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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 11

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 11.—Whether It is Just that the Punishments of Sins Last Longer Than the Sins Themselves Lasted.

Some, however, of those against whom we are defending the city of God, think it unjust that any man be doomed to an eternal punishment for sins which, no matter how great they were, were perpetrated in a brief space of time; as if any law ever regulated the duration of the punishment by the duration of the offence punished!  Cicero tells us that the laws recognize eight kinds of penalty,—damages, imprisonment, scourging, reparation, 1515 disgrace, exile, death, slavery.  Is there any one of these which may be compressed into a brevity proportioned to the rapid commission of the offence, so that no longer time may be spent in its punishment than in its perpetration, unless, perhaps, reparation?  For this requires that the offender suffer what he did, as that clause of the law says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” 1516   For certainly it is possible for an offender to lose his eye by the severity of legal retaliation in as brief a time as he deprived another of his eye by the cruelty of his own lawlessness.  But if scourging be a reasonable penalty for kissing another man’s wife, is not the fault of an instant visited with long hours of atonement, and the momentary delight punished with lasting pain?  What shall we say of imprisonment?  Must the criminal be confined only for so long a time as he spent on the offence for which he is committed? or is not a penalty of many years’ confinement imposed on the slave who has provoked his master with a word, or has struck him a blow that is quickly over?  And as to damages, disgrace, exile, slavery, which are commonly inflicted so as to admit of no relaxation or pardon, do not these resemble eternal punishments in so far as this short life allows a resemblance?  For they are not eternal only because the life in which they are endured is not eternal; and yet the crimes which are punished with these most protracted sufferings are perpetrated in a very brief space of time.  Nor is there any one who would suppose that the pains of punishment should occupy as short a time as the offense; or that murder, adultery, sacrilege, or any other crime, should be measured, not by the enor p. 463 mity of the injury or wickedness, but by the length of time spent in its perpetration.  Then as to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?  And just as the punishment of the first death cuts men off from this present mortal city, so does the punishment of the second death cut men off from that future immortal city.  For as the laws of this present city do not provide for the executed criminal’s return to it, so neither is he who is condemned to the second death recalled again to life everlasting.  But if temporal sin is visited with eternal punishment, how, then, they say, is that true which your Christ says, “With the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again?” 1517 and they do not observe that “the same measure” refers, not to an equal space of time, but to the retribution of evil or, in other words, to the law by which he who has done evil suffers evil.  Besides, these words could be appropriately understood as referring to the matter of which our Lord was speaking when He used them, viz., judgments and condemnation.  Thus, if he who unjustly judges and condemns is himself justly judged and condemned, he receives “with the same measure” though not the same thing as he gave.  For judgment he gave, and judgment he receives, though the judgment he gave was unjust, the judgment he receives just.



“Talio,” i.e. the rendering of like for like, the punishment being exactly similar to the injury sustained.


Ex. 21.24.


Luke 6.38.

Next: Chapter 12

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