Where Did the Idea of Levels of Hell Come From?
While there are a variety of sources that portray hell as a place of levels, where different sin is punished according to its nature, the most influential and prominent one comes from Divinia Commedia, or the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.
This narrative poem took twelve years to write. It is a masterwork of literature, with vivid imagery, well-constructed verses, and even interesting mathematical and scientific themes. It tells the story of the writer, Dante, searching for his dead lover Beatrice while exploring the three realms, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In English, those are hell, purgatory, and heaven, or paradise.
While all three literary works are excellent, the Inferno captured the world’s imagination in an enduring way. Here, the circles of hell are laid out as nine circles, each punishing greater wickedness, until Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, reach the center of the earth:
- Limbo: The unbaptized and the virtuous pagans; similar to earth, but sufferers live in sorrow for being forever separated from God.
- Lust: People who committed lust-driven sins like adultery and fornication; the souls are blown about in a terrible storm without rest.
- Gluttony: The overindulgent sinners; forced to lie in freezing slush.
- Avarice and Prodigality: The place for the greedy and the ungenerous; they must smash heavy weights together again and again.
- Wrath and Sullenness: Those who were always angry or gloomy; the wrathful must engage in eternal fights while the sullen are always sunk beneath the river Styx.
- Heresy: These souls spoke or acted against God or the church; trapped in flaming tombs.
- Violence: Those who committed violence against others, property, themselves, as well as con artists; immersed in boiling blood.
- Fraud: All types of fraud are punished here including seducers, false prophets, and sorcerers; they run back and forth while being whipped by demons.
- Treason: Here, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius are in the jaws of Satan, frozen in a lake of ice.
Dante’s version of hell punishes the unrepentant sinner in a manner that is fitting their sins. For those who confessed and repented before they died, their souls labor in purgatory to be freed of their sins – eventually.
This version of hell is more influenced by Aristotle than by the Bible, with the punishment fitting the specific crime, as well as by implying that people are only guilty of one specific sin over all others. In fact, Dante’s entire trilogy is not meant to be taken literally. It is an allegory for the Christian journey towards God.
The inferno is where the soul recognizes its own sin, rejecting it and turning away from it and towards God. Dante emphasized this by having the journey through hell being the only journey downwards; after the ninth circle, the other two climb upwards. Purgatory represents the penitent Christian life, striving to repent of sin and be more holy. Paradise is the achievement of going to God, and finally ascending to be with Him.
While it is a powerful image, the inferno of Dante is not an actual depiction of hell, and should not be taken that way.
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