Temporal Punishment and The Goal of Divine Providence

A couple weeks ago I raised the question as to whether or not the pandemic was a “divine punishment”. Immediately I turned to St. Augustine’s “City of God” for insight into the way in which God uses temporal punishment as part of his providential plan.

Let me summarize.

First of all, it is an act of divine mercy to punish in this life so as to spare us in the next.

Second, temporal goods and evils are shared alike by both the good and the bad, because these are not the adequate rewards and punishments for either; we should look rather for that eternal reward that God gives only to the good. Nevertheless, sometimes God does make use of temporal rewards and punishments to manifest his justice, lest it seem that there is no final justice.

Third, major catastrophes, like the sack of Rome in 410AD (which occasioned St. Augustine’s writing), or the current pandemic, fall equally on the good and bad because, as a general rule, the good have an excessive love for the peace of this life and for the sake of that peace tend to be overly tolerant of sinful actions, while lacking in zeal for the eternal salvation of the sinner.

Still, we need to see such a purification in the whole context of the working of divine providence.

There is one passage in which St. Paul lifts the veil and makes known to us in a few words what God has been up to from beginning to end: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rm 8:28-29)

The whole reason why God created this world of time, from the most distant galaxy to the tiniest microbe, has been to lead men to share in the life of the Son of God, to be ‘conformed to his image’; the completion of this work is eternal life. If we have any sort of adequate conception of the greatness of the work that God is undertaking in our regard, then we also can begin to grasp the reason for the greatness of the suffering involved. Indeed, St. Paul assures us: I consider that the sufferings of the present time are as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed. (Rm 8:18)

This great work of God, however, does not achieve its goal without the cooperation of those who, in the end, will be saved, who will come to enjoy eternal life. There are two possibilities: a man sufficiently cooperates with God’s plan and so is saved, is conformed to the image of the Son of God, or a man finally rejects God’s plan altogether and so suffers eternal condemnation. All things work for the good of those who will be saved, even the temporal sufferings shared in common with evildoers, and even the malice of those who reject God. Those who do not want to be a part of God’s plan will nevertheless serve the realization of God’s plan. Nothing can resist the will of God.

The picture, though, is incomplete as regards a key matter. While men individually become conformed to the image of God’s Son, God does not work this transformation in those individuals except in relation to the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, the extension of his saving humanity throughout time. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.