Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
City of God: Chapter 24
Chapter 24.—Passages from the Psalms of David Which Predict the End of the World and the Last Judgment.
There are many allusions to the last judgment in the Psalms, but for the most part only casual and slight. I cannot, however, omit p. 444 to mention what is said there in express terms of the end of this world: “In the beginning hast Thou laid the foundations of the earth, O Lord; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shall endure; yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; and as a vesture Thou shall change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.” 1440 Why is it that Porphyry, while he lauds the piety of the Hebrews in worshipping a God great and true, and terrible to the gods themselves, follows the oracles of these gods in accusing the Christians of extreme folly because they say that this world shall perish? For here we find it said in the sacred books of the Hebrews, to that God whom this great philosopher acknowledges to be terrible even to the gods themselves, “The heavens are the work of Thy hands; they shall perish.” When the heavens, the higher and more secure part of the world, perish, shall the world itself be preserved? If this idea is not relished by Jupiter, whose oracle is quoted by this philosopher as an unquestionable authority in rebuke of the credulity of the Christians, why does he not similarly rebuke the wisdom of the Hebrews as folly, seeing that the prediction is found in their most holy books? But if this Hebrew wisdom, with which Porphyry is so captivated that he extols it through the utterances of his own gods, proclaims that the heavens are to perish, how is he so infatuated as to detest the faith of the Christians partly, if not chiefly, on this account, that they believe the world is to perish?—though how the heavens are to perish if the world does not is not easy to see. And, indeed, in the sacred writings which are peculiar to ourselves, and not common to the Hebrews and us,—I mean the evangelic and apostolic books,—the following expressions are used: “The figure of this world passeth away;” 1441 “The world passeth away;” 1442 “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” 1443 —expressions which are, I fancy, somewhat milder than “They shall perish.” In the Epistle of the Apostle Peter, too, where the world which then was is said to have perished, being overflowed with water, it is sufficiently obvious what part of the world is signified by the whole, and in what sense the word perished is to be taken, and what heavens were kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. 1444 And when he says a little afterwards, “The day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great rush, and the elements shall melt with burning heat, and the earth and the works which are in it shall be burned up and then adds, “Seeing, then, that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be?” 1445 —these heavens which are to perish may be understood to be the same which he said were kept in store reserved for fire; and the elements which are to be burned are those which are full of storm and disturbance in this lowest part of the world in which he said that these heavens were kept in store; for the higher heavens in whose firmament are set the stars are safe, and remain in their integrity. For even the expression of Scripture, that “the stars shall fall from heaven,” 1446 not to mention that a different interpretation is much preferable, rather shows that the heavens themselves shall remain, if the stars are to fall from them. This expression, then, is either figurative, as is more credible, or this phenomenon will take place in this lowest heaven, like that mentioned by Virgil,—
“A meteor with a train of light
Athwart the sky gleamed dazzling bright,
Then in Idæan woods was lost.” 1447
But the passage I have quoted from the psalm seems to except none of the heavens from the destiny of destruction; for he says, “The heavens are the works of Thy hands: they shall perish;” so that, as none of them are excepted from the category of Gods works, none of them are excepted from destruction. For our opponents will not condescend to defend the Hebrew piety, which has won the approbation of their gods, by the words of the Apostle Peter, whom they vehemently detest; nor will they argue that, as the apostle in his epistle understands a part when he speaks of the whole world perishing in the flood, though only the lowest part of it, and the corresponding heavens were destroyed, so in the psalm the whole is used for a part, and it is said “They shall perish,” though only the lowest heavens are to perish. But since, as I said, they will not condescend to reason thus, lest they should seem to approve of Peters meaning, or ascribe as much importance to the final conflagration as we ascribe to the deluge, whereas they contend that no waters or flames could destroy the whole human race, it only remains to them to maintain that their gods lauded the wisdom of the Hebrews because they had not read this psalm.
It is the last judgment of God which is re p. 445 ferred to also in the 50th Psalm in the words, “God shall come manifestly, our God, and shall not keep silence: fire shall devour before Him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about Him. He shall call the heaven above, and the earth, to judge His people. Gather His saints together to Him; they who make a covenant with Him over sacrifices.” 1448 This we understand of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we look for from heaven to judge the quick and the dead. For He shall come manifestly to judge justly the just and the unjust, who before came hiddenly to be unjustly judged by the unjust. He, I say, shall come manifestly, and shall not keep silence, that is, shall make Himself known by His voice of judgment, who before, when he came hiddenly, was silent before His judge when He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and, as a lamb before the shearer, opened not His mouth as we read that it was prophesied of Him by Isaiah, 1449 and as we see it fulfilled in the Gospel. 1450 As for the fire and tempest, we have already said how these are to be interpreted when we were explaining a similar passage in Isaiah. 1451 As to the expression, “He shall call the heaven above,” as the saints and the righteous are rightly called heaven, no doubt this means what the apostle says, “We shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” 1452 For if we take the bare literal sense, how is it possible to call the heaven above, as if the heaven could be anywhere else than above? And the following expression, “And the earth to judge His people,” if we supply only the words, “He shall call,” that is to say, “He shall call the earth also,” and do not supply “above,” seems to give us a meaning in accordance with sound doctrine, the heaven symbolizing those who will judge along with Christ, and the earth those who shall be judged; and thus the words, “He shall call the heaven above,” would not mean, “He shall catch up into the air,” but “He shall lift up to seats of judgment.” Possibly, too, “He shall call the heaven,” may mean, He shall call the angels in the high and lofty places, that He may descend with them to do judgment; and “He shall call the earth also” would then mean, He shall call the men on the earth to judgment. But if with the words “and the earth” we understand not only “He shall call,” but also “above,” so as to make the full sense be, He shall call the heaven above, and He shall call the earth above, then I think it is best understood of the men who shall be caught up to meet Christ in the air, and that they are called the heaven with reference to their souls, and the earth with reference to their bodies. Then what is “to judge His people,” but to separate by judgment the good from the bad, as the sheep from the goats? Then he turns to address the angels: “Gather His saints together unto Him.” For certainly a matter so important must be accomplished by the ministry of angels. And if we ask who the saints are who are gathered unto Him by the angels, we are told, “They who make a covenant with Him over sacrifices.” This is the whole life of the saints, to make a covenant with God over sacrifices. For “over sacrifices” either refers to works of mercy, which are preferable to sacrifices in the judgment of God, who says, “I desire mercy more than sacrifices,” 1453 or if “over sacrifices” means in sacrifices, then these very works of mercy are the sacrifices with which God is pleased, as I remember to have stated in the tenth book of this work; 1454 and in these works the saints make a covenant with God, because they do them for the sake of the promises which are contained in His new testament or covenant. And hence, when His saints have been gathered to Him and set at His right hand in the last judgment, Christ shall say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat,” 1455 and so on, mentioning the good works of the good, and their eternal rewards assigned by the last sentence of the Judge.
1 Cor. 7.31.444:1442
1 John 2.17.444:1443
2 Pet. 3.6.444:1445
2 Pet. 3:10, 11.444:1446
Æneid, ii. 694.445:1448
1 Thess. 4.17.445:1453
Next: Chapter 25
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