Augustine 2020: The Last Judgment
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Discussions of Revelation and the “end times” play a vital role in Christian political debates. Eschatology, the theological name for the study of last things, is a rich theological subject, filled with much debate over the centuries. In the same way, interpreting Revelation and other similar Christian apocalyptic texts present many interpretative challenges. These are enormous topics and require far more careful study than Christians often give them. At present, much popular eschatology and interpretation of Revelation are made up of trying to match what we see happening in our political world with the details of the biblical text. This approach assumes that texts such as Revelation are detailed descriptions of specific events that will one day happen in the (possibly near) future. We are not going to get into the details of this approach or the details of alternative proposals. I simply want to state upfront that many Revelation scholars have called this approach into question as not being faithful to the book’s original context and, throughout church history, there have been other approaches to the book . The danger of this approach is the way it fosters a fascination with conspiracy theories and turns every political debate into a hyper-partisan battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil . Hopefully, if this series has served its purpose, we understand from Augustine that we approach politics simply as an opportunity for us to love God and our neighbor, to resist evil as we can, and leave the rest of it in the hands of the God who has already defeated all evil. For now, and in the next few installments, we are going to look into some of the features of how Augustine understands the Last Judgment.
Augustine calls it the “last” judgment because, “even now he judges, and from the beginning of the human race he has judged” what is evil and what is good . At that judgment, God will bring each person’s choice between good and evil to its conclusion. Those who have chased the supreme good will find “true and full happiness” while those who have pursued supreme evil will find themselves outside of the eternal happiness they have neglected . All of God’s judgments will then find their fulfillment.
Until that day, Augustine recognizes the reality that good things do happen to the evil while evil things happen to the good. In this present age, things do not work neatly for each person . At the same time, the good do still receive good while the evil also receives evil . Augustine leaves this mystery in God’s hands, citing St. Paul: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” . At the last judgment, all God’s previous judgments, all that happened in this age will be made clear. In the meantime, “we do not know by what judgment God-in who there is supreme power, supreme wisdom, and supreme justice; and no weakness, no rashness, and no iniquity-does these things or allows them to be done” . Augustine would be opposed to many contemporary Christians’ preoccupation with identifying particular disasters, such as the coronavirus pandemic, with God’s judgment for particular sins . We simply will not know. Augustine encourages a different attitude during such moments, to recognize by faith that God is just and wait for the Last Judgment for God’s will to be known .
Now, we come to one of the significant features of Augustine’s eschatology, the millennium. In Revelation, St. John witnesses an angel binding the devil for a thousand years, during which time the saints reign with Christ. After the thousand years, Satan is released, makes a final stand, but is defeated and endures everlasting judgment . Augustine does not follow the popular approach of our day to identify this as a future event occurring over an actual, specific, thousand-year period. Instead, he associates the binding of the devil with Christ’s victory in His death and resurrection . The devil is bound now by the victory Christ has already won and Christ will ultimately vanquish him at the Last Judgment.
In our current state, the church still has to resist evil. That conflict will remain until Christ’s return. At times, the church will seem to be defeated by persecution . Yet those who lost their lives in persecution reign now with Christ . All Christians who have died, those who have died of natural causes and those who have been killed for their witness to Christ, are now part of Christ’s Kingdom and are, even now, still united with us in the church . They, all of us who join them, and all who are left at Christ’s coming will be raised again, reunited with our bodies, and will enjoy life everlasting, free from the power of death .
Before that day, there will be a final persecution of the church, a final attempt by evil made against the city of God as described in Revelation 20. Here, we see a lot of restraint from Augustine, even compared to Christian interpreters of his own day, which we need to learn from. Revelation 20:7-8 says, “When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea.” Augustine refused to identify Gog and Magog with specific political powers, even though many Christians at the time speculated rampantly. He did not need to put the puzzle pieces together and neither do we. They are simply those allied with evil .
He also does not try to specify an earthly city or a particular geographic location that these powers rise against. He points out that verse 8 refers to “the four corners of the earth”. They will come against the church wherever it is throughout the whole world . It is then that Christ will come in judgment. The one who is the judge of the world is the one who came already and was Himself judged, who Himself felt the crushing power of evil, who Himself endured suffering . He will be the one who sets all things right.
Augustine concludes this book with the words, “In what ways and in what order they will come, however, the experience of the events themselves will then teach with more completeness than human intelligence can attain now” . In Augustine’s mind what we need to know about the end for our current politics is simple. We do not need to know or understand every judgment God issues in the present. We do not need to know all the details of that final moment. It will be obvious when it comes. Right now, we are called to rest by faith in the fact that God is just, that the crucified and risen Jesus will be the judge, and those whose lives are directed towards the supreme good found only in Him will receive true happiness.
 See Kenneth L. Gentry and C. Marvin. Pate, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999).
 See Phil Vischer, “Episode 410: White Privilege, Cancel Culture, & Reading Revelation with Juan Hernandez,” June 24, 2020, https://www.holypost.com/post/episode-410-white-privilege-cancel-culture-reading-revelation-with-juan-hernandez.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 165.
 Ibid. p. 166.
 Ibid. p. 167
 Romans 11:33 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 167.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Review: God and the Pandemic by N. T. Wright,” Reimagine Faith, June 26, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/review-god-and-the-pandemic-by-n-t-wright.
 Augustine, p. 167.
 Revelation 20.
 Augustine, p. 167.
 Ibid. p. 168.
 Revelation 20:4.
 Augustine, p. 169.
 Ibid. p. 170, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
 Augustine, pp. 170-171.
 Ibid. p. 171.
 Ibid. p. 173.
 Ibid. p. 174.