Augustine, Pain, and Hellfire (bash them bibles)

As we claw ever-nearer to the end of City of God, Augustine draws more and more on the end times. Most recently, he’s trying to explain how the fires of Hell could burn those naughty souls for all eternity. To be honest, in this case, I find the path he takes to get to the conclusion more interesting than the conclusion he’s trying to get to – I’m still not sure what I think about Hell & eternal torment. There’s a few different theories, so I don’t feel particularly beholden to the idea of literal fires of Hell – and to some degree it doesn’t really matter, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like bickering over what Heaven’s going to be like – it’s relatively difficult to be heretical, and it doesn’t really seem to matter that much what position you take, because everybody has to add the clause “but I could be wrong” to the end of their theory.

So Augustine’s defending the position that souls condemned to Hell will burn forever. He argues that although our current mortal bodies wouldn’t allow us to suffer eternal pain (we’d probably just die), we’ll get new bodies that are able to suffer eternally without dying. That puts the matter beyond challenge from the word go, really, making claims like that. There’s lots of scientific issues that Augustine doesn’t have any idea about, like what fire actually is, and what’s happening on a chemical level when something’s burning, but all that is sort of irrelevant as soon as he claims that we’ll have death-proof bodies and just feel pain forever.

What’s more interesting is his theory about how pain actually works. Although pain works (sometimes) through the bodily senses, he argues that pain is primarily felt in the soul (XXI, 3). When you’re dead, your body doesn’t feel pain – it’s only when it’s inhabited by your soul (ie, when you’re alive). You drop a hammer on your foot, your body feels pain, and your soul feels pain with and through your body. However, if you feel sad, that’s also a type of pain, and you feel that in your soul rather than your body too. We can kind of push back against that, and argue that there are physiological markers of sadness, but that argument only goes so far. Arguably it’s no different to saying that when you drop a hammer on your foot it swells up and goes red. If you really wanted to contend the issue, you’d have to begin by denying the existence of the soul, which isn’t something I’m going to look at just now.

Augustine continues by arguing that if pain is fundamentally felt in the soul, and in the body only by way of communication to the soul, then pain is not fatal, because the soul is by definition immortal. Pain, therefore, being fundamentally linked to the immortal soul, can never be the cause of death, because the soul can’t die. Therefore eternal torment in the fires of Hell can be a thing, because pain can’t kill you. At best, he argues, pain can be so great as to make our souls go “Fuck this shit, I’m out”, and take off out of our mortal bodies, but that’s because there’s currently a weak connection between the body and the soul. In our new bodies, he argues, the connection will be unbreakable, so our souls won’t be able to flee our bodies, which means they will be subjected to eternal fire and torment, assuming you’re ending up in Hell.

It’s a really cool idea! I disagree with the premise, but I really appreciate the working logic. I think it’s a neat little idea. That said, there are some limitations we should talk about. What seems to be at stake here is the question of self – when we say “I am”, what is the self who can say “I”? This is where the idea of the soul comes into play – there’s something immortal and transcendent inside of us, our true essential self that will go beyond this petty world and mortal frame. However, the way Augustine’s phrased the argument, the body’s not an essential part of that self. There’s the soul, which is the thing that truly feels pain, and there’s the body, which is sort of like a sock. It’s a sheath – it doesn’t feel pain in and of itself, it just kinda communicates the pain. What this does is it pushes the body to the margin as a lesser or unimportant aspect of our true essential selves – which is bad Christology.

The fact is, our physical bodies have to be given more significance. We’ve already talked about how Augustine’s a bit too influenced by Plato, and privileges the soul over the body a bit too much, and this is a good example of that bias in action. We know that our feelings and emotions have a chemical/physiological aspect to them, and it’s important to retain those aspects as part of our sense of self. It’s not that we feel soul-sadness and then it has a lesser, inauthentic expression in the body. That’s too hierarchical. This theory of pain only being linked to the soul doesn’t allow for an integrated theory of body/soul – it’s much more hierarchical, which is no good.

So it’s a neat idea, this whole ‘our souls feel pain’ thing, although its limitations are a shame. We could probably re-fit it with an integrated body/soul theory and still get some mileage out of it, but it wouldn’t serve the purpose of explaining eternal torment any more. For that to work, we’d have to explain how a body can feel eternal pain without death. Maybe they play Nickleback in Hell – who knows?

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