Augustine's Argument on Duration of Punishment
“Moreover, some of those against whom we are defending the city of God think it unjust that a man should be condemned to eternal punishment for crimes, however great, committed in a short period of time. As if any just law would ever make it an aim that punishment should equal in length of time it took to become liable to punishment!
“Cicero writes that there are eight kinds of penalties provided by law: fine, imprisonment, scourging, retaliation, loss of status, exile, death, slavery. Which of these is restricted to a period short enough to match the swiftness of the crime so that punishment is as brief when inflicted as the brief span in which the crime is found to have been perpetrated -- unless it be in retaliation? For that concerns itself to make each man suffer what he inflicted. Hence the precept of the law: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
“What now? Should we suppose that a man ought to remain in chains only as long as it took to do the deed that brings him into bonds, while a slave who by word or by swift blow has offended or struck his master, justly pays the penalty of years in shackles?
“Now since fine, loss of status, exile and slavery are generally so imposed that they are not eased by any pardon, are they not comparable to eternal punishment, as far as the measure of this life allows? Note that the reason why they cannot be eternal is that the life of one punished by them is not eternally prolonged. However, the crimes that are avenged by penalties of longest duration are perpetrated in the shortest time, and no man living would propose that the torments of the guilty should be ended as quickly as the deed was done—murder, or adultery, or sacrilege, or any other crime that ought to be measured not by length of time, but by the enormity of its injustice and impiety.”
“And when a man is punished by death for some great crime, do the laws reckon his punishment by the time in which he is being executed, which is very short, or by his everlasting expulsion from the society of the living? But to expel men from this mortal city by the punishment of the first death is the same as to expel them from that immortal city by the punishment of the second death. For just as the laws of this city do not operate to recall one who has been put to death, so neither do the laws of that city operate to recall to eternal life one condemned to the second death.
‘“Then how,’ they ask, ‘is the word of your Christ true: “The measure that you give will be the measure that you get back,” if the sin in time is punished by timeless punishment?’ They do not observe that the measure is said to be the same, not because of an equal space of time, but because of the matching of evil with evil; that is, one who has done evil must suffer evil. This statement may, however, be properly applied to the matter of which the Lord was speaking at the time, that is, judgments and condemnations. Accordingly, if one who judges and condemns unjustly is justly judged and condemned, he receives the same measure, though not the same thing, which he gave. For his act was in judging and he suffers in being judged; although in condemning he did what is unjust, in being condemned he suffers what is just.
Augustine’s main argument is that sin may take only a moment to commit, and the punishment, or sentence of the law, may take a long time to fulfill. He gives as example, a man who might destroy another man’s eye or kiss another man’s wife. Both sins, he says, may take the same amount of time, but the sinners would receive differing penalties. Therefore, he argues, the length of punishment has nothing to do with the severity of the sin. And so it is “just” for God to punish men eternally for sins committed in a short period of time in this life.
The argument is ridiculous, of course. No one is silly enough to insist that punishment be of the same duration as the time it took to commit the sin. That is totally beside the point. It may take the same length of time to steal a sheep than to commit murder, but the penalties of each are vastly different. The Bible insists that the punishment fit the crime, not the time it took to commit the crime.
In God’s law, judgment is proportionate to the value of the thing stolen or destroyed, not the time it took to steal it or destroy it. Augustine here is attempting to undermine this basic principle of Bible law in order to establish eternal torment. In doing so, he would argue that the divine penalty for stealing a paper clip is eternal torment in fire and brimstone. What a travesty of justice! The Bible mandates double restitution, or two paper clips to be restored to the victim.
Augustine’s entire argument is philosophical, rather that biblical. He appeals to Cicero and Roman law, showing only a shallow knowledge of biblical law. By and large, this is the same problem in the Church today, for most have been taught that God put away His law.
The strange thing is, if God did that, then He would have to save all anyway. Why? Because it is by the law that God judges sin. To repeal a law is to legalize sin, because “where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15). If God put away His law, then at the judgment, when God accuses a man of theft or murder, the sinner could respond, “There is no law against that.” Under such circumstances, God could judge no one for sin, and, in fact, would have to save all men anyway!