The Divine Comedy: Week 8, Levels of Hell

In Canto 5 Virgil and the Pilgrim move out of Limbo into the first ring of hell.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Dante's Inferno is the geography and topography of hell. Hell descends toward the center of the earth through nine levels, with the sins and punishment at each level getting progressively worse.

I've always found this idea theologically fascinating, and I think many others do as well. For example, just last week one of my college students asked me, "Dr. Beck, are all sins equal?"

What's the correct answer here?

The answer seems to be yes and no. In one sense, all sins are equal in that they are all acts of disobedience and rebellion. But in another sense, sins are most definitely not equal in the degree of harm they cause to yourself and others. You shouldn't steal office supplies from work or tell white lies, but those pale in comparison to things like child sexual abuse, rape, and genocide.

However, the worry, I think, in ranking sins by severity is that such a ranking might lead to spiritual pride. My sins are not as bad as your sins. While we might agree on paper that some sins are worse than others, I think we'd also agree that comparing our sins to other people's sins, for better or worse, isn't a very spiritually healthy activity.

I think the better question here isn't if some sins are better or worse, but to focus on our shared and universal vulnerability to sin, even to the most horrific acts. Personally, I think murder is worse than, say, failing to declare a minor sum of money on my tax returns. True, we shouldn't do either, but killing someone (to say nothing of torturing someone before we kill them) is worse than failing to give the government the $5.32 you owe them. Still, the issue isn't that my tax cheating is "better" than murder. The issue is that I could be a murderer, that there isn't all that much difference between me and a murderer. I have to recognize and confess my own capacities for hate and evil. That's the recognition that is the great moral equalizer.      

That said, I find Dante's nine levels of hell, with their varying degrees of punishment, more sane than a lot of what I hear about sin and punishment in conservative, evangelical circles.

If you grew up in a conservative, evangelical church you were probably told at some point that "all sins are equal" in that all sins merited, no matter how small, the same judgment and punishment of God: Roasting and burning and screaming in hell for all eternity.

I don't know about you, but something seemed profoundly unhinged about that formulation when I encountered it as a child and teenager. The punishment just didn't seem to fit the crime. It was the worst, most horrific punishment imaginable and it was once-size-fits all, no matter what your sins were. That lack of proportionality just seemed crazy, implausible and, frankly, monstrous.

All that to say, The Divine Comedy's nine levels of hell might seem strange, and we can quibble with how it ranks the sins, but there's something reasonable, sane, and human about Dante's hell 

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