Apokatastasis: No place for Hell

The idea of heaven and hell as geographic locations is strongly ingrained in North American religion

Yme Woensdregt

“They’re in a better place.”

Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, noted Christian theologian and ethicist, wasn’t preaching a sermon. He was answering a seminarian’s question: “Can you give us an example of a bad theological sentence?”

“The [stuff] we say when people have died is just horrible,” Hauerwas went on. “Heaven is a place? God is a place? I don’t think so.”

The idea of heaven and hell as geographic locations is strongly ingrained in North American religion. It is depicted not only in sermons and religious tracts, but also in the songs, jokes, and cartoons of popular culture. Just think of all the cartoons you’ve seen with St. Peter at the “pearly gates”.

That’s not a new thing. Learned Christians have been trying to correct this false idea for more than 1,600 years. While browsing the internet recently, I came across the name of a woman I’d never heard of before — Macrina the Younger (c 330–379). She was the sister of two of the most profound theologians of the early church, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. In fact, Gregory called his sister Macrina “the Teacher”, acknowledging her powerful influence on his life.

When Macrina was still young, she and her mother founded a religious community on the family estate. The community became famous not only as a place of prayer and study but also as one vigorously engaged in corporal acts of mercy. She was passionately concerned about the poor, the sick, and the disabled; her convent was a place of refuge for desperate women and abused prostitutes. Her ideas about a Christian religious community were incorporated by her famous brothers into their rules, which remain standards in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day.

Gregory described how Macrina taught each of her family members in turn. On her deathbed, Macrina taught her brother about apokatastasis (what a wonderful word!). This is the doctrine that God will eventually restore the entire creation to harmony and righteousness. She understood that God would restore every creature.

Popular belief at that time depicted hell as an inn below the earth for disembodied souls rather than a place of torment. Instead, Macrina taught her brothers that hell is not a place, but a process.

She dismissed those who taught on the basis of a few references in Scripture that hell was a place. When Paul writes in Philippians 2:10 that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”, Paul never intended it to mean that heaven and earth were places just as the earth was a place. Rather, she said, Paul wanted to convey that “when evil is blotted out by the long period of the ages, nothing will be left except the good beings, and that among them, there will be agreement in the lordship of Christ.”

For Macrina, God’s restoration is a process of healing and renewal for all the earth and all its creatures. She had a wonderful vision of full and complete renewal. God’s purposes are wrapped in love and compassion, for the healing of all beings and of all of creation.

We desperately need this strong emphasis on grace and compassion today. There are too many Christians who imagine that the world will end being destroyed by God. They have focused on this end–time destruction as if that were God’s plan from the very beginning. It is as if they find some kind of comfort in the claim that the enemies of Christian faith are destined for a terrible place of eternal punishment and torment.

But Macrina helps us see that it just ain’t so. God’s purposes are not destruction, but renewal and restoration. Furthermore, we live in an increasingly smaller world. We can no longer divide the world into “us” and “them”, even though many still do. We are far more aware of the virtues of those who hold other faiths, and we are becoming more aware of our own errors and arrogance.

Macrina speaks a word which is desperately needed — apokatastasis for today. One of the church’s first female theologians offers much to the contemporary church. Apokatastasis may offer modern Christianity a way in which we can love creation even as we seek God’s help to protect and restore it, and to unite with those who believe differently as fellow sojourners on the way to restoration and renewal.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook