I have just this evening submitted this paper to my Dante professor, on why Judgment Day means nothing even for repentant Christians.
“I think there’s an obligation for us as readers to be gracious with the writer.”
I agree with you, Professor Wolk, and hopefully you will not take this paper as lacking in graciousness toward il Sommo Poeta, whose rich and beautiful works I admire greatly. This paper is not meant to criticize Dante in any way, but Catholic doctrine and the contortions it imposes upon any mind attempting to make sense of it.
Dante’s work is an epic poem, in which he may exercise creative license as he sees fit, and he does, differing from Catholic doctrine on some major points even as he depicts a supernatural system inspired by Catholic doctrine.
The major points relevant to this paper are those of Limbo and the Harrowing of Hell, as they relate to Judgment Day.
Limbo is a place in which the unbaptized reside, awaiting Judgment Day, and the Church and Dante agree that the unbaptized become aware of the afterlife system once they die. According to Wikipedia, medieval theologians divided the underworld into “four distinct underworlds: hell of the damned, purgatory, limbo of the fathers, and limbo of infants”. Dante is not explicit in his description of Limbo—we do not know where he places infants. We also do not know where he places the unvirtuous unbaptized.
And the extent of the awareness the deceased unbaptized gain is not clear in Dante. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, upon the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus Christ descended to Hell “as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” Intriguingly, the Catechism does not mention Limbo.
The most important aspect of the “Good News” would be Judgment Day, since that would be the one and only opportunity for those in Limbo to gain the Christian God’s favor (with the exception of those pre-Christians who were friendly to the Christian God, such as Abraham, Moses, and Noah, who were already plucked out by Jesus ). For some reason, perhaps creative license to heighten the drama, Dante presents a system in which those in Limbo seem unaware of Jesus Christ despite the Harrowing and the proclamation of the Good News, although it is possible Virgil is just being circumspect in his references to Jesus. (I suspect he is, for the sake of delicacy.)
But of utmost importance is how Judgment Day will affect the virtuous unbaptized, whether they are aware of Jesus Christ due to the Harrowing and proclamation or not.
(The problem with the Harrowing: while it is kind of Jesus to rescue pre-Christian souls friendly to God from Limbo, why wasn’t Purgatory already in place or available at least for those souls who had spoken with Him?)
On Judgment Day, the virtuous unbaptized in Limbo, including the infants (whether in a separate Limbo or not) will presumably be allowed the opportunity to become one with God, along with all the other repentant Christians. But will this mean going to Purgatory, or straight to Heaven?
Purgatory, by definition for repentant Christians, would either not have existed prior to Jesus’ sacrifice or not been populated, awaiting it. Everyone prior to Jesus and Mary went to Hell or Limbo, no exceptions. (The Harrowing resulted in the first entrants to Purgatory: Adam and other Old Testament figures.) It seems safe to assume that according to Catholic doctrine, the unvirtuous unbaptized would go to Hell, so their unbaptized status would be irrelevant.
Here is the breakdown as I see it, according to Dante:
Those in Hell are permanently cut off from God. (But then why the Good News to those in Hell? The Church implies that punishment might lead to sincere repentance.) They will not be forgiven.
Is Hell perfect? No. We learn this in Canto 13, when the shade of Piero delle Vigne, in the form of a thorn bush, informs Dante that after the second judgment his lot, and the lot of all other suicides (by logical extension, that of all souls in Hell) would worsen. Specifically, he says (lines 103-108):
Like the others, we will come for our remains, but not so that any may put them on again, for it is not just to have what one has taken from oneself.
Here we will drag them, and through the sad wood our corpses will hang, each on the thornbush of the soul that harmed it.
This means that the punishment depicted in the Inferno is incomplete, and that Judgment Day will complete it. Since the primary punishment of Hell is exile from the Christian God, all else serves only to rub salt in that wound. And more salt can always be added. Things can always be worse, even in Hell, we learn. And this makes sense.
This is also what tells us that Hell is permanent.
Those virtuous in Limbo will presumably be judged deserving of entrance into Paradise, after purgation.
The nonvirtuous in Limbo, if there are any, will either remain in Limbo forever, without hope of entry to Paradise (in which case Limbo itself becomes a worse punishment), or will go to an inner circle of Hell for harsher punishment.
But if they are nonvirtuous, why are they in Limbo? Clearly in such a case, lack of belief (or knowledge) of Christ would be more advantageous than belief. Let us assume that the nonvirtuous unbaptized are not in Limbo, that all nonvirtuous persons are in Hell proper, and that Limbo is only for the virtuous unbaptized—a cosmic waiting room for second judgment, at which time they will be forgiven for having been born too early and allowed to purge their sin.
Souls in Purgatory are destined for Paradise--that is the promise. It is simply a matter of penance and time. If Jesus returns to judge all souls, what new can he bring to the souls in Purgatory? (Or Paradise, or Hell, for that matter?) They are already where they are supposed to be. Why is his judgment necessary, and what does it accomplish?
We may reasonably infer that Jesus Christ has the right to waive punishment, but this calls into question the punishment’s original wisdom and justice. Why would he do that? He wouldn’t. Therefore, despite the reasonable inference we may conclude that his second judgment of the souls in Purgatory would match his original judgment sending them there in the first place. These are his rules, after all. (The only way his waiving purgatory would make sense is if we accept that Jesus Christ is an entity separate from the Father and Holy Ghost; i.e., that what calls itself monotheism is really polytheism, with competing gods. This, however, would open up another can of worms entirely, namely, that of an imperfect cast of characters competing for dominance of the Universe, a la the gods on Mount Olympus.)
Purgatory revolves around knowledge and acceptance of Jesus, and as we have seen, knowledge of Jesus can come late, after death, for those in Limbo. This means that Purgatory was either nonexistent or vacant until after Jesus redeemed sin with the opportunity of purgation, and no one was in Paradise with the Christian God except the original good angels. The sacrifice of Jesus led to the creation of Purgatory. Until that time all virtuous souls went to Limbo, the outer circle of Hell (and all nonvirtuous ones, as I say above, to inner circles). Hell is the oldest of the three places, the only one created at the beginning, or shortly after the fall of Lucifer.
Those in Purgatory must purge their sin to join with God. Therefore, on Judgment Day, Jesus will not grant them a pass on their penance.
It is my contention that because second judgment does not, cannot contradict first (why would God contradict himself?), souls in Purgatory will be allowed to continue and finish their purgation before gaining entry to Paradise—thus, their lot will remain unchanged after Judgment Day. The virtuous in Limbo will be added to this queue.
Those in Paradise are already purged of sin, so no judgment or sentence is necessary in their case. They are also already with God. Jesus cannot judge them, sentence them, or improve their station.
Those who are alive will be sent either to Hell or to Purgatory (in the case of the living unbaptized bypassing Limbo), because, again, there will be no free passes to Heaven. God doesn’t want to pollute Heaven with sin. It makes him uncomfortable.
Thus: what is the purpose of Judgment Day, when the sinners have already been judged? The first judgment sends souls to Hell or Purgatory, according to their levels of sin (all souls are sinful, according to doctrine, and I discount indulgences as heresy doomed to failure—even the Divine Authority on Earth cannot expunge sin or remove the need for purgation). The “second judgment”, as group member Jacob put it, Judgment Day, does . . . what?
Thanks to God’s eternal grace, which meant for Humanity Hell or Limbo until Jesus came along, there has to be an opportunity to be graduated even from Limbo—for the virtuous unbaptized as well as the repentant Christians. The rest suffer forever. After Judgment Day, punishment in Hell becomes worse, the souls in Limbo are graduated to Purgatory, the souls in Purgatory continue on their purging journey (unless Jesus overrides Himself), and the souls in Paradise stay where they are. This hardly seems worth it, and hardly seems a major change, except for the souls in Limbo. What is the point of the second judgment for repentant Christians? There seems not to be one to me. It does not benefit them—unless it waives their purgation, in which case they get away with sin without complete penance. This too hardly seems fair, a question of timing: those who completed purgation suffered more.
In conclusion, the existence of Judgment Day is a non sequitur that interferes with the logic of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Only those in Limbo are helped by it. While I am not a Christian and consider even an internally consistent system of eternal punishment unworthy of belief, the Catholic system of afterlife justice, mercy, and grace is not even internally consistent—or logical.
Thanks to Dante student Jacob for the inspiration.