City of God, Book 22: Eternal Felicity

Having devoted the entirety of Book 21 to eternal judgment, Augustine balances the end of his tome with a Book devoted entirely to the “eternal bliss of the City of God.” It is called eternal because the kingdom will have no end, nor will any of its citizenry, obtaining to the immortality the angels have never lost. This will most certainly come to pass because God has promised it and God will achieve it.

The God who guarantees this is the same God who created all things, including his “spirits, to whom he gave intelligence, making them capable of contemplating him.” These spirits, men and angel, he bound together “in one fellowship, which we call the Holy and Heavenly City, in which God himself is for those spirits the means of their life and their felicity…their common life and food.” To these spirits he gave the power of free choice, enabling them to desert God and “abandon their felicity.” God foreknew that some would forsake him and their true good, “and yet he did not deprive them of this power, judging it an act of greater power and greater goodness to bring good even out of evil than to exclude the existence of evil.” Far from proving a defect in God’s creation, the fall proves the original goodness of God’s creation “for if it had not itself been a great good, although not equal to the Creator, then assuredly this apostasy from God, as from their light, could not have been their evil…Blindness is a defect of the eye, and that in itself indicates that the eye was created for seeing…in the same way, the nature which enjoyed God proves that it was created excellent by that very defect.”

To the angels who rebelled, he consigned them to eternal judgement and misery. To the angels who remained constant in their goodness, God confirmed them and “gave the certainty of their endless continuance therein, as the reward for that continuance.”

Likewise, God, having given man the power of choice, foresaw that he would fall, yet did not deprive man of the choice, knowing “the good that he was to bring out of man’s evil…God by his grace is gathering a people so great that from them he may fill the place of the fallen angels and restore their number.” In fact, Augustine asserts, “Evil men do many things contrary to the will of God; but so great is his wisdom, and so great his power, that all things which seem to oppose his will tend towards those results or ends which he himself has foreknown as good and just.”

This God never changes, but at times appears to change to man’s experience. In these cases, it is man who changes and thus their experience of God changes. For the next page or so, Augustine explores different ways we speak of the will of God. Because of the various ways of speaking of God’s will, we can speak in ways that seem contradictory saying that in one way, God will something that he doesn’t will in another. For example, God wills that that saints pray for others that they would be saved (“God wills what he causes others to will”) but in some instances he does not will that this particular person be saved (He does not effect it). God has made all things, past, present and future that he willed to make. “He has already made things that are yet to be,” writes Augustine. These things already made will happen when God’s will that they happen. Thus, the promise of a new heavens and new earth will be revealed when God wills it, just as the promises made to Abraham that the nations would be saved through him was completed in Christ when God willed it.

Augustine shifts gears and takes up to defend the possibility that earthly bodies could enjoy heaven. This he refutes by showing that immaterial souls are bound to material bodies already. He argues, “if it is the will of the same God who made this living creature, cannot an earthly body be raised up to a heavenly body, if the soul, which belongs to a more exalted order of being than any body, even a heavenly body, could be linked with an earthly body?” Furthermore, he refutes those who deny the resurrection of the body to eternal life by pointing to the fact of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, which he asserts is already believed the world over. Our resurrection will follow the pattern of Christ’s. This fact, that the world has heard and accepted this message, is almost beyond belief because the message was entrusted to but a few men, and uneducated, low born fisherman at that.

Augustine continues, contrasting the god Romulus with Christ. Citing Cicero, Augustine demonstrates “The Romans made Romulus a god because they loved him; the Church loved Christ because it believed him to be God.” This belief of the church is demonstrated true by virtue of the miracles Christ performed and the prophecies he fulfilled. The worship of Romulus spread due to fear of the Romans and the retribution that would be visited upon a city that did not worship the god-made-by-men. The Heavenly City, however, maintained her worship of Christ despite the persecution poured out on her because of it – “Her people were bound, imprisoned, scourged, tortured, burned, butchered, massacred – and they multiplied.”

Miracles supported the preaching of the gospel and led many to belief. Yet, these miracles have not ceased now that people believe. The current miracles aren’t as well known because they aren’t contained in the canon and disseminated beyond the locality in which they were witnessed. Over the next dozen pages, Augustine recounts miracles he has witnessed or been able to interview people who were beneficiaries (of healings) or who witnessed the miracles. At times, he seems almost angry that people aren’t spreading these stories more widely. In addition, he recounts miracles performed by martyrs or in the name or power of the martyrs.

Augustine anticipate the objection that pagan gods have also performed miracles and quips, “Well then, it is all to the good, if the pagans are ready to put their gods on the same level as our dead men.” Clever. He reminds the reader that the martyrs are not gods, but only know the power of God. Furthermore, the miracles of the martyrs surpass those of the gods just as Moses’ miracles surpassed the miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians. And, lastly, their miracles are not down to garner their praise or worship, but to establish the worship of the one true God. He asks, “which of these is the more credible, as workers of miracles? Those whose desire it is to be reckoned gods by those for whom they perform these works? Or those who do something that excites wonder, in order to promote believe in God, which is what Christ also is?”

Augustine revisits objections made by Platonists that bodies can make their way to heaven pointing out that Plato himself believed the immaterial soul is of heaven. If that is the case, how can it be bound to an earthly body, but an earthly body not fit for heaven? He also addresses the absurd objections/questions of those who deny the future resurrection of body. Questions of abortions, little children, obese men, stature, hair growth and nail growth in eternity, size of resurrected bodies, etc., are considered over the next dozen pages. Some contend that women will be raised men because Scripture says that we are being conformed into the image of Jesus, a man. But asserts that women will remain women because “a woman’s sex is not a defect…he who established the two sexes will restore them both.” He points to the episode where Jesus is questioned about marriage in the afterlife – a woman married to seven brothers, who’s wife is she at the resurrection. Jesus said marriage does not exist in the new heavens and new earth; he didn’t say male and female do not exist. Augustine admits there are mysteries, but is content to assert that all things will be in harmony, and “there will be no ugliness caused by disharmony” (i.e. the ugliness of overly thin, overly fat people or the ugliness of nails that don’t stop growing or beasts covered by unseemly hair). It is possible that some scars remain, especially the scars associated with persecution and martyrdom, because these scars are glorious, as Jesus’ scars remained and were honored.

Augustine continues, demonstrating that all the ills mankind suffers currently are proof we all fell under the condemnation of Adam. The list of woes that beset mankind are long, but thankfully “the divine governance does not altogether abandon man in his condemnation, and God does not in his anger restrain his compassion and so his prohibitions and instructions keep watch in the feelings of mankind against those dark influences which are in us at birth, and resist their assaults; and yet those commandments bring us plenty of trouble and sorrow.” All of this is meant to highlight God’s grace! “From this life of misery, a kind of hell on earth, there is no liberation save through the grace of Christ our Saviour, our God and our Lord. His name is Jesus’ and Jesus, we know, means Saviour. And, above all, it is his grace which will save us from a worse life, or rather death, after this life; and that death will be everlasting.” The righteous, in addition to the normal miseries, are subject to further hardships because they are constantly at war with their evil desires. “As long as we are in this body,” confesses Augustine, “we shall always have reason to say to God, ‘Forgive us our debts.'” In the eternal kingdom, there will be no battles to be fought, no sins to be forgiven.

In this current life of misery, which is just judgment and should result in God’s praise, there are still countless blessings to be thankful for. God did not remove from man all of the original blessings he bestowed on him at creation, nor remove him from his power – he is still subject to God, and this is a good. The ability to create progeny, the miracle of union between the immaterial soul and material body, the mind and its reasoning power, the arts and their beauty, the beauty and utility of natural creation, and more – these are all “consolations of mankind under condemnation, not the rewards of the blessed.” Augustine takes the next logical step, “What then will those rewards be, if the consolations are so many and so wonderful? What will God give to those whom he has predestined to life, if he has given all these to those predestined to death? What blessing in that life of happiness will he provide for those for whom in this life of wretchedness he willed that his only-begotten Son should endure such suffering, even unto death?”

After considering this “supreme felicity” Augustine returns, once again, to engage those who stubbornly refuse to believe in the resurrection. The attention Augustine gives to this topic speaks something of the centrality of the resurrection in Christian belief, for if the dead are not raised, our faith is in vain.

Nearing the end of his work, Augustine contemplates the sort of vision with which the saints will behold God in eternity. Augustine confesses, again, that there is mystery and unanswerable questions related to the saint’s activity in eternity, for these things surpass our experience, but it will be qualified by peace. While we can never experience the peace of God as he experiences is, yet we will have perfect peace by our measure – peace with self, peace with other, and chiefly, peace with God. When we think of seeing God in the eternal kingdom, we must not think of seeing in such a way that it would cease if our eyes were shut, for we will always see God! So we shall see him in the spirit, but we will also see him with our physical, though transformed eyes.

The final pages of Book 22, and of the City of God, are devoted to describing the City of God as eternal felicity and a Sabbath. The author asks, “How great will be that felicity, where there will be no evil, where no good will be withheld, where there will be leisure for the praise of God, who will be all in all! What other occupation could there be in a state where there will be no inactivity of idleness, and yet no toil constrained by want?” There, everything will be “lovely in form, lovely in motion, lovely at rest.” There there will be “true glory,” “true honor,” and “true peace.”

Anticipating John Piper’s “God is the Gospel,” Augustine declares, “The reward of virtue will be God himself, who gave the virtue, together with the promise of himself, the best and greatest of all possible promises…He will be the goal of all our longings; and we shall see him foe ever; we shall love with without satiety; we shall praise him without wearying. This will be the duty, the delight, the activity of all, shared by all who share the life of eternity.” It sounds so good it brings tears to the eyes, an ache for home to the heart!

Augustine briefly considers our eternal state as it relates to free will. He asserts, “the fact that they [glorified saints] will be unable to delight in sin does not entail that they will have no free will. In fact, the will will be the freer in that it is free from a delight in sin and immovably fixed in a delight in not sinning.” Famously, he contends that the first freedom of will, Adam’s, was given to man in his upright condition was the “ability not to sin, combined with the possibility of sinning.” By contrast, “This last freedom will be more potent, for it will bring the impossibility of sinning; yet this also will be the result of God’s gift, no of some inherent quality of nature…The first freedom was designed for acquiring merit; the last was concerned with the reception of a reward.” Likewise, the immortality of Adam is different than the immortality we will inherit at the end of the age. Adam’s immortality “was the ability to avoid death” whereas the final immortality of the saints “will be the inability to die.” To those who continue to object that if man cannot sin, then man has no free will, Augustine retorts “Certainly God himself cannot sin; are we therefore to say that God has no free will?”

In essence, we can never lose the will to be happy, even when we aren’t happy. In the heavenly kingdom, this desire will be accompanied with wisdom and the power to choice God unswervingly, thus making us perfectly happy and unable to sin.

This doesn’t mean we will not know evil. We won’t know it by experience any longer, but we will have memory of the evil we committed, the misery we were subjected to, and the eternal misery of those outside of God’s grace. This knowledge of sin and its desert will cause us to praise even more fervently the mercies of our Lord through all eternity. “Nothing will give more joy to that City,” comments Augustine, “than this song to the glory of the grace of Christ by whose blood we have been set free.” This is truly our Sabbath. There, in the eternal City, we will have leisure to “be still and know that he is God, whereas we wished to be that ourselves when we fell away from him, after listening to the Seducer saying, ‘You will be like gods.'”

Augustine reckons that the epochs of time are reckoned as corresponding to the days of creation, the Sabbath period, eternity, is the seventh epoch. The first day is from Adam to the Flood, then the Flood to Abraham. From the Gospel of Matthew, we see three epochs leading to Christ: from Abraham to David, from David to Exile, from Exile to Christ. We are now, he contends, in the sixth epoch. When this closes, we enter the blessed Sabbath rest. In fact, “We ourselves shall become that seventh day, when we have been replenished and restored by his blessing and sanctification.” Interestingly, somewhat cryptically, Augustine continues, “The seventh [day/epoch] will be our Sabbath, whose end will not be an evening, but the Lord’s Day, an eight day, as it were, which is to last for ever, a day consecrated by the resurrection of Christ, foreshadowing the eternal rest no only of the spirit but of the body also.”

Beautifully, Augustine concludes, “There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end! For what is our end but to read that kingdom which has no end?”

Augustine’s description of the the final condition of saints is one I plan to come back to time and time again to inspire me to hope, to strengthen me when I’m weary, to soften my heart when it’s hard. It is a beautiful reminder of why we persevere and of God’s glorious grace that makes it all possible…no!, more than possible, certain as his promises never fail.