Book 21 continues Augustine’s discussion about the final ends of the two cities. The focus here is on hell, the final state of those who make up the city of man. Their lives have been focused on love of self and worship of idols. Augustine looks carefully at what their final punishment will be and makes a series of arguments for what we now call eternal conscious torment (ECT) in the Great Hell Debates.
I guess I would argue that Augustine’s conclusions about the fate of the damned don’t line up very well with what I understand his presuppositions about the human person to be. He argues earlier in City of God that human beings don’t have natural immortality and that God has to maintain us every moment by His grace. God fulfills His creation of us with eternal life; we could say that our created mortality is perfected with supernatural immortality. A picture of this would be that while Adam and Even were in the Garden, they were given a conditional immortality when they ate off the Tree of Life; but when God kicked them out of the Garden, they began a long slide into death because they were no longer able to eat off the Tree. Their natural mortality took over and they died because they no longer had access to the Tree that had supernaturally sustained their immortality. So, if that’s true, then I guess I thought it would have made sense for Augustine to argue that the damned cease to exist when they go to their eternal punishment. God’s presence sustains them in life but then no longer sustains them when they go to Hell, a place that has been commonly described as lacking the presence of God. Without His presence, they just cease to exist. That is, annihilationism.
But Augustine doesn’t argue this. Instead, in book 21, he defends the idea of eternal conscious torment – that the bodies and souls of the damned spend eternity in a lake of fire that torments without destroying. God sustains them – for Augustine, nothing exists unless God makes it exist – by His wrath (I guess). He doesn’t really get into how this works. He spends most of his time in this book assuming eternal conscious torment and defending that against other positions, like annihilationists (who say that the bodies will be destroyed and not suffer eternally), universalists (all will eventually come to Heaven, either after purging in fire, or immediately after death), Platonists (who say that only souls and not bodies will suffer), and pagans (who argue for a different sense of eternity altogether, but who seem to argue that the bodies of the damned can’t endure suffering). Instead of arguing for ECT, Augustine shows that with God’s power, the bodies of the damned can spend eternity being burned without being consumed.
I don’t love book 21 because I was hoping to hear more argument from this greatest of Christian theologians about why ECT is the most biblically and theologically sound position to take on the fate of the damned. Instead, Augustine defends what he already assumes to be the biblical position. I appreciate this – I want him to defend what he sees as biblical – but I am less certain that ECT must be what Scripture assumes. And, as I’ve already noted, I see lines of Augustine’s own thought that lead to the possibility of annihilationism. I wanted him to argue the position that Augustine just assumed. Fine, but overall book 21 feels defensive and unsatisfying.