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Reaction to Dante's Hell as Portrayed in Dante's Inferno

Since its Patristic roots, the Church has struggled with two seemingly contradictory aspects of God's nature. One one hand, God is said to be loving and caring towards his creation. At the same time, however, God is seen as a judge, dealing out justice to all according to their actions. Some Christians have argued that God, due to his overabundance of love, can never punish or cause harm. Other Christians have no qualms in maintaining that a loving God sends people to Hell, even against their own will. Most fall in between these two extremes. I would maintain that Dante's view of punishment in Hell errs on the side of the latter extreme, given the assumption of a loving God as described in Christian literature. The God portrayed in Dante's Inferno punishes based on gross oversimplifications. His God ignores the larger picture of human psychology and sociological influences in addition to the rehabilitative capacities of wrongdoers.

Good parents do not punish their children based on actions alone. There are other considerations to be made. If one child got into a fight with a bully at school because the bully was picking on the child's sister, many parents would consider the child's actions virtuous. The parent whose punishment is conditioned only on actions, regardless of surrounding circumstances, is unjust. What aspects does God take into account when damning souls into Dante's Hell? Consider Paola and Francesca. Both are forever being blown about by a hurricane, just as they were blown about by the winds of their passions on earth. Their criminal love was found out by Francesca's husband, and both were stabbed to death. Does it matter what Francesca's home life might have been like? No. I imagine that a husband that would stab two people on a whim would not be the most accommodating husband. But Francesca's happiness in marriage is not a factor in determining her guilt. She committed lust, and that action (as seen in a vacuum) is damnation. Are Francesca and Paolo's souls more evil than others' souls would have been in that same situation?

To answer that question, let us consider the following: criminals are made, not born. People are not simply born more evil than others. They become criminal for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they had a rough childhood. Maybe their parents abused them. Maybe their friends used them. It is possible they got into drugs early on and really damaged their bodies, minds, and futures. Consider the role depression plays on people. Depression, as we know now, is a chemical imbalance – it is like a disease. We do not hold mentally handicapped persons accountable for their crimes. Rather, we take them away from society so that they no longer pose a threat. All of these previous possibilities are put forward to demonstrate ways in which outside uncontrollable forces could have an enormous impact on a person. These forces are no more their fault than a retarded man is at fault for his retardation. Yet in the Inferno, Dante and Virgil find a man in the seventh circle named Pier. Poor Pier was guiltless of any crime, but the people became envious of him and consequently, he was blinded and thrown into prison, where he later ended his own life. Can Pier be blamed for this action? Is it possible that perhaps he was feeling a wee bit depressed? Might he not have been thinking straight? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. Pier was not born suicidal; he was made suicidal. Yet, society's sin against Pier manifests itself in Pier's punishment. Since he was so foolish as to want to destroy his own body (who would be foolish enough to do that, shortly after being blinded and cast into prison?), he lives forever in the underworld without a body. If God does this to people, get me away from him, because he is not in the least bit loving or understanding.

Furthermore, criminals can be reformed, something that Dante's God completely ignores. Dante paints a picture in which the sinners do not repent of their actions. These sinners accept their fate as right and just. Somehow I doubt that if such a place existed, its inhabitants would be so fatalistic. I would think eventually, they would choose to repent of their crimes. Drug users and child abusers can go through effective rehabilitation without punishment. Other times the rehabilitation process is punishment itself. In either case, it is agreed that criminality is not fatalistic. It can be ameliorated or even eliminated in an individual. Despite this obvious fact, the seventh circle contains a man named Capaneus, who was a blasphemer in his previous life. In Hell, he continues to blaspheme God, all the while burning on his back. Because he let loose fiery words against God, he endures God's fire from above. The point Dante makes is that Hell has just made him harder. I agree. He is harder because he knows that, even if he repents, he will still be burning in Hell for eternity. If I were in his position, I would be pretty upset too. My point is that if God had dealt with this man another way, he probably would repent, and everybody would be happy. Alas! God must not believe in reformation.

Ignoring the rehabilitative aspect of punishment, the retributive aspect is also amiss here. God goes beyond his own Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” His principle in Hell is “a thousand eyes for an eye and a thousand crushing blows to the skull for a tooth.” Consider the barrators. These sinners bought or sold public offices. Ignoring the eye for eye, tooth for tooth principle, God punishes these sinners by sticking them in boiling tar for eternity. If they happen to come up for breath or a little cooling off, demons with hooks pull him out of the tar and flay him alive. The contrapasso here is shady. What is clear is that this punishment is not warranted by barrotary. Loren Anderson states the matter nicely: “So revolting to my moral nature is the creed of eternal punishment that it, more than any other cause, produces the most widespread unbelief. Compared with this, all objections to Christianity fade to insignificance.” It is revolting to my moral nature as well. I have trouble believing that the Jesus described in the New Testament would try to justify paying back finite crimes with infinite amount of pain and fear, hopelessness and defeat, guilt and torture.

Allow me to plunge further into the next circle of Dante's injustice. As we know now, sexual orientation is also a product of outside influences. I can hardly blame Dante for his ignorance on this point, but contemporary theologians who still maintain that human sexuality is merely a moral issue are ignoring the larger scientific community. Homosexuals can be counseled into heterosexuality. Some cabbage-haters could be counseled into enjoying the taste of cabbage. That does not make cabbage preference a moral issue. And that does not mean that those who hate cabbage so much that they cannot learn to enjoy it in spite of counseling are just more sinfully stubborn than the others. That belief would be ridiculous. To Dante's credit, the punishment for homosexuals seems to be lesser than most others in Hell. Their flaming desires rain down from heaven, lighting the ground on fire and burning their skin. Unlike the others in this circle, they are able to move around. Dante even seems to revere Brunetto, his former gay teacher. Nonetheless, they are in Hell, and they are in unjustifiably endless grief.

Limbo is another circle that screams injustice. Here, those virtuous ones who lived before Christ wander around eternally without hope. This is the most pleasant (if we can call eternal hopelessness pleasant) of all the circles of Hell. The contrapasso here is clear. Since they lived before Hope (Jesus) came to the earth, they will live eternally without hope. This is a fine demonstration that Dante's God pays no attention to uncontrollable outside circumstances. For Dante's God, living before Christ came to earth is wickedness, and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation. They are in a parlous state. Babies who died before they were baptized are punished for their insolence as well. Dante's message is clear: those damned babies should have tried harder at not dying, or else they should have tried harder at convincing their parents (through their goo-goo's and ga-ga's) to have them baptized sooner. Here, awareness in itself is moral, which to most contemporary readers seems ridiculous. Awareness in itself should not have the power to damn for eternity!

Contrapasso is not the same thing as justice, especially contrapasso dealt out in infinitely greater helpings than the crime warrants. Most post-industrial countries today abstain from torture (unless utilizing it for purposes other than punishment, such as obtaining information). In Dante's Hell, torture is all that exists. Medieval painters were good at envisioning this torture. Henry Ward Beecher, commenting on “The Last Punishment” by Michaelangelo, says:

...Look at the lower parts of the picture, where with pitchforks men are by devils being cast into cauldrons and into burning fires, where hateful fiends are gnawing at the skulls of suffering sinners, and where there is hellish cannibalism going on. Let a man look at that picture and the scenes which it depicts, and he sees what were the ideas which men once had of Hell and of divine justice. It was a nightmare as hideous as was ever begotten by the hellish brood itself; and it was an atrocious slander on God... I do not wonder that men have reacted from these horrors—I honor them for it.

And so do I.
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