Dante Alighieri wrote "The Divine Comedy" in the early decades of the 14th century. Nearly 700 years later, this epic poem remains one of the great achievements of human literature. As art, Dante's use of language is supremely beautiful. But as a deeply Catholic work, it also offers an unforgettable portrait of the afterlife, following the author as he journeys through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and finally heaven (Paradiso).
Even today, reading your way through the nine circles of hell can be frightening. They're uncomfortably real. The poem's power comes not just from Dante's genius, but from his faith that fueled his skill. Dante created the imaginary specifics of his hell, purgatory and heaven, but there isn't any doubt that he believed — vividly — in the reality of the afterlife. For Dante, a good or a bad life had very different destinations.
Of course, Dante's roadmap of eternity is just one poet's rendering of what the Church actually teaches about the afterlife. Since the time of the Apostles, Christians have always believed that life after physical death is real; so are heaven and hell; and so is the Evil One. The devil, in Christian thought, may not have medieval horns and a tail, but "he" (for the want of a better pronoun) is nonetheless personal, intelligent, the enemy of God and humanity, and very real. The fact that Dante's portrait of Satan seems impossible to the modern mind does not mean that Satan doesn't exist. In fact, if you want an alarmingly reasonable portrait of hell, simply read C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce" or "The Screwtape Letters."
Thinking about the devil and damnation should play a secondary role in any Christian life. Our focus should be on God's light, not on the shadows outside it. But we'd do well to remember that while our time in this world is brief, our lives do have eternal consequences. Our choices and actions here matter. They fashion us into the kind of persons able to be happy with God forever, or unable to bear his presence. In Catholic thought, heaven and hell are not necessarily "places" any more than eternity is an endless amount of "time." These concepts help us to imagine what lies outside our experience, but they're human words with human meanings. All we really know about heaven and hell – and it's more than enough – is that heaven will be our conscious, unending, joyful union with God and all others who love him; and that hell will be the terrible pain of rejecting God, forever, because we cannot bear his love.
And one of the most beautiful or frightening qualities of our eternity will be the knowledge that we freely cooperated in creating it for ourselves.
As the Church year closes and we look toward a new beginning in Advent, Catholics traditionally set aside November to pray for the dead and to reflect on the direction of our own lives. All of us will face the "Four Last Things" — death, judgment, hell or heaven — because all of us will die, and so too will every person we love. Most of us will face them sooner than we'd like. But thinking about our mortality is not "morbid." It's thoroughly realistic and Christian, because our final home is not in this world.
The irony of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" is that we often remember it most vividly for its portrait of eternal loss, when in fact it is the tribute paid by one of humanity's greatest creative minds to God's glory, beauty, justice, mercy and, above all, love. That fatherly love, God's love, is meant eternally for each of us. Reflecting on our death and judgment this November, and allowing God to lead us to repentance and the sacrament of reconciliation — this is the only roadmap to eternity that matters, and the one that most surely leads home to heaven.