City of God, Book 20: Final Judgment

Augustine sets out in Book 20 to instruct the reader on the day of God’s final judgment from Scripture. In large part, the book is a series of expositions on relevant passages from both the New and Old Testaments. I will not, in the summary, rehash all of Augustine’s exposition, simply highlight the main points he establishes.

Augustine begins by asserting that the true church holds in common the belief that Christ will come again from heaven to judge the living and the dead. He clarifies that when we speak of “the day” of judgment, this should not be taken to mean a literal day, for “it is the normal use of those documents to use ‘day’ for ‘time’.” He reminds the reader that God is even now judging and has been doing so since he expelled our first parents from the Garden, barring their access to the Tree of Life. Our lives are filled with misery because God has judged mankind; and beyond this corporate judgement of the mass of humanity, he also judges the individual actions of humans now.

Though we do not see God’s just judgments on sinners now – wicked men do prosper – this does not evidence that God’s judgment is absent, but that it is inscrutable! In some ways, it would be easier on the believer if wicked men prospered in this life (without exception) and good men suffered (without exception). This would lead us to conclude that God is just and even benevolent – men who enjoy wickedness and ease now, suffer eternal punishment; whose good people who suffer now look forward to compensation in eternity. But the fact that good and wicked prosper, and good and wicked suffer in this life is difficult “and so the judgments of God become the more inscrutable and his ways the more untraceable.” On the great Day of the Lord, these judgments will be evident, seen to be perfect, and all questioning will cease.

Reflecting on this, Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes considers all things vanity. That is, until one considers the final judgment of God. What matters most in this life is one’s participation in true religion; thus, Solomon ends his book asserting, “Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole man; for God will bring up for judgment every action in this world, wherever any has been disregarded, whether good or evil.”

Augustine moves on to consider Jesus’ words regarding the final judgment which will be preceded by the resurrection of the dead. He looks closely at the parable of the wheat and tares and the role the disciples, not strictly the twelve, will have in judgment. He passes over a large number of texts that he considers ambiguous, meaning they may refer to the final judgment or to less ultimate judgments in the present or to the destruction of earthly Jerusalem.

Augustine distinguishes between the first resurrection and the second. The second resurrection is a bodily resurrection and comes at the end of the world while the first resurrection has already come and “is not of the body, but of the soul.” He explains, “For souls also have their own death, in the shape of irreligion and sin, the death referred to by the Lord when he says ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’, that is, ‘Let those who are dead in the soul bury those who are dead in the body.'” It is this death that Paul speaks of when he says all men are dead in sin, “and for all these dead, there died the one man truly alive, that is, the one who had no sin at all.” The first resurrection occurs when the elect pass from this spiritual death to life, “for in this first resurrection only those take part who will be blessed for eternity, whereas in the second, about which Jesus is soon to speak, he will teach us that the blessed and the wretched alike will take part.” The blessed are raised to eternal life, the wretched to eternal condemnation. Anyone who does not want to experience this second death, which follows the second resurrection and consists in eternal condemnation, must “rise up in the first resurrection.” Augustine certainly seems to promote baptismal regeneration when he writes, “There are thus two rebirths, of which I have already spoken above: one according to faith, which comes here and now through baptism, and the other in the body, a rebirth which will come in its freedom from decay and death, as a result of the great and last judgment.” He continues, distinguishing rebirth from resurrection, “Similarly there are two resurrections: the first, the resurrection of the soul which is here and now, and prevents us from coming to the second death; and the second, which is not now but is to come at the end of the world.” I’m not sure I follow in differentiating rebirth and resurrection in this way, nor do I follow Augustine in connecting rebirth and baptism, unless one is speaking by way of metonymy/synecdoche where the part, baptism, stands for the whole, conversion.

Augustine traces this theology through John’s Apocalypse which he contends has been misunderstood by “some of our own people” and turned into “ridiculous fables.” These people, based on Revelation 20, have assumed “that the first resurrection will be a bodily resurrection” and “are particularly excited by the actual number of a thousand years, taking it as appropriate that there should be a kind of Sabbath for the saints for all that time, a holy rest, that is, after the labours of the six thousand years since man’s creation.” He says this would be tolerable if they believed the Sabbath delights were spiritual in nature, but they insist they are material and earthly. These people he labels Chialists or Millenarians, and he suggests it would take too long to refute their error, instead, he aims to show what Revelation 20 really teaches.

Going back to Jesus’ statement that a house cannot be plundered unless the strong man is bound, he asserts that Satan has been bound already, a key to interpreting Revelation 20 correctly. Christ has put “a bridle and check” on the devil’s power to hold humanity in captivity and “the property that Christ was to carry off represents those whom the Devil held in his possession, but they were to become Christ’s faithful followers.” He suggests the thousand years can be interpreted in two ways. First, “it may indicate that this event happens in the last thousand years, that is, in the sixth millennium, the sixth day, as it were, of which the latter stretches are now passing, and a Sabbath is to follow that has no evening, the rest, that is to say, of the saints, which has no end.” “Alternatively,” writes Augustine, “he may have intended the thousand years to stand for the whole period of this world’s history, signifying the entirety of time by a perfect number.”

Certainly, the devil still deceives and leads astray, “but not those peoples destined for everlasting life.” Moreover, we should not be disturbed when the devil leads astray “even those who have already been reborn in Christ and are walking in the ways of God” because this will not prove, in the end, to be a final, eternal falling for those genuinely of the Lord, “for the Lord knows those who belong to him, and the devil leads none of them astray into eternal condemnation.” So the binding of Satan does not completely limit his activity, but so that “he may no longer lead astray the nations of which the Church is made up, nations whom he led astray and held in his grip before they were a Church.”

When Satan is loosed, Augustine takes note that the church will still be on the earth. It will not have faded away or been taken away. Satan’s loosing does not mean that he will be able to lead astray those who truly belong to Christ, but he will lead the nations into making war against the church – widespread, universal persecution of the church is to be expected. At the last judgment, Satan is thrown into the Lake of Fire to be punished eternally. So, in summary, “The Devil is bound throughout the whole period embraced by the Apocalypse, that is, from the first coming of Christ to the end of the world, which will be Christ’s second coming, and the meaning of the binding is not that he ceases to seduce the Church during that interval period called the ‘thousand years’, as is shown by the fact that when unloosed he is evidently not destined to lead it astray.”

When Satan is loosed, it is for a short time (3 1/2 yrs), to vent his full ferocity. In this, the saints see the power of God, who shielded them from this terrible power and ultimate defeats so terrible an enemy on their behalf. When loosed, he will lead some Christians astray, but “they will not be people belonging to the predestined number of the sons of God.”

During this present period, the thousand years, Christ reigns with his saints, though in a far inferior way to their reign in eternity. To those who would deny this, he asks “if there is no reign, how can their be a kingdom?” The kingdom of God is a present reality, thus the saints and Christ reign together in some sense. At present, tares grow alongside the wheat in the kingdom, but although they are in the Church together, the tares cannot be said to be reigning, only feigning to reign. “Ultimately,” asserts Augustine, “those people reign with him who are in his kingdom in such a way that they themselves are his kingdom.” This kingdom is, presently, a kingdom at war, as the Apocalypse makes clear – at war with its vices, and opposed by the enemy. This kingdom, the Church, includes the living faithful and the souls of the departed saints.

Augustine defends this interpretation against those who contend that resurrection must be bodily in every instance, and hence the first resurrection must be a bodily resurrection. He argues from Scripture that the apostle Paul uses the concept of resurrection, if not the exact word, in several places to signify a spiritual resurrection. In particular, he points the reader to Colossians 3:1, Romans 6:4, and Ephesians 5:14 where saints are said to “risen with Christ,” “walk in a new way of life” just a Christ “rose from the dead,” and “arise from the dead.”

Augustine also denies that the final battle, the battle of God and Magog, will be a localized battle in a certain place, asserting “it clearly does not mean that they have come, or will come, to one place, as if the camp of the saints and the beloved City are to be in some one place. For these are simply the Church of Christ spread all over the world…thus, the City will be hemmed in, hard-pressed, shut up, in the straits of tribulation, yet it will not abandon its warfare which is here called ‘the camp.'” The fire that consumes them is the zeal of the Church which is God’s gift to the Church. After this, those who waged war against the church will be thrown into the fire of the final judgment.

Augustine moves on to treat the passing away of this world and the coming of the new heavens and new earth. He contends that the physical universe will pass away “by a transformation …not by its annihilation.” Later he writes, “the form of this world will pass away in a blazing up of the fires of the world, just as the Deluge was caused by the overflowing of the waters of the world.” The corruptible elements of this world, which were fitting for use by our corruptible bodies, will utterly perish and by a “miraculous transformation” become suited to our incorruptible bodies. Here, the glorious City will be seen coming down from heaven, “because the grace by which God created it is heavenly.” This City has been coming down since the beginning, “from the time its citizens began to increase,” but in the final age, the glories of the City will be manifest. To interpret this as limited to the thousand years is an “excessive effrontery,” for there is an eternal permanence to it. The promises regarding no sorrow, no mourning, no death, certainly cannot apply to the kingdom as it now exists, but only the final form of the kingdom.

Regarding the Antichrist, Augustine acknowledges that there are parts of the NT witness where the meaning of the authors “completely escapes me.” He seems to suggest the that antichrist will set up his throne in the church and lead many false Christians away until they “constitute a great people for Antichrist.” While there are different interpretations of these “obscure words” the general meaning is clear enough: “Christ will not come to judge the living and the dead without the prior coming of his adversary, Antichrist, to seduce those who are dead in soul – although their seduction depends on the judgment of God, which is now concealed.”

Augustine wrestles with how those living bodily will be transformed at the coming of Christ when they are caught up in the air with him, for how will they shed their corruptible bodies without dying. He, and I part with him here, believes the being caught up involves a death, though a very brief death which he believes is in keeping with the scriptural teaching that “the seed you sow does not come to life unless it first dies.” He concludes, “just as they will die in the actual process of being caught up, so they will also rise again while they are being borne up into the air.”

This is the basic outline of Augustine’s eschatology. The next forty or so pages of Book 20 are expositions of prophetic passages from Isaiah, Daniel, Malachi, the Psalms, and other relevant NT passages that shed light on these OT prophecies. There are interesting discussions that I will not recount here on the coming of Elijah, sacrifices, and other tidbits.

The Book closes with Augustine making the case that, though the OT doesn’t name Christ explicitly, it is clear that the OT prophecies regarding future/final judgment point to Christ as the one who comes and judges. “So,” he writes, “when we read in the prophetic books that God is to come to execute the last judgment we are bound to take it that Christ is meant, even though there is no other indication of him, simply because it is the judgment; because although the Father will judge, it is through the coming of the Son of Man that he will execute judgment.”

On the last page, Augustine gives us a rundown of final events as he sees them:

“…Elijah the Tishbite will come; Jews will accept the faith; Antichrist will persecute; Christ will judge; the dead will rise again; the good and the evil will be separated; the earth will be destroyed in flames and then will be renewed. All these events, we must believe, will come about; but in what way, and in what order they will come, actual experience will then teach us with a finality surpassing anything our human understanding is now capable of attaining. However, I consider that these events are destined to come about in the order I have given.”

Augustine, yeah, he was an amillennialist.

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