Dante and His ‘Inferno’


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Dante Alighieri certainly deserves to be counted as among the most powerful expositive theological minds of the history of Christianity; that is, one of the most powerful describers of what this tradition has thought about evil, goodness, and blessedness, in his Paradiso. However, Dante’s vision of Hell in the Inferno has probably done more to shape Western imaginations of Hell, demons, the Devil, and punishment than any other work.

Sculpture of the Devil with a snake coiled around one of his horns.
The poem Inferno is really an effort to help people resist the enormous tidal power of the habituated sin of the world. (Image: zebra0209/Shutterstock)

Beatrice: Dante’s Inspiration

Dante was a Florentine and lived from 1265 to 1321. He was Aquinas’s contemporary for about 10 years, as Aquinas died in 1275. Dante was politically engaged, interested in keeping Florence free from outside influence. He served in its army as all young men would, and when he was nine years old, he met and fell in love with Beatrice Portinari. She was actually younger than him. It is astonishing that a nine-year-old’s love for a seven-year-old could provoke what turns out to be this incredible Divine Comedy—the three incredible poems of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Beatrice went on to be the inspiration, the emotional and in some ways intellectual inspiration, for Dante’s entire life, although he never actually really got to know her very well. Eventually, in his life as an active citizen of Florence, the intrigues of the city went against him, and in 1301, on a mission in Rome, Florence fell to a strong group of pro-Papacy Florentines. Dante was not among them; he was in Rome.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Dante Exiled

Dante never set foot in his home city again. Interestingly, the City Council of Florence finally rescinded the punishment of exile on pain of torture and death if he returned but only centuries later, in 2008! Dante fled to Northern Italy and lived in a series of cities. He eventually died and was buried in Ravenna, an exile, where his tomb remains, even today

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Crisis of Faith

A painting of Dante looking at his book.
The Inferno is part of the Divine Comedy. (Image: JoJan/Public domain)

The Inferno is part of the Commedia, the Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy—although that’s not a term Dante seems to have given it; he just called it the Commedia—a story of how a man “at the midpoint of our life’s journey”, seems to be facing a crisis of faith, of identity, some sort of massive psychological crisis, and he is shown mercy by an old love, Beatrice, who is now in Heaven.

He is also shown that mercy by being taught the true nature of reality in guided tours of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The Inferno begins this larger story. It turns out that one really does need to go through Hell to get to Heaven; that is, to understand the proper nature of the cosmos and one’s place in it, one must understand it from where everything ends up, from everything’s ultimate destiny, and some things don’t end well.

Auschwitz and the Gates of Hell

This leads to the most famous lines in the poem—the lines that have regrettably had the most immediate impact in human history. These are, of course, the words on the sign above the broken gates of Hell:

Through me the way to the city of woe,
through me the way to eternal pain,
through me the way among the lost people.

Justice moved my most high maker;
what made me was divine power,
the highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing was created
that was not eternal, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, you who enter.

A photgraph of the gate to Auschwitz in the Holocaust, showing the sign  that said, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, ‘Work will make you free’.
The gate to Auschwitz in the Holocaust had over it a sign that said, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, or ‘Work will make you free’. (Image: Cherubino/CC BY SA/4.0/Public domain)

There’s a lot to think about in this passage; the most direct historical implication of this passage is very disquieting, and that is, of course, that the gate to Auschwitz in the Holocaust had over it a sign as well, and that sign said, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, ‘Work will make you free’, and clearly that sign was modeled on Dante’s Inferno’s sign.

In other words, the diabolical minds who designed the death camp of Auschwitz actually quoted a fictional text about Hell in an elusive way, but nonetheless, there’s a clear allusion there to Dante in designing their death camp. That’s an extremely disquieting historical thought.


Nonetheless, thinking about Hell as understood by Dante, it was made not just by God’s justice, which does make complete sense, but by God’s love; the ‘primal love’ is, for Dante, what makes Hell. What it means for the highest love to create a Hell is, in some important ways, the biggest question at the heart of Dante’s representation of Hell.

In order to make clear the nature of infernal punishment itself, it is necessary to understand the meaning of the logic of the term Dante uses in Italian, the term ‘contrapasso’ or ‘counter-punishment’. This term explains the way that in Hell each person’s punishment perfectly fits their defining crime, the crime that defines the particular subspecies of malice that they most determinately indulged in.

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Resisting Habituated Sin

This accounts for all the punishments, including the ultimate punishment reserved for Satan at the very bottom of Hell itself. Each one of these punishments raises all sorts of deep and interesting questions about the moral psychology of evildoers, and in particular about whether they can ever really wholly and purely, without any second thoughts, genuinely will the evil that they do, or whether their conscience inevitably tells against them.

Sadly, Dante’s picture of evil in Inferno is at times misunderstood as direct advice about how to deal with the realities of evil and suffering in this life; that’s not his aim in this poem.

His aim is the spiritual and ethical re-education of one soul, a soul who has lost his way; personified in the character Dante in the poem, but really referring to everyone in this life, wandering in their own dark woods, which are for some, darker than others.

The poem, then, is really an effort to help people resist the enormous tidal power of the habituated sin of the world, sin in which people more or less all heartily participate, and to teach everyone to replace that habituated sinful vision with a new vision of good and evil.

Common Questions about Dante and His Inferno

Q: When did the Council rescind Dante’s exile?

The City Council rescinded Dante‘s punishment of exile centuries later, in 2008.

Q: What was the sign on the gate to Auschwitz modeled on?

The gate to Auschwitz had a sign that said, ‘Work will make you free’, which was modeled on Dante’s Inferno’s sign.

Q: What does the term contrapasso mean?

Dante used the Italian term ‘contrapasso‘ in Inferno to explain the way that in Hell each person’s punishment perfectly fits their defining crime.

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