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:
- Thoughts on Purgatory and Lent as Journeys of Transformation (thedanteproject.wordpress.com)