If there is one topic that no one wants to talk about or think about it is death. Many people would rather think about anything else than their own mortality. We prefer escapism to realism, counting our “Likes” to numbering our days, numbing our pain to meditating on our end.
Into this world Augustine is a counter-cultural cold shower. Book 13 is seared through with the facts of death, encased in cold hard biblical logic. At the heart of his essay is the question of the nature of the fall of man and how this can be overcome by the granting of the life-giving Spirit.
Augustine investigates many important themes including the relationship between the soul and the body, the interplay between death and punishment. The quote of Book 13 for me was this:
There is no one who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year, nearer tomorrow than today, today than yesterday, who will not by and by be nearer than he is at the moment or is not nearer at the present time than he was a little while ago. Any space of time that we live through leaves us with so much less time to live, and the remainder decreases with every passing day; so that the whole of our lifetime is nothing but a race towards death.XIII.10
Wow! Stop and re-read that several times. This knuckle-grating realism quickens our senses and alerts us to the coming last stop. Rather than breed fatalism there are two urgent applications that this truth sharpens in our focus and we would do well to heed.
Through a detailed analysis of what it means to pass from like to death Augustine proves there is only life or death, and speaking about someone dying is illogical. He looks at three situations: “before death”, “in death” and “after death” and concludes there is only life which immediately becomes death, with no in between phase. Yes, yes, I say to myself, this is clear, why are you stressing this so much? Then his reason slams home as he describes the second death (the abandoning of our soul by God).
For that death, which means not the separation of soul from body but the union of both for eternal punishment, is the more gracious death; it is the worst of all evils. There men will not be in the situations of “before death “ and “after death”, but always “in death”, and for this reason they will never be living, never dead, but dying for all eternity.XIII.11
This is an horrendous sadness. There are no words to soften the blow of this reality. The only hope is to avoid this situation before it is too late, before the final sand grain falls
By contrast, the second major application is a ray of hope for all those awaiting a new body, without the failings and foibles of our current version. Augustine meditates on the difference between the body Adam had in Eden and the bodies we shall be given in the new Paradise:
For the body which will be incapable of death is that which will be spiritual and immortal in virtue of the presence of a life-giving spirit. In this it will be like the soul which was created immortal… The immortality with which they are clothed will be like that of the angels, an immortality which cannot be taken away by sin; and though the natural substance of flesh will continue, no slightest trace of carnal corruptibility or lethargy will remain.XIII.24
Given the certainty of death and the exhortation of our Creator to consider these two destinies, who wouldn’t chose life? The psalmist said “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90.12). May we be wise to reflect on the brevity of life, choose wisdom, choose life and choose Jesus.