September 11, 2001, is frequently compared to December 7, 1941, as a day that will "live in infamy." But a more appropriate analogy might be August 24, 410, when the city of Rome was besieged and pillaged by an army of 40,000 "barbarians" led by the Osama bin Laden of late antiquity, a wily warrior named Alaric.

Before then, Roman coins bore the legend Invicta Roma Aeterna: Eternal, unconquerable Rome. It had been more than 800 years since the Eternal City had fallen to an enemy's attack. In many ways, Rome was like America prior to 9/11, the world's only superpower. But in 410, Rome's military power could not prevent its walls being breached, its women raped, and its sacred precincts burned and sacked.

There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.

When the Bible translator Jerome heard about the fall of Rome in faraway Bethlehem, he put aside his Commentary on Ezekiel and sat stupefied in total silence for three days. "Rome was besieged," Jerome wrote to a friend. "The city to which the whole world fell has fallen. If Rome can perish, what can be safe?" The British monk Pelagius, who was in Rome when the attack occurred, gave this report: "Every household had its grief, and an all-pervading terror gripped us."

Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, began writing The City of God to counter those who said Rome's fall was the gods' punishment of the ascendant Christians, and to give guidance to fellow Christians who felt the world was crumbling around them. He completed this "great and laborious work," as he called it, just four years before his death in 430. Its influence extended to the Reformation and beyond. For 1,500 years, it has been the bedrock of a Christian philosophy of history.

Between the conversion of Constantine in 312 and Augustine's own conversion in 386, the Christian movement had been transformed from a small, persecuted sect into an officially established religion within the Roman Empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, the biographer of Constantine, had hailed the emperor as the 13th apostle and acclaimed his conversion in utopian terms. Nearly a century later, Augustine realized that such hopes were as misplaced as they had been premature. As wealthy refugees from Rome began to stream into Hippo with their horror stories of Alaric's acts—temples burned, women raped, citizens forced to flee for their lives—Augustine reminded his hearers that the City of God in its pilgrimage here on earth was not exempt from the ravages of time, that it was ever marked "by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labors, and dangerous temptations."

Barbarian Invasion

Rome had been "falling" for some time. Alaric was merely the latest in a long line of barbarian chieftains whose forces had been pressing down upon Rome. The Visigoths, Alaric's tribe, began their incursion into the Roman Empire in the winter of 406, when the Rhine River had frozen solid and was easily crossed by thousands of hungry warriors seeking grain and gold and the beautiful artifacts Roman soldiers had brought back to Italy from all over the known world. Alaric had already besieged Rome on two occasions prior to 410. Both times he had been bought off by bribes from wealthy Roman senators who thought such maneuvers could fend off imminent disaster.

When Alaric and his army appeared before the gates of Rome in 410, the besieged citizens were at the point of starvation and had little with which to bargain. They tried to bluff their way out of the crisis by telling Alaric that, if he invaded the city, thousands of Romans would rise up to repel him. Alaric replied, perhaps with a grin, "The thicker the hay, the more easily it is mowed down." He demanded everything they had—gold, silver, temple ornaments, anything that could be seized and carried away, including many of the slaves who populated the city. And what will you leave us? the negotiators wanted to know. Your lives, Alaric replied.

Then, on the fateful night of August 24, someone inside the city opened one of the 12 recently reinforced gates, and Alaric's army flooded into the streets of Rome. For three days they plundered, pillaged, and terrorized the city. Survivors told of carts filled with corpses, dogs barking and roaming free through the temple precincts, men hunted down and murdered in the public baths. Priests were assaulted, virgins raped, and one aged woman, Marcella, was brutally beaten because she had no gold to offer the attackers. When walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum today, one can still see the green stains of copper coins melted into the stone floor of the marketplace from the conflagration set by Alaric and his marauders.

In 455 (25 years after Augustine's death) the Vandals, led by a brigand named Genseric, invaded Italy and plundered Rome. It was even more devastating than Alaric's raid. The Roman Empire limped along until 476, the date of its decisive, definitive fall when another hairy barbarian warlord, Odovacer, deposed the beardless boy emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Thus, as one historian has said, "Rome joined the company of Nineveh and other fallen empires."

The events of 410, however, had a psychological effect not matched by later episodes. It set Augustine thinking about the meaning of history, the reality of time, and the calling of Jesus' followers to live with hope amidst tottering empires that come and go.

The Shape of History

In The City of God, Augustine forged a distinctive understanding of history that differed sharply from both the contemporary pagan paradigm and two other views that had prevailed in the early church until then.

First, he refuted the cyclical view of history—the image of history as a great wheel turning round and round, with no beginning or end. Today, we associate this view with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, but it was popular in Augustine's culture as well. Indeed, the myth of the eternal return was the dominant assumption of the age. When Paul preached about Jesus and the resurrection in Athens, the Athenians thought he was talking about a male God, Jesus, and his female consort, Anastasis (the Greek word we translate as "resurrection," Acts 17:18). Resurrection was a characteristic of the pantheon of dying and rising savior gods celebrated in the mystery religions and, with much more sophisticated language, in the philosophy of Porphyry and Plotinus that Augustine knew so well.

But Augustine could not square this philosophy with biblical faith. The first few words of the Bible contradicted the cyclical view of history: "In the beginning God created." Augustine reflected deeply on the creation narrative in Genesis. In Book 11 of Confessions he recorded a startling, brilliant discovery. He came to see that God had not only created both time and space but had created them simultaneously and interdependently. This insight, which Augustine derived from meditation on the Bible, anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity by 1500 years. History had a definite beginning point when God said, "Let there be." It had a decisive turning point in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it will come to a certain consummation at a future time known only to God himself.

But within the Christian tradition, there were two other views Augustine also rejected. One was the apocalyptic view of history, which focused on the imminent end of the world and often included speculations and prophecies about the future millennium. Some of Augustine's contemporaries interpreted the fall of Rome in exactly this way, applying the angel's prediction in Revelation 14:8 to the events of 410: "Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication." Contrary to this interpretation, Augustine pointed out that, after all, Rome was still standing despite what had happened to her at the hands of Alaric. Perhaps God had not intended for the end to come just yet.

Augustine also rejected the progressive view of history. This was popular among those who stood in the tradition of Eusebius and sought to equate the Christian cause with the "converted" Roman Empire. Prudentius, a Christian poet, held such a view. In a poem written in 403, he personifies a Christianized Roma and has her say that, since the Christian faith has been embraced, "no barbaric enemy shatters my walls with a javelin and no man with strange weapons, attire and hairdress wanders around the city he has conquered and carries off my young men into transalpine prisons." Well, by 410, Alaric and his Visigothic conquerors were indeed wandering around the city they had conquered! This was the rude awakening that shocked the world. It helped Augustine to see ever more clearly the peril of identifying the City of God too closely with any earthly city, including Rome. "The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison," he wrote. "There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity."

Chastened Virtue

What can we learn from Augustine's understanding of history in light of the fall of Rome? Augustine teaches us that Christians are those who live in time but who belong to eternity. He also teaches us that we must not equate any political entity—whether it be the Roman Empire, the American Republic, the United Nations, or anything else—with the kingdom of God. This is one side of the Augustinian equation, but there is another. Christians hold a double citizenship in this world. Like the apostle Paul—who could claim that his true political identity was in heaven (Phil. 3:20), but who also appealed to Caesar as a Roman citizen when his life was at stake—so believers in Christ live as sojourners, resident aliens, in a world of profound discontinuity and frequently contested loyalty.

Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain summarizes Augustine's counsel to believers beset by such fears and hopes: "[R]esisting altogether any notion of earthly perfection, Augustine offers instead a complex moral map that creates space for loyalty and love and care, as well as for a chastened form of civic virtue."

The key word here, chastened, calls for a posture of engagement that acknowledges, in the words of the old gospel hymn, "this world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through," while at the same time working with all our might to love our neighbors as ourselves and to seek justice and peace as we carry out what Augustine calls "our business within this common mortal life."

There are two major (and regrettably common) mistakes Augustine wants us to avoid. One is the lure of utopianism—the mistake of thinking we can produce a society that will solve our problems and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This was the basic error of both Marxism and 19th-century liberalism.

The other error, equally disastrous, is cynicism. This creeps upon us as we see ever-present evil. We withdraw into our own self-contained circle of contentment, which can just as well be a pious holy huddle as a secular skeptics club.

Citizens of Another City

C. S. Lewis confronted the temptation to give in to lethargy and cynicism when he preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford on October 22, 1939. Less than two months earlier, Hitler had invaded Poland. Britain was about to face the horrible Nazi onslaught. This is what Lewis told the assembled students:

"It may seem odd for us to carry on classes, to go about our academic routine in the midst of a great war. What is the use of beginning when there is so little chance of finishing? How can we study Latin, geography, algebra in a time like this? Aren't we just fiddling while Rome burns?

"This impending war has taught us some important things. Life is short. The world is fragile. All of us are vulnerable, but we are here because this is our calling. Our lives are rooted not only in time, but also in eternity, and the life of learning, humbly offered to God, is its own reward. It is one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty, which we shall hereafter enjoy in heaven and which we are called to display even now amidst the brokenness all around us."

That is our calling, too, amidst the brokenness—including the threat of terrorism—all around us. We are to be faithful to God's calling, to bear witness to the beauty, the light, and the divine reality that we shall forever enjoy in heaven. We are to do this in a culture that seems, at times, like Augustine's: a crumbling world beset by dangers we cannot predict.

The Christian attitude toward history is neither arrogant self-reliance ("We can make it on our own") nor indifference ("It doesn't matter what we do anyway"), but hope—the hope that radiates from a messy manger, a ruddy tree, and an empty tomb. Christians are those who know that time and this world do not terminate upon themselves; they are penultimate realities that can never satisfy the deepest longing of the human heart, the restless heart Augustine wrote so much about. And so we live in this world not self-indulgently nor triumphantly, as though our future were in our own hands, but humbly, compassionately, committedly, and yes, ambiguously, as those who belong ultimately to another City, one with foundations whose builder is God.

That means, as Augustine said, that we are called to live by love. Love is the one thing we can experience in time that will remain in eternity. Faith, hope, love, these three; but love is the greatest. Love is eternal.

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today. This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in Christianity Today.