The idea of eternal conscious torment presents a picture of a God whose anger lasts forever against unrepentent sinners. And yet we see over and over in the Old Testament statements like the following:
“I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me-- the breath of man that I have created.” Isaiah 57:16 (NIV)
The NKJV rendering of this verse is interesting: “For I will not contend forever, Nor will I always be angry; For the spirit would fail before Me, And the souls which I have made.”
Is God only like this to some people (the elect) or to all people? The answer to that question seems answered by the last clause “the souls which I have made.” God made the souls of all men, not just of the elect.
Then in Psalm 103:8-9 we read: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever”.
But then we also read things like Psalm 100:5 “For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations.”
And in Isaiah 51:8 “But My righteousness will be forever, And My salvation to all generations.”
And let’s not forget Exodus 20:5-6: “for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
The punishment last three or four generations (still a long time), but the love extends for a thousand generations.
This evidence from the OT all seems to indicate that God’s anger and punishment are limited in scope and duration, while His love, faithfulness and mercy are without limit. It’s not His anger that is said to be everlasting, it’s His lovingkindness.
It’s occurred to me that one of the things Jesus came to do was to set us straight about what God is like, and to show us that God ISN’T an eternally wrathful, vengeful dictator of the universe but is a loving father, a merciful shepherd and so forth. But we’ve managed to continue to perpetuate the idea that God is eternally wrathful, angry and judgmental.
This is just a slice of the big picture of course, but I think it’s important to understand the biblical answer to the question, “what is God like?” Is God the sort of person who would allow the vast majority of humanity which He created to go into an eternity of suffering and misery with no end and no mercy in sight? More and more it just seems clear that this is not the biblical picture of God at all. In fact it looks more like false images of God from pagan religions or even from Islam. It’s the image of God that Jesus came to correct, but somehow it’s still with us. God is angry with sin, yes. But his anger is not forever. His mercy and lovingkindness, on the other hand, are forever.
I conclude that we have good grounds for hoping that all will ultimately be saved. This doesn’t take into account the explicit universal salvation verses in the NT either. But even this evidence seems like it gives good reason to infer ultimate restoration.