In his masterpiece, City Of God, St. Augustine devotes seven entire chapters of Book XXI to this subject, as stated at the beginning of Chapter 17: “Of Those Who Fantasize That No Men Shall Be Punished Eternally.”
It was as if St. Augustine got an advance copy of the papal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, and read its proclamation that: ”No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” (Para. 297).
This discussion assumes – particularly since it has not been denied or clarified in response to responsible questions and reasonable doubts – that Amoris Laetitia teaches that there is no eternal punishment for sin, for any sin, of any kind, in any situation. Should the questions be addressed and the doubts dissolved, and the words of Jesus and the constant teaching of the Church for about two millennia be affirmed (that indeed, a person can go to Hell forever), then the following discussion can be shredded and thrown into the bin.
St. Augustine begins with a reference to “tender-hearted Christians”:
“I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or shorter according to the amount of each man’s sin.” (Chapter 17; Book XXI, City Of God; henceforth in the form “17:XXI”)
Mercy For The Devils In Hell ?
If no sinner will be condemned forever, St. Augustine wonders why this will not apply to the fallen angels:
“Which opinion, if it is good and true because it is merciful, will be so much the better and truer in proportion as it becomes more merciful. Let, then, this fountain of mercy be extended, and flow forth even to the lost angels, and let them also be set free, at least after as many and long ages as seem fit! Why does this stream of mercy flow to all the human race, and dry up as soon as it reaches the angelic? And yet they dare not extend their pity further, and propose the deliverance of the devil himself. Or if anyone is bold enough to do so, he does indeed put to shame their charity, but is himself convicted of error that is more unsightly, and a wresting of God’s truth that is more perverse, in proportion as his clemency of sentiment seems to be greater.” (17:XXI)
It Is In Sinners’ Interest To Deny an Eternal Hell
St. Augustine notes that there are some whose opinions he has heard, who live a bad life, who profess that God’s mercy will be their salvation:
“There are others, again, with whose opinions I have become acquainted in conversation, who, though they seem to reverence the holy Scriptures, are yet of reprehensible life, and who accordingly, in their own interest, attribute to God a still greater compassion towards men. For they acknowledge that it is truly predicted in the divine word that the wicked and unbelieving are worthy of punishment, but they assert that, when the judgment comes, mercy will prevail.” (18:XXI)
Conjectures, Absurdity & Arguing Against God
St. Augustine, again and again, makes the point that those who would rely on total, encompassing-all-sin, divine mercy, while denying endless punishment, are simply making absurd arguments. For example:
“ . . . Or is perhaps the sentence of God, which is to be pronounced on wicked men and angels alike, to be true in the case of the angels, false in that of men? Plainly it will be so if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the word of God. But because this is absurd, they who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God, and rather, while yet there is opportunity, obey the divine commands. . . . And to say in one and the same sense, life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity. Wherefore, as the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end.” (23:XXI)
Asserted By No One Sound In The Faith
St. Augustine sees that some proclaiming that divine mercy trumps divine justice “attempt to invalidate the words of God,” not to proclaim the extent of His mercy, but “in their own interest . . .under the guise of greater tenderness of sprit.” (24:XXI). He wonders how far those who promote these errors will go:
“Or will there, perhaps, be someone 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.” (24:XXI)
God’s Words Are Truth, Not An Empty Threat
St. Augustine says that these declarations about mercy are contradicted by the clear words of Jesus and of Holy Scripture:
“As for those who find an empty threat rather than a truth in such passages as these: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire; and These shall go away into eternal punishment” [Mt 25: 41,46]; “They shall be tormented for ever and ever” [Rev 20:10]; and “Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched, [Is 66:24] — such persons, I say, are most emphatically and abundantly refuted, not by me so much as by the divine Scripture itself.” (24:XXI)
Later in this Chapter 24, St. Augustine refers to those who deny that some sinners will be subject to eternal punishment as “perversely compassionate.” (24:XXI).
It Is Error To Say God Will Condemn No One
In discussing Romans 11: 32 – “For God has concluded all in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all” – St. Augustine says that this statement of St. Paul “ . . . does not mean that He will condemn no one . . . “ (18:XXXI)
The false position on mercy has come be called the “universalist heresy,” the heresy that all persons will be saved due to God’s mercy, and that a God who is merciful will not condemn anyone to an eternal hell. If the words “No one is condemned forever” stand as written and promulgated, without change or explanation, then they are a statement of the universalist heresy.