The Infernal Quarantine of Love

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 you who enter here.

If readers of the Inferno remember nothing else about Dante’s journey through hell, they will remember the inscription above its entrance. The last line chills the soul to the marrow. Immediately we know that hell is a place of despair and hopelessness, anguish and misery. We may perhaps understand how a God of justice and wisdom might have created it, yet even still, how is it possible that hell flows from the primal love? It is this question that philosopher Eleonore Stump addresses in her essay “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theory, and the Love of God.”

Metaphysical Prologomena

Stump devotes three quarters of her essay to a summary of St Thomas’ understanding of the divine simplicity and its metaphysical and moral implications. We may find this surprising, yet by the end the import of the doctrine becomes clear. If the words over the gate into hell horrify and appall, we need to at least try to understand how it was possible for Thomas and Dante to attribute the creation of hell to the divine love. But if love is the willing of the good of the other, as Thomas clearly teaches,1 then the medieval hell appears to have introduced an unbridgeable cleft in the heart of God. Surely the infliction of interminable pain cannot be justified on the basis of love. Yet it must be justifiable, if the doctrines of eternal perdition and divine simplicity are both true.

The doctrine of divine simplicity, explains Stumps, asserts the radical oneness of God and entails three claims:

  1. God is not composed of spatial or temporal parts that “could be distinguished from one another as here rather than there or as now rather than then.”2
  2. The distinction between essential and accidental intrinsic characteristics do not apply to God.
  3. God’s essential attributes are ultimately “identical with the unity that is his essence.”3

In his transcendent unity, God is his love, is his goodness, is his justice, is his omnipotence and omniscience, is his existence. Unlike all creaturely beings, which are characterized in various ways by the distinction between essence and existence, the Deity is not different from his existence: he is his own being. This does not mean that the divine essential divine attributes are synonymous in meaning. “What simplicity requires one to understand about all designations for the divine attributes,” Stump explains, “is that they are identical in reference but different in sense: they refer in differing ways to the single thing in act which is God.”4

The doctrine of divine simplicity leads us to a second pillar of Thomas’s metaphysics: the identification of goodness and being:

On Aquinas’s view, the terms ‘goodness’ and ‘being’ are the same in reference but different in sense. ‘Being’ refers to being, with the sense of something’s being actual or being existent; ‘goodness’ refers to being also, but under the description and with the sense of something’s being desirable.5

According to Thomas, everything has a nature. An entity’s nature specifies that which defines its species. If to be human is to be rational animal, then every being characterized by rationality and animality belongs to the species humanity or humankind.

Now to understand how being and goodness relate, Stump directs us to human nature: animal identifies the genus to which human beings belong; rational identifies the specific feature or capacity peculiar to human beings. If to be is to exist as an entity belonging to genus and species, then its goodness relates to the progressive perfection of its nature:

As the specific capacity of anything is actualized by being exercised, the nature of that thing is progressively completed or perfected, according to Aquinas. Such a completing or fulfilling of a thing’s nature can be thought of in two ways. On the one hand, to the degree to which a thing’s nature is perfected or fulfilled, it is a good instance of the kind of thing it is. And so the goodness of a thing is tied fundamentally to its fulfillment of its nature. A thing x of a kind K is a good K primarily to the extent to which it has actualized the capacity specific to that kind. Nathan is good as a human being to the extent to which he has actualized the capacity specific to human nature. On the other hand, as any capacity is actualized, something which was not in fact in being but was only potential becomes actual. Hence, by the actualization of a capacity, being is increased. And it is to such increase of being recognized or conceived of as desirable that the term ‘goodness’ refers. In this way, then, the terms ‘goodness’ and ‘being’ both refer to being, on Aquinas’s account; but the ordinary sense of ‘being’ is the existence of an instance of some species, and the ordinary sense of ‘goodness’ is the fulfillment of a thing’s nature, which is brought about by the actualization of its specific capacity.6

This all sounds very metaphysical but is easily related to everyday life. We may describe, for example, a tool or instrument (knife, pruning shears, piano, violin) as good because it works well and fulfills the purpose for which it was designed. But how does this meta­phys­ical goodness relate to our understanding of moral goodness? Stump explains: “For Aquinas a rational action is always a moral action” and therefore intrinsically entails being and goodness.7

A Quarantine of Love

We finally return to the question stated at the beginning: How can primal love create hell? Or to phrase it differently: How can eternal perdition be understood as an expression of the absolute love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? More pointedly, how are the eternal sufferings of the damned “reconcilable with the love of God?”

But before addressing the critical question, a critical omission in Stump’s reflections on hell must be noted: she has bracketed Dante’s understanding of the retributive function of infernal punishment and the inability of the damned to alter their spiritual alienation. “Dante could,” she suggests, “abandon either doctrine and still preserve the essence of his idea of hell.” For this reason she has chosen to “focus just on the ways in which the Thomistic theory of morality and account of love support Dante’s claim that his hell is founded on God’s love.”8 I suspect, however, that Dante (and Thomas) would disagree. The point of damnation in the Inferno simply is retributive punishment, albeit in a unique modality: God condemns the reprobate to a suffering that is simultaneously fitting for their crimes and revelatory of their spiritual condition (contrapasso: counter-suffering).9 In Canto XXVIII, Bertrand de Born, who encouraged the sons of King Henry II to make war on each other and their father, holds up his severed head and exclaims: “O living soul in this abyss, see what a sentence has been passed upon me, and search all Hell for one to equal this!” He concludes his soliloquy with these words: “Thus is the law of Hell observed in me” (Così s’oserva in me lo contrapasso). He who sowed division now experiences it in his own soulish body—the Dantean lex talionis is justly and fittingly realized. The poet boldly substitutes contrapasso for the material hellfire of the Latin tradition, while at the same time retaining the retributive intent of the latter. For this reason Virgil rebukes Dante when he begins to weep for the sufferings of the lost (Canto 20):

Still like other fools? There is no place

for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?

The damned deserve their suffering and therefore deserve neither our compassion nor pity. The challenge of reconciling Dante’s hell with primal love thus remains.

Now back to the theodicial question, How is the torment of the damned reconcilable with the divine love?

Answering this question requires a somewhat closer look at the Christian notions of heaven and hell. On Christian doctrine, heaven should be understood not as some place with gates of pearl and streets of gold but rather as a spiritual state of union with God; and union with God should be understood to involve as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition the state of freely willing only what is in accord with the will of God. But if this is an appropriate description of the Christian doctrine of heaven, then it is not within God’s power to ensure that all human beings will be in heaven, because it is not within the power even of an omnipotent entity to make a person freely will anything.10

I highlight the above sentences because the claim that an omnipotent God cannot infallibly generate free assent to the divine will is contested by many Thomists.11 It’s difficult to see, for example, how Thomas’ anti-Pelagianism, as well as his doctrine of absolute predesti­na­tion, can work apart from a truly efficacious version of operative grace. But I ain’t no Aquinas scholar and am not about to cross swords with Dr Stump on this issue.

Let us momentarily grant Stump’s libertarian claim: God cannot bring about the recon­cil­iation of all, at least not without violating personal autonomy. If true, then all who find themselves in hell have freely chosen to be there, either because they have committed one or more mortal sins that have produced a state of spiritual death or because they have rejected God’s invitation to eternal beatitude. In either case, God is impotent before free will.

What then is the God of love to do? An obvious possibility: he could annihilate the wicked. After all, we regularly euthanize our pets and livestock to deliver them from pain and suffering. But Thomas would object to the annihilation of the damned, Stump tells us, because the eradication of “being on Aquinas’s theory is a prima facie evil, which an essentially good God could not do unless there were an overriding good which justified it.”12 Given the identification of goodness and being, the option of annihilation is unavailable to the Creator. The God who is Being and bestows being does not willingly eradicate being.

But neither can God simply accept the wicked as they are. They have chosen to be who they have become and are incapable of enjoying the Beatific Vision. Here Stump appeals to the notion of character:

So far from actualizing their capacity for reason during their lives in such a way as to become habituated to a love of goodness, those in Dante’s hell have become habituated to irrational acts. They have not acquired virtues during their lifetimes but vices, on Aquinas’s understanding of the vices: stable dispositions to act contrary to their nature.13

By their commitment to sin, the wicked have acquired, as it were, a second nature characterized by viciousness and irrationality. They have become “persons who will not will what they need to will in order for God to be able to unite them to himself in heaven.”14

Even so, eternally maintaining the reprobate in existence is a good to them, despite their suffering:

Everlasting life in hell is the ultimate evil which can befall a person in this world; but the torments of hell are the natural conditions of some persons, and God can spare such persons those pains only by depriving them of their nature or their existence. And it is arguable that, of the alternatives open to God, maintaining such persons in existence and as human is the best.15

According to Stump’s reading of the Inferno, Dante has formulated an idea of hell that stands between the two extremes of retributive punishment and annihilation. God chooses instead to quarantine the reprobate:

On Dante’s view, what God does with the damned is treat them according to the second nature, the acquired nature they have chosen for them­selves. He confines them within a place where they can do no more harm to the innocent. In this way he recognizes their evil nature and shows that he has a care for it, because by keeping the damned from doing further evil, he prevents their further disintegration, their further loss of goodness and of being. He cannot increase or fulfill the being of the damned; but by putting restraints on the evil they can do, he can maximize their being by keeping them from additional decay. In this way, he shows love—Aquinas’s sort of love—for the damned.

And in the second place, in hell God provides for the damned a place in which they may still act and will in accordance with their nature, their second, self-chosen nature. It is not just a dramatic device to illustrate the nature of the sin that in his Inferno Dante makes the punishment fit the crime; it is a philosophical thought as well. Dante does not present hell as God’s torture chamber in which the damned shriek insanely to eternity under the torments imposed by God.16

Helpless to convert the unconvertible, God creates a place where they may enjoy the “freedom” of their second nature. Great Britain’s deportation of criminals to Australia in the 19th century immediately comes to mind, as does the movie No Escape. But a prison is a prison is a prison, even if it’s called Arkham Asylum. I’m afraid I cannot hide my repugnance for this model. My apologies, Eleonore.

At this point it has become clear that Stump is advancing a version of the choice model of hell. As readers will recall, the motive behind this model is to offer a way for Christians to envision eternal damnation independent of divine retribution: the wicked freely reject God and his Kingdom, and in his love God honors their decision. God does not damn; the wicked damn themselves—hence Stump’s anachronistic attempt to minimize, if not eliminate, divine responsibility for the sufferings of the reprobate. She points to the example of Filippo Argenti, a bitter Florentine enemy of Dante in real life (Canto VIII). Dante portrays him as a man possessed by rage and anger. As Dante and Virgil are being rowed across the marshlands of the Styx, Filippo accosts them and attempts to enter the boat. Virgil pushes him off, at which point Filippo is attacked by his fellow swamp denizens:

And shortly after, I saw the loathsome spirit
so mangled by a swarm of muddy wraiths
that to this day I praise and thank God for it.

“After Filippo Argentil” all cried together.
The maddog Florentine wheeled at their cry
and bit himself for rage.

God does not torture Filippo, insists Stump. His suffering is a natural consequence of his wrathful nature, which elicits both the violence of his companions and his own self-mutilation. Given the kind of person Filippo has become, God does the best that he can for him:

Because of the nature he has given himself, the closest Filippo Argenti can come to the natural functioning of a human being is to act in wrath. By granting him a place in which to exercise his wrathfulness, God allows him as much being, and thus as much goodness, as Filippo is capable of. God does what he can, then, to preserve and maximize Filippo’s being and the being of each of the damned. In so doing he treats the damned according to their nature and promotes their good; and because he is goodness itself, by maximizing the good of the damned, he comes as close as he can to uniting them with himself—that is to say he loves them.17

Yet is this love? According to Stump’s Dantean model, God is virtually constrained to commit the damned to an underworld of unrestrained evil, ruination, inhumanity, privation, irredeemable pain, hopelessness. He cannot annihilate, because that would be to nihilate being, so the best he can do for his evil children is to sequester them, ostensibly for their good and the good of the Blessed. Yes, Dante places the unbaptized virtuous pagans in an Elysian landscape; but as one descends further into Dantean hell, the torments of the damned become increas­ingly horrific. While it’s true that God himself does not make a personal appearance within the drama as the torturer of the reprobate; but that does not mean that the torments are any less ghastly nor any less divinely ordained.

An interesting feature of the quarantine model is Stump’s suggestion that God will arrest the process of personal disintegration that many consider intrinsic to the infernal condition. She is impressed by the fact that so many inhabitants of hell are capable of reflective conversation and attributes this capacity to divine grace. And as we have seen, she also asserts that “by keeping the damned from doing further evil, he [God] prevents their further disintegration, their further loss of goodness and of being.” The curious thing is that when I read the Inferno, I see the reprobate doing evil—and perhaps even more importantly, being evil—throughout the circles of hell. They curse God and curse and attack each other. Only a turn toward the Good can arrest the personal dissolution which sin brings upon a person; but that is impossible in hell. Engulfed in a community and spirit of evil, the damned are locked in their narcissism, malignity, and hate. In other words, the quarantine model appears to present God as artificially stopping the dehumanization process that inexorably follows from definitive rejection of the Good, thereby preventing the damned from experiencing the full consequences of their second nature. But if God in his mercy is unwilling to deliver them from their vicious character because of concerns regarding human freedom and personal autonomy, why would he act to protect them from that personal disintegration that also flows from their freedom? C. S. Lewis presents, I think, a more realistic and accurate assessment of infernal ruination:

To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’. To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man—to be an ex-man or ‘damned ghost’—would presum­ably mean to consist of a will utterly centred in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature—already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner—would be like.18

Dante the artist depicts people in hell as capable of conversing with his fictional self. It’s a literary device. The poem would hardly be worth reading otherwise. At no point, however, does the reader experience hell as a manifestation of God’s care and love—just the opposite. As George MacDonald is reported to have said during one of his lectures on the Inferno:

There are lower depths still, which we cannot speak of save with bated breath. Lakes of blood cover some, and those who have been leaders of heresy are shut in tombs. All this punishment makes the victims worse, and some defy God even in their misery. Thereby either living by their own power, or else being kept wicked by the power and will of God to all eternity. . . . Dante’s mind got lowered by even in imagining a hell like this, and this proves that it is no place ordained by God.19

Whatever the Almighty’s reasons for hell may be, therefore, he is not offering the damned a holiday. God himself is the fuel upon which human happiness depends. Cut oneself off from that fuel and unendurable misery is the result. Marilyn McCord Adams agrees:

My own view resonates with C. S. Lewis’s suggestion in The Problem of Pain, that vice in the soul preserved beyond three score and ten brings about a total dismantling of personality, to the torment of which this-worldly schizophrenia and depression are but the faintest approximations. A fortiori excluded is the notion that persons with characters unfit for heaven might continue forever philosophizing, delivering eloquent speeches, or engaging in trivial pursuits. Likewise, either union with God is the natural human telos, in which case we cannot both eternally lack it and yet continue to enjoy this-worldly pleasures forever; or it is not, because we are personal animals and unending life is not a natural but a supernatural endowment. For God to prolong life eternally while denying access to the only good that could keep us eternally interested would likewise eventually produce unbearable misery.20

I think I’ve come to the end of my summary of Eleonore Stump’s construal of hell. I will refrain from the usual universalist objections. I have rehearsed those on multiple occasions over the years. In conclusion, I remain unconvinced that Stump’s version of the choice model of hell resolves the problem of reconciling primal love with the everlasting suffering of the damned. We should be horrified by the thesis that the Holy Trinity would permit and ontologically maintain such suffering.



[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.I.20. Also see Justin Noia, “Aquinas on the Possibility of Hell,” The Saint Anselm Journal 12.1 (Fall 2016): 19-37. Noia did his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Eleonore Stump.

[2] Eleonore Stump, “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theory, and the Love of God (DH),” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16 (June 1986): 184.

[3] Ibid, p. 185.

[4] Ibid., p. 186.

[5] Ibid., p. 187.

[6] Ibid., p. 189.

[7] Ibid., p. 190

[8] Ibid., p. 196, n. 40. Stump expresses her disagreement with the Punitive Model of Hell in “The Problem of Evil” [Evil], Faith and Philosophy, 2 (1985): 400-402.

[9] See J. A. Scartazzini and Thekla Bernays, “On the Congruence of Sins and Punishments in Dante’s Inferno,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 22 (1888): 21-83; Justin Steinberg, “Dante’s Justice? A Reappraisal of Contrapasso,” in L’Alighieri: Rassegna dantesca (2014): 59-74; and Jason Aleksander and Scott F. Aikin, “All Philosophers Go to Hell: Dante and the Problem of Infernal Punishment,” Sophia, 53 (2013): 19-31.

[10] Stump, “DH,” pp. 194-195; emphasis mine.

[11] On the infallibility of divine grace, see Denys Tuner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (2014), chap. 5; Thomas Loughran, “Aquinas, Compatibilist,” in Human and Divine Agency: Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran Perspectives (1999), pp. 1-39; Tobias Hoffman, “Grace and Free Will,” in The New Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (2022), pp. 233-256; Taylor Patrick O’Neill, Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin (2019), chap. 2. For a universalist perspective, see my article “Doomed to Happiness.”

[12] Stump, “DH,” p. 196.

[13] Ibid., p. 195.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Stump, “Evil,” p. 401. In a footnote Stump responds to the objection that that the terminally ill who are suffering from intolerable pain find the continuation of life intolerable:

Burch Brown has suggested to me that we in fact often make just the opposite evaluation, that people in the pain of some terminal illness frequently reject medical efforts to prolong their lives and insist that they prefer death to the continuation of such an existence. But such cases are disanalogous in important ways to the case of persons in helL The pain of the terminally ill in such cases is usually great; the technology needed to prolong their lives often enough increases their pain; and what is purchased by that pain is only a very limited prolongation of life. It is not surprising that persons in such circumstances prefer death. But on the view of hell I’m attributing to Dante, the level of pains of the damned, however great, does not interfere with their ability to think and converse in a leisurely way; the prolongation of their existence does not depend on increasing their pain past that level; and their life is prolonged indefinitely. For the terminally ill, the choice is between great pain with death due soon, and greater pain with death due only slightly later. But for the persons in hell annihilation would put an end to an everlasting existence whose accompanying pain is compatible with reflective conversation. And so the fact that many terminally ill people prefer death sooner rather than later is no evidence that they would also prefer annihilation to life in hell. (Ibid., p. 419, fn. 33)

In my opinion, Stump drastically underestimates the despair and agonies of the damned. Even in this life, the suicide prefers nothingness over intolerable ill-being—metaphysics be damned.

[16] Stump, DH, pp. 196-197.

[17] Ibid., p. 197.

[18] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940), chap. 8. Thomas Talbott expressly takes Jerry Walls to task for suggesting that the damned are capable of some measure of happiness: see “Hell Lite.”

[19] Clare Thompson, “George MacDonald on Dante,” Glasgow Evening News (18 September 1889), reprinted in Wingfold (Winter 2015): 34.

[20] Marilyn McCord Adams, “The Problem of Hell,” in Reasoned Faith (1993), pp. 322-323.


This entry was posted in Aquinas, Eschatology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Infernal Quarantine of Love

  1. Robert F says:

    “But on the view of hell I’m attributing to Dante, the level of pains of the damned, however great, does not interfere with their ability to think and converse in a leisurely way…”

    I’m not sure I understand: Stump is actually using Dante’s literary device, which has the damned engaging in salon conversation, to support the theological idea that there is leisure in Hell? Are there water parks and B&Bs there too?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert F says:

      I mean, not everybody in this world is interested in leisurely, elevated conversation; shouldn’t we assume that most of the damned would prefer to spend their leisure time — and heaven know they have plenty of time to kill — on things like a good roller-coaster ride, or sleeping-in, or even a little cheap gossip?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mvandayar says:

    Dear Fr Aidan,
    Thank you!


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I did a little tinkering this morning on the article and added a quote from George MacDonald.


  4. Below are the most salient points that I tried to make in my conversation with Fr J.D. on the previous “Choice Model” thread. They seem relevant here.

    1) Even as the objective evil of rejecting God refers to an infinite reality, the subjective aspect of that rejection remains finite and could only warrant a proportional remedy.

    2) If one affirms realities like predestination & impeccability, as most Thomists do, then one, by definition, does not & could not have sufficient knowledge to freely & completely reject God, unless there are beatific contingencies.

    3) If one maintains, as some Thomists do, that a character – disposition based contingency for “seeing” the beatific vision is incoherent, then one must employ a divine indwelling based beatific contingency.

    4) A divine indwelling based beatific contingency would only be coherent
    in certain approaches to the relationship between nature & grace (e.g. stances in the auxiliis controversy). So, there are no coherent accounts of beatific contingency for those who reject an artificial extrinsicism, again, as some Thomists do.

    5) If one accepts that evil is privative & only parasitic on goodness & being, then a virtuous or vicious secondary nature refers to a habitus that’s situated between our final potencies & formal acts, variously fostering or hindering the reduction of those potencies to loving acts but never obliterating them. One’s character cannot be thus frozen & rendered immutable, especially if one properly employs a universal or pneumatic hylomorphism, as most Franciscans & Eastern Fathers do. Because some Thomists affirm a survivalist stance regarding the intermediate state, arguably, mutability’s sustained post-mortem, even per their account, and in a manner not inconsistent with impeccability.

    6) Fr J.D.’s argument that the mere metaphysical possibility of hell would be justified, if all ended up being saved per predestination, quite misses the point of DBH’s game theoretic analysis re the moral modal collapse. Even though the objective evil would be avoided, the subjective intent vis a vis that infernal conditional necessity would remain.

    7) Hell has no reference in my own systematics, which on their own terms do otherwise employ concepts like impeccability, predestination, election, efficacious grace & even nuanced divine hierarchical conceptions. But those notions refer strictly to degrees of intimacy & holiness.

    8) It’s clear, then, that Stump is just another one of those

    antipaninancaritabilitarians, huh Father?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. davidartman1 says:

    This all sounds a lot like Fr. James Dominic Rooney. I would ask how anybody can think these things, but I once held the C.S. Lewis position. It was humbling for me to have the incoherence of that position pointed out to me by Talbott and DBH, but better late than never! Thanks for a nice article.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. longlooking7848 says:

    Eleonore Stump’s construal of hell. Utterly fair. “I will refrain from the usual universalist objections.” – With Fr. Kimel there is a 99% absence of any “straw man” in his analyses. Positions other than his own are characterized generously. How helpful. “Objectivity” looks good again!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Iainlovejoy says:

    The problem with this model of hell is that, leaving aside simple physical pain and pleasure, misery comes from either desiring things to be other than that as they in fact are, or from the loss or destruction of valued things one has, and joy comes from doing that which one desires and which fulfils one’s nature to do. If the damned are in fact being permitted to act in accordance with their now set and fundamentally evil nature so as to realise the best good they are now capable of (as opposed to being what they wrongly believe to be their good) then, absent any purely physical torment being deliberately externally inflicted to avoid this, they would, in fact, be perfectly happy. I am not sure what your policy on links are, but the attached summarises Stump’s vision of hell perfectly:


  8. brian says:

    The goods of the cosmos participate in the Good. It is only in its divinized state that the infinite depth of Creation is properly encountered. The notion that what is penultimate and in status via could be in any manner an eschatological reality is to mistake a provisional and imperfect knowing for an actual ontological state.

    Liked by 3 people

Comments are closed.