Question: "What is apocatastasis, and is it biblical?"
Answer: Apocatastasis (also apokatastasis) is the belief that everyone and everything will be saved in the end. It’s a Greek word that means “restoration to the original condition.” Another way to define apocatastasis is “universal salvation.” Proponents begin their defense of this position by pointing to the use of the word in Acts 3:21, which says, “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.” A handful of other passages seem to indicate that Jesus’ death and resurrection reversed the curse and secured restoration for all beings, so does the Bible truly teach apocatastasis?
In Acts 3:21 the key words for the proponents of apocatastasis are all things. They base their understanding of salvation on the idea that whenever Scripture says, “All things,” it means every pebble of creation since time began. Therefore, when Jesus said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things” (Matthew 17:11), He must mean that the entire world will be restored to its original, pre-Fall condition (Genesis 1:31; 3:17–19).
However, the idea of restoring can also mean “re-establishing a thing as it was before destruction.” For example, if a city is burned to the ground, the survivors may elect to “restore all things” to the way they were before the fire. But not everything that burned will be restored. The people who died will still be dead. The keepsakes, the photographs, and the original wood used in the buildings will not be reconstituted. The city itself, though, may be restored to look very much like the original. That seems to be a more accurate description of the Bible’s use of apocatastasis in reference to final restoration.
The doctrine of apocatastasis also asserts that hell is not eternal; the lake of fire is not meant to punish but to correct the wicked. Once they have been corrected, they are allowed to partake of eternal blessedness on some level, and all will be peace and unity. Some who hold to the doctrine of apocatastasis teach that even the devil and the demons will be restored to their original created positions. They point to passages such as Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 19:20, which speak of people and the devil being cast into a lake of fire, and interpret them to mean a temporary fire of purification. This belief is based on the understanding that God is good and also all-powerful; therefore, if He desires His creation to be returned to its original state, then He can do that. A good God would want all human beings created in His image to spend eternity with Him in heaven (1 Timothy 2:4). A powerful God could make that happen (Isaiah 46:10). Thus, apocatastasis must mean that everything God created will be reconciled to Him and spend eternity in its original perfect condition.
It is difficult to escape the meaning of Revelation 21:8, however: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” The first death was physical, when they died on earth. But “second death” is clear that this is not a preview before a restoration. Nothing like that is implied. Proponents of apocatastasis try to define “lake of fire” as a pond of water covered with flames that is intended to punish and purify until some lesson is learned. The theory incorporates some sort of purgatory, a concept found nowhere in Scripture. The mention of “second death” makes universal restoration, and therefore apocatastasis, impossible.
Apocatastasis was taught by Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, but it is not a doctrine derived from a pure study of Scripture. Holding such a position requires mental gymnastics and blatant disregard for the plethora of passages that teach otherwise. John 3:16–18, Matthew 25:41, 46, and 1 John 5:12 explicitly define the difference between those who “have life” and those who are condemned. John 3:36, in particular, 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.” Universalists contend that the word remains means “remains until some future date when it is lifted.” But that is human conjecture and not a faithful interpretation of the text. Remains means what it says. God’s wrath remains where disobedience remains (Romans 1:18; 2:5; Colossians 3:6; Ephesians 5:6). There are no second chances after death, according to Hebrews 9:27.
The biggest problem with apocatastasis is the assumption that God’s righteous punishment for unrepentant sin is too harsh. When we twist God’s Word to suit our sensitivities, we have set ourselves up as His judge. We have essentially declared ourselves to be more compassionate than God is. We may find the doctrine of eternal punishment disturbing, but Scripture is clear that the decision to follow Christ must be made before death and that decision determines one’s eternity (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12).
If the doctrine of apocatastasis were true, it would not have been necessary for Jesus to spend so much time demonstrating His deity as the Messiah. After all, why did it matter what people believed about Him if they would all figure it out later? Faith today would be unnecessary. The apostles did not need to give up everything to preach the gospel, missionaries are wasting their lives, and the martyrs died in vain. Jesus’ continuous call to “follow me” (Luke 9:23; Matthew 8:22) is silly if everyone ends up in the same place anyway. Why give up our lives now (Mark 8:34–36) if we can have all this and heaven too? If hell is temporary, many people would willingly choose it in order to indulge themselves now. Their hearts have no use for God or His commands. They have no desire to worship or bow to Him as Lord, yet apocatastasis teaches that the wicked will come around after being punished for a while. That idea discounts Jesus’ words in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, that between paradise and hell “a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26).
Jesus’ last instructions were to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15–16). These words do not sound like those of a God who knows that everyone will be saved in the end. Apocatastasis, as defined by universalists, is not an accurate biblical interpretation and should be rejected as heresy.