City of God, Book 13: Better than Adam ever was

Book 13 is given to the topic of man’s mortality and the nature of death. Augustine dissects the difference between angels and men, “The condition of human being was such that if they continued in perfect obedience they would be granted the immortality of the angels and an eternity of bliss, without the interposition of death, whereas if disobedient they would be justly condemned to the punishment of death.”

While we talk of the immortality of the soul, Augustine contends that there is a type of death that impacts the soul. The death of the soul happens when God abandons it, but even here, it is not devoid of living and feeling. The body, however, is mortal and there is a time when the body is absent all life and feeling. The death of the whole person happens when the soul, abandoned by God, leaves the body. This death, when the soul leaves the body, is the “first death”.

The second death follows, but not until the “body and soul have been so combined that they cannot be sundered or separated.” In this “last condemnation”, the soul continues to feel, but having been separated from God, it feels not pleasure or delight or health, but only the “anguish of punishment.” The first death “is good for the good, but bad for the bad. But the second death does not happen to any of the good, and without a doubt it is not good for anyone.”

Augustine wrestles with the implications of what he has said, namely that death is good for the good. If this is so, he wonders, how can it be said that death is punishment for sin? Our first parents, Augustine reasons, were created so that they would not have, had they remained obedient, experience any kind of death. But having sinned, they became subject to death and their progeny, coming from them and sharing their nature, are also subject to death. “He produced offspring in the same condition to which his fault and its punishment had reduced him.”

An interesting side note: Augustine here inserts an assertion without argumentation. The assertion, “But if infants are released from the body of sin through the grace of Christ the Mediator, they can only suffer the death which separates soul from body; they do not pass on to that second death…since they have been freed from the entanglement of sin.” This seems to be an assertion of the “age of accountability” notion.

Continuing the line of question, Augustine queries why, if death is the penalty for sin, do those whose sins have been absolved still suffer death? The short answer is, “the experience of the separation of soul from body remains [even for those whose sins are absolved], although its connection with guilt is removed, because if the immortality of the body followed immediately upon the sacrament of regeneration , faith itself would be weakened, since faith is only faith when what is not yet seen in reality is awaited in hope.” As it stands for those of faith, “the punishment of sin has been turned by the great and wonderful grace of our Savior to a good use, to the promotion of righteousness.” Moreover, “God has granted to faith so great a gift of grace that death, which all agree to be the contrary of life, has become the means by which men pass into life.”

Still, Augustine isn’t pollyannaish about death. He says that death, the separation of the body and soul, is not good for anyone as it experienced by those who are, as we say, dying.” So, in this sense, it is still punishment for all those who are born in Adam, “yet it becomes glory for those who are reborn.”

The author engages in a lengthy discussion of those who die for the faith as martyrs but without having been “reborn in baptism.” Here he claims that their death for confessing Christ “is of the same value for the remissions of sins as if they had been washed in the sacred font of baptism.” They have more merit by dying for their confession than they would have had if they’d delayed their death (by refusing to confess Christ) and receiving baptism later.

The souls of the righteous, after having been separated from their bodies, are at rest while they await the resurrection, while the souls of the wicked are paying the penalty for their sins while they await the rising of their bodies to be consigned to the eternal, second death.

A very interesting, but obscure, few pages follow on the meaning of the words death and dying. When is someone dying? Aren’t we all dying since we’re moving closer to death every minute? Can someone be both living and dying? In the end, he says that while the conventional way of speaking about dying and ‘after death’, etc. aren’t precise, it is better to stick with conventional language.

When God threatened the first man with death, it was total death – death of soul, death of body, and death of whole person (death of soul & body). Augustine reminds us that the soul was not forsaken by God first. The soul of man, “it first forsook; then it was forsaken.” Then, the soul forsakes the body after the body is “worn out with the passage of time and exhausted with the weight of years.” This is the death which God spoke of when he said ,”You are earth, and into earth you will go.” Thus is the death of the whole person finished, but this is only the first death. “This is followed in the end by the second death, unless a man is set free by grace.”

Augustine spends the next few pages dealing with Platonic philosophers who contend that the soul’s escape from the body is not penal, but perfect bliss. These philosophers assert that the body is a burden to the soul, a burden that keeps the soul from ascending. Augustine corrects: the body as such is not a burden, but the corruptible body which we now have is. In addition, he points out a flaw in the philosophers reasoning, for the gods they revere are embodied, not disembodied. Against the claim that bodies cannot be immortal, Augustine retorts, “Are we to suppose that his power does not extend as far as Christians believe, but only as far as the Platonists are ready to allow? Those philosophers, to be sure, were able to know God’s purpose and power, but the prophets could not! In fact the contrary is true. The prophets were taught by God’s Spirit , so that they could make known his purpose.” Pressing further, Augustine points out that human intellect can invent ways for making objects float in water, even out of materials that sink immediately. “How much more credible is it that God should operate more effectively in some unexplained way” and make bodies immortal and able to ascend into the heavens.

While we do not doubt for a moment that the souls of the righteous live in a state of rest when separated from the body; still, “they would be in a better state if they were living in conjunction with their bodies in perfect health.” Thus, the saint looks forward to the resurrection with patient longing. The resurrection body will be better yet than a body in perfect health, even better than the first man’s body before he fell into sin. Adam had an “animal body”, not yet a “spiritual body”. It was still subject to hunger and thirst and fatigue. True, it would not have grown old and feeble, but this was “by the wonderful grace of God, and was derived from the tree of life.” The tree of life arrested the process of dying in our first parents and was “a kind of sacrament.”

Augustine here takes a detour to engage with allegorical interpretations of the Paradise of Eden. It’s an interesting section, but his conclusion is that the allegorical interpretations can be useful so long as “we believe in the truth of the story as faithful record of historical fact.”

Unlike our first parents, the resurrected saints will not need a tree to preserve them against death, nor food or drink to sustain them. If they eat, it will be for the joy of eating. This was not Adam’s condition, but was “reserved for him after he had merited it by obedience.” When they disobeyed, they continued in their animal bodies, never attaining to their spiritual bodies, but now without the aide of the tree of life. This is the body we retain now, but that will transformed in the eschaton. Of this the apostles speaks when he says “It [the animal body/earthly body] is sown in corruption: it will rise in incorruption; it was sown in humiliation: it will rise in glory; it is sown in weakness: it will rise in power; it is sown and animal body: it will rise a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). Jesus condescended and took on the natural body, but was raised in a spiritual body as the first-fruit of all those who are in Him.

Augustine is clearly not a universalist. Not even an optimist. He is strong on this “does not mean that all who die in Adam will be members of Christ, for the great majority of them will be punished with the second death which is forever.”

Adam’s original body was not incapable of death. Our new spiritual bodies given at the resurrection will be. Gloriously, Augustine points us to the great improvement of our new bodies, “But men who are in teh sphere of God’s grace, who are fellow-citizens of the holy angels who live in continual bliss, will be equipped with spiritual bodies in such a way that they will sin no more, nor will they die. The immortality with which they are clothed will be like that of the angels, an immortality which cannot be taken away by sin; and though the natural substance of flesh will continue, no slightest trace of carnal corruptibility or lethargy will remain.”