Monthly Archives: October 2014

Christopher Hitchens misrepresents Dante

From God Is Not Great, pp. 167-68:

[O]ne of the great difficulties of revealed religion . . . is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive “revelation,” or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. There is indeed a fine passage in Dante’s Inferno where he comes to rescue the spirits of great men like Aristotle, who had presumably been boiling away for centuries until he got around to them.

This is wrong on two counts.

First, despite Dante’s obvious admiration for the person he refers to as “the Philosopher” and “the master of those who know,” Aristotle is never saved. Neither is Virgil, nor any of the other virtuous pagans of pre-Christian times. Dante meets them in hell. He writes that he “still glories in having witnessed” such “great souls” — but nevertheless insists that they are damned. When Jesus descends to hell after his crucifixion, he saves only those who explicitly worshiped Yahweh while they were alive — i.e., the Hebrews of Old Testament times, plus one Trojan warrior who (according to Dante) had received a private revelation and become a secret Yahwist. Everyone else is permanently damned — unless, like the Roman emperor Trajan, they have the good fortune to be miraculously raised from the dead and converted on earth; in hell, conversion is to no avail.

Second, Aristotle and the others are not and never were “boiling away.” They are consigned to Limbo — which, while technically a part of hell, involves no torture, fiery or otherwise. Aristotle and company live, for all intents and purposes, in the very Elysian Fields for which they had perhaps hoped. Their only “punishment” is that they long for paradise but have no hope of ever attaining it. As for the virtuous Hebrews saved in Christ’s “harrowing of hell” (as his post-crucifixion visit is called), they did have a hope of eventually reaching paradise, and so for them Limbo involved no punishment whatsoever. They were never in “hell” at all in any meaningful sense.

So Dante’s God is both more and less merciful than Hitchens portrays him to be. More merciful, because he doesn’t actually torture or “boil” anyone for the “sin” of having been born at the wrong time; less merciful, because he does bar such people from paradise permanently.

For more details, see my post “The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy.”

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