The Nicer Parts of Hell: You Get What Justice and Love Can Give

The Nicer Parts of Hell: You Get What Justice and Love Can Give April 1, 2019

Hell is as hellish as justice tempered by mercy can make it.

The Christian genius Dante posits that Hell is as hellish as our choices in the light of God’s justice makes it. If Hell is bad, then it is never worse than we are.

Hell is just: a logical necessity if one is given the free will to reject God.

Dante and Hell became connected, partly because most people are too damnably lazy to read the two-thirds of his profound work that is not in Hell. In an earlier more pious age, his pictures of bad popes being poked by devils for selling out the church were shocking enough to be specially memorable.

Now Dante is more temperate than Catholic Twitter.

Dante has the character Dante (!) journey down through Hell, up Mount Purgatory, and then to the Highest Heaven in one of the greatest descriptions of personal salvation in all literature. The man who was famous, but lost in middle age, sees Love. The talky man stops talking in the light of the splendor he sees, but first he must see what happens when people fail to consent to love.

We can pick the wrong kind of love, reject Divine Love altogether, or just choose badly and refuse at the hour of our death when all is made clear to change. Saying no to God means no and our choices are fixed when we run out of time to the eternal state of our souls.

In our morbid delight in the images of “torture” in the Inferno, we miss the mercy of God. God gives justice and if you will become unfit for Heaven, God will not ruin paradise for everyone else by giving a person what he has rejected. Instead, God gives us what we have chosen. Some choose badly, others only somewhat badly.Never forget that only those who know better and reject the truth end up in the lowest most terrible regions of Hell. Satan saw the good, but since Satan could not be the good, he chose rebellion against goodness, truth, and beauty. That this is wholly horrible is not God’s fault, but justice. Others, such as Plato (for Dante) or Homer choose badly, but not so badly. God gives them as good a place as God can.

There is no flourishing for those who have rejected God, though barely. They have not gone ahead, but they have done the best that could be done with the image of God within them. In Dante’s image, an Aristotle has loved the good, true and beautiful in the cosmos, while missing the Good, Truth, and Beauty. Aristotle gets no torment, no torture, but an image of Heaven. Hell for the noble sinner is a photocopy of a sublime painting: as good as it gets if you will not say “yes” to God Himself.

Other sinners, of course, intend to rebel. They know not to steal and steal. Some of us are like the lovers Pablo and Francesca who chose an image of love over love Himself. We get what we want and that this is not so good is not the fault of God. He took the “no” seriously. Worst of all, some take pride in their defiance. They root for Satan, as some do who misread Milton’s Paradise Lost, and take pride in defying God. This goes .. . . Badly.

Dante pictures one soul, who has created his own shame and torments, coming to a moment of realization. Does he look for mercy? Does he turn his gaze to goodness? He does not:

Then, making the figs with both his thumbs, the thief raised up his fists and cried: Take that, God! It’s aimed at you!’**

Things may be bad, the sinner may have lost, but he will not give up his “dignity” for even a moment. This particular sinner is a thief and while, perhaps, sorry that he is a prey of snakes he bred by his deeds, refuses God. Of course, he does. He is the Internet troll fantasizing that his defiance of reason, evidence, and manners gives him a sort of nobility.

I suppose it does.

If one wishes to be damned, but proud of it, God is not so insecure as to make the sinner shut up. He can defy God and have his eternal victory: making himself the prey of snakes and devils.

And so it goes.

We can choose how we will respond to reality, but we cannot bend reality. The more goodness, truth, and beauty we reject, the more we embrace overt wickedness, falsity, and ugliness, the worse our eternal state. No means no and when dead, you are (literally) out of time.

God is just, but no monster. He gives His children the best Hell he can. To Virgil, God allows a place that would, compared to our broken world, seem a very heaven. It has lost the good of the intellect, there will be no growth and no wisdom, but what good there was in the life of Plato, Homer and other poets will be honored. There is no torment, because God does not delight in torment. There is a kind of peace and an image of honor, if no real honor.

Dante has it just so: everyone gets better than we deserve, but nothing more or less than justice demands if we say “no” to the good God. The idea of Hell for the living is not to go and everyone who says “Hell no” will not go, if only he also says “yes” to the Good.


*Some academics will hardly know they are in Hell, the place of the poets is so pleasant. Inferno Canto IV. Translation by

**He gave God the equivalent of the finger. He is not sorry for his sin and rejects love. He gets what is coming to him. Inferno Canto XXV 1ff.

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