Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Augustine and Hell

Earlier in the year I read St. Augustine's Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love together with some of the men in our church. The book blessed me in many ways, not least through solidifying the impression that Augustine’s theology had more in common with the Protestant reformers than the medieval Catholics, especially in areas of soteriology.
The book also serves as a good answer, not only to the heretics of Augustine’s day, against which the Enchiridion was written, but to the heretics of our own day. I often say that the history of heresy is so boring, because no one comes up with anything new - it is always the same old heresies repackaged in contemporary dress.

The book is dry and archaic to modern sensibilities and is best taken and digested in small doses.

Having been edified by the blessed brother Augustine, it is only fair to say that the book is not without what seems to be a glaring inconsistency. The problem concerns his doctrine of hell. (And I am writing this to solicit feedback. During our discussion of the book, none of my friends acknowledged any inconsistency, so I may be completely barking up the wrong tree but I would like to be shown how.)

In describing the nature of evil, Augustine develops his famous argument - which was later taken up by everyone from Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and more recently by Norman Geisler - that evil is privation. I won’t rehash the argument here (and beginners would do best to consult
Lewis’s more accessible treatment, not Augustine’s), although suffice to say I am convinced that anything less than the privation view of evil leads necessarily to some form of unbiblical dualism. What interests me is the problems this perspective creates for Augustine’s doctrine of the afterlife.

In chapter 12, the blessed brother argued that because evil is not a thing in itself but parasitic on what is good (as rottenness is parasitic on an original substance rather than something which exists on its own), all evil must necessarily be terminus. Evil, by its very nature (Augustine argues) tends towards non-being. This is the implication of his having written as follows, in chapter 12:

"Therefore, so long as a being is in process of corruption, there is in it some good of which it is being deprived; and if a part of the being should remain which cannot be corrupted, this will certainly be an incorruptible being, and accordingly the process of corruption will result in the manifestation of this great good. But if it do not cease to be corrupted, neither can it cease to possess good of which corruption may deprive it. But if it should be thoroughly and completely consumed by corruption, there will then be no good left, because there will be no being. Wherefore corruption can consume the good only by consuming the being. Every being, therefore, is a good; a great good, if it cannot be corrupted; a little good, if it cam: but in any case, only the foolish or ignorant will deny that it is a good. And if it be wholly consumed by corruption, then the corruption itself must cease to exist, as there is no being left in which it can dwell."

This is heavy going, but what the blessed brother seems to be saying is that evil tends towards non-being in the same way that all parasitical substances do since they depend, for their continuation, on the host they are in the process of destroying. This was a popular theme in Augustine because in order to defend Christianity against the heresy of Manichaeism, he must establish that goodness and evil are not equally substantive and that they are not co-eternal. With regard to the latter, in numerous other places in his writings Augustine asserts the eventual abolition of evil, arguing that "evil consists in this very thing, namely in a defection from being, and a tendency to non-being."

The problem that arises is that towards the end of the Enchiridion Augustine asserts the unending existence of evil, saying that “the devil’s [citizen’s]...shall drag a miserable existence in eternal death without the power of dying... This perpetual death of the wicked, then...shall abide for ever, and shall be common to them all...” Augustine’s argument against the universalists rests on a very questionable interpretation of Jesus’s parable of
the sheep and the goats, but what is of interests at the moment is that this idea of perpetual death and perpetual wickedness seems at odds with Augustine’s conviction that evil tends towards non-being.

Augustine seems to be on the horns of a dilemma. His attack of Manichaeism compels him to argue that goodness and evil are not of equal duration (since evil, by its nature, tends towards non-being and will eventually be destroyed), while his critique of
universalism compels him to imply the unending existence of evil (death, wicked beings, pain, etc.,) as a corollary of eternal hell.

Augustine seems to have realized this problem, and so he tried to resolve it by suggesting (elsewhere) that sin is only evil when it goes unpunished, whereas sin properly punished ceases to be evil but actually becomes good. Augustine was thus able to maintain, as one commentator puts it, a "bland assurance that the universe is no less admirable and beautiful a place for having a chamber of horrors eternally present within it, so long only as each horror of pain perfectly matches and balances each horror of sin". The obvious problem here is that such an idea of evil (that it can be neutralized of its negative moral quality by appropriate punishment) contradicts the privation view set forth in the Enchiridion. This is because the idea that evil is privation leads to the broadest possible understanding of evil which certainly includes any agent that is sinning, regardless of whether that sin is being equally matched with punishment. Moreover, in order for ongoing sin to cease being evil it would have to cease being in opposition to the nature and will of God, which sin by definition is not. Suffice to say that sin is always evil, even if it is punished, and that those sinful souls in hell are evil and that is why they are there. But if they are evil, and if they exist eternally without ever being destroyed, then evil is not tending towards non-being.

The problem is very practical for those who advocate the endless punishment of the wicked. I have known teachers who confidently asserted that rebellion to God would be destroyed, only to turn around the next minute to say that the unrepentant souls in hell will forever persist in rebellion against their maker (which is true by definition of an unrepentant agent). The logic seems hard to escape that in order for rebellion to be destroyed, sinners must stop being sinners (the other solution, to assert that sin against God is not rebellion, creates even more problems and leads to antinomianism). But the only way someone can stop being a sinner is for (A) some form of redemption to occur (B) the person ceases to exist as a moral agent. Option A is
universalism and option B veers towards some form of annihilationism. Both of these were not options for the blessed brother Augustine.


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