Apokatastasis: An Alternative Doctrine to Hell

Celtic cosmology has often been cyclical rather than linear. The pre-Christian myths of the Celtic people do not have an account of the origins of the universe or the end of time. That changed when Christianity came on the scene as there was a clear beginning and clear end to the Biblical narrative. Yet, there has always been a stream of teaching in the Christian tradition, undoubtedly at least as far back as Origen of Alexandria, which teaches a cyclical cosmology. The word used for this in Greek is apokatastasis which literally translates to “restoration.” It appears only once in the New Testament in the following verse from Acts, but it became a very important word and concept for the early Church.

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

The idea of apokatastasis likely has its earliest roots in Zoroastrianism though it also has a clear foundation in the teachings of the Stoics. It was discussed by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and other patristics. The idea that the universe will be restored implies that all things were once united in God and that the end of days is actually a return to the beginning. 

Heaven is where we come from and we are simply finding our way home. Oneness with God is not only where our journey ends, it is actually where it began in the first place. Everything finite has its origins in what is infinite. This calls the entire idea of an eternal Heaven and Hell into question, since that is not a return to the beginning at all. If everything is to be restored then what does that say about Hell? If the end is a return to the beginning then why do we have so many linear cosmologies in the Christian tradition?

My friend Michael Petrow has some great thoughts about that. Here’s a little reflection from him on apokatastasis:

What were you taught about heaven, Hell, and the eternal fate of all the people around you?

I sometimes think that Americans live in a culture that worships Hell and the apocalypse. But one of the things I LOVE about Origen’s thought, what first drew me to him, was his idea of apokatastasis. This is the notion that the entire universe and every rational being is moving toward reunion and transformation by love with the God of love who undergirds all things.

As I’ve lived and loved a little more, I’ve really become convinced that what we believe (or are taught) about the ultimate fate of the eternal souls around us really fundamentally shapes the way we treat people. I mean you can talk about loving people all you want, but if at the end of the day you honestly believe that some souls will end up in Hell forever, and that God wants it this way, how are you ever going to move beyond an “us vs them” mentality? In fact trying to love people you think are destined for eternal judgement promotes a kind of subtle insanity I think.

Whereas if you believe that all things are being healed and moving into wholeness, how can you help but live your life in accord with this idea? Wouldn’t you WANT to love all people? Wouldn’t we want to live our lives for the good of all people and the planet if we think this is not only the divine plan, but even the rhythm of nature and the DNA of the cosmos itself?

It makes me sad to think that this was once the main stream belief of many of Christianity’s most popular teachers. I wonder what our history would have been like if it had stayed this way? Perhaps we are only now evolving into a species that can even wrap our collective heads around the idea. How have these ideas shaped you? Do you see how they effect the culture we live in?

The Celtic tradition has always had a tenuous relationship with the doctrine of Hell. Many Celtic teachers have not only believed in Hell but even made it a focal point of their ministry. However, while there has certainly been a stream of teaching which follows the doctrine of Hell there has also been a stream which does not. Or which, at least, has been vocally uncomfortable about it. Below I give a few examples of this with links for further reading.

Pelagius is one such teacher who taught about Hell. Pelagius is an interesting one because he has a very positive view of human nature. Unlike later teachers influenced by Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and original sin, Pelagius believed that God genuinely wants everyone to be saved and has given us all everything we need in order to do so. So, while he did teach that Hell is a thing (he was really a biblical literalist, at least as regards the New Testament), he also had a doctrine of hope and goodness. I talk about his emphasis on hope in another article, The Gift of Hope.

Eriugena does quite a bit of fancy footwork to talk about how Hell is actually part of the restoration of all things. He does his best to do what many throughout history have done – not defy the state mandated orthodoxy while also trying to find an alternative way of seeing things. Eriugena taught that at the restoration of all things, there will be only good and evil will not exist anymore. Therefore, those who desire evil will be tormented by the fact that they can no longer do evil, and thus they will live in a sort of torment of goodness. Eriugena also talked about apokatastasis from the perspective of all of creation, not just humanity, being restored to perfection at the end of days. I delve into that a little more in the articles The Deification of all Creation and The Universe Inside You.

One of the old Irish stories of Patrick talks about it as well. In this story one of the pagan heroes, Oisin son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, comes back from a mysterious journey to the otherworld. What had felt like only a short couple of years turned out to be a couple centuries here in our world. When he returned all his friends were dead and a new religion had swept across the island of Erin. He met Patrick and they debated religion. Among the topics they discussed was the morality of a God who would send people to be tortured in Hell eternally. I wrote an article on that story called Patrick and Oisin: Remembering Our Ancestors.

Another famous Celtic story, that of Brendan the Navigator, includes an interesting scene where Brendan encounters Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus. Rather than spitting on him and hating him, as one might expect, Brendan shows pity on him and even protects him from the demons who are trying to torture him. I wrote more about that in another article titled Brendan the Navigator.

I think that the doctrine of apokatastasis has a lot to offer modern Christianity. As fear based religion is declining people are starting to feel the truth of cosmic restoration in their bones. We do not have a God of wrath and punishment but one of healing and forgiveness. As we leave behind the sins of the church in the centuries past we would be wise to leave behind the shameful doctrine of Hell as well.

People inevitably end up interacting with the world in ways that they imagine God does. Much like raising children, they do what we do more than what we say. A God who says “love your enemies” and then tortures their own enemies for eternity is bound to cause a little cognitive dissonance in people. No wonder our history is wrought with genocide and slavery.


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4 thoughts on “Apokatastasis: An Alternative Doctrine to Hell

  1. The deification of the cosmos (all that is) and mankind, is the central understanding the the Orthodox Church revolves around.
    We see things a bit different. When Christ incarnated, all created beings (previously in chaos and entropy) He united all created beings with God, simply having been incarnated as man. This is also clear in Theophany. His baptism by John in the Jordan, as he did it to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ transformed not only mankind, but all of created nature.
    Orthodoxy does not believe the so called “penal atonement through blood” Those ideas were wrongly taught and brought into the Church by Augustine.
    And while we are not allowed (in Orthodoxy) to make universal salvation dogma, at the same time the Church clearly proclaims its absolutely possibility. There is just the issue of God giving man a free nature to choose their own path.

  2. This is one of those ideas that has captured my imagination with great hope and won’t let go. Thanks for sharing Michael Peltrow’s thoughts on this and all the connections in Celtic theology. I also loved Joseph’s comment sharing the Orthodox perspective!

  3. Thank you. I listened to many stories from my Nana during tea time. She was born in Dublin, Ireland. I have carried her spirit of faith throughout my life. Your writing warms my heart and soul.

  4. That All May Be Saved by David Bentley Hart deals with this topic as well, from an Eastern Orthodox lens. While he does not go into Pelagius, he does refer to Eriugena.

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