Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?

DanteAndHisPoem

I’ve long been ambivalent about Dante’s Divine Comedy, because for such a magnificent, imaginative story, it is built on a foundation of utter, malevolent nonsense. I feel similarly about Milton’s Paradise Lost. What a pity that such artists of antiquity had little to work with beyond the superstitions endemic to their age and geographical location. This has long been the case, of course – Homer’s epic poems are underpinned by legions of gods, after all – but the religious themes are far less intrusive on the story itself.

There are several reasons for this. First, Homer’s gods bear little resemblance to what the term God has come to mean today – after all they are as human as the human characters themselves, albeit more powerful. This is different with Dante. Perhaps because the religion that informs his work is still alive today – that there are so many millions that actually take it all seriously and go about causing problems because of it. Worshippers of Athena or Ares are quite rare, and they don’t endanger the world with silly ideas about condom use.

Second, and more importantly, the worldview at the core of The Inferno is integral to the story, and it is a worldview that is immoral and rotten. That isn’t true for The Iliad or The Odyssey.

I make my case for the evil heart that beats at the center of Dante’s universe in my book, and I’ll augment it here over the course of various essays related to different portions of The Infernova and The Inferno. To that end, it is instructive to begin at the beginning, with the famous inscription on the gates of Hell (all of my Dante quotes are from the fantastic John Ciardi translation of The Divine Comedy).

I Am The Way Into The City Of Woe.
I Am The Way To A Forsaken People.
I Am The Way Into Eternal Sorrow.

Sacred Justice Moved My Architect.
I Was Raised Here By Divine Omnipotence,
Primordial Love And Ultimate Intellect.

Only Those Elements Time Cannot Wear
Were Made Before Me, And Beyond Time I Stand.
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

Justice? Love? Intellect? These are the driving forces behind the creation of eternal torment for sundry crimes all finite in nature? Even in the Fourteenth century, it must have made little sense. To think that the earth sat as the center of the universe, attended by the orbiting sun and moon and planets, is understandable. To think that living beings were the handiwork of some master being, is understandable too, since they did not have the explanation of natural selection readily at hand. But the notion that the apogee of Divine Justice included such an unbalanced, disproportionate weighting of crime and punishment is impossible to grasp. So apologists are left only with the classic “Who Are You To Question God’s Plan” defense. His ways are mysterious and not comprehensible to the little minds of men.

When I decided to have a go at rewriting Dante’s vision of Hell, I planned to make one point clearly, loudly and often – that even within the context of the dream in which my story occurs, it isn’t meant to be real. It’s a simulation, an amusement park ride, a visit to the Holodeck. The ‘souls’ that suffer in my hell are no more sentient than animatronics. Yes, the illusion is that they suffer, and the emotional impact is the same, just as the emotional impact from a film isn’t blunted by the fact that it isn’t real. And yes, it is tempting to put the likes of a pedophile-priest or a terrorist into an everlasting torture chamber, but it isn’t just. No matter how heinous their crimes, they were finite in scope. To prescribe an infinite punishment is to scoff at the concept of justice.

The details of hellish afterlives in Christianity and Islam, including their unlimited time scales, are what they are because they comprise the worst possible punishments anyone could dream up. Organized religion evolved under the pressure of many external forces, but certainly the notion of eternal damnation must have quickly gained in utility because it served as the ultimate consequence, the biggest possible stick to go with the biggest possible carrot. If you wish to dissuade people from a particular action, why bother threatening them with a finite consequence when you could offer up something far worse, since it cannot be verified or disputed? Just go all the way, peg the needle, turn the knob to eleven, and assure them that they’ll be tormented forever. There isn’t anything worse. No other religion is going to come along and one-up you with a more efficacious threat of damnation.

There is still a vertigo I feel when I contemplate that otherwise normal people here in the 21st century actually believe in Hell being literally true. I used to live in the Bible Belt, and had neighbors with signs in their yards about hellfire. I never spoke to them, as I tried to avoid them (just as I avoid a coworker here in Minnesota whose bumper sticker reads “Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?”) but I doubt these people would have found fault with the Irish Catholic vision of Hell that James Joyce relates in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man:

Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never.

This is the product of Love? Justice? Intellect?

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2 Responses to “Eternity: Smoking or Nonsmoking?”

  1. Dante’s idea that hell was part of “sacred justice” stemmed from a bastardization of the god of the Bible.

    “Justice,” together with “righteousness,” are the two words most often connected with God in the Old Testament. The Jewish God was nothing if not a God of justice.

    God’s sense of justice is outlined quite explicitly throughout the Old Testament. Put simply, God favored the oppressed over the oppressors, the needy over the rich, the weak over the powerful. The OT prophets defined God’s justice time and time again by condemning those who didn’t help the poor, those who hoarded wealth, and those who weilded power oppressively over the weak.

    This same God of justice is the God taught by Jesus – the God of the poor, the meek, those who seek righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers. Like the OT prophets, Jesus condemned the rich and powerful and fought against the systemic evils that kept people in oppression.

    This is the God of the Bible. This is the biblical God’s justice. Dante’s twisted medeival concept of eternal suffering for made-up sins shouldn’t be mistaken for the justice of the God of Jesus or the God of the ancient Jews.

  2. We all like to twist their religious tails. Art is a hip way to do it. I enlisted Michelangelo for my project. Wild Mick came through (well, okay, with the help of photoshop. The Devil’s dick was far too dinky). Check it out at novelbadfaith.com

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