Dante, Hell, and an Ice Storm

In Dante’s Inferno Satan is imprisoned in the lowest circle of Hell. This part of Hell is not conceived of as filled with fire and brimstone, but as a prison of darkness and cold. Satan’s sins according to Dante are pride and treachery – and he is depicted as half frozen in the lowest circle, eternally struggling to tear free from the ice.

What does this mean for us though? Well, there are a couple takeaways. The very first, and oft misunderstood, is that Satan isn’t the ruler of Hell. Satan is as much a prisoner of Hell as anyone else.

The second is more important, in that it should change how we see Hell. The depiction of Hell ultimately as a place of utter void – cold, dark, and filled with monstrous prisoners, is far more real than most give the poetic work credit for. After all, cold and darkness are two expressions of the same tendency. Heat and cold are measurements of energy – when molecules move around, there’s greater energy, and they are warmer, when they slow, there’s less energy, and they grow cooler. Cold is just the absence of that movement, that energy. Light, too, is about energy and movement, and darkness is its absence. You didn’t think you’d get a physics lesson here, did you? Well take it one more step. What happens to things when they lose that energy? Water when it grows cold enough freezes. Eventually, so does everything else.

So what? Who cares? Well, we should, because all sin, but especially Pride which is the root of sin, results in that same hardening. That’s the meaning of the expression, “hardness of heart.” When we sin, our hearts grow cold – numbed to the damage we are doing to ourselves, and the pain we do to others. They grow harder and harder until they become like stone. And remember that sin separates us from God, and just think of everything associated with Him in all our tradition and experience – light, love, joy, warmth, affection, goodness, patience, peace, kindness. It is these things that we lose when we let our hearts grow cold, especially that ability to love. Are these things you want in your life? Then you should care, for a frozen heart cannot love.

Here’s the good news: God knows this about us, and has made us a promise: “I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; […]. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Catch the reference to Baptism there? We are people of God’s promise, and His sacraments are where He accomplishes this restorative work. But go a little further, to Acts, “‘Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, my brothers?’ Peter [said] to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you […]” (36-8).

You cannot cut a heart that is made of stone, a heart of frozen flesh. God accomplishes His healing in the Sacraments, but He begins it through the process of repentance – through sorrow and heart-brokenness over our sins. A heart that has hardened through sin must be broken open – it must feel agony for what it has done, so that it may feel anything at all. “He disperses hail like crumbs, who can withstand his cold? Yet when again He issues his command, it melts them; He raises His winds and the waters flow” (Psalm 147:17-18). God’s command is issued via His Word. God’s wind is His Breath, His very Spirit which hovered over the waters of Creation. He sent His Son to preach the forgiveness of sins – but more than that to die for us and rise to Life that we might live. And together Father and Son sent the Spirit at Pentecost, immediately before the scene in Acts which we just read, to thaw men’s hearts, to cut them that they might be healed, and made new.

One final thing to learn from Dante today: we should remember that it’s really, really difficult to get free once you’re stuck on ice, so be careful in this storm, everyone!