Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration (αποκαταστασις) that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Acts 3:19-21 (NRSV)
In many quarters of the Church today sincere Christians are raising questions regarding the rationale behind decreeing eternal punishment for temporal mistakes, for consigning human souls to unending fire as the penalty for decisions made in a fleeting life upon the earth. Though most Christians acknowledge the infinite love and mercy of God, we are often stymied when we contemplate the apparent contradiction between the God of love and the God of justice. We have been taught that there are eternal consequences for our actions and that the day is coming when the trees that produce no fruit will be chopped down and cast into the fire (Matthew 7:19). If God is just, we are prone to ask, how can unrepentant sinners share in the gift of eternal life in the Kingdom? The idea of sharing heaven with the likes of Adolph Hitler, the child molester down the street, or in some extreme cases even the folks from the other political party is repugnant to many who feel that salvation is attained by following a certain teaching or by participating in a defined set of sacraments. But for a growing number of questioning voices in the Western Church the idea of eternal punishment seems simply unworthy of God.