The Argument of Augustine
Jul 12, 2011
The early Church understood that the biblical term kolasin aionian meant "age-lasting judgment." This was primarily true in the Greek-speaking portion of the Church, because farther west in the Latin Church this understanding was not universal. We do not know precisely when the Latin-speaking Church fathers began to think in terms of "unending" judgment, but certainly, Augustine championed this idea in the early fifth century.
Augustine's argument is expressed in his City of God, Book XXI, where he comments on Matthew 25:46,
"For Christ said in the very same place, including both in one and the same sentence: 'So these will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.' If both are eternal, then surely both must be understood as 'long,' but having an end, or else as 'everlasting' without an end. For they are matched with each other. In one clause eternal punishment, in the other eternal life. (To say) 'eternal life shall be without end, (but) eternal punishment will have an end' is utterly absurd. Hence, since eternal life of the saints will be without end, eternal punishment also will surely have no end, for those whose lot it is."
This has remained one of the primary arguments of the theory of unending punishment up to the present time. Because he did not understand the concept of the Ages, he defined "aionian life" as being synonymous with immortality. And since immortality is obviously unending, he concluded thataionian judgment must also be unending.
He did not understand that aionian life referred to immortality during The Age. John had written in Rev. 20 that there was to be a thousand years between the two resurrections, and Jesus had said in John 5:28, 29 that some Christian believers would inherit "life" at the time of the second resurrection.
In other words, only those Christians who were called to RULE would be raised in the first resurrection. Those few will receive aionian life--immortality in The Age. The rest of the believers will receive immortality at the second resurrection, but they will not inherit aionian life. Hence, the apostles admonished the believers to continue to grow to maturity in Christ, so that they might obtain "a better resurrection" (Heb. 11:35).
This "better resurrection" is "the high calling of God" in Phil. 3:14. Paul strove to "know Him" in order to attain to the resurrection out from among the dead." Dr. Bullinger explains this in his notes in The Companion Bible:
"Resurrection from the dead (ek nekron) implies the resurrection of some, the former of those two classes, the others being left behind."
Augustine did not comprehend this, because he was a Latin father and did not understand Greek very well. Church historian, Peter Brown, tells us in his book, Augustine of Hippo, p. 36,
"Augustine's failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the late Roman educational system; he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek."
Augustine was an influential giant in the Latin Church, but his ignorance of Greek led him to a very different conclusion when it came to the idea of aionian life and aionian judgment. He himself was painfully aware that his viewpoint differed from the mainstream, for he wrote of the "very many who, though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments" (Enchiridion ad Lauren, ch. 29).
Likewise, his contemporary, Jerome, wrote, "I know that MOST PERSONS understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the adversary and all rational creatures."
Augustine and Jerome were easily the most prominent of the Latin fathers, and their testimony shows that the majority of the Church in their day did not believe in "endless torments." Instead, they believed in aionian judgments, for Greek was their native tongue. In fact, the greatest of the Greek Church fathers all believed that God would save all mankind at the end of their time of judgment. They obviously rejected Augustine's definition of the word aionian and its usage in Matthew 25:46.
It may also be that Augustine himself came to see his error in later years. Dr. F.W. Farrar, in his book, The Eternal Hope, says of Augustine on page 98,
"Since aion meant 'age,' aionios means, properly, 'belonging to an age,' or 'age-long,' and anyone who asserts that it must mean 'endless' defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago."
This shows how difficult it is for a theologian to change the course of his own teaching, once his teachings have been spread abroad and ingrained in the minds of the public.
The time of judgment, then, has a good and positive purpose. It is to cleanse and purify by "fire." Literal fire, of course, would burn the body, but the "fiery law" of God (Deut. 33:2) purifies us by killing "the flesh." The second death is not about endless torture as such, but about cleansing and purification.
Gregory of Nyassa (335-394) expressed it well in his De Anima et Resurrectione,
"They who live in the flesh ought, by virtuous conversation, to free themselves from fleshly lusts, lest after death, they should again need another death to cleanse away the remains of fleshly vice that cling to them."
In another published sermon, he stated:
"When all the alloy of evil that has been mixed up in the things that are, having been separated by the refining action of the cleansing fire, everything that was created by God shall have become such as it was at the beginning, when as yet it had admitted evil . . . this is the end of our hope, that nothing shall be left contrary to the good, but that the Divine Life, penetrating all things, shall absolutely destroy Death from among the things that are. . . [Orat. in 1 Cor. 15:28]
He was discussing the fact that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:26) so that all things could be put under the feet of Christ (vs. 27) and God could then be "all in all" (vs. 28).
Gregory was no obscure priest in a backwater town. Robert Payne describes him in his book, The Fathers of the Eastern Church, p. 168-169,
"Four hundred years after his death, at the Seventh General Council held in A.D. 787, the assembled princes of the Church granted him a title which exceeded in their eyes all the other titles granted to men; he was called 'Father of Fathers'."