Dante’s Divine Comedy is, arguably, one of the greatest Christian works in the Western canon. Unfortunately, most of us were only asked to read the first installment—Inferno—in literature classes, if we’ve read it at all. Unfortunate, because stopping at the end of Inferno leaves the reader, quite literally, sitting in hell, when Paradise stands before them.
Dante’s work is full of beautiful poetry and imagery that lends great insight on the Christian life—in fact, many later Christian writers often refer back to Dante. The last few Cantos of Paradiso in particular are absolutely stunning at points. It turned my world upside down. All in all, Divine Comedy definitely makes the must-read-before-you-die list—and near the top, at that.
So, here are a few notes on tackling this difficult but intensely rewarding work:
Second, don’t let Purgatory scare you away. Dante was a Catholic back when everyone was a Catholic, so when he sets out on his journey through the afterlife, he includes a 34-Canto exploration of Purgatory in the second book. It’s really easy as Protestants to be put off by this, but I would encourage you to press on. Much like C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce, this work is not a systematic explanation of the Christian afterlife. Rather, the ideas are employed because it enables the author to better explore ideas to edify pilgrims on this side of death. Purgatory is as much an analogy of sanctification and growth as it is a statement about how Christians get to heaven. And as such, it provides helpful insights and exhortations.
Third, get an annotated edition. Dante uses, especially in Inferno, some obscure Italian politicians whom he had personal problems with as examples of whom you might find in the various circles of hell. And even when he’s not drifting into confusing political burns (pun definitely intended), Dante often makes historical and classical references. Having a classical scholar or historian in your margin explaining the allusions is crucial to really appreciating Dante.
In conclusion, a trip through the afterlife is grueling, convicting, and even painful at times. But when heaven waits on the other side, it’s a trip well worth making.