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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 17

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 17.—Against Those Who Affirm that Earthly Bodies Cannot Be Made Incorruptible and Eternal.

These same philosophers further contend that terrestrial bodies cannot be eternal though they make no doubt that the whole earth, which is itself the central member of their god,—not, indeed, of the greatest, but yet of a great god, that is, of this whole world,—is eternal.  Since, then, the Supreme made for them another god, that is, this world, superior to the other gods beneath Him; and since they suppose that this god is an animal, having, as they affirm, a rational or intellectual soul enclosed in the huge mass of its body, and having, as the fitly situated and adjusted members of its body, the four elements, whose union they wish to be indissoluble and eternal, lest perchance this great god of theirs might some day perish; what reason is there that the earth, which is the central member in the body of a greater creature, should be eternal, and the bodies of other terrestrial creatures should not possibly be eternal if God should so will it?  But earth, say they, must return to earth, out of which the terrestrial bodies of the animals have been taken.  For this, they say, is the reason of the necessity of their death and dissolution, and this the manner of their restoration to the solid and eternal earth whence they came.  But if any one says the same thing of fire, holding that the bodies which are derived from it to make celestial beings must be restored to the universal fire, does not the immortality which Plato represents these gods as receiving from the Supreme evanesce in the heat of this dispute?  Or does this not happen with those celestials because God, whose will, as Plato says, overpowers all powers, has willed it should not be so?  What, then, hinders God from ordaining the same of terrestrial bodies?  And since, indeed, Plato acknowledges that God can prevent things that are born from dying, and things that are joined from being sundered, and things that are composed from being dissolved, and can ordain that the souls once allotted to their bodies should never abandon them, but enjoy along with them immortality and everlasting bliss, why may He not also effect that terrestrial bodies die not?  Is God powerless to do everything that is special to the Christian’s creed, but powerful to effect everything the Platonists desire?  The philosophers, forsooth, have been admitted to a knowledge of the divine purposes and power which has been denied to the prophets!  The truth is, that the Spirit of God taught His prophets so much of His will as He thought fit to reveal, but the philosophers, in their efforts to discover it, were deceived by human conjecture.

But they should not have been so led astray, I will not say by their ignorance, but by their obstinacy, as to contradict themselves so frequently; for they maintain, with all their vaunted might, that in order to the happiness of the soul, it must abandon not only its earthly body, but every kind of body.  And yet they hold that the gods, whose souls are most blessed, are bound to everlasting bodies, the celestials to fiery bodies, and the soul of Jove himself (or this world, as they would have us believe) to all the physical elements which compose this entire mass reaching from earth to heaven.  For this soul Plato believes to be extended and diffused by musical numbers, 601 from the middle of the inside of the earth, which geometricians call the centre, outwards through all its parts to the utmost heights and extremities of the heavens; so that this world is a very great and blessed immortal animal, whose soul has both the perfect blessedness of wisdom, and never leaves its own body and whose body has life everlasting from the soul, and by no means clogs or hinders it, though itself be not a simple body, but compacted of so many and so huge materials.  Since, therefore, they allow so much to their own conjectures, why do they refuse to believe that by the divine will and power immortality can be conferred on earthly bodies, in which the souls would be neither oppressed with the burden of them, nor separated from them by any death, but live eternally and blessedly?  Do they not assert that their own gods so live in bodies of fire, and that Jove himself, their king, so lives in the physical elements?  If, in order to its blessedness, the soul must quit every kind of body, let their gods flit from the starry spheres, and Jupiter from earth to sky; or, if they cannot do so, let them be pronounced miserable.  But neither alternative will these men adopt.  For, on the one hand, they dare not ascribe to their own gods a departure from the body, lest they should seem to worship mortals; on the other hand, they dare not deny their happiness, lest they should acknowledge wretches as gods.  Therefore, to obtain blessedness, we need not quit every kind of body, but only the corruptible, cumbersome, painful, dying,—not such bodies p. 254 as the goodness of God contrived for the first man, but such only as man’s sin entailed.



On these numbers see Grote’s Plato, iii. 254.

Next: Chapter 18

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