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I have read Dante's Inferno and was wondering how Theologically sound some of the points-of-view really are?

Now I know Dante's Inferno was not written by a priest or anyone really involved in any sort of real church. So it could be that it was never really meant to be considered as anything but a flight-of-fancy,but still the religious imagery is so vivid and profound that I cannot seem to shake the idea that these where the cherished beliefs of the writer.

What shook me is the idea that the well-meaning pagan would go to hell. This struck me as an odd belief when the Bible mentions that those who don't have the law are still governed by it, their conscience bearing witness.

This seems to me to be at odds with what the Bible teaches. I guess Dante did not believe in the salvation of infants either.

The second issue that struck me is how bad the sin of suicide is considered in this book. Now we know suicide is often a result of very real mental disease.

The idea that these people would be denied entry into heaven as a matter of principle over a disease they may not have any control over, does not strike me as the actions of an all-good and loving God.

Now again this work may very well not be endorsed by any church, but still the theological implications may be worth discussing as there exist the real chance that some may people reading may consider it doctrine.

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    Dante’s inferno is responsible for a lot of unbiblical beliefs about the condition of the dead. – Kris May 19 at 11:43
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    "What shook me is the idea that the well-meaning pagan would go to hell." Almost all Christian denominations would say that the so-called "well-meaning pagan" is destined for hell. Universalism or pluralism are very minor positions. – curiousdannii May 19 at 12:24
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    The suicide is both his own murderer and his own executioner. Except he give his life for his friends. Neither unbelieving despair nor brutal murder have any part in the kingdom of heaven. – Nigel J May 19 at 14:53
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    The Inferno needs to be read in conjunction with the other 2 parts of the Divine Comedy as the full story of a Christian journey from recognizing sin (Inferno) to repentance (Purgatorio) to spiritual growth (Paradiso). I highly recommend reading Rod Dreher's articles of his using Divine Comedy as "self help" for his mid-life crisis. He wrote a user friendly WSJ article here. His blog articles have pieces of that article: here, (contd) – GratefulDisciple May 19 at 18:56
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    Dante was quite orthodox at his time. Leniency with well meaning pagans or suicides is a modern thing. And not just about pagans: until recently well meaning Protestants and well meaning Catholics used to take for granted that the other ones were going straight to Hell. – Pere May 20 at 15:49
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How sound is the doctrine in Dante's Inferno?

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.

The poem is written in the first person as Dante describes his imaginative journey through the three realms of the dead: Inferno (hell); Purgatorio (Purgatory); and Paradiso (heaven).

The philosophy of the poem is a mixture of the Bible, Roman Catholicism, mythology, and medieval tradition. Where Dante draws on his knowledge of the Bible, the poem is truthful and insightful. Where he draws on the other sources, the poem departs from truth.

One extra-biblical source Dante drew upon was Islamic tradition (Hadiths) as depicted in Muhammed’s “Night Journey.” According to one scholar, Islamic eschatology has exercised “an extraordinary influence on Chinese and Christian thought. Among numerous popular eschatological works written by Christians, Dante’s Divina Commedia is an example of Islamic influence” (Islam by Solomon Nigosian, Crucible, 1987, page 152).

In fairness to Dante, however, it should be noted that his work is intended to be literary, not theological. It does reflect a deep yearning to understand the mysteries of life and death and, as such, has generated tremendous interest over the centuries, remaining extremely popular even today. - Is The Divine Comedy / Dante’s Inferno a biblically accurate description of heaven and hell?

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 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:

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    "Dante’s Inferno ... was written as a literary work and not a theological work." I've heard it describes as "Bible fan fiction". – nick012000 May 20 at 1:14
  • @nick012000 Yes. See my comments in the question area. – GratefulDisciple May 20 at 15:57
  • I had understood that at least some of Inferno is commentary on contemporaneous Italian politics. – EvilSnack May 20 at 18:13
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Here's a quick overview answer.

Think how Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc, have become part of modern culture.

Dante's Divine Comedy was also a work of fantasy fiction, never intended to accurately represent Catholic theology.

As the only significant literary work available in the Italian language at the time it became so popular throughout Italy, that the spelling and grammar used by Dante effectively defined a standard for the language.

People used this work as a common reference when discussing ideas. Priests used it to illustrate their sermons, so much so that after a generation or two the general populace began to think of it as a truth taught by the Church rather than as a secular fantasy novel.

It was a great tool, so the Church did not discourage this misconception. Today, the images from Dante's work are very much a part of many Christian denominations.

That doesn't in any way make them true though.

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  • do you have anything to support that that is what happened? You also don't actually address whether it is in fact theologically sound or not. – eques May 20 at 16:21
  • 1) implication is not the same as stating it and 2) something can both be fantasy fiction and theologically sound (in different respects) – eques May 20 at 16:32
  • @eques, I've reworded it a little. – Ray Butterworth May 20 at 16:40
  • "never intended to accurately represent Catholic theology" Are you sure about that claim? I suppose you could quibble on "accurate" – eques May 20 at 16:41
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Italian writer Alighieri Dante wrote this circa 1308-1321, but it was not a doctrinal treatise. It formed the first part of an epic poem, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It showed philosophical musings with an imagined (long-dead) Virgil being Dante’s guide through the realms of hell, which was thought to be located in the middle of planet Earth. The Catholic church thought it had sorted out Ptolomaic and conflicting scientific views of the universe by taking a few verses from the Bible to teach that a war in heaven had the Devil cast down INTO the Earth (when the Bible say he was cast down from heaven TO the Earth – not INto it! Revelation 12:7-9.) The work is an allegory, based largely on prevailing Catholic beliefs, but also mixed up with Islamic and Zoroastrian beliefs about life after death. An example of Catholic belief is in its description of Limbo as the first ‘circle’, where Virgil is supposed to reside.

I will not detail any of this as the wiki link here says it all. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferno_(Dante)#Overview

What is less well known is the Islamic influence. Although the Qur'an only has one verse, sura 17 verse 1, which mentions Muhammed being miraculously transported to Jerusalem to then view heaven and hell, the Hadiths (traditions) say a lot more. This trip was supposed to be on a 'buraq' - a white hybrid mule/donkey with wings. The night flight (isra') then resulted in him being taken by the angel Gabriel to view hell and heaven. Now this is where the Hadiths kick in, with elaborate tales of what Muhammed supposedly saw.

A ladder is brought so the group can ascend to the door of Paradise. On the first level is the site of Hell where he gets a glimpse of the torments of different categories of sinners before the flames drive him back and the lid clangs inexorably on the pit. On the second level he meets Jesus and John the Baptist. On the third level he meets Joseph. On the fourth, Enoch, on the fifth, Aaron, on the sixth, Moses, and on the seventh, Abraham.

Let me quote (from the book below) one Hadith about this: *

> "al-Hassan said that the Prophet said: 'While I was sleeping in the Hegra, Gabriel came and stirred me... he brought me out of the door... and there was a white animal, half mule half donkey, with wings at its sides... that stood still so I could mount it. al-Hassan said: 'the Prophet and Gabriel went their way until they arrived at the temple in Jerusalem. There he found Abraham, Moses and Jesus, among a company of prophets... Then one heard the Prophet say: 'After the completion of my business in Jerusalem a ladder was brought to me... My companion and I mounted it until we arrived at the gates of heaven… When I entered the lowest heaven, all the angels except one smiled and welcomed me... The reason, Gabriel told me when I asked, was that he was the angel of hell... Then I saw a man... Gabriel told me this was our father Adam... Then I saw men with lips like camels... I was told that these sinfully devoured the wealth of orphans... Then I saw men with bellies I had never seen before... These were the usurers... Then I saw women hanging by their breasts. These were those who fathered bastards..." (Ibn Ishaq pp 263-70, as in 'The Life of Muhammed - A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah' by A. Guillaume, Oxford University Press, 1955) “Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o 'Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion." Sahih Bukhari 1:6:301

The literary importance of the stories of this Night Journey is that it contributed towards Dante's 'Inferno.' His 'Divina Commedia' is influenced by Islamic ideas. Muslims call the journey Lailat al-Miraj. It is a feast celebrated on the night of the 27th of Rajab. Mosques and minarets are lit, and popular devotional accounts of the Prophet's ascent to heaven are read. See Islam - The Way of Submission by Solomon Nigosian pp 127-8 (Crucible, 1987) See also D. M. A. Palacios, 'La Escatologia Musulmana En Ia Divina Comedia' 2nd edition (Madrid-Granada, 1943)

I quote from this scholarly book to show what Islam taught about hell, and your memory may be stirred after having read Dante’s work. Certainly many of the grotesque wood carvings and printed pictures depicting Dante’s poem have far more in common with Islamic ideas than what the Bible actually says about hell – which amounts to very little indeed. In fact, Dante's 'Inferno' has so little in common with the Bible, those who go by what the Bible says would not likely take anything in the poem as 'gospel' truth. Just compare salacious details with the brief statements Jesus made about hell in Luke chapter 16, verses 19 to 31. If we stick to what Jesus said, we will not find ourselves in company with pagan poets, philosophers and Islamic teachers. See also http://www.gotquestions.org/Divine-Comedy-Dantes-Inferno.html

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    Rather than answer the question entirely, this seems to use a superficial similarity to some Islamic ideas to downplay the Christian theology present. Dante certainly had some familiarity with the Islamic philosophy of his day given that Virgil and Dante in the Inferno etc dismiss the errors of it and so it's not unreasonable to assume he had some familiarity with other aspects of Islamic culture, but even that doesn't prove anything about the quality of the theology in the Divine Comedy – eques May 19 at 14:37
  • @eques Fair comment, but I would point out that flights of imagination and fiction are common denominators used to back up a theology system, while biblical support for Dante is threadbare. Yet, as the Got Questions site acknowledges, ‘Where Dante draws on his knowledge of the Bible, the poem is truthful and insightful.’ No doubt Catholics would claim it IS biblical; others would not see much of that. Limbo would be a point of disagreement. Yet his various ‘circles’ are remarkably similar to non-biblical ‘levels’ in Islamic Hadiths. That is my reason for dealing with that. – Anne May 19 at 15:31
  • "while biblical support for Dante is threadbare" That is a spurious claim. About half of the citations in my edition of the Divine Comedy are from Scripture. – eques May 19 at 16:50
  • @eques Some of the most spurious claims for 'biblical support' come from pseudo-Christian groups who quote prolifically from the Bible in their literature. Anyone unaware of biblical teaching as opposed to pseudo-interpretations could easily be fooled by that tactic, so just because a poem refers a lot to the Bible does not prove it is promoting biblical doctrine. – Anne May 19 at 17:11
  • fair point, but the claim that "biblical support for Dante is threadbare" is still a weak claim. Neither your answer nor comments actually prove that Dante's use of Scripture being similar to "pseudo-Christian groups." – eques May 19 at 17:21
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‘The Inferno’ is part of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ (finished 1321). Please note that his work is intended to be literary, not theological. However, it does describe his imaginative journey through Hell, Purgatory and then Heaven, and is a mixture of Roman Catholicism, mythology and medieval tradition. Here are a few extracts from an article on this subject: https://www.gotquestions.org/Divine-Comedy-Dantes-Inferno.html

One extra-biblical source Dante drew upon was Islamic tradition (Hadiths) as depicted in Muhammed’s “Night Journey.” According to one scholar, Islamic eschatology has exercised “an extraordinary influence on Chinese and Christian thought. Among numerous popular eschatological works written by Christians, Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’ is an example of Islamic influence.” (Islam by Solomon Nigosian, Crucible, 1987, page 152)

Levels of hell. Dante describes hell as comprised of nine concentric circles, representing an increase of wickedness, where sinners are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes. The Bible does suggest different degrees of punishment in hell in Luke 12:47–48. However, it says nothing of concentric circles or varying depths in hell.

Different types of punishment. Dante’s vision of hell involved such eternal punishments as souls tormented by biting insects, wallowing in mire, immersed in boiling blood, being lashed with whips. Lesser punishments involve having heads on backwards, chasing unreachable goals for eternity, and walking endlessly in circles. The Bible, however, speaks of hell as a place of “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13).

The article goes on to explore the sections on Purgatory, a Roman Catholic teaching, and Heaven. It concludes with this summary:

Throughout ‘The Divine Comedy’, the theme of salvation by man’s works is prevalent. Purgatory is seen as a place where sins are purged through the sinner’s efforts, and heaven has differing levels of rewards for works done in life. Even in the afterlife, Dante sees man as continually working and striving for reward and relief from punishment. But the Bible tells us that heaven is a place of rest from striving, not a continuation of it... The Divine Comedy may be of interest to Christians as a literary work, but the Bible alone is our infallible guide for faith and life and is the only source of eternal truth.

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  • @eques I posted my answer before this one was posted and although this answer uses one source (Got Questions), I use different sources and only quoted one little sentence from Got Questions in my comment, responding to yours. – Anne May 19 at 15:33
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    @eques - When I started my research into this topic there were zero answers to the question. It was only after I posted my answer that I saw the answer from Anne. What specifically adds to the topic is the last paragraph I quoted from the Got Questions article. Indeed, Ken Graham also saw fit to quote from that article. – Lesley May 20 at 8:44
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What does it mean for something to be theologically sound?

Ordinarily, something is considered theologically sound in reference to something. Dante wrote in late 13th and early 14th Century Italy where like most Italians of his day, he would have been Catholic and surrounded with a strong Catholic culture. Thus, the question has to be how sound is the theology expressed in Dante relative to Catholicism, especially as would be understood in his day. To compare otherwise is nonsensical because Protestantism as such did not exist.

Dante's Comedy is harmonious with Catholic theology; it just isn't meant as a theological treatise and thus has many details which serve as literary details not as conveying literal theological truth.

Consequently, much of the implication that Dante's theology is not Biblical or unsound is reducible to the same arguments Protestants make against Catholic theology, which often are based upon misconceptions of Catholic theology.

Dante certainly wasn't a priest, but like many educated people in his day, he did study with priests; Dante studied philosophy with the Dominicans, an order of priests which places high emphasis on preaching and academic study. In Dante's day, they were newly established, but today 800 years later they teach and preach throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Divine Comedy has been called "the Summa in verse" referring to the slightly earlier work Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, which outlines systematically Catholic theology and explains the justifications for it, drawing upon a variety of sources including Scripture, the Church Fathers (especially Augustine), philosophers (especially Aristotle) and commentators (e.g. Peter Lombard). The Comedy expresses in a poetical and literary from much of the theology of the Summa in a narrative form, using characters, images and tropes from the Classical tradition.

The question of the eternal fate of virtuous pagans and babies is a complicated theological point. Not even all Protestant schools of thought agree (as an aside, I seem to recall that Calvin dismisses the possibility entirely of virtuous pagans being in heaven).

The Catholic Church teaches as dogma that "souls who depart from this life in the state of original sin are excluded from the Beatific Vision of God" which would ordinarily include unbaptized infants and the virtuous pagans (the non-virtuous pagans like their baptized counterparts would be punished in Hell). This doctrine follows in part from John 3:5 "Unless a man be born again of water and the (Holy Spirit) he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" (as cited in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, pg. 125)

Dante's depiction of Limbo matches with the theological theory prominent in his day. Modern theologians sometimes express other possibilities for the fate of unbaptized infants at least in part. Dante describes Limbo as a place at the top of Hell and lacking in hope, which approximates the poena damni (pain of loss) due to lack of the Beatific Vision. Leaving aside the case of infants, the problem with assuming "well-meaning pagans" would go to heaven on account of still being governed by the law is that it negates the purpose of the crucifixion and makes grace part of the natural order, an error known as Pelagianism, which was rejected by the Church in the 4th-6th centuries, especially by St. Augustine.

Dante's depiction of Suicide likewise follows from the Catholic tradition especially Aquinas. The association between Mental Illness and suicide is relatively recently understood to the point that that association was used to justify softening the Church's policy in the 20th century around ecclesiastical funerals for suicides. It's certainly not fair to critique Dante for something he nor anyone else really knew about until the past century. Additionally, just because some or even many suicides are related to mental illness doesn't mean that suicide categorically is morally permissible nor that no suicide bears responsibility for his actions. Only God can truly say whether a soul who commits suicide did so willfully or not and thus assign the soul to heaven or hell.

In Book I of the City of God by St. Augustine, Augustine comments on two well known suicides from Roman history: Cato's and Lucretia. While it's impossible to rule out any mental disturbance from underlying, the circumstances as preserved in the historical accounts (which yes may not be entirely factual) suggest in both cases willful intent. Cato basically committed suicide so that he wouldn't have to live being defeated by Caesar. Lucretia committed suicide out of shame from being raped by the son of Tarquinius Superbus (the last king -- this rape and suicide precipitates the war leading to the expulsion of the kings and the establishment of the Roman Republic). Dante clearly takes a softer view on Cato than Augustine because he places Cato not with the suicides but at the base of Purgatory. Ultimately, God alone knows the state of the soul.

Both of the answers relating to a Protestant viewpoint correctly point out the Comedy was not meant as a doctrinal treatise but as a literary work (it should be further noted that it is also not meant as an account of a mystical experience unlike many other works in the Catholic tradition). Yet, these answers conflate literary details (things which are meant to tell a story) with a theological claim. The Comedy like many works in the Medieval and Classical canon uses elaborate symbolism to tell the story and relate theological or philosophical concepts. The structure of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are not meant as Dante's literal view of what those three realms are like but a mix of symbolism to reveal the theological concepts and literary flourish to make it compelling. For example, the shape of Hell roughly corresponds to the division of evil into Incontinence, Brutishness, and Malice deriving from Aristotle with the particular sins ordered within each division according to a progression for least bad to more severe. The structure of the poem and the realms described therein are also filled with numerical significance with 3, 7, and 9 being prominent.

None of that means that Dante meant to convey that Hell, Heaven or Purgatory are in fact shaped like or operate exactly as he described.

The Protestant critique cited in both answers completely misses the point of the narrative and its theme. It's not about "salvation by works" and that's not what Purgatory is for either. Nor is Purgatory about a second chance after death. As far too common, Protestant critique of Catholic works and theology amounts to a more superficial engagement with the concepts. The Comedy is about a souls progression from sin towards God through detachment from love of evil (sin), purifying the will towards Good and spiritual growth in holiness.

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