The concepts of a world to come, of life after death, of heaven, purgatory, and hell are not in the Hebrew Bible, but are post-biblical ideas. Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest thinker, wrote in his essay called Chelek that heaven and hell do not exist. If you accept his view do not expect to go to heaven if you act well or descend to hell if you misbehave.


The Bible does mention sheol, and some people, wanting to see an allusion to an after-life in the Hebrew Bible, say that sheol denotes the world-to-come. For example, they say that Korach and his followers who rebelled against Moses were punished by being swallowed up by the earth and descended alive into sheol (Numbers 16:31–33). Sheol appears in the Hebrew Bible 65 times, including seven instances in the Pentateuch: Genesis 32:22, 37:35; 42:38; 44:29; 44:31, and the above mentioned two citings in Numbers. Virtually all Bible commenters, rabbis, and scholars, agree that sheol means a grave, nothing more. See Encyclopedia Mikrait, Bialik Institute, volume 7, 1976 (Hebrew).


Although these concepts of an after-life are not in the Hebrew Bible, times and ideas change, and immortality of the soul and a world-to-come are regarded as a fundamental principle today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Dante’s Inferno is the poet’s ingenious version of what he conceives as the nine circles of Hell, its activities, how it is arranged, and what punishments are given to people for various crimes, with special attention to his depiction of the punishments inflicted upon people he knew or heard about, including evil clerics and popes. His book is saturated by politics. It is populated with many people Dante knew. He uses his book to release his venom against the people he despises. Dante mixes pagan, Christian, and imaginary ideas in his Inferno as if they actually existed, such as the Minotaur, the demon boatman Charon who ferries the dead over the swamp Acheron into Hades, fallen angels, furies, Medusa, centaurs, giants, and more. Satan, a central figure in Christian theology, is not mentioned. Instead it is Dis. Dante’s guide is the pagan poet Virgil who is placed in Limbo because he is not a Christian.


While the modern connotation of “Inferno” is Hell where evil people are punished by fire, the ancients, including Dante, understood the word to mean “the lower world.” According to Dante, he visited Purgatory, Inferno, and Paradise during six days in the year 1300. People are punished there with punishments that fit the crime, not necessarily by fire.


The first of the nine circles of Inferno is Limbo, a term meaning “fringe, edge, or margin,” where unbaptized infants and virtuous pagan inhabitants are not physically punished, but for no fault of their own, who did not sin, are deprived of the spiritual which is in heaven. It contains people such as Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Aeneas, the Muslim Saladin, and Aristotle. The inhabitants of Limbo “sigh…live in longing without any hope.”


Just preceding Limbo is the vestibule of Inferno inhabited by people who when alive refused to decide. They are “sorrowing souls who passed through life avoiding infamy but unworthy of praise.” They are punished by being pricked by stinging insects and forced to forever follow a whirling banner that led them nowhere.


These are followed by circles for the lustful in the second, then gluttons, hoarders and wasters, wrathful and sullen, heretics such as Epicurus who did not believe God exists, the bloodthirsty and plunderers, suicides and profligates, with the eighth circle containing panderers, seducers, flatterers, sorcerers, soothsayers, hypocrites, thieves, counterfeiters, and others. The final ninth circle contained traitors such as Judas.


Dante certainly had no idea what the Inferno contained and why people were placed there and how they were punished, but used his beautiful poetic drama to cast aspersions on people he disliked. He used his imagination and some Christian and pagan traditions to accomplish his goal. Modern Christians, Jews, and Muslims have their own views, also based on their imagination and what they heard from others. But Maimonides felt that this imagined area does not exist.