Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 4-5 – The Portal of Faith and the Whirlwind of Lust

The other side of Acheron is an interesting parallel to its opposite shore. Now we see honorable-but-unbaptized dead. Dante describes them as having “no outcry louder than sighs . . . [which] arose from sorrow without torments.” These are not here for sin or lack of merit but because they lack baptism. It may seem rather bizarre that baptism itself is the “portal of the faith that you embrace.”  Perhaps given Dante’s time, baptism and belief were seen as two sides of the same coin. This may be the case, for included among these are those who lived before Christianity, but “did not worship God in fitting ways.” If they were noble unbelievers I can incorporate that into my theology, though (I believe God reaches all who desire the truth – Mt. 7:7; Jn. 6:37).

The Great Lord certainly saved those who did, though! This refers to the Harrowing of Hell -the descensus Christi ad inferos as found in the Creeds. Biblically this is not made very clear (e.g., 1 Peter 3:19-20, 4:6; Eph. 4:8-10), but most Christian traditions hold that Christ laid seige to Hell itself! The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “By the expression ‘He descended into Hell’, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has the power of death’ (Hebrews 2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” Aquinas says, “it was fitting when the devil was overthrown by the Passion that Christ should deliver the captives detained in hell” (ST 3.52.1). Jesus’ descent was both by effect and by essence – Christ’s soul descended only into that part of hell wherein the just were detained” (ST 3.52.2). Calvin seems to be the first major figure who denied any kind of literal descent – he believed Christ’s hell was on the cross itself (=separation from God).

The traditional story is expanded upon in the 3rd century Gospel of Nicodemus [Acts of Pilate, Pt. 2]

Hell answered and said: Thou hast told me that it is he that hath taken away dead men from me. For there be many which while they lived on the earth have taken dead men from me, yet not by their own power but by prayer to God, and their almighty God hath taken them from me. Who is this Jesus which by his own word without prayer hath drawn dead men from me?

. . . When Hell heard that he said unto him: I adjure thee by thy strength and mine own that thou bring him not unto me. For at that time I, when I heard the command of his word, did quake and was overwhelmed with fear, and all my ministries with me were troubled. Neither could we keep Lazarus, but he like an eagle shaking himself leaped forth with all agility and swiftness, and departed from us, and the earth also which held the dead body of Lazarus straightway gave him up alive. Wherefore now I know that that man which was able to do these things is a God strong in command and mighty in manhood, and that he is the saviour of mankind. And if thou bring him unto me he will set free all that are here shut up in the hard prison and bound in the chains of their sins that cannot be broken, and will bring them unto the life of his god head for ever.

. . . O prince of perdition and chief of destruction, Beelzebub, the scorn of the angels and spitting of the righteous why wouldest thou do this? Thou wouldest crucify the King of glory and at his decease didst promise us great spoils of his death: like a fool thou knewest not what thou didst.

. . . And the Lord stretching forth his hand, said: Come unto me, all ye my saints which bear mine image and my likeness. Ye that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the tree.

Amazing. Even if it is apocryphal it’s a neat story!

Once hell proper begins we come to the first circle – the lustful.

Into this torment carnal sinners are thrust,
So I was told – the sinners who make their reason
Bond thrall under the yoke of their lust.

If the nine circles in hell grow progressively worse (both in punishment and the evil of the act being punished), it might surprise modern readers, especially Christians, to discover that the first major sin punished is that of lust. Being the first, it seems, in Dante’s view, to be the least sinful. Among the sins considered worse than lust are gluttony, hoarding/wasting, sullenness, flattery, and (the worst of all) betrayal. We rarely hear about or are cautioned against these sins from the pulpit today (much less do we see whole ministries devoted to them!). How does Dante’s hierarchy stand up against the modern Christian focus on sexual purity? Dante’s hierarchy was not based simply on sin’s immediate or obvious external effects. Rather, they had to do with the nature of the act in comparison to the nature of the actor. The lustful are in Circle Two which is essentially the first circle of punishment. The lustful are forever caught in a whirlwind that throws them around like rag dolls completely out of control. As Inferno punishments go, this is not too bad. Why?

The major problem with lust is lack of self control (thus the out-of-control punishment). Lust is one’s allowance of lower animal instincts to overcome rationality. It is a sin that opposes a human virtue because it lowers mankind to the brute animal level. Animals have only instinct and emotion to work with. What separates mankind from the lower animals is rationality. We are given rational intellects in addition to emotion and instinct, and are therefore accountable to use it. When we act according to the dictates of emotion without intellect we act as animals. Yet these kinds of actions are, in Dante’s view, more acceptable than those that go against our nature or those that flow from more purely evil intentions.

Not to jump ahead, but I think this hierachy is difficult to see without looking ahead a bit. I think that murderers are kept above homosexuals because murder is the product of wrath (which people naturally experience) that is out of control. Thus, lust is unlike some other sins in that it is basically an out-of-control acting upon good desires. There is nothing sinful about sex per se. Instead, sinful sex is sex outside prescribed boundaries. Because lust is born out of a good, natural desire (and a stronger one than say food or possessions), it is considered the least sinful. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is seen as anti-natural. The lustful in the lust circle are all listed as heterosexual – homosexuals are much further down in Circle Seven: Ring Three – the Violent Against God and Nature.

Pragmatically speaking, sexual sin may be the easiest to spot and can lead to many very uncomfortable situations. But non-virtuous solutions to these pragmatic problems (condoms, birth control, abortion, etc.) exist and continue to be fought for in the socio-political-ethical arena. What if all the (obvious, immediate, and external) unwanted effects of sexual sin were done away with? What then would be the reason to abstain? In fact, why be good at all if we can avoid the undesirable effects of evil actions?

What is missing today in a lot of moral discussion, both secular and Christian, is sin’s effects upon us as people – not simply upon our circumstances. No pill or prophylactic can solve those. When we focus solely on avoidance of punishment or unwanted outcomes we tacitly approve of any action whose undesirable effects can be sidestepped. But sin is more evil than that. Sin harms us in deeper ways as it sidetracks us from our very purposes as human beings created in God’s image. When we sin we go against what we are made for – the very things that make us good.

What Dante offers may be more relevant than ever in at least this sense: he saw sin as its own punishment, and hell as the logical outworking of its effects. Those in Dante’s Inferno were not there because God decided it would be fun to torture them for their disobedience (for we see the same kinds of sinners, saved by God’s grace, later on in Purgatory awaiting the removal of their sin’s effects prior to their entrance into heaven). Rather, the damned’s eternal state is simply a reflection of what they became in life.

Awesome and terrible.