by John Stamps
Today we stand at the brink of Hell, looking down into the Inferno. We’re technically still at the outskirts of Hell. We are in Limbo, from the Latin word limbus, the border that surrounds anything, an edge, rim, or fringe.
Of course Dante is terrified to descend into the infernal depths. He imagines his guide is afraid, too. But Virgil is not.
The anguish of the souls who dwell down here
has painted in my face
the pity you have taken to be fear.
We must be moving on.
The road is long.
Limbo is a strange place. No weeping and gnashing of teeth just yet. Just deep sighs. Limbo is the region of eternal sighs, whispers, and moans from men, women, and unbaptized children not damned to Hell but unworthy of Heaven. William Weaver, literature professor at Baylor, observes that the demographic composition of Limbo flatly contradicts Romans 3:23,1 a verse near and dear to us who grew up in evangelical churches.
They did not sin.
If they had merits, these were not enough—
baptism they did not have,
the one gate to the faith which you believe.
Virgil and Dante both adhere to that ancient dictum first articulated by St Cyprian of Carthage, “extra ecclesiam, nulla salus.” Outside of the walls of the church—intra-mural—there is no salvation. The 14th century church like Noah’s Ark might stink to high heaven. But no matter. Only in the Ark can humans be saved. So in the hellish geography of the Inferno, Limbo is where you go if you were a just human—even if you had never sinned—if you were extra-mural—outside of the walls of the church. Dante asks his guide:
Has anyone ever left here by his own
or by another’s merits, to be blessed?
Virgil replies, Yes. Hell . . . well, to be precise . . . Limbo was harrowed by “the coming One of power and might.” He doesn’t mention Jesus by name. But you and I both know who He’s talking about. The Mighty One rescued the shades of all the righteous figures of the Old Testament: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, and so on.
And I want you to know that, before these,
salvation came for not one human soul.
To be honest, I had expected “the harrowing of hell” to be much more earth-shaking and hell-shattering. As a cosmic event of salvation by Christus Victor, His raid on Virgil’s Hell is frankly underwhelming. That said, Limbo is not such a bad place to spend eternity. It could be much worse, as we’ll see when we enter into the realm of the damned in Canto 5. Dante has the good fortune to meet the five greatest poets of antiquity: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his guide Virgil. With exemplary modesty, Dante declares to us that he gets to join this exclusive club:
When they had talked together for a while
they turned to me, and beckoned me to come,
bringing a smile unto my Teacher’s lips,
and greeted me, and honored me so well
that they included among their band,
And made me sixth in that Academy.
The group came to a noble castle and went inside. It had seven lofty walls, surrounded by a lovely stream.2 There Dante met all the wise and noble dead from centuries before. Most of the names of the inhabitants of this wondrous city shouldn’t surprise us. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (aka “the master of those who know”), Zeno, Heraclitus, just to name a few. Dante also threw in a zinger to see if we were paying attention: “and sitting by himself, the Saladin.” If you’re not current on the history of the Middle Ages, Saladin (or Salah ad-Din, 1138-1193) was the righteous Muslim warrior-king who fought off the crusaders led by Richard the Lionhearted and eventually captured Jerusalem. Of course, none of them are particularly glad to be there: “Seldom they spoke, and they held their voices low.”
I began to ponder the presence of the “great pagans”—this is how Charles Williams described them—in Limbo. He makes a curious observation about why “the spirits of the great” ended up in Limbo and why they couldn’t possibly reside in Paradiso:
How could Plato, who in the famous close of the Symposium left all matter behind in his own plotted Way, be taken into the matter of the Christian Paradise? No; we could only save their personal souls by making nonsense of their personal work; this Dante refused to do. We have more tenderness for them, but Dante had more honour.
But we can do better than that. We Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Logos incarnate. Before He was born in the Bethlehem manger during the reign of Augustus Caesar, He was, is, and ever shall be the Logos. He is reason, thought, principle, rationality, ratio, proportion. And wherever and whenever any human being seeks one of the transcendentals—Truth, Justice, Goodness, Beauty, indeed Being itself—they will instantly recognize the Logos incarnate when they finally meet Him. The Transcendentals, famously, are “convertible.” If you know one of them, you know them all. If you seek Truth, you will also find Goodness. If you hunger and thirst after Justice,3 you are also hungry for Beauty. The great pagans—and the lesser pagans—and we modern pagans too—might not have known the Logos by His personal Jewish name, Yeshua bar Yosef. But we will already have been long acquainted with Him as a good friend whom we have always known.
When we meet the Logos face-to-face, we will exclaim, “I know you!”
And the God-Word-became-Flesh will respond, “Yes, I know you too!”
In the next canto we actually step into the second circle of the Inferno. What happens when you let your passions overrule your reason in directing the will? We’ll soon find out.
 “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To be fair though, our favorite verse was, is, and always will be John 3:16.
 Why seven walls? This great city represents the seven branches of ancient learning—the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). The Anthony Esolen translation has great endnotes.
 “Beati, qui esuriunt, et sitiunt iustitiam: quoniam ipsi saturabuntur” (Matthew 5:6). “Justice” of course is a legal word while “righteousness” is a religious word. Jesus of course meant both justice and righteousness. Iustitia or δικαιοσύνη or tsedaqah (צְדָקָה) is a hard concept for us moderns to grasp. We separate what God intended to be held together.