City of God, Book 21: Eternal Punishment

The entirety of Augustine’s Book 21 is devoted to defending the reality and the justice of eternal punishment. This book roughly breaks down into two parts: the first part addresses the objections of unbelievers to the doctrine of eternal punishment (ch. 2-16) and the second part addresses errors of “compassionate Christians who refuse to believe the punishment of hell will be everlasting” (ch.17-27).

Augustine begins by wrestling with the objection that material bodies cannot endure fire without being consumed, thus the wicked who have been raised to life to face condemnation cannot reasonably be thought to endure fire eternally. Further, these objectors contend that no body can endure eternal pain without dying. Based on our experience, this is a reasonable conclusion, but Augustine points out “men have acquaintance solely with mortal flesh, and so they judge anything to be utterly impossible that does not fall within their experience.” More, Augustine turns the argument on its head, suggesting that, while his detractors use pain as evidence of death, it ought to be seen as proof of life. As long as pain endures, we can be assured that life is present. In the life hereafter, the body and soul will be bound together in such a way that no measure of time can separate them nor can any measure of pain. This is possible because “there will then be flesh of such a kind as does not now exist” and similarly “a death of such a kind as does not now exist”, for the second death will be an everlasting death and a death that does not separate body and soul. In addition, Augustine uses the soul in his argument, suggesting we do not consider it a contradiction to affirm the soul feels pain and is also immortal, so asserting bodies can feel pain and will be immortal is not necessarily a contradiction.

The next few pages are, if I’m honest, a bit odd. Augustine looks to the natural world for examples of flesh that survives torture. He points to the salamander which, it was believed, could live in fire. Also, the flesh of the peacock resists putrefaction. He looks to the mystery of lime, the toughness of diamonds, the wonder of loadstone – all things which defy explanation (at that time). These wonders are accepted without rational proof, yet skeptics demand proof that resurrected bodies can survive eternal flame. He adds more wonders to the list before stating “these and other innumerable marvels are to be found not in the records of things past and done but in the accounts of places in the present world…but the unbelievers should give a rational account of them, if they can, since they refuse to believe in the inspired Scriptures…because of the incredibly statements contained in them.”

The crux of the matter is a belief, or refusal to believe, in an omnipotent God. “We should have maintained,” he writes, “that our rational belief was unshaken, that the Almighty does not act irrationally in cases where the feeble human mind cannot give a rational explanation; and that in many matters, certainly, we are uncertain of God’s will; and yet one thing is utterly certain, that nothing that he wills is impossible for him, for we cannot believe that God is impotent, or that God is a liar.”

Augustine looks at the tales of wonder recorded in the pagan books. While some of his opponents will deny that those marvels ever happened, Augustine takes a different tact. He contends that either they did happen by the power of demons, or demons deceived men and gave them the illusion that these marvels actually happened. “And if foul demons have such power,” asserts Augustine, “how much greater is the power of the holy angels, and how much greater than all of them is the power of God, who has given even the angels themselves the ability to work such great miracles.” Belief in God’s unlimited power is the basis for believing in the resurrection and that the bodies of the damned will suffer eternal torment. Augustine writes, “since God is the author of all natures…when they refuse to believe something, alleging its impossibility, and demand that we supply a rational explanation, we reply that the explanation is the will of Almighty God.”

Augustine points to man’s constitution before sin and shows that it was possible for man’s flesh, as it was created, to “never suffer death.” His opponents, he acknowledges, will reject this because they reject our sacred Scriptures. Yet, the accept Varro who reports on phenomenon and portents that are contrary to nature. Still, his opponents might not accept the veracity of Varro’s reports, even though he is considered to be one of the most learned historians. So, Augustine points to present realities that demonstrate God has changed the nature of something. He points to Sodom, a region that was once known for its plenty and fertility, but now “after it was smitten from heaven” is a place “of horror, a portent of soot and ashes, and its apples present a delusive appearance of ripeness on their surface, but inside they hold nothing but dust.” His point in this is to show that “just as it was not impossible for God to set in being natures according to his will, so it is afterwards not impossible for him to change those natures which he has set in being, in whatever way he chooses.”

There are elements of how God works that will remain mysterious to us, for according the 1 Corinthians 13:9, “our knowledge is partial, until perfection comes” (this is an interesting side note – for Augustine, this “perfection” of Paul has yet to come, while for many later theologians, this perfection has already come and is a reference to the completion of the canon).

He proceeds to deal with another objection from his unbelieving opponents. How, they wonder, can a fire meant to torment material flesh also punish spiritual beings like demons? Augustine suggests, citing other “learned men” that demons have a flesh of their own, though not exactly like human flesh. If someone denies demons have a sort of body, Augustine won’t belabor the debate. But, he suggests, that like man’s soul, which is immaterial but now bound to our body, a demon’s immaterial existence can be bound to material flesh as part of the final judgment, so that it can experience the torments of eternal fire. This is amazing, but not difficult of God.

Continuing to anticipate objections, Augustine raises one that critics still raise frequently today. How can God justly punish temporal sins for an eternity? His reply is a bit exasperated, “as if the justice of any law at any time consisted in its concern that the length of the punishment of the offender should be equal to the length of time of the offense!” A robbery or a homicide may take just minutes, but such crimes are punished by long imprisonments or death (with is irreversible). Eternal punishment seems harsh to us because, in our feeble-minded condition we do not see the magnitude of our offense. Pointing to our first parent, Adam, Augustine asserts, “For the more intimate the first man’s enjoyment of God, the greater his impiety in abandoning God. By o doing he merited eternal evil, in that he destroyed in himself a good that might have been eternal. In consequence, the whole of mankind is a ‘condemned lump.'”

Out of this “condemned lump”, God chose to save some. In so doing, we see his great mercy and unfathomable grace. But, he didn’t choose to save all. Had he, we would not know his awesome holiness and terrible wrath, and we may conclude that God was obliged to save all.

This punishment after death is not, as the Platonists believe, merely a purification that will end when all imperfections are removed. Interestingly, Augustine does accept that for some, there may be purification by fire after death, writing, “Not all men who endure temporal pains after death come into those eternal punishments, which are to come after that judgment. Some, in fact, will receive forgiveness in the world to come for what is not forgiven in this…so that they may not be punished with the eternal chastisement of the world to come.” So in between someone’s death and the final judgement, there may be a period of purgation, though Augustine offers no biblical basis for this belief.

There is a sense in which “the heavy yoke laid on Adam’s sons” from birth “induces us to live soberly and to realize that because of the first and supremely grace sin, committed in paradise, this life has been made a life of punishment for us, and that all the provisions of the new covenant refer only to our new inheritance in the world to come.” Augustine will have nothing of an overly realized eschatology! At present we live in hope, hope as sons adopted into God’s family by grace. This hope is possible because God’s own natural son

“while continuing changeless, took our nature to himself from us so that in that nature he might take us to himself; and while retaining his divinity he became partaker of our weakness. His purpose was that we should be changed for the better and by participation in his immortality and his righteousness should lose our condition of sinfulness and mortality, and should retain the good that he did while in our nature, perfected by the supreme good in the goodness of his nature.”

I love this section that speaks so profoundly to our union with Christ. This union will lead to a perfect peace as we ascend to Christ’s perfection at the end of the age. But now, we are at war – mainly with our selves and our human/sinful nature. But, this state of war is better than our earlier state when we were at peace with our sin but alienated from God, “for it is better to struggle against vices than to be free from conflict under the dominion.” This war will continue until our last breathe, and we must ever be aware that “obvious vices are overcome by vices so masked that they are reputed virtues.”

At this point, Augustine turns his attention to those “compassionate Christians” who would deny the eternality of the final punishment. Some of these assert that the punishments doled out on the final day will be shorter or longer depending on the severity of the sins committed. Origen is mentioned as one who believes that everyone, including the Devil himself, will eventually be redeemed after having suffered a long time for his rebellion. He notes that the church has rejected Origen’s teaching and his “theory of the incessant alternations of misery and bliss, the endless shuttling to and fro between those states at predetermined epochs” (Origen believed saints could/would fall even in the eternal state, and that those condemned to hell could/would find repentance).

Setting aside Origen, Augustine wrestles with the more common notion that, while the saints will enjoy eternal, unending life, those consigned to punishment will experience only temporal pains that will come to an end. Augustine suggests, in a tongue in cheek manner, that if this position is true because it’s more compassionate, then “it will be the better and the truer the more compassionate it is.” So, he continues, “let the fountain of compassion be deepened and enlarged until it extends as far as the evil angels.” Some had suggested that the wicked would be spared from eternal tortures by the prayers of the righteous. As the saints are more and more perfected, they are more and more filled with Christ like compassion and less prone to vengeance. They will intercede on behalf of the lost, and certainly God will listen to the pleas of his children, or so their argument goes. Those who hold this view contend that the passages of Scripture which speak of eternal punishment are meant merely as a stark warning to convince men to amend their lives before it is too late. Most in this camp do not extend this exemption from damnation to the Devil and his evil angels.

Others do not extend this mercy to all men, but to those who have been grafted into Christ and his body by baptism and partaking of the Eucharist. These teachers contend that vile, wicked men, even blatant heretics, will be saved because Jesus promised “anyone who has eaten of this bread will not die.” Still others restrict this promise only to Catholics (not schismatics) who continue in their union with the Body of Christ, but it includes even those who “fall into some kind of heresy or even into pagan idolatry; and yet, simply because in the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church, they have received Christ’s baptism and have eaten Christ’s Body, they will not die eternally, but will in the end attain to life everlasting; and all their irreligion, whatever its degree of gravity, will not be enough to make their punishment eternal; it can only increase the length and severity of their chastisement.” There seems to have been a version of “once-saved-always-saved” easy-believism even in Augustine’s day, and he vehemently opposed it. Other deny that heretics can claim this, for they have been cut off from Christ’s Body and have not built with Christ as their foundation. Lastly, there are some who suggest that “the only sinners who will burn in an eternity of punishment are those who omit to perform works of mercy as a fitting atonement for their sins.”

The remaining pages, twenty or so, are given to refuting those “compassionate Christians” and their erroneous views regarding the final judgment. To begin, Augustine simply quotes Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:41 regarding those cast away “into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels” and concludes that this is “a clear indication that the Devil and his angels are to burn in eternal fire.” He believes that attempts to navigate around this end up weakening our faith, for if men are not subjected to eternal punishment, though thrown into the eternal fire, then how can we be certain the Devil will not be released also. And if wicked men are released or the Devil is released, how can we believe anything God has said when he clearly said they’d be in fire for eternity. Either they are, or God was wrong/a liar. Moreover, the eternal life of blessedness is laid alongside the eternal death of judgment in parallel, so how can we say one is unending while the other simply lasts a long time. Both are described as eternal.

To refute those who suggest God will spare men from eternal punishment in response to the prayers of the saints, Augustine asserts that the saints will pray for no such thing. We pray now for the wayward because there is time and they may alter their path and choose to side with God. But at the final judgement, there is no such possibility. Christians do not pray now for demons, for they are God’s enemies. Nor, in the future, will we pray for those who have clearly revealed themselves to be God’s enemies by rejecting him and his grace through their life. Augustine does allow for prayer to be offered for the departed/deceased, not for infidels or irreligious, but only for those “who have been reborn in Christ and whose life in the body has not been so evil that they are judged unworthy of such mercy, and yet not so good that they are seen to have no need of it.” This is a truly odd position, in my opinion. His bases for this is the phrasing of Matthew 12:32 in which Jesus says that some people will not be forgiven in this life nor in the age to come. This, he contends, could not be said “unless there were some who receive forgiveness in the age to come though not in this age.” So some, after death, experience punishment for a while, but will not experience eternal punishment in the age to come.

He continues, pointing to the apostles words in Galatians 5 that those who do evil will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Augustine points out that, if the “compassionate Christians” are correct, then Paul must be wrong, for they do, in fact, inherit the kingdom after a period of punishment. Regarding wicked men, heretics, and schismatics who have been baptized and taken part of the Body of Christ, Augustine asserts, “such a man may be said in truth to eat the body of Christ and to drink Christ’s blood. It follows that heretics and schismatics, being separated from the unity of this Body, are able to take the same sacrament; but it is not for their profit. No, indeed; it is for their harm.” So far from providing unwarranted solace to the evil man, partaking of holy things only heightens their culpability and the severity of their punishment. Augustine would make many a good evangelical squirm with his words, “Hence, those people who continue to the end of their lives in the fellowship of the Catholic Church have no reason to feel secure, if their moral behavior is disreputable and deserving of condemnation.”

But, the “compassionate Christian” objects, the Catholic Christian has Christ as their foundation and will be saved as through fire, even if the wood, hay and stubble of their life is burnt up. But, Augustine corrects, the one who has Christ as his foundation has him in his heart as his first love. If this is true, then evil deeds cannot be the pattern of life. Moreover, the fire which the apostle Paul speaks of in this passage is not the fires of eternal punishment, but the refiners fire.

To those who contend that works of mercy will atone for persistent wickedness, Augustine points out that “a man of great wealth could atone for homicide, adultery and every crime in the calendar by laying out a shilling a day in works of charity.” The poor man isn’t so lucky. Augustine does believe we ought to do works of mercy, and the greater our crimes, the more works we should seek to do. But these do not pay our way out of eternal fire. In addition, he suggests that acts of mercy should begin with oneself, and cutting off sin is a great act of mercy! No one, he argues, can truly love Christ if he avoids being made righteous like Christ.

Augustine moves on to consider the Lord’s Prayer, specifically the petition “forgive us our debts” and the additional phrase “as we forgive our debtors.” He asserts that this petition is made daily “because sins are committed, not in order that we should commit sins because it was said.” He does, in a causal way, connect our forgiveness of offenses committed against us with our receiving forgiveness from God.

I have read and reread the last few pages of Book 21 trying to make sure I’m understanding Augustine correctly. He seems to suggest that there are those who will be welcomed into eternal life based on the compassion of extraordinarily holy saints. He writes, “For those righteous ones have lived such holy lives that they receive ‘into everlasting dwelling’ other people as well who have ‘made them their friends by means of the worldly wealth of unrighteousness’ [citing Luke 16:9]; and they have attained this righteousness because they have they have been delivered by the compassion of him who justifies the wicked by reckoning the reward on the basis not of debt but of grace.” He continues, “On the other hand, those who are ‘received’ by those justified souls ‘into everlasting dwelling’ are not, it must be admitted, endowed with the moral character that would make it possible for their manner to be enough to fit them for deliverance without the intercession of the saints.” Being received into eternal life in such a way cannot be made to apply to grave criminals simply because they used their ill-gained wealth to serve the saints. He concludes, “There must therefore be a kind of life that is not so evil that generosity cannot help those who live in that way towards the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven, and yet not so good that it is in itself sufficient for the achievement of that supreme felicity, if such people do not meet with compassion through the merits of those whose friendship they have won.” He goes on to admit he cannot define this kind of life and that it is perilous to guess as to what kind of sins could be grievous enough to prevent one from attaining the Kingdom on their own, but not so grievous that the person could attain pardon through the prayers/merit of a holy friend. But, he concludes, even in this case, it is not that a man is thrown into the eternal fires of hell to be released because of the prayers/merit of a holy friend, but that they are spared from being cast into those flames at the final judgment.

This book was both extremely helpful in dealing with the ongoing questions related to the nature of justice of eternal punishment and extremely difficult to grapple with because of the foreign sounding soteriology. Certainly, Augustine was no champion of easy believism or cheap grace. But, the vocabulary of merit and earning are challenging for this Reformed child of the Protestant Reformation – especially the final pages where eternal life could be merited for one sinner by another slightly more holy sinner. I understand his take on passages like Luke 16:9, but believe his is pressing the meaning of this passage and others too far.