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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 102

Letter 102 (A.D. 409)

To Deogratias, My Brother in All Sincerity, and My Fellow-Presbyter, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

1. In choosing to refer to me questions which were submitted to yourself for solution, you have not done so, I suppose, from indolence, but because, loving me more than I deserve, you prefer to hear through me even those things which you already know quite well. I would rather, however, that the answers were given by yourself, because the friend who proposed the questions seems to be shy of following advice from me, if I may judge from the fact that he has written no reply to a letter of mine, for what reason he knows best. I suspect this, however, and there is neither ill-will nor absurdity in the suspicion; for you also know very well how much I love him, and how great is my grief that he is not yet a Christian; and it is not unreasonable to think that one whom I see unwilling to answer my letters is not willing to have anything written by me to him. I therefore implore you to comply with a request of mine, seeing that I have been obedient to you, and, notwithstanding most engrossing duties, have feared to disappoint the wish of one so dear to me by declining to comply with your request. What I ask is this, that you do not refuse yourself to give an answer to all his questions, seeing that, as you have told me, he begged this from you; and it is a task to which, even before receiving this letter, you were competent; for when you have read this letter, you will see that scarcely anything has been said by me which you did not already know, or which you could not have come to know though I had been silent. This work of mine, therefore, I beg you to keep for the use of yourself and of all other persons whose desire for instruction you deem it suited to satisfy. But as for the treatise of your own composition which I demand from you, give it to him to whom this treatise is most specially adapted, and not to him only, but also all others who find exceedingly acceptable such statements concerning these things as you are able to make, among whom I number myself. May you live always in Christ, and remember me.

2. Question I. Concerning the resurrection. This question perplexes some, and they ask, Which of two kinds of resurrection corresponds to that which is promised to us? Is it that of Christ, or that of Lazarus? They say, If the former, how can this correspond with the resurrection of those who have been born by ordinary generations, seeing that He was not thus born? If, on the other hand, the resurrection of Lazarus is said to correspond to ours, here also there seems to be a discrepancy, since the resurrection of Lazarus was accomplished in the case of a body not yet dissolved, but the same body in which he was known by the name of Lazarus; whereas ours is to be rescued after many centuries from the mass in which it has ceased to be distinguishable from other things. Again, if our state after the resurrection is one of blessedness, in which the body shall be exempt from every kind of wound, and from the pain of hunger, what is meant by the statement that Christ took food, and showed his wounds after His resurrection? For if He did it to convince the doubting, when the wounds were not real, He practised on them a deception; whereas, if He showed them what was real, it follows that wounds received by the body shall remain in the state which is to ensue after resurrection.

3. To this I answer, that the resurrection of Christ and not of Lazarus corresponds to that which is promised, because Lazarus was so raised that he died a second time, whereas of Christ it is written: Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more; death has no more dominion over Him. Romans 6:9 The same is promised to those who shall rise at the end of the world, and shall reign for ever with Christ. As to the difference in the manner of Christ's generation and that of other men, this has no bearing upon the nature of His resurrection, just as it had none upon the nature of His death, so as to make it different from ours. His death was not the less real because of His not having been begotten by an earthly father; just as the difference between the mode of the origination of the body of the first man, who was formed immediately from the dust of the earth, and of our bodies, which we derive from our parents, made no such difference as that his death should be of another kind than ours. As, therefore, difference in the mode of birth does not make any difference in the nature of death, neither does it make any difference in the nature of resurrection.

4. But lest the men who doubt this should, with similar scepticism, refuse to accept as true what is written concerning the first man's creation, let them inquire or observe, if they can at least believe this, how numerous are the species of animals which are born from the earth without deriving their life from parents, but which by ordinary procreation reproduce offspring like themselves, and in which, notwithstanding the different mode of origination, the nature of the parents born from the earth and of the offspring born from them is the same; for they live alike and they die alike, although born in different ways. There is therefore no absurdity in the statement that bodies dissimilar in their origination are alike in their resurrection. But men of this kind, not being competent to discern in what respect any diversity between things affects or does not affect them, so soon as they discover any unlikeness between things in their original formation, contend that in all that follows the same unlikeness must still exist. Such men may as reasonably suppose that oil made from fat should not float on the surface in water as olive oil does, because the origin of the two oils is so different, the one being from the fruit of a tree, the other from the flesh of an animal.

5. Again, as to the alleged difference in regard to the resurrection of Christ's body and of ours, that His was raised on the third day not dissolved by decay and corruption, whereas ours shall be fashioned again after a long time, and out of the mass into which undistinguished they shall have been resolved—both of these things are impossible for man to do, but to divine power both are most easy. For as the glance of the eye does not come more quickly to objects which are at hand, and more slowly to objects more remote, but darts to either distance with equal swiftness, so, when the resurrection of the dead is accomplished in the twinkling of an eye, 1 Corinthians 15:52 it is as easy for the omnipotence of God and for the ineffable expression of His will to raise again bodies which have by long lapse of time been dissolved, as to raise those which have recently fallen under the stroke of death. These things are to some men incredible because they transcend their experience, although all nature is full of wonders so numerous, that they do not seem to us to be wonderful, and are therefore accounted unworthy of attentive study or investigation, not because our faculties can easily comprehend them, but because we are so accustomed to see them. For myself, and for all who along with me labour to understand the invisible things of God by means of the things which are made, Romans 1:20 I may say that we are filled not less, perhaps even more, with wonder by the fact, that in one grain of seed, so insignificant, there lies bound up as it were all that we praise in the stately tree, than by the fact that the bosom of this earth, so vast, shall restore entire and perfect to the future resurrection all those elements of human bodies which it is now receiving when they are dissolved.

6. Again, what contradiction is there between the fact that Christ partook of food after His resurrection, and the doctrine that in the promised resurrection-state there shall be no need of food, when we read that angels also have partaken of food of the same kind and in the same way, not in empty and illusive simulation, but in unquestionable reality; not, however, under the pressure of necessity, but in the free exercise of their power? For water is absorbed in one way by the thirsting earth, in another way by the glowing sunbeams; in the former we see the effect of poverty, in the latter of power. Now the body of that future resurrection-state shall be imperfect in its felicity if it be incapable of taking food; imperfect, also, if, on the other hand, it be dependent on food. I might here enter on a fuller discussion concerning the changes possible in the qualities of bodies, and the dominion which belongs to higher bodies over those which are of inferior nature; but I have resolved to make my reply short, and I write this for mind so endowed that the simple suggestion of the truth is enough for them.

7. Let him who proposed these questions know by all means that Christ did, after His resurrection, show the scars of His wounds, not the wounds themselves, to disciples who doubted; for whose sake, also, it pleased Him to take food and drink more than once, lest they should suppose that His body was not real, but that He was a spirit, appearing to them as a phantom, and not a substantial form. These scars would indeed have been mere illusive appearances if no wounds had gone before; yet even the scars would not have remained if He had willed it otherwise. But it pleased Him to retain them with a definite purpose, namely, that to those whom He was building up in faith unfeigned He might show that one body had not been substituted for another, but that the body which they had seen nailed to the cross had risen again. What reason is there, then, for saying, If He did this to convince the doubting, He practised a deception? Suppose that a brave man, who had received many wounds in confronting the enemy when fighting for his country, were to say to a physician of extraordinary skill, who was able so to heal these wounds as to leave not a scar visible, that he would prefer to be healed in such a way that the traces of the wounds should remain on his body as tokens of the honours he had won, would you, in such a case, say that the physician practised deception, because, though he might by his art make the scars wholly disappear, he did by the same art, for a definite reason, rather cause them to continue as they were? The only ground upon which the scars could be proved to be a deception would be, as I have already said, if no wounds had been healed in the places where they were seen.

8. Question II. Concerning the epoch of the Christian religion, they have advanced, moreover, some other things, which they might call a selection of the more weighty arguments of Porphyry against the Christians: If Christ, they say, declares Himself to be the Way of salvation, the Grace and the Truth, and affirms that in Him alone, and only to souls believing in Him, is the way of return to God, John 14:6 what has become of men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came? To pass over the time, he adds, which preceded the founding of the kingdom of Latium, let us take the beginning of that power as if it were the beginning of the human race. In Latium itself gods were worshipped before Alba was built; in Alba, also, religious rites and forms of worship in the temples were maintained. Rome itself was for a period of not less duration, even for a long succession of centuries, unacquainted with Christian doctrine. What, then, has become of such an innumerable multitude of souls, who were in no wise blameworthy, seeing that He in whom alone saving faith can be exercised had not yet favoured men with His advent? The whole world, moreover, was not less zealous than Rome itself in the worship practised in the temples of the gods. Why, then, he asks, did He who is called the Saviour withhold Himself for so many centuries of the world? And let it not be said, he adds, that provision had been made for the human race by the old Jewish law. It was only after a long time that the Jewish law appeared and flourished within the narrow limits of Syria, and after that, it gradually crept onwards to the coasts of Italy; but this was not earlier than the end of the reign of Caius, or, at the earliest, while he was on the throne. What, then, became of the souls of men in Rome and Latium who lived before the time of the Cæsars, and were destitute of the grace of Christ, because He had not then come?

9. To these statements we answer by requiring those who make them to tell us, in the first place, whether the sacred rites, which we know to have been introduced into the worship of their gods at times which can be ascertained, were or were not profitable to men. If they say that these were of no service for the salvation of men, they unite with us in putting them down, and confess that they were useless. We indeed prove that they were baneful; but it is an important concession that by them it is at least admitted that they were useless. If, on the other hand, they defend these rites, and maintain that they were wise and profitable institutions, what, I ask, has become of those who died before these were instituted? For they were defrauded of the saving and profitable efficacy which these possessed. If, however, it be said that they could be cleansed from guilt equally well in another way, why did not the same way continue in force for their posterity? What use was there for instituting novelties in worship.

10. If, in answer to this, they say that the gods themselves have indeed always existed, and were in all places alike powerful to give liberty to their worshippers, but were pleased to regulate the circumstances of time, place, and manner in which they were to be served, according to the variety found among things temporal and terrestrial, in such a way as they knew to be most suitable to certain ages and countries, why do they urge against the Christian religion this question, which, if it be asked in regard to their own gods, they either cannot themselves answer, or, if they can, must do so in such a way as to answer for our religion not less than their own? For what could they say but that the difference between sacraments which are adapted to different times and places is of no importance, if only that which is worshipped in them all be holy, just as the difference between sounds of words belonging to different languages and adapted to different hearers is of no importance, if only that which is spoken be true; although in this respect there is a difference, that men can, by agreement among themselves, arrange as to the sounds of language by which they may communicate their thoughts to one another, but that those who have discerned what is right have been guided only by the will of God in regard to the sacred rites which were agreeable to the Divine Being. This divine will has never been wanting to the justice and piety of mortals for their salvation; and whatever varieties of worship there may have been in different nations bound together by one and the same religion, the most important thing to observe was this how far, on the one hand, human infirmity was thereby encouraged to effort, or borne with while, on the other hand, the divine authority was not assailed.

11. Wherefore, since we affirm that Christ is the Word of God, by whom all things were made and is the Son, because He is the Word, not a word uttered and belonging to the past but abides unchangeably with the unchangeable Father, Himself unchangeable, under whose rule the whole universe, spiritual and material, is ordered in the way best adapted to different times and places, and that He has perfect wisdom and knowledge as to what should be done, and when and where everything should be done in the controlling and ordering of the universe—most certainly, both before He gave being to the Hebrew nation, by which He was pleased, through sacraments suited to the time, to prefigure the manifestation of Himself in His advent, and during the time of the Jewish commonwealth, and, after that, when He manifested Himself in the likeness of mortals to mortal men in the body which He received from the Virgin, and thenceforward even to our day, in which He is fulfilling all which He predicted of old by the prophets, and from this present time on to the end of the world, when He shall separate the holy from the wicked, and give to every man his due recompense—in all these successive ages He is the same Son of God, co-eternal with the Father, and the unchangeable Wisdom by whom universal nature was called into existence, and by participation in whom every rational soul is made blessed.

12. Therefore, from the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived. For as we believe in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as having come in the flesh, so the men of the former ages believed in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as destined to come in the flesh. And the nature of faith is not changed, nor is the salvation made different, in our age, by the fact that, in consequence of the difference between the two epochs, that which was then foretold as future is now proclaimed as past. Moreover, we are not under necessity to suppose different things and different kinds of salvation to be signified, when the self-same thing is by different sacred words and rites of worship announced in the one case as fulfilled, in the other as future. As to the manner and time, however, in which anything that pertains to the one salvation common to all believers and pious persons is brought to pass, let us ascribe wisdom to God, and for our part exercise submission to His will. Wherefore the true religion, although formerly set forth and practised under other names and with other symbolic rites than it now has, and formerly more obscurely revealed and known to fewer persons than now in the time of clearer light and wider diffusion, is one and the same in both periods.

13. Moreover, we do not raise any objection to their religion on the ground of the difference between the institutions appointed by Numa Pompilius for the worship of the gods by the Romans, and those which were up till that time practised in Rome or in other parts of Italy; nor on the fact that in the age of Pythagoras that system of philosophy became generally adopted which up to that time had no existence, or lay concealed, perhaps, among a very small number whose views were the same, but whose religious practice and worship was different: the question upon which we join issue with them is, whether these gods were true gods, or worthy of worship, and whether that philosophy was fitted to promote the salvation of the souls of men. This is what we insist upon discussing; and in discussing it we pluck up their sophistries by the root. Let them, therefore, desist from bringing against us objections which are of equal force against every sect, and against religion of every name. For since, as they admit, the ages of the world do not roll on under the dominion of chance, but are controlled by divine Providence, what may be fitting and expedient in each successive age transcends the range of human understanding, and is determined by the same wisdom by which Providence cares for the universe.

14. For if they assert that the reason why the doctrine of Pythagoras has not prevailed always and universally is, that Pythagoras was but a man, and had not power to secure this, can they also affirm that in the age and in the countries in which his philosophy flourished, all who had the opportunity of hearing him were found willing to believe and follow him? And therefore it is the more certain that, if Pythagoras had possessed the power of publishing his doctrines where he pleased and when he pleased, and if he had also possessed along with that power a perfect foreknowledge of events, he would have presented himself only at those places and times in which he foreknew that men would believe his teaching. Wherefore, since they do not object to Christ on the ground of His doctrine not being universally embraced—for they feel that this would be a futile objection if alleged either against the teaching of philosophers or against the majesty of their own gods—what answer, I ask, could they make, if, leaving out of view that depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God within which it may be that some other divine purpose lies much more deeply hidden, and without prejudging the other reasons possibly existing, which are fit subjects for patient study by the wise, we confine ourselves, for the sake of brevity in this discussion, to the statement of this one position, that it pleased Christ to appoint the time in which He would appear and the persons among whom His doctrine was to be proclaimed, according to His knowledge of the times and places in which men would believe in Him? For He foreknew, regarding those ages and places in which His gospel has not been preached, that in them the gospel, if preached, would meet with such treatment from all, without exception, as it met with, not indeed from all, but from many, at the time of His personal presence on earth, who would not believe in Him, even though men were raised from the dead by Him; and such as we see it meet with in our day from many who, although the predictions of the prophets concerning Him are so manifestly fulfilled, still refuse to believe, and, misguided by the perverse subtlety of the human heart, rather resist than yield to divine authority, even when this is so clear and manifest, so glorious and so gloriously published abroad. So long as the mind of man is limited in capacity and in strength, it is his duty to yield to divine truth. Why, then, should we wonder if Christ knew that the world was so full of unbelievers in the former ages, that He righteously refused to manifest Himself or to be preached to those of whom He foreknew that they would not believe either His words or His miracles? For it is not incredible that all may have been then such as, to our amazement, so many have been from the time of His advent to the present time, and even now are.

15. And yet, from the beginning of the human race, He never ceased to speak by His prophets, at one time more obscurely, at another time more plainly, as seemed to divine wisdom best adapted to the time; nor were there ever wanting men who believed in Him, from Adam to Moses, and among the people of Israel itself, which was by a special mysterious appointment a prophetic nation, and among other nations before He came in the flesh. For seeing that in the sacred Hebrew books some are mentioned, even from Abraham's time, not belonging to his natural posterity nor to the people of Israel, and not proselytes added to that people, who were nevertheless partakers of this holy mystery, why may we not believe that in other nations also, here and there, some more were found, although we do not read their names in these authoritative records? Thus the salvation provided by this religion, by which alone, as alone true, true salvation is truly promised, was never wanting to any one who was worthy of it, and he to whom it was wanting was not worthy of it. And from the beginning of the human family, even to the end of time, it is preached, to some for their advantage, to some for their condemnation. Accordingly, those to whom it has not been preached at all are those who were foreknown as persons who would not believe; those to whom, notwithstanding the certainty that they would not believe, the salvation has been proclaimed are set forth as an example of the class of unbelievers; and those to whom, as persons who would believe, the truth is proclaimed are being prepared for the kingdom of heaven and for the society of the holy angels.

16. Question III. Let us now look to the question which comes next in order. They find fault, he says, with the sacred ceremonies, the sacrificial victims, the burning of incense, and all the other parts of worship in our temples; and yet the same kind of worship had its origin in antiquity with themselves, or from the God whom they worship, for He is represented by them as having been in need of the first-fruits.

17. This question is obviously founded upon the passage in our Scriptures in which it is written that Cain brought to God a gift from the fruits of the earth, but Abel brought a gift from the firstlings of the flock. Genesis 4:3-4 Our reply, therefore, is, that from this passage the more suitable inference to be drawn is, how ancient is the ordinance of sacrifice which the infallible and sacred writings declare to be due to no other than to the one true God; not because God needs our offerings, seeing that, in the same Scriptures, it is most clearly written, I said unto the Lord, You are my Lord, for You have no need of my good, but because, even in the acceptance or rejection or appropriation of these offerings, He considers the advantage of men, and of them alone. For in worshipping God we do good to ourselves, not to Him. When, therefore, He gives an inspired revelation, and teaches how He is to be worshipped, He does this not only from no sense of need on His part, but from a regard to our highest advantage. For all such sacrifices are significant, being symbols of certain things by which we ought to be roused to search or know or recollect the things which they symbolize. To discuss this subject satisfactorily would demand of us something more than the short discourse in which we have resolved to give our reply at this time, more particularly because in other treatises we have spoken of it fully. Those also who have before us expounded the divine oracles, have spoken largely of the symbols of the sacrifices of the Old Testament as shadows and figures of things then future.

18. With all our desire, however, to be brief, this one thing we must by no means omit to remark, that the false gods, that is to say, the demons, which are lying angels, would never have required a temple, priesthood, sacrifice, and the other things connected with these from their worshippers, whom they deceive, had they not known that these things were due to the one true God. When, therefore, these things are presented to God according to His inspiration and teaching, it is true religion; but when they are given to demons in compliance with their impious pride, it is baneful superstition. Accordingly, those who know the Christian Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments do not blame the profane rites of Pagans on the mere ground of their building temples, appointing priests, and offering sacrifices, but on the ground of their doing all this for idols and demons. As to idols, indeed, who entertains a doubt as to their being wholly devoid of perception? And yet, when they are placed in these temples and set on high upon thrones of honour, that they may be waited upon by suppliants and worshippers praying and offering sacrifices, even these idols, though devoid both of feeling and of life, do, by the mere image of the members and senses of beings endowed with life, so affect weak minds, that they appear to live and breathe, especially under the added influence of the profound veneration with which the multitude freely renders such costly service.

19. To these morbid and pernicious affections of the mind divine Scripture applies a remedy, by repeating, with the impressiveness of wholesome admonition, a familiar fact, in the words, Eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not, etc. For these words, by reason of their being so plain, and commending themselves to all people as true, are the more effective in striking salutary shame into those who, when they present divine worship before such images with religious fear, and look upon their likeness to living beings while they are venerating and worshipping them, and utter petitions, offer sacrifices, and perform vows before them as if present, are so completely overcome, that they do not presume to think of them as devoid of perception. Lest, moreover, these worshippers should think that our Scriptures intend only to declare that such affections of the human heart spring naturally from the worship of idols, it is written in the plainest terms, All the gods of the nations are devils. And therefore, also, the teaching of the apostles not only declares, as we read in John, Little children, keep yourselves from idols, 1 John 5:21 but also, in the words of Paul, What say I then? That the idol is anything, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is anything? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils, and not to God; and I would not that you should have fellowship with devils. 1 Corinthians 10:19-20 From which it may be clearly understood, that what is condemned in heathen superstitions by the true religion is not the mere offering of sacrifices (for the ancient saints offered these to the true God), but the offering of sacrifices to false gods and to impious demons. For as the truth counsels men to seek the fellowship of the holy angels, in like manner impiety turns men aside to the fellowship of the wicked angels, for whose associates everlasting fire is prepared, as the eternal kingdom is prepared for the associates of the holy angels.

20. The heathen find a plea for their profane rites and their idols in the fact that they interpret with ingenuity what is signified by each of them, but the plea is of no avail. For all this interpretation relates to the creature, not to the Creator, to whom alone is due that religious service which is in the Greek language distinguished by the word λατρεία . Neither do we say that the earth, the seas, the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and any other celestial influences which may be beyond our ken are demons; but since all created things are divided into material and immaterial, the latter of which we also call spiritual, it is manifest that what is done by us under the power of piety and religion proceeds from the faculty of our souls known as the will, which belongs to the spiritual creation, and is therefore to be preferred to all that is material. Whence it is inferred that sacrifice must not be offered to anything material. There remains, therefore, the spiritual part of creation, which is either pious or impious—the pious consisting of men and angels who are righteous, and who duly serve God; the impious consisting of wicked men and angels, whom we also call devils. Now, that sacrifice must not be offered to a spiritual creature, though righteous, is obvious from this consideration, that the more pious and submissive to God any creature is, the less does he presume to aspire to that honour which he knows to be due to God alone. How much worse, therefore, is it to sacrifice to devils, that is, to a wicked spiritual creature, which, dwelling in this comparatively dark heaven nearest to earth, as in the prison assigned to him in the air, is doomed to eternal punishment. Wherefore, even when men say that they are offering sacrifices to the higher celestial powers, which are not devils, and imagine that the only difference between us and them is in a name, because they call them gods and we call them angels, the only beings which really present themselves to these men, who are given over to be the sport of manifold deceptions, are the devils who find delight and, in a sense, nourishment in the errors of mankind. For the holy angels do not approve of any sacrifice except what is offered, agreeably to the teaching of true wisdom and true religion, unto the one true God, whom in holy fellowship they serve. Therefore, as impious presumption, whether in men or in angels, commands or covets the rendering to itself of those honours which belong to God, so, on the other hand, pious humility, whether in men or in holy angels, declines these honours when offered, and declares to whom alone they are due, of which most notable examples are conspicuously set forth in our sacred books.

21. In the sacrifices appointed by the divine oracles there has been a diversity of institution corresponding to the age in which they were observed. Some sacrifices were offered before the actual manifestation of that new covenant, the benefits of which are provided by the one true offering of the one Priest, namely, by the shed blood of Christ; and another sacrifice, adapted to this manifestation, and offered in the present age by us who are called Christians after the name of Him who has been revealed, is set before us not only in the gospels, but also in the prophetic books. For a change, not of the God, who is worshipped, nor of the religion itself, but of sacrifices and of sacraments, would seem to be proclaimed without warrant now, if it had not been foretold in the earlier dispensation. For just as when the same man brings to God in the morning one kind of offering, and in the evening another, according to the time of day, he does not thereby change either his God or his religion, any more than he changes the nature of a salutation who uses one form of salutation in the morning and another in the evening: so, in the complete cycle of the ages, when one kind of offering is known to have been made by the ancient saints, and another is presented by the saints in our time, this only shows that these sacred mysteries are celebrated not according to human presumption, but by divine authority, in the manner best adapted to the times. There is here no change either in the Deity or in the religion.

22. Question IV. Let us, in the next place, consider what he has laid down concerning the proportion between sin and punishment when, misrepresenting the gospel, he says: Christ threatens eternal punishment to those who do not believe in Him; John 3:18 and yet He says in another place, With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Matthew 7:2 Here, he remarks, is something sufficiently absurd and contradictory; for if He is to award punishment according to measure, and all measure is limited by the end of time, what mean these threats of eternal punishment?

23. It is difficult to believe that this question has been put in the form of objection by one claiming to be in any sense a philosopher; for he says, All measure is limited by time, as if men were accustomed to no other measures than measures of time, such as hours and days and years, or such as are referred to when we say that the time of a short syllable is one-half of that of a long syllable. For I suppose that bushels and firkins, urns and amphoræ, are not measures of time. How, then, is all measure limited by time? Do not the heathen themselves affirm that the sun is eternal? And yet they presume to calculate and pronounce on the basis of geometrical measurements what is the proportion between it and the earth. Whether this calculation be within or beyond their power, it is certain, notwithstanding, that it has a disc of definite dimensions. For if they do ascertain how large it is, they know its dimensions, and if they do not succeed in their investigation, they do not know these; but the fact that men cannot discover them is no proof that they do not exist. It is possible, therefore, for something to be eternal, and nevertheless to have a definite measure of its proportions. In this I have been speaking upon the assumption of their own view as to the eternal duration of the sun, in order that they may be convinced by one of their own tenets, and obliged to admit that something may be eternal and at the same time measurable. And therefore let them not think that the threatening of Christ concerning eternal punishment is not to be believed because of His also saying, In what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you.

24. For if He had said, That which you have measured shall be measured unto you, even in that case it would not have been necessary to take the clauses as referring to something which was in all respects the same. For we may correctly say, That which you have planted you shall reap, although men plant not fruit but trees, and reap not trees but fruit. We say it, however, with reference to the kind of tree; for a man does not plant a fig-tree, and expect to gather nuts from it. In like manner it might be said, What you have done you shall suffer; not meaning that if one has committed adultery, for example, he shall suffer the same, but that what he has in that crime done to the law, the law shall do unto him, i.e. forasmuch as he has removed from his life the law which prohibits such things, the law shall requite him by removing him from that human life over which it presides. Again, if He had said, As much as you shall have measured, so much shall be measured unto you, even from this statement it would not necessarily follow that we must understand punishments to be in every particular equal to the sins punished. Barley and wheat, for example, are not equal in quality, and yet it might be said, As much as you shall have measured, so much shall be measured unto you, meaning for so much wheat so much barley. Or if the matter in question were pain, it might be said, As great pain shall be inflicted on you as you have inflicted on others; this might mean that the pain should be in severity equal, but in time more protracted, and therefore by its continuance greater. For suppose I were to say of two lamps, The flame of this one was as hot as the flame of the other, this would not be false, although, perchance, one of them was earlier extinguished than the other. Wherefore, if things be equally great in one respect, but not in another, the fact that they are not alike in all respects does not invalidate the statement that in one respect, as admitted, they are equally great.

25. Seeing, however, that the words of Christ were these, In what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you, and that beyond all question the measure in which anything is measured is one thing, and that which is measured in it is another, it is obviously possible that with the same measure with which men have measured, say, a bushel of wheat, there may be measured to them thousands of bushels, so that with no difference in the measure there may be all that difference in the quantity, not to speak of the difference of quality which might be in the things measured; for it is not only possible that with the same measure with which one has measured barley to others, wheat may be measured to him, but, moreover, with the same measure with which he has measured grain, gold may be measured to him, and of the grain there may have been one bushel, while there may be very many of the gold. Thus, although there is a difference both in kind and quantity, it may be nevertheless truly said in reference to things which are thus unlike: In the measure in which he measured to others it is measured unto him.

The reason, moreover, why Christ uttered this saying is sufficiently plain from the immediately preceding context. Judge not, He said, that you be not judged; for in the judgment in which you judge you shall be judged. Does this mean that if they have judged any one with injustice they shall themselves be unjustly judged? Of course not; for there is no unrighteousness with God. But it is thus expressed, In the judgment in which you judge you shall be judged, as if it were said, In the will in which you have dealt kindly with others you shall be set at liberty, or in the will in which you have done evil to others you shall be punished. As if any one, for example, using his eyes for the gratification of base desires, were ordered to be made blind, this would be a just sentence for him to hear, In those eyes by which you have sinned, in them have you deserved to be punished. For every one uses the judgment of his own mind, according as it is good or evil, for doing good or for doing evil. Wherefore it is not unjust that he be judged in that in which he judges, that is to say, that he suffer the penalty in the mind's faculty of judgment when he is made to endure those evils which are the consequences of the sinful judgment of his mind.

26. For while other torments which are prepared to be hereafter inflicted are visible, torments occasioned by the same central cause, namely, a depraved will,— it is also the fact that within the mind itself, in which the appetite of the will is the measure of all human actions, sin is followed immediately by punishment, which is for the most part increased in proportion to the greater blindness of one by whom it is not felt. Therefore when He had said, With [or rather, as Augustine renders it, In] what judgment ye judge, you shall be judged, He went on to add, And in what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you. A good man, that is to say, will measure out good actions in his own will, and in the same shall blessedness be measured unto him; and in like manner, a bad man will measure out bad actions in his own will, and in the same shall misery be meted out to him; for in whatsoever any one is good when his will aims at what is good, in the same he is evil when his will aims at what is evil. And therefore it is also in this that he is made to experience bliss or misery, viz. in the feeling experienced by his own will, which is the measure both of all actions and of the recompenses of actions. For we measure actions, whether good or bad, by the quality of the volitions which produce them, not by the length of time which they occupy. Were it otherwise, it would be regarded a greater crime to fell a tree than to kill a man. For the former takes a long time and many strokes, the latter may be done with one blow in a moment of time; and yet, if a man were punished with no more than transportation for life for this great crime committed in a moment, it would be said that he had been treated with more clemency than he deserved, although, in regard to the duration of time, the protracted punishment is not in any way to be compared with the sudden act of murder. Where, then, is anything contradictory in the sentence objected to, if the punishments shall be equally protracted or even alike eternal, but differing in comparative gentleness and severity? The duration is the same; the pain inflicted is different in degree, because that which constitutes the measure of the sins themselves is found not in the length of time which they occupy, but in the will of those who commit them.

27. Certainly the will itself endures the punishment, whether pain be inflicted on the mind or on the body; so that the same thing which is gratified by the sin is smitten by the penalty, and so that he who judges without mercy is judged without mercy; for in this sentence also the standard of measure is the same only in this point, that what he did not give to others is denied to him, and therefore the judgment passed on him shall be eternal, although the judgment pronounced by him cannot be eternal. It is therefore in the sinner's own measure that punishments which are eternal are measured out to him, though the sins thus punished were not eternal; for as his wish was to have an eternal enjoyment of sin, so the award which he finds is an eternal endurance of suffering.

The brevity which I study in this reply precludes me from collecting all, or at least as many as I could of the statements contained in our sacred books as to sin and the punishment of sin, and deducing from these one indisputable proposition on the subject; and perhaps, even if I obtained the necessary leisure, I might not possess abilities competent to the task. Nevertheless, I think that in the meantime I have proved that there is no contradiction between the eternity of punishment and the principle that sins shall be recompensed in the same measure in which men have committed them.

28. Question V. The objector who has brought forward these questions from Porphyry has added this one in the next place: Will you have the goodness to instruct me as to whether Solomon said truly or not that God has no Son?

29. The answer is brief: Solomon not only did not say this, but, on the contrary, expressly said that God has a Son. For in one of his writings Wisdom says: Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth. And what is Christ but the Wisdom of God? Again, in another place in the book of Proverbs, he says: God has taught me wisdom, and I have learned the knowledge of the holy. Who has ascended up into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the winds in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son's name? Proverbs 30:3-4 Of the two questions concluding this quotation, the one referred to the Father, namely, What is His name?— with allusion to the foregoing words, God has taught me wisdom,— the other evidently to the Son, since he says, or what is His Son's name?— with allusion to the other statements, which are more properly understood as pertaining to the Son, viz. Who has ascended up into heaven and descended?— a question brought to remembrance by the words of Paul: He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens; Ephesians 4:10Who has gathered the winds in His fists? i.e. the souls of believers in a hidden and secret place, to whom, accordingly, it is said, You are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God; Colossians 3:3Who has bound the waters in a garment? whence it could be said, As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ; Galatians 3:27Who has established all the ends of the earth? the same who said to His disciples, You shall be witnesses unto Me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. Acts 1:8

30. Question VI. The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale's belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd's growth? Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.

31. To this I reply, that either all the miracles wrought by divine power may be treated as incredible, or there is no reason why the story of this miracle should not be believed. The resurrection of Christ Himself upon the third day would not be believed by us, if the Christian faith was afraid to encounter Pagan ridicule. Since, however, our friend did not on this ground ask whether it is to be believed that Lazarus was raised on the fourth day, or that Christ rose on the third day, I am much surprised that he reckoned what was done with Jonah to be incredible; unless, perchance, he thinks it easier for a dead man to be raised in life from his sepulchre, than for a living man to be kept in life in the spacious belly of a sea monster. For without mentioning the great size of sea monsters which is reported to us by those who have knowledge of them, let me ask how many men could be contained in the belly which was fenced round with those huge ribs which are fixed in a public place in Carthage, and are well known to all men there? Who can be at a loss to conjecture how wide an entrance must have been given by the opening of the mouth which was the gateway of that vast cavern? Unless, perchance, as our friend stated it, the clothing of Jonah stood in the way of his being swallowed without injury, as if he had required to squeeze himself through a narrow passage, instead of being, as was the case, thrown headlong through the air, and so caught by the sea monster as to be received into its belly before he was wounded by its teeth. At the same time, the Scripture does not say whether he had his clothes on or not when he was cast down into that cavern, so that it may without contradiction be understood that he made that swift descent unclothed, if perchance it was necessary that his garment should be taken from him, as the shell is taken from an egg, to make him more easily swallowed. For men are as much concerned about the raiment of this prophet as would be reasonable if it were stated that he had crept through a very small window, or had been going into a bath; and yet, even though it were necessary in such circumstances to enter without parting with one's clothes, this would be only inconvenient, not miraculous.

32. But perhaps our objectors find it impossible to believe in regard to this divine miracle that the heated moist air of the belly, whereby food is dissolved, could be so moderated in temperature as to preserve the life of a man. If so, with how much greater force might they pronounce it incredible that the three young men cast into the furnace by the impious king walked unharmed in the midst of the flames! If, therefore, these objectors refuse to believe any narrative of a divine miracle, they must be refuted by another line of argument. For it is incumbent on them in that case not to single out some one to be objected to, and called in question as incredible, but to denounce as incredible all narratives in which miracles of the same kind or more remarkable are recorded. And yet, if this which is written concerning Jonah were said to have been done by Apuleius of Madaura or Apollonius of Tyana, by whom they boast, though unsupported by reliable testimony, that many wonders were performed (albeit even the devils do some works like those done by the holy angels, not in truth, but in appearance, not by wisdom, but manifestly by subtlety)—if, I say, any such event were narrated in connection with these men to whom they give the flattering name of magicians or philosophers, we should hear from their mouths sounds not of derision, but of triumph. Be it so, then; let them laugh at our Scriptures; let them laugh as much as they can, when they see themselves daily becoming fewer in number, while some are removed by death, and others by their embracing the Christian faith, and when all those things are being fulfilled which were predicted by the prophets who long ago laughed at them, and said that they would fight and bark against the truth in vain, and would gradually come over to our side; and who not only transmitted these statements to us, their descendants, for our learning, but promised that they should be fulfilled in our experience.

33. It is neither unreasonable nor unprofitable to inquire what these miracles signify, so that, after their significance has been explained, men may believe not only that they really occurred, but also that they have been recorded, because of their possessing symbolic meaning. Let him, therefore, who proposes to inquire why the prophet Jonah was three days in the capacious belly of a sea monster, begin by dismissing doubts as to the fact itself; for this did actually occur, and did not occur in vain. For if figures which are expressed in words only, and not in actions, aid our faith, how much more should our faith be helped by figures expressed not only in words, but also in actions! Now men are wont to speak by words; but divine power speaks by actions as well as by words. And as words which are new or somewhat unfamiliar lend brilliancy to a human discourse when they are scattered through it in a moderate and judicious manner, so the eloquence of divine revelation receives, so to speak, additional lustre from actions which are at once marvellous in themselves and skilfully designed to impart spiritual instruction.

34. As to the question, What was prefigured by the sea monster restoring alive on the third day the prophet whom it swallowed? Why is this asked of us, when Christ Himself has given the answer, saying, An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there shall no sign be given it but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so must the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth Matthew 12:39-40? In regard to the three days in which the Lord Christ was under the power of death, it would take long to explain how they are reckoned to be three whole days, that is, days along with their nights, because of the whole of the first day and of the third day being understood as represented on the part of each; moreover, this has been already stated very often in other discourses. As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world. And as the command was given at first that the word of God should be preached to the Ninevites by Jonah, but the preaching of Jonah did not come to them until after the whale had vomited him forth, so prophetic teaching was addressed early to the Gentiles, but did not actually come to the Gentiles until after the resurrection of Christ from the grave.

35. In the next place, as to Jonah's building for himself a booth, and sitting down over against Nineveh, waiting to see what would befall the city, the prophet was here in his own person the symbol of another fact. He prefigured the carnal people of Israel. For he also was grieved at the salvation of the Ninevites, that is, at the redemption and deliverance of the Gentiles, from among whom Christ came to call, not righteous men, but sinners to repentance. Luke 5:32 Wherefore the shadow of that gourd over his head prefigured the promises of the Old Testament, or rather the privileges already enjoyed in it, in which there was, as the apostle says, a shadow of things to come, Colossians 2:17 furnishing, as it were, a refuge from the heat of temporal calamities in the land of promise. Moreover, in that morning-worm, which by its gnawing tooth made the gourd wither away, Christ Himself is again prefigured, forasmuch as, by the publication of the gospel from His mouth, all those things which flourished among the Israelites for a time, or with a shadowy symbolic meaning in that earlier dispensation, are now deprived of their significance, and have withered away. And now that nation, having lost the kingdom, the priesthood, and the sacrifices formerly established in Jerusalem, all which privileges were a shadow of things to come, is burned with grievous heat of tribulation in its condition of dispersion and captivity, as Jonah was, according to the history, scorched with the heat of the sun, and is overwhelmed with sorrow; and notwithstanding, the salvation of the Gentiles and of the penitent is of more importance in the sight of God than this sorrow of Israel and the shadow of which the Jewish nation was so glad.

36. Again, let the Pagans laugh, and let them treat with proud and senseless ridicule Christ the Worm and this interpretation of the prophetic symbol, provided that He gradually and surely, nevertheless, consume them. For concerning all such Isaiah prophesies, when by him God says to us, Hearken unto me, you that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings: for the moth shall eat them up as a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool; but my righteousness shall be for ever. Isaiah 51:7-8 Let us therefore acknowledge Christ to be the morning-worm, because, moreover, in that psalm which bears the title, Upon the hind of the morning, He has been pleased to call Himself by this very name: I am, He says, a worm, and no man, a reproach of men, and despised of the people. This reproach is one of those reproaches which we are commanded not to fear in the words of Isaiah, Fear ye not the reproach of men. By that Worm, as by a moth, they are being consumed who under the tooth of His gospel are made to wonder daily at the diminution of their numbers, which is caused by desertion from their party. Let us therefore acknowledge this symbol of Christ; and because of the salvation of God, let us bear patiently the reproaches of men. He is a Worm because of the lowliness of the flesh which He assumed— perhaps, also, because of His being born of a virgin; for the worm is generally not begotten, but spontaneously originated in flesh or any vegetable product [sine concubitu nascitur]. He is the morning-worm, because He rose from the grave before the dawn of day. That gourd might, of course, have withered without any worm at its root; and finally, if God regarded the worm as necessary for this work, what need was there to add the epithet morning-worm, if not to secure that He should be recognised as the Worm who in the psalm, pro susceptione matutina, sings, I am a worm, and no man?

37. What, then, could be more palpable than the fulfilment of this prophecy in the accomplishment of the things foretold? That Worm was indeed despised when He hung upon the cross, as is written in the same psalm: They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him; and again, when this was fulfilled which the psalm foretold, They pierced my hands and my feet. They have told all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture, — circumstances which are in that ancient book described when future by the prophet with as great plainness as they are now recorded in the gospel history after their occurrence. But if in His humiliation that Worm was despised, is He to be still despised when we behold the accomplishment of those things which are predicted in the latter part of the same psalm: All the ends of the world shall remember, and turn unto the Lord; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship in His presence. For the kingdom is the Lord's; and He shall govern among the nations? Thus the Ninevites remembered, and turned unto the Lord. The salvation granted to the Gentiles on their repentance, which was thus so long before prefigured, Israel then, as represented by Jonah, regarded with grief, as now their nation grieves, bereft of their shadow, and vexed with the heat of their tribulations. Any one is at liberty to open up with a different interpretation, if only it be in harmony with the rule of faith, all the other particulars which are hidden in the symbolic history of the prophet Jonah; but it is obvious that it is not lawful to interpret the three days which he passed in the belly of the whale otherwise than as it has been revealed by the heavenly Master Himself in the gospel, as quoted above.

38. I have answered to the best of my power the questions proposed; but let him who proposed them become now a Christian at once, lest, if he delay until he has finished the discussion of all difficulties connected with the sacred books, he come to the end of this life before he pass from death to life. For it is reasonable that he inquire as to the resurrection of the dead before he is admitted to the Christian sacraments. Perhaps he ought also to be allowed to insist on preliminary discussion of the question proposed concerning Christ— why He came so late in the world's history, and of a few great questions besides, to which all others are subordinate. But to think of finishing all such questions as those concerning the words, In what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you, and concerning Jonah, before he becomes a Christian, is to betray great unmindfulness of man's limited capacities, and of the shortness of the life which remains to him. For there are innumerable questions the solution of which is not to be demanded before we believe, lest life be finished by us in unbelief. When, however, the Christian faith has been thoroughly received, these questions behoove to be studied with the utmost diligence for the pious satisfaction of the minds of believers. Whatever is discovered by such study ought to be imparted to others without vain self-complacency; if anything still remain hidden, we must bear with patience an imperfection of knowledge which is not prejudicial to salvation.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102102.htm>.

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