1. The punishment of the condemned to be treated before the bliss of the saints
Now that both those cities, God’s City and the Devil’s, have reached their appointed ends, through the judgement of Jesus Christ our Lord – the judge of the living and the dead – we must proceed to a more-careful discussion of the kind of punishment which is in store for the Devil, and for all those of his party; and, with the help of God, I shall discharge this task in the present book, to the best of my power. The reason for preferring this order, and dealing afterwards with the felicity of the saints, is that both the saints and the damned will be united with their bodies, and it seems more incredible that bodies should endure in eternal torments than that they should continue, without pain, in everlasting bliss. It follows that when I have shown that this eternal punishment ought not to be thought incredible, this will be a great help to me by making it much easier to believe that the bodily immortality of the saints is to be exempt from any kind of distress. And this order is not repugnant to the holy Scriptures; for there we find sometimes the bliss of the saints put first, as in: ‘those whose actions have been good will come from the graves to the resurrection of life; those whose deeds have been wicked, to the resurrection of judgement’; whereas sometimes it is put second, as in the following: ”The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all the stumbling-blocks and consign them to a blazing furnace of fire: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’;1 and as in 67dus statement: ‘So those will go to eternal punishment; but the righteous will go into life eternal.’2 In the prophets also it will be found on examination that now the one order is observed, now the other; it would take too long to list the instances, and I have already given my reason for the order I have adopted.
2. Can a material body be exempt from destruction by fire?
What evidence can I produce to convince the unbelievers that it is possible for human bodies, possessed of soul and life, not only to escape disintegration by death but even to persist in the torments of everlasting fires? For these unbelievers refuse to allow us to ascribe this to the power of the Almighty, and they demand that we persuade them by producing some instance of it. We may reply that there are examples of animals which are undoubtedly subject to decay, because they are mortal, which nevertheless can live in the middle of a fire; and that there is also a species of worm to be found in the gushing springs of hot baths. These are too hot for anyone to put a hand in with impunity, whereas the worms not only live in it without damage but are unable to exist elsewhere. But the incredulous either refuse to believe this if we are unable to give a demonstration, or, if we are able to give concrete proof of our statements before their eyes, or to establish the facts by means of qualified witnesses, they maintain with unshaken scepticism that the phenomena are insufficient as a precedent for the matter in question. They argue that these animals do not live for ever, and that they live in those temperatures without feeling pain; in fact, they say, they thrive in elements to which their nature is adapted, which are not to them a means of torment. We are asked to suppose that it is not more incredible that creatures should thrive in such an environment than that they should be tortured in it! For it is amazing that any creature should be in pain in the fire and yet should continue to live; but it is more astonishing that it should live in the fire without feeling pain. But if the latter is believed to be a fact, why should the former be incredible?
3. Can a physical body endure eternal pain?
But, they urge, there is no body which can suffer pain and at the same time can be incapable of dying. How do we know this? Who can be sure whether it is or is not in their bodies that demons are suffering when they confess that they are tormented with great pain? If it is replied that there is certainly no solid and visible body (or, to put it in a word, no flesh) which can suffer and yet cannot the, is this not merely to make an assertion grounded only on human inference from the experience of the physical senses? For men have acquaintance solely with mortal flesh, and so they judge anything to be utterly impossible that does not fall within their experience, and on this assumption they base their reasoning. Yet what sort of logic is it to make pain a proof of death when it is in fact the evidence of life! For although the question is whether eternal life in pain is possible, nevertheless one thing is certain, that anything which feels pain is alive, and no pain can exist except in a living thing. Thus it is inevitable that a sufferer should be alive, but it is not inevitable that pain should kill the sufferer, because pain does not in every case kill bodies liable to death and undoubtedly destined for death. The reason why some pain can cause death is that the soul is connected with this body of ours in such a way that it succumbs and departs from the body under pressure from extreme pain. In our bodily frame, in fact, the connection of the limbs and the vital parts is so weak that it cannot endure the violent assault of extreme, or even considerable pain. But in the life hereafter the soul and the body will be connected in such a way that just as the bond that links them will not be unloosed by any passage of time, however long, so it will not be able to be broken by any pain. Accordingly, even though there now exists no physical body of such a kind as to be capable of suffering pain while being incapable of dying, there will then be flesh of such a kind as does not now exist, just as there will also be a death of such a kind as does not now exist. For death will not then be non-existent but everlasting, seeing that the soul will not be able to live, because deprived of God, nor yet to be released from bodily suffering by dying. The first death drives the soul from the body against her will; the second death holds the soul in the body against her will. But both these deaths have this in common, that the soul suffers against her will from her connection with the body.
Now these opponents of ours observe that there now exists no kind of physical body which is capable of pain but incapable of death; what they fail to observe is that there is something which is by nature more important than the body, namely, the soul. The soul gives life to the body by its presence, and rules the body; and this soul itself can suffer pain, while being incapable of death. Here we have found something which feels pain and yet is immortal. This property, which now, as we know, belongs to the souls of all men, will at that time belong to the bodies of the damned. If we consider more carefully, we see that pain, which is said to be connected with the body, is in fact more closely connected with the soul. For pain is really an experience of the soul, not of the body, even when the cause of pain is presented to the soul by the body – when pain is felt in the part where the body is hurt. Thus, just as we speak of bodies ‘feeling’ and ‘living’, although it is the soul that gives feeling and life to the body; so also we talk of bodies ’suffering pain’ although there can be no pain in the body unless it comes from the soul. And so the soul feels pain along with the body in that part of the body where something occurs to cause pain; and the soul feels pain by itself, although it is in the body, when it is saddened by some cause, even an invisible cause, while the body is unaffected. The soul also suffers when it is not enshrined in a body; for there can be no doubt that the rich man was suffering when he said, ‘I am tortured in these flames.’3 The body, in contrast, does not suffer pain when divorced from the soul, nor, when it is united with the soul, does it suffer independently of the soul. If therefore it would be right to take the fact of pain as an argument for death, on the ground that the possibility of pain entails the possibility of death, death would then be connected with the soul rather than with the body, inasmuch as pain is particularly connected with the soul. Since, however, the soul has more capacity for pain, but is incapable of death, what force is there in the contention that the bodies of the damned, because they will exist in pain, must for that reason be supposed to be destined to the? The Flatonists, it is true, asserted that the soul’s capacity for fear, desire, pain, and joy derives from the structure of earthly bodies that are bound for death; that is why Virgil says, ‘Hence’ – that is, from the earthly, bodily parts that are doomed to die –
Hence the soul’s fear, desire, sorrow, and joy.4
But we have proved to those philosophers in the twelfth book of this work that, on their own showing, souls when purified from every stain contracted from the body are possessed of a fatal longing which makes them begin to desire to return to their bodies. Now the possibility of desire automatically entails the possibility of pain; for frustrated desire, when it either fails to attain its object or loses it after the attainment, turns into pain. The conclusion is that if the soul, which is the principal if not the only subject of the experience of pain, nevertheless has some kind of immortality of its own, appropriate to its mode of being, the fact that the bodies of the damned will feel pain does not entail that they will be capable of dying. Above all, if bodies are responsible for the suffering of the soul, why is it that they can impose suffering on the soul but not death, unless the fact is that it does not follow that what produces pain must also produce death? Then why is it incredible that the fire can impose pain but not death on those bodies, in the same way as the bodies themselves make the souls suffer pain without thereby compelling the death of the souls? This shows that the fact of pain is not a cogent proof of future death.
4. Instances in nature showing that bodies can live under conditions of torture
We are told by writers who have carefully studied the natural history of animals that the salamander lives in fire;5 and there are some mountains in Sicily which are a seething mass of flames and yet remain entire; they have been in this state from immemorial antiquity up to the present time and are likely so to continue. This being so, we have in them sufficiently reliable evidence that not everything which burns is destroyed; and the soul gives us warrant for thinking that not everything which is susceptible to pain is capable also of death. Then why are instances still demanded of us to establish that there is nothing incredible in our teaching that the bodies of human beings condemned to eternal punishment by fire do not lose their soul, but burn without loss of substance and feel pain without ceasing to be? For in that future state the substance of our bodies will have a quality bestowed by him who has bestowed on so many different things the marvellous and various properties which we observe without amazement simply because they are so many. For who but the Creator of all things gave to the peacock the power of resisting putrefaction after death? I had heard of this property and had thought it incredible, until one day at Carthage I was served with a roast peacock, and I gave orders that what seemed a sufficient quantity of meat should be cut from the breast and kept. After an interval of some days, long enough to have ensured the putrefaction of any other kind of cooked meat, this was brought out and presented to me; and I found it had no offensive smell. It was then put back in store, and after more than thirty days it was found to be in the same condition; and there was no change in a year’s time except that the flesh was somewhat dry and shrivelled. Who has given to chaff the power of cooling, so that it will keep snow covered with chaff from melting, or the power of heating, so that it will ripen green apples?
Then there is fire itself. Who can explain its marvels? It is itself bright; but it blackens everything that is burnt in it; its colour is beautiful; and yet it discolours everything that it embraces and licks with its flames, and from a bright living coal produces the filthiest charcoal. And yet this kind of transformation is no hard and fast rule; for by a contrary process stones baked in a glowing fire are themselves turned to a shining white, and although the fire is red rather than white, while the stones become white, still whiteness has the same affinity with light as blackness with darkness. Thus when the fire burns in the wood to bake the stones, it has contrary effects in similar substances. For stones and pieces of wood are different, but not contrary, as are white and black; and fire produces whiteness in stones but blackness in wood; it is bright, and it gives brightness to stones but it darkens the wood, although it would have no effect on the former if it were not alive in the latter. Again, is it not remarkable that charcoal is so brittle that it can be broken with the lightest blow, can easily be ground to powder; and yet it is so durable that it cannot be broken down by moisture, cannot be destroyed by age – so much so that it is customary to put charcoal under boundary marks when they are set up, to refute any litigant who might come forward at any time in the remote future and maintain that a stone fixed in earth was not a boundary stone?6 What is it that makes charcoal capable of enduring so long when buried in damp earth, where timber would rot? Surely it can only be fire, the great destroyer of all substances!
Let us consider the marvels of lime. Apart from the fact that it grows white by the action of fire which makes other things dirty (I have said enough about that already), it also in some most mysterious way takes fire into itself from the fire, and it stores the fire inside the mass of lime, which is cold to the touch, so secretly that it does not present itself to our senses in any way at all, but, when it has been discovered by experiment, it is known to be asleep within the mass even when there is no evidence of its presence. That is why we call it ‘quicklime’, living lime, as if the fire hidden within it were the invisible soul of a visible body. But the really wonderful thing is that when it is quenched, it is kindled! For to get rid of its hidden fire, water is poured on it, or it is plunged into water, and then it grows hot, though it was cold before; and that is the effect of water, which cools all other substances when they are hot. And so, as that lump of lime expires, so to speak, the fire hidden in it makes its appearance at its departure; and thereafter the lime is so cold in death, as it were, that if water is applied to it it will not blaze up, and what was called ‘quicklime’ is now called ‘quenched’ or ‘killed’ lime. Could anything be added to make this marvel more astounding? Yes, there is something more. If you use oil, instead of water, the lime does not grow hot, whether oil is poured on the lime or the lime is plunged in the oil! And yet oil is fuel of fire, and water is not! If we had read about this marvel, or had heard it related of some Indian stone which could not come into our experience, we should certainly dismiss it as a falsehood; or at least we should be vastly astonished. But things which come before our eyes in everyday experience are little reckoned of, not because they are less remarkable in nature but simply because of their continual occurrence – so much so that we have ceased to marvel at many of the marvels of India itself (a part of the world so remote from us) which it has proved possible to bring into our experience.
Many people among us possess diamonds, especially our jewellers and goldsmiths; and the diamond is a stone which, so we are told, neither steel nor fire nor any other force can prevail over, except goat’s blood.7 But do we suppose that those who possess diamonds and are familiar with them are as astonished at the diamond’s properties as were those to whom those powers were first displayed? Those who have not seen those powers demonstrated may perhaps not believe in them; or if they do believe, they marvel at something beyond their experience. If they happen to become acquainted with the diamond, they are indeed for a time filled with amazement at something unfamiliar; but daily familiarity gradually blunts the edge of wonder. We know that the loadstone has an astonishing power to attract iron; and when I first saw this phenomenon I was utterly amazed. I saw, I most certainly saw, an iron ring snatched up and held aloft by a stone! And then it seemed as if the stone had given its own power to the iron which it had snatched up, and made it a joint property; for this first ring was applied to another ring, which it lifted aloft; and the second ring clung to the first just as the first ring clung to the stone; in the same way a third ring was added, then a fourth; and in the end there was a kind of chain of rings hanging, the rings not being joined together internally, by the interlinking of their circles, but adhering to each other from outside. Who could fail to be astounded at this property of the stone, which was not merely inherent in it but also passed on through so many objects suspended from it, and bound them together by invisible connections?
But much more astonishing than this is an experiment with the loadstone which I learnt about from my brother and fellow-bishop, Severus of Milevis. He told me that he had seen Bathanarius, sometime count of Africa, when the bishop was at dinner at his house, produce a loadstone and hold it beneath a silver dish on which he placed a piece of iron. Then he moved his hand, with the stone in it, underneath the dish and the iron moved about on the dish, following his movements; and there was no effect on the dish in between, while the stone was being drawn by the man backwards and forwards underneath at extremely rapid speed, and the iron was rushing to and fro on top under the influence of the stone. I have described something that I myself witnessed, and I have reported something which I was told by someone else, but someone I believed as thoroughly as if I had witnessed the scene myself. I will now add something which I have read about this loadstone: that when a diamond is placed next to it, the stone does not draw any iron; and if it has already drawn iron to itself, it lets it go as soon as the diamond approaches.8 These stones are imported from India; and if by this time we have become acquainted with them and have ceased to marvel, how much more will this be true of those who export them to us, if these stones are quite common with them. Perhaps they regard them as we regard lime, whose remarkable property of growing hot in water, which normally quenches fire, while not becoming hot in oil, which usually kindles fire, we do not wonder at because it is such an everyday matter.
5. Many things are to be believed though not susceptible of rational proof
In spite of all this, the unbelievers demand a rational proof from us when we proclaim the miracles of God in the past and his marvellous works that are still to come, which we cannot present to the experience of the unbelievers. And since we cannot supply this rational proof of those matters (for they are beyond the powers of the human mind) the unbelievers assume that our statements are false, whereas they themselves ought to supply a rational explanation of all those amazing phenomena which we observe, or at any rate are able to observe. And if they see that this is beyond man’s capacity, they should admit that the fact that a rational explanation cannot be given for something does not mean that it could not have happened in the past, or that it could not happen in the future, seeing that there are these things in the present which are equally insusceptible of rational explanation. And so I shall not proceed to give a list of the very many marvels which are not matters of past history, but still are existing in various places; anyone who has the will and the opportunity of going to those places may go to find out whether they are truly reported. I shall mention just a few of them.
We are told that the salt of Agrigentum in Sicily melts when put in the fire as if in water: when put in water it crackles as if in the fire. The Garamantes have a spring so cold in the day that it is un-drinkable, and so hot at night as to be untouchable. There is another remarkable spring, in Epirus; like other springs it extinguishes a lighted torch which is plunged into it: but unlike the other springs, it rekindles an extinguished torch. The asbestos of Arcadia gets its name from the fact that, once kindled, it cannot be put out.9 There is a kind of fig-tree in Egypt whose wood has the unique property of sinking in water instead of floating; and, what is more astonishing, when it has been for some time at the bottom of the water it rises again to appear on the surface, when it ought to have become sodden and so heavier through the weight of water. In the land of Sodom there are apples that grow and come to an appearance of ripeness; but if you test them by biting into them or by pressing them they burst open and disappear into dust and ashes.10 The pyrites stone of Persia, if pressed hard, burns the hand that holds it (that is why it is called ‘the fire stone’, from pyr, the Greek for ‘fire’). In Persia there is also another stone, selenite, with a white inner part which waxes and wanes with the moon. In Cappadocia the mares conceive with the wind, but their foals live for only three years at most. Tylon, an island of India, has this superiority over other countries, that none of the trees which grow there is ever stripped of its covering of foliage.11
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. It would take too long to pursue them all, and I have other business in hand; but the unbelievers should give a rational account of them, if they can, since they refuse to believe the inspired Scriptures. They say that they refuse to believe in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures just because of the incredible statements contained in them, such as the matter on which I am now engaged.For reason, in their contention, utterly forbids us to suppose that flesh can bum without being consumed; that it can feel pain, and yet not die. Rational thinkers They are, to be sure, of great ability! They can give a rational explanation of all those phenomena universally agreed to be marvellous! Then let them rationalize these few examples which I have quoted; for, without a shadow of doubt, if they had been unaware of their existence, and we had said that they were to happen in the future, they would have been much less ready to believe in them than they are to believe us when we speak about the coming judgement. In fact, would any of them believe us if, instead of saying that there will be living bodies of men which are destined to burn and feel pain for ever, without ever dying, we had said that in a future age there would be salt which fire would cause to dissolve as if in water, whereas water would cause it to crackle as if in fire; or that there would be a spring whose water became so hot in the cool of the night as to be untouchable, and so cold in the heat of the day as to be undrinkable; or that there would be a stone whose heat would burn the hand of anyone who squeezed it, or another stone which when set on fire could not be extinguished by any means; or if we spoke of any of the other wonders which I considered worth mentioning just now, passing over countless other marvels? If we had said that those wonders were to happen in that age which is still to come and if those sceptics had replied, ‘If you want us to believe all this, give us a rational explanation in each case’, we should have admitted our inability to do so, simply because the feeble reasoning powers of mortal minds are defeated by these, as by other similar wonderful works of God. And yet we should have maintained 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. Nevertheless, though those unbelievers cavil at our faith and demand rational explanations, what reply have they when faced with those marvels, for which the human reason can supply no explanation, but which certainly exist and seem to contradict the rational order of nature? If we said that they were to occur in the future, a rational explanation would be demanded from us by the unbelievers just as they demand it for those events which we do assert as destined to happen in the future. Accordingly, since the fact that, in the case of those works of God, the reasoning powers of the human heart and mind are baffled does not mean that such marvels do not exist, so we must not infer that those future events will not occur simply because the human mind cannot supply a rational explanation of them, any more than of the others.
6. Not all marvels are natural: many are devised by man’s ingenuity, many by the craft of demons
At this point, it may be, our opponents will answer, ‘Of course, all those marvels have no reality: we do not believe a word of them. The tales about them, and the records of them, are all lies.’ And they may go on to add their arguments, and say, ‘If those tales are to be believed, then you should also believe the story, told in the same source, that there was, and still is, a shrine of Venus, with a lampstand in it, and in the lampstand a lamp which burns under the open sky so steadily that no storm of wind or rain could ever put it out;12 and hence, like the stone you mentioned, it is called the Lychnos asbestos.‘the inextinguishable lamp’. It is quite possible that they will make this objection, and their purpose will be to confront us with a dilemma: if we say that this story is not to be believed, we shall weaken the authority of the records of marvels we quoted, whereas if we admit its credibility, we shall be supporting the power of the pagan gods. But, as I said in the eighteenth book of this work,13 we are not obliged to believe everything contained in the historical records of the pagans, since their chroniclers, as Varro declares, seem to be at pains to differ from one another – apparently of set purpose! But we are free to believe, if we so choose, those reports which are not in conflict with the books which, as we have no doubt, we are obliged to believe. Now in the matter of these marvels we may content ourselves with those which we can find in our own experience and those for which there is no difficulty in finding adequate evidence. These should be sufficient for our purpose, to persuade the unbelievers of those events which are to come. As for this shrine of Venus and its ‘inextinguishable lamp’, not only does it fail to constrict us in our argument; it actually opens up a wider field for us. For we can add to that inextinguishable lamp a host of other marvels of human and of magical origin – that is, miracles of the demon’s black arts performed by men, and miracles performed by the demons themselves. If we choose to deny the reality of these, we shall ourselves be in conflict with the truth of the sacred books in which we believe. Thus either human ingenuity has devised in that inextinguishable lamp some contrivance based on the asbestos stone; or else it was contrived by magic art to give men something to marvel at in that shrine; or perhaps some demon presented himself there under the name of Venus with such effect that this prodigy was displayed to the public there and continued there for so many years. For the demons are enticed to take up their abodes by the action of created beings, created not by them, but by God; they are attracted by a wide variety of baits, proportionate to the wide variety of demons, not by food, as animals are enticed, but as spirits they are allured by tokens – designed to suit their different tastes – in the shape of various kinds of stones, plants, pieces of wood, animals, spells and ceremonies.
The demons, for their part, seek to ensure that they will be so enticed by men; and they do this by first misleading human beings by their subtle cleverness, either by breathing a secret poison into their hearts, or even by appearing to them in the deceptive guise of friends, making a few of them disciples of their own, and teachers of very many others. For it would be impossible for men to discover, without previous instruction from the demons themselves, the different likes and aversions of the various demons, the names by which they are to be invoked or compelled to do man’s will. Hence comes the first appearance of the magic arts and their practitioners. But their most effective hold upon the hearts of mortals (and it is in the possession of them that they especially glory) is gained when they transform themselves into angels of light.14
We see then that their activities are very numerous, and the more we acknowledge the marvel of them the more careful we should be to avoid them. And yet those activities actually prove a help to us towards the achievement of our present task. For if the foul demons have such power, 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.
Thus God’s created beings can, by the use of human arts, effect so many marvels, which they call mêchanêmata (contrivances), of a nature so astounding that those unfamiliar with them would suppose them to be the works of God himself. That is how in one of the temples an image of iron hung suspended in mid-air between two loadstones of the required size, fastened, one in the floor, the other in the roof, suggesting to those who did not know what was above and beneath the image that it hung there by an exercise of divine power;15 and we have already said that something of this sort may have been effected by some craftsman in the case of the well-known ‘Lamp of Venus’ by the use of the asbestos stone. And it seems that the demons can raise the operations of the magicians (our Scriptures call them ‘sorcerers’ and ‘enchanters’) to such a pitch of efficiency that Virgil, that famous poet, thought himself to be in harmony with the general sense of mankind when he wrote these lines about a woman who was a great mistress of that kind of art:
She promises with spells to soothe man’s mind,
If she so will, or to inflict harsh sorrow;
To stop the flow of rivers, turn the stars
Back on their course. She will arouse the spirits
That haunt the night; and you will feel the earth
Groaning beneath your feet, and from the mountains
Behold the trees descending to the plain.16
Now, if all this be true, how much more has God the power to achieve things incredible to the unbeliever but easy to his omnipotence, seeing that he himself endowed stones and other substances with their wonderful properties, and that he it is who bestowed on man the wit to employ those properties in marvellous ways, and gave to the angels a nature with powers surpassing those of all living creatures on earth. And all this he did with a power whose wonder exceeds all wonders taken together, with a wisdom shown in the wonders he performs, in those which he orders, in those which he permits; and the use he makes of his creation is as wonderful as the act of creation itself.
7. The omnipotence of the Creator is the ground of belief in marvels
Then why should not God have power to make the bodies of the dead rise again, and the bodies of the damned to suffer torment in the everlasting fire, since he made the world so full of innumerable marvels in the sky, on the earth, in the air, and in the water – although the world itself is beyond doubt a marvel greater and more wonderful than all the wonders with which it is filled? But these rationalists with whom, or rather against whom, we are now engaged, also believe in the existence of God, by whom the world was made; and they believe in gods created by him, through whose agency he governs the world; and either they do not deny or else they go further and openly proclaim that there are powers in the universe which effect marvels, whether produced spontaneously or obtained by the performance of some kind of rite or ceremony, or even achieved by magic arts.
And yet, when we put before them an instance of some wonderful property displayed by other substances which are neither rational living creatures nor spirits endowed with any kind of reason (the kind of thing of which I have mentioned a few instances), then their usual reply is, ‘This is the force of nature; this is their natural quality; these are the special properties of their natural substances.’ This, then, is the complete rational explanation! This explains why flame makes the salt of Agrigentum fluid, while water makes it crackle –because that is its nature! And yet this appears to be in. fact contrary to nature; for nature has given to salt the property of dissolving in water, and to fire, and not to water, the property of drying. ‘Ah yes’, they say, ‘but it is the natural property of this particular salt to display these contrary effects.’ Very good. Then this is the rational explanation offered in the case of the spring of Garamantum, where the same source is cold in the daytime and boiling hot at night, both properties causing distress to those who touch; and it applies also to that other spring which is cold to the touch and, like other springs, extinguishes a burning torch, and yet, unlike other springs, and miraculously, it also rekindles the torch it has put out; and to the asbestos stone, which has no fire of its own, and yet, when it has received fire, blazes so fiercely with a fire not its own that it cannot be quenched; and to other marvels besides which it would be tedious to go over. Although they may seem to display an inherent property which is unexampled and contrary to nature, the only rational explanation that is offered is, ‘That is their nature’! A good short answer, to be sure! A sufficient reason, indeed!
But since God is the author of all natures, why do they object to our supplying a stronger reason? For 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. For God is certainly called ‘Almighty’ for one reason only; that he has the power to do whatever he wills, and he has the power to create so many things which would be reckoned obviously impossible, if they were not displayed to our senses or else reported by witnesses who have always proved reliable; and this applies not only to phenomena very unfamiliar to us but even to the most familiar instances I have quoted. As for the accounts which have no supporting evidence beyond the statements of the authors of the books in which we read them, and which are written by authors not instructed by divine inspiration and therefore susceptible, perhaps, to human delusion, it is open to anyone to withhold belief from them, and no one can justly be blamed for so doing.
For myself, indeed, I do not wish all the instances I have quoted to be believed without question; I myself do not believe them all implicitly, in the sense of having no doubt at all in my mind, apart from those of which I have had personal experience, or which can easily be put to the proof by anyone at all. Examples of these are: the fact that lime grows hot in water, and remains cold in oil; that the loadstone by some insensible power of suction attracts iron, though it will not stir a straw; that the flesh of a peacock does not putrefy, whereas Plato’s body decayed; that chaff is cool, in the sense that it keeps snow from melting, and warm, in the sense that it brings apples to ripeness; that a bright fire bakes stones to a shining whiteness appropriate to its own brilliance, while it bums most things to a dusky hue quite contrary to that brilliance. There is a similar paradox in the fact that dark stains are spread from shining oil, and likewise dark lines are imprinted by gleaming silver, and That in some substances blazing fire effects a reversal of their qualities: beautiful woods become unsightly, durable timber becomes brittle, and timber liable to rot is made resistant to decay.
I have personal knowledge of these facts, some of which are known to all, others to most people; and there are a great many other such facts which it would be tedious to insert in this book. However, with regard to the instances I quoted from my reading and not from my own experience, I have not been able to find any reliable witnesses to establish the truth of these stories, except for the report about the spring in which burning torches are extinguished and then relit, and the account of the apples of Sodom, which look ripe on the outside but inside are full of smoke. In fact in the case of that spring I have not found any witnesses to declare that they have seen it in Epirus, but I have encountered people who know a similar fountain in Gaul, not far from Grenoble. The apples of Sodom, on the other hand, are attested not only in literary sources worthy of credence, but also by many who talk of them from personal experience; and so I cannot doubt the truth of the report.
As for the other stories, my position is that I have decided that I should neither affirm nor deny their truth; but I have quoted them along with the others for the very reason that I have read them in authorities from the side of our antagonists. My purpose here is to demonstrate the kind of marvels recorded in profusion in pagan literature and generally believed by our opponents, although no rational explanation is offered, whereas the same people cannot bring themselves to believe us, even though rational grounds are produced, when we say that Almighty God is to perform an act which lies outside their experience and contravenes the evidence of their senses. For what better reason or more valid ground could be given in such matters than when the assertion that the Almighty can achieve this result and the statement that he is going to achieve it is supported by the written evidence that he has foretold this achievement, evidence contained in books in which he foretold many other acts which he is proved to have performed? He will certainly effect what are supposed to be impossibilities, because he has foretold that he will do so; for in the past he has fulfilled his promises and has thus ensured belief in things that passed belief, even from nations that refused belief.
8. A change of some property in a substance is not contrary to nature
However, our opponents may retort, their refusal to believe in our assertion that human bodies are destined to bum for ever and that these bodies will never the is based on this consideration: that we know that the nature of human bodies has been very differently constituted; and hence it is impossible here to advance the explanation offered in respect of those natural marvels we have mentioned. It cannot in this case be said that ‘this is a natural power’ or ‘this is a natural property of this substance’; for in fact we are aware that this is not a natural property of human bodies.
Now we have an answer to this, based on our sacred books, namely, that this human flesh of ours was differently constituted before man’s sin; I mean that it was possible for this flesh never to suffer death. That condition changed after man’s sin, and man’s flesh became what it has always been known to be in this distressful situation of mortality, so that it cannot hold on to life for ever; by the same token, at the resurrection of the dead it will be differently constituted from the flesh as it is known to us. But our opponents do not believe in those books of ours, in which we read the description of man’s condition when he lived in paradise and learn how remote he was from the inevitability of death. For if they believed them, then of course we should not be engaged with them in a laborious debate about the punishment of the damned. As it is, then, we shall have to produce some evidence from the writings of the most learned of their own authors, to show that it is possible for a particular substance to acquire a character different from that which has become familiar in experience as belonging to the definition of its nature.
There is a passage in Marcus Varro’s book entitled On the Race of the Roman People which I will quote in the author’s own words:
A wonderful portent appeared in the sky. Castor17 writes that in the well-known star Venus, called Vesperugo by Plautus, and Hesperus by Homer18 (who speaks of it as ‘most beautiful’), a remarkable portent appeared. The star actually changed its colour, its size, its shape, and its course; a thing which had never happened before, and has never happened again. This occurred in the reign of King Ogygus,19 according to the famous mathematicians Adrastus of Cyzicus and Dion of Neapolis.
Now Varro would certainly not have called this phenomenon a portent if it had not seemed contrary to nature; in fact we say, as a matter of course, that all portents are contrary to nature. But they are not. For how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing? A portent, therefore, does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what is known of nature.
Now who can count the enormous number of portents which are included in pagan histories? But at the moment we must confine our attention to what is relevant to the matter in hand. Is there anything so firmly regulated by the author of the nature of the sky and the earth as the orderly course of the stars? Is there anything so securely established by unvarying laws? And yet, when it so pleased him who rules his own creation with supreme dominion and power, the star renowned beyond all other stars for size and splendour altered its size, its shape and, still more wonderful, the decreed order of its course. On that occasion this star certainly upset the rules of the astrologers, if any of those rules were by then in existence. For astrologers have their written rules according to which they compute, by calculations thought to be infallible, the past and future movements of the stars: and in reliance on those rules they have been bold enough to assert that what happened then to Lucifer never happened before and has never happened afterwards.
We, on the other hand, have read in our sacred books that even the sun itself stood still, when that holy man Joshua asked this boon from the Lord God, until the battle on which he was engaged came to a victorious end;20 and that it turned back in its course, to signify by this prodigy, as an adjunct to God’s promise, the addition of fifteen years to the life of King Hezekiah.21 But when the pagans believe in the reality of such miracles as those, which were granted to the merits of the saints, they ascribe them to magic arts. Hence the line which I quoted earlier from Virgil:
To stop the flow of rivers, turn the stars
Back on their course.22
For in fact we read in our sacred books that a river stood still and its waters flowed upstream and downstream when, under the leadership of the above-mentioned Joshua, the People of God made their way across, and that the same thing happened when Elijah the prophet crossed over, followed by his disciple Elisha.23 And I have just mentioned that the greatest of stars turned back on its course in the reign of Hezekiah. But the behaviour of Lucifer as recorded by Varro is not there said to have occurred in response to a petition from any human being.
Those unbelievers therefore must not throw dust in their own eyes in this matter of the knowledge of nature, and assume that it is not possible for something to occur in any substance through the exercise of divine power, which conflicts with the property of that substance as known to them in their own human experience. And yet the natural phenomena known to all men are no less wonderful, and would be a source of astonishment to all who observe them, if it were not man’s habit to restrict his wonder at miracles to the rarities. For example, could anyone fail to see, on rational consideration, how marvellous it is that, despite the countless numbers of mankind, and despite the great similarity among men through their possession of a common nature, each individual has his unique individual appearance? The truth is that if there were not this underlying similarity man could not be distinguished as a separate species from the other animals, while at the same time, without those individual differences, one man could not be distinguished from another. Thus we acknowledge that men are alike, and equally we discover that they are different. Now it is the observation of the differences between men that should arouse our wonder; for the likeness would seem to be normal, as something demanded by our common nature. And yet because it is rarities that arouse wonder, we are much more astonished when we find two people so alike that we are always, or very frequently, making mistakes when we try to distinguish them.
But it may be that our friends do not believe the story reported, as I said, by Varro, although he is one of their authorities, and the most learned authority at that; or else they are less impressed by the alleged incident because the star did not continue for long out of its accustomed course, but soon returned to its orbit. Here then is another instance for them, something which can be demonstrated at the present day, and something which, I imagine, should suffice to warn them that when they have observed some characteristics in the constitution of any substance in nature, and have made themselves familiar with it, they ought not to put limitations on God as a result of this, and assume that he cannot alter it and change it into something very different from what they have known of it. The land of Sodom was once, as we know, not as it is today. It once presented an appearance like that of other countries, and was as rich and fertile as any, if not more so; in fact in the inspired narrative it is compared to God’s paradise.24 But after it was smitten from heaven – a fact confirmed by pagan records also,25 and the evidence can today be seen by visitors to those parts – it became and still remains 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. Note that the land was not always like this, and yet it is like this today. See how its nature was changed, by the Creator of all natures, into this disgusting condition, so different from what it was. What a miracle of transformation! It was a long time before this fate came to it; and it has long continued in that sorry state.
So, 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. Hence the enormous crop of marvels, which we call ‘monsters’, ‘signs’, ‘portents’, or ‘prodigies’; if I chose to recall them and mention them all, would there ever be an end to this work? The name ‘monster’, we are told, evidently comes from monstrare, ‘to show’, because they show by signifying something; ‘sign’ (ostentum) comes from ostendere, ‘to point out’, ‘portent’ from portendere, ‘to portend’, that is, ‘to show beforehand’ (praeostendere), and ‘prodigy’ from porro dicere, ‘to foretell the future’. Those who divine by such signs are often at fault in the predictions they base on them; or they may give true forecasts, under the influence of evil spirits, whose aim it is to entangle in the toils of baneful superstition the minds of such human beings who deserve that kind of punishment; or else in the course of their many predictions they may from time to time hit upon some truth. How all this comes about, it is up to these interpreters to decide!
Now these signs are, apparently, contrary to nature and they are called ‘unnatural’; and the Apostle uses the same human way of speaking when he talks of the wild olive being ‘unnaturally’ grafted on to the cultivated tree, and sharing in the richness of the garden olive. For us, however, they have a message. These ‘monsters’, ‘signs’, ‘portents’, and ‘prodigies’, as they are called, ought to ‘show’ us, to ‘point out’ to us, to ‘portend’ and ‘foretell’, that God is to do what he prophesied that he would do with the bodies of the dead, with no difficulty to hinder him, no law of nature to debar him from so doing. And how he has foretold this, I have, I think, sufficiently shown in my previous book, by extracting from the Old and the New Testament not indeed all the passages relevant to the topic, but what I judged to be enough for the purpose of this work.
9. The nature of eternal punishment
Therefore what God said through the mouth of his prophet, about the eternal punishment of the damned, will come true; it will most certainly come true that ‘their worm will never the and their fire will not go out.’26 Our Lord Jesus himself took care to emphasize this with even greater vehemence when he spoke of the bodily parts which cause a man to go wrong, making them stand for the people whom a man loves as he loves his own right hand. He bids him cut them off: ‘It is better for you to go into life maimed’ he says, ‘than to keep both hands and go to hell, into the inextinguishable fire, where their worm never dies and their fire does not go out.’ Similarly, he says of the foot: ‘It is better for you to go lame into eternal life than to keep both feet and be consigned to hell, to the inextinguishable fire, where their worm never dies, and their fire does not go out.’ He says the same about the eye: ‘It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than to keep both eyes and be consigned to the hell of fire, where their worm never dies and their fire does not go out.’27 He did not find it irksome to repeat the same form of words three times in the same passage. Who could fail to be appalled at this repetition, this vehement emphasis on that punishment, uttered from his divine lips?
Now as for this fire and this worm, there are some who want to make both of them refer to the pains of the soul, not of the body. They say that those whose penitence is too late, and therefore ineffectual, those who have thus been separated from God, are burnt in the fire of the soul’s sorrow and pain; and therefore, they maintain, ‘fire’ is quite appropriately used as a symbol for that burning pain. That is why the Apostle says, ‘If anyone is led astray, do I not burn with indignation?’28 They suppose that the ‘worm’ is to be taken in the same way; for, they say, the Scripture says, ‘like the moth in a garment, or the worm in timber, so does sorrow torment the heart of a man.’29 Those, on the other hand, who feel sure that in that punishment there will be pain of both soul and body declare that the body is burnt by the fire while the soul is, in a sense, gnawed by the ‘worm’ of sorrow. This is a more plausible suggestion, inasmuch as it is obviously absurd to suppose that in that state either soul or body will be exempt from pain. And yet for my part I should be more ready to ascribe both of them to the body than neither of them, and to assume that the scriptural statement is silent about the pain of the soul for this reason, that, although it is not stated, it is taken as implied that when the body is thus in pain, the soul also will be tortured with unavailing remorse. For in the Old Testament we have this saying, ‘The punishment of the flesh of the wicked is the fire and the worm’;30 which could be put more briefly as ‘the punishment of the wicked’. The reason for the addition of ‘the flesh’ can surely only be that both the fire and the worm will be punishments of the body. Or it may be that the writer chose to say ‘the punishment of the flesh’ because what will be punished in a man is his wickedness in having lived a life of fleshly sensuality; for that is the reason why he will come to the second death, which is what the Apostle means when he says, ‘If you live on the level of fleshly sensuality, you will die.’31
Well then, each one of us must choose as he thinks fit between those interpretations. He may ascribe the fire to the body, and the worm to the mind, the former literally and the latter metaphorically; or he may attribute both, in the literal sense, to the body. For in any case I have sufficiently argued that it is possible for living creatures to remain alive in the fire, being burnt without being consumed, feeling pain without incurring death; and this by means of a miracle of the omnipotent Creator. Anyone who says that this is impossible for the Creator does not realize who is responsible for whatever marvels he finds in the whole of the world of nature. It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles and the minor marvels which I have mentioned; and he has included them all in that unique wonder, that miracle of miracles, the world itself.
Then let each one choose the alternative he prefers; he may think either that the worm, along with the fire, refers, in the literal sense, to the bodily punishment, or that it refers to the punishment of the soul, the word being used by a transference of sense from the material to the immaterial. Which of these is the true explanation will be all too swiftly revealed by the actual event, when the knowledge of the saints will be such as to need no experience to teach them the truth about those pains; that wisdom, which will then be full and perfect, will then suffice by itself for them to know this also – for ‘now our knowledge is partial’, until perfection comes.32 The important thing is that we should never believe that those bodies are to be such as to feel no anguish in the fire.
10. If the fire of hell is material fire, can it affect immaterial demons?
At this point we are confronted with another question: If this fire is not to be immaterial, like the pain of the soul, but material fire, inflicting pain by contact, so that bodies can be tortured by it, then how will there be punishment in it for the evil spirits? It is obviously the same fire which will be used for the punishment of the demons as well as human beings; for Christ says, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed, into the eternal fire, which is prepared for the Devil and his angels.’33 Now it may well be that demons have a kind of body of their own, as learned men have thought, composed of the thick moist air of this atmosphere whose pressure we feel when the wind is blowing. If an element of this sort could not be affected by fire it would not burn us when it has been heated in the baths; for it is first burned so that it can burn, and it passes on an experience it undergoes.
If, however, anyone maintains that demons have no bodies at all, there is no need for us to toil at a laborious inquiry into the question, or to engage in any contentious debate. Why, in fact, should we not say that immaterial spirits can be tormented by the pain of material fire in a way which is real, however amazing, seeing that the spirit of man, which without doubt is immaterial also, can at this present time be shut up within the framework of a material body, and that it will be possible at the judgement for them to be bound to their bodies with an indissoluble connection? And so, even if they have no bodies, the spirits of the demons, or rather the demons who are spirits, will be in contact with material fires for their torment, though they themselves are immaterial. This will not mean that the fires with which they are in contact will, because of this conjunction, receive spirit and so become living beings, composed of body and spirit. As I said, this contact will be in a wondrous manner that cannot be described; and the spirits, instead of giving life to the fire, will receive their punishment from the fire. There is a different manner of contact of spirit with body, which produces a living being; and that conjunction is utterly amazing and beyond our powers of comprehension. I am speaking of man himself.
I should indeed have said that the spirits are destined to burn, without possessing any material body, just as the rich man was on fire in Hades when he said, ‘I am tortured in those flames’;34 this is what I should have said, if I had not observed that the appropriate reply would be that the flames in the parable were of the same kind as the eyes which the rich man ‘raised and saw Lazarus’, and the tongue on which he longed for a drop of water to be poured, and the finger of Lazarus which he suggested as the instrument of that boon – and yet these characters were souls without bodies. Thus the flames burning the rich man and the little drop of water he craved were of the same nature as visions seen in dreams, or in an ecstasy, when people perceive entities which are immaterial and yet display the likeness of material realities. For even when the subject himself appears in such visions (in spirit, not in body), he sees himself there so like his own bodily appearance as to be completely indistinguishable from it. But in fact that hell, which is also called ‘the lake of fire and sulphur’,35 will be a material fire and will torture the bodies of the damned, whether the bodies of human beings and also of demons – the solid bodies of human beings, the demons’ bodies of air – or the body together with the spirit in the case of human beings, but in the case of demons the spirits without bodies – those spirits being in contact with the fire for their punishment, not for the imparting of life to material fire. The fire will assuredly be one and the same for both classes of the damned, as the Truth has told us.
11. The proportion between the offence and the punishment in respect of time
Now some of those adversaries against whose attacks we are defending the City of God may consider it unjust that in retribution for sins which, however serious, were certainly committed in a short space of time, each person should be condemned to eternal punishment; 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 offence! Cicero36 tells us that there were eight types of punishment provided in the laws: fines, imprisonment, flogging, equivalent damages, deprivation, exile, death, and slavery. Now can any of those be confined within the brief space of time that would correspond to the swiftness of the misdeed, so that the punishment should be effected in the few moments that it takes to arrest the offender? Perhaps the fourth punishment, but no other. For ‘equivalent damages’ is the procedure by which the offender suffers what he has inflicted, as prescribed in the law of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.37 It is in fact possible for a man to lose an eye by this severe act of vengeance, in as short a time as it took him to put out the other man’s eye by his heinous crime. But, to take another case, if it is thought reasonable that a man should be flogged for kissing another man’s wife, then surely the action of a moment is punished by a flogging whose pain lasts a matter of hours. There is no comparison between the durations; and a fleeting pleasure is punished by a lasting pain. Then again, what of imprisonment? Are we to suppose that each offender is to be judged to deserve imprisonment for as long a time as it took to commit the offence for which he is confined? In fact, a slave is very justly punished by a term of years in fetters when he has attacked his master with a passing word or has inflicted on him a blow that is over in a swift second. While as for fines, deprivations, exile, and slavery, these are generally imposed without any prospect of pardon or relaxation; and in that case, do they not appear like eternal punishments by the standard of this mortal life? The only reason why they cannot be everlasting is that this life, in which this punishment is inflicted, is itself not extended into eternity. Yet the offences which are punished by the longest possible retribution are committed in the shortest possible time; and no one has ever stood up to advance the proposal that the torments of the guilty should be limited to the time taken to commit homicide, adultery, sacrilege, or any of those crimes whose enormity is to be measured not by the length of time they take, but by the magnitude of their wickedness and impiety.
As for the criminal who suffers capital punishment for some grave offence, do the laws estimate his punishment according to the time that it takes to kill him, which is very short, and ignore the fact that he is removed for ever from the company of the living? Thus the removal of men from this mortal community by the punishment of the first death answers to their removal from that Immortal City by the punishment of the second death. For just as the laws of the former city have no power to recall to that community one who has been put to death, so, when a man has been condemned to the second death, the laws of that other City cannot call him back to life eternal. What becomes then, they ask, of the truth of Christ’s saying, ‘With whatever measure you deal out to others, it will be dealt to you in return’,38 if temporal sin is punished with eternal pains? But they do not observe that ‘the same measure’ has reference not to the equality of the time of the retribution, but to the equivalence of evil, in that one who does evil will have evil done to him; although the statement may be taken as referring directly to the subject about which the Lord was speaking at the time, the subject of judgement and condemnation. In that case if a man who judges unjustly and condemns unjustly is justly judged and condemned, he receives ‘in the same measure’ even though what he receives is not what he gave. He did something by a judicial act and it is by a judicial act that something is done to him; and yet what he did in condemning was an act of injustice, whereas it is an act of justice that he suffers by being condemned.
12. The magnitude of the first transgression, making liable to eternal punishment all who are outside the Saviour’s grace
Now the reason why eternal punishment appears harsh and unjust to human sensibilities, is that in this feeble condition of those sensibilities under their condition of mortality man lacks the sensibility of the highest and purest wisdom, the sense which should enable him to feel the gravity of the wickedness in the first act of disobedience. For the more intimate the first man’s enjoyment of God, the greater his impiety in abandoning God. By so 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’; for he who committed the first sin was punished, and along with him all the stock which had its roots in him. The result is that there is no escape for anyone from this justly deserved punishment, except by merciful and undeserved grace; and mankind is divided between those in whom the power of merciful grace is demonstrated, and those in whom is shown the might of just retribution. Neither of those could be displayed in respect of all mankind; for if all had remained condemned to the punishment entailed by just condemnation, then God’s merciful grace would not have been seen at work in anyone; on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness into light, the truth of God’s vengeance would not have been made evident. Now there are many more condemned by vengeance than are released by mercy; and the reason for this is that it should in this way be made plain what was the due of all mankind. For if this due punishment were imposed on all, no one would have the right to criticize the justice of God in that retribution; but the fact that so many are released from it is the ground for heart-felt thanksgiving for the free bounty of our Deliverer.
13. The false notion that punishment after death is merely for purification
Now the Platonists39, while refusing to believe that any sins go unpunished, hold that all punishments are directed towards purification, whether they are punishments inflicted by human laws or those imposed by divine decree, and whether the latter are suffered in this life, or after death, when someone is spared in this life, or when his affliction does not result in his correction. This belief is expressed in the passage in Virgil, where he first speaks of earthly bodies and their mortal parts, and says of men’s souls that
Hence come desire and fear, gladness and sorrow,
They look not up to heaven, but lie confined
In darkness and the sightless dungeon’s gloom.
and then goes on immediately:
Yet at their last light, when the life departs,
(that is when this mortal life leaves them at their last day)
Even then they are not freed from woe and pain;
The body’s plagues do not vanish utterly.
For many evils, hardening deep within
Must needs grow rooted there in wondrous wise.
Therefore they suffer chastisement of pain,
Paying the price of ancient sin. And some
Are hung suspended in the idle winds;
Others are washed from guilt beneath the surge
Of the vast deep; in others the infection
Is burned away by fire.40
Those who hold this view will have it that the only punishments after death are those intended to purify, so that souls may be cleansed from any infection contracted by contact with the earth by purifying pains inflicted by one of the elements superior to the earth, which are air, fire and water. The air is meant by the phrase ‘suspended in the winds’, the water, by ‘the vast deep’, while the fire is expressly named in ‘is burned away by fire’. On our part we acknowledge that even in this mortal life there are indeed some purificatory punishments; but penalties inflicted on those whose life is not improved thereby or is even made worse, are not purificatory. Punishments are a means of purification only to those who are disciplined and corrected by them. All other punishments, whether temporal or eternal, are imposed on every person in accordance with the treatment he is to receive from God’s providence; they are imposed either in retribution for sins, whether past sins or sins in which the person so chastised is still living, or else they serve to exercise and to display the virtues of the good; and they are administered through the agency of men, or of angels, whether good or evil angels. It must be observed that when any man suffers any harm through the wickedness or the mistake of another, then that other human being commits a sin in doing some harm to another man either through ignorance or through ill-will; God commits no sin in allowing this wrong to happen by his decision, which is just, albeit inscrutable. As for temporal pains, some people suffer them in this life only, others after death, others both in this life and in the other;41 yet all this precedes that last and strictest judgement. However, not all men who endure temporal pains after death come into those eternal punishments, which are to come after that judgement. Some, in fact, will receive forgiveness in the world to come for what is not forgiven in this, as I have said above, so that they may not be punished with the eternal chastisement of the world to come.
14. The temporal pains of this life, to which the human condition is subject
But there are very few who undergo no punishments in this life, and suffer them only after death. However, I myself have known and heard of some who up to the decrepitude of old age never experienced as much as the mildest of fevers, whose whole life has been undisturbed; and yet the whole of man’s life is pain, because the whole of it is temptation, as the holy Scriptures proclaim. For Scripture says, ‘Is human life on the earth anything but temptation?’42 Folly and ignorance are in themselves no small punishment, and it is rightly considered that they should at all costs be avoided – so much so that children are compelled, by dint of painful punishments, either to learn a craft or to acquire a literary education. And the process of learning with its attendant punishment is so painful that children not infrequently prefer to endure the punishments designed to compel them to learn, rather than to submit to the process of learning. In fact is there anyone who, faced with the choice between death and a second childhood, would not shrink in dread from the latter prospect and elect to die? Infancy, indeed, starts this life not with smiles but with tears; and this is, in a way, an unconscious prophecy of the troubles on which it is entering. It is said that Zoroaster was the only human being who smiled when he was born,43 and yet that portent of a smile boded no good for him. For he was, so they say, the inventor of magic arts;44 and yet those arts did not avail him anything, not even in respect of the insubstantial felicity of this present life; for he was king of Bactria, but he was overcome in war by Ninus, king of Assyria.45 It is altogether inevitable that those words of Scripture should prove true, ‘A heavy yoke is laid on Adam’s sons, from the day they issue from their mother’s womb until the day when they go for burial to the mother of all things.’46 So true is this that even the infants who are set free, by the washing of rebirth, from the fetters of original sin (which was the only sin that bound them) still endure many afflictions, and some of them even suffer from time to time the assaults of malignant spirits. And yet we must never think that these sufferings can do them real harm, even if they grow so severe as to cut off the soul from the body, so that they bring this life to an end at that tender age.
15. The whole of God’s redeeming work has reference to the world to come
Nevertheless in the heavy yoke laid on Adam’s sons, from the day they issue from their mother’s womb until the day they go for burial to the mother of all things’ even this evil is found to be marvellous in its effect, in that it induces us to live soberly and to realize that because of the first and supremely grave 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. In this world we are given an earnest of that inheritance, and we shall at the appointed time come into the inheritance of which this is a pledge; but at present we go on our way in hope, and we make progress from day to day as we ‘put to death the evil actions of the body by the power of the Spirit’. For ‘God knows those who belong to him’, and ‘all those who are led by God’s Spirit are the sons of God’;47 but they are sons by grace, not by nature; for God’s only Son by nature was made the Son of Man for us by compassion, so that we who by nature are sons of men might become sons of God through him by grace. He, as we know, 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. For just as we have descended to this evil state through one man who sinned, so through one man48 (who is also God) who justifies us we shall ascend to that height of goodness. And yet no one should be confident that he has passed over from the one state to the other, until he has arrived where there will be no more temptation – until he has achieved that peace which is his aim in the many varied struggles of this present warfare, in which ‘the desires of the body oppose the spirit, and the spirit fights against the body’s desires.’49 Now this war would never have been if human nature had, by free choice, persisted in that right condition in which it was created. As it is, however, human nature has refused to keep that peace with God in happiness; and so in its unhappiness it is at war with itself. And yet this evil state is better than the earlier condition of this life; for it is better to struggle against vices than to be free from conflict under their domination. Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation. Our desire is, indeed, to be free even of this war; and by the fire of divine love we are set on fire with longing to attain that orderly peace where the lower elements may be subdued to the higher in a stability that can never be shaken. But even if (perish the thought!) there were no hope of attaining this great good, we ought none the less to prefer to continue in this state of conflict, with all its troubles, than to allow our vices to have dominion over us by ceasing to resist.
16. The laws of grace which govern every stage in the life of the regenerate
But so great is God’s mercy towards the ‘vessels of mercy which he has designed for glory’50 that although in infancy, the first age of man, the child is under the control of bodily desires and offers no resistance to them; nevertheless, if the child has received the sacrament of our Mediator, then even if his life ends at this age, he has assuredly been ‘transferred from the power of darkness’51 into the kingdom of Christ, and not only is he not destined for everlasting pains but he will not even undergo any purifying torments after death. The same holds true for the second age, which we call childhood, when reason has not yet undertaken the battle against the lower nature, and when, in general, the child is dominated by all kinds of vicious pleasures, because although he now has the power of speech, his undeveloped mind is not yet capable of understanding the commandments. For this spiritual rebirth is by itself enough to ensure that the baptized will not be debarred from felicity by the evil contracted, along with death, in physical birth. But when the child arrives at years of discretion, when he can now understand the commandments and can be subject to the rule of the Law, then he must take up the struggle against evil impulses, and fight vigorously, to avoid being led into sins which will bring damnation. And if those impulses have not yet grown strong and their victory has not become habitual, then they are more easily overcome, and they yield to the victor; but if they have grown accustomed to conquest and command, victory over them is difficult, and costs great hardship. And this warfare is not waged with genuinely whole-hearted purpose, unless the motive is the love of true righteousness, which comes through faith in Christ. For if the Law is there with its commands, but the Spirit with its help is absent, the very prohibition of the sin increases the craving for sin, and when that craving wins the day, the guilt of transgression is added to the evil impulses. Not infrequently, to be sure, the obvious vices are overcome by vices so masked that they are reputed virtues; and the king of those is pride, an exalted self-satisfaction which brings a disastrous fall. Then, and only then, must those evil impulses be reckoned as defeated, when they are defeated by the love of God, which none but God himself can give; and he gives it only through ‘the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’,52 who was made partaker of our mortality to make us partakers of his divinity. Very few are so lucky as to avoid committing some sin worthy of damnation after they have entered on adolescence, either a moral offence or breach of the Law or some false opinion showing a criminal impiety; very few young men succeed in overcoming, with the abundant help of the Spirit, everything which could gain the mastery over them through the temptations of sensual pleasure. Very many, however, when they have accepted the authority of the commandments, are first vanquished by overpowering impulses of evil, and become transgressors of the Law, then they have recourse to the help of his grace, so that with this assistance they may win the victory by bitter penitence and more strenuous warfare, when they have first subjected their mind to God and have thus put their mind in command of their sensual desires.
It follows that anyone who desires to escape everlasting pains needs not only to be baptized but also to be justified in Christ, and thus to pass from the Devil to Christ. But he should not imagine that any pains will be purificatory, except those that precede that ultimate and terrible judgement. However it is certainly not to be denied that the eternal fire itself will be proportionate to the deserts of the wicked, which differ though all alike are evil; and for some it will be milder, for others more severe, whether the fire itself will vary in its power and heat in proportion to the punishment of each sinner, or whether its heat will be everywhere the same but the pain will be felt in different degrees.
17. The opinion that punishment will not last for ever
I am aware that I now have to engage in a debate, devoid of rancour, with those compassionate Christians who refuse to believe that the punishment of hell will be everlasting either in the case of all those men whom the completely just Judge accounts deserving of that chastisement, or at least in the case of some of them; they hold that they are to be set free after fixed limits of time have been passed, the periods being longer or shorter in proportion to the magnitude of their offences. On this subject the most compassionate of all was Origen, who believed that the Devil himself and his angels will be rescued from their torments and brought into the company of the holy angels, after the more severe and more lasting chastisements appropriate to their deserts.53 But the Church has rejected Origen’s teaching,54 and not without good reason, on account of this opinion and a number of others, in particular his theory of the incessant alternations of misery and bliss, the endless shuttling to and fro between those states at predetermined epochs. For in fact he lost even the appearance of compassion in that he assigned to the saints genuine misery, by which they paid their penalties, and false bliss, in which they could not experience the joy of everlasting good in genuine security –I mean that they could not be certain of it without any apprehension.
Very different, however, is the error, promoted by tenderness of heart and human compassion, of those who suppose that the miseries of those condemned by that judgement will be temporal, whereas the felicity of all men, who are released after a shorter or longer period, will be everlasting. Now if this opinion is good and true, just because it is compassionate, then it will be the better and the truer the more compassionate it is. Then let the fountain of compassion be deepened and enlarged until it extends as far as the evil angels, who must be set free, although, of course, after many ages, and ages of any length that can be imagined! Why should this fountain flow as far as the whole of human kind, and then dry up as soon as it reaches the angels? And yet our friends cannot bring themselves to stretch out further in their-compassion until they reach the liberation of the Devil himself! Nevertheless, if anyone could bring himself to go so far he would outdo them in compassion! For all that, his error would manifestly surpass all errors in its perversity, its wrong-headed contradiction of the express words of God, by the same margin as, in his own estimation, his belief surpasses all other opinions in its clemency.
18. The opinion that all men are to be saved from damnation by the intercession of the saints
There are even some people, as I know from having met them and talked with them, who give the appearance of reverencing the holy Scriptures and yet lead reprehensible lives; when such people plead their own case they attribute to God a tenderness towards the human race much more lavish than that ascribed to him by those I have just mentioned. They admit, indeed, that the divine predictions about the wicked and the unbelievers are true, in that this is the fate they deserve; but they maintain that when it comes to the judgement, mercy is destined to carry the day. For God, they say, will in his mercy grant them the prayers and intercessions of his saints; because if the saints prayed for them when they experienced their enmity, how much more will they intercede for them when they see them prostrated in humble supplication!
It is indeed incredible, they urge, that the saints should lose their tender feelings of compassion at a time when they have reached the fulfilment of perfect sanctity – incredible that whereas they prayed for their enemies in the past, when they themselves were not yet sinless, they should not now pray for their suppliants, when they themselves have entered on a state of sinlessness. Are we really to suppose that God will not listen to his children, all these beloved children, at a time when they have come to such a degree of holiness that he will find no hindrance to their entreaty?
There is a passage in the psalms which is quoted as evidence by those who allow the infidel and the ungodly to be released from all ills, though after a long period of torment; but our present tender-hearted ones claim it even more as evidence for their contention. It runs, ‘Will God really forget to be merciful? Will he in his wrath restrain his compassion?’55 His wrath, they say, means the infliction of eternal punishment, by his sentence, on all who are unworthy of everlasting bliss. But if God allows a long punishment, or even if he permits any punishment at all, then obviously he will be ‘restraining his compassion’, so that this can happen; and the psalmist says that he will not do this. For he does not say, ‘Will God in his anger really restrain his compassion for long?’ and so he implies that God will not restrain his compassion at all.
Now those who hold this view will have it that the threat of God’s judgement is not a lying threat, although in fact he is not going to condemn anyone, in the same way as we cannot say that it was a lying threat when God said that he was about to destroy the city of Nineveh.56 For then, they say, he did not fulfil his threat, although he foretold the fall of Nineveh unconditionally. He did not say, ‘Nineveh will be overthrown, unless the people repent and amend their ways’; he put in no such additional clause when he announced the coming destruction of that city. But they regard that threat as being truthful for this reason: that God predicted something that the Ninevites truly deserved to suffer, although he was not to bring it about. He spared them, to be sure, they say, but of course he was well aware that they would repent; and yet he predicted the coming destruction, absolutely and definitely. This then, they contend, was true in respect of the truth of his sternness, because they deserved it; but it was not true in consideration of his mercy, which he did not restrain in his wrath; and so he spared the suppliants the punishment with which he had threatened the unruly. Well then, they argue, if on this occasion he spared the Ninevites, when he was bound to disappoint his holy prophet by so doing, how much more will he spare those sinners, at their pitiful supplication, at a time when all his saints will be begging him to spare them!
This is the surmise they cherish; and they suppose that the reason for the silence of holy Scripture on this point is to ensure that many people should amend their lives for fear of lengthy or even everlasting pains, and that thus there should be people capable of praying for those who have not amended. And yet, in their opinion, the inspired oracles have not been completely silent on the point. For example, consider this quotation: ‘How great, Lord, is your kindness, which you have kept secret for those who fear you.’57 Surely, they say, the point of this is that we should understand that the great kindness of God has been hidden and kept secret to keep men in fear? They also quote the Apostle’s saying that ‘God has confined all men in unbelief, so that he may have compassion on all’,58 and they go on to say that what he intended to convey by this was that no one will be condemned by God.
And yet even the people who hold this view do not stretch their conjecture to include the liberation of the Devil and his angels, or even their exemption from damnation. They are in fact moved by a human compassion which is concerned only for human beings; and in particular they are pleading their own cause, promising themselves a delusive impunity for their own disreputable lives by supposing an all-embracing mercy of God towards the human race. And for that reason they are surpassed in their preaching of God’s mercy by those who promise this impunity even to the prince of the demons and to his satellites.
19. The opinion that even heretics will escape punishment through participation in the Body of Christ
Similarly, there are others who promise freedom from eternal chastisement not indeed to all men as such, but only to those who have been washed in Christ’s baptism, who are partakers of his body, whatever may have been the manner of their life, in whatever heresy or impiety they have been involved. They base this belief on the saying of Jesus, ‘This is the bread which comes down from heaven; and so anyone who has eaten of this bread will not the. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.’59 It follows, they say, that such people must needs be rescued from eternal death, and eventually be brought to eternal life.
20. The belief that salvation is confined to Catholics, who will be pardoned in spite of crimes and errors
Again, there are others who do not promise this exemption to all who have received the sacrament of his body, but restrict it to Catholics, however evil their lives, because they have eaten the Body of Christ not only in the sacramental sign but in reality, because they have been established in that Body of Christ, of which the Apostle says, ‘We are many; but we are one loaf, one Body.’60 And so they may 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 the 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.
21. The belief that all who hold the Catholic faith are to be saved, however evil their lives
There are some who quote, ‘The man who stands firm to the end will be saved’;61 and make this the basis for their assurance that those who continue in the Catholic Church, and only those, will attain salvation, however evil their lives; they are to be saved through fire, to be sure, thanks to the foundation of which the Apostle speaks. ‘No one.’ he says,
can lay any other foundation than the one that has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ. For if anyone builds on that foundation in gold, silver, precious stones, or in timber, hay, or straw, the work done by each man will be revealed. For the day will bring it to light. The day will be revealed in fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If a man’s work on that foundation stands up to the test, he will get his reward; if it is burnt down he will have to bear the loss; and yet he will be saved himself, like a man who has come through fire.62
Therefore, they say, the Catholic Christian, whatever the quality of his life, has Christ for his foundation, which no heresy, cut off from Christ’s Body, can have. And simply for that reason the Catholic Christian, even if he has lived an evil life, will, they suppose, be saved, just like the builders in timber, hay, or straw; like them, he will be saved ‘through fire’, that is, he will be set free after the pains of that fire which at the last judgement will be the instrument of punishment for the wicked.
22. The suggestion that offences committed amongst works of mercy will not be called into condemnation
I have discovered that some people hold that the only sinners who will bum in an eternity of punishment are those who omit to perform works of mercy as a fitting atonement for their sins. They base this belief on the saying of the apostle James, that ‘the judgement will be merciless on one who has shown no mercy.’63 It follows, they say, that anyone who has shown mercy, even though he has not changed his behaviour for the better, but has lived a life of crime and sin even in the midst of his works of mercy, will be treated with compassion at the judgement, so that either he will escape condemnation to any chastisement, or he will be released after a time, short or prolonged, from the punishment to which he is condemned. That is why, they hold, the Judge of the living and the dead chose to describe himself as speaking only about works of mercy performed or neglected when he addressed those on the right, to whom he was to grant everlasting life, and also those on the left whom he was to condemn to everlasting punishment.64
They also quote the daily petition in the Lord’s prayer as being relevant to this: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ For anyone who forgives another who has sinned against him, undoubtedly performs a work of mercy in pardoning the sin. And the Lord himself expresses approval of such an action when he says, ‘For if you forgive your fellow-men their sins, your Father will also forgive your sins; on the other hand, if you do not forgive your fellow-men, your Father in heaven will not forgive you.’65 Thus the saying of the apostle James that ‘judgement will be merciless on one who has shown no mercy’ has reference to works of mercy of this kind; and observe, they say, that the Lord did not say ‘great sins’ or ‘small sins’ but, ‘Your Father will forgive your sins, if you forgive your fellow-men.’ Relying on this, they hold that even those who live unprincipled lives until their dying day have all their sins forgiven every day, whatever their character or their magnitude, just as this prayer itself is repeated every day, provided only that they observe this condition, namely, that they forgive, from the bottom of their heart, those who have injured them by any kind of offence, when they ask pardon.
When I have replied to all these suggestions, with God’s help, this book will reach its end.
23. Refutation of those who extend salvation to the devils
First we must seek to discover why it is that the Church has been unable to tolerate the suggestion that promises purification even to the Devil after pains of great severity and long duration, or even holds out hope of his free pardon. It was not that all those holy men, learned in the Scriptures of both estaments, grudged to angels, of whatever kind or in whatever numbers, the attainment of cleansing and of bliss in the Kingdom of Heaven, after chastisements of whatever kind and of whatever magnitude. It was rather that they saw that the sentence of the Lord could not be evacuated of meaning or deprived of its force; the sentence, I mean, that he, on his own prediction, was to pronounce in these words: ‘Out of my sight, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels’66 – a clear indication that the Devil and his angels are to burn in eternal fire.
The same holds good for this statement in the Apocalypse: ‘The Devil, who seduced them, was consigned to the lake of fire and sulphur, into which the beast and the false prophet had been cast; and they will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.’67 ‘Eternal’ in the first passage is expressed in the second by ‘for ever and ever’, and those words have only one meaning in scriptural usage: the exclusion of any temporal end. And this is why there cannot conceivably be found any reason better founded or more evident for the fixed and immutable conviction of true religion that the Devil and his angels will never attain to justification and to the life of the saints. There can be, I say, no stronger reason than this: that the Scriptures, which never deceive, say that God has not spared them, that in fact he has already condemned them to be thrust into the prison of nether darkness, committed for safe keeping there and for their punishment at the last judgement68 when the eternal fire will receive them, in which they will be tortured for ever and ever.
This being so, how can all men, or even any men, be exempted from this eternity of punishment without the immediate weakening of the faith whereby we believe that the chastisement of the demons is to be everlasting? For if all or any of those ‘accursed ones’ will not be for ever in the fire, those who are to be told to get ‘out of my sight, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels’, is there any reason for believing that the Devil and his angels will be in that fire for ever? Is it suggested that God’s sentence pronounced on all the wicked, angels as well as men, will be true in the case of angels, but false in respect of human beings? If so, then human surmise will prove more valid than the utterance of God! But since this cannot be, our friends who long to get rid of eternal punishment should cease to argue against God, and should instead obey God’s commandments, while there is still time.
Moreover, is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is life without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, ‘So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life.’69 If both are ‘eternal’, it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual. The phrases ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal life’ are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence to mean: ‘Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an end.’ Hence, because the eternal life of the saints will be endless, the eternal punishment also, for those condemned to it, will assuredly have no end.
24. Refutation of the view that the guilty will be spared through the intercession of the saints
The same consideration suffices to refute those who in their own defence attempt to oppose God’s words with what purports to be a higher degree of compassion, making out that God’s words are true in the sense that men deserve to suffer what he has said they will suffer, not in the sense that they are in fact to suffer it. For he will grant them, they say, the prayers of his saints, who will even then be praying for their enemies, and praying all the more because they are now, to be sure, more holy, and their supplication is more effective and more worthy of God’s hearing since by this time they have no sin whatsoever. How can they help praying, in their entire sanctity, with their prayers of utter purity and complete compassion, prayers with the power to obtain every request – how can they help praying even for those angels for whom the eternal fire has been prepared, beseeching God to soften his sentence and alter it for the better, and to part those sufferers from that fire? And will there by any chance be anyone who will go so far as to assume that something more than this will happen? I mean, will anyone assert that the holy angels also will join with the holy men (who will then be ‘on the same footing as the angels of God’) in prayer for the angels, as well as the human beings, who are to be condemned? That they will entreat God that through his compassion these angels may not suffer what they deserved to suffer in accordance with his truth? No one of sound faith has ever said this, or will ever say it. Otherwise there is no reason why the Church should not pray even now for the Devil and his angels, seeing that God has bidden her to pray for her enemies!
In fact the reason which now prevents the Church from praying for the evil angels, whom she knows to be her enemies, is the same reason which will then prevent her at that time of judgement from praying, however perfect her holiness, for the human beings who are to be tormented in eternal fire. Her reason for praying now for her enemies among mankind is that there is time for fruitful penitence. For what she chiefly prays for on their behalf is surely ‘that God’, in the Apostle’s words, ‘may grant them penitence, and that they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the Devil, by whom they have been trapped and are held at his pleasure’.70 In fact, if the Church had such certain information about people as to know who were already predestined, although still under the conditions of this life, to go into the eternal fire with the Devil, then the Church would pray as little for them as it does for him. But she has not this certainty about anyone; therefore she prays for all her enemies, her human enemies, that is, while they are in the bodily state; but that does not mean that her prayers for all of them are heard and answered. In fact her prayers are heard only when she prays for those who, although they oppose the Church, are predestined to salvation so that the Church’s prayers for them are answered and they are made sons of the Church. But if any of them keep their heart impenitent up to their dying day, if they are not transformed from enemies into friends, are we to suppose that the Church still prays for them, that is, for the spirits of such men when they have departed this life? Of course not! And this is simply because anyone who has not been transferred to the side of Christ while he lives in the body is thereafter reckoned as belonging to the Devil’s party.
The reason then for not offering prayer at the time of judgement for those human beings who are consigned for punishment to the eternal fire is the same as the reason for not praying now for the evil angels. And likewise there is the same reason for praying at this time for human beings who are infidel and irreligious, and yet refusing to pray for them when they are departed. For the prayer of the Church itself, or even the prayer of devout individuals, is heard and answered on behalf of some of the departed, but only on behalf of 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. Likewise, after the resurrection of the dead there will still be some on whom mercy will be bestowed, after punishment suffered by the souls of the dead, so that they will not be consigned to the eternal fire. For it could not truthfully be said of some people that they will be forgiven neither in this age nor in the age to come,71 unless there were some who receive forgiveness in the age to come though not in this age.
Nevertheless, this is what has been said by the Judge of the living and the dead: ‘Come, you that have my Father’s blessing; take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’; and to the others, in contrast: ‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones, into the eternal fire, which is prepared for the Devil and his angels’; and, ‘these will go to eternal punishment, while the righteous will go to eternal life.’72 In view of this, it is excessively presumptuous to assert that there will be eternal punishment for none of those who, so God has said, will go to punishment which will be eternal, and by the persuasion of this presumptuous notion to produce despair, or at least doubt, about the eternity of the future life itself.
No one, therefore, should take this verse of the psalm: ‘Will God really forget to show mercy? Will he in his wrath restrain his compassion?’73 and interpret it in such a way as to suggest the notion that God’s sentence is true in respect of the good, but false in respect of the wicked, or true in respect of good human beings and evil angels, but false in respect of evil human beings. In fact, this verse of the psalm refers to the Vessels of mercy’ and the ‘sons of the promise’,74 one of whom was the prophet himself; and he first says, ‘Will God really “forget to show mercy”, in making his sun shine on the good and bad and then immediately continues, ‘Then I said: Now I have begun; this is an alteration of the right hand of God Most High.’ Here, obviously, he has explained what he meant by, ‘Will God in his wrath restrain his compassion?’ For this mortal life is itself part of God’s wrath, this life in which ‘man becomes like a piece of futility; his days pass by like shadows.’75 Yet even in this manifestation of his anger God does not ‘forget to show mercy’, in making his sun shine on the good and bad alike and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,76 and in this way he does not in wrath restrain his compassion. And this is particularly true in what the psalmist expresses by saying, ‘Now I have begun; this is an alteration of the right hand of God Most High.’ For in this life, a life full of troubles, which is a manifestation of God’s wrath, God changes the ‘vessels of mercy’ into a better state (although his wrath still continues in the misery of this condition of decay) because even in his wrath he does not restrain his compassion.
Since, then, the truth of this inspired song is fully shown in this way, it is not necessary to take it as relevant to that situation where those who do not belong to the City of God will be punished by everlasting chastisement. But those who are determined to extend the scope of statement in the psalm to make it apply to the torments of the wicked, should even so take it in this sense; that while the wrath of God persists (and its persistence in that eternal punishment is foretold) God does not ‘in his wrath restrain his compassion’ in that he causes those sinners to be tormented with less fierceness in the punishment than they deserve. It is not that they escape those punishments altogether nor even that the punishments eventually come to an end; but their sufferings are milder and lighter than their deserts. In this way the wrath of God will continue, and yet he will not in that wrath of his restrain his compassion. But it must not be supposed that I support this view because I do not contradict it.
But as for those who suppose that such sayings as ‘Out of my sight, you accursed into the eternal fire’, ‘these will go to everlasting punishment’, ‘they will be tormented for ever’, ‘their worm never dies and the fire will not be put our’,77 and others in the same strain, are uttered more by way of threat than as presentations of literal truth, such interpreters are rebutted and refuted not so much by me as by the evidence of Scripture itself, which is quite explicit and copious on the point. The Ninevites, to be sure, repented in this life, and their repentance was fruitful;78 they sowed, we might say, in the field in which God wishes the seed to be ‘sown in tears’ so that the crop may later be ‘reaped with joy’.79 And yet who will deny that God’s prediction was fulfilled in them? Any man who fails to notice how God overthrows not only in anger but also in mercy. For sinners are ‘overthrown’ in two different ways: either as the men of Sodom were overthrown, where it is men who are punished for their sins; or in the manner of Nineveh, where it is the sins of men that are destroyed by their repentance. Thus what God predicted came about: the Nineveh which was wicked was overthrown, and a good Nineveh was built, which did not exist before. For a city is overthrown by a collapse of morality, even though the walls and buildings are still standing. And so although the prophet was bitterly disappointed because the event did not happen, whose coming he had prophesied and the men of Nineveh had in consequence feared, nevertheless the event came about that God had predicted in his foreknowledge, since he who foretold it knew how it was to be fulfilled to better purpose.
However, if those exponents of a perverse compassion would care to know the reference of the verse which says, ‘How great is the abundance of your sweet kindness, Lord, which you have kept hidden for those who fear you’, they should read what follows: ‘You have brought it to fulfilment for those who put their hope in you.’80 Now what is meant by ‘you have kept it hidden for those who fear you’, and ‘you have brought it to fulfilment for those who put their hope in you? Surely it can only mean that God’s righteousness is not sweet to those who wish ‘to establish their own righteousness’81 which depends on the Law. It is not sweet to them because they do not know it; they have not tasted it. For they put their hope in themselves, and not in God; and that is why the abundance of God’s sweet kindness is concealed from them; because they fear God, it is true, but with that servile fear which is not found in love, since’perfect love drives out fear’.82
Therefore it is for those who put their hope in him that he brings to fulfilment his kindness, by inspiring his own love in them so that when they boast, with holy fear (not the fear which is driven out by love, but the fear which lasts for ever and ever), they will be ‘boasting in the Lord’.83 This righteousness of God, which is the gift of grace without regard to merits, is unknown to those who wish to establish a righteousness of their own, and for that reason have not subjected themselves to the righteousness of God, which is Christ. It is in this righteousness that the abundant kindness of God is found; hence the psalm says, ‘Taste and see how sweet the Lord is.’84 This sweetness we do indeed taste in our pilgrimage, but we do not have our fill of it; instead, we ‘hunger and thirst’ for it, so that we may have our fill hereafter, when ‘we shall see him as he is’; and then the scriptural saying will be fulfilled: ‘I shall be satisfied, when your glory is made manifest.’85 Thus Christ ‘brings to fulfilment the great abundance of his kindness for those who put their hope in him’.
Furthermore, assuming that God ‘keeps hidden for those who fear him’ this – kindness of his (as these people imagine it) which he is to show in not condemning the wicked – keeping it hidden so that men may be unaware of it and therefore may live rightly for fear of damnation, and so that there may be those who will pray for people who do not live aright – on this assumption, how does God ‘bring it to fulfilment for those who put their hope in him’, seeing that (according to this dream of theirs) this kindness is going to prevent him from condemning those who do not put their hope in him? The upshot is that we should seek the kindness which he fulfils for those who put their hope in him, not the kindness which he is supposed to fulfil for those who scorn and blaspheme him. And so a man looks in vain, after he has quitted this mortal body, for something which he has not troubled to obtain while in the body.
There is also that statement of the Apostle, ‘God has confined them all in unbelief, so that he may show mercy to them all.’ Now the meaning of this is not that God is not going to condemn anyone; the purpose of the statement is made clear by what was said just before. For the Apostle was speaking to the Gentiles about the Jews who were destined to believe later; as we know, he wrote his epistles to Gentiles who were already believers. And this is what he says, ‘Just as you at one time did not believe in God, but you have now obtained mercy through their refusal to believe; so now, in the face of the mercy you enjoy, they have refused to believe, so that they also may obtain mercy.’86 He then adds the statement on which our friends, in their error, base their complacency: ‘For God has confined them all in unbelief, so that he may show mercy on them all.’ And by ‘all’ he can only mean those of whom he is speaking, as much as to say, ‘You and them.’ God, then, has confined in unbelief both Gentiles and Jews, those whom he ‘foreknew and predestined to become true likenesses of his Son’;87 and his purpose in this was that they should become ashamed, in their repentance, of the bitterness of their unbelief, and should turn to the sweetness of God’s mercy. And so they would cry out, in the words of the psalm, ‘How great is the abundance of your kindness, Lord, which you have kept secret for those who fear you; but you have brought it to fulfilment for those who put their hope’ – not in themselves but – ‘in you!’88 So we see that God has mercy on all the ‘vessels of mercy’; but what is meant by ‘all’? It must mean all those from among the Gentiles as well as all those of the Jews whom he predestined, called, justified, and glorified.89 He will not spare all men; but none of these will incur his condemnation.
25. Refutation of the suggestions that the sacraments will save from eternal punishment heretics of evil life, lapsed Catholics, or Catholics of evil life
We must now answer those who exclude from their promise of freedom from the eternal fire not only the Devil and his angels (as also do those tender hearts we have just been considering) but also all mankind apart from those who have been washed by Christ’s baptism and have been made partakers of his body and blood. To these they promise salvation, irrespective of their manner of life, whatever their heresy or impiety. But they are contradicted by the Apostle, when he says, ‘The results of sensuality are obvious: fornication, indecency, sexual promiscuity; idolatry and sorcery; feuds, quarrels, jealousy, animosity, disputes, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and things of that kind. I warn you now, as I warned you before; those who behave in this way will not inherit the Kingdom of God.’90 The Apostle’s judgement is certainly at fault here, if such people will be set free, no matter after how long a time, and will inherit the Kingdom of God! However it is not a fault, and they certainly will not inherit that kingdom. And if they will never enter into that inheritance, they will be kept in eternal punishment; for there is no intermediate place where anyone who is not established in that kingdom may exist without punishment.
On this question it is right that we should ask what interpretation is to be given to the following saying of the Lord Jesus, ‘This is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it, and never die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever’.91 The people whom I am answering at the moment have filched their interpretation of this passage from others whom I now have to answer. These others do not promise this liberation to all who enjoy the sacraments of baptism and of the Body of Christ; they restrict it to the Catholics,92 however unworthy their lives, because, they say, the Catholics have eaten the body of Christ not only in the outward sacrament, but in reality, since they, of course, are established in his Body, the Body of which the Apostle says, ‘We are many; but we are one loaf, and one body.’93Thus he who is in the unity of Christ’s Body, that is, the structure composed of Christians who are members of Christ, whose body the faithful habitually take when they communicate at the altar – 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. It will result for them in a heavier punishment rather than in their liberation, even a delayed liberation. For it is obvious that they are not in that ‘bond of peace’94 which is expressed in this sacrament.
And yet even those who are right on this point, that a person who is not in the Body of Christ cannot be said to eat Christ’s body, are wrong in promising eventual liberation from the fire of eternal punishment to those who have lapsed from the unity of that Body into heresy, or even into the superstition of the pagan world. They are wrong, in the first place because they have failed to notice, as they should have done, how intolerable it would be, how utterly remote from sound doctrine, that many, and indeed almost all, of those who have left the Church to start impious heresies and have become heresiarchs, should be in a better position than those who never became Catholics because they had fallen into the snares of those heretics. But this would follow, if the heresiarchs are granted freedom from everlasting punishment by the fact that they have been baptized in the Catholic Church and that at the beginning they received the sacrament of the Body of Christ in the true Body of Christ, whereas in fact a deserter of the faith, and one who from a deserter has turned into an opponent, is surely worse than one who has not deserted the faith because he has never possessed it. And they are wrong, in the second place, because they, like those others, are opposed by the Apostle in the words already quoted, when after the list of the results of sensuality he gives the warning that ‘those who behave in this way will never inherit the Kingdom of God.’95
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 behaviour is disreputable and deserving of condemnation. They should base no security on consideration of the statement in Scripture that ‘the man who perseveres right up to the end will be saved’,96 while by the wickedness of their lives they desert Christ, who is their righteousness of life, either by fornication or by committing other criminal indecencies of sensuality which the Apostle was unwilling even to name; or by abandoning themselves to depraved self-indulgence; or by doing any of the things about which he says, ‘Those who behave in this way will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ And for that reason, those who behave in that way will inevitably be in eternal punishment, seeing that it will be impossible for them to be in the Kingdom of God. For in persevering in such conduct to their life’s end they are not to be said to have persevered in Christ right up to the end, because to persevere in Christ means to persevere in faith in him; now this faith, in the Apostle’s definition, ‘is active in love’, and ‘love’, as he says in another place, ‘is never active in wrong’.97 It also follows that those people cannot be said to eat Christ’s body, since they are not to be reckoned among the members of Christ. Apart from anything else, they cannot at the same time be members of Christ and members of a harlot.98Above all, Christ himself says, ‘Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I live in him.’99 And thus he shows what it is to eat Christ’s body and to drink his blood not just in the outward sacrament but in the reality; it is to live in Christ so that Christ lives in the believer. For in this statement he is saying, in effect, ‘Anyone who does not live in me, anyone in whom I do not live, must not say or suppose that he eats my body or drinks my blood.’ And so those who are not members of Christ do not live in Christ; and those who make themselves members of a harlot are not members of Christ, unless by repentance they abandon that evil state and return by reconciliation to the other state of good.
26. The meaning of having Christ as the ‘foundation’; and of ‘saved by fire’
Yes, but Catholic Christians, they say, have Christ for their foundation, and they have not departed from unity with him, even if they have built on this foundation a life of any degree of badness, ‘wood’, it may be called, ‘or hay, or straw’.100 And so that right faith, which makes Christ the foundation, will avail to save them eventually from that eternal fire albeit with some loss, since the structure built on it will be burnt up. These people can have a short answer from the apostle James: ‘If anyone claims that he has faith, and does not show it in his actions, how can his faith avail to save him?’101 Well then, they say, who is it that the apostle Paul means when he says, ‘But the man himself will be saved, but like a man saved from fire’? Very good; let us join forces to discover who it is. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is not the kind of man they are talking about. For then we should be starting a dispute between the statements of the two apostles, if one of them is taken as saying, ‘Even if someone’s actions are evil, his faith will save him, through fire’, while the other says, ‘If a man does not show his faith in his actions, how can his faith avail to save him?’
Now we shall discover who can be saved ‘through fire’, if we start by discovering what it means to have Christ as one’s foundation. To get at the meaning as quickly as possible from the metaphor itself: the foundation precedes any of the building; and so if anyone has Christ in his heart in the sense that he puts no earthly and temporal thing before Christ – not even those which are lawful and permitted – that man has Christ as his foundation. If he does put such things before Christ, then even if he appears to hold the Christian faith, Christ is not the foundation in him, since for him Christ takes second place. And if he thinks nothing of the saving commandments and acts unlawfully, he is all the more convicted of putting Christ last instead of first, when he has relegated him to secondary importance as a source of command or permission, and has slighted his commands or his permission in choosing to gratify his sensuality by immoral acts. And so, if a Christian loves a harlot and ‘becomes one body with her by linking himself to her’,102 he no longer has Christ for his foundation, whereas if a man loves his wife, assuming that he loves her according to Christ’s standards,103 then who can doubt that he has Christ as his foundation? But if he loves her in the way of the world, with a sensual love, with an unhealthy lust, in the manner of ‘the pagans who are ignorant of God’, even this the Apostle allows by way of indulgence, or rather Christ does so through his apostle.104 It is possible, then, for such a man to have Christ as his foundation. For provided that he does not put any such sensual pleasure before the claims of Christ, then although he builds in ‘wood, hay, and straw’, Christ is the foundation, and for that reason he will be saved ‘through fire’. For pleasures of this kind and the earthly sort of love, which because of the bond of marriage do not incur damnation, will nevertheless be burnt up by the fire of tribulation; and bereavement and any other calamities which put an end to such pleasures are all connected with this ‘fire’. And in this way the building will bring loss to the builder in that he will not keep what he has built on the foundation and he will be tormented by the loss of the enjoyment that certainly gave him delight. Yet he will be saved ‘through fire’ in virtue of that foundation, because if a persecutor had given him the choice between having that enjoyment and having Christ, he would have chosen Christ in preference to those delights.
Now listen to the Apostle describing a man who builds gold, silver, precious stones, on this foundation. ‘The unmarried man’, he says, ‘gives his thoughts to the Lord’s affairs; his aim is to please the Lord’; and then describing the builder in wood, hay and straw, ‘The married man, in contrast, concentrates on worldly matters; his concern is how to please his wife’, and so ‘The work of each builder will be revealed; for the day’ (the day of tribulation, of course) ‘will show it up, since it will be revealed in fire.’105 (‘Fire’ is his name for this tribulation, as in another place, where we read, ‘The furnace tests the vessels of the potter, and the trial of tribulation tests righteous men.’106) ‘And the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If a man’s work on the foundation stands’ (and it is a man’s thoughts on the Lord’s affairs, his aim to please God, that give this permanence) ‘he will get his wages’ (that is, he will receive his reward from the object of his concern); ‘if anyone’s work is burnt down, he will suffer loss’ (since he will no longer have what he was so fond of), ‘but the man himself will be saved’ (because tribulation could never remove him from the firm base of that foundation) ‘but it will be as a man is saved from a fire’ (for he must feel burning pain at the loss of what entranced him when he possessed it). There, then, you have this ‘fire’, as it seems to me, which enriches the one and impoverishes the other; it tests both, while it condemns neither.
On the other hand, we may be inclined to take this fire as being that referred to by the Lord when he says to those on the left, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed, into the eternal fire’,107 so that among the accursed, it is believed, are the builders in wood, hay, and straw on that foundation, and they will be released from that fire, after a period imposed on them in retribution for their ill deserts, through the merits of that good foundation. But what view shall we take, on this assumption, about those on the right, to whom it will be said, ‘Come, you that have my Father’s blessing; inherit the kingdom prepared for you’? Must they not be the builders in gold, silver and precious stones on that foundation? But, on this interpretation, both groups, on the right and on the left, are to be consigned to that fire; for, as we see, both groups are to be tested by that fire, of which it is said, ‘The day will show it up, since it will be revealed in the fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.’108 So the fire will test in both cases, and in consequence a man’s work will not be destroyed if his structure stands up under the fire, and he will get his wages, whereas the man whose work is burnt down will suffer loss.
If this is true, that fire is obviously not the eternal fire; for into the eternal fire only those on the left will be sent by the last, the irrevocable, condemnation, while the fire in the present passage tests those on the right as well. But for some the result of that test will be that the structure erected by them on Christ, the foundation, will prove to be such as will not be burnt up and destroyed by the fire. For others there will be a different result; the fire will set on fire their superstructure, and this will mean loss for them; but they will be saved, because they have retained Christ as their firmly laid foundation, with a love exceeding ceeding their other loves. Moreover, if they are saved, then of course they will take their stand on the right, and will hear, along with the others, this command: ‘Come, you who have my Father’s blessing, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’ They will not stand on the left, where those will be standing who will not be saved, and who will therefore hear the words, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed, into the eternal fire.’ And from that fire no one will be saved, because all those on the left will go into eternal punishment, ‘where their worm never dies, and the fire is never put out’;109 and in that fire they will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.
As for the interval between the death of this present body and the coming of that Day, the day of condemnation and reward which is to be after the general resurrection of the body, it may be alleged that during this interval the spirits of the departed suffer this sort of fire, though it is not felt by those whose ways of living and loving have not been such, in their life in the body, as to have produced ‘wood, hay, and straw’ to be burnt down by the fire. Others, on this theory, feel that fire, because they carry about with them ‘buildings’ of this sort; and such people experience the ‘fire’ of transitory tribulation which reduces these ‘buildings’ to ashes. For these structures belong to this world, although they receive pardon, and do not entail damnation; and the fire may be experienced perhaps only after this life, or both in this life and hereafter, or in this life only and not hereafter.
Now I am not concerned to refute this suggestion, because it may well be true. It is indeed possible that the actual death of the body may form part of this tribulation. This death came into being through the perpetration of the first sin; and it may be that the period which follows death brings to each one an experience suited to the ‘building’ he has erected. The same is true of the persecutions in which the martyrs won their crowns, and which brought suffering to all Christian people; these attacks ‘test’ both kinds of ‘structure’, like a fire. Some ‘buildings’ are destroyed, along with the builders, if Christ is not discovered to be their foundation; others are destroyed, but without the builders, if Christ is so discovered, for ‘the builders themselves will be saved’ although ‘with loss’. But other ‘buildings’ are not destroyed, because they prove to be of such quality as to last for ever.
There will also be tribulation at the end of this world’s history, in the time of Antichrist; and it will be such a tribulation as has never been before. How many buildings will there be then to be tested by that fire! Some will be of gold, some of straw, built upon the best of foundations, which is Christ Jesus, and so the fire will test both kinds of building, and to the one sort of people it will bring joy, to the others it will bring loss; but it will destroy neither sort in whom it finds those buildings, because of this stable foundation. But anyone who puts any loved objects before Christ does not have Christ for his foundation. I am not speaking only of a man’s wife, when he treats her as a means of sensual pleasure in carnal copulation; I am referring also to those relationships of natural affection where there is no question of such sensual indulgence. If a man loves any member of his family, with a human being’s instinctive affection, in such a way as to put Christ second, then Christ is not his foundation, and for that reason such a man will not be ‘saved by fire’, because it will be impossible for him to be with the Saviour. Indeed Christ made a most explicit statement on this point when he said, ‘Anyone who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who loves a son or a daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’110 On the other hand, anyone who loves those close relations in this instinctive way, without putting them in front of the Lord Christ, anyone who would prefer to be deprived of them rather than to lose Christ, if he were brought to the test of this dilemma, such a man will be ‘saved through fire’, because the loss of those loved ones will cause him burning pain in proportion to the closeness of his attachment to them. But we may add that anyone who loves father or mother, sons or daughters according to the standards of Christ, so that he is concerned that they may inherit Christ’s kingdom and be united to Christ, or anyone who loves them for the fact that they are members of Christ; it is impossible that such affection should prove to be something that has to be destroyed along with the ‘wood, hay and straw’. This will, beyond dispute, be reckoned as part of the structure of ‘gold, silver, and precious stone’. For if a man loves others entirely for Christ’s sake, how can he love them more than Christ?
27. Refutation of the argument that works of mercy will atone for persistent wickedness
It remains for us to reply to the contention that the only people to burn in eternal fire are those who have omitted to perform works of mercy to counterbalance their sins. This contention is based on the saying of the apostle James, ‘Judgement will be merciless on those who have shown no mercy.’111 It follows, they say, that anyone who does show mercy, even though he has not amended his dissolute behaviour, but has lived a life of depravity and corruption along with his works of mercy, will meet with mercy at the judgement, so that either he will escape damnation altogether or else he will be set free after some time from the punishment to which he is condemned at the last judgement. And that, they suppose, is the reason why Christ will separate those on the right from those on the left by this sole criterion, their performance or their neglect of works of mercy; and the former he will bring into his kingdom, the latter he will consign to eternal punishment. They hold that their daily sins, which they never cease to commit, can be forgiven on account of their acts of mercy, whatever the nature and the magnitude of these sins; and in support of that belief they try to call in as their witness the prayer which the Lord himself taught us. There is never a day, they say, on which the Christian does not repeat this prayer; by the same token, there is no daily sin, whatever its nature, which is not forgiven through that prayer, when we say, ‘Forgive us our debts’, provided that we are careful to fulfil the following clause: ‘as we forgive our debtors’. For the Lord, they urge, does not say, ‘If you forgive other men their sins, your Father will forgive your trivial daily offences’; he says, ‘He will forgive you your sins.’112 Therefore whatever the nature of those sins, whatever their magnitude, even though they are committed every day, and though a man does not amend his life and abandon those sins, nevertheless those sins, they claim, can be forgiven through the mercy shown in not refusing forgiveness to others.
Those people are indeed right in warning us that acts of mercy should be performed in adequate proportion to our sins; for if they had said that any kind of acts of mercy could obtain mercy for daily sins and even for great sins, sins of any magnitude, and for a life of habitual crime, they would see that they were saying something absurd and ridiculous. For on this principle they would be forced to admit the possibility 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. Now such an assertion would be utterly absurd and insane; but, that being granted, if we inquire what are the acts of mercy in adequate proportion to sins that Christ’s forerunner spoke of when he said: ‘Produce fruits appropriate to repentance’,113 we shall find, without a shadow of doubt, that they are not produced by those who disfigure their lives, to the day of their death, by the perpetration of daily offences. In the first place, such people when they rob others of their property take far more in plunder than they give in charity; and yet by bestowing a minute proportion of this plunder on the poor they suppose that they are feeding Christ. So much so that in their belief they have bought, or rather are buying each day, a licence from him for their misdeeds, they proceed in their fancied impunity to commit all the grave offences that ensure their damnation. And yet if they had distributed all their goods to the needy members of Christ in atonement for just one sin, this could not have been of any service to them, if they had not abandoned such practices by the acquisition of the ‘love which does no evil’.114 Therefore, anyone who would perform acts of mercy in adequate proportion to his sins should begin with himself in their performance. For it is wrong not to do to oneself what one does to one’s neighbour, since we have heard God saying, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; and we have been told to ‘have compassion on your own soul by pleasing God’.115 If anyone does not show this mercy to his own soul, that is, by pleasing God, how can he be said to perform acts of mercy in adequate proportion to his sins? There is another text in Scripture to the same effect: ‘If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be generous?’116 Now works of mercy assist our prayers; and we must certainly take careful note when we read these words, ‘My son you have sinned: do not go on to sin again; and pray for mercy for your past sins, that they may be forgiven.’117 Works of mercy, then, are to be performed for this end, that when we entreat forgiveness for past offences, our prayers may be heard, and not that we should continue in our evil courses in the confidence of having acquired, by our acts of charity, a licence to sin.
Moreover, when the Lord foretold that he would put the performance of acts of charity to the account of those on the right, and their omission to the account of those on the left, his intention was to show what power such acts have to cancel former offences, but not to give perpetual impunity for sins. For if men refuse to abandon the practice of crimes and to amend their lives, they cannot be said to perform acts of mercy. In fact, when Christ says, ‘When you failed to do this to one of the least of these, you failed to do it to me’,118 he makes it clear that they do not do it even when they suppose that they are doing it. For if they gave food to a hungry Christian, as being a Christian, they certainly would not deprive themselves of the food of righteousness, which is Christ himself, since God is not concerned about the recipient of a gift, but about its motive. Anyone who loves Christ in a Christian gives help to that Christian with the intention of coming closer to Christ, not of escaping from Christ unpunished. For the more one loves what Christ disapproves the more one abandons Christ. For what does the fact of baptism profit anyone if he is not made righteous? Christ said, it is true, that ‘unless a man is reborn by means of water and the Spirit, he will not enter the Kingdom of God’; but did he not also say, ‘Unless your righteousness far exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven’?119 Why is it that many people rush to be baptized through fear inspired by the first saying, but not so many are concerned to be made righteous? People are not scared, it seems, by the second warning.
Thus in the same way that a man does not say to his brother. ‘You fool!’ when he says it in hostility to his brother’s sins, not to his brother as brother (for in the latter case he would be liable to the fire of hell);120 so, on the other side, when a man gives charitable aid to a Christian it is not to a Christian that he gives it if he does not love Christ in that Christian. But no one can love Christ if he shrinks from being made righteous in Christ. Now if anyone is caught in the offence of saying ‘You fool!’ to his brother, saying it, that is, in wrongful abuse, not with the intention of restraining his brother from sin, it is utterly inadequate for him to attempt atonement by acts of charity, unless he combines this with the healing process of reconciliation. This is prescribed in the passage which follows in the same place: ‘If you are bringing an offering to the altar and there recall that your brother has a cause for grievance against you; leave your offering there before the altar; go and be reconciled to your brother first, and then come and offer your gift.’ In the same way it is futile to perform acts of charity, whatever their scale, while continuing in criminal habits.
Our daily prayer, which Jesus himself taught us (hence it is called the Lord’s Prayer) does indeed cancel our daily sins, when we say, each day, ‘Forgive us our debts’ and when the following clause, ‘as we forgive our debtors’, is not only said but also put into practice. But this clause is said because sins are committed, not in order that we should commit sins because it is said. For by this clause in the prayer our Saviour wished to make it known that however righteous our life in the darkness and weakness of our present condition, we are never without sins and we are bound to pray for their forgiveness and to pardon those who do us wrong, so that we ourselves may receive pardon. And so, when the Lord said, If you forgive your fellow men their sins, your Father will also forgive yours’, his intention was not that this prayer should give us confidence to commit daily crimes with supposed impunity, either because our power frees us from the fear of the laws of man or because our craftiness enables us to deceive our fellows. His purpose was that we should learn by this prayer not to imagine ourselves to be sinless, even if we are not liable to any criminal charges. God gave the same warning to the priests of the old law in the instructions about sacrifice, when he ordered them to offer sacrifice first for their own sins, and then for the sins of the people.121
We should notice carefully the precise words of our great Master and Lord. For he does not say, ‘If you forgive your fellow-men their sins, your Father will forgive your sins of any kind whatever.’ What he says is, ‘Your sins’. Now remember, he was teaching a prayer to be said daily; and he was speaking, of course, to disciples, who were justified. ‘Your sins’ therefore, can only mean ‘the sins from which even you cannot be free, though you have been justified and sanctified’. Now those people who try to find in this prayer an excuse for committing crimes every day, assert that the Lord did not say ‘trivial sins’ but ‘your sins’, and that this proves that he meant to include great sins. We, on the other hand, take into account here the kind of people he was addressing, and when we hear the words, ‘your sins’, we are bound to assume it means only minor sins, because people of that kind did not commit major offences.
Furthermore, those more grievous sins, which have to be abandoned with a thorough amendment of life, are not forgiven to those who use this prayer unless the condition is fulfilled that they ‘forgive their debtors’. For the smallest sins, which occur even in the lives of the righteous, are not forgiven except under this condition; then how much more certain it is that those involved in a multitude of major crimes can never obtain pardon, even though they have already ceased to commit them, if they inexorably refuse to forgive others the various wrongs they have done them. For the Lord says, ‘If you do not forgive your fellow-men, your Father will not forgive you.’ And the words of the apostle James are to the same effect, when he says that ‘judgement will be merciless to those who have shown no mercy.’122 And here, surely, that servant is bound to come to mind, whose master forgave him a debt of ten thousand talents, but afterwards demanded their repayment because the servant on his part had not shown compassion to his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii.123 And so it is in those who are ‘sons of the promise’ and ‘vessels of mercy’ that the saying holds good which comes immediately after in the letter of the same apostle. He says, ‘Mercy exults over judgement.’124 For those righteous ones have lived such holy lives that they receive ‘into everlasting dwellings’ other people as well, who have ‘made them their friends by means of the worldly wealth of unrighteousness’;125 and they have attained this righteousness because 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.126 The Apostle himself is, as we know, among that number; for he says, ‘I have been granted mercy, so that I might be faithful.’127
On the other hand, those who are ‘received’ by those justified souls ‘into everlasting dwellings’ are not, it must be admitted, endowed with the moral character that would make it possible for their manner of life to be enough to fit them for deliverance without the intercession of the saints; and therefore even more in them does ‘mercy exult over justice’. For all that, it must not be thought that any thorough criminal, if he has made no change in his life to make it good, or even more tolerable, can be received into ‘eternal dwellings’, although he has been of service to the saints ‘by means of the worldly wealth of unrighteousness’ that is, with his money or other resources, which were ill-gained. And even if they are honestly come by, they are not the true riches, but only what unrighteousness counts as riches; for such a man does not know what the true riches are, those riches which are enjoyed in abundance by those who receive others ‘into eternal dwellings’.
There must therefore be a kind of life which is not so evil that generosity in charity 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. (I always find it surprising that we can discover in Virgil an expression of the same thought as is uttered in those words of our Lord, ‘Win friends for yourselves by means of the worldly wealth of unrighteousness, so that they on their part may receive you into the eternal dwellings’; and in the very similar saying, ‘Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward: and anyone who welcomes a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward’.128Now when Virgil describes the Elysian fields, where, as the pagans think, the souls of the blessed dwell, he places there not only those who have been able to reach that abode by reasons of their own merits; he adds that there are found there
Those whose high deserts
Made others mindful of them.129
He means those who have deserved well of others, and by so doing have made those others ‘mindful of them’. It is, in fact, just as if these people had said the words frequently on the lips of a Christian when he commends himself to some saint, and says, ‘Remember me’, and seeks to ensure this remembrance by deserving well of that holy man.)
But what that kind of life may be is a question most difficult to answer; and it would be most perilous to define what those sins are which in themselves prevent attainment to the kingdom of God while admitting of pardon through the merits of holy friends. I myself, at least, have given much thought to the latter question without having been able to reach a conclusion. And it may well be that the answer is kept a secret for fear that the knowledge might blunt men’s zeal to make progress towards the avoidance of all kinds of sin. For if it were known what those sins were, or at any rate what kind of sins they were, for whose forgiveness the intercession of the righteous should be sought and hoped for, even while the sins still continued, and while they were not removed in an advance to a higher standard of life, then human beings in their sloth would allow themselves to be involved in them with supposed impunity, and they would not be concerned to free themselves from such entanglements by any virtuous endeavour. Their sole quest would be to gain freedom from punishment through the merits of others, whose friendship they had won by generous acts of charity, made possible by ‘the worldly wealth of unrighteousness’. As it is, however, so long as men do not know the limits within which wrong-doing is venial, even if persevered in, then, beyond dispute, more active zeal is shown for improvement of life by means of prayer and effort, and there is no slackening in concern to ‘win friends by the use of the worldly wealth of unrighteousness’.
But whether this liberation is attained through a man’s own prayers or through the intercession of saints, its effect is that the person concerned is not consigned to eternal fire; it is not that after being consigned there he is released after a long or a short period. Now there are some people who suppose that the scriptural passage about the ‘thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold’130 crop from a good soil is to be taken as meaning that the saints liberate others according to their different merits, some giving freedom to thirty, some to sixty, some to a hundred; but even those people generally assume that this will happen at the day of judgement, not after the judgement. Apropos of this speculation, someone made a very shrewd remark when he observed how people most perversely assured themselves of impunity, on the assumption that everyone could in this way be included among those exempt from damnation. He is said to have remarked, ‘We should be better employed in taking care to lead good lives, so as to join the number of the future intercessors for others’ salvation.’ For otherwise there may be so few of them that they will soon have used up their thirty, or sixty, or a hundred, and a great many will be left unredeemed, without the possibility of rescue from punishment by the intercession of the saints; and among the disappointed may be found any of those people who are so rashly and irresponsibly promising themselves the prospect of benefiting by some other person’s ‘crop’.
This may suffice for my reply to those who while not slighting the authority of the sacred Scriptures, which we have as our common possession, nevertheless interpret them wrongly and suppose that what is to happen will be not what the Scriptures speak of, but what they themselves would like to happen. Well, we have given this reply; and now, as we promised, we bring this book to an end.