City of God, Book I Summary: Hypocrisy, Suffering, Burial, Suicide, Decadence

“I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City.”  I seek to convince “the proud of the power and excellence of humility,” for the King and Founder of our City resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (Jms. 4:6).  “Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.”[1]

The Pagan Romans Show Their Hypocrisy by Accusing Christians of Rome’s Demise

The enemies of Christianity, our pagan Roman accusers, show their hypocrisy in their blaming Christians for the overthrow of Rome by the barbarians.  These Romans were spared death by the barbarians for their taking refuge in Christian places of worship yet have the gall to turn around and accuse Christ and His servants who were their means of deliverance.  This clemency by the barbarians, to be sure, is something unheard of, to which the Roman’s own history testifies to.  Rather than hurl such accusations, therefore, they ought to wonder at such mercy bestowed upon them and for what reason.  What is more, these Romans put their trust in the gods of their previously conquered enemies, having made them their own, thereby showing their irrationality and futile worship.  If these gods could not protect those whom they conquered, what reason did they have of entrusting their own cities and homes to these once vanquished gods?

Key Quotes:

“The barbarians spared them for Christ’s sake; and now these Romans assail Christ’s name….  In this way many escaped who now complain of this Christian era, and hold Christ responsible for the disasters which their city endured.”[2]

“They were spared for Christ’s sake, pagans though they were; yet they scorn to acknowledge this.  With the madness of sacrilegious perversity they use their tongues against the name of Christ; yet with those same tongues they dishonestly claimed that name in order to save their lives, or else, in places sacred to him, they held their tongues through fear.  They were kept safe and protected there where his name stood between them and the enemy’s violence.  And so they issue from that shelter to assail him with curses of hate.”[3]

The Good and Bad Share in Blessings and Disasters

Both Christians and pagans experienced the disasters associated with the sack of Rome.  Why is it that at times Christians are forced to endure such evils and non-Christians receive such earthly blessings?  Certainly, God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous (Matt. 5:45).  Though the good and bad may suffer the same disasters, the results are not the same.  For the good, it has a sanctifying effect, whereby they are reminded not to covet that which they cannot take with them into the next world.  Like Job, it is a means of testing.  For the bad, the effect is that of condemnation, as well as serving as threats and warnings of greater judgment to come, lest they turn to God and live.  Christians, and especially leaders in the Church, have this duty of warning the ungodly of the judgment to come, not fearing the world’s reply.  The deprivation, too, of temporal possessions is not to be mourned, but the Christian’s love is to be set on the incorruptible good in Jesus Christ.  One must not worry over their death, for all will die, but what will be their destination after dying.

Key Quotes:

“In the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation.  Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same afflication, offer up prayers and praises.  This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings.  Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends.  But the movement is identical.”[4]

“’But’, they say, ‘many Christians have been destroyed by prolonged starvation.’  Well, the loyal and faithful turned this also to their own advantage by enduring it in fidelity to God.  For when starvation killed any, it snatched them away from the evils of this life, as disease rescues men from the suffering of the body, and if it spared their lives, it taught them to live more frugally and to fast more extensively.”[5]

Christians Ought Not Fret at the Lack of Burial

The sack of Rome by the barbarians left many, to include Christians, without the honor of burial.  This fact ought not trouble the minds of Christians, for Christ would not have said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28), if the future state of believers could be hindered in any way by the harm or neglect of the body after death.  God, who fills the universe, knows where their bodies lay and will restore them to life from that place where they disintegrated.  This does not mean a proper burial is of no importance.  Indeed, it shows honor to the individual and promotes faith in the resurrection.  It is, therefore, a consolation to the living rather than a benefit to the dead.

Key Quotes:

“Christians have the promise that their bodies and all their limbs will be restored and renewed, in an instant, not only from the earth, but also from the remotest hiding-places in the other elements into which their dead bodies passed in disintegration.”[6]

“For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing.”[7]

Suicide as Self-Murder and Purity as a Virtue of the Mind

There were some women, wishing to avoid the ravaging of their bodies by the barbarians, who took their lives into their own hands.  Though it may seem like the compassionate thing to admire such women, we must recognize the sin inherent within the act of suicide, no matter the circumstances.  Crime ought not be added to crime.  If it is unjust to privately kill a man, even a guilty man (for this killing is reserved for the state), then killing oneself must likewise be an unjust thing, and all the more so the more innocent the individual.  One must not think they are escaping pollution or defilement by suicide, for lust in rape is not their own but that of the rapist.  The virtue of purity resides in the mind, and therefore the purity of the one being raped is not lost but maintained, no matter the thoughts of others after the event.  The virtue of the Christian woman is maintained, for they have a clear conscience before God.  Further, if the acceptance of suicide leading up to such atrocities were taken to its logical conclusion then suicide would be preferable for all Christians once forgiven, so as to escape the various sufferings experienced in this life.  Yet, since we do not think suicide acceptable under such a premise, neither should we think it acceptable under the premise of rape.

Key Quotes:

“’But’, it will be said, ‘there is the fear of being polluted by another’s lust.’  There will be no pollution, if the lust is another’s; if there is pollution, the lust is not another’s.  Now purity is a virtue of the mind.  It has courage as its companion and courage decides to endure evil rather than consent to evil.”[8]

“Such has not been the behaviour of Christian women.  When they were treated like this they did not take vengeance on themselves for another’s crime.  They would not add crime to crime by committing murder on themselves in shame because the enemy had committed rape on them in lust.  They have the glory of chastity within them, the testimony of their conscience.  They have this in the sight of God, and they ask for nothing more.  In fact there is nothing else for them to do that is right for them to do.  For they will not deviate from the authority of God’s law by taking unlawful steps to avoid the suspicions of men.”[9]

The Moral Decadence of Rome as the Cause of Overthrow and Blame Shifting

The lust of the Romans for power, pleasure, and entertainment, and the stripping away of these worldly pursuits is the real cause of their accusations against the Christians.  Not even the overthrow of Rome served to correct their many vices, but they readily engaged in worldly lusts during the chaos.  Yet, God’s sparing of many shows His mercy and call to repentance.

Key Quotes:

“For why is it that you put the blame on this Christian era, when things go wrong?  Is it not because you are anxious to enjoy your vices without interference, and to wallow in your corruption, untroubled and unrebuked?  For if you are concerned for peace and general prosperity, it is not because you want to make decent use of these blessings, with moderation, with restraint, with self-control, with reverence.  No!  It is because you seek an infinite variety of pleasure with a crazy extravagance, and your prosperity produces a moral corruption far worse than all the fury of an enemy.”[10]

“What insanity this is!  This is not error but plain madness.  When, by all accounts, nations in the East were bewailing your catastrophe, when the greatest cities in the farthest parts of the earth were keeping days of public grief and mourning, you were asking the way to the theatres, and going in, making full houses, in fact, behaving in a much more crazy fashion than before.  It was just this corruption, this moral disease, this overthrow of all integrity and decency, that the great Scipio dreaded for you, when he stopped the building of theatres, when he saw how easily you could be corrupted and perverted by prosperity, and did not want you to be relieved from the enemy’s threats.  He did not think that a city is fortunate when its walls are standing, while its morals are in ruins.  But the temptations of wicked demons had more effect on you than the precautions of men endowed with foresight.  Thus you refuse to be held responsible for the evil that you do, while you hold the Christian era responsible for the evil which you suffer.  You seek security not for the peace of your country but for your own impunity in debauchery.  Prosperity depraved you; and adversity could not reform you.  Scipio’s desire was that you should be threatened by the enemy, to prevent you from wallowing in sensuality.  But now that you have been crushed by the enemy, you have not restrained your sensuality.  You have learned no salutary lesson from calamity; you have become the most wretched, and you have remained the most worthless, of mankind.”[11]


[1] St. Augustine, City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson (NY: Penguin Books, 1972), Book I, Preface.

[2] Ibid., Ch. 1.

[3] Ibid., Ch. 3.

[4] Ibid., Ch. 8.

[5] Ibid., Ch. 10.

[6] Ibid., Ch. 12.

[7] Ibid., Ch. 13.

[8] Ibid., Ch. 18.

[9] Ibid., Ch. 19.

[10] Ibid., Ch. 30.

[11] Ibid., Ch. 33.

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