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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Judgment on Evil

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Having turned to the subject of the last judgment [1], Augustine turns to the most controversial element of God’s judgment, the judgment of evil. This has become a particularly contentious topic in our own day. Universalism, the teaching that all will be saved, has become increasingly popular in contemporary American Christianity and not without reason. Those who do not know the full mysteries of God’s judgment now [2] and who are called to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [3] should desire everyone to be included in God’s mercy. And we are also quick to ask, what about faithful, devout people of other faith traditions? Augustine does not address this question and we will not be able to consider it here. But I bring it up to acknowledge how uncomfortable we are with this topic. I understand and I share this discomfort. What I would invite you to consider now is that other cultures throughout the world today and throughout time have not had the same problems with this topic. We should not toss these questions aside because they come from our cultural context, but we must be cautious that on this topic, our culture’s discomfort with this topic might be a barrier to hearing the truth. Augustine warns us that “by misunderstanding [the Scriptures they] think that what will happen is what they themselves want to happen rather than what those Scriptures say” [4].

For there to be true justice, God must judge. If God is the source of all goodness, of all flourishing, then He, by definition, must be opposed to all that impedes flourishing. God has to be against racism, violence, exploitation of His creation, greed, violence against and mistreatment of his image-bearers, no matter their gender or age. In our present context, we are appalled by lenient sentences for violent crimes, when powerful men escape without conviction or charge what seems to us clear crimes, when we witness genocide and mass shootings. If we are appalled by particular actions and a lack of accountability for them, then we should expect that the God who is for us would be appalled too. We should hope that, in the end, God will not brush aside the pain of innocent victims but will judge the evil perpetrated against His creation. With that said, let us consider a few of the questions Augustine answers.

First of all, he addresses objections from those outside the church that a human body could not bear punishment eternally [5]. Augustine’s argument is simple: “The substance of the flesh will then have that quality bestowed on it by Him who bestows on so many things the diverse wonders which we see and do not wonder at because they are so numerous” [6]. Making the human body able to endure eternal punishment is not a complicated task for the one who created the body in the first place.

But will the punishment of the evil really be eternal? (Remember, the evil are not simply human beings, but include the devil and the demons). Augustine points us to several passages of Scripture. “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” [7]. “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” [8]. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” [9]. Augustine points out that if we think of eternal life “as everlasting, and without an end”, we have to think of eternal punishment in the same way [10]. If we think of eternal punishment “as long-lasting, but with an end”, then we must think of eternal life in the same way [11]. Because we agree that eternal life is without end, eternal punishment must be as well.

Augustine is satisfied that Scripture teaches that punishment is eternal and moves on, but most of us want to ask an additional question: is it just to punish someone eternally for the way someone lived 80 years? It seems radically disproportionate. As we saw last week [12], Augustine is content with professing by faith that God is good and just. We will not be able to fully comprehend His justice, but we trust that He is just. Augustine is content with that answer, though it is not satisfying when we are wrestling with a deep doubt that God is just or talking with someone curious about Christian faith who struggles with this point. I want to tease a few thoughts from N. T. Wright that can be food for thought for those wrestling with these particular questions. “You become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around….It is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all….Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal” [13].

Augustine wraps up his own discussion of this topic with the recognition that we do not know now how each person will stand before God’s final judgment. “Because, however, the church is certain about no one, it prays for all its enemies, at least for all the human ones who are stationed in this body” [14]. We pray in accord with St. Paul: “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” [15].

What does all this have to do with politics? First, when we see injustice in our world, we trust God to be the ultimate judge who will declare those injustices for what they are and deal with them, without a doubt. When we feel powerless to stop injustice, and have exhausted all of our options, we know by faith that He has not and His justice is certain. Second, in the meantime, when we see injustice, we pray for repentance. We pray for perpetrators, corrupt judges, politicians in favor of unjust policies, that they would repent and turn towards the life-giving life of God’s mercy.

[1] See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: The Last Judgment,” October 16, 2020,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew 5:44 NRSV.

[4] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 183.

[5] Ibid. p. 176.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Matthew 25:41.

[8] Revelation 20:10.

[9] Matthew 25:46.

[10] Augustine, p. 180.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: The Last Judgment,” October 16, 2020,

[13] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018), pp. 182-183.

[14] Augustine, p. 181.

[15] 2 Timothy 2:25-26.

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