In Canto XIX, Dante remains in the heaven of Justice. As the canto begins, Dante beholds a vast eagle, composed of countless souls of the Just, and representing Justice. The big question in this canto is: How can a just God punish people who never knew Christ?
Before the eagle answers, he first explains how far divine justice is from human concepts of justice. The eagle tells the pilgrim that the reality of God and his principle of design is beyond the ability of created beings to comprehend. And:
“In proof of this, the first and prideful being,
who was created highest of all creatures,
by not waiting for the light, plummeted unripe.”
In other words, Satan, too desirous of knowledge that he was not ready to have, was cast out of heaven. These are rich lines, pregnant with meaning. Recall that for Dante, sin comes from disordered desire. In these lines, Dante tells us that Satan would have known God had he only had the patience to wait for God’s revelation. As a fruit ripens in the sunlight, so too would Lucifer’s being have ripened into good fruit had he been willing to humble himself to wait on God.
This is a lesson to us. As I often do, I think back on the way my sister Ruthie continued to trust God throughout her suffering from cancer. She did not complain about the cosmic injustice of her fate. Rather, she accepted that God loved her, and that she would understand in the next life why this happened, if only she would be patient and bear her pain in love.
The eagle goes on to say that the individual’s vision of justice is “but a single ray of many in the mind of Him of whom all things are full.” More:
“Thus, the vision granted to your world
may make its way into eternal justice
as deep as eyes may penetrate the sea.”
We simply cannot fathom the ways of God’s justice — but the eagle says earlier that the imprint of divine justice is in the soul of all men, which is why even the unjust recognize that there is a standard of justice, however short they fall from it.
The eagle explains that God is the source of all goodness, and therefore justice. We simply cannot stand in judgment of His actions, because we, in our finitude, cannot hope to understand the Infinite. No one made it to heaven without believing in Christ, says the eagle, however:
“But observe that many shout out ‘Christ, O Christ!’
who shall be farther off from Him
on Judgment Day, than such as know not Christ.”
How can it be that no one who disbelieves in Christ makes it to Paradise, but there will be disbelievers closer to Christ on the day of judgment than those who called Him Lord? Well, they could be in Limbo, with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans; that will put them much closer to God than wicked Christians, including popes, who suffer the torments of the Inferno. Besides, haven’t we been told that we cannot comprehend God’s justice? It seems to me that the point here is not that we should be universalists — Dante rules that out — but that we must accept both Christ’s word that “no man comes to the Father except through me,” and also the fact that we should leave the final judgment up to God. We simply cannot know what He knows. Only He can plumb the depths of each man’s heart.
What we can know from Scripture is that God is All Just, and God is All Merciful. This is an impenetrable, even paradoxical, mystery. But that doesn’t make it false.
UPDATE: Marvelous comment from Ryan Booth:
I wrote an essay on this Canto as an undergrad 20 years ago. I still remember the gist of it.
I noted that the constellation Aquila was seen by the Greeks as the bearer of the lightning bolts of Zeus. As such, the eagle was a Greek symbol of divine justice.
The flight of the divine eagle is to be contrasted with the flight of Geryon on Inferno XVII. Geryon, is a symbol of fraud, the opposite of justice, and he flies—not straight like a lightning bolt—but with slow, left-hand (sinister) turns. Note Dante’s description of Geryon’s flight:
As falcon who has long been on the wing,
Who, without seeing either lure or bird,
Maketh the falconer say, “Ah me, thou stoopest,”
Descendeth weary, whence he started swiftly,
Thorough a hundred circles, and alights
Far from his master, sullen and disdainful;
Even thus did Geryon place us on the bottom
I also discussed the myth of Ganymede, which Virgil mentions in Aeneid Book V:
Then Anchises’s son, calling them all together as is fitting,
by the herald’s loud cry declares Cloanthus the winner,
and wreathes his forehead with green laurel, and tells him
to choose three bullocks, and wine, and a large talent of silver
as gifts for the ships. He adds special honours for the captains:
a cloak worked in gold for the victor, edged
with Meliboean deep purple in a double meandering line,
Ganymede the boy-prince woven on it, as if breathless
with eagerness, running with his javelin, chasing the swift stags
on leafy Ida: whom Jupiter’s eagle, carrier of the lightning-bolt,
has now snatched up into the air, from Ida, with taloned feet:
his aged guards stretch their hands to the sky in vain,
and the barking dogs snap at the air.
The story of Ganymede was used by some of the Greeks to justify man-boy love, but Plato disputed this and said that Zeus desired Ganymede for his soul, and the myth became a symbol of God’s desire for those he loves.
The eagle thus shows us both sides of God’s justice. The same lightning bolts that smite evil and burn with incredible heat also have the power to bring us into God’s presence. God is just, not only in punishing sin, but also in bringing to Himself those he loves. How could we critique God’s love? How can we say that God shouldn’t love someone so much that He brings them to heaven?
The symbolism is the same in the Bible. The eagle is a symbol of justice and judgment (example: Jeremiah 48:40), but we also have things like Exodus 19:4,
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.