National Catholic Reporter
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Moments in Time
Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

Stranger in Paradise

By Gary Macy

Christians in the past wondered just as much as Christians now whether those who are not Christians go to heaven. Is it possible that even some of our bitterest foes might make the cut? Fortunately, we have a history of not only thoughtful but caring responses. One of the most beautiful and moving answers to the question appears in the section describing heaven in that great poem, the Divine Comedy of Dante. Dante, being led on the tour of paradise by his guide, Beatrice, is surprised to see several non-Christians among the righteous rulers crowned in glory. The blessed, singing in one voice, explain to him:

“But note, many cry Christ, Christ! who shall be far less near Him at the Judgment than such as know not Christ, and such Christians the Ethiopian shall condemn when the two companies are parted, the one forever rich, the other poor. What can the Persians say to your [Christian] kings when they see that volume opened in which are written all their [the Christian kings’] infamies?”

Dante would have understood both Ethiopia and Persia to be Muslim countries. He makes a similar judgment about pagans, two of whom he sees in the same region of paradise. Again, the heavenly voices tell Dante: “O predestination, how far removed is thy root from their gaze who see not the First Cause whole! And you mortals, keep yourselves restrained in judging, for we, who see God, do not yet know all the elect; and this very lack is sweet to us, because in this good our good is perfected, that that which God wills we will too.”

How wonderful to remember that such sentiments are an important part of our heritage, especially in a time of terrorism, war and misunderstanding.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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