Eternal Punishment in Augustine’s The City of God

In many ways, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the most influential post-Pauline theologian in Christendom. Even today he is widely quoted and revered, but more importantly, his theological approach has been deeply internalised so as to be seen as normal. Any disagreement with his writings is tantamount to heresy, and this applies equally to Catholic and Protestant traditions

Many major themes of Christian thought can be traced to Augustine. These include the Just War theory, the Trinity, and Original Sin. But what I want to focus on here is his profound influence on the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment.

In no way did Augustine “invent” the idea of Hell, this idea had been around in many cultures for centuries by the time that he wrote his most graphic, detailed arguments for a punitive judgment. The City of God, Books XX and XXI concern these topics, and were completed in 426, four years before his death, and so represent his mature thought. Book XX is an exhaustive examination of the theme of judgment, with the emphatic emphasis on its retributive nature. Ideas taken up at the height of Hellfire preaching by the likes of Jonathan Edwards some 1300 years later find their origin here. His view of judgment can be summed up in this statement:

In that day true and full happiness shall be the lot of none but the good, while deserved and supreme misery shall be the portion of the wicked, and of them only. (Book XX, Chapter 1)

However, I would like focus on the penultimate book of his great work The City of God, Book XXI, subtitled “Eternal punishment of the damned, and the arguments which unbelief brings against it”. By way of summary, I will examine

  • The influences of his personal background, specifically concerning his dominant mother and conspicuously absent father.
  • The degree to which Greek dualistic thought, as well as classical rhetoric, has formed Augustine’s method; being fundamentally rationalistic and dualistic.
  • The extent to which assumptions from outside the Christian tradition are present and unexamined.
  • How his training in rhetoric, his vociferousness, determination and almost pathological attention to minute detail drive him forward in an unbending trajectory towards his conclusions.
  • A complex relationship with the Roman Empire.
  • How radically he departs from his forebears, specifically Clement and Origin.

Without entering too deeply into his history, we should note that Augustine’s mothers influence in his life. As a Christian she was instrumental in his conversion at age 32. His earlier life involved a hedonistic, even criminal element, and he moved through several Spiritual paths before becoming a Christian; Paganism, Manichaeism and Scepticism. His father, however, gets scant mention and is most conspicuous by his absence.

He does however, tell us in “The Confessions” (Book II) Chapter 3, of when his father saw him at the baths, “perceived that I was becoming a man, and was stirred with a restless youthfulness, he, as if from this anticipating future descendants, joyfully told it to my mother.” Augustine was mortified, and responded with deep a self loathing of his “perversity” and a rejection of the creation in opposition to the Creator.

For all his “puritanical” aspirations, Augustine is unapologetically admiring of both the Roman civilisation, especially the poet Virgil, as well Greek thought, especially Plato. So while he makes absolute distinctions between those of the City of God and those of the City of the Devil, his almost wholesale acceptance of Greek thought, which is a tradition paralleling and distinct from the Hebrew out of which Christianity arose, is curious.

A key way in which this manifests is his view that mercy is not more than a necessary opposite of punishment. For him, these poles must balance, and mercy is not merely balanced by, but requires punishment for its definition. It is not surprising then the detail into which he is prepared to go, to verify his view of the a priori fact of eternal punishment.

One key difference between Hebrew and Greek thought is how the Hebrew (at least in part) contains the idea of the resurrection of the dead from Hades, the silent, unknowable “Grave”, while the Greeks held to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Augustine uses a particular combination of is these views mixed to accommodate his fundamental need for punishment. For example, he is at pains to prove how it is that mortal flesh will burn for ever without being destroyed.

For one as erudite and educated as he, it is rather arbitrary how he continually interprets scriptures in a literalistic manner. It is not that he doesn’t understand the difference between the figurative and the literal, for he says

“Let each one make his own choice, either assigning the fire to the body and the worm to the soul—the one figuratively, the other really—or assigning both really to the body.”

In his discussion of Jesus’ story of Lazarus, he at no time considers that the Rich man, the beggar, or Sheol might pertain to the results of Israel’s denial of their role of stewards of God’s grace, rather living for their own purposes by absolutising the righteousness by the law, but considers the famous verse from Matthew “I am tormented in this flame,” to indicate a real, (though immaterial) fire:

“…certainly that rich man was suffering in hell when he cried, I am tormented in this flame.” (Book 3)

One of fundamental misunderstandings in most religious thought even today, is properly and appropriately determining what is from the observable world of facts – empirical evidence, and what is from the world of interpretation. Today we have creationists trying to use scientific method to prove their case, and scientists who do not acknowledge their own myth of objectivity. The subjective and the objective constantly mix without understanding that they are two essentially different modes of thought whose interface requires deep artfulness, or wisdom. The roots of this quandary might just exist right here in Augustine.

Any inappropriate, unartful marriage of the literal and the metaphorical will lead to problems, and in Augustine’s case, he is forced to go to appalling lengths and staggering detail to explain the anomalies resultant from his literalism. In chapter 4, he tries to explain how in nature there is evidence of bodies and matter which can be burned for ever and yet not consumed – the salamander, the non-decaying flesh of the peacock, chaff, lime and diamonds, in order to uphold his dogmatic assertion that men and devils will be “connected with the bodily fires as to receive pain without imparting life.”

Augustine’s depth of talent is apparent; he sees and in fact preempts many of the questions and problems of faith, or better put, belief. Actually, it becomes apparent how much he feels compelled to cover every aspect of a life of faith, having an answer for all possible arguments. This is an indication of how salvation was defined by complex belief rather than simple faith. Quite validly, he asks if eternal punishment just for those who sins are limited to time. But this is his answer:

“But eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that highest and purest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed in that first transgression.” (Book 12)

This is unacceptable reasoning, quite devoid of grace, built upon a severe doctrine of original sin, and resorting to the “It’s a mystery” line reserved for times when supposedly watertight arguments could break apart. Equally unacceptable is the manipulative tone taken in his literalistic exposition of the verses from Mark 9, “It is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.”:

“And who is not terrified by this repetition, and by the threat of that punishment uttered so vehemently by the lips of the Lord Himself?” (Chapter 9)

It seems that Virgil; quoted several times, played a key role in Augustine’s theology, bringing with him a swathe of assumptions that brought Greco-Roman thought directly into the young Christian tradition. He quotes Virgil in book 13 as writing,

“So penal sufferings they endure
For ancient crime, to make them pure;”

Augustine is prepared to consider suffering as corrective, but only for those already citizens of God’s City. Vehemently anti-purgatory, (although this doctrine appeared as an officially Catholic one at a much later date), he insists on an all or nothing approach to salvation. One can see how this has affected all fundamentalisms since then.

On top of the Greeks, he is also aware of other cultural myths which contain Eternal Punishment. Zoroaster is mentioned in Book 14, as well as the apocryphal Sirach, not part of the protestant canon. These writings were infused with many of the Persian ideas absorbed during the Jewish captivity there.

The black-or-white dualisms contained in Augustine’s method results in very little paradox or ambivalence. His is the realm of Law, as applied to questions of eschatology. These questions are mythical, and of faith, but Augustine grinds them into hard, unpoetic propositions.

“For as by the sin of one man we have fallen into a misery so deplorable, so by the righteousness of one Man, who also is God, shall we come to a blessedness inconceivably exalted.” (Book 15)

The key question that hangs over Augustine’s view of salvation is that of Grace. When it is mentioned, it is usually seen as a reward for those who believe correctly. Grace is for the regenerate, effective at some future date, and punishment for all others. And the regenerate, at least in Book XXI, is defined first and foremost by their doctrine. Which needs of necessity to be his doctrine, so sure is he of his truth.

Not having grasped his understanding of “Incarnation”, but based on the reasoning exhibited in this book, I do not see how he can do justice to the idea that God became Flesh and dwelt amongst us. Such deficiencies are all the more incredible in the light of other of his insights. In his beautiful “In praise of the Dance” he states

“I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance, which demands everything: health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.”

Even in this beauty, we see a deep suspicion of the material realm. But we would hope that he takes his own words to heart, about the dangers of being all brain and will. Where did this man go, when it came to issues of the future and salvation?

It would appear that St Augustine was a powerful intellect with a deeply damaged view of God’s love. To him punishment was a primary part of being. One of the first post-Pauline Church Fathers, Origin (185–254), is viciously slandered by Augustine, who calls him “tender hearted”, “indulgent”, and “fanciful” for his views on Universal Salvation.

Holding up a great verse pertaining to mercy, “For God has concluded all men in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32) where this includes Satan, (as was the view of Origin) he concludes that they “plead chiefly their own cause, holding out false hopes of impunity to their own depraved lives”, and that “they who promise this impunity even to the prince of the devils and his satellites make a still fuller exhibition of the mercy of God.” [Chapter 18] This level of mercy and grace is simply inconceivable to Augustine, who demonstrates nothing but disdain for all whom he chooses to oppose.

The Roman Emperor Justinian (483 – 565) opted for teachings of Eternal Punishment as posited by Augustine, over Origins Universal Salvation, seeing its potential use as a way of controlling the Empire. This cynical move cemented the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment into the foundations of Western world.

So what shall we conclude then about Augustine, giant of Christendom?

A typical view, by Norman Cantor in “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” (Harper, 1993, p. 74) is “Of all the fathers of the church, St. Augustine was the most admired and the most influential during the Middle Ages…  He was a genius – an intellectual giant.”

But his 1600 year reign is no longer uncontested. Matthew Fox, in his groundbreaking answer to the doctrine of Original Sin, has this to say

“The abysmal, theologically one-sided dominance of Augustine over Jesus and the prophets must cease.”(Original Blessing, p22)

For me, his influence is titanic; it is hard to appreciate the depths to which he has fashioned our views, even today, 1600 years later. For good and for evil: because of his verbose and convoluted reasoning, his lack of grasp of metaphor, his lawyers cold-heartedness, his desperate need for proof, his salvation as being achieved by belief, his flawed hermeneutics, his massively pejorative straw man arguments, his incredible eschatological construct, and above all his passionate belief in a punitive God, I say,

Au revoir, Augustine.

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31 Comments »

  1. Gavin Marshall said

    Nicely written :)
    Although I don’t think Augustine is entirely to blame as we have 1600 years of people being quite willing to accept what he said as truth.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the myth of the fall and asking the question as to whether our experience of being seperate from nature is a result of the myth, or if the myth arose out of our experience. In Augustine’s case it would seem that the myth arose out of his experience, but in order for it to be accepted by so many, it would need to have resonated with the experience of many.

  2. Nic Paton said

    Gavin
    People who take up an idea must be responsible for taking it up, I agree. But Augustine seems to have created an inordinate influence, so lets just take it on at source. Sure, he has his influences which we acknowledge, but he is a giant of an intellect, towering over the centuries. Most people do not care about such historical deconstruction, or they feel good about reading him now because it reinforces their dualims with a sense of histrorical authority, but I feel strongly with Fox that it is enough. I will do him justice and read more at some point.

    Regarding your question whether myth or experience came first, it will be a combination, surely. The overall point is the Neo Platonism he chose to adhere to was employed to the detriment of the Hebrew Narrative, Creation Spirituality and Universal Restoration traditions, at a point in time where it was expedient for the Empire of the day to use it to consolidate its power, enshrining a deep loathing of the cosmos in its wake.

  3. Don Rogers said

    Thanks for this quite complete post. I have, unabashedly, a great disdain for this “man of God”, who so completely has held sway over Christianity for so long.
    “It would appear that St Augustine was a powerful intellect with a deeply damaged view of God’s love.”
    This, to me, is the heart of his problem. I also like the quote from Matthew Fox, with which I heartily agree: “The abysmal, theologically one-sided dominance of Augustine over Jesus and the prophets must cease”.

    I, IMHO, cannot emphasize enough the damage done for 1600 years to the cause of Christianity. Without Augustine’s fanatical support for hell, perhaps things would be different. What am I saying! Of course they would. You have done a masterful job with your last paragraph. I just may have to quote it a few times… With you and with great joy, I say Au Revoir Augustine!!

  4. Nic,
    You have a wonderful spirit as you spade up these powerful origins to the faith that formed us. The Edwardian influence on my reformed theological education went so deeply that I could not have identified the roots of the faith I preached with passion. Over the more recent years, as I determined the understand who God is and what the Gospel is, I came to see the beauty of those pre Augustinian truths. Now, as I preach and teach with this knowledge filling my heart, I find people who can listen to me, but not hear me. Eternal punishment fills every moment of silence, every mention of grace. I find it deeply frustrating that every time a glimpse of the gospel of reconciliation is grasped, some comment will grab the group back into conformity to that dualism which formed their faith and enforces their worldview.

    I have hope though, truth is being recovered.

  5. Don Rogers said

    Don H.- Just a short note of appreciation to you for continuing to work from the “inside”. You are far braver than I.

  6. ruZL said

    i listened to an interesting podcast interview a few months back. the guy made the interesting point that because old Augustine lived such a pious life – successfully abstaining from outward sin – his works were lent far greater weight than if say i had written them.

    i think it was the Edge from U2 who said “never trust a pious man who looks like one”, or something to that effect.

    saying goodbye to old Aug takes hard inner work.

    sooner the better.

    .r…

  7. Love the facts being readily available like on sites like http://www.tentmaker.org and http://www.sigler.org
    Thanks Hartley Damboise II

  8. ruZL said

    forget au revoir Augustine.

    TSEK!!!

    (that means “get lost quick” in cape town slang…)

  9. Gavin Marshall said

    So – do you think Augustine is in hell then? Sting seems to think so..

  10. nic paton said

    Don R
    Thanks once again for your support; please feel free to use and mutate the last paragraph.

    Don H
    That is a very poigniant and deeplysad observation: “Eternal punishment fills every moment of silence”. I think I know what you mean in speaking but not being heard. But I am very glad you hold in heart the recovery of truth.

    RuZl
    Indeed, it is a work of deep extrication to get false piety our of the system. We sahll talk more face to face over the next month – oh joy!

    Lee
    Thanks for the pointers, I love tentmaker, and shall check out sigler soon.

    Gavin
    I remember that now – from his most underrated album The Soul Cages. But must go get the words, if it wasn’t an instrumental?

    In answer tho, I do not think he is in hell. (How can anyone who wrote In praise of the dance go to hell)? But I reckon he would have had to let go a lot of dualistic shit to enter his greatly vaunted City. (Same will go for me no doubt).

  11. ruZL said

    i’m sure old Augustine had his endearing qualities. i wonder how he’d have felt if he’d known how twisted out of shape many people would become as a result of exposure to the church doctrine on original sin & hell that he helped construct.

  12. Gavin Marshall said

    Nic – it was 10 Sumner’s tales – St Augustine in hell ;)

  13. Nic Paton said

    My Stingology sucks, but its coming back to me now. As pennance, here’s an excerpt from the song:

    Relax, have a cigar, make yourself at home. Hell is full of high court
    judges, failed saints. We’ve got Cardinals, Archbishops, barristers,
    certified accountants, music critics, they’re all here. You’re not alone.
    You’re never alone, not here you’re not. OK break’s over.

    The less I need the more I get
    Make me chaste but not just yet
    It’s a promise or a lie I’ll repent before I die

    The minute I saw her face the second I caught her eye
    The minute I touched the flame I knew it would never die …

  14. [...] Sound & Silence [...]

  15. Chad said

    Great post, Nic.

    It is amazing how great an influence Augustine has over the West, much like Plato. When I ask my Sunday school class to explain to me the doctrine of original sin or describe to me the difference between matter and spirit I hear Augie and Plato verbatum- and they have never heard of either.

    I try to give Augie some slack, though. He, like Calvin after him, could not get his head around how God could stomach all the evil we humans produce in our bodies. When he surveyed the world around him he concluded that God could only do one thing – punish. The pendulum swung. Whereas Origen had virtually everyone in heaven Augie had everyone in hell. Perhaps we can learn from Augie: In any age there is the danger of over-correction (see Luther, for example).

    One thing I admire of Augie is that later in life he did write a substantial amount of Retractions to his previous positions (something Calvin would never do). One wonders had he lived long enough if he would not have retracted some of his thoughts on sin and hell.

    thanks for this, nic

  16. nic paton said

    Chad – very well considered points. I am not aware of his retractions, but if true, credit must be given for that. I doubt whether his City of God featured tho, coming so late in his life, 4 years before he died.

    But how much slack should we cut him? He was an uber-bright boy, well exposed to plurality, travelled, and a believer in God. My basic crit is his downgrading of Grace to the necessary opposite of Punishment. That’s a bad misreading of the scriptures.

  17. Chad said

    Nic,
    I agree. Augie has his hang-ups. It would be interesting to try and dissect how much we read back into Augustine from Aquinas. I was reading Aquinas’ treatise on Just War the other day and was amazed how much he quotes Augie throughout it, moreso than scripture. And the exegesis, IMO, was awful.

    peace.

  18. nic paton said

    Oh well then we shall have to have a Augie-Aqui Decon Summit then.

    Aqui is one of those who while making some great advances into mysticism (for example “A mistake about nature means a mistake about God”)nevertheless sullies his witness with his eternal punishment machinations.

    Augie too – as I have noted “I praise the Dance…” is a great poem of praise.

    But noone gets it all right, including us. I look forward to cringing at my own folly some time in the cosmic future, we shall all sit with A&A and have a good old laugh at history.

  19. One of the best reads I ever read was given out by Gary Amirault called , One Step Out of Hell, One Step Short of Glory. You’ll Love It.

    At, http://www.tentmaker.org type in key word Eternal Death( Annihilation)

  20. brambonius said

    I only read this now, but thanks!

    Is it possible to be a non-augustinean protestant?

    • Nic Paton said

      Good question brambonius. I say we get back to the roots of protest and away from the cliche of ProtestantISM, especially in as far as it is intertwined with Modernism.

      These roots, I offer, are in the prophets and all who have stiven, in whatever form, for justice and righteousness.

      If we take what should be a fundamental critique of the status quo as the basis of the protestant ethic, and we apply it to Augustine, then I say your answer must be yes.

  21. John M. said

    I had stumbled across a reading where Augustine had said that there has to be varying degrees of punishment in hell or else God would be a just God, but I can’t seem to find where I read it. Can anyone help me? Did Augustine declare that and, if so, what were his exact words?

    Thanks,
    John

  22. John M. said

    correction… or else God would NOT be a just God…

  23. I think it is often overlooked, the point you made about the Roman Emperor Justinian, being the vehicle, if you will, of the perpetuation of the everlasting torment doctrine. It was the Romans, after all, who were the influence over the direction of Christendom for some time to come.

    It always amazes me how so many miss this fact, that Rome had a political agenda, which thereby influenced, and even dominated their religious agenda.

    It’s curious to me how Protestants reject so much a the Catholic doctrine that flowed from Rome, but gleefully accept so much else from them, and with such passion as to believe it heretical to consider otherwise.

    Anyway, great article, thanks.

  24. Nic said

    Clearly, you believe what you want to believe.

  25. Mark said

    Not sure how I came upon this thread. Though I have had a look at Tentmaker. Is it possible to be a non-Augustinian Catholic ?

    I am no theologian or scholar and not read up on these matters at all really.

    I did find myself wondering about ‘original sin’ a while back though. One of my aunts had a first born male child – ‘still born’. A full term ‘blue baby’. As he was not baptised – he was shoved in a cardboard shoe box and buried in some field. ‘Consecrated’ ground not for the likes of the unbaptised innocents or suicides then. My aunt suffered with mental health problems most of her life and was on heavy medication. I often wondered if that were why. Not only losing her first child. But living with thought her child might be burning in hell. Or enjoying some level of ‘happiness’ in the ‘highest’ level of hell.

    How many parents suffered like this.

    So I read a little, which I know can be dangerous, and it seemed this man Augustine had a lot to do with the doctrine of ‘original sin’. I took an immediate dislike to him.

    Then seems he was a self loathing sex addict. Domineering mother and absent father as stated above. Fathered a child I am sure he did not care for ? And what about the mother of said child. And he is held up as some paragon of virtue. I don’t care how many PhDs he had.

    Jesus commanded we love our very self. Yet these people tell us how wholly depraved and vile we are.

    Was my aunt’s suffering worth Augustine’s ‘convolutions’ ?

    I seriously wonder.

    And why not just baptise the infants and then slit their throats.

    Guarantee heaven. No wonder the psych wards were bursting at the seams.

    Tragic.

    Diabolical really when you really take on board what those poor mothers and fathers suffered – believing their children were in ‘hell’.

    Or was it ‘Limbo’ ? Though I saw that was never ‘officially’ taught.

    Wish my aunt had known that.

    Mark

  26. Nic Paton said

    Mark my “non-Augustinian Catholic” brother, welcome to this conversation. I’m honoured that you could pour out your thoughts here.

    My prayer is that you would find a way through this as you say, *diabolical* doctrine to the much more coherent space of the message of the Jesus.

    If you want to take your deconstructions further, you might find this of use: https://soundandsilence.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/lazarus-and-inclusion/

  27. Bill Brennan said

    Thanks to Tertullian, Augustine, and the cowardice of Jerome, the doctrine of endless torment was able to gain a stranglehold on the eschatology of the Church, and only now is the light beginning to shine through, as the dawn breaks upon a new day ,and we bid final adieu to the dark ages they foisted on us.

    http://www.biblicaluniversalism.org

    Bill

  28. [...] questions about the nature of love, justice, and the human condition. From St. Augustine’s City of God to Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, many influential thinkers have [...]

  29. […] St. Augustine in The City of God. Eternal Punishment in Augustine?s The City of God | Sound and Silence […]

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