Augustine begins book 13 with his meditations on death. Death of the body, he says, is the state of the body having been forsaken by the soul. Death of the soul is the state of the soul having been forsaken by God. In one sense, the soul is immortal, in that it never stops living. In another sense, however, the soul can die by being forsaken by its Creator, as a result of its choice to reject Him and His Son. In this second death, the death of the soul, the soul and body are completely and eternally united but abandoned by God as a consequence of sin. Death has been overcome by Christ, and can even become a good for the righteous person: “Now, however, by the greater and more wondrous grace of the Savior, even the punishment of sin has been turned to the service of righteousness.” We still should not see death as good – here Augustine compares death to the Law, which was good but sin used it for evil, just as death is evil but God has used it for good. He also meditates on the nature of death and whether it is ever proper to talk of someone as being “in death”. He decides that we can speak of people as being “before death” and “after death” but not “in death” because there is no state of “death”, just “dead” or “having died”. He points out that we are all always “dying”: “For from the very beginning of our existence in this dying body there is never a moment when death is not at work in us. For throughout the whole span of this life – if, indeed, it is to be called life – its mutability leads us toward death.” And so, we are heading toward death.
I think there are moments of real clarity in Augustine’s thought here and he is trying to define terms while recognizing that we are talking about something that none of us has experienced (well, Augustine has died now, but by virtue of being able to write about it, he had not experienced it at the time, just as we must not have yet suffered death if we are reading his words). But I sense a potential contradiction between his discussion of th second death and his understanding of God and creation and life and evil. If God creates and must go on creating for a person or thing to go on existing, and if evil and death are privations of good and life, then how can the second death be eternal, or how can the soul be really immortal when God forsakes it? The plain senses of those terms would suggest that the second death, where God abandons some person that He created, is not eternal and ongoing, but a final ending to the soul of the unrepentant sinner. Maybe Augustine means some of these terms in ways that I’m not understanding, but that is certainly not clear to me now. Maybe “forsake” doesn’t mean “removes His presence from”. Or, maybe God can create someone in such a way that they can go on living despite being forsaken. Or, maybe the logic of Augustine’s position on creation and death and forsakenness leads him to a place that he wasn’t willing or able to go; that is, maybe Augustine should have been an Annihilationist but wasn’t able to get there for whatever reason. I don’t want to stake my claim there, but I am interested by the possibility.
May our God preserve you from the second death, by the blood of His Son,