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.