The Divine Comedy: XII. Why Purgatory?

“La commedia illumina Firenze” by Michelino, Florence Cathedral

Hell vs. Purgatory

What is the difference between Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy? To put the question in a different way, what determines whether a person stays in Hell or Purgatory?

According to St. Augustine, it is the grace of God, which restores free will in man and enables him to desire and attain the Good. Firstly, those in the Inferno are confined to their respective circles, and never able to escape, because they rejected the grace of God, and thereby gave up freedom; those in the Purgatorio are free to progress to higher circles as soon as their purification is complete, and they shall know in themselves when the time is ripe. Secondly, those in the Inferno are punished against their will, but those in the Purgatorio are purified in accordance with their will and their desire for perfection, though the process is painful.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” — “Even so, sir.”
–C.S.Lewis Letters to Malcolm

Having said the above, however, the book Purgatorio has been a blur, if not a disappointment, to me even after a second read. I expect it to be more dynamic than the Inferno, because it is supposed to be a place for purification and progress. But the circles in Purgatory are just as static as those in the Inferno. There are people doing penances, but no changes in their character or nature can be observed, which leads me to doubt the efficacy of the penances Dante prescribed, and whether he himself understood them. Dante had the wounds, i.e. the marks of seven sins, on his forehead cleansed somehow by climbing the mountain, whereas I emerged the same way as I entered, if not worse.

Objections to the Doctrine of Purgatory

From “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” of the Church of England: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

I can make two objections to the idea of Purgatory. The first is the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father didn’t have the son cleaned before putting on him the best robe and the ring. The second is borrowed from Kant: if perfection is required to “enter into the joy”, purification would take forever. Hence the necessity of the immortality of the soul. Purgatory would become a final destination for most people if not all.

Related External Articles:


3 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy: XII. Why Purgatory?

  1. Hmmmm, interesting piece. Purgatory is one of those teachings that I’ve yet to really study. I would encourage you Nemo to look into what the Roman Catholic Church says about it, especially recently. I believe the newly departed Pope Benedict, refined some of the churches teachings on the subject by expressing that Purgatory is not defined by time. Here are some pieces of his book “Eschatology” that may interest you.

    Speaking of Purgatory: “The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of ‘short’ or ‘long’ duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The ‘temporal measure’ of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. To measure such Existenzzeit, such an ‘existential time,’ in terms of the time of this world would be to ignore the specificity of the human spirit in its simultaneous relationship with, and differentation from, the world.
    . . .
    “[Purgatory] is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints.
    . . .
    “Encounter with the Lord is this transformation.”…

    –Joseph Ratzinger. (Pope Benedict) Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, p. 230-231

    I don’t know if this changes your views, but it makes sense to me at least that their is some refining process that takes place. I think the church calls that Purgatory. Perhaps Protestants understand that as the time when Christ intercedes on our behalf, and Catholics believe it’s a more painful/introspective process then that. Just a thought, let me know what you think.


    1. High,

      Welcome to my blog! 🙂 Thanks for the excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, whose exposition of “time” is reminiscent of St. Augustine.

      In the same vein, I was using “time” as a measurement of difference, not in temporal duration, but in quality. If the difference between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man is infinite, then the transformation process would also be infinite, not finite as the doctrine of Purgatory seems to suggest. This is why I find it hard to believe that the “great gulf” can be bridged by performing a set of penances as described in The Divine Comedy.

      1. Yes I understand that, what I’m wondering is this. The Church’s position on this issue has been refined since 1321, most notably by the late Pope, but there have been other’s as well. I’m wondering if these refined ideas on Purgatory make it more palatable to you. Let me know.

        I think it makes for a common ground between the two, and allows for discussion, but I haven’t really tested this to date. Would appreciate your opinion.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s