Saintly Thoughts

Dante & the Damned (and why I am not an Evangelical)

So here's a rather esoteric (perhaps one might even say "silly") question that my recent re-reading of the Inferno has brought to mind.  Within the context of a moral universe in which there is a Good and All-Powerful God, where human souls are immortal, and where said souls receive either eternal bliss or punishment based on the degree to which they have risen to a state of grace, was Dante correct when he suggested that it is not merciful to show mercy to the damned?  I wonder.  I'm fairly certain that it shall not delight the blessed in such a universe to witness the pains of the damned in hell (as thought Irineas), but I am less sure about the mercy concept.  It may be of no profit to the damned, that may be true, but is not mercy a universal quality that should be shown to all, even to the damned?  Perhaps hell itself is the final mercy, the last resting place for the fallen soul that cannot withstand the Face of the Divine Being (presumably, for such a soul, whatever we understand 'hell' to mean, it is less uncomfortable than would be eternity in the presence of a righteous God).  Or perhaps, hell is nothing other than the fallen soul's experience of the Face of God, which looks on them with mercy.  However, having rejected such mercy, their experience of the gaze is an eternal torment (note that, on some level, this last example seems to make Dante's point, by other means--though here we seem to run into a paradox of categories; for while it is not 'merciful' in that showing mercy to the damned does not bestow on them the qualities inherent in mercy in other cases, it still might be 'good' in some other sense to show mercy, otherwise God would not show mercy).  I should note that all of the above mentioned hypothetical positions have been held by certain fairly orthodox strains of thought at different times throughout the history of Christianity.

Given the parameters of our hypothetical, I think I tend towards the last position, which perceives hell as the damned soul's experience of Divine Mercy (again, a position which comes to the same conclusion as Dante, only by other means).  But let us push the metaphor further.  If we posit an All-Powerful God, presumably this power extends to all aspects of such a God.  Thus, God's Mercy is All-Powerful.  How then can such souls resist the Divine Gaze forever?  Will not a time come when the grace flowing out from the Mercy will melt away the pain of the soul's own self-imposed confinement and torment?  And thus we are inducted into the riddles of the medieval school masters, who must balance such a position against the All-Powerful and Irresistible Justice and Righteousness of such a God, in (apparent) direct contradistinction to His Mercy.

Let us now move out of the world of riddles and hypotheticals and return again to the world of our lived experience.  It is not clear to me (as a matter of reason) that there exists such a God, nor even assuming that there is, that we may gather the effects of His Power in the ways set forth by the medieval scholastics and logicians.  But if such a God Is and He exhibits such qualities, one thing that is clear to me (and the main reason that I have rejected the understanding that appears endemic to Protestant Evangelicalism as much as I have rejected the scholastics) it is that while Hell may be a Divine Judgment (and may be eternal), it is not meant as a punishment plainly understood.  It is more complicated than this.  And furthermore, I find it impossible to even conceive of a God (or a perfected soul) who delights in the sight of the misery felt by the soul's of the damned.  And who could believe in such a God without becoming hardened in their hearts?  Perhaps this explains some of the more unsavory aspects of the hardness expressed by our middle-class protestant majority of yesteryear.  Of course, lest we forget, such hardness can engender other virtues.