Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno: Cantos 10-11 – The Heretics and the Harrowing of Hell

Canto 10

Here we encounter burning tombs full of heretics – mostly Epicureans and others who deny immortality (one has over 1,000 shades in it!). One translation has these called “burning arks” – fascinating as the Church has been considered the saving Ark since ancient times. Missing out on the Ark of salvation they now burn in arks of damnation. The tombs are open now, revealing the flames inside. We are told that after the resurrection these souls will be reunited to their bodies and then sealed in these tombs forever. Terrifying.
The heretics introduce an interesting division in the Inferno. The pagans, whose error was a willful ignorance are on the rim of outer hell. These, however, are found on the rim of inner hell – for they are formal heretics. There are two ways missing the truth: a simple denial, or the failure to assert truth. The formal heretic is in the first class, while the material heretic is in error but it is not truly an act of the will (unless they fail to receive correction when it comes). Thus, because the Epicureans formally taught against immortality and thus that happiness (for them, the avoidance of pain) only existed in this life, they denied the gospel formally. Now they are in immortal pain. You’ve got to hand it to Dante to make the punishment fit the crime. Elsewhere Dante writes, “Of all brutal opinions, that is most foolish, vile and pestilent which holds that there is not life after this one.”

During a multi-facted poltical discussion with one of the tombs’ inmates (in which Dante’s forthcoming exile is foretold), Dante discovers that the damned are allowed by God to see far into the future but not the present or the past. If, at the judgment time effectively ends, all these souls may ponder forever are themselves and their own lives. In Eastern theology, this state is hell itself.

Canto 11

Dante and Virgil exit the tomb area only to withdraw and the stench form the circle below overpowers them. Dante notices a tomb with the name of Pope Anastasius. Dante is the first writer to name a Pope in hell! Anastasius II was Pope in the 5th century during a time of schism (Photinus, who taught a heretical view of Christ and the Incarnation). Anastasius sought to heal the division, and some believed he was making moves toward the heretical Monophysites. There seems to be some historical doubt as to the accuracy of this assessment – it was probably Emperor Anastasius, not the Pope. In any case, Anastasius acquired a reputation as a heretic and became the second Pope not to be recognized as a saint.

Even in the journey’s delay there is a good moral lesson: the stench of hell can be gotten used to. Sin is like that – a little here and there and we learn to live with it. It stops bothering us so much. While Christians certainly must fear the struggle with sin, what should be feared even more is ceasing to struggle against it (in this life)! We must not allow ourselves to become comfortablke with evil. We must fear la divina vendetta.

We find the broken boulders from Christ’s descent into hell to set the captives free at His own death. This doctrine is found in the early Creeds. St. Thomas Aquinas deals with this issue in ST III.Q.52. He says,

“through Christ’s Passion the human race was delivered not only from sin, but also from the debt of its penalty . . .  the death of the body as well as exclusion from glory, . . .  Consequently, when Christ descended into hell, by the power of His Passion He delivered the saints from the penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory, so as to be unable to see God in His Essence, wherein man’s beatitude lies, . . . so when Christ descended into hell He delivered the holy Fathers from thence. And this is what is written Zechariah 9:11: “Thou also by the blood of Thy testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit, wherein is no water.” And (Colossians 2:15) it is written that “despoiling the principalities and powers,” i.e. “of hell, by taking out Isaac and Jacob, and the other just souls”

St. John Chrysostom said it so well in his Easter homily:

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?

Virgil takes the opportunity to explain hell’s architecture to Dante. In fine Aristotelian fashion (even quoting Ethics and Physics!) we find that the within the sin of malice (willful injury) there is one sin that man aloine can committ, and so God hates it most. This sin is fraud. Virgil tells Dante that because of this their punishment is more painful (more evidence that the lower one goes the worse the sin and the greater the suffering). To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into each circle here. But to summarize: using the medieval church’s view of Aristotle, Dante divides these sins into three: Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud (the three beasts at the foot of the mountain?). Incontinence (sins of weakness) were punished above. Now we will see the fate of the violent and fraudulent.

It is now 3 or 4am of Holy Saturday

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