Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Milestone

I achieved a milestone yesterday. No, I didn’t complete a degree, run my first marathon, or even discover the unified field equations. (I’m close on the last one, though, and feel fairly certain that there’s a 4 in there somewhere.) But I did finish Augustine’s City of God after twelve years of reading excerpts.

Suitably, at the end of his monumental treatise, Augustine discusses the end of the human story. In the antepenultimate book, he offers his view of the timing of events according to his interpretation of eschatological passages of the Bible. If I understand him and the terms correctly, Augustine was a post-trib amillennialist, although he admits that we don’t really know the order of events and can’t have complete certainty that we understand prophecy until it’s fulfilled.

In book XXI (of twenty-two), Augustine discusses the fate of the damned. He concentrates on a problem raised by a very literal interpretation of hell fires (an interpretation he accepts without question): how can flesh suffer eternal fire? In other words, how can the human body, like the Bush Moses saw, burn without being consumed? Apparently the fifth-century pagans who scoffed at the bishop’s Christian faith had no trouble accepting either the immortality of the soul or the eternal punishment of the wicked. But they balked at the idea of resurrection of the flesh and complained of the absurdity of neverending physical punishment. Augustine reponds with reasoned arguments. (1) From magnets to diamonds to lime, our world is filled with phenomena we can’t explain, so our inability to understand eternally burning flesh doesn’t mean it can’t exist. (2) God is omnipotent and can make a new kind of flesh if He wants to. (In a most curious coincidence, one day a couple of weeks ago I read Donne’s Holy Sonnet no. 1, which ends “Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art / And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart,” and read the very next day Augustine’s description of lodestones and diamonds, in which he distinguishes the two by pointing out that diamonds don’t draw iron. I smiled to think of Donne and me reading the same lines.)

In the last book, Augustine treats of the eternal reward of the Blessed, and again he dwells a long time – too long in my view – on unbelievers’ doubts about the possibility of an eternal human body. Here his biggest concern centers on the text “Not a hair of your head shall perish.” If believers really receive back all the material of their bodies with no hair left unrestored, all those curls left on the barbershop floor over a lifetime will have to be regathered. And really, he asks, where would be the beauty in that? Augustine’s solution is to say that God will use all the same material we enjoyed on earth, but will reproportion it in perfect harmony. Thus, he points out, the fat and the skinny will both find a happy medium. A more serious matter in this part of the book involves the appearance of people who have died as babies. Augustine thinks they will appear as they would have been had they lived to be thirty years old. But again, he has to admit that he doesn’t really know more than that the Blessed will be happy with the results.

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