Augustine lived through what became obvious was the end of the millennium-long Roman empire. It would seem hard to fathom that such a kingdom could ever end, but this decline helped Augustine realize that all human kingdoms end, but God’s kingdom does not. The concomitant rise of Christianity and abandonment of Rome’s pagan deities were being blamed by many for Rome’s decline, and in response, Augustine not only challenged the value of pagan worship in this life (Books 1-5), but in the next (Books 6-10), and then went on to describe the origin (Books 11-14), progress (Books 15-18), and final end (Books 19-22) of God’s kingdom, the City of God.
2 Books 1-5: The Effects of Pagan Worship in this Life
Augustine first responds to the claim that if the Christian God were the true God, he should have protected Rome from suffering foreign attacks, as well and sickness and suffering in general. Augustine explains that not only did the pagan gods not prevent such suffering, but Christianity also allows for such events as part of free will, and often for our good. God does not give unqualified and unending temporal victories, nor is that a good measure of which God is true.
The idea of free will, however, was not entirely palatable to the Roman mind, which saw much of human events in terms of destiny controlled by the stars (astrology) and the gods. Augustine spends many paragraphs defining a Christian framework of God’s sovereignty entwined with our responsibility for choices – neither God nor the stars create tragedies or human evils, we are responsible for them.
Augustine’s next defense of Christianity has to do with the fact that Rome’s decline began before Christianity’s rise, even by the testimony of their own philosophers and historians.
“Take a look at your Roman republic….The writers whose works we studied in school…told the tale before Christ’s coming. Remember? [As Cicero notes], ‘from a state of virtuous splendor [Rome] sank by gradual change to one of shameful corruption.’” (City of God, Book 2:19 as quoted in Harmless, 2010, p. 336)
Augustine goes on to criticize the pagan gods as filled with debauchery and manipulation, serving to not only encourage and justify such behaviors among the populace, “rejecting virtue out of a disordered desire for temporal pleasure and power” (Levering, 2013, p. 115). This, Augustine argues, is the cause for the Roman decline, as the stoic Cicero indicated above. Augustine concludes that the pagan gods with their immorality are actually demons, which was certainly a direct insult.
Not only have the pagan gods led the Roman people away from true wisdom, Augustine claims that the pursuit of Empire has not led to true greatness either, but rather to misery.
“Is it reasonable and wise to glory in the extent and greatness of the Empire when you can in no way prove that there is any real happiness in people perpetually living among the horrors of war, perpetually wading in blood?” (City of God 4:3, quoted in Harmless, 2010, p. 339)
Both the pagan and secular temporal goals of the earthly city are bankrupt according to Augustine.
But why did this decline happen now and not earlier? How did Rome become great in the first place? Augustine argues that when pursuing honor and glory in war, though these are not godly, these goals require the virtues of discipline and hard work, keeping the Romans from easily thinking into leisurely gluttony and debasement. Levering summarizes this, “If one can only pursue temporal goods, glory and honor are the least debasing goods one could pursue” (2013, p. 118)
Augustine also explains the illogical and very lack of god-likeness of Roman pantheism, criticizing the unending creation of new gods out of inanimate concepts like victory in war or virtues like felicity. Which God should we placate when many might affect one good we are seeking?
Lastly, Augustine lowers perhaps his most damning accusation, which is that the pagan gods and their lies have kept men from true happiness and satisfaction, which is to know the true God.
3 Books 6-10: The Effects of Pagan Worship on the Life to Come
Even worse than ruining nations and individual lives, the deceptions of pagan gods keep mankind from the greater riches of the transcendent and eternal. Augustine begins his arguments, however, not from scripture but from the congruent writings of the stoic philosophers, tracing their thought from Pythagoras and Thales, up through Socrates and the neo-Platonists, who finally arrive at the highest possible good, the One who created the world and reality. This source of wisdom and life, Augustine declares, is not the petty pagan gods, but the one creator God. From here, Augustine launches into the gospel, holding out the promise of eternal life, the one primary gift of God (via propitiation and forgiveness) that the pagan gods have tragically, if not wickedly obscured.
4 Books 11-14: The Origins of the City of God
In this section, Augustine introduces the motif of two cities, introducing us to the city of God and contrasting it to the earthly city of mankind. Both are ruled by love, but very different kinds of love:
“What we see then is that two societies have issued from two kinds of love. Earthly society has flowered from a selfish love which dared to despise even God, whereas the heavenly is rooted in a love of God that is ready to trample on self.” (City of God 14:28, quoted in Harmless, 2010, p. 331)
Not only does Augustine lay out the doctrine of creation, but of the origin of evil, the fall of angels, original sin, and the awful plight of all humans. And in all of this, he points to the word of God and Christ as our path into the City of God, in contrast to the ideas of paganism and stoicism. Interestingly, Augustine supports a young earth or at least a young humanity view, believing man was created 5000 years previously.
5 Books 15-18: The Progress of the City of God
In these books Augustine continues through Biblical history, illustrating the contrasting development of the two cities – one embodied in the murderous Cain, the other in godly Abel. One is seen in increasing ungodliness around Noah, the other in Noah’s family. Augustine is accomplishing at least two goals in his development of history. The first is that God participates in history and that we participate with God – we are not controlled by our fates as per astrology or paganism, and God is not absent from history.
Second, in response to the Manichean rejection of the Old Testament, Augustine repeatedly emphasizes God’s development and predictions of his coming kingdom, and the transition to the new testament, in the Old Testament. The New Testament stands or falls on the Old Testament, and does not exist separate from it. Augustine does push his allegorization of the Old Testament, which he learned from Ambrose, a bit far , but he is working hard to connect the testaments.
Augustine also addresses a few bible difficulties, including possible errors in the Septuagint, and how the Holy Spirit can still authorize scripture with such imperfect copies, arguments that modern inerrantists might benefit from. Interestingly, he also addresses the Bible’s mention of giants, concluding that the antediluvian humans, including Adam, were larger than modern humans.
6 Books 19-22: The Final End of the City of God
In these final books, Augustine examines one of the ultimate questions of philosophy, what is the highest good that man can seek? He argues that the highest good possible is to be in relationship and partnership with God and to have eternal life and peace. These ends are what the City of God offers. Augustine again goes on to address objections, including objections to physical resurrection and the ethical problems with eternal torment in hell. He does not entirely condemn our earthly attempts at justice but explains that they will always be a struggle while evil is being done. He introduces the idea of just war and other biblical principles of justice as solutions for our cities until the time of the full arrival of God’s reign in the City of God.
I was not able to read the entire work of the City of God, nor even a significant portion. What did impress me was the simple yet comprehensive effectiveness of the two-cities model. Not only does it make for a nice framework for explaining God’s interaction with man across history, but it also allows us to contrast the values of the two kingdoms (man’s and God’s). It would be fun to create a modern version of this metaphor, responding not only to the perennial challenges to faith but our contemporary challenges in light of God’s kingdom.
Date, C., & Stump, G. G. (Eds.). (2014). Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. Cascade Books.
Harmless, W. (2010). Augustine in His Own Words. Catholic University of America Press.
Levering, M. (2013). Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide To His Most Important Works. Baker Academic.
Sinclair, D. (2015, July). A Philosophical Case for Conditional Immortality (Slides and Audio). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsJ0-X78R9Y
Sinclair, D. (2020, October). A New Testament Defense of Conditional Immortality. Whole Reason. https://www.wholereason.com/2020/10/a-new-testament-defense-of-conditional-immortality.html