Sunday, December 1, 2013

Going to Hell With Dante

Jan Van der Straet/Stradanus, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
"...There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight...."
(C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, via C.S. Lewis Quotes,
I think quite a few folks still enthusiastically commit both errors: not that the same person would be likely to nurture a Faustian fascination with the demonic and insist that demons, angels, and all things spiritual are nonsense. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus nearly does so: but he's a character in an Elizabethan drama. (October 10, 2011)

The "excessive and unhealthy interest" in devils that Lewis discussed isn't, I think, limited to folks who try to make demons work for them. Colorful faith healers of earlier generations and folks who see no problem with do-it-yourself exorcisms don't enjoy a prominent place in American society today, which is just as well.

Knowing my Limits

I have the same authority to cast out demons that any other Christian has: but I'm not an exorcist. Prayers like "Saint Michael, the archangel" and sprinkling holy water are pretty close to my limit.

I'm no more qualified to go toe-to-toe with Satan, than I am ready to join a SWAT team. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1506, 1668, 1673; Code of Canon Law, 1172)

I don't think holy water, or the words of any prayer, are magic, by the way. That would be superstition: which is against the rules. Using holy water reminds me of my baptism, it's a sacramental, and that's another topic. Topics. (Catechism, 1667-1673, 2111)

Jonathan Edwards, Mark Twain, and Me

Jonathan Edwards didn't invent Hell, but his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon helped popularize it in America: sort of.

Back in 1741, when Edwards wrote "...Angry God," the Great Awakening was firing folks up with fear of hellfire.

The Great Awakening passed, but the notion that God has anger management issues didn't: along with several distorted ideas about Hell. Several generations after "...Angry God," Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain wrote:
"I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell - you see, I have friends in both places.

"When I think of the number of disagreeable people that I know who have gone to a better world, I am sure hell won't be so bad at all."
(Mark Twain, p.377 of Evan Esar, "20,000 quips & quotes" (1968))

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then I'll go to Hell."
(Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), via Bartlett's Quotations, 16th ed.)
By the late 20th century, quite a few Americans had decided that Hell didn't exist at all. Others apparently thought it was a place for folks they didn't like, and I had become a Catholic: which is yet another topic.

More of my take on coming attractions and common sense:

Hell: Real; Optional; and Undesirable

Hell is quite real. It's not the climate that makes it a punishment: it is the eternal separation from God.

God didn't create anyone whose inevitable destination was Hell: but every person can decide that loving God isn't worthwhile, and walk away from eternal happiness. I think that's a daft decision, but it is an option. (Catechism, 1033-1037)

Hell isn't a counterpart of Heaven run by an 'antigod.' Satan is just a created being, an angel who misused free will and convinced some other angels to reject God. (Catechism, 328-330, 391-395, 632-635)

God won't drag anyone into Heaven, kicking and screaming. We aren't forced into Hell, either. Where we spend eternity depends on choices we make: to love and serve God, or not. (Catechism, 1021-1022, 1854-1864)

Sin and Judgment

As I said last week, sin isn't all about sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It is a failure to love God and love our neighbor.

Realizing that some action is sinful is one thing. Deciding that the person who commits the act is going to Hell is profoundly imprudent:
"1 2 Stop judging, that you may not be judged.

"For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you...."
(Matthew 7:1-5)
We're supposed to leave the final judgment of individuals up to God. (Catechism, 1854-1864)

We know about Saints because of what they do, and that's yet again another topic. ("New Laws for the Causes of Saints," Congregation for the Causes of Saints(1983))

In Dante's version of Hell, lust is assigned the second circle: a windy place for folks who let emotions run their lives.

There's nothing wrong with emotions, God designed us to experience them. But God also gave us reason, and expects us to use it. (Catechism, 1763-1770, 1778)

No sin is unimportant, but some merely hurt our relationship with God: while some sever it entirely. The good news is that it takes a conscious, deliberate rejection of God and God's mercy to sever our ties with the Almighty.

Deliberately ignoring God is an option, not noticing the Almighty isn't. (Catechism, 1849, 1854-1864)

Hell, Imagined

Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy" reflects an educated 14th century Catholic layman's view of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: but it's not an official Catholic document.

The "Divine Comedy" isn't a theological treatise, either. It's a poem, a work of imagination. Dante populated his (fictional) Hell with folks he knew, or knew about. I've run across several explanations for that creative choice.

Maybe he really was a vindictive little twerp who was trying to "get even" for insults, real or imagined. Maybe he had deep-seated neuroses. Or maybe Dante used the names of people his readers would recognize, because their public lives made them exemplars of some particular failing.

I think the later explanation is more plausible: particularly since Dante went to the trouble of writing two more epic-length segments of "The Divine Comedy" after "Inferno."

Dante wasn't the first to imagine what Hell might look like, but his epic poem helped shape today's imagery. Again, Dante's terraced funnel is fictional: a poet's image, not Church teaching.

(From Mediakron Dante, Gregory Kane, used w/o permission.)

I think it's also important to remember that Dante's "Divine Comedy" takes the poet and reader on a guided tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It's an effective way of showing the "big picture," even if it's an allegory, not a gazetteer.

Here's an overview of Heaven, Hell, and everything in between: as imagined by Dante.

(From Mediakron Dante, Gregory Kane, used w/o permission.)

Those concentric spheres make it look like Dante put Earth in the middle of the universe. I think it's more accurate to say that we live near the bottom. In "The Divine Comedy," the only place downhill from here is Hell. Late Medieval and Renaissance cosmology is - you guessed it - another topic.

Finally, we get one life, one final decision, and that's it. Purgatory is a sort of ICU for folks who died in God's grace and friendship, but aren't ready for heaven. (Catechism, 1021-1022, 1030-1032)

Related posts:


Brigid said...

On the other hand, one could say that eternal separation from God *is* the local climate of Hell.

Brian Gill said...


Metaphorically speaking, spot-on. Quite so.

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