The Biblical Case for Hope and Restoration for All
I appreciate you sharing this article on the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell. This perspective has been the predominant view in Christian history. However, a growing number of biblically grounded scholars and believers are finding compelling evidence for the redemption of all people in Scripture and the early church fathers. I humbly ask you to consider the biblical case for hope.
A Note on Fear-Based Theologies
Many adherents to eternal torment appeal to selected passages instilling fear of hell and judgment. But recall that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Teachings grounded in anxiety over eternal damnation reflect human additions, not God’s vision. Let us build our theology on God’s perfect love revealed in Christ.
The Old Testament Points to Universal Restoration
Sheol and Hades as Abodes of the Dead
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “Sheol” referred simply to the abode of the dead, not a place of fiery judgment. Passages like Psalm 139:8 poetically use Sheol to represent the full extent of God’s presence. The prophet Jonah described it as the belly of a fish, not a place of suffering (Jonah 2:2).
In the New Testament, the Greek word “Hades” carries a similar meaning. Jesus says Capernaum will go down to Hades (Matt. 11:23), implying simply sinking into oblivion. Hades is a temporary abode contrasted with death and hell being destroyed (Rev. 20:13-14).
Gehenna as Metaphor for Judgment, Not Eternal Torment
Jesus often used the word Gehenna, derived from a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, as a metaphor for God’s judgment. Examples include saying it’s better to lose body parts than to be cast into Gehenna (Matt. 5:29-30). But these graphic images don’t require an eternal hell.
In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says God can destroy both soul and body in hell. The Greek word here translated “destroy” is apollymi, meaning to fully extinguish or abolish, not eternally torment. Jesus employed Gehenna as a vivid analogy to motivate repentance, not to specify eternal suffering.
God’s Restorative Justice Versus Our Retribution
Human punishment is retributive, giving back what’s deserved. But God’s justice is restorative, bringing redemption from sin and death. Isaiah 61:8 declares, “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” A God of perfect justice does not punish infinitely for finite sins.
Some object that infinite sins against an infinite God demand infinite punishment. But sin’s magnitude depends on the object it’s committed against, not the perpetrator. And Scripture does not define sin as infinite. Our view of justice should derive from God’s Word, not human philosophies.
Biblical Warnings of Judgment Lead to Repentance
You will find many warnings of judgment and hell in Scripture aimed at motivating repentance. But we read these in light of a God who declares “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). For example, Sodom and Gomorrah underwent fiery destruction, yet Ezekiel says they will be restored (Ezekiel 16:53-55).
Even severe judgments in Scripture are meant to teach, not eternally destroy. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul says to deliver a sexually immoral man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved. Destruction leads to salvation.
Apparent Support for Eternal Torment Based on Translation Errors
As we explore key passages on final judgment, it’s vital to dig into the original Greek and Hebrew words. English translations often unjustly reinforce the traditional view of eternal torment through misleading word choices. Let’s look at some examples.
In Matthew 25:46, “eternal punishment” is contrasted with “eternal life.” But the Greek word kolasis translated punishment refers to correction or pruning, not merely retribution. And “eternal” derives from the Greek aion which can also mean a finite period. So a better translation is “a pruning unto the age.”
Similarly, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says rebellious people will pay the penalty of “eternal destruction.” But “destruction” is olethros in Greek, meaning to abolish or disappear. And again aion (“eternal”) means a temporary period. This passage refers to destruction lasting for an age, not for eternity.
Jude 7 states that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the punishment of “eternal fire.” Yet Peter states that fire reduced those cities to ashes (2 Peter 2:6). The effect of the fire was eternal, not temporary, but not implying eternal torment.
So in many places, poor translations portray eternal suffering where the original text refers to correction for a limited time, permanent destruction of the wicked, or fire with eternal effects—not ongoing torment.
Paul Envisions Salvation for All People
You’ll also find many passages where Paul clearly expresses God’s plan to redeem all people. Let’s look at some of these verses.
In Romans 11:32 Paul writes, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so He may have mercy on all.” How could God have mercy on all if most will face eternal torment?
In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul says, “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” He envisions all people ultimately restored through Christ’s redemptive work.
In 1 Timothy 2:3-4 Paul states that God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. A God wanting all saved wouldn’t eternally damn most.
And in Philippians 2:9-11, Paul says one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord, including those under the earth. Universal freely given worship of Christ implies redemption.
Colossians 1:19-20 declares that all things are reconciled to God through Christ, whether things on earth or in heaven. How could Paul say all things are reconciled if most of humanity experiences eternal separation?
Clearly Paul believed God planned to achieve universal salvation and restoration through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This doesn’t mean all will immediately experience full salvation, but rather that God initiated an inescapable process to draw all men to Himself.
God’s Perfect Love and Mercy
Of course, no theological doctrine can stand on a few proof texts alone. We must interpret Scripture through the lens of God’s character of perfect love as seen in Christ. And Christ-like love would not consign any soul to eternal torment without hope or end.
The apostle John writes clearly that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Would a genuinely all-loving God punish parts of His creation eternally for temporary sins committed in finite human flesh?
God says in Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Love that ends for some cannot properly be called everlasting.
In Lamentations 3:31-33 we read, “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” Doesn’t unfailing, everlasting love require holding out hope for redemption for all people?
And recall Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who the father welcomed back joyfully after years of rebellion. The elder brother resented the father’s unlimited grace. Might some believers resent God’s lavish mercy on those they deem undeserving, not celebrating redemption for all?
Yes, Scripture speaks of judgment. But would a truly loving parent punish their child eternally for temporal mistakes? Neither does our Heavenly Father, who is far more merciful than us (Psalm 103:8-14).
Jesus Calls Us to Forgive and Love Our Enemies
Jesus provides the definitive model of sacrificial, enemy-embracing love – even praying for the forgiveness of those crucifying Him (Luke 23:34). He calls believers to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matt. 5:44-45).
If Jesus embodies perfect love yet still condemns people to interminable suffering, He has asked us to live by a higher standard than even He models. But it makes far more sense to conclude that our Lord who prayed from the cross for His enemies’ forgiveness will redeem all as He promised.
Early Church Fathers Embraced Universal Restoration
The early church prior to Augustine in the 4th century lacked a defined doctrine on the afterlife and final judgment. Many prominent church fathers and theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine’s own mentor St. Ambrose of Milan acknowledged universal salvation as a legitimate doctrinal belief. Let’s consider a few examples.
St. Gregory of Nyssa:
“What therefore is there amazing if the soul that has lived in the evils of sin, when the burden has grown insupportable, should enter upon another life and around this should settle the bonds that hold it down to low and evil things?… Death brings about this change… Those who have worshipped God… enjoy the blessed inheritance of the good that is there. But as many souls as have lived with wickedness, receive their recompense accordingly. Now this is so arranged by Divine judgment that the chastisement and discipline penetrate to the very springs of mortal existence. The utterly incurable are restrained under chains of darkness unto the final judgment… while every one who exhibits even a small degree of betterment, is kept in the upper realm and in the light of the living.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection)
“The apostolic teaching is that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this.” (Origen, Against Celsus)
The early church fathers saw God’s judgments as restorative and temporary, not permanent condemnation. This aligns with the biblical revelation of a God who desires all be saved. Eternal torment arose only later, influenced by pagan philosophies. The early church did not dogmatically define it as doctrine.
What Does “Eternal” Mean in Scripture?
You may still have questions about passages referencing punishment or fire that is “eternal” or “everlasting.” Let’s take a closer look at the biblical language.
The Greek word aion is typically translated as “eternal.” However, it literally means “age” or “period of time.” The duration is determined by context. Scholars argue it can refer to a distinct lifetime or temporal era as well as eternity.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 Satan is called “the god of this aion.” Of course, his dominion does not represent eternity but a temporary period that Christ defeated.
In Philemon 1:15, Paul appeals to Philemon to welcome back the runaway slave Onesimus “forever,” using aion. Paul means not literally for all eternity but for the remainder of Onesimus’s life.
So when we read of “eternal punishment” in Matt. 25, this translates kolasin aionian. It refers to correction and discipline for the “age” to come, not necessarily forever. The effects may be permanent, but the process of punishment is temporal.
Similarly, “eternal destruction” in 2 Thess. 1:9 is olethron aionion, meaning destruction or loss lasting for the age. And “eternal fire” in Jude 7 is pur aioniois, a temporal fire with eternal consequences. The fire itself is not eternal.
So passages about eternal judgment do not require interpreation as never-ending. They refer to the temporary process of correction God applies to perfect holiness and restore all creation.
Jesus’ Suffering and Sacrifice Sufficient for All
Some believers worry that if all are eventually redeemed, it means people don’t need Jesus or His sacrifice on the cross is insufficient. This objection misses the point – Scripture clearly states Jesus is the only way to salvation and forgiveness. There is no possibility of redemption apart from God’s grace through Him.
However, Christ’s death on the cross was powerful enough to atone for the sins of the entire world – not just part of it, according to 1 John 2:2. What greater way to affirm the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice than to understand it as effecting salvation for all people? Believing most of humanity remains damned despite the cross portrays it as inadequate.
Yes, salvation requires individuals place faith in Jesus. Personal decisions matter. God’s spirit draws each person to freely recognize their need for Christ at the right time (John 6:44; 16:8-11). But there is no Scriptural reason to believe this process ends at physical death.
Philippians 2:9-11 expresses that ultimately every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord. Those who humble themselves receive salvation as God’s gift. But if some persist in rebellion, a loving God applies whatever corrective discipline is needed until their pride abates and they freely worship their Creator.
Salvation depends on God’s grace through Christ, both now and in the ages to come (Eph. 2:7). Seeing the cross as insufficient unless it eternally damns most of humanity sells God’s love short. Trust in the power of Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem all who place their faith in Him, in this life and beyond.
The Gates of the New Jerusalem Never Shut
Revelation depicts the New Jerusalem with twelve open gates, never shut (Rev. 21:25). Shut and locked gates represent exclusion, but God’s kingdom will forever invite all to enter His city and partake of the tree of life (Rev. 22:14). The leaves of this tree will heal the nations (22:2).
Rather than excluding those outside as immoral or unclean, the gates stand open as a testimony to the nations. The tree’s healing leaves suggest God’s restorative work continues even beyond this present age. All who so desire may respond to God’s invitation and welcome embrace.
The Bible’s Universal Vision: Creation Renewed
In the last two chapters of Revelation, we don’t find groups condemned eternally or a subset of humanity repentant and restored. Rather, we see the creation made new, with no more crying, pain, suffering, or death (Rev. 21:1-5). The entire cosmos is reconciled to God (Col. 1:19-20).
How does reconciliation happen? Not through forcing all to obey against their will or keeping the rebellious confined. Rather, God in His mercy takes whatever steps needed to bring all who persist in sin to eventual repentance through experiencing the consequences of rebellion.
Just as the parable of the prodigal son offers a father relentlessly pursuing the restoration of both rebellious sons, God’s loves compels Him to seek and save that which is lost until all is renewed. Such universal reconciliation brings the greatest possible glory to God.
This view of the afterlife aligns with the Bible’s grand narrative. From original creation to the Fall, God’s redemption through Christ, and culminating in cosmic renewal, Scripture follows an arc bending toward God’s ultimate triumph over sin and death as Jesus’ sacrifice draws every person to freely receive salvation. An eternal hell thwarts this trajectory.
The doctrine of eternal torment arose primarily from pagan Greek influences on early theology, not Scripture. But the Bible taken in totality fits best with complete restoration of all creation. This brings the greatest hope while motivating holy living today.
Practical Implications of Hope for All
What practical impact results from the hope that God redeems all people? Here are a few implications:
- It provides comfort and solace to those mourning the eternal loss of loved ones who did not profess faith in Christ. They can find hope and anticipation of reunion.
- Believers need not worry whether lapsed friends or family members who died experienced eternal judgment. God’s mercy persists beyond the grave.
- We can joyfully envision God’s ultimate aims fulfilled, with no person or part of creation excluded from His fellowship. Good truly triumphs.
- Our evangelism efforts avoid being motivated by threats of hell. We instead invite others to experience relationship with Christ.
- We have no basis for judgmentalism toward non-believers, since we trust in God’s redemption of all. We simply share Christ’s love.
- Our view of justice aligns better with God’s restorative justice versus retributive human justice.
- Understanding God’s infinite mercy for all frees us from fear of death or the afterlife. We need only trust in His unfailing love.
So this biblical hope offers deep confidence in our provident Creator who intricately works out His plans to lovingly draw all people to Himself. We may humbly leave the details of judgment in God’s hands.
Wrath to Righteousness: The Arc of Redemption
Dear friend, I know these perspectives may conflict with views you’ve been taught or assumed your whole life. Wrestling with firmly held beliefs is never easy. I only ask that you open your heart to how the truth of Scripture aligns better with a God who desires to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).
The Bible speaks often of judgment, wrath, destruction, and torment. But would a loving Father punish His children eternally? Scripture reveals a Creator stepping in to correct wayward souls only to redeem and restore them in the end.
From beginning to end, the Bible follows an arc from wrath to ultimate righteousness. God always works to refine and resurrect, not perpetually destroy. Even Sodom and Gomorrah, reduced to ashes, will be restored according to Ezekiel 16:53-55. That’s the key to interpreting warnings of judgment in light of the Good News – the fire purifies, it does not perpetually torment.
I ask you to consider this perspective on God’s unfolding plan of redemption. You may still have objections or counterarguments; I would be happy to discuss those. My hope is simply that you walk away with an expanded vision of the unfailing love of God our Creator and Redeemer.
© 2023, Matt. All rights reserved.