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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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Christopher Hitchens misrepresents Dante

  1. “, because he does bar such people from paradise permanently.”

    I would have said that Limbo IS Paradise, and what such people are ‘barred from’ is Heaven (where one lives with Jesus).

    Also, they *could* be described as barring-themselves from Heaven, in the sense of (most likely) preferring Paradise to a place they don’t believe is real, and having wanted Paradise through their mortal existence (the same applies to nearly all other religions than Christianity and ?modern Judaism).

    But that kind of language and explanation, while compatible with Dante in a kind-of, sort-of ultimate sense (as CS Lewis would have argued), is probably much too 19th/ 20th/ 21st century a perspective to be attributable to the Middle Ages.

  2. Yes, I agree, but that would have been a confusing thing to say in a Dantean context, since Paradiso is Dante’s term for Heaven.

  3. I should mention that this reference to Dante is in Hitchens’s discussion of Mormonism. He writes: “It must be said for the ‘Latter-day Saints’ . . .that they have squarely faced one of the great difficulties of revealed religion . . . [the bit about Dante goes here] . . . The Mormons have improved on this rather backdated [sic] solution with something very literal-minded,” namely baptism for the dead. Hitchens opines that “the followers of Mr. Smith should be congratulated for hitting upon even the most simpleminded technological solution to a problem that has defied solution ever since man first invented religion.”

    But the Mormon and Dantean solutions are perhaps not so different as Hitchens thinks. Here is what Joseph Smith had to say about the second tier of heaven, a paradise where men “receive of [God’s] glory but not of his fulness” (and which Smith somewhat confusingly calls “the terrestrial kingdom”):

    “And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament. Behold, these are they who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it.” (Doctrine & Covenants 76:71-74)

    Here, as in Dante, it appears that those who “received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh” are forever barred from the highest heaven. Even baptism for the dead can secure them only a “terrestrial kingdom” perhaps not too different from the Dantean Limbo.

    However, another passage from the D&C (137:7) appears to contradict this: “Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God” (i.e., the highest heaven).

    To reconcile this with section 76, I suppose we must understand that those who inherit the terrestrial kingdom, while they did accept Christ after death, would not have accepted him in the flesh even if they’d had the chance. (If Aristotle had met Christ, would he have been converted? Actually, it’s hard to imagine that he would have been.)

  4. As you know I am very skeptical of proof texting as a way of settling apparent contradictions – I think what is needed is an understanding of the big picture. From this it seems clear that Mormonism is a religion based on progression, and that this continues after death.

    The more difficult question for Mormonism is actually the opposite – what is the value (from a selfish perspective) of being an active Mormon in this life? (Given that so many opportunities for progression are provided post-mortem.)

    One answer is that it saves a lot of time – by doing the right things in this life, and obeying the law – when we are ‘supposed’ to do it, vast amounts of post-mortal waiting and effort might be saved (which has to be lived through and endured) – and humans are impatient creatures who hate to wait.

    But the real reason (and there is a real, and much better, reason than the above) is something I am vaguely aware-of but cannot articulate – probably because I am spiritually too feeble.

  5. Well done. I found that mistake “Jesus liberating Aristotle” in Hitchens’ article and that’s how I got here.

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