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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 24

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 24.—Against Those Who Fancy that in the Judgment of God All the Accused Will Be Spared in Virtue of the Prayers of the Saints.

And this reasoning is equally conclusive against those who, in their own interest, but under the guise of a greater tenderness of spirit, attempt to invalidate the words of God, and who assert that these words are true, not because men shall suffer those things which are threatened by God, but because they deserve to suffer them.  For God, they say, will yield them to the prayers of His saints, who will then the more earnestly pray for their enemies, as they shall be more perfect in holiness, and whose prayers will be the more efficacious and the more worthy of God’s ear, because now purged from all sin whatsoever.  Why, then, if in that perfected holiness their prayers be so pure and all-availing, will they not use them in behalf of the angels for whom eternal fire is prepared, that God may mitigate His sentence and alter it, and extricate them from that fire?  Or will there, perhaps, be some one hardy enough to affirm that even the holy angels will make common cause with holy men (then become the equals of God’s angels), and will intercede for the guilty, both men and angels, that mercy may spare them the punishment which truth has pronounced them to deserve?  But this has been asserted by no one sound in the faith; nor will be.  Otherwise there is no reason why the Church should not even now pray for the devil and his angels, since God her Master has ordered her to pray for her enemies.  The reason, then, which prevents the Church from now praying for the wicked angels, whom she knows to be her enemies, is the identical reason which shall prevent her, however perfected in holiness, from praying at the last judgment for those men who are to be punished in eternal fire.  At present she prays for her enemies among men, because they have yet opportunity for fruitful repentance.  For what does she especially beg for them but that “God would grant them repentance,” as the apostle says, “that they may return to soberness out of the snare of the devil, by whom they are held captive according to his will?” 1546   But if the Church p. 470 were certified who those are, who, though they are still abiding in this life, are yet predestinated to go with the devil into eternal fire, then for them she could no more pray than for him.  But since she has this certainty regarding no man, she prays for all her enemies who yet live in this world; and yet she is not heard in behalf of all.  But she is heard in the case of those only who, though they oppose the Church, are yet predestinated to become her sons through her intercession.  But if any retain an impenitent heart until death, and are not converted from enemies into sons, does the Church continue to pray for them, for the spirits, i.e., of such persons deceased?  And why does she cease to pray for them, unless because the man who was not translated into Christ’s kingdom while he was in the body, is now judged to be of Satan’s following?

It is then, I say, the same reason which prevents the Church at any time from praying for the wicked angels, which prevents her from praying hereafter for those men who are to be punished in eternal fire; and this also is the reason why, though she prays even for the wicked so long as they live, she yet does not even in this world pray for the unbelieving and godless who are dead.  For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the Church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. 1547   As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire.  For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, “They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come.” 1548   But when the Judge of quick and dead has said, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” and to those on the other side, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels,” and “These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” 1549 it were excessively presumptuous to say that the punishment of any of those whom God has said shall go away into eternal punishment shall not be eternal, and so bring either despair or doubt upon the corresponding promise of life eternal.

Let no man then so understand the words of the Psalmist, “Shall God forget to be gracious? shall He shut up in His anger His tender mercies” 1550 as if the sentence of God were true of good men, false of bad men, or true of good men and wicked angels, but false of bad men.  For the Psalmist’s words refer to the vessels of mercy and the children of the promise, of whom the prophet himself was one; for when he had said, “Shall God forget to be gracious? shall He shut up in His anger His tender mercies?” and then immediately subjoins, “And I said, Now I begin:  this is the change wrought by the right hand of the Most High,” 1551 he manifestly explained what he meant by the words, “Shall he shut up in His anger His tender mercies?”  For God’s anger is this mortal life, in which man is made like to vanity, and his days pass as a shadow. 1552   Yet in this anger God does not forget to be gracious, causing His sun to shine and His rain to descend on the just and the unjust; 1553 and thus He does not in His anger cut short His tender mercies, and especially in what the Psalmist speaks of in the words, “Now I begin:  this change is from the right hand of the Most High;” for He changes for the better the vessels of mercy, even while they are still in this most wretched life, which is God’s anger, and even while His anger is manifesting itself in this miserable corruption; for “in His anger He does not shut up His tender mercies.”  And since the truth of this divine canticle is quite satisfied by this application of it, there is no need to give it a reference to that place in which those who do not belong to the city of God are punished in eternal fire.  But if any persist in extending its application to the torments of the wicked, let them at least understand it so that the anger of God, which has threatened the wicked with eternal punishment, shall abide, but shall be mixed with mercy to the extent of alleviating the torments which might justly be inflicted; so that the wicked shall neither wholly escape, nor only for a time endure these threatened pains, but that they shall be less severe and more endurable than they deserve.  Thus the anger of God shall continue, and at the same time He will not in this anger shut up His tender mercies.  But even this hypothesis I am not to be supposed to affirm because I do not positively oppose it. 1554

p. 471

As for those who find an empty threat rather than a truth in such passages as these:  “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire;” and “These shall go away into eternal punishment;” 1555 and “They shall be tormented for ever and ever;” 1556 and “Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched,” 1557 —such persons, I say, are most emphatically and abundantly refuted, not by me so much as by the divine Scripture itself.  For the men of Nineveh repented in this life, and therefore their repentance was fruitful, inasmuch as they sowed in that field which the Lord meant to be sown in tears that it might afterwards be reaped in joy.  And yet who will deny that God’s prediction was fulfilled in their case, if at least he observes that God destroys sinners not only in anger but also in compassion?  For sinners are destroyed in two ways,—either, like the Sodomites, the men themselves are punished for their sins, or, like the Ninevites, the men’s sins are destroyed by repentance.  God’s prediction, therefore, was fulfilled,—the wicked Nineveh was overthrown, and a good Nineveh built up.  For its walls and houses remained standing; the city was overthrown in its depraved manners.  And thus, though the prophet was provoked that the destruction which the inhabitants dreaded, because of his prediction, did not take place, yet that which God’s foreknowledge had predicted did take place, for He who foretold the destruction knew how it should be fulfilled in a less calamitous sense.

But that these perversely compassionate persons may see what is the purport of these words, “How great is the abundance of Thy sweetness, Lord, which Thou hast hidden for them that fear Thee,” 1558 let them read what follows:  “And Thou hast perfected it for them that hope in Thee.”  For what means, “Thou hast hidden it for them that fear Thee,” “Thou hast perfected it for them that hope in Thee,” unless this, that to those who through fear of punishment seek to establish their own righteousness by the law, the righteousness of God is not sweet, because they are ignorant of it?  They have not tasted it.  For they hope in themselves, not in Him; and therefore God’s abundant sweetness is hidden from them.  They fear God, indeed, but it is with that servile fear “which is not in love; for perfect love casteth out fear.” 1559   Therefore to them that hope in Him He perfecteth His sweetness, inspiring them with His own love, so that with a holy fear, which love does not cast out, but which endureth for ever, they may, when they glory, glory in the Lord.  For the righteousness of God is Christ, “who is of God made unto us,” as the apostle says, “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:  as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” 1560   This righteousness of God, which is the gift of grace without merits, is not known by those who go about to establish their own righteousness, and are therefore not subject to the righteousness of God, which is Christ. 1561   But it is in this righteousness that we find the great abundance of God’s sweetness, of which the psalm says, “Taste and see how sweet the Lord is.” 1562   And this we rather taste than partake of to satiety in this our pilgrimage.  We hunger and thirst for it now, that hereafter we may be satisfied with it when we see Him as He is, and that is fulfilled which is written, “I shall be satisfied when Thy glory shall be manifested.” 1563   It is thus that Christ perfects the great abundance of His sweetness to them that hope in Him.  But if God conceals His sweetness from them that fear Him in the sense that these our objectors fancy, so that men’s ignorance of His purpose of mercy towards the wicked may lead them to fear Him and live better, and so that there may be prayer made for those who are not living as they ought, how then does He perfect His sweetness to them that hope in Him, since, if their dreams be true, it is this very sweetness which will prevent Him from punishing those who do not hope in Him?  Let us then seek that sweetness of His, which He perfects to them that hope in Him, not that which He is supposed to perfect to those who despise and blaspheme Him; for in vain, after this life, does a man seek for what he has neglected to provide while in this life.

Then, as to that saying of the apostle, “For God hath concluded all in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all,” 1564 it does not mean that He will condemn no one; but the foregoing context shows what is meant.  The apostle composed the epistle for the Gentiles who were already believers; and when he was speaking to them of the Jews who were yet to believe, he says, “For as ye in times past believed not God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief; even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.”  Then he added the words in question with which these persons beguile themselves:  “For God concluded all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.”  All whom, if not all those of whom he p. 472 was speaking, just as if he had said, “Both you and them?”  God then concluded all those in unbelief, both Jews and Gentiles, whom He foreknew and predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that they might be confounded by the bitterness of unbelief, and might repent and believingly turn to the sweetness of God’s mercy, and might take up that exclamation of the psalm, “How great is the abundance of Thy sweetness, O Lord, which Thou hast hidden for them that fear Thee, but hast perfected to them that hope,” not in themselves, but “in Thee.”  He has mercy, then, on all the vessels of mercy.  And what means “all?”  Both those of the Gentiles and those of the Jews whom He predestinated, called, justified, glorified:  none of these will be condemned by Him; but we cannot say none of all men whatever.


Footnotes

469:1546

2 Tim. 2:25, 26.

470:1547

[This contains the germ of the doctrine of purgatory, which was afterwards more fully developed by Pope Gregory I., and adopted by the Roman church, but rejected by the Reformers, as unfounded in Scripture, though Matt. 12.32, and 1 Cor. 3.15, are quoted in support of it.—P.S.]

470:1548

Matt. 12.32.

470:1549

Matt. 25:34, 41, 46.

470:1550

Ps. 77.9.

470:1551

Ps. 77.10.

470:1552

Ps. 144.4.

470:1553

Matt. 5.45.

470:1554

It is the theory which Chrysostom adopts.

471:1555

Matt. 25:41, 46.

471:1556

Rev. 20.10.

471:1557

Isa. 66.24.

471:1558

Ps. 31.19.

471:1559

1 John 4.18.

471:1560

1 Cor. 1:30, 31.

471:1561

Rom. 10.3.

471:1562

Ps. 34.8.

471:1563

Ps. 17.15.

471:1564

Rom. 11.32.


Next: Chapter 25

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