The Divine Comedy: Week 4, You Get What You Want

Before leaving Canto 3, some thoughts about choice and hell.

No doubt, hell is a bad place. But it's doubly bad if you're forced to go. Consequently, many have speculated that hell is a place people choose to go.

This was C.S. Lewis' idea in his parable on hell The Great Divorce. Hell exists, but it is a place people choose to go. Hell is self-imposed exile and separation from God. As Lewis famously said, "the doors of hell are locked on the inside." This was also the central idea in Rob Bell's Love Wins, that even if we end up in hell "love wins" because love gives us our freedom, and if we want hell, well, you get want you want.

In Canto 3 Virgil and the Pilgrim move through the vestibule of hell to the edge of the river Acheron to await the boatman who will carry the damned across into hell. The Pilgrim sees the souls of the damned crowding on the shore eagerly awaiting their crossing and entry into hell. Their eagerness confuses the Pilgrim. Who wants to go to hell? Virgil explains:
"My son," the gentle master said to me,
"all those who perish in the wrath of God
assemble here from all parts of the earth;

They want to cross the river, they are eager;
it is Divine Justice that spurs them on,
turning the fear they have into desire.

A good soul never comes to make this crossing..."
There's an interesting mixture of ideas here. On the one hand, hearkening back to Lewis and Bell, the souls of the damned are wanting and desiring to go to hell. They are eager.

And yet, Virgil says that this eagerness is formed by "Divine Justice," which turns fear into desire. Basically, Divine Justice doesn't force someone into hell against their will, but rather acts on the will itself.

There's always been a delicate dance in Christian theology regarding the relationship between God's providence and the human will. As moderns, we tend to assume our will is autonomous and independent. But the biblical authors and church fathers saw the will of God and human will as fused and linked. This understanding allows Paul, for example, to say confusing things like this:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.12-13)
See the paradox? Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Here in Paul we see this fusion of wills going in a good direction. But on the banks of the Acheron in The Divine Comedy we see it working in a bad direction, the will of God and the will of the damned creating an eager desire for hell.

To moderns, the idea that you are not forced into hell but come to desire it, might be cold comfort. I'm not defending the idea. I'm simply intrigued that in The Divine Comedy there's a sensibility similar to the idea the C.S. Lewis floated, that in the end God gives us what we want. 

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