Dante depicts a vivid hell in the Inferno and, by doing so, expresses his worldview and theological arguments in a very poetic way. As a poet after Augustine’s era, Dante’s depiction of the world and the hell contains many traces of the Augustinian theology. For example, Dante recognizes the limits of human reason and the merciful nature of God’s love and writes about these themes in the Inferno. Yet, Dante’s the Inferno is also creative and different from Augustine’s ideas: it levels human to a more active position by connecting people’s doing when they are alive to their destinations in the after-life.
Like Augustine, Dante ranks the evilness not according to moral instincts people may easily think of, but according to how much does the evilness go against the natural order, in other words, God. The arrangement of three rings in the 7th circle of hell in the Inferno serves as an evidence. Suffering from the boiling blood and eaten by the Harpies are the punishments for violence against neighbors and oneself respectively in first two rings (Inferno XII.46-48 & XIII.100-102). However, even tyrants like Pyrrhus, Sextus only suffer the slightest pain in the 7th circle as they submerge in the boiling blood. Underneath them are people who harmed themselves when they were alive – they mostly did not even affect others’ lives. This feature stands out because the Bible does not explicitly condemn suicide more than murdering others. Arguably, Dante is making a distinction here according to the motivations: murders are often motivated by explicit reasons such as greed or violent nature, but suicide is about mistreating life (humans) created by God and is more against the natural order. This argument is also supported by the third ring in the 7th circle, in which souls of people who were violent against God but are not heretics, are suffering from the burning sand and falling flames (Inferno. XIV.28-30). Sins committed by people in this ring is the worst because even they did not impose wrong ideas on others, they sinned against God in their heart. The sin of the third ring is also the most ‘internal’ one among 7th circle: knowing God but disdain him is a personal matter but is worst in Dante’s view (Inferno. XIV.70-72). Overall, this ranking by faith and relation to God has a high level of concordance with the Augustinian theology.
Dante also emphasizes the idea that punishments are eternal and continuous in the hell. This idea is similar to the idea of eternal harmony and happiness in the heaven by Augustine, but instead, Dante’s narrative is about the hell. In the outermost cycle of the hell, Limbo, people who were born before Christ are punished by having no hope in knowing God (except for when the Harrowing of Hell happened, Inferno IV.40-42, 55-57). Unlike the purgatory, punishments in the hell do not wash away these souls’ sins and there is no way for souls to escape from suffering in the hell. For example, in the 4th circle of greed, people are divided into two groups and are wheeling weights against each other forever (Inferno. VII.28-30). This is, by Dante, the opposite of the great harmony in the heaven: people in the hell repeat tasks and torments forever without any progress. In Dante’s hell, people suffer endless yet rational pain for what they did earlier in the life. Thus, the eternal pain is the counterpart of the eternal harmony in the heaven.
The biggest difference between Dante and Augustine’s views is of the role played by humans in the process. Unlike Augustine who recognizes human as very incapable and whose destination is solely dependent on God’s plan, Dante has a more detailed idea about the process. The structure of the hell can be traced back to ideas of Aristotle. Yet, the fact that hell can be divided into upper and lower portion is an evidence that Dante thinks the nature of the sins is a critical part that needed to be addressed. The upper hell, from the Limbo to the 5th circle, contains souls of people who failed to regulate their sinful nature in the world above; the lower hell, from 6th to 9th circle, is for those who willingly committed sins. The same kind of cause-and-effect relationship can also be seen in a smaller scale, for example, how deep one is in the boiling blood is related to the degree of violence he/she committed (Inferno. XII.73-75, 103-104). This suggests that Dante thinks people can reduce suffering in the hell simply by doing fewer sins when alive. This worldview certainly has more room for human agency compared to Augustine’s – it allows one to actively be a better version of oneself.
Allowing human’s doing to determine where souls go in after-life does not mean Dante belittles God. In fact, just like Augustine, Dante recognizes clearly the limits of human reason and the theme occurs multiple times throughout the Inferno. Dante, for he is a living man, frequently seeks help and support from his teacher Virgil throughout the trip in the hell. (Inferno VIII.97-99) However, even Virgil, who commands Centaur Chiron to send guards in the 6th circle (Inferno XII.85-97), could not pass the gate of Dis that is guarded by fallen angels until the arrival of help from Heaven (Inferno VIII.82-84 & 118-120). This series of events can be interpreted as Dante is describing the limits of human reason. Dante can do the least because he is the only living one in the hell and his humanity fears a lot. Virgil, as Dante’s guide in soul form, is more capable: he constantly giving Dante confidence and convincing monsters in the hell to make ways for them. Importantly, Virgil does so by emphasizing that their trip is promised by God and thus shall be permitted – it is not that Virgil has power or authority, instead, he is using the authority given by God. But at the gates of Dis, Dante and Virgil encounter fallen angels. These angels rebel God willingly, thus authority by God does not convince them in any way. This is the limit of human – despite Virgil being a great guide for Dante, he could not stand against angels by his human reason. As a solution, Heaven sends help directly to make ways for these two travelers for their faith in Christ and calling (Inferno IX.7-9). This is Dante’s way of showing God’s authority is the ultimate and that he is mercifulness over limited humans.
In conclusion, Dante’s description of hell adapts most of the Augustinian theology and is largely based on it. In the Inferno, Dante demonstrates how the ranking of evilness is not what people may usually think, but is closely related to how faith-denying a sin is. Moreover, he realizes the limits of human just like Augustine and expresses it through Dante and Virgil’s action during their trip. But Dante is also different from Augustine that he depicts the eternal suffering as a rational counterpart of what people sinned in the above world, which gives humans a compelling reason to do good while alive.