Bowels of Hell, Heights of Heaven: Preaching Dante Alighieri

Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories. See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.

From the moment our first contemplative ancestors gazed into the dark abyss of death and trembled, the mystery of what comes next has haunted humankind. "We are born," says priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley, "with two incurable diseases: life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn't the end." According to most surveys, 60 percent of Americans still believe in hell and 81 percent in heaven—with most believers in heaven also believing they've secured a reservation.

For the 60 percent who still believe in hell, as well as the source of motivation for those who don't, I present the late-13th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri and his popular work, La Commedia, which paints the picture of hell that still dominates the collective mind. By the time he wrote The Comedy, Dante, in his early 50s, had already grappled ferociously with Catholic papal authorities and had taken up arms against a rival political group that eventually ran him out of his hometown of Florence. Through all of this, Dante naturally amassed a truckload of enemies and consequently did with them what many have wished to do with their own; namely, he sent them all, even the pope, to hell—literarily speaking, that is.

Dante penned what is regarded as the finest poem of the Middle Ages, a summation of classical and medieval beliefs so profound that its critics subsequently labeled it "divine." Of The Divine Comedy poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, "The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions. But Dante's is one of those one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life." C.S. Lewis concurred, "There is so much besides poetry in Dante that anyone but a fool can enjoy him in some way or another."

Dante stated that his purpose for writing The Divine Comedy was to "to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of felicity." The poem was written in three parts. In Inferno, the Roman philosopher Virgil, representing moral and intellectual virtue, guides Dante through nine concentric circles of hell where they meet various sinners from history, myth, and of course, Dante's black list. Their journey departs from the dark wood of alienation from God (where the beasts of lust, pride, and greed drive people back from ascending the Mountain of the Lord) and ventures through the gates of hell. Virgil sternly impresses upon Dante the dehumanizing nature of sin. Above Dante's hell hangs this menacing notice: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here."

These words in dim color I beheld
Inscribed on the lintel of an archway.
"Master," I said, "this saying's hard for me."

And he—as someone who understands—told me:
"Here you must give up all irresolution;
All cowardice must here be put to death.

"We are come to the place I spoke to you about
Where you shall see the sorrow-laden people,
Those who have lost the Good of the intellect."

And with that, putting his own hand on mine,
With smiling face, just to encourage me,
He led me to things hidden from the world.

Here heartsick sighs and groanings and shrill cries
Re-echoed through the air devoid of stars,
So that, but started, I broke down in tears.

Babbling tongues, terrible palaver,
Words of grief, inflections of deep anger,
Strident and muffled speech, and clapping hands,

All made a tumult that whipped round and round
Forever in that colorless and timeless air,
Like clouds of sand caught up in a whirlwind.