Question: "What is apocatastasis, and is it biblical?"

Answer: Apocatastasis (also apokatastasis) is the belief that everyone and everything will experience an ultimate restitution. The word apocatastasis is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “restoration.” Apocatastasis involves a belief in universal salvation, but it goes beyond that to include a total reconciliation of all the universe to God. Some forms of apocatastasis even embrace the “salvation” of Satan, believing he will be restored to his original, pre-fall position.

Proponents of apocatastasis point to Scripture’s only use of the word: “For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration [apocatastasis] of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). To this they add 1 Timothy 2:4 (God “wants all people to be saved”) and Ephesians 1:9–10 (God’s purpose is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”). Another passage used in support of apocatastasis is Colossians 1:19–20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

If God desires all to be saved, if all things must be brought into a state of “restoration” and “unity,” and if “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), then doesn’t that mean everyone will be saved in the end? According to proponents of apocatastasis, the answer is “yes.”

The doctrine of apocatastasis asserts that hell is not eternal; the lake of fire is not meant to punish but to correct the wicked. Hell is a fire of purification. Once they have been corrected—however long it takes—they are allowed to partake of eternal blessedness on some level, and all will exist in a state of peace and unity. Everyone will participate in Christ’s redemption, and, in the end, no rebel will remain; all evil will be purged from creation. God’s goodness and holiness will prevail, and nothing discordant will ever again rise to cause trouble. Perfection will abide eternally, to the remotest corners of the universe.

Apocatastasis was taught early on by Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Later, it was a belief held by the Moravian Brethren, the Christadelphians, and many Anabaptists; today, we see a resurgence of apocatastasis led by teachers such as Rob Bell and Richard Rohr, and apocatastasis beliefs are found in Biblical Universalism and other groups that teach universal salvation.

The doctrine of apocatastasis was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553. Apocatastasis was also opposed by Augustine, Jerome, and Luther, and it has never been widely taught within most Christian traditions.

Arguing against apocatastasis are passages such as John 3:16–18 and 1 John 5:12, which explicitly define the difference between those who “have life” and those who are condemned. John 3:36 makes it clear that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” In Matthew 25:46, Jesus points to two distinct eternal destinies. God’s wrath remains where disobedience remains (Romans 1:18; 2:5; Colossians 3:6; Ephesians 5:6), and, according to Hebrews 9:27, there are no second chances after death.

The punishment of the wicked in hell is described throughout Scripture as “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44–49), a place of “torment” and “fire” (Luke 16:23–24), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), a place where “the smoke of torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10–11), and a “lake of burning sulfur” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). It’s hard to get around the implication that the torment of hell lasts forever.