Augustine Project: Weeks Forty-One through Forty-Four

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 20.20–30

20.20. In this chapter, Augustine attempts to make sense of 1 Thessalonians 4, in which Christians who are still alive at Christ’s second coming will be caught up and meet him in the air. This is a Dispensationalist rapture-text, but of course Augustine doesn’t interpret it that way.

The biggest question for Augustine is whether these Christians will die in the twinkling of an eye and then be resurrected. He concludes that they will experience a very short death as they are transformed and given immortal bodies.

20.21. Augustine continues his explanation of the resurrection of the dead. As he promised earlier, he shifts to what the Old Testament Scriptures say about the resurrection.

He begins this new section by discussing Isaiah’s contribution to the doctrine.

20.22–23. Augustine suggests that good people will understand what kind of punishment the wicked suffer after the judgment, but the wicked will not comprehend the peace of the saints. Then Augustine catches himself and tries to return to the topic of judgment. The punishment of the wicked is the topic of the next book.

Augustine begins talking about the prophetic visions from Daniel 7. This passage talks about the Antichrist and his coming, which precedes the final judgment. Augustine briefly mentions the common interpretation of the passage that identifies the Babylonians (whom Augustine conflates with Assyria), the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans as the four kingdoms who will come before the Antichrist. Augustine cannot think of whom the ten kings signify, which leads him to conclude that the Last Judgment could occur at any time.

20.24. In this chapter Augustine looks at Psalm 50 (Psalm 49 in his copy). He notes that not only the earth, but also the heavens will perish at the coming judgment.

Augustine’s discussion of putting the “covenant of God above sacrifices” isn’t a very helpful interpretation of the text. Part of this stems from the fact that his Latin translation leads him astray. A better reading of the line would be, “Gather my holy ones together, those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” This gives the passage a very different connotation.

20.25–26. Augustine begins discussing Malachi 3:1–6. The text mentions the “refiner’s fire,” and Augustine interprets this as meaning that some punishments have a purgatorial function. Christians might experience a great deal of pain when God burns the remnants of sin from them.

This passage in City of God shouldn’t be interpreted as alluding to Purgatory as a state in which souls wait after death. Augustine clearly refers to the Final Judgment. He has already indicated that he believes this Final Judgment will be an instantaneous reckoning of deeds done in the body. He indicates in this passage that the transition from temporal body to eternal body may be quite painful for some Christians, since the process includes having their sins purged.

Augustine then asks what Malachi means when he says that God’s people will offer righteous sacrifices to God “as in the days of old.” It can’t mean that the old covenant sacrificial system will begin again. The “days of old” refers to humanity’s time in the garden when Adam and Eve were free of sin. Augustine acknowledges that the purifying fire of the Final Judgment will conform Christians to Christ’s image. Therefore, Christians become a sacrifice in righteousness as they reflect Christ, the righteous Lamb of God.

20.27–29. Augustine continues his discussion of Malachi. Malachi wants his readers to know that the Old Testament is actually a book about Christ. People must learn to interpret the Law spiritually.

Perhaps Elijah will return in the last days to teach the ethnic Jews how to interpret the Law in light of Christ. Then these Jews will become incorporated into spiritual Israel. Christian end-times speculation has traditionally made a place for Elijah’s return.

20.30. Augustine admits that the Old Testament does not refer to Jesus by name as executing the Last Judgment, but he finds many hints and shadows that point to this truth which is found plainly in the New Testament. In his first coming, Jesus came to be judged on our behalf; in his second coming, he will judge all the nations on behalf of the Father.

Augustine closes the book with his own rough timeline of the end times. “Elijah the Tishbite will come; Jews will accept the faith; Antichrist will persecute; Christ will judge; the dead will rise again; the good and evil will be separated; the earth will be destroyed in flames and then will be renewed.” These events must happen, but he admits that we don’t know how they will happen or even if they will occur in that exact order.

City of God 21.1–22

21.1–3. In this second to last book, Augustine will discuss the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell. He begins by defending the notion that eternal bodily punishment is possible.

Some of his defense is no longer convincing, for example, appealing to the existence of the salamander which lives in fire. However, his idea that bodily and spiritual pain signify continued life rather than impending death is insightful.

21.4. Eternal fiery punishment in hell would be extraordinary since the body is not consumed by the fire and does not die because of the pain. Augustine, however, notes that many extraordinary things exist in this world.

He mentions many of the natural wonders of the world, e.g., volcanoes, charcoal, lime, diamonds, magnets. If these wonders exist, then why can’t an eternal place of punishment? This argument probably won’t persuade many modern readers. Science has either explained or debunked everything that Augustine lists. However, the natural world still contains a number of phenomena that are wondrous, for example the properties of light.

Augustine’s broader point still stands: just because we’re familiar with a phenomenon and have explained it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t wondrous. We’ve merely become desensitized to it.

Regarding Augustine’s primitive experiments with peacock meat, I assume that his result was due to the cooking method, not the peacock. Perhaps the meat was smoked.

21.5. Augustine continues his list of unexplainable marvelous things. He says that if his critics cannot believe in the Scriptures then they shouldn’t believe in these things as well. Augustine gets most of his list form Pliny’s Natural History, which had been written about 350 years before.

Of course, Augustine’s argument suffers since it turns out that none of these marvels actually exist. But on some level, his point still stands.

His critics would have also accepted Pliny’s catalog of marvels. Augustine’s complaint is that they are incredulous about Christian doctrine, but believe other marvelous things. Modern man has merely substituted a different set of marvels for Pliny’s. Life arises from non-living unguided processes? Ethics can be rooted in biology? Rationality is the product of irrational forces? These ideas might require more credulity than believing in a spring that’s cold during the day and hot at night.

21.6. Augustine says that credulity regarding the marvels of Pagan shrines isn’t a problem for Christians. Either clever humans or magical demons orchestrate these marvels.

Augustine views demonic activity in a nuanced manner. He’s not a skeptic, as some of his age and most modern-day readers would be. On the other hand, he’s not an enthusiast as other bishops of his generation were liable to be. The sermons of other bishops tend to credit the Devil and his minions with much power. We see that Augustine acknowledges demonic activity, but at the same time his theology proposes that the scope of demonic activity has been curtailed by the crucifixion and resurrection. Many of Augustine’s sermons show that he was more concerned about Christians battling their own wicked hearts rather than battling against wicked demons.

21.7. Augustine assures his readers that he doesn’t necessarily believe in all of the marvelous things that he’s recounted, except for a few that he’s personally witnessed.

His main point, however, is that an almighty God could do anything marvelous thing that he decreed, including eternal bodily punishment in hell.

This passage reminds me of Chesterton’s assertion in Orthodoxy that the natural order itself is a miracle. It’s just that we’ve stopped noticing.

21.8. Augustine’s main argument in this chapter is that since nature is directed by the will of God, nothing technically can be contrary to nature. Therefore, human bodies can exist in the fire and not be consumed if God wills it.

Augustine says even Pagans have written about Sodom. Here’s what Tacitus wrote about the area of Sodom around the year 100.

Not far from this lake lies a plain, once fertile, they say, and the site of great cities, but afterwards struck by lightning and consumed. Of this event, they declare, traces still remain, for the soil, which is scorched in appearance, has lost its productive power. Everything that grows spontaneously, as well as what is planted by hand, either when the leaf or flower have been developed, or after maturing in the usual form, becomes black and rotten, and crumbles into a kind of dust. I am ready to allow, on the one hand, that cities, once famous, may have been consumed by fire from heaven, while, on the other, I imagine that the earth is infected by the exhalations of the lake, that the surrounding air is tainted, and that thus the growth of harvest and the fruits of autumn decay under the equally noxious influences of soil and climate. The river Belus also flows into the Jewish sea. About its mouth is a kind of sand which is collected, mixed with nitre, and fused into glass. This shore is of limited extent, but furnishes an inexhaustible supply to the exporter. Histories 5.7

I believe Tacitus probably used Josephus as his source for this.

21.9–10. Augustine discusses whether the punishment in hell will be a literal flame or not. At many points in the Scriptures, especially regarding the end times, Augustine will interpret a passage in a more metaphorical or allegorical manner. Concerning the fires of hell, however, he maintains that real flames will burn human flesh without consuming it. He also prefers to imagine that the worm in hell will be a literal worm, but he says that one could reasonably believe that this refers to gnawing sorrow.

But if the flames burn the flesh of human bodies, what about the demons who don’t have human bodies? How will they suffer in hell? Either this fire will torment their bodies of air, or if demons are merely spirit, they will be joined with the fire in a manner that torments the spirit.

Augustine reminds his reader that final punishment is a miracle and that God the Creator is more than powerful enough to bring these things to pass.

21.11–12. Is eternal punishment fair? Shouldn’t a temporal sin have a punishment that is limited temporally? Augustine argues that even in human law codes there is little correlation between how long it took to sin and how long the punishment will last. Instead of arguing about the temporal duration of the sin, Augustine focuses on the magnitude of the sin. Turning away from an infinitely good God is infinitely evil and demands an infinite punishment.

He doesn’t even comment on particular sins but says that all people are liable for condemnation because of the guilt passed to them from Adam’s sin. The fact that God chooses to save some should cause people to marvel at his mercy. The fact that most people will be justly condemned should cause people to marvel at his vengeance.

21.13–14. He then attacks the position of the Platonists who say that punishment after death will purify the individual. Augustine allows for a purgatorial state after death in which Christians may experience punishments that purify and prepare them for eternity. He notes, however, that these punishments must be completed before the final judgment takes place. There can be no Purgatory after Christ’s Second Coming. But he says that most punishment after death will be aimed at retribution, not restoration.

Moreover, all of life is a punishment of sorts, because everyone is subject to temptation, foolishness, and ignorance.

21.15–16. This life is one in which we are exposed to constant temptations and conflict. These things point us to a better world to come. Christians manage to get through the conflict and the temptations by grace from God.

To escape the final judgment, one must be baptized and justified in Christ. Baptism alone doesn’t save. Augustine in other places mentions that there are many members of the visible church who are not citizens of the heavenly city.

Augustine also mentions that the eternal punishment will be worse for those people who are more wicked. He then mentions again purgatorial punishment for believers, but in this line he makes it sound like pain after death will only occur during that transformational moment of the resurrection of the dead which occurs before the Final Judgment.

21.17. Some people believe that hell is temporal punishment with a purgatorial function.

Augustine mentions Origen, the speculative theologian from the early third century. Origen’s theology mixes Christianity with Platonic idealism, and sometimes he seems more faithful to Plato than to the Bible. Origen suggested that even the Devil and his angels might be redeemed one day. Controversy over his writings erupted in the fourth century, and even Jerome experienced a bit of trouble because some church leaders accused him of being an Origenist. In 400 a council in Alexandria condemned Origen’s writings.

Origen based his doctrine of hell on philosophy, but according to Augustine, most people believe hell is not eternal out of compassion. Augustine notes that this compassion does not usually extend to the Devil, and he finds that to be an inconsistency. If you’re going to base your doctrine on compassion rather than revelation, you might as well be as compassionate as possible.

21.18–22. In these chapters, Augustine lists a number of people who seem to presume up on the mercy of God. Their lives are evil, but they still believe they will be saved. Maybe it’s because the saints will pray for them. Maybe it’s because they have been baptized. Maybe it’s because some occasional works of mercy will negate the punishment that they are due. In chapters remaining chapters of Book 21, Augustine will address these arguments and suggest why these people should have no confidence in their salvation.

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