Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio: Introduction


It is Easter morning in the year 1300 when and Virgil and Dante emerge from the pit of the Inferno. Following Dante’s imagery and afterlife structure, we might guess that what comes next is a walk through Heaven – but this is a Catholic poem!

The second book of Dante’s Divine Comedy follows the writer’s journey through Purgatory, pictured here as a great mountain (corresponding to the great pit of the Inferno, and, as said earlier, also formed by Satan’s fall). The title comes from the Latin “purgare” which means “to make clean, to purify.” The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Purgatory as “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” This, then, is the mountain of purification.

Although Purgatory is not an accepted condition /place / state by most Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, this part of the poem can still, I believe, be beneficial to members of these traditions.  First a few words on the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory itself.

The Doctrine of Purgatory

It is important at the outset to realize that although Purgatory stands between Heaven and Hell, it is not some third salvific state with regard to one’s final destination. Purgatory can be seen as the ante-room of Heaven – a “washroom” if you will, where saints get cleaned up before they walk into the perfectly clean house. Unlike Hell, which is suffering for sins that will never be purged, Purgatory is a place of purging from sin via suffering. Salvation is no more at question in Purgatory than it is in Heaven, for only the saved may enter here.

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. (CCC 1472)

Now, some may ask, “Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice enough to affect our cleansing from sin?” Yes, it is – but how that cleansing is accomplished is another question with another answer. Roman Catholics make a distinction between being forgiven for sin and avoiding suffering for it. In the Bible, God forgave people without removing the consequences of their sin, and they often suffered for it (e.g., Num. 20:12; 2 Sam. 12:13-14; cf. 1 Pet. 3:17 and 4:15). Thus, says the Roman Catholic, some sins (specifically venial sins – in seeming contrast to the Bible examples cited) must be removed through suffering before one enters Heaven. This is how it is defined in The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified . . . this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1030-31).

The specific doctrine of Purgatory is not very detailed. It does not seem to have been construed as a “place” until the 13th Century, but the early church has been said to assume the doctrine of purgatorial suffering / cleansing to the extent that it affirmed the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Further, some early commentaries on Scripture explain various passages with reference to Purgatory (e.g., Mt. 12:32; 1 Cor. 3:11-15). Luther himself took some time before deciding to rid himself of the doctrine, and there are Protestants and Eastern Orthodox who have affirmed similar teachings regarding some middle state between earthly life and the heavenly afterlife. The exact duration, experience, and nature of Purgatory, however, are left fairly open even in Roman Catholic thinking.

Purgatory for Protestants?

Although Luther did not deny the doctrine, Purgatory is almost universally  (but not completely) denied by Protestants today Dante’s vision, however, is not without value even to those who disbelieve in Purgatory per se. Peter Kreeft once said that if you believe that between your initial salvation in this life and your glorified state in Heaven that some transformation (i.e., purification) takes place, you believe in Purgatory. That’s probably a far too optimistic appraisal, but it does contain some truth. Clearly, believers are not kept from ever performing future sins on the day they first believe (as the Apostle John tells us in 1 Jn. 1:8). Just as clearly, there will be no stain of sin in Heaven (as the same apostle tells us in Rev. 21:27). Thus, sanctification is required to enter Heaven, and even non-Catholics agree that sanctification involves suffering.

This generally seems to be the teaching of Scripture (e.g., Luke 9:23; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; etc.), and it answers the question of why God would allow suffering after salvation from sin (see Christians in Tribulation). Further, to say that suffering at the end of the sanctification process invalidates the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement seems the same as saying it does so at the beginning or in the middle. Suffering for sanctification, however, need not be seen as taking away from the sufficiency of Christ’s work in the least. Rather Christ’s work can be said to be the efficient cause of sanctification which uses the instrumental cause of suffering to effect it (whether or not further sanctification is possible after this life is another debate).

This view of the purpose of our lives also helps resolve the oft-perceived disparity between the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace and the salvific effects produced by good works, it helps explain temporal punishments for evil deeds, the afterlife judgments of believers, as well as the different levels of reward in Heaven and degrees of suffering in Hell – which the Bible (and Dante, of course) also teaches.

Theological considerations aside, one of the reasons for Dante’s continued popularity is due to the fact that his poem functions on multiple levels. It is a travel story with theological themes of course – but it is also a clear moral tale. Thus, the reader is able to abstract from Dante’s specific theological beliefs many truths that apply even to the non-Catholic or, even, the non-Christian. The Inferno, for example, was populated by those suffering for their own choices – something that happens in this life as well. Purgatory sends much the same message. The ultimate destination of each sufferer, though, is radically different. The former suffer punishment for their deeds, while the latter suffer because of their deeds – in order to prepare for their reward.

Ciardi says of the Inferno that it is a “remarkable amalgam of the Nichomachean Ethics and Cicero . . . [with] little that is peculiarly Christian” (Introduction to Purgatorio, in DC p.274). In the same way, even as one who is not committed to a tradition that affirms Purgatory, I can well appreciate the fact that, one way or another, God prepares believers for Heaven in a special way that involves our own experiences. So whether one sees this mountain as a middle ground between Heaven and Hell, or a commentary on the results of our actions in this life, Dante’s Purgatorio retains its relevance.

Purgatory in the Purgatorio

The Purgatorio tells of the middle ground between the Inferno and the Paradiso (Hell and Paradise/Heaven, respectively). As Hell is darkness and Paradise light, Purgatory requires both day and night. Dante and Virgil will spend four days and three nights on the mountains slopes, circling up through seven terraces corresponding to the seven deadly sins (and, in many cases, suffering alongside the souls encountered there).

As the Inferno began with an ante-chamber, Mt. Purgatory begins with a shoreline containing souls who repented very late in life, and now must wait to begin their journey up the mountain. As with the Inferno, particular trials and sufferings in Purgatory correspond to the sins that characterized the soul’s life; however, here the scenes are far more calm and serene. Though suffering, these souls retain joy and hope because they know what their sufferings are leading toward (cf. Rom. 8:18 and 2 Cor. 4:17). At the top of the mountain is the Garden of Eden – the ultimate earthly paradise, and the gateway to the presence of God in Paradise.

But before all this comes the sea.


2 thoughts on “Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio: Introduction

  1. I’ve been waiting for you to write about this. Very appropriate article with the upcoming discussion on Saturday.

  2. Pingback: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio: Canto 1 – The Cleansing Begins | Soul Device

Comments are closed.