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Dante's Divine Comedy, the 14th century epic poem describing a journey through the various levels of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven and the persons or types of persons who inhabit each level (including some of Dante's living contemporaries). How much of Dante's description describes explicit Church doctrine as of his era, and to what extent, if any, did Dante influence Christian theology going forward?

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The geography of the afterlife is not a topic where the church had "doctrine" as such, though there have always been a variety of traditions and stories about this sort of thing. Dante's scheme does reflect an underlying theology, so I'll tackle this from a theological perspective. The layouts of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are all in some sense "orthodox" in that they are drawn from recognized classifications of sin and virtue. Dante does not claim that this is how things literally are in those realms - especially when we get to Heaven, and the entire scheme is reinterpreted several times, as he grows in understanding. The moral truth is what counts.

There are some specific areas where Dante does things which are novel, and sometimes opposed to actual doctrine.

  • The vestibule of Hell, an antechamber where the lukewarm, who were neither good nor bad, are stuck forever - this is new. If this area counts as "basically Hell anyway" then it's fine, since all souls are meant to be destined one way or the other. I think the lower levels of ante-Purgatory are also original to Dante, though I'm not sure about that.
  • Saladin is placed among the righteous pagans, whereas as a Muslim he "ought" to be classed as at least a heretic or schismatic. Mohammed, for example, is placed in the eighth circle of Hell. This indicates some leniency from Dante about whether someone who is aware of Christianity, but does not convert, attracts the maximum penalty.
  • Really bad people in the ninth circle (Inferno 33) are said to have descended to Hell while still alive, and their bodies are now possessed by demons. This is completely unorthodox, since standard Catholicism/Christianity holds that one can repent even in the moment of death.
  • The garden of Eden, or Earthly Paradise, is situated at the summit of Purgatory, which itself is a huge mountain directly on the other side of the world from Jerusalem. This is not completely new - Bede thought Purgatory might be a mountain, and the Eden-Purgatory association was also previously suggested, due to the common image of fire (the flaming sword of Genesis 3:24) and the restoration to primal innocence. The combination of this ideas is new, and Dante gave them a higher profile.

Contemporary doctrinal criticism of Dante was more about his politics, which were perceived as anti-Papal and anti-clerical. His idea of the division of responsibility between Pope and Emperor - a prototype for modern separation of church and state - was arguably heretical, even as late as 1864 and the Syllabus of Errors.

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  • A few sources to support your points regarding what Catholic doctrine was at the time would make your answer best. Do you know of writings by Catholics, contemporaries especially, who might have attacked some of Dante? Jun 9, 2013 at 23:56
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I believe there are many points on which Dante had disagreed with the Church teachings of his times.

For example Divine Comedy was written around 1308 A.D. to 1321 A.D, in which he has depicted many Popes as suffering eternal damnation in hell namely Pope Anastasius II and Pope Nicholas III. Even though The doctrine of Papal infallibility was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870, it had been believed before that, appearing in medieval traditions. So the Pope was supposed to be infallible regarding his decisions about Catholic faith and such a person being in hell was definitely against the dogmatic beliefs of the Church.

Similarly Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, but Dante's version of hell has one.

He has condemned Pope Nicholas III for Simony. But Simony was dogmatically believed by the Church of Dante's times.

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    In high school I read John Ciardi's annotated translation of Inferno and loved the footnotes more than the text, just to see who Dante had assigned to the rings of Hell. Jun 7, 2013 at 17:56
  • @BruceJames Loved Ciardi's translation...he did an excellent job with getting everything to rhyme in English [my English teacher said it's much easier to rhyme in Italian]. (I enjoyed reading the footnotes too.)
    – Stan
    Jun 8, 2013 at 12:41
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    "and such a person being in hell was definitely against the dogmatic beliefs of the Church." That's definitely not true at all. That's confusing infallibility (statements on faith and morals being true) and impeccability (inability to sin)
    – eques
    Sep 19, 2023 at 13:36
  • "But Simony was dogmatically believed by the Church of Dante's times." What? Simony has been a sin since the early Church. It's not a dogma.
    – eques
    Sep 19, 2023 at 13:36
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I think Dante "defined" the afterlife for many. I have read that the masterpiece was NOT the Inferno but rather the Purgatorio. Having read the entire Commedia many times, I tend to agree with that assessment. The mountain structure of the Purgatorio and the ending, where Dante parts company with Virgil and has his encounter with Beatrice, is profound and beautiful.

It is useful to contrast the early church and its optimism with the Medieval and modern church, so imbued with Augustine. Dante seems to have fallen on the side of Augustine, IMHO, but you still see signs of the hope that the earlier Patristic fathers embraced, among them Clement and John Cassian.

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Did Dante's Divine Comedy describe or define Christian views on the afterlife?

How much of Dante's description describes explicit Church doctrine as of his era, and to what extent, if any, did Dante influence Christian theology going forward?

Dante Alighieri‘s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy (Divinia Commedia) is a literary masterpiece of religious poetry of his day, but is not a theological work that is written to be taken a forming a theological base for Christian belief in the afterlife. It is a literary work and Dante took the literary licence to a permitted level to create his Divine Comedy using his great imaginative tools of intellect that God gave him.

As the Church has not pronounced on many of the concepts that are brought up in Dante’s poem, he had a great freedom to express things the way he did with great success. It remains a masterpiece of personal expression of how Dante viewed things in the afterlife, but not so much that of the Church (past or future).

It's probable that several individuals are unaware that it's only one chapter of Dante's threefold "Divinia Commedia," or Divine Comedy, composition. This poem is a storyline that explores the idea of the path that man would undertake after passing away, which was a popular idea in the medieval era. The three parts of this story, that Dante journeys across with the reader, are hell, purgatory, & heaven. The narrative of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso offers a fascinating look into the societal conventions and aspirations of the mediaeval centuries. If you also happen to be a fan of greek and roman mythology, Dante does not shy away from showing its influence on his own work. There are references upon references upon references. At its core, I believe it's a story well worth sharing and so today, we will eulogise the first part of Dante's journey of the nine circles of hell.

It is crucial and frequently discussed how open-minded Dante was to incorporate traditional, non-Christian concepts into his depiction of Hell. Nonetheless, Dante also demonstrates a great deal of originality in his descriptions of two of the first regions of Hell he confronts: Limbo and the region immediately inside Acheron, in which the greys are condemned. The first of them is entirely a creation of Dante; in the instance of the second, Dante deviates from tradition by admitting righteous pagan souls to Limbo with kids who pass away without receiving baptism.

The vision is tremendous and simple and is a gloriously articulated reflection of everyday human consciousness. We are aware and can be aware of being aware. And this is Dante’s message for now: in a way, all we have to do to rediscover the essence of our intelligence, and the capacity to relate to the whole of reality, is turn towards our felt experience, and examine what we find. There is presence and freedom, intention and imagination, truth in stories and transformations of time. To grow in this sense is to get better at being alive.

But why call a piece of fiction accurate? Well, Dante, the traveller, enters the "Inferno" to commence his pilgrimage. The path represents confronting the actuality concerning sin and accepting responsibility for your wrongdoing. Without self-awareness and accountability, spiritual improvement is impossible, even when it is unpleasant and challenging. In recent times, this may be the most accurate piece of any form of literature I have studied.

The perspective is magnificent, straightforward, and a well-stated depiction of the ordinary human mind. We can be cognizant of our consciousness. And here concludes Dante's lesson for the time being: in a sense, all we need to do is turn inward our felt experience and investigate what we uncover in order to regain the core of our intellect and the ability to communicate to all of actuality. There is liberty and existence, intention and creativity, truth in stories, and temporal alterations. In this sense, to progress is to become more adept at life. - The Timeless Accuracy of Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante’s Inferno is basically just one part of the now famous work known as The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri’s epic poem was written in 1321 and was written as a literary work and not a theological work. We have to keep that in mind.

Dante was quite orthodox for his time place in history.

As a literary work, it was intended to be a poem which included the use of allegory, symbolism, philosophy, and theology, as understood in his times.

Dante’s three-part epic poem the Divine Comedy, or Commedia, is one of the most influential and dense works of poetic literature in the Western tradition. Building off Homer and Virgil, and influencing the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Blake, and Tennyson, as well as bringing to popular consciousness and form the modern Italian language, Dante’s epic delves into the meaning of allegory, poetry, love, truth, and philosophy. Dante’s poetry rests on the classical presumptions of the human being: earthly love does have Divine, or transcendent, character and quality. Moreover, following from the Christian tradition which Dante is part of and extols, it is first the love of things temporal when finally, and properly ordered, allows one to enjoy earthly loves while proceeding to move toward the permanent things: the good, true, and beautiful.

Admittedly, the poem is exceedingly dense and is ripe with all types of layers of allegory, philosophy, and theology. For a basic understanding of the intellectual content of the poem, I cannot go too deep into the themes for risk of losing you, the reader. As such, I will explore a few of the major themes in the various books – starting with Inferno – and give explanation and context to these.

Understanding the Inferno: The Construction of Hell

To understand Dante’s construction of Hell we must first understand some basic things about Christian theology. In Christian theology, God is understood as Love and Truth. This is important to know when exploring the nine circles of Hell, and especially the separation between the first four five circles with the final four circles. Furthermore, Christian anthropology asserts that man has a telos and that this telos is to live a life in union with truth, wisdom, and love. Without knowing Truth, which is impossible with reason or wisdom, then one cannot properly love. Without this one cannot live a truly fulfilled and happy life which is what all humans seek. - Dante’s Inferno: Understanding Hell

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a poem containing a mixture of the Biblical truths, Roman Catholicism, mythology, and medieval traditions.

Not completely backed up biblically or even by any tradition, Dante places Satan frozen in the middle of a lake of ice. He even places Christ’s betrayer Judas in his mouth as if eating souls like a ravenous lion. In his three mouths, he chews on Judas Iscariot, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Gaius Cassius Longinus. The Divine Comedy runs more like a medieval novel than a theological work.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. - 1 Peter 5:8

His epic poem does deviate from biblical sources and traditional pius beliefs, but his imagery, at least to me remains awesome.

Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Inferno, Canto 34

Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Inferno, Canto 34. Illustration by Gustave Doré.

The following may be of some interest:

Why is the Devil also known as Lucifer (and other names) three-faced? Symbolic meaning of Dante in his Canto XXXIV of the Divine Comedy.

Dante was not the only one to take a form of free (literary) license in some form of social media of his day even to to point of adding point that would be viewed as theologically impossible. It a fictional poem with theological teachings mixed into it. For example, his account of Emperor Trajan's resurrection (out of Hell) and conversion is something impossible in Catholic dogma.

To give you another form of media, let us look at Michelangelo‘s The Last Judgement with his artist freedom to add non-theological truths to his creativity in art. He follows just one example:

The pope's Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena is reported by Vasari as saying that: "it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns". Michelangelo immediately worked Cesena's face from memory into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld (far bottom-right corner of the painting) with donkey ears (i.e. indicating foolishness), while his nudity is covered by a coiled snake. It is said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell, so the portrait would have to remain. Pope Paul III himself was attacked by some for commissioning and protecting the work, and came under pressure to alter if not entirely remove the Last Judgment, which continued under his successors. - The Last Judgement

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  • The one thing I really wanted to know - and maybe I can make another question out of it if this one doesn't technically cover it - is if his account of Emperor Trajan's resurrection (out of Hell) and conversion is something impossible in Catholic dogma. It seems to me that he's found the perfect loophole.
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 20, 2023 at 12:51
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I've read the Bible and studied it for 30+ years. Nothing in The Divine Comedy is defined in the Bible and many things in the Bible directly contradict it. The Divine Comedy is a fictional work of poetry and it has define what Christian's believe, in part, today. Some Christian's try to explain things about Christianity and begin referencing The Divine Comedy without even knowing it.

If you read the Bible, outside of Revelation (a hugely metaphorical work) where is hell mentioned? Where is the afterlife even described?

There are passages in the old testament where Heaven and the Angels are described but they're nothing like The Divine Comedy. References to hell are Jesus not even talking about the afterlife, but there here and now in this life on earth and our experience of it.

The Divine Comedy has turned Christianity into the self-righteous do what I say or go to hell theology it has become. It contradicts the Bible. Maybe we should change the name of Christianity to Comedianism because it is basically beliefs based on The Divine Comedy much more than the Bible. People don't believe in God's forgiveness or mercy any more just worries about going to hell if you are gay or believe in evolution.

Where the hell is any of that in the Bible? Nowhere. Look it up...on a scholarly website not answers in genesis. Anyway, forget EVERYTHING you know about Christianity and start reading the bible cold, with an open mind, and you will be surprised by how little you really knew.

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  • Welcome to the site! I like the first half of your answer. The last half gets cynical and snarky. We can do without that. >> Your argument is that Dante inspired certain beliefs, rather than characterized already existing beliefs. Okay, but this site's policies demand that arguments bring citations and sources. Please edit your answer and put in some quotes and sources. Thank you.
    – user3961
    Dec 26, 2018 at 19:44
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    Nice rant, and for me a fun little read, but we are looking for answers that achieve a higher standard than opinion. (PS: you give Dante a bit too much credit). Dec 28, 2018 at 2:15
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    The question was does the Divine Comedy describe Christian view of the afterlife not does the Divine Comedy describe a sola Scriptura understanding or fit your personal doctrinal view
    – eques
    Sep 18, 2023 at 19:23

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