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A Review of Dante's "Divine Comedy"

A Review of Dante's "Divine Comedy"
Did you know the poet Dante used the Bible extensively to present the Gospel and lead his contemporaries to Salvation.?

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a masterpiece of Christian Literature and a foundation for all of Western culture. Read our EARLIER ARTICLES that go into this more deeply, but today I want to look at the source material Dante used. It is the original Divine Comedy, namely, the Gospel as presented in the Bible.

The Divine Comedy Dante created would be impossible without the Gospel, just as Shakespeare’s plays would be impossible without HOLINSHED, PLUTARCH AND OVID. And like Shakespeare, Dante was a creative genius transforming his source materials into a poetic masterpiece.

What is the Gospel?

Here is a solid New Testament definition from St. Paul:

Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures;  was buried and raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures;  1 Corinthians 15:3-4

What is our Access to the Gospel?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – Jesus in John 3:16

How can I call the Gospel a “comedy”? In the same way that Dante originally called his long poem simply “COMEDY.” It is a story that starts out with the “bad news” and ends with the “good news.”

Since “Good News” is the literal translation of "Gospel," we don’t have to look any further to find Dante’s source.

The Divine Comedy: When was the Gospel Dante used completed?

The Gospel he used was not completed until about 1000 years before Dante was born. Elements of it were incorporated over time. The Old Testament was completed about 500 years earlier. It is important to note that each portion was written to an audience identified as “God’s people” and presented to them in their own language.

That means Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New. And the audience changed over time.

By 300 BC, Hebrew was no longer a spoken language as Alexander the Great’s conquests imposed Greek on the whole Eastern world. This was not the classical Greek of Athens and its men of renown, but koine Greek, or “common” Greek, the spoken language used by everyday people in ordinary life.

This change looms large with the preaching of the Gospel. Many of the Christian converts could not read and so the books of the New Testament had to be tailored to an illiterate audience.

At this point the Gospel was complete, but it still was accessible only in Greek, shutting out the majority of Romans. The audience was widened when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in 400 AD, the Gospel Augustine read and used.

Dante read Jerome’s Latin Gospel too, but only because he was among the educated. Latin had rapidly declined with the fall of Rome, and by Dante’s day had been replaced by regional languages among common people.

The Divine Comedy: What was Dante’s purpose in using The Gospel?

Dante’s purpose is very much like the Bible’s. He believed that his work too was inspired by God, that the Holy Ghost was with him as he wrote to lead others to Jesus and His righteousness: In his own words: “to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of felicity.” (Christianity Today.)

The Divine Comedy: What elements of the Gospel did Dante use?

From the Old Testament, he took the story of Abraham and his faith journey. Dante replaced Egypt, where God’s people were held in slavery, with Hell, as described in the Inferno, the wilderness where the children of Israel wandered and were tested for 40 years as Purgatory, and the Promised Land of Canaan as Paradiso.

From the New Testament, he took the theme of sinners lost and enemies of God until they were redeemed by Jesus’ death and changed into new creatures by the power of His resurrection. He restated the basics of the way to salvation in his text but illustrated them creatively by placing himself as such a person, lost in sin without hope in the world.

The Divine Comedy: What role do its characters play?

Dante himself, of course, plays the role of “everyman,” lost in the woods of sin and seeking the way to God. At first, he is guided by Virgil, who represents “reason,” but reason can take him only so far, to discernable things of the world.

When he approaches Paradise, Virgil is barred from entry and is replaced by two figures (Beatrice and Bernard of Clairvaux) who represent revelation, the highest form of knowledge. They present to him the glories of the Gospel as exhibited in Paradiso.

One of the shortcomings of Dante’s poem is that Jesus does not appear.

The Divine Comedy: What settings did Dante use?

He wonderfully weaves together an Eternal setting, the 3 realms of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, with the contemporary setting of his own journey from being lost to finding salvation through Jesus’ blood and grace.

In a move of genius, Dante peoples the Eternal settings with his contemporaries or people from history that his audience would know. The effect is wonderful as we experience both settings as we read.

The Divine Comedy: What role does language play?

Dante’s greatest contribution to both our faith and our culture was putting his poem into the language of the people, the vernacular (1308). He stepped away from Latin and wrote in the language of Tuscany, spoken in Florence (his hometown), and this was the basis for the Italian language as we know it today.

His innovation spread to other countries, most prominently England where John Wycliffe wrote the first English Bible in 1384. This work spread to Bohemia and other parts of Europe, including Italy where the first Italian Bible was printed in 1471.

The most famous vernacular Bible was Luther’s in 1534. It standardized the German language, as the Divine Comedy had standardized Italian.

The Divine Comedy: How did Dante’s innovations lead to the Reformation?

Dante’s use of the vernacular set the stage for a move away from Latin and official church teaching to establishing the Bible as the standard of doctrine and faith. His own presentation of Purgatory led to Luther’s attacks on indulgences and the authority of the Pope.

This attack on the Pope was in accord with Dante’s assignment of Popes to the Inferno for greed, heresy, and simony. Dante made the Pope and the policies of the Roman Catholic Church fair game for the Reformers.

The Divine Comedy Today: Poem vs Gospel

Still deemed a masterpiece of Western culture and Christian literature, the poem has ceased to be an important proclamation of the Gospel. Its innovations and creative use of language that was so powerful to his contemporaries have become outdated and irrelevant to people today.

The shining light of the Middle Ages has now become obsolete medieval history. The philosophical issues dealt with have long been settled and the old doctrines and language of the Roman Catholic Church updated or let go.

If I had to give a short summation of its status it would be “too much Dante and too little Jesus.”

The Divine Comedy of the Gospel, on the other hand, continues to lead people to Salvation in Italy and other places Dante knew and hundreds of other places he had never heard of. Far from being dead, the Bible is more widely read than ever and retains its power:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.Hebrews 4:12

The Divine Comedy of the Gospel is inspired by God, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and engages us as we read:

Jesus said, It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. – John 6:63

And as we read, we meet Jesus, personally and find Him “altogether lovely,” loving and gentle as He calls us through His Word. He invites us to Him with His short affirmation of the Gospel:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. – John 3:16-17

How blessed we are to be in that role Dante once had, of presenting the Gospel to those who are lost. My hope is that Believers reading this blog will be inspired to share the Divine Comedy of the Gospel with those you know and love, and that those who are not will respond today to Jesus’ loving invitation to Come unto me and rest. – Matthew 11:28

Why do so few people read Dante’s Poem?

For the same reason people don’t read the Bible. It is not an easy read. It must be read slowly, thoughtfully and carefully, devotionally. Is it worth the effort? If you are a serious reader and interested in Western culture, the answer is “Yes,” especially if you are a Christian.

If you are not, the answer is no. Why? It is very long, 14,000 lines (3 times as long as Hamlet), and written in poetic form, in an early form of Italian. The quality of the translations varies, and your ability to scan poems and absorb their syntax (work order) will be put to the test.

Dante’s poem and Dante’s world operated 100% under the influence and authority of the Bible. Its themes and subjects are drawn from the scriptures which were everywhere studied. People learned to read from the Bible, patterned their lives by it, grew up in its spirit and lived by its words.

People believed then, as evangelical Christians do today that:

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 2:16-17

Dante’s purpose is very much like the Bible’s. He believed that his work too was inspired of God, that the Holy Ghost was with him as he wrote to lead others to Jesus and His righteousness:

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