The Divine Comedy: Week 16, Not Fire, But Ice

In Dante's world, the deepest pit of hell doesn't burn with fire. The deepest pit of hell is frozen over with ice.

In Canto XXXI Virgil and the Pilgrim finally reach the ninth and final circle of hell at the center of the earth. And there we don't find souls being burned by an eternal fire. We find, rather, the frozen lake of Cocytus.

We'll pick up here next week, for now just a note on the contrast between fire and ice. From the Bible and church tradition, we're expecting to see a lake of fire at the bottom of hell. But Dante surprises us with a lake of ice. What is he trying to communicate?

I take his point to be one similar to the idea C.S. Lewis uses to describe hell in The Great Divorce. Hell is separation from God. In The Great Divorce Lewis has the citizens of hell moving farther and farther away from each other, into increasing isolation. For Dante, hell moves us farther and farther away from God's love, represented in the Comedy by the Sun. So as we move farther and farther away from God's love, deeper and deeper into hell, the warming rays of the sun struggle to reach us. Life grows colder and colder. And in the deepest pit of hell, all becomes frozen.

This is a powerful image. Hell isn't torturing souls with fire. Hell is, rather, separation from the love of God. As we walk further and further away from God the more we remove ourselves from His warming, vivifying love.

Hell isn't torture, Hell is darkness and ice.

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