[Original Latin title: De Civitate Dei]
A Masterpiece of Christian Apologetics
St. Augustine started the book to address a pressing crisis and the practical problem of suffering, and then gradually rose to the height of Christian philosophy and theology that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed since. He gave a sweeping overview of ancient history, the history of the Jewish people intertwined with the history of the worldly empires (Roman and Assyrian), and revealed the main, though hidden, plot in the script of history, i.e., the birth, growth and maturation of the City of God, His Temple, the Body of Christ, His Image Incarnate. In the process, Augustine introduced and expounded the concepts of free will, original sin, God’s foreknowledge and salvation, immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body, the parallel development of the City of God vs. the City of Man, the former destined for eternal life and the latter eternal punishment.
For some reason, Part I of this book reminded me of a TV play, “God on Trial”, a tale of a group of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz during World War II, who put God on trial for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people and allowing the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. All the different views on religion were represented in court, the humanist, the atheist, the rationalist, the opportunist and the religious. The question was not so much whether God exists but whether He is good and just in His dealings with men. Why would a just God allow the Holocaust? Even the Nazis claimed, “Gott mit uns” (God with us). Which side was He on, the Jews or the Germans? If the Jews were His chosen people, where was He when they were herded into the gas chambers? It’s one thing to suffer for a cause, quite another to suffer without reason and without hope.
In a way, “City of God” anticipated and answered all the questions, though it was written more than 1500 years earlier.
The Problem of Suffering
This book was written at another point of crisis in history. When Rome, which had established Christianity as the national religion only a decade earlier, was sacked by the barbarians, and the pagans blamed Christianity and the ban on pagan worship for the fall and the sufferings that ensued, St. Augustine wrote Part I of this book in response, and addressed the issues of sufferings of both the good and the wicked, life and death, and above all, the goodness and justice of God.
“When the good and the wicked suffer alike, the identity of their sufferings does not mean that there is no difference between them. … The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clears the grain; and oil is not mistaken for lees because both are forced out by the same press. In the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse them and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin and annihilation. … Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends.”
Which Religion to Believe?
One reviewer likened Augustine to a “champion boxer”, and I thought it was amusingly fitting. Armed with encyclopedic knowledge of Roman culture and history, he deployed his formidable rhetoric skills and bombarded the pagans with historical evidence, wit and sarcasm, proving that, through the vicissitudes of Roman history, the pagan gods were neither powerful, nor wise, nor loving enough to deliver them from catastrophes, nor were they morally upright, thus utterly unworthy to be worshiped as gods.
Augustine then compared the different schools of thoughts concerning the nature of God (quoting from Greek and Roman mythology, Plato, Virgil, Cicero and numerous other sources) with the Christian belief, according to the three divisions of philosophy, i.e., natural philosophy, Logic and Ethics.
The Ultimate Sacrifice of Love
God is Love and He demonstrated His Love in the Sacrifice, which was prefigured in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ, who was made perfect through sufferings, even the suffering of death.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and the Son also loved and laid down His Life. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
The Love of God -the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- is also fully manifested in this ultimate Sacrifice, for the Son loved the Father and through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God.
The City of God consists of all who partake of this Sacrifice, i.e., all who partake of the nature of God, by grace through faith, both Jews and Christians, both in this temporal life and also in that which is eternal.
- Augustine, St. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
- “City of God” Online Book at CCEL
- “City of God” at New Advent