One subject I have desired to write about but have been unable to is Dante. Having read his Divine Comedy last year I can say that it deserves its place as one of the world’s greatest literary works and that is the problem. It’s so big that it’s hard to know where to start. I would like to write about one aspect about it and that is the Mount of Purgatory. We Protestants tend to shutter at the mention of Purgatory as the place where people are punished for their sins after death before they are allowed to go to heaven. Really this is an incorrect understanding that was in full force in the time of Martin Luther. Originally, Purgatory was a place where ones sins were purged before they entered heaven. When people accepted Christ they were declared non-guilty by God and forgiven for their sins. As most Christians know this doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop sinning. Purgatory was a place where sanctification was completed and the habit of sin of was removed. Personally I don’t believe in Purgatory. I believe that what is supposedly done in Purgatory is done freely by the grace of God. Still this way of looking at Purgatory is not as repulsive as working for your salvation. Who wants to enter heaven, let alone live here on earth, still sinning? However, I digress.
Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain rising out of the sea. Once one reaches the actual Purgatory there are seven levels each purging one of the seven deadly sins. Part of Dante’s genius is shown in how he organizes the levels. He places the most severe sins on the bottom levels and the least at the top. Now you may argue that there is no such thing as a sin that is more sinful. It is like trying to say that one color of black is blacker than the other. Realistically different groups of Christianity give more emphasis to some sins over others. Liberal Christians will elevate injustice as a terrible sin, conservative’s moral impurity. Sex is a particularly spectacular sin for Evangelicals. When a person falls in this area, it gets attention. Much effort is expended to steer young people away from this sin. What is Dante’s view?
Starting from the bottom and moving up we have pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. A bit of a reversal from how it is normally seen. Dante, the stereotypical medievalist, was an obsessive compulsive organizer. “A place for everything and everything in its place.” So how did lust make it to the top, closet to earthly paradise?
Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay called “Other Six Deadly Sins” in which she talks about our view of these different sins. She also produced a translation of The Divine Comedy, which you can see reflected in her thinking. Lust, gluttony, and avarice she labels as warm-blooded sins. By calling these sins warm-blooded is to call them natural sins. They are sins of misplaced love for something good. Lust is the incorrect enjoyment of the desire for sex. Sex was something beautiful that God created for our enjoyment and the desire for it is a God given desire. God created food to be enjoyed. He could have created us without refined taste buds, but he did. Gluttony is an incorrect enjoyment of food. C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters describes those that unhealthily obsess over their food just as guilty of gluttony as those who gorge of it. It is also worth noting that in the level of Purgatory for avarice, people are punished both for hoarding up wealth and for being spendthrifts. It is not just the wealthy that can suffer from avarice, but those who don’t have much money and are miserly with it. It is their inordinate love of it that makes the different sin
Skipping over sloth we come to the sins that Sayers called cold-blooded sins. These are the unnatural sins. If there is any incorrect love these stem from it for the self. Wrath is a hatred of beings created in the image of God. It is not misplace love of something good it is hate. Envy is a sin little mentioned by Evangelicals, but is sickly cold and lifeless. Envy is a jealously that despises success in others. It not only wants what another has, it wishes the ill will of another. Envy cannot take pleasure what it has; avarice is too good for it. If it can’t have what it wants than no one can. It despairs when another is blessed and rejoices when they fall.
Pride forms the bottom level of purgatory. Of it there has been a lot of talk. This is the rich sin of the Pharisee and the Hypocrite. The only thing I will say is that this sin often goes unnoticed. All these sins can be hidden in some way from other people. However, the farther you go into lust or wrath the more visible it is likely to become; yes there are exceptions. The stronger the pride the more likely it is to be hidden. We don’t see headlines proclaiming “Christian Leader Caught in Pride: Resigns from Position.” It is like a disease with no symptoms, nothing to alert the patient or the doctor that the illness is present.
Before I end I want to make it clear that the Bible doesn’t lay out a ranking system like this. Dante’s Purgatory merely provides a way to view sin from a new angle. No thought of, “If I must sin than I should aim for the lesser ones” or “I’m doing much better than that other person.” It is better that we don’t sin at all than sit around discussing which sins are the worst.