Reshaping the Christian Hell

Apocatastais or the Purgative Hell of Christianity

Does the Bible give any evidence for Eternal Torment (E.T.) or Conditional Immortality (C.I.)? According to scrutiny, there is no valid account for any of these two beliefs. The doctrine of E.T. only appears in the text due to a mis-translation of the Greek, false presumption on the parables, and a punitive induced theology. And the other doctrine is only based on misinterpreting the flexible usage of Greek terms, and confusing the ancient idea of destroy with the modern idea of annihilate. None of these views can actually reconcile the justice of God with the mercy of God. They are both contradictory in these two views, yet moral traits should not contradict since love only contradicts with evil.

These two views already fail the first test, which is to compare such actions to the biblical definition of love. God is love and love edifies, so how does torment or destruction edify the sinner? You might argue that it edifies the elect, but this is far from the truth. First, if the elect develop a rejoicing over their enemies’ torment or total death, it is an expression of resentment which contradicts with Jesus’ command on forgiveness. Second, if these two views appeal to vengeance or resentment, then it is not a divine truth that appeals to love or forgiveness. Love edifies by correcting them in order to purge their sins and mature their hearts. Perpetual torment offers no remedy against the existence of sin, neither for the person enslaved to it. Total destruction offers no remedy for the person’s redemption or welfare but it ceases the presence of sin. However, not only does apocatastasis offer the person’s welfare but also the elimination of all sin. If love cannot edify the person by intent, then God fails to be loving or edifying. If love cannot eliminate sin forever, then God fails to have total control. Love succeeds on both accounts by purging sin from the person and restoring the person into His divinity.

Before I involve the scriptures to affirm the doctrine of apocatastasis, there will be an appeal to rational philosophy. In the sense of God’s justice, we tend to fathom it as retribution or punitive in nature, except if this were the case, then we cannot discern God’s “justice” from man’s vengeance. It cannot be discerned from the traditional view, so traditionalists or conditionalists try to justify God’s display of vengeance in the name of God. But then morality wouldn’t be objective if God does forbidden acts, or it would make God seem evil instead of good. No one would agree that God should rape a person or tempt evil on anyone, because these are unjust decisions. If we have a moral conviction that God shouldn’t do this or that, then we can’t simply believe and justify evil deeds of a good deity. It makes the argument weak and subjective. So there are certain things we cannot accept that God would do, which are evil or selfish by nature. Does justice simply present itself as punitive by nature, or does it have a remedial nature? As before, it serves to correct the wrongdoer, so that the wrongdoer realizes his errors and clings to God’s moral nature. This remedial intent of justice is much more akin to a loving God than its punitive version. And now, because God’s justice is fathomed as remedial, we can truly distinguish justice from revenge. God desires us to overcome evil with good (or love atoning for sins) and be like Christ, so God’s method of justice should be similar to His desire for us.

The idea of mercy has always been contrasted from justice, because we have misunderstood their purpose in morality. Mercy and justice best serve as complimentary than as contrary concepts. The aim of mercy is to draw someone near to good/beneficial qualities, and the aim of justice is to hinder potential evil, or repel someone from evil/detrimental qualities. In this way, mercy renders justice to be restorative, and justice renders mercy to be purgative. Our misunderstood concepts render justice to be vengeful/abusive and mercy to be wrongly passive/empowering potential evil. This renewed outlook of mercy and justice are impossible in the two doctrines of hell. Even the famous Origen would agree with my individual analysis of these two concepts of virtue:

“[God] confers benefits justly, and punishes with kindness; since neither goodness without justice, nor justice without goodness, can display the [true] dignity of the divine nature” (De Principiis — Origen).

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

This verse without scrutiny may seem to support E.T. or perhaps C.I. but the Greek does not suggest this at all. The Greek word for “punishment” is kolasis, and it doesn’t imply afflicting torment for the tormentor’s satisfaction. Kolasis in its most earliest literature simply meant to prune something in order to mature or improve it. In the same way, it is correction intended to morally improve the wrongdoer, or to purge him of his sins. However, proponents for either of the two doctrines will insist that it changed its meaning over time like in Jesus’ day. But this argument fails because all (if not most) the church fathers who understood Greek and weren’t distorted by paganism, fathomed this term to be remedial in nature. There is no correction intended to reform the person in perpetual torment, because endless torment doesn’t deprive sin or reform the person. It would simply be a pointless loop of activity. And total destruction may erase sin from existence, but the person is not reformed, yet even if he were reformed, it would be unjust for God to destroy him due to repentance. And rebuking them to reform their hearts before their perpetual and total destruction would also be pointless. But apocatastasis makes the most sense in this.

As for the term “eternal/aionion” in the Greek never conveys an endless duration, but it has several meanings. In the literal sense, it means a duration for an age or antiquity, and in the rhetorical sense, it means a great quality of something. So the life bestowed to the elect is of great quality but the fire given to the wicked is also of great quality.

“And you should not be afraid of those killing the body but not being able to kill the soul. Indeed rather you should fear [i.e. revere, not the emotion] the One being able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28).

This statement seems to affirm the doctrine of C.I. instead of E.T. However, previously I said that their doctrine has a basis for flexible usage in the Greek and the misconception of the ancient meaning of “destroy”. And the term “Gehenna” never conveys an afterlife according to the Jewish Scriptures or Jesus’ theology. Although, some might argue that the Pharisees used it to imply that, but this was their gradual invention after biblical history. Gehenna has a wide application rather than a narrow application as assumed in English. Gehenna can either mean the valley of Hinnom (where child sacrifice took place), or a euphemism to mean satanic chaos and oppression. It could also be used as a figure of speech for something with poor quality, or as a literal for an actual location.

The Greek word for “destroy” is apolesai (ἀπολέσαι) which does imply destroy, yet it also implies “to lose something”. In other words, the text can be formatted as: “Revere the One who loses both body and soul in Gehenna [satanic affliction/influence].” The counter objection for this is the meaning of apolesai. They could rebut by saying that losing is not as consistent as destroying in Jesus’ use of kill. However, Jesus is not comparing God’s method of justice to man’s retribution, but contrasting man’s evil with God’s goodness. God has the power to allow us to succumb to the devil’s desire to kill and destroy, so as to realize the futility of sin (1 Corinthians 5:5). The term “apolesei” (a slight variation) has meant either as “destroy” or “lose” in certain verses, so the same rule of logic should apply for apolesai. Another objection could be towards my chosen meaning for Gehenna in this text. Gehenna is implied to mean satanic affliction or influence, which is proven in Jame’s epistle. “And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna” (James 3:6). The idea of the afterlife setting “the world on fire” makes no sense, so it must imply satanic influence or demonic chaos. The devil harnesses a sinful mind to do his bidding, and to bring humanity into chaos or ultimately their demise. Gehenna has this meaning because the valley of Hinnom was related to child sacrifice; thus, it relates to a satanic activity or as satanic influence. Wherever there is injustice, satanic spirits are always at work to birth and maintain its influence on the earth. But the Lord intends to allow suffering and injustice to help renew our mind on sin, and when we realize, He eagerly hopes to destroy the works of the devil. The Cross also adds another layer of that realization for the mind’s renewal.

“The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9).

The notion of destroyed in Greek can also be translated as being lost in identity and in relationship to God. Lost doesn’t mean to vanish from existence but to be outside one’s possession, or to be unaware of one’s location (Matthew 10:6, 39). While you could say, “If God is bound to save everyone, why is He concerned at all?” Because God doesn’t want us to suffer in our sinful identity and be ignorant of His fellowship. Instead, the Lord desires our good welfare, to reform our identity, and to commune with us. The promise of God that is mentioned by Peter is the restoration of all things (e.g. humans), so God is being patient to all men for their redemption and reunion with Christ.

“For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (1 Timothy 4:10).

If men perish by total destruction or eternal torment, then He cannot be the savior of all men, so apocatastasis is the only view that reconciles with this verse. However, some suggest that “all men” can also mean “every kind of man” which conveys a categorical inclusion rather than a universal inclusion. But the “every kind” interpretation doesn’t fit with God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to Himself. And if God doesn’t count their sins against them, then nothing is hindering God from reforming their minds (2 Corinthians 5:19). If God allows for mankind to be bound by disobedience in order to show them mercy, then He pursues their welfare and thus their reformation (Romans 11:32). And so if God doesn’t count their sins against them, seeks to reconcile everyone, and leaves a possibility for them to rebel in order to help them, then He cannot be retributive or vengeful towards fallen man. If God desires that all men to be saved, then He will save all men no matter how long it takes for them to consent. But some might argue that God is imposing His will to reform them, but this argument can be made towards eternal hell and conditional immortality.

Also, the Greek Fathers and Origen understood Paul’s writings (including Timothy) to be promoting universal salvation, so this passage above must have been fathomed as “all men” rather than “every kind of man”. In fact, John 6:37 says that all that God gives to Christ will come to Him. Since God desires none to be lost, then this doesn’t imply a categorical inclusion for salvation. And everyone who is given to Christ will eventually arrive to trusting Christ as Lord. It doesn’t state that all will come to Christ without some resistance, or that every kind of man will arrive to Christ in this life. If Paul implies that Christ has saved believers more so than generalized believers, then he cannot be saying “every kind of believer” in the text because this contradicts with Paul’s latter intention (i.e. “especially of believers”). God cannot save believers more than every kind of believer based on diverse nationalities. But the term could also be intended to specify something yet this is needless. Why would Paul say every kind of man (as in believers from different cultures/race) and not just specify believers as the party who are saved by Christ? Or why not write as follows, “God [who] is the savior of every kind of man who believes”? (θεῷ [ὅς] σωτὴρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων ὅς πιστεύω?).

“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In the ark a few people, only eight souls, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:19, 20).

The apostle Peter (as the epistle claims to be the author) asserted that Christ entered the abode of the dead, so that He could preach the good news to those who rebelled God, even so far as the days of Noah. Yet the presumption could be that they weren’t actual humans but hybrids of angels and humans; on the contrary, there is no evidence for this and if so, there would have to be humans along with the hybrids. Another notion might be that Christ preached condemnation to the spirits in prison for their sins, but the Greek word used in this text is ἐκήρυξεν (ekēruxen), which is akin to kerusso (κηρύσσω). And kerusso has been used in context to mean the preaching of good news or the Kingdom; kerusso is used whenever Jesus is preaching the gospel, but never in context to condemning or to preaching a message of woes. If the apostle Peter meant to blame them for sins or curse them for destruction and torment, then he should’ve used kataginosko (καταγινώσκω) or anathema (ἀνάθεμα). And since proponents of conditional immortality typically hold to the view of soul sleep after the first death, then their theology wouldn’t be coherent to the verse in 1 Peter. Another will suggest that God only chose to save those who rebelled before Christ, except this is not a consistent decision of God and this would be unfair for those after Christ. And some say Christ simply proclaimed victory on the Cross, yet this proclamation serves no remedial purpose to the spirits in prison or to fallen angels. The deed itself in this odd view is needless, impractical, or without justified cause. The book of Isaiah predicts that Jesus would preach good news (not exclusive to the realm of the dead) and to set free the captives like the spirits in prison (Isaiah 61:1). The Anointed One visited the lost souls to aid the fiery process in renewing their perception, and reconcile those who have died by exposing the illusory barrier between them and God.

“Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire” (Orat. pro Mortuis).

The most famous and well-known Greek Father of this statement is Gregory of Nyssa. He asserted that men will either be purged from sins by communion with God and practicing virtue, or depart into the fiery process of moral reformation. This is irrefutable evidence that the doctrine of apocatastasis was even believed and uttered by the Greek Fathers. If the Greek Fathers (and Origen) understood the Koine Greek as their native language and its rhetoric, there is much doubt that they could have wrongly interpreted Paul’s writings. But some aren’t convinced because Gregory lived in 300 ad; thus, not the time of antiquity for some. I move unto the epistle of Mathetes.

“[7] Then shall thou condemn the deceit and error of the world when thou shall know what it is to live truly in heaven, when thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it.

[8] Then shalt thou admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shalt count them happy when thou shalt know [the nature of] that fire” (verse 10:7 by J.B. Lightfoot Translation).

The translator of this epistle self-evidently held to the teaching of the infernalists (E.T.). The text says they shall be delivered unto the eternal fire, except it says that they are committed to it until the end of a duration. Then the fire by definition is not eternal (in a future sense) if it has an end, so this epistle doesn’t teach an eternal hell. And the word for “eternal” is aionion which again doesn’t imply an endless duration but a finite duration of time, or rhetorically something retaining a great quality.

In the original manuscript, the word used for “condemned” (κατακριθησομενοις) can be translated as “sentenced” or “accused”. The next word used for “afflict” which seems to convey the idea of torment (not utterly destroy), can be translated as “correct” or as “remedial chastisement” because kolasei (κολασει) is a variation of kolasis (κόλασιν) which was formerly mentioned. So in the fire, they will be accused of their sins, but for the purpose of redeeming and renewing their minds to God’s goodness. But it doesn’t seem to induce fear? Actually, the departed souls will not pleased to be corrected because such correction will offend their sinful minds. And those, who are not perfected in love, will fear moral criticism and fiery discipline from the Lord (1 John 4:18).

[7] It is reserved for those who shall be sentenced to the great-abiding fire, which shall correct (kolasei) and imprison them to it until an end. [8] Then you shall marvel at those who endure the temporal fire, which is for their righteous welfare, and you shall consider them blessed when you know what the fire does.

[note: Since he’s speaking to a non-believer, he addresses to him that the fire is not a total loss for the ungodly, but rather it is a place for their moral refinement. Though, he isn’t saying it is a pleasant place, yet it is a place of discomfort which produces tremendous and benevolent effects. In other words, it is a place of just hardship reforming their character for good. Yet it is better to know God now than to be offended and reformed in a fiery chastisement.]

Another early church document that might be used to refute apocatastasis is the Didache. The Didache does seem to support Conditional Immortality but it can also support Christian Universalism. However, the eternal sense of hellfire is axiomatically absent and impossibly proven in the text. Only one of these doctrines of hell can be affirmed but it’s most likely apocatastasis. Let’s read the text of the Didache:

“Then shall the creation of man come to the fiery trial of proof, and many shall be offended and shall perish, but those who remain in the faith shall be saved from the rock of offense” (Charles H. Hoole Translation). Conditionalist Reading

“Then shall the creation of mankind come to the fiery trial and “many shall be offended” and be lost, but “they who endure” in their faith “shall be saved” by the curse itself” (Didache 16:5 Kirsopp Lake Translation). Universalist Reading

Excerpt From: The Didache The Twelve Apostles

The text of the Didache seems to suggest the two views more so than the Infernalist reading. However the doctrine of C.I. only seems to have a basis in the term “destroy” and the “curse itself”. While the universalist reading has a more contextual flow of coherency like the meaning of “fiery trial of proof”, and the state of being “lost”.

The Greek word being used for “fiery” and “proof/testing” is πύρωσιν which is a variation of Πύρωση. This latter Greek word translates as “calcination”, which was a method of purifying a metal by heating a solid chemical compound to high temperatures in absence or limited supply air or oxygen. In other words, this verb or process is designed to purify one from impurities; this process of purification implies a universalist reading since hell is purgative and restorative. The next word used for “trial” is δοκιμασίας that either implies a painful experience or more akin to a trial; however, this term used is in a plural sense. A trial could imply a judicial setting of reviewing one’s past transgressions and/or a trial could be a hardship designed to improve one’s welfare or character. If it were so, then these two concepts fit well with the universalist reading while the annihilationist reading doesn’t fit the second concept all too well. I believe reviewing one’s past and moral errors can be used to help persuade the wrongdoer to admit his errors and be eager to morally change. While this gives way to offense, it is part of the process of being corrected or reproofed. And this leads to the next Greek word used for “offense” and that would be σκανδαλισθήσονται. And the term used for “lost” or “perish” is ἀπολοῦνται or “apolountai”. This word is used to mean perish three times in the Bible but as stated prior, the Koine Greek has a flexible usage in using terms. In the same way, when “apolesei” is in the Bible, it can either mean perish or be lost. And the translator above seems to suggest that it can be translated as “lost”. But the status of being lost doesn’t convey vanishing out of existence; it is about being outside of one’s possession or being unaware of one’s location. Finally, the word used for “curse” is καταθέματος.

And so, fallen creation will be tested by fiery trials to be offended but purified for redemption. The elect are saved from being lost in identity, and being cursed from the state of their sins. After all, the atonement was intended to liberate us from our sins. This is explained in detail on my previous post: “The Purified Metanoia Theory”. Anyway, in regard to the status of being lost, they are unaware of an intimate relationship with God, and this includes the blessings of God founded upon such (e.g. life, light, and all benefits). The language of the lost fits perfectly with the parable of the Prodigal’s son. And then the notion of being cursed might be coherent with C.I. but the language of the accursed also works for the universalist reading. The elect aren’t cursed because they aren’t in a state of sin that’s responsible for rejecting God with a hostile mind. However, the lost are cursed by their sins, and it is consequential to the loss of divine benefits as well as knowing God by intimacy (John 17:3). Even St. Irenaeus in the Greek fragments makes this linguistic approach as it is akin to the presented notion, and so he says:

“Good things from God are great in quality [aionion] and great in quantity [ateleftita], but the loss of such are extreme in quality and in quantity” (Against Heresies: Book 5, Chapter 27, Paragraph 2).

“And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with [them]. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store” (Against Heresies: Book 5, Chapter 27).

And so the universalist reading is superior than the alternative reading; the perpetual notion is nowhere found in the text, so the idea of being perished or vanished from existence forever cannot be supported. The purification trials logically lead to a redemptive work rather than a destructive work. And this goes back to the saying of Gregory of Nysa:

“Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness …either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire” (Orat. pro Mortuis).

However, there is a possibility that the text of the Didache might not even imply any hellish doctrine. But rather it is speaking of those who will not elude the judgement that is reserved for those in Jerusalem. And it is speaking of a persecution of Christians especially. The curse itself could be falling into the destruction of the Emperor’s decree, that is, the abuse of the Roman soldiers. On the contrary, this type of curse cannot be limited to Jerusalem since this document was meant for all Christians under the Roman government. Yet this could be a universal warning for all Christians to elude the Roman government. Either way, it doesn’t explain the testing for purification and it doesn’t explain the elect being saved from Roman persecution (except the destruction in Jerusalem) since believers are known to be trampled by the Romans. Yet with more study, I’m open to the suggestion that this text (Didache 16:5) might not affirm any hellish doctrine after all. For now, it is not certain for this possibility or alternative suggestion.

“He who is thus defiled will depart into unquenchable fire, and so also will he that hearkens to him” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:3).

This written expression of unquenchable fire doesn’t convey the sense of eternal or perpetual duration; the Lord called the temporal fire of Gehenna (or the valley of Hinnom) unquenchable. Mark 9:43 says, “And if your hand should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than having two hands to go away into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire”. Jesus was warning the Jews about physical destruction, so that they would not perish from Roman persecution and literally be thrown into the valley. He wanted them to attain His life-giving words, which would propel them away from such destruction; however, because they didn’t heed Him as the Messiah, they suffered for their unbelief. The claim of being imperishable can either be temporal or perpetual, so this wording for imperishable or unquenchable cannot convey merely an endless duration. The fire was constantly lit but not without end, which explains the use of unquenchable since it was purposefully maintained. And proponents for the doctrine of “soul sleep” cannot use Ignatius as an example of their theology since he affirms a psychical existence from the body. He writes:

Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 2:1).

Ignatius might have also believed in the doctrine of Reserve, where lying or confusion by riddles is justified so that believers could not abuse the doctrine of apokatastasis. Although, it is better to know God now than to be in the fire until you realize all your sins were wrong, but selfishly inclined persons don’t understand this. They simply take their chances and suffer from such choices, then during and after the purgative fire, they regret their vanity. In a way, for instance, I would’ve wished I earned better grades than settle for average since there is no honor for striving for less or not at all. But if I earned grades far below average, then my mind would have been more consumed with shame and remorse. I would rather “be drug-free at all times than be drug-addicted and head to a rehab” (this is just an illustration); I know men who wish they wouldn’t have ruined their lives for drugs or anything else, so I don’t think living in sin and enduring the fire would be of benefit or merit.

There are many verses that Infernalists or Conditonalists will try to quote, especially the Latin Fathers like St. Augustine or Tertullian. But all these men didn’t know the Greek language or its rhetoric, so these men aren’t qualified to give exact ideas of what Paul or the apostles fully believed. They can simply offer conjecture for the verses wrongly translated in their Latin versions. Why do you think I argued from Irenaeus’ Greek fragments? Because the Latin is not an exact translation of the Greek, especially of its rhetorical nature. The doctrine of apokatastasis stands taller than these alternative views of hell; it is proven by scriptural, philosophical, historical, and experiential means (the last one applies to me).

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George M. Garcia

George M. Garcia

A writer interested in theology and the supernatural. A Christian with divine experiences and a vast understanding of Scripture.