I am studying The Divine Comedy for my humanities class this semester, and I want to share a little of what I am learning with you. The Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem that was written by Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s. He started his allegory about 1308-1312 and finished it just a year before his death in 1321. The poem is an “imaginative vision of the afterlife” as a “representative of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church by the 14th century.” It was written in Italian rather than Latin because Dante wanted all literate people to be able to read it.
The poem is divided into three parts known as Canticas, meaning religious or narrative poem. Dante’s three canticas are The Inferno or Hell, Purgatorio or Purgatory, and Paradiso or Paradise. Each cantica contains thirty-three cantos (or sections). The Inferno has an additional canto that serves as an introduction to the entire poem and brings the total number of cantos to 100. The first two cantos in Purgatorio and Paradiso serve as introductions to those canticas.
The narrative describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise or Heaven; while allegorically the poem represents the soul’s journey towards God…
The work was originally simply titled Comedia and the word Divina was added by Giovanni Boccaccio. The first printed edition to add the word divina to the title was that of the Venetian humanist Lodovico Dolce, published in 1555 by Gabriele Giolito de’ Ferrari…
Written in the first person, the poem tells of Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300. The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman whom he had met in childhood and admired from far in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love tradition…
I am fascinated with Dante’s “vision” of the afterlife and find it to be quite creative and thoughtful. I am also aware that Dante wrote his epic poem with the knowledge available in medieval Christian theology and philosophy in the 1300s. He wrote according to what he knew about life after death, and his poem causes a great deal of pondering and introspection. However, there is one particular part of Dante’s description of Hell that is wrong.
In his poem Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil. As he follows Virgil through Hell and into Limbo (the first circle of hell), he sees the souls of people – men, women, and children - who lived good and honorable lives. Virgil tells him that the people are in that condition because they were not baptized, not because they had committed sins. Many of them lived before Christianity was on the earth. They had, however, lived moral lives according to their laws and were good people.
Dante recognizes many great people in this condition and feels concern for them. He asks Virgil if they were stuck in Limbo forever or if they could eventually progress out of Limbo. Virgil replies that the people are there to stay. They can never be saved because they did not hear about Jesus Christ and His gospel in mortality.
This is the doctrine that concerns me. How many mortals believe that people are condemned to hell simply because they were not baptized before they died? In a First Presidency Message in March 1972, President Joseph Fielding Smith calls this doctrine “unfortunate and erroneous.” He explains that this doctrine did not originate with Dante but came “down from the earliest days of apostasy from the true teachings of Jesus Christ.”
President Smith then proceeds to share the story of “an earnest, loving mother who was told by a well-meaning but misguided priest that her dead infant was eternally lost because the child had not been christened. He continues.
I was visiting at the home of this mother, and she related the following story. Several years before, she had lost a little child. He had not been taken to the minister for sprinkling and had, in that condition, died. The parents sought their minister and asked him to conduct the funeral and give their little one a Christian burial; however, this humble request was solemnly, but nonetheless brutally, denied. The parents were told the child was forever lost. Heartbroken, they laid their little child away as an outcast might have been buried, without the rites of that church and without “Christian burial.” How the hearts of those fond parents ached; how their feelings were torn asunder!
For several years this mother, with faith in the teachings of that priest, suffered the most acute mental agony. She knew it was not the fault of her infant that he had not been christened. He was innocent of any wrong. Was not that wrong her own? And in her mind, because of this false teaching, was not she responsible for the eternal suffering of this little one? She felt as the repentant murderer who could not restore the life he had taken, and in this anguish of soul she suffered the punishment of the damned.
It was a happy day when I came to the home of this tormented mother. Even now I can see the joy that came into her tormented face when I explained to her that this doctrine was false – as false as the depths of hell whence it came. I taught her this was not the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who loved little children and who declared that they belonged to the kingdom of heaven. I read to her from the Book of Mormon the words of Mormon to his son Moroni (Moroni 8) and explained that the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith that “all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability” – that is, eight years – “are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven [Doctrine and Covenants 137:10].” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 2. 2, p. 381.) Yes, the Lord has made it known in this glorious day of restoration:
“All who have died without a knowledge of this Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (DHC, vol. 2, p. 380.)
Dante must have realized that the doctrine was wrong because he wrote something entirely different in Paradiso, Canto XXXII, Lines 40-48. There Dante describes children under the age of accountability as being in the presence of God because Jesus Christ made it possible by His atoning sacrifice. This is particularly interesting because the last thirteen cantos were not published until after Dante’s death.
Know that to here from where the petals meet,
Up to midway, the lines of these partitions,
No souls by their own merit have their seat,
But by Another’s, under fixed conditions;
For all these spirits were absolved from sin
Ere they had reached control of their volitions.
Lend ear and thou wilt realize how thin
Their voices are; look well and thou’lt make out
Their infant faces and their childish mien.
Little children – before the age of eight years - are innocent in the eyes of God and return to directly to His presence upon their death. All people – whether in this life or the life hereafter – will have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and either accept it or reject it. However, the covenants must be made in mortality.
This is the reason why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints builds temples all over the world. Members of the Church perform temples ordinances in behalf of people who have passed away. If the person accepts the gospel when they hear it on the other side of the veil, their temple ordinances have already been completed, and they can continue progressing through eternity. If the ordinances are not performed, the person is stopped in their progression until they are completed by mortals.
I know that Heavenly Father is a loving Father. He desires that all of His children have the opportunity to return to His presence, and He has a plan to make it possible.