St Augustine on the ‘Last Things’ and Human Destiny: Is Eschatological Universalism Possible?

by Fr. Robert Deinhammer, S.J.

In this essay, I am going to outline some basic aspects of Augustinian eschatology and identify its problems. What is the ultimate destiny of the human race according to St. Augustine? Was Augustine right in rejecting all forms of eschatological universalism? What are the alternatives? My main thesis is that Augustine’s approach does not consider God’s universal saving will and that his view of original sin with its consequential theory of retributive punishment is problematic. In my view, a particular version of eschatological universalism could be an acceptable position for Catholic theology.

Firstly, I shall outline the main lines of Augustine’s view on the ‘last things’ and human destiny, that is to say, Augustine’s eschatology. Secondly, I shall critically discuss it and propose an alternative eschatological model. Thirdly, I shall end by giving a brief conclusion.

Augustine on the ‘Last Things’ and Human Destiny

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is one of the most influential theologians in the history of the Latin Church. His eschatology is intertwined with his theology of history, his theology of grace including the doctrine of original sin, and is, of course, dependent on his philosophical-theological presuppositions in general. In the following lines, I am going to outline some basic aspects of Augustine’s eschatology as found in his late major work De Civitate Dei (= DCD), written between 413 and 427.1

Despite his Neoplatonism and due to his increasing familiarity with Holy Scripture, Augustine discovers the importance of a historic understanding of the world and favours a linear model of history. His view is dramatic in the sense that he conceives human history as integrated in the wider context of an eschatological drama, in which history is the temporal playing out of God’s justice and in which both beginning and (eternal) end are fixed.2 Due to original sin, in which all human beings have sinned in Adam (cf. Rom 5:12) and participate in his fall, the whole of humanity has turned away from God and has become a massa damnata, a ‘lump’ that justly deserves the punishment of eternal damnation (see DCD XIII, 14; XIV, 3 and 13; XXI, 12).3 Nevertheless, God has chosen or predestined by means of a free and utterly unmerited grace a small minority of this ‘lump’ in order to grant them salvation and participation in His own eternal life. For Augustine, the number of the elected is very small so that God can show what in fact all deserve and enforce His Divine justice (see DCD XXI, 12). God’s elected belong to the ‘city of God’ (the visible Church has a special relation to it) and are able to lead a life of faith, charity and worship. But the vast majority belongs to the ‘city of Man’ and is trapped in an unfree, self-centred and sinful existence. In this life, however, no one can be sure whether he or she is in fact chosen by God (see, for instance, DCD XIV, 28; XX, 9 and 27). Human history is ambiguous and one cannot foresee its ending; however, there will be an eschatological separation of the two cities, namely a collective judgement and transformation of the world at the end of time (see DCD XX, 21 and 28).

The souls of the dead await the resurrection of their bodies as the dividing line between time and eternity. God’s elected will share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be fully ‘conformed to the image of the Son’ (Rom 8:29), which means a complete deification by adoption.4 For Augustine, there is an identity between the bodies on earth and the risen bodies; however, the risen body is a ‘spiritual body’ (see DCD XXII, 21). The eternal beatitude of the saints, which exceeds all our greatest imaginations, consists in praising God and their beatific vision of God:

God will be so known by us, and shall be so much before us, that we shall see Him by the spirit in ourselves, in one another, in Himself, in the new heavens and the new earth, in every created thing which shall then exist; and also by the body we shall see Him in every body which the keen vision of the eye of the spiritual body shall reach. (DCD XXII, 29)

Hence, the ultimate goal of the city of God with its comparatively few inhabitants and the transformed world is the ‘perpetual Sabbath’, an eternal state beyond temporal succession in perfect communion with God: ‘There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end’ (DCD XXII, 30).

The overwhelming majority of the human race, the non-elect, will not be so lucky. There will also be a resurrection of their bodies, however, a resurrection in order to judge – Jesus Christ is the judge – and punish them (including those who die in infancy) with everlasting damnation, a resurrection to the second death. Augustine conceives hell as a retributive punishment by God, and for him, hell is eternal because original sin is such a horrendous offence against God. Eternal punishment in hell is an expression of God’s justice (see DCD XXI, 12).5 The bodies of the damned will be endlessly tortured by burning in hellfire but, by a miracle of their Creator, without being consumed by its flames (see DCD XXI, 2; 3; 4; 9), although the degree of torment is proportionate to the extent of personal sin, ‘whether this result be accomplished by a variation in the temperature of the fire itself, graduated according to every one’s merit, or whether it be that the heat remains the same, but that all do not feel it with equal intensity of torment’ (DCD XXI, 16).

Augustine addresses objections against his view of hell as an eternal punishment and defends his anti-universalist eschatology, for instance, in DCD XXI, 17 to 27. His arguments are very much based on a certain interpretation of the relevant bible passages: time-limited and purifying suffering in hell would contradict Holy Scripture (e.g. Mt 25:41-46; Rev 20:10; 2 Pet 2:4) and undermine the eternal blessedness of the saints in heaven. ‘Wherefore, as the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end’ (DCD XXI, 23).

Critical Discussion and a Possible Alternative

Augustine’s eschatology, with its implicit theory of double predestination, was never fully accepted by the Catholic Church, who emphasized and emphasizes the role of free will and the idea of a co-operation with grace in the process of salvation. Where could one identify problems in Augustine’s approach? In the given context, I would like to focus on two aspects.6

Firstly, Augustine denies the universality of God’s saving will. From a Catholic point of view, God does not want the salvation of only a small minority of human beings. He intends the salvation of all. To be sure, the Catholic Church is God’s instrument of salvation in communicating His uncreated grace, i.e. the Holy Spirit, to the world; however, the Church teaches that all people can be saved, no matter whether they are Christians or not.7 Augustine’s exegesis of the relevant bible passages seems to be debatable, especially if one asks the important but rarely posed question: What is the possible content of Divine revelation? God does not reveal information about created states of affairs or future events but reveals His presence in the sense that he gives a share in His own Trinitarian life. Whether many or some people will end up in hell is no possible content of revelation, hence, no object of faith, if one conceives revelation strictly as God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ. All articles of faith explain but this basic mystery and can be reduced to it.8 On this view, Holy Scripture is not the word of God in an arbitrary or biblicistic sense but only insofar as it can be consistently understood as God’s word when faced with God’s utter transcendence and absoluteness (see below).

Secondly, Augustine’s view of original sin and its consequential theory of hell as a retributive punishment seems to be problematic. Is the traditional historic understanding of Adam’s fall and the Augustinian view of original sin convincing? Be that as it may, most people are not, according to Augustine, in a state of grace; hence, they are not really free to perform good works. Sin is not an expression of true freedom; it is rather slavery and paralysis. But then the notion of hell as retributive punishment becomes problematic, for retributive punishment presupposes freedom and responsibility. Furthermore, the idea of inherited personal guilt seems to be contradictory. Additionally, one could ask whether any sin that a finite being commits in a situation of ambiguity and (relative) ignorance deserves an infinite punishment as a just retribution.9 And wouldn’t it be possible to say that real justice requires not so much punishment but rather reconciliation and restoration? At any rate, human beings have a strong tendency towards revenge, and sometimes they project this tendency on God. St. Augustine was not free from human flaws.

But is eschatological universalism an acceptable option for Catholic theology? A non-universalist eschatology was, more or less, taken for granted up to the paradigm shift from eschatological pessimism to optimism in the 20th Century.10 Nowadays, the main argument in favour of the possibility of eternal hell goes like this: God respects our free will and does not force us into heaven, hence, the possibility of hell is an implication of human freedom.11 This view does not imply that one has to believe that many or some human beings will, in fact, end up in hell. Thus, universalism – with regard to human beings – is at least possible. Is this view convincing? God’s grace and love has to be revealed to us by the word, coming from Jesus, the incarnate Son, since it cannot be identified by natural reason. Without Jesus Christ and his message we would not know that we are from the outset created into the Triune Life, i.e. into the eternal love between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit.12 However, there is no ‘neutral freedom’ vis-á-vis God’s grace, which is offered and communicated in His word, i.e. the Christian message. One can only recognise God’s grace by embracing the Christian message in an act of faith. Outside of faith, one cannot recognise the truth of the Christian message; that is to say, one is able to reject the Christian message by becoming arbitrary, but it is not possible to reject it in fully knowing that it is in fact God’s word, i.e. God’s self- communication in a human word.13

Original sin is primarily an ontological reality (although it unfolds massive moral consequences): due to the fact that the relation between the created world and God is completely unilateral,14 no created quality, and no human act, since even our freest acts are created, can grant communion with God who ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (cf. 1 Tim 6:16). Communion with God and participating in His eternal life is but possible in this way: God relates to the world with the same love in which He relates to His Son from all eternity. He does not become dependent on the world by His love for it and His love for the world is of divine nature, unchanging, unconditional and eternal. Being loved by God in this way is the deepest reality of the whole world and of every single human being; however, this deepest reality is supernatural and accessible only by faith in the word of God.

Seen from this perspective, the threats of hell in the New Testament, which cannot be denied, mean that, outside of the Holy Spirit, God is absent for all eternity and that every attempt to reach salvation by idolising created realities, i.e. by sinning, is ultimately hopeless. Seen from outside of faith, there are no grounds for any hope. But God’s absence is overcome by Jesus Christ in the sense that He reveals God’s presence and love for faith. By faith, man is liberated from the power of fear for oneself and empowered to cooperate with God’s grace in performing truly good works. The Christian faith is the beginning of our eternal life already here and now. And only within this faith can we have hope that God’s mercy will be the final word for all human beings: God will separate the sinner from his or her sin, although we cannot know the mechanism: ‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all’ (Rom 11:32).

Conclusion

In this essay, I have outlined some basic aspects of Augustinian eschatology. My main thesis has been that Augustine’s approach does not consider God’s universal saving will and that his view of original sin with its consequential theory of retributive punishment is problematic. In my view, a particular version of eschatological universalism could be an acceptable position for Catholic theology.

 

Footnotes

1 See, for instance, The City of God; further references to this work are provided in parenthesis in the text.

2 See Rüdiger Bittner, ‘Augustine’s Philosophy of History’, in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. by Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 345-360 (p. 348)

3 Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edn (London: A&C Black, 1977), pp. 361-366

4 David Vincent Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), argues, against the mainstream interpretation, that deification plays a central role in Augustine’s theology: Augustine talks at times ‘about becoming divinely adopted sons and daughters, while at other times he will present the goal of Christianity as “becoming gods”, or becoming a member of the whole Christ (Christus totus), or even as becoming Christ himself’ (p. xii).

5 Cf., for instance, Darrin S. Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012), pp. 41-45.

6 For a critical discussion of the ‘problem of hell’ in general (and also regarding the Augustinian view) see, for instance, C. P. Ragland, ‘Hell’, in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and Thomas Talbott, ‘Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (both accessed 18/1/2016).

7 See, for instance, DH 4140 (Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. by Peter Hünermann, 43th edn [Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2010]).

8 See Robert Deinhammer, ‘Reductio in Unum Mysterium: Fundamentaltheologische Erwägungen im Kontext ignatianischer Spiritualität’, Theologie und Glaube, 101 (2011), 539-561 (pp. 545-552).

9 See Marilyn Adams, ‘The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians’, in A Reasoned Faith, ed. by Eleonore Stump (Ithaca/New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 301-327 (p. 313).

10 Cf. Avery Cardinal Dulles, ‘The Population of Hell’, in Avery Cardinal Dulles, Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 387-400.

11 See, for instance, Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Catholic Trust Society, 2006), pp. 70.

12 See for this approach and the consequential eschatological insights: Peter Knauer, Der Glaube kommt vom Hören: Ökumenische Fundamentaltheologie, 7th edn. (Norderstedt: BoD, 2015), especially pp. 167-184.

13 John Finnis, ‘Hell and Hope’, in John Finnis, The Collected Essays of John Finnis: Vol. V: Religion and Public Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 368-379, does not sufficiently realise that there is no ‘neutral freedom’ with regard to God’s grace in the above sense. He neither poses the question regarding the possible content of supernatural revelation.

14 See, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I q13 a7.

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The Rev. Dr. Dr. Robert Deinhammer, S.J. (born 1977) is an Austrian Jesuit and currently living in Innsbruck. He has been working at the Universities of Salzburg and Innsbruck. His academic working fields are normative ethics and philosophy of religion. He considers himself as a catholic universalist.

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4 Responses to St Augustine on the ‘Last Things’ and Human Destiny: Is Eschatological Universalism Possible?

  1. Greg says:

    Great piece! However, is this more than hopeful universalism?

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    • Robert Deinhammer, S.J. says:

      Hope in the theological sense is not hypothetical because in faith there is no area of uncertainty. So it’s not mere “hopeful universalism” in the usual sense.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        I always wondered what the meaning is of the distinction that is made between hope and faith, especially in the context of the question of universalism. Perhaps it is a way to keep it from being dogmatically asserted and keep the baddies from Rome at bay? Believe certainly is stronger than hope (I believe in God while I hope it will rain next week), although one can believe and hope in the same (I believe and hope in God) so they are not opposed. There seems to be more at play though, maybe not in the case of Balthasar, but I’m getting a different vibe from Fr Rooney. One may not and cannot believe in the salvation of all.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Fr Deinhammer, thank you for this article. Your argument regarding universalism sounds very Lutheran, which does not surprise. German Catholic theologians have enjoyed substantive ecumenical discussions with German Lutheran theologians for over a half-century now. Are you acquainted with the writings of the Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson? Your piece reminds me of his discussion of hell. See: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/hell-freedom-and-the-predestinating-gospel/.

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