Through Hell to Hope

Feeling Reality in Dante’s ‘Inferno’

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“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” This warning stands etched for eternity over the gates of Dante’s hell. It is one of the most famous lines in literature, and rightly so. It marks the beginning of Dante’s descent, following the footsteps of Christ, into the heart of the earth — a sobering journey that puts both the fear and fitness of divine justice on full display.

Many are tempted to “abandon all hope” at just the prospect of reading Dante. Perhaps you were forced to slog through Inferno in high school or read a few excerpts about Beatrice in college. Yet few realize that Dante wrote his epic poem, including his descent into hell, precisely to offer hope to Christians in their pilgrimage through this life. He offers himself as a guide for all who would follow in his footsteps, a shepherd of the Christian imagination.

C.S. Lewis once observed, “Certain things, if not seen as lovely or detestable, are not being correctly seen at all” (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 67). In other words, you don’t really see reality if you don’t feel rightly about it. If you don’t see God as beautiful, you don’t actually see God. If you don’t see sin as utterly ugly, you don’t actually see sin. Like trying to see a rainbow in black-and-white, you don’t really see it without the color. And here Dante shines as such a valuable guide for us because he leveraged all of his poetic prowess to help his readers see and feel rightly about God and everything else in relation to him.

In short, Dante wrote for you. By shaping our imaginations, Dante aims to pull back the veil of appearances and show us what’s really real. Therefore, if we will journey with him, Dante proves himself wonderfully relevant to Christians today. To motivate you to embark on this pilgrimage, I want to examine one image Dante gives us in Inferno that helps us envision just how detestable our sin is.

Showing the Invisible

Before turning to Inferno, however, a word on the imagination and how Dante appeals to it. Dante holds that a disciplined imagination is essential for Christian maturity because it serves an indispensable role in tracing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful to their fountainhead in the triune God. He celebrates the fact that all things find their meaning and purpose in relation to God, who is

The ever-living One and Two and Three
     that ever reigns as Three and Two and One
     uncircumscribed and circumscribing all. (Paradise, 14.28–30)

Furthermore, Dante sees the incarnation of Jesus as the key to understanding everything. Just as the Word became flesh and revealed the invisible God, man can imitate the incarnation through the imagination. Our words form images that make invisible realities visible. Good stories help us really see.

“Dante offers himself as a guide for all who would follow in his footsteps, a shepherd of the Christian imagination.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dante has shaped and ordered the Christian imagination as much as any man besides Jesus. His labyrinthine fourteen-thousand-line poem, The Divine Comedy, is for the imagination a playground and a schoolhouse, a cathedral and an observatory, a courtroom and an art gallery. It is a story that springs up from the leaf mold of a mind saturated in Scripture and awed by “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Paradise, 33.145). Thus, Dante can help guide us on the path of godliness and maturity.

Now, how does Dante employ the imagination to unmask the true nature of sin?

Sin Incarnate

In Inferno, Dante leads his readers into the depths of hell in order to illustrate what sin does to the soul. By presenting a host of sinners and their punishments, Dante paints soul-pictures to help us envision how sin leaves people bent and broken. In Dante’s vision, sinners embody the sins they cling to. To use the category we mentioned earlier, the sinner incarnates the sin. As Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce, the grumbler becomes a grumble. Fittingly, then, the punishments in hell are not tacked on after the fact. They are a picture of God giving sinners up to the intrinsic effects of their sin (Romans 1:24–32). Sin goes against the grain of God’s design, and Dante shows us what it looks like when you get splinters.

For instance, in canto 5 of Inferno, Dante presents those people who were dominated by lust in life as souls endlessly tossed to and fro by “a hellish cyclone that can never rest” (Inferno, 5.31). Like little birds in a blizzard, these souls are carried wherever the winds take them. This image perfectly depicts the sin of lust, which puts desire in the driver’s seat so that we are “led astray, slaves to various passions” (Titus 3:3). With this image, and a host of others, Dante helps us see the final destination of disordered loves.

The Soul-Picture of Ulysses

To look at a more involved example, Dante presents one of his most poignant and convicting soul-pictures in canto 26. In this eighth circle of hell, Dante meets the mythic character Ulysses, the mastermind of the Trojan horse and main character of Homer’s Odyssey. In Ulysses, Dante presents the embodiment of a sin that haunts the lips and keyboards of our own age — the misuse of words.

When Dante meets Ulysses, he recounts the story of his downfall. After a decade of fighting the Homeric wars, Ulysses finally returns home to his wife, son, and father. Yet he shamelessly admits that none of these bonds of love

Could drive from me the burning to go forth
     to gain experience of the world, and learn
     of every human vice, and human worth. (Inferno, 26.97–99)

Like the lustful, Ulysses is blown about by his passions. Like our first parents, he harbors a sinful obsession to obtain the knowledge of good and evil. Burning with this ambition, Ulysses uses his eloquence to inflame his war-weary friends with a desire to sail to the ends of the earth and storm the gates of Eden. However, before they can ever set foot on that hallowed shore, a whirlwind “to please Another’s will” sinks their ship, killing the whole crew. God quelled Job’s curiosity from the whirlwind, and Dante envisions the same for Ulysses’s folly.

In this image of Ulysses, Dante shows the destructive power of the tongue. Ulysses is a master rhetorician, and his words are poison. With just nine lines of speech, Ulysses convinces those he calls brothers to join him in his sin. He boasts,

I made my comrades’ appetites so keen
     to take the journey, by this little speech,
     I hardly could have held them after that. (26.121–123)

With carefully wrought words, Ulysses enflames the desire of others, enticing them into sin that ends in death (James 1:14–15).

The Fiery Tongue

The story itself is a parable of warning, but it is the punishment that finally unmasks the sin. Ulysses’s penalty involves being eternally encased in a tongue of flame, a flame kindled by the blaze of his own tongue. Here Ulysses embodies the sin of misusing words. And the punishment fits the crime for at least three reasons.

First, it is a kind of anti-Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Spirit rested on men like tongues of fire, freeing the tongues of men to set the world ablaze with truth. Yet Ulysses is imprisoned by his tongue, locked in his own lies. Second, as James tells us, the tongue is a fire, a restless inferno of unrighteousness (James 3:1–12). The fiery tongue kindles the world. Third, in life, Ulysses’s tongue devoured the lives of his friends. Now the very flame that consumed others eternally consumes the soul that wielded it. He entrapped with words, and now he is entrapped. The arsonist burns on his own pyre.

This image rightly haunts the imagination. It is truly terrible because the sin it reveals is detestable to God! Even as I write these words, I behold Ulysses as a blazing beacon of warning. My tongue, just like yours, is powerful. I can use it to help others enjoy God and see Christ. Or I can twist it to my own ends, subtly kindling my own ego and reputation. I can use it to bring life or, like Ulysses, to bring death.

Dante himself felt this danger. Staring at Ulysses veiled in flame, Dante determined to “hold my genius under tighter rein / Lest without virtue’s guidance it run loose” (Inferno, 26.21–22). Dante, gifted with great linguistic ability, knew he could lead others to ruin if God did not tame his tongue.

“Our words form images that make invisible realities visible. Good stories help us really see.”

And the warning of Ulysses is not limited to professional wordsmiths. With the help of the Internet and social media, the reach and speed of our words today make the danger all the greater. Ulysses’s “little speech” is no longer than an average text message or social media post, and they can be just as deadly. Like sparks in a forest, a few lines of misused words can set society ablaze. Therefore, we would do well to heed Dante’s image of Ulysses.

Imagining Reality

More broadly, we would do well to heed all of Dante’s images. I have given just one snapshot of how Dante — a man saturated in Scripture and enchanted by myth — can guide us on the Christian pilgrimage by shaping our imaginations. He can help us love much when we realize we have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47). He can guide us up toward holiness by revealing the ugliness of sin. He can help us bask in the light of God.

In short, Dante — and others like him who wield the imagination faithfully — can pull back the veil and show us a glimpse of the way the world really is.