can tell. I quickly looked through both of Ilaria Ramelli’s books. The Golden Mouth isn’t mentioned in either. Ooops!
      I don’t know how to homogenize all the eschatological details of the afterlife. That said, the powerful Christus Victor, the Conqueror of Hell, motif is widespread throughout the Eastern Orthodox liturgical cycle. The sheer accumulation of details in the Hilarion Alfayev book is astounding. It’s an amazing tour-de-force.
      John

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      • dianelos says:

        Johnstamps2020,

        Who wrote the homily is not what’s significant; that it is sung all over Eastern Orthodoxy on the day of resurrection is.

        We are made for God; and thus recognise the truth when we contemplate it with open eyes.

        As for the author of the homily, it may have been 8th century St John of Damascus, see https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2576299/let-us-be-radiant.pdf

        Liked by 1 person

      • John,

        Look closer at Ramelli. She has a section on him in each book. If I remember correctly, she thinks the paschal homily attributed to him may have been written by Apolonarius! And she sees it as quite universalist.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          You are of course correct. Technology betrayed me. I did a search for “Chrysostom” inside the PDF and the search didn’t return any results. Then I re-opened the PDF after your message and realized the search functionality doesn’t work at all. So I did things the old-fashioned way. I turned to the index. Lo and behold, starting on page 549, there’s a rather sizeable chunk of information about St John Chrysostom!
          In addition, the smaller Ramelli book book doesn’t have an index.

          Like

  2. TJF says:

    The paschal homily is what consoles me in my darkest moments.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Joel says:

    I recently watched Perennial Digressions’ interview with Mark Vernon regarding his new book on the Divine Comedy. At least he intimated at universalist tendencies or sympathy in Dante. Haven’t read the book yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      I need “a wise, warm, and humane guide through Dante’s hell, purgatory, and paradise,” per one of the reviewers. I was pondering purchasing his book. You tipped me over the edge.

      Like

      • Joel says:

        They begin to discuss the book and the Divine Comedy at the 1 hour, 7 minute mark in the video “Psychic Anabasis.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rusEgKbXXZE&t=278s

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joel Cerimele says:

        I just remembered too that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, two of the foremost American science fiction writers, did two modern sequels to Dante’s Inferno called “Inferno” and “Escape from Hell” while also in a kind of dialogue with the theology of C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce. If I remember right, Larry Niven was or is a Catholic of some flavor? In any event, it’s been a long while since I read them, but, as I recall, our protagonist eventually does a discover a universalist and therapeutic rationale to Dante’s interpretation.

        https://www.google.com/books/edition/Inferno/HyAdmAEACAAJ?hl=en

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          That book looks great!!!!
          I saw this blurb from Wikipedia.
          “Along the way Allen meets a number of his Californian acquaintances and notable people from history (e.g. Epictetus, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bob Ford, L Ron Hubbard, Henry VIII of England, Vlad Tepes, Aimee Semple McPherson, William M. Tweed, Al Capone) and from classical mythology (e.g. Hector, Aeneas, Charon, Minos, Phlegyas, Geryon).”
          I was chagrined he meets people from California. Are we that much worse than the other 49 states?
          We’re taking a field trip to The Last Bookstore in LA on Friday, God willing. I hope I can find it.

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