I started reading The Divine Comedy when I was a senior in High School. I intended to write a lengthy paper on the doctrine of hell and was combing Dante for material, but the paper’s topic ended up being changed to Christianity & anarchism, so I abandoned the book. I’m giving it another try, and enjoying it so far. We’ll see if it ends up being one of my 52 in 52 or not.
So for those of you who don’t know, The Divine Comedy is a first-person account of Dante Aligheri’s tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise over the course of several days in April, 1300 AD. His tour guide for hell and purgatory is the famous Roman poet, Vergil, who hands Dante off to Beatrice for the journey through heaven. Let’s pick it up with Vergil introducing Dante to his co-residents in the first circle of hell:
…they sinned not; and if they merit had,
'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;
And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself.
Vergil goes on to explain that the inhabitants of the first circle of hell are “only so far punished, / That without hope we live on in desire” (IV.41-42). By this, Dante is aggrieved, for “people of much worthiness” (IV.44) to be suspended in Limbo.
But wait a minute. Dante and Vergil seem to have rightly identified that those who lived before Christianity are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20) for having “adored not God” (IV.38), “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). But what’s this about “people of much worthiness” who “sinned not”? As it is written, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-13).
Frankly, I think Dante is a bit star-struck. Look at the roll-call in the first circle of hell: Vergil, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Plato, Socrates, Democritus, Tully, Livy, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, etc. He realizes that his favorite heroes, philosophers, writers, and scientists were all Greco-Roman pagans and cannot be in heaven, but he wishes to speak no ill of them and not show them in torment.
But does Dante think that it inconsequential that these damned “adored not God”? Each of them spurned the Fountain of Love, and so even if they could “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (like Plato) or deliver themselves up to be burned (as Hector ultimately did for Troy), if they had not love—they were nothing, they gain nothing (see 1 Cor. 13).
Now, I’m willing to consider the possibility that Dante wrote his charitable words about these pagans in light of Romans 2:13-16:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Perhaps Dante considered these Greco-Roman icons to have been excused by their consciences on the day of judgment, but to be in hell anyway for lack of saving faith in Christ. I’m afraid I’m a bit confused by Paul in Romans 2, so I can’t rule out that possibility. I’d love to hear a thought on this from someone who groks Romans 2 better than I.
That’s all for now. I’ma go play some Ticket to Ride.