City of God, Book 12: Good and Bad Angels

Augustine continues a discussion of a topic we rarely consider – the nature, creation, and destiny of the angels, good and bad angels.

The two cities which find their origin in man can already be seen, Augustine posits, in the angels. Good and bad angels did not have a different source, creation or nature, but differ as they exercise their wills and desires. One group finds delight in God and all he is; the other delights in their own power “as though they themselves were their own God.”

As God created the angels, it was their supreme good to adhere to Him. Those who are good angels followed their nature and did adhere to their Creator; the bad angels perverted their nature and did not. “When we say that it was fault, or perversion, in the angelic creation not to adhere to God, it shows quite plainly that adherence to him belongs to their nature.” These angels are enemies of God because it is their will to resist him, not because it is within their power to hurt him.

Natures, as created by God, are good, but the perversion of these natures is evil. Hence, evil cannot exist on its own – it’s parasitic (my word, not Augustine’s) in that evil relies on the existence of a nature that exists to pervert.

The ‘defects’ in the non rational parts of creation – trees, beasts and “other mutable and mortal beings” are not punishable, but instead contribute to the beauty of the lower parts of God’s universe (i.e. the changing of seasons, etc.). Those that are punishable, that exist in rational creatures, attest to the goodness of their natures. Since existence is good (preferable to non existence and rooted in God), we can conclude that all of nature’s substances are good.

When we ask “what caused the bad angels to will the evil?” we run into a dead end. Nothing causes a will. Augustine explains, “nothing causes an evil will, since it is the evil will that causes the evil act; and that means that the evil choice is the efficient cause of the evil act whereas there is no efficient cause of an evil choice; since if anything exists, it either has, or has not, a will.”

At first blush, this seems to be on the verge of a Manichean dualism – that there are two co-eternal wills – a good will and an evil will. But, Augustine claims that a bad will cannot exist in a bad nature – for badness, or evil, is the corruption of the good nature that exists. He questions, “How can a nature which is good, however changeable, before it has an evil will, be the cause of any evil, the cause, that is, of that evil will itself?” and concludes, “one should not try to find an efficient cause for a wrong choice. It is not a matter of efficiency, but of deficiency; the evil will itself is not effective, but defective.” More, trying to find the cause of such a defect is “like trying to see darkness or hear silence.”

In short, any failure is voluntary and not necessary, owing to the will and not to the [original] nature. Thus, it is punishable.

Considering the good will of the good angels, Augustine concludes that God created that in them. If not, then the angels produced the good will themselves, then they improved upon God’s creation. If they created it by themselves, did they do it by an act of the will? Augustine realizes this line of inquiry is fraught with problems and unproductive.

These good angels comprise a part of the City of God, while the other part of their company is still on pilgrimage on earth. All of mankind find its source in the first man, Adam. Augustine repudiates those who believe the earth and mankind have always existed and also those who contend that history goes through cycles of conflagrations and re-population. Augustine sides with those who, based on the testimony of Scripture, believe the earth is only a few thousand years old (6,000 in Augustine’s day) over against those who believe it has existed “for many thousands of years.” (Cheers from the young-earthers among us!)

Some wonder, if God only created 6,000 yrs ago, why not earlier? An interesting question, but an misunderstanding of God’s eternality. If God created 6,000,000 years ago, the same question could be asked – why not earlier? He urges us to consider “that nothing which has a limit of enormous duration, and that all the finite spaces of the ages, when compared with endless eternity, are to be counted not as very little, but as nothing at all.”

Those who contend for a cyclical view of history and even of individual souls which “pass away and come again in revolution” commit a crime against the bliss of the righteous. Augustine writes, “They are utterly unable to rescue the immortal soul from this merry-go-round, even when it has attained wisdom; it must proceed on an unremitting alternation between false bliss and genuine misery. For how can there be true bliss, without any certainty of its eternal continuance.” Some who claim the errant view look to Solomon’s words that “there is nothing new under the sun” as proof. Yet, Augustine contends that this is pushing the language beyond Solomon’s intent. Augustine pushes the reader to think about what this would mean for Christ, “who died once for all for sins” and “who having been raised from the dead, he is never to die again.” Moreover, the believer can take comfort in the truth that after our resurrection, “we shall be with the Lord forever.”

Wrestling with God’s determination to create and his immutability, Augustine confesses “it is certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alteration in his purpose and design.” This leads to another line of questioning. If God is eternally sovereign, yet there was a time when man and angel did not exist, who/what was subject to his sovereignty? Maybe angels existed with God for eternity? He rejects this if it means they were uncreated. But but considers if it’s possible they existed before time.

Honestly, it gets convoluted. He contends, in essence, that you can cannot say there was a time when time did not exist – that’s nonsense (self defeating). But you can say there was a time when this time did not exist, since this time was created. Likewise, angels could have existed in eternity before creation AND have been created. “They [angels] are said to have existed always because they have been for all time; and they have existed for all time because without them periods of time could not exist. For when there was no created thing whose change and movement could be the condition of time’s passage, time could not exist.” [Remember, Augustine believes that the creation of the lights to mark seasons and days in Genesis refers to the creation of angels].

This sentence may explode your brain, “Hence, if God has always been sovereign, he has always had a creation subject to his sovereignty, not begotten from him, but made by him out of nothing, and not co-eternal with him. He existed before his creation, although not in any time before it; he preceded it not by a transitory interval of time but in his abiding perpetuity.”

A paragraph later, he confesses his ignorance of ages which passed before creation, but is certain that no creature is co-eternal with God. He knows that no man existed before the first man was created. Those who speculate too much err because “they measure the utterly unchangeable mind of God, which can embrace any kind of infinity…they measure this mind by the standard of their own intellect, with its mutability and narrow finitude”. Sound like Luther to Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are too human.”

For us evangelicals, Augustine’s emphasis on the immutability of God sounds foreign. “We are forbidden,” he writes, “to suppose that God is in a different condition when he is at rest than when he is at work…Even if he rested and started work later (and I don’t know how man can understand this), this ‘first’ and ‘later’ refer, without doubt, to things which first did not exist and later came into existence. But in God there was no new decision which altered or cancelled a previous intention; instead, it was with one and the same eternal and unchanging design that he effected his creation.”

Interestingly, Augustine anticipates a form of ‘open theism’, contending against those who say that there are things not even God can know. Some would claim, in Augustine’s day, that even God cannot know the infinite. Augustine counters, “Does that mean that God does not know all numbers, since they are infinite?” Others say that unless things repeat in cycles, God cannot foreknow events (especially those events that flow from free choices of men). Augustine considers these statements blasphemous.

He returns again to dismiss, with great prejudice, the notion that souls cycle through stages of misery to bliss, back to misery. This too he dubs blasphemous – contrary to truth and unhelpful in producing genuine love for God, for we love less that which we know we’ll be torn away from eventually.

Shifting focus, Augustine asserts that God “created man’s nature as a kind of mean between angels and beasts.” If we stayed aligned/submitted to God, we “should pass over into the fellowship of the angels, attaining an immortality of endless felicity, without an intervening death; but if we used our free will in arrogance and disobedience, and thus offended God, his Lord, he should live like the beasts.”

God foresaw that man would fall into sin, be subject to death, and have progeny who also sinned and died. “But God also foresaw that by his grace a community of godly men was to be called to adoptions as his sons, and these men, with their sins forgiven, were to be justified by the Holy Spirit and then to enter into fellowship with the holy angels in eternal peace, when the ‘last enemy,’ death, has been destroyed.” So God created man in his image, endowing him with a soul. He created the human race from one man “to show to mankind how pleasing to him is unity in plurality.”

This creative work God did without material or without the help of angels or men. Importantly Augustine comments, “And so, whatever the physical or seminal causes that play their part in the production of living things, by the activities of angels or of men, or by the intercourse of male and female….it remains true that only God most high can create the actual natures which are thus affected in different ways, each in its own kind.”

Augustine continues his apologetic, asserting “These first works of God are, of course, unparalleled just because they are first. Those who refuse to believe in them ought to refuse credence to any extraordinary phenomena.” And beautifully, “No event is to no purpose under the all embracing government of God’s providence, even if the reason for it is hidden from us.”

The bishop concludes this book pointing out that in this first man, the two cities have their origin. For from this one man, all men come – some to join the company of evil angels in their punishment, others to be admitted to the company of good angels and their reward. “This was God’s decision, a just decree, however inscrutable to us.”