Written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1321, The Divine Comedy is widely considered the central epic poem of Italian literature. A brilliantly written allegory, filled with symbolism and pathos, it is certainly one of the classics of all time. The poem is written in the first person as Dante describes his imaginative journey through the three realms of the dead: Inferno (hell); Purgatorio (Purgatory); and Paradiso (heaven).
The philosophy of the poem is a mixture of the Bible, Roman Catholicism, mythology, and medieval tradition. Where Dante draws on his knowledge of the Bible, the poem is truthful and insightful. Where he draws on the other sources, the poem departs from truth.
One extra-biblical source Dante drew upon was Islamic tradition (Hadiths) as depicted in Muhammed’s “Night Journey.” According to one scholar, Islamic eschatology has exercised “an extraordinary influence on Chinese and Christian thought. Among numerous popular eschatological works written by Christians, Dante’s Divina Commedia is an example of Islamic influence” (Islam by Solomon Nigosian, Crucible, 1987, page 152).
In fairness to Dante, however, it should be noted that his work is intended to be literary, not theological. It does reflect a deep yearning to understand the mysteries of life and death and, as such, has generated tremendous interest over the centuries, remaining extremely popular even today.
When comparing the poem to the Bible, many differences surface. Apparent immediately is the third of the work devoted to Purgatory, a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church having no foundation in the Bible. In Dante’s poem, the Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through the seven terraces of Purgatory. These correspond to the seven deadly sins, with each terrace purging a particular sin until the sinner has corrected the nature within himself that caused him to commit that sin. After the sinner has been “purged” of all sin, he is enabled to proceed at some point to heaven. Aside from the fact that Purgatory is an unbiblical doctrine, the idea that sinners have another chance for salvation after death is in direct contradiction to the Bible. Scripture is clear that we are to “seek the Lord while He may be found” (Isaiah 55:6) and that once we die, we are destined to judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Judgment is based on our earthly lives, not on anything we do after we die. There will be no second chance for salvation beyond this life. As long as a person is alive, he has a second, third, fourth, fifth, etc., chance to accept Christ and be saved (John 3:16; Romans 10:9–10; Acts 16:31). Furthermore, the idea that a sinner can “correct” his own nature, either before or after death, is contrary to biblical revelation, which says that only Christ can overcome the sin nature and impart to believers a completely new nature (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In the other two parts of The Divine Comedy, Dante imagines various levels of hell and heaven. He describes the Inferno in great detail, vividly describing the torments and agonies of hell; these descriptions, however, do not come from the Bible. Some come from Islamic tradition. “The Qur'anic basis for this account is Qur'an 17:1, and Muslims commemorate annually ‘the night of ascension’ (lailat al-miraj) on the 26th of Rajab—the seventh month of the Islamic calendar. It is assumed that the general plot as well as the many small details of Dante’s Divine Comedy reflect a fanciful treatment of this Islamic theme” (op. cit., p128).
Some have speculated that perhaps the terrible images of the Inferno spring from Dante’s doubt about his own salvation. In any case, the major differences between the Inferno and the Bible’s depiction of hell are these:
1. Levels of hell. Dante describes hell as comprised of nine concentric circles, representing an increase of wickedness, where sinners are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes. The Bible does suggest different degrees of punishment in hell in Luke 12:47–48. However, it says nothing of concentric circles or varying depths in hell.
2. Different types of punishment. Dante’s vision of hell involved such eternal punishments as souls tormented by biting insects, wallowing in mire, immersed in boiling blood, being lashed with whips. Lesser punishments involve having heads on backwards, chasing unreachable goals for eternity, and walking endlessly in circles. The Bible, however, speaks of hell as a place of “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13). Whatever punishment awaits the unrepentant sinner in hell, it is no doubt worse than even Dante could imagine.
The final section of the poem, Paradiso, is Dante’s vision of heaven. Here Dante is guided through nine spheres, again in a concentric pattern, each level coming closer to the presence of God. Dante’s heaven is depicted as having souls in a hierarchy of spiritual development, based at least in part on their human ability to love God. Here are nine levels of people who have attained, by their own efforts, the sphere in which they now reside. The Bible, however, is clear that no amount of good works can earn heaven; only faith in the shed blood of Christ on the cross and the righteousness of Christ imputed to us can save us and destine us for heaven (Matthew 26:28; 2 Corinthians 5:21). In addition, the idea that we must work our way through ascending realms of heaven to approach God is foreign to the Scriptures. Heaven will be a place of unbroken fellowship with God, where we will serve Him and “see His face” (Revelation 22:3–4). All believers will forever enjoy the pleasure of God’s company, made possible by faith in His Son.
Throughout The Divine Comedy, the theme of salvation by man’s works is prevalent. Purgatory is seen as a place where sins are purged through the sinner’s efforts, and heaven has differing levels of rewards for works done in life. Even in the afterlife, Dante sees man as continually working and striving for reward and relief from punishment. But the Bible tells us that heaven is a place of rest from striving, not a continuation of it. The apostle John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’” Believers who live and die in Christ are saved by faith alone, and the very faith that gets us to heaven is His (Hebrews 12:2), as are the works we do in that faith (Ephesians 2:10). The Divine Comedy may be of interest to Christians as a literary work, but the Bible alone is our infallible guide for faith and life and is the only source of eternal truth.