Dante’s hell had nine concentric circles with Satan locked in ice at the center of the earth. Upper hell was divided into four layers. The first layer was for virtuous pagans. The next three layers correspond to expressions of improper love: lust, gluttony, and greed.

It is interesting to compare this ancient view of sin with today’s. For me, growing up in a “spirit-filled,” protestant church, lust was the ultimate sin. So afraid was I of “sleeping with someone” that, as a young child, I believed a horizontal position beside someone was dangerous. Pastors harangued for hours about saying NO. We were given rings of promise that committed us to chastity until marriage.We were warned about the dire results of giving into temptation.

But the culture didn’t care. It bulldozed us. All around us the television and movie theaters sold the temptation in millions of irresistible images and we bought, bought, bought that stairway

— which didn’t lead to heaven.

Yet, lust is the outermost layer of hell. In other words, if there is a reverse hierarchy of sins, the medieval mind thought lust as the least of them. Really, the sin was an excessive love of others, which doesn’t seem so terrible.

The real sin is that the love of others renders love of God as secondary.

This thought hit me hard. I’ve been under the impression that all love within marriage is under a mantle of acceptance. But even marriage can interfere with the love of God. Even a good one. Even a fantastic, loving marriage. If two people are meeting each others’ needs so completely that God is no longer needed

… that might be a problem.

The Latin word for lust is luxuria, derived from luxury or extravagance. Too much love of others could substitute for God.

Any excessive thoughts or desires of a sexual nature are wrong. We often draw little lines in the sand that place us in the “okay” category if we are “committed,” or “monogamous.” Yet, Dante’s criterion for lust was an “excessive love of others,” insofar as an excessive love for man or woman would replace or demote the love of God.

In Dante’s hell, unforgiven souls are blown about in furious hurricanes, the forceful winds symbolizing the sinners’ lack of self control during their earthly life.

In Dante’s purgatory, repentant sinners walk through flames to purify his lustful thoughts and feelings.

In our culture, sex sells.

The medieval mind associated the demon, Asmodeus, with this deadly sin. He’s been depicted in a variety of ways but my favorite is Collin de Plancy’s version: the beast has the breast of a man, a cock leg, serpent tail, three heads (one of a man spitting fire, one of a sheep, and one of a bull), riding a lion with dragon wings and neck. Imagine him straddling the major television networks and riding Hollywood.