Apocatastasis: a Heresy, a Hope or a Doctrine?

What is APOCATASTASIS? The Apostle Peter was the first to use the term in the following passage:

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of RESTITUTION (Greek “APOCATASTASIS”) of ALL THINGS, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” Acts 19-21.

APOCATASTASIS was one of the great Church Father Origen’s favorite topics. “When the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the PERFECT RESTORATION OF THE WHOLE CREATION is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the SALVATION OF THE CONQUERED and the RESTORATION OF THE LOST is in that understood to consist.” Origen, De Principiis, Book III, Chapter 5, Section 7, Anf, Vol. 4.

Origen was the first Christian Systematic Theologian. A fundamental and essential element of his theology was the doctrine of the universal restoration of all fallen beings to their original holiness and union with God. God’s mercy and goodness are all-inclusive and ultimately irresistible. Hellfire is corrective and purgative, not punitive and eternal. This doctrine was called APOCATASTASIS, “the restitution of all things” pursuant to Acts 3:21.

New Testament Scripture is clear that there will be apocatastasis, which the NSRV translates as “universal restoration” in Acts 3:21.

This dynamic is repeated in Revelation 5:13, Phillipians 2:10 and 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, which also describe the apocatastasis to come in the future age of Christus Victor. EVERY knee of EVERY creature will bow in worship, and EVERY tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. EVERY creature in Heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and in the sea, shall bless the Lamb forever and ever. The end result is that God will be ALL IN ALL! We don’t yet see this full reconciliation of all creatures back to their creator, but we will.

But, many challenge this idea as heretical. They say that billions upon billions upon billions of lost souls will never be reconciled to God—– neverrrrrrrrrrrrr! Not after a year in Hell, a decade, a lifetime, a millennium, a million years, or a trillion years there. These eternally unreconciled souls will be tortured and tortured and tortured and tortured and tortured and tortured— FOREVER!

But, others fervently disagree. They believe that this harsh view of Hell is incompatible with the revealed character of God. They believe God’s love wins in the end by converting all men to salvation, whether it be in this life or the next. They believe Jesus to be Salvador Mundi, the “Savior of the World” entire.

So, the question we face is this: is APOCATASTSIS a hope, a heresy or a doctrine?

Is APOCATASTASIS a HERESY? No, not if Apocatastasis was the prevailing doctrine of the Church for its first 500 years as established in the previous note entitled FOUR REASONS THE EARLY CHURCH DID NOT BELIEVE HELL LASTED FOREVER, where I document numerous sources regarding early Church belief in this area. “Heresy” is error from traditional doctrine. The weight of evidence is that Apoctastasis was a, if not the, traditional doctrine of the Church. The Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) stated in its 2000 Report that differences of opinion regarding the duration and quality of Hell are “less essential” to Evangelical faith, which I take to mean non-heretical.

Is APOCASTASIS a HOPE? Karl Barth and many others believe APOCASTASIS is best presented and understood as a real possibility to “hope for” rather than a doctrine to dogmatically declare. This is why it is often called “the blessed hope.”

Barth called eternal Hell an “impossible possibility.” It’s possibility seems to be a clear and present danger because of the evil that men do. But, Hell’s impossibility seems just as clear when we see the infinite love which permeates the nature of God. This love leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one. This love joyfully meets every prodigal with a warm embrace when he or she is ready to return home. This love was willing to forgive all from the cross because they knew not what they were doing in crucifying the Lord of glory.

Eternal torture simply does not fit the nature of this love. As F. F. Bruce said, “Eternal conscious torment is incompatible with the revealed character of God.” See Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry, The Later Years,(Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 2:354-355. For this reason, we may hope that God’s unsurpassed love will ultimately trump and redeem man’s unsurpassed evil.

Is APOCATASTASIS a DOCTRINE? Theologians like William Barclay, John Baillie and John A. T. Robinson believe that APOCATASTASIS is thoroughly scriptural. There is a strong line of Scriptures which promise that all men, even the enemies of the Gospel, will come to a saving knowledge of God, preferably in this lifetime, but certainly in the next. The title of Robinson’s book on this subject, “In the End God” is self-explanatory. Under this view, post-mortem conversion is a possibility.

Whereas hard-liners like Martin Luther thought it the highest degree of faith to believe that God is merciful who saves so few and damns so many, others have preferred to believe that the highest form of faith is to believe that God will ultimately save all men from all evil in all ages for all time.

The evil of men and fallen angels simply can’t outlast and out-maneuver the love of God. A man can perhaps avoid and deny God during this earthly existence, but in the afterlife, the crisis heightens and intensifies. God will send wave after wave of His love and forgiveness to the soul trapped in his own Hell. The soul may scoff, sneer and spit at this love – – at first. The sinner may keep it up for days, months, years or millenniums, but God will not quit. His love will wait out the sinner.

God’s love will minister truth to the sinner in and through the sinner’s delusions. God’s love will torment the sinner because of the sinner’s hatred of good. Evil can escape God only by believing lies about God. But, as God strips away the lies, the sinner will wail in pain and travail as these fig leaves are wrenched away from him one deception at a time. These fig leaves make up the false identities behind which the sinner has hidden from God. As the fig leaves go, the sinner’s nakedness and shame before God is revealed.

In this process, repentance is birthed and Jesus delivers this soul from Hell. This is what is meant when Jesus is said to have preached (evangelized) to all the lost in Hell (1 Pet. 4:6) and then led captivity captive by harrowing and emptying the power of Hell (Eph. 4:8-10; Col. 2:15).

Under this view, Hell is infinitely intense because Jesus is saving us to the uttermost parts of our deepest being, but Hell is not of infinite duration because evil can’t resist God eternally.

Jesus did not suffer the pangs of Hell in infinite duration, but He did suffer them in infinite intensity. If the nature of Hell was endless torment, then Jesus should still be there and in fact, should never leave there. Since He is not there now, and never will be again, we can know that His full payment for our sins was of infinite intensity rather than infinite duration.

The major difference between Jesus’ view of Hell and our view of Hell is that Jesus knew that the Father would not abandon Him in Hell (Acts 2:26-28). We, however, with our limited faith in His goodness and power to save, believe that Hell is eternal abandonment by God. Jesus knew better, and so can we. God will not eternally leave any soul in Hell. This belief works both as a hope or a doctrine, but it is NOT a heresy.

Let me leave with you with a few special passages that establish the Scriptural reality of APOCATASTASIS: As you read this passages, remember that “ALL” MEANS “ALL:”

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men. . .For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; WHO WILL HAVE ‘ALL’ MEN TO BE SAVED, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim. 2:1,3-4.

“For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the SAVIOR OF ‘ALL’ MEN, specially of those that believe.” 1 Tim. 4:10. (“Specially” at Strong’s 3122 means “in the greatest degree”).

“EVERY MAN’S work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be BURNED, he shall SUFFER LOSS: but HE HIMSELF SHALL BE SAVED; yet so AS BY FIRE.” 1 Cor. 3:13-15.

“For as in Adam ALL die, even so in Christ shall ALL BE MADE ALIVE. But EVERY man in his own order: Christ the first-fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put ALL enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put ALL things under his feet. But when he saith, ALL things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put ALL things under him. And when ALL things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put ALL things under him, that GOD MAY BE ‘ALL IN ALL.’ Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:22-29.