February 25, 2011
From Bartolomeo and Botticelli in the 15
th century to Dore, Delacroix and Chenavard in more recent times, artists have delighted to portray on canvas Dante’s
Inferno. Dante vividly describes his travels with the Roman poet Virgil into the underworld. As he descends down a spiraling path, he passes through nine separate circular layers. Each circle's sinners are punished in a fashion fitting their sin for all of eternity.
At first, Dante moves downward through limbo where the unbaptized and virtuous pagans are and then to the places of punishment for the lustful, the gluttonous, the misers and spendthrifts, the wrathful and sullen, the heretics, the violent, the dishonest. Finally, he reaches the lowest place in hell reserved for traitors who betray their families and their communities. Contrary to the popular image of hell as a fiery torment, Dante places traitors in a lake of ice. In the lowest place, he meets Judas who betrayed Jesus. Dante has given many artists the material to create paintings, to sketch maps and to chart the hierarchy of hell.
For many today, hell simply belongs to the trappings of medieval art or the musings of poetry. Some churches have been scrubbed clean of religious symbols of hell and heaven as well. Our art has become more horizontal, more community-centered. Some argue that a more enlightened theology leaves little room for such negative images as punishment and hell.
While contemporary theologians, preachers and catechists may not teach about hell, Jesus did. During his public ministry, Jesus spoke often about hell. In fact, he spoke about it more than anyone in all of Sacred Scripture. Certainly, Jesus did not want to turn religion into a response of fear. But he did want to remind us of our own responsibility for our actions. He wanted us to make the right choices that avoid damnation.
Contrary to the poetic imagery of Dante’s
Inferno and to the plain sense of Jesus’ teaching, many hold today that everyone goes to heaven. No need for hell. In one sense, this is a very consoling thought. But the truth is much wider than this.
The idea that everyone goes to heaven is not a new idea. Origen, one of the most famous Christian writers of the third century, taught that “…the goodness of God, through the mediation of Christ, will bring all creatures to one and the same end” (
De Principiis I.6.1-3). In other words, at some point after the final coming of Christ, those in hell will have a chance to repent and go to heaven. Whether Origen taught that everyone would actually repent and go to heaven is disputed. Nonetheless, the teaching that there is the possibility of conversion after judgment was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553).
God has a plan for his creation. He has given us the freedom to accept or reject his all-wise plan for our good. He loves us and he longs for us to love him in return. But love, to be true love, can never be forced. It must be free. Those who do not take hell seriously do not take human freedom seriously. “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us” (St. Augustine,
Sermo 169, 11, 13).
Ultimately, the question of hell implies the reality of sin. Both Augustine and Thomas defined sin as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” (St. Augustine,
Contra Faustum 22; St. Thomas Aquinas,
STh I-II, 71, 6). God has established an order or law within creation. His order is for our good. Sin is an act of disobedience against this order. More than a mere infraction of an external law, sin is an offense against God who loves us and wants the best for us. Sin fractures the relationship of trust and love that is due God who is all-good and cares for us.
It is precisely because there is sin in the world that God has taken the initiative to repair the damage that sin causes. He has acted to heal the fractured relationship between himself and us. He has sent Jesus as our redeemer. God loves us that much.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). His Son so loved us that he gave his life for us sinners. The birth of Christ is one mystery with our redemption from sin. God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For, there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all” ( 1 Tim 2: 4-6).
The Cross is God’s answer to sin. God gave His Son for us and his Son died for us on the cross. To deny sin and thus to exclude the possibility of hell is, therefore, to demean the great price of our redemption that opens for us the way to avoid hell and to choose heaven.