The Original Gospel of Wrath: Augustine

 

 

Saint Augustine

The Christian Gospel of Wrath can be traced back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity sent shockwaves throughout the Roman Empire.  To appreciate the magnitude of shock, you need to picture an American president converting to Islam and using federal tax revenues to build magnificent mosques all around the nation. There was a powerful backlash throughout the Empire.

 

After Constantine died, his nephew Julian was elevated to the Imperial throne. Julian was a militant Pagan who vowed to destroy Christianity and reclaim the Empire for its traditional gods. The stage was set for a violent religious war.  

 

Before Julian could execute his plans he was killed in battle – Christians declared it an answer to prayer – and a general named Theodosius became Roman Emperor. Theodosius was known to be a Christian sympathizer.   A year later he was baptized and formally adopted the Christian faith.  Pagans prepared for the worst, with good reason.  Theodosius made it illegal to offer sacrifices to Pagan gods. Then he closed the Pagan temples and made it a crime to worship the old gods, even in private. The strict new laws were enforced by confiscating the homes of intransigent Pagans.

 

Imagine a modern president declaring Christianity illegal and then closing churches and confiscating the houses of Christians who refused to renounce their religion. (Some modern disciples of Wrath already anticipate this scenario).  Pagans were prepared to fight for their faith.  Theodosius was prepared to use all necessary force to impose a single religion on the Empire.

 

Theodosius died before he could fully execute his plans – Pagans declared it an answer to prayer – and the Empire fell into the hands of his two young sons.  Christian advisors controlled the boys, but Pagans controlled the senate and the army, and still outnumbered Christians throughout the Empire. The smart money was on a Pagan victory. The survival of Christianity would require a miracle.

 

The person most responsible for the conquest of Christianity was not a Roman Emperor or a general. He was a North African Bishop named Aurelius Augustine.  We know him as Saint Augustine, one of the towering intellects of Christianity and the godfather of the Gospel of Wrath.

 

Augustine understood that a war of faith cannot be won with sword alone. Pagans did not want to convert to Christianity. They had no need for it.  Augustine devoted his life to creating a need for conversion that Pagans could not resist.   

 

Instead of attacking Pagans directly, the old Bishop spent 20 years disputing grace, freewill, sin and baptism with an obscure monk named Pelagius. How could winning a theological debate bring about victory over Paganism?  The only person in the entire Roman Empire smart enough to connect all the dots was Aurelius Augustine.

 

His chosen enemy, Pelagius, was a Christian monk renowned for holiness.  Pelagius believed that holiness is a personal choice and responsibility.  He also believed that salvation is a personal choice.  We choose to be saved. We choose to be holy. Or not.  Pelagius was an unlikely figure to be singled out as the archenemy of Christianity.

 

As a young man, Augustine had held similar ideas to Pelagius about freewill. As an aged Holy Warrior he realized that religious freedom threatened the survival of Christianity.  If Pelagius and his followers were free to accept or reject salvation, so were Pagans, and they would never convert.

 

How did Augustine convince Pagans they had no choice in the matter?  He formulated the doctrine of Original Sin.  To understand Augustine’s definition of Original Sin is to understand the Christian Gospel of Wrath.

 

According to Augustine, Original Sin began in the Garden of Eden. The perfection of creation was destroyed by a literal, historical act of rebellion. Original Sin was the direct cause of all suffering, evil and death in the world.  And the Original Sin of Adam and Eve had been transmitted to all their descendants, which meant every single human being ever been born.

 

These are familiar ideas to post-Augustinian Christians, even those who understand that ‘Original Sin’ is as absent from the Bible as ‘Purgatory’.  This doctrine has been so widely accepted by Catholics, Protestants, Conservatives, Liberals, Evangelicals and Charismatics that is believed to be the only way to explain the problem of evil. Augustine’s theology was alien to the Early Church.  Judaism had wrestled with the Book of Genesis for thousands of years and it never developed a doctrine of Original Sin, just as modern disciples of Anti-wrath have no need to interpret Eden as literal history.  Augustine’s substitution of Original Sin for personal sin was a radical break with Christian and Jewish theology and was astonishingly counter-intuitive. 

 

The intended purpose of the doctrine of Original Sin was to create a weapon of mass conversion. Most Pagans, like modern non-Christians, believed they were moral beings striving to live righteously. Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin declared they were born evil and remained under divine wrath until saved. Modern prophets of Wrath stand on street-corner shouting, ‘Repent, sinners! You’re one heartbeat from hell’.  Most ‘sinners’ ignore the warning because they believe they can ignore it with impunity.    

 

Pagans disbelieved Augustine’s threats about the doctrine of Original Sin, but they could not so lightly ignore them. The Emperor was persecuting them mercilessly for their heretical beliefs. Pagans suffered severe civil and economic hardships for resisting conversion. The genius of Augustine was to wave the stick of persecution and poverty, along with the threat of eternal damnation, while promising that a few drops of baptismal water would appease the Emperor’s wrath in this world and God’s wrath in the next. It was an offer too good to refuse. 

 

Augustine’s ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of Original Sin is ludicrously simple and unworthy of the Bishop’s brilliant mind. It is as a far removed from serious theology as fire-bombing enemy cities is from fighting a just war. The doctrine of Original Sin was a barbaric weapon devised to hasten the end of a deadly conflict.

 

Some Pagans converted to Imperial Christianity as a cynical calculation, others as pragmatic capitulation. The rite of baptism freed them from civil penalties and did not require any change in their actual beliefs or behaviour.  Augustine’s campaign of mass conversion is considered an extraordinary victory.  The entire Roman Empire adopted the new religion within a generation.

 

This new Gospel of Wrath had a number of unintended consequences.  The most serious side effect was that without baptism there was no salvation. Because of the doctrine of Original Sin we were all born depraved, so no Pagan could claim to be ‘good,’ not even newborn babies.  Augustine was adamant about this, absolutely no one could be exempt from baptism into the Christian faith.  

 

All post-Augustinian theologians agree that Augustine was wrong about infant damnation. The error is excused as an unfortunate consequence of a barbaric age, in the same way that war-time leaders are excused for fire-bombing cities, or annihilating entire civilian populations with atomic weapons. Wars are Hell. They are provoked by evil leaders who must be defeated.  Extreme violence can actually be an act of mercy by bringing a rapid end to war.

 

War-time leaders are forgiven if they win the war and restore peace.   Augustine is revered as one of the greatest Christian leaders for these same reasons.  In addition, he was devout in his personal faith and brilliant in other aspects of his theology. Surely he can be forgiven a few mistakes. Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin was not a mistake, and it was not minor, although its victims were infants.  His entire theological system was a constructed on universal condemnation of non-Christians.  It could admit no exceptions, not even innocent babies.

 

The doctrine of Original Sin was not a lethal bomb that exploded once in the fury of war. It is more like a constant supply of toxins that continues to poison ‘enemy’ nations and all non-Christians. The toxic consequences are still with us in revised versions of the Gospel of Wrath.

 

The tragic effect of the doctrine of Original Sin on unbaptised babies was mitigated by the creation of ‘Limbo,’ a dark and dismal halfway house that was not as terrible as hell but infinitely removed from the blessedness of Heaven. Limbo was an entirely artificial construct. Modern Catholics, including Popes, have suggested that it should be abolished. However, it remains on the books. If something as artificial and unbiblical as Limbo has resisted eradication, it is easy to understand why other side-effects of the doctrine of Original Sin persist so tenaciously.  

 

The most enduring consequence of Augustinian theology has been the theological shift from personal sin to Original Sin. The Early Church had understood personal sin as the universal source of suffering, and Jesus as the personal Saviour of all mankind: past, present and future, although the method of past salvation was a mystery. They trusted that Jesus would personally visit their deceased ancestors in the grave.

 

The Early Church had also believed that salvation involved personal transformation toward holiness.  Salvation provided personal freedom from sin and suffering. This form of salvation was logical and visible.  

 

The doctrine of Original Sin was illogical and invisible.  It didn’t make a lot of sense that God would condemn the entire human race, nor did it makes sense that a few drops of baptismal water would have any impact on eliminating personal sin and suffering. However, the remedy was so quick and simple that Pagans submitted to baptism.  

 

This mass conversion of Pagans created a serious conflict for traditional Christians. They were striving to live transformed lives while Pagan converts were not striving to change anything. Yet all baptized believers were supposed to go to heaven. It made no sense that unregenerate baptized Pagans should receive a free pass straight to heaven. And if holy living was no longer necessary, Christians would cease to strive after holiness. This was a very serious pastoral problem. 

 

Augustine had a solution.  It was called Purgatory.  Baptized Christians who lived sinful lives would be tormented (purged) for hundreds or even thousands of years before being admitted to heaven. This painful consequence of sinfulness restored a sense of justice and gave true believers an incentive to live holy lives to avoid torment between death and heaven.  

 

Purgatory is not found in the Bible. It was unknown to Early Christianity and to Judaism.  It was a theological invention necessitated by Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.

 

Another serious consequence of Augustine’s new theology was that salvation was controlled by priests and only available to nations inhabited by Christian priests. Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath condemned all non-Christians to eternal torment: Outside the Church, no salvation.   At the time, the Roman Empire encompassed most of the known world, at least the world known to Augustine and his contemporaries. They had some knowledge of Pagan nations in Asia and Africa but no knowledge of North America, South Americas, or Australasia. 

 

Almost immediately after Augustine died, Christianity began to come to its senses. The damnation of unbaptized infants was indefensible and unconscionable. The war against Pagans had been won and this particular weapon served only to punish the children of Christians whose children died before they could be baptised. The influence of Augustine remained so great that Christian theologians did not have the courage reject the entire doctrine of Original Sin and its consequences.  So compromises were incorporated: Limbo for infants, and Purgatory as a punishment which could be interpreted as benign and symbolic or literal and terrible depending on the moral state of the Church.  When the Eastern half of the Christian Church, centered on Constantinople in Turkey, split from the Western half centered in Rome, they did not take Purgatory with them. 

 

The doctrine Outside the Church, no salvation, continues to be problematic for Roman Catholicism on many levels.  Most Catholics simply ignore the doctrine and its implications, preferring to believe that a God of love, justice and mercy will not exclude non-Catholics from paradise.  They are Catholic disciples of Anti-wrath.  

 

Protestant disciples of Wrath, as we will see in the next two essays, have remained unapologetic about the condemnation of non-Christians.  In fact they see the glory of their God in the harshness of this theology.  

 

return to 1 - The Mystery of Belief

 

or continue to 

 

 

3 – The Reformed Gospel of Wrath:  Luther and Calvin

 

4 – The Creationist Gospel of Wrath 

 

5  - The Gospel of Anti-wrath  

 

Comment or Question?