A Theology of Heaven and Hell: Cantrapasso in Dante’s “Inferno” and “The Great Divorce”

Good morning, friends!

How are we finding ourselves on this Memorial Day?

Oh, and also…did you notice the new theme going on? As a writer, I’ve been investing a lot into my online presence lately, and I thought it was due time for an upgrade on this site. How do we feel about it? I’m certainly liking how clean it feels, that’s for sure.

Let me make a quick note before we dive in to this week’s post:

Note: this will be a very theological post. *end of note*

Yes…this will be a very theological post.

Because, friends, I have been taken by a new theological word.

It’s rich in theology, and my brain is in overdrive sorting it out in my little corner of academia. It’s a morbid little word (and it comes with a lot of sensitive baggage). I’ve thought about it a lot, written about it for class, and now I’ve even turned to you lovelies as a way to express it’s complexity.

The word is contrapasso.

Contrapasso, quite simply, is what I saw displayed when I took a trip to the nine circles of hell with Florentine poet Dante Alighieri this week for literary history. Virgil was our guide, of course, and what we saw shook us to the core.

Unfortunately, Dore forgot to include me in this illustration. *raises fist*

Dante cried a few times and “woe-is-me’d.” Virgil told him to man up more than once. Dante and Virgil got a little annoyed with me because I lagged and took notes for the majority of our tour. Eventually it became so morbid I almost collapsed with weariness of brain, too. Virgil, Dante, and my professor kept reminding me that my 400-word writing assignment on my travels was due the next day, though, so I had to keep walking.

I love inserting myself into literature like that.

Anyway!

(and on a much more serious note)

Dante’s Inferno was a literary experience that made me think a lot about the afterlife, our warranted destinations, and the ways in which humanity has interpreted damnation throughout history. It isn’t something we think of often, especially as most of us are relatively young, free, and starkly opinionated in the ways we view the world.

However, when I read Dante’s Inferno, I was halted by the realization that all of us are presented with the eventual fork in the road: eternal life or eternal death. As far as we can tell, we aren’t close to our end, and yet we know that we will get there eventually. It’s an eerie presence that hovers in the back of our consciousness.

In a weird, infeeling sort of way, I actually found it incredibly profound the way Mycroft puts it in the BBC series Sherlock:

 

Everybody dies. It’s the one thing human beings can be relied upon to do. How can it still come as a surprise to some people?

—Mycroft Holmes

 

Mycroft isn’t the most sensitive, and sometimes his conclusions about mortality and emotion are rough, but I found this statement so profound. Morbid, yet profound.

Even more so are the realities of heaven and hell.

As an avid reader of contemporary theology, I have taken quite an interest in the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell. They are spectacular realities. Both of them intrigue me more than I can say, and what piques my interest most is why they even exist.

Heaven, naturally, is the home of our Lord, His angels (I have the biggest mortal crush on Michael), and the departed saints who ascend to glory (also known as “us”). Heaven is the destination we long for where we will dwell forever in a union with our God as we have always desired, forever in His presence, forever loved by Him, forever praising Him, and forever in communion with His saints.

But then there’s hell. And Inferno really pushed my studies of heaven/hell back into the forefront of my mind, because the way Dante paints the underworld (while systematic and orderly) is absolutely frightening. 

This is where contrapasso comes into effect.

Let’s define contrapasso before we continue.

According to Professor Bell (who is an engaging and challenging professor to have), contrapasso is a theological concept first introduced by the medieval theologians the Scholastics, who claimed that in hell, the sinner was punished by a “logical and physical extension of the dominant sin committed on earth. It is a poetic justice for the sinner who willingly chose their eternal destiny. The punishment doesn’t just fit the crime, it is the crime doomed to be endlessly repeated by the sinner in hell.”

Abiding by this theme, Dante writes his sinners in hell as enduring this exact concept. Sinners who were adulterous and sexually promiscuous in life are whirled about on an eternal, turbulent wind of lustful passion with their earthly lovers, never to rest. Similarly, those who were corrupted by greed in life push an enormous boulder (symbolic of earthly wealth) against those of other condemned (perhaps symbolising the way they competed with other wealthy people in life). Those who were given to bloodshed and violence dwell in a deep lake of blood, where they fight and argue with their fellow damned forever and ever.

Circle Four: Avarice (Greed)

Basically, contrapasso is the belief that what you wanted most on earth and whatever sin you were primarily dominated by in life is what you get forever and ever in hell. It is what you chose on earth, so you can now have it for the rest of eternity.

And this is where my reading of the Inferno coincides with my reading of C.S. Lewis’s theological allegory The Great Divorce (which is one of my favorite of Lewis’s works).

Lewis, as a medieval scholar himself, was definitely influenced by this theological concept of contrapasso when he wrote his allegory of heaven and hell, which deals with these difficult questions and morbid themes.

Why does God send sinners to hell?

Lewis would answer: He doesn’t.

 

The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

—C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

 

Lewis’s idea stems from Dante’s.

He argues: hell is a place for people who want to be there.

If someone does not want God and chooses to live their lives apart from Him, why would Christ bring that person into His presence at the time of death? If someone does not want to be with you, you will not force them to, especially if you love that person. If you love the person, you will let them do as they please, even if you know that you have what is best for them. You will leave them alone, and they should not feel obligated to do what you want.

God doesn’t force people to be with him. Just as a good lover (mind you, I say good) will not force a woman to love him because “that’s what’s best” for her. That might be true, but he still won’t.

If the woman wants no part of a relationship with him, he (being a good lover) will not make her love him.

The same is with God.

Lewis and Dante would both argue that God gives sinners what they want when he sends them to hell: sin eternal and separation from the One they never wanted in the first place.

Of course, when they are in hell, I’m not saying it’s a pleasant experience. Far from it. Just as a parent lets a child suffer the consequences of their choices, the child often learns an unpleasant lesson and their idea of what they want is contradicted when they realize that the outcome is different than what they had hoped.

One of my favorite apologists, Dr. Frank Turek (who is an academic hero of mine), explains this concept really well.

Does this not change the entire way humanity has viewed heaven and hell?

It is because of God’s love that hell exists. This is also demonstrated in Inferno, when Dante and Virgil stand before the gate leading into hell, they read:

 

Through me the way is to the city dolent;

Through me the way is to the eternal dole;

Through me the way among the people lost.

 

Justice incited my sublime Creator;

Created me divine Omnipotence,

The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

 

—From Inferno, Canto III, Lines 1-6

 

Out of God’s “highest Widsom and the primal Love” hell was made.

It doesn’t make sense if one believes that God maliciously sends people to hell with the hopes that he can joyfully watch them suffer for their disavowal of him. He lets humanity have what they have wanted: separation from Him. When they get it, the outcome is probably different than they had expected, but nevertheless…it’s what they wanted.

Allow me to say this: I’m not claiming that Dante’s illustration of hell is exactly what hell is. Dante himself, who was writing a work of fiction, most likely did not believe his rendering of hell to be the true one.

I’m only saying that the doctrine of contrapasso, which has been passed from the Scholastics to Dante to Lewis to even Turek is one that is Biblical and justifies the existence of hell.

In conclusion, then, heaven and hell is a choice we are given to make. Our love for God is what determines where we will spend our immortal existence, because God will not force us into His presence…even if He knows it is what’s best for us. He loves humanity too much to do so. Our freewill is His gift to us, and no matter how we choose to exercise it, He will not take it away.

It was definitely a difficult topic to think on this week, but it started boiling on the stove that is my soul, so I wanted to write about it. I had to. I couldn’t not write about it, and while I know it’s a bit of a morbid concept to think on, I hope you lovelies found it interesting and at least a little theologically enriching.

Do let me know what you think in the comments and feel free to add your own ideas! I do so love a theological conversation.

Bis später,

Emily

4 thoughts on “A Theology of Heaven and Hell: Cantrapasso in Dante’s “Inferno” and “The Great Divorce”

  1. “There are two Ways: a Way of Life and a Way of Death, and the difference between these two Ways is great.”– The Didache
    We have a lovely tattered old copy of Purgatory and Paradise, but no Inferno for some reason.
    Having not read much about the subject, I don’t entirely feel qualified to talk about it. But the scholastic view– while good– strikes me as somewhat lacking. As I see it, a person may not want Hell, but still get it as the price for high treason. I can still fit contrapasso into this view, but I wanted the emphasis on God’s rights as the Sovereign.
    I like that self-insert introduction! It would be fun to have more book-talks in that style.

    1. Indeed, the Scholastic’s view is a bit lacking, but when it merely sets up the arguments of Lewis, who has a much more theologically sound notion on the mater. Hell is definitely the price for high treason, and God’s righteousness as the Sovereign is what moves him to execute justice: giving the sinner what they have “wanted,” and showing them how wrong they were.
      And yes! I loved writing that little self-insert intro. I wish I could have gone with Dante on his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I probably would have fainted a few times, too just like he did! Hahaha!
      Thank you for your comment!

  2. “If someone does not want God and chooses to live their lives apart from Him, why would Christ bring that person into His presence at the time of death? If someone does not want to be with you, you will not force them to, especially if you love that person.” So true. I do think this view accounts for both free will and the absolute sovereignty of God. Yes, God has foreordained all things, including who will choose Him and who will not–and yet in a glorious mystery theologians have debated for centuries, He has also given us a free will with which to make that choice. Hell IS a place for people who want to be there, whether they realize it or not. The average respectable gentleman who insists he’s a good person and doesn’t deserve go to hell, but who nevertheless refuses the gift of God’s grace through Christ…isn’t he saying he’s a law unto himself and that he knows better than the Creator of the Universe what he does or doesn’t deserve? Like Lewis said, we’ve got two paths, two choices. If you don’t choose Heaven, you’re choosing Hell–no matter how you try to deny it, whitewash it, or argue it away.

    Great post, Emily! Between you, Joy Clarkson, and Anthony Esolen, you all have me wanting to re-read the Divine Comedy! And by the way, I LOVE your new layout! It looks so classy and professional 😀

    1. Yes, the man who has chosen to live apart from God is definitely saying he is a law unto himself. That’s an excellent point. There’s a quote from The Great Divorce that reiterates this. I probably should have inserted it somewhere in the post: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” I have no idea why I didn’t include this in the post! It accurately illustrates your point and the point I made in the post.

      I get so excited over theology. This is probably one of my favorite discussions: hell and predestination.

      And thank you so much for your compliments on my layout! It was so fun to design, and I’m still tinkering around with it a bit! *curtsies*

      Emily 🙂

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