Dante died 700 years ago, but his poetic visions of hell and heaven live on. How do they compare with what the Bible teaches about life after death?
“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
The 14th-century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri greeted visitors to hell with this infamous phrase in his seminal work The Divine Comedy.
For a medieval poet, Dante Alighieri’s lingering influence is remarkable. Dante’s inventive view of the afterlife has shaped and shaded the imagination of countless readers, artists, writers and theologians ever since.
Dante’s political interests and activism, which centered on a dispute regarding the role of the papacy in civil government, resulted in his banishment from Florence. In exile, Dante composed his now famous poem The Divine Comedy. It recounts the author’s mythical trek through three canticles: Inferno (hell), Purgatory and Paradise (heaven).
The first, Inferno, included vivid depictions of sinners and villains, many of whom were real-life contemporaries of Dante, being eternally tortured and punished. This cemented a view of hell that continues to impact the Western world’s view of life beyond the grave.
In the poem, Virgil, who served as Dante’s guide through Inferno and Purgatory, remarked at the gates of hell:
I, thy guide,
Will lead thee hence through an eternal space,
Where thou shalt hear despairing shrieks, and see
Spirits of old tormented, who invoke
A second death.
In Dante’s twisted and fanciful view, hell is depicted as “an eternal space” where those condemned spend eternity in anguish, frustration and violence. This version of hell instills a degree of fear and shock to intimidate and coerce those who believe. The fantastic imagery and churlish behavior of those unfortunates stuck in Dante’s Inferno made his descriptions all the more convincing.
Purgatory and Paradise
Likewise, Dante’s next canticles—Purgatory and Paradise—projected further fabled visions. Dante’s compelling imagery captured the imagination of many and further accentuated an incorrect concept of life after death.
In Purgatory, the dead are presented as not being dead at all, but rather living eternally in a desperate struggle to reach Paradise.
In Paradise, once again the dead are found to be alive—this time living eternally in a confusing array of planets and stellar formations.
700 years later
Dante himself died 700 years ago, on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321. Based on his theological viewpoints expressed in The Divine Comedy, it can be assumed he expected to enter hell, purgatory or heaven after his death.
What really happened to Dante?
Dante flames out
The Divine Comedy, part theology, part politics and part personal retribution, highlights the perennial question of what happens after death. Humans were created with a yearning to understand and discern something beyond our limited physical existence.
In fashioning mankind, God “made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, Revised Standard Version). Largely rejecting God’s direction, mankind has invented countless myths about eternity. Every culture and civilization crafted views of the afterlife in an attempt to fulfill the yearning for eternity.
Much of the Christian world accepts the general premise that hell or heaven is the final destination after death. While generally rejected by Protestants and Orthodox Christians, the concept of purgatory continues to be espoused by the Catholic Church. Other faith traditions have similarly convoluted ideas about life after death.
What happened to Dante Alighieri and, by extension, everyone else who has died? In considering this topic, we should set aside traditional or literary depictions of life after death. Instead, we should consider what the Bible says on the topic.
As it happens, Dante Alighieri was buried in hell—albeit not the inferno imagined by Dante himself.
What does the Bible say about hell, purgatory and heaven?
How does the Bible present hell? It is not the vindictive, eternal inferno described by Dante. A summary of the Bible’s teaching is found in our online article “What Is Hell?” As noted, one of the main words translated hell in the Bible is the Greek Hades, which essentially refers to the grave. Contrary to Dante’s imaginary place of sadistic, eternal punishing, the grave is actually a peaceful, silent place.
Purgatory, portrayed by Dante as a place where the not-so-righteous but equally not-so-vile deceased could be prepared for entrance to heaven, is not mentioned in the Bible. This middle option was crafted from a blend of paganism and human philosophy (Britannica). It has no legitimate basis in biblical teaching.
What about heaven? Is that the reward for the righteous? Jesus plainly stated, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). A quick review of the Bible’s teaching is found in our online article “Is Heaven Real? What Is Heaven?” You will see that the Bible does not teach that righteous people go to heaven at death.
What really happens when we die?
The writer of Ecclesiastes remarked, “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten . . . For there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10).
According to the Bible, the dead, both small and great, including Dante Alighieri, are in the grave now. There is no agony, joy or knowledge in the grave. In writing to the faithful Christians in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul compared death to sleeping (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
There is no awareness in the grave. Instead, “all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). After death, the physical, mortal body decays and returns to dust. For more insight into the Bible’s teaching on this topic, download our free booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?
At Christ’s return to earth, the faithful saints will be raised from the grave. But is going to sleep and returning to dust all there is? While the grave is the destination for our physical life, is there anything more? Why would God put eternity into man’s mind if there were no hope beyond a limited, brief physical existence? Was that just an act of divine comedy? Is there no hope for those who die?
A much greater plan
God has something greater in mind for mankind than just a few years of physical existence.
God reveals His plan for the human family in His annual festivals (Leviticus 23). God’s holy days provide the framework of God’s purpose for you. That purpose and plan includes understanding the real future beyond the grave. For an in-depth explanation, download our booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.
Consider the Feast of Trumpets. This festival looks forward to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15).
At Christ’s return to earth, the faithful saints will be raised from the grave. The apostle Paul provided clarity: “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16).
Paul affirmed that those righteous saints who are asleep—who died in the faith—will be resurrected at Christ’s return.
This is repeated in 1 Corinthians, where Paul explains that those “who are Christ’s at His coming” will be raised from the grave to a spirit life (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). Paul elaborates, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (verses 51-52). This resurrected life will be incorruptible, eternal and spirit.
What a joyous understanding! Paul encourages Christians to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
God’s plan includes offering eternal life to every member of the human family. This includes those who lived, died and returned to dust without developing a relationship with God.
The last festival in God’s annual cycle, often referred to as the Last Great Day, portends a second resurrection. This resurrection to a physical life will provide the rest of “the dead, small and great” the opportunity to learn about God, repent and choose the path to eternal life (Revelation 20:11-13). For more information on this amazing part of God’s plan, see our online article “The Last Great Day: The Final Harvest.”
Embrace God’s plan
God’s plan is much grander and more inspiring than Dante Alighieri’s quest in The Divine Comedy. Dante and many others who have returned to dust will have the opportunity to come to know God’s plan when they’re resurrected to physical life.
What about you? God’s annual festivals highlight what He is bringing about for humanity today. Faithful Christians around the world celebrate these annual festivals each year. If you’re interested in God’s plan, you can begin keeping those festivals now. After all, eternity awaits!