Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading Thomas Talbott's book, The Inescapable Love of God. I'm not really obsessed with the question of universal salvation but it does form part of my Christian faith and the question has come up in my church over the past year as some others move in a more Calvinist direction. So I thought I'd provide a quick review just to keep the pot boiling.
The Inescapable Love of God was first published in 1999, but has been out of print for a number of years before Talbott and Cascade Books released a second edition last year. Universalism aside the author appears to be a fairly orthodox and even conservative Protestant, perhaps in a similar mode to Robin Parry whose book The Evangelical Universalist was published in 2006 (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald) and dedicated to Talbott alongside my cousin Alex.
Yet while Talbott's influence on Parry is clear, his book is very different to Parry's. Parry concentrates on the biblical case, providing an exhaustive treatment of the various passages that relate to the subject. Talbott, who is primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian, provides a briefer summary of the biblical case followed by a more lengthy exploration of the philosophical issues involved. At the time of its publication Talbott had already been arguing for Universalism for some time through journal articles and other short works, and the book serves in part as a more detailed response to his critics.
Like so many Christian Universalists, Talbott's impetus to explore the question came from his confrontation with the problem of suffering. In his case, it was a philosophical rather than a personal confrontation - as a young philosophy student he took a course in which his skeptical lecturer presented the class with a series of arguments against the existence of God, each of which they were encouraged to explore and do their best to refute. Talbott found himself stumped by the problem of suffering, and this started him on the path that led him eventually to Christian Universalism.
He starts his analysis of the question by presenting three commonly held foundational Christian ideas - that God loves all his creatures, that he is all-powerful and will ultimately triumph, and that some people will be redeemed while others are condemned to eternal torment. All three ideas, he says, can be plausibly argued from the Bible, but only two of them can be correct.
For Augustine, Calvin and their followers the first proposition is modified - God loves some of us, but not others. For Arminians, followers of 16th century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, the second proposition is modified - God loves all of us but we are able to thwart his will by the exercise of our own, effectively condemning ourselves to hell. For Universalists the third proposition is modified - all people will ultimately be reconciled to God.
Because all three propositions can be supported from the Bible, your interpretive procedure will depend to a large extent on where you start. Which passages will you treat as foundational, and for which will you try to find alternative explanations?
Talbott begins with one of Paul's classic statements of universal reconciliation, Romans 5:18.
Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men.
This idea is repeated in 1 Corinthians 15:22.
As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Since both these verses are paired statements, the most logical way of reading them is to see the "all men" (that is, all people) who were condemned or died as a result of Adam's sin as the same as the "all men" who were justified or made alive through Christ - that is, the whole of humanity. This was how many of the church fathers viewed the matter, including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa among others.
However, once the Empire-sponsored church of the fourth and fifth centuries imposed uniformity of doctrine it opted for the exclusivist view of Augustine and others, a view more congenial to an authoritarian Church and State which uses both physical and spiritual weapons to enforce obedience. This meant these passages had to be interpreted in a less logical way. Augustine, for instance, thought that the second "all" (but not the first) suggested all classes and nations rather than all individuals. But why? Not because it is the most logical reading, but because he (and others who came after) believed that the rest of Scripture taught that some people would be condemned to eternal torment.
Where in Scripture is this taught? Talbott addresses three passages commonly referred to by his opponents - the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord".
In relation to the two parables he points our first of all that they are parables, not literal predictions of future events. Parables are typically designed to dramatise (often through the use of hyperbole) a central point. The point of these two parables is similar. The Sheep and the Goats teaches that we should see Jesus in the most humble and needy of those around us, and hence treat them with compassion. The Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that those of us who have plenty should share our wealth with those who have nothing. The purpose of the dramatic rewards and punishments is to reinforce this message, rather than to outline the future of a proportion of humanity.
His second point is that none of these three references talk about punishment that goes on forever. The Rich Man and Lazarus simply refers to a present situation: "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed". There is no indication that this chasm can't be bridged in the future - for instance, through the death of Christ.
The other two passages are more problematic - 2 Thessalonians refers to "everlasting destruction" while The Sheep and the Goats refers to "eternal fire". Talbott's argument is that the Greek word aionios, translated "eternal" or "everlasting", does not mean something that goes on forever. It means primarily something that comes from and belongs to God. Hence the prevailing English translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is misleading - it would be more accurate to render it as referring to the "destruction (or punishment) that comes from God". For Talbott (and he says for Paul) such punishment is redemptive, a destruction of what is evil in us so that we can present ourselves before God with a cleansed conscience.
There are many more passages Talbott could have referred to but these are enough to illustrate his point. Once you accept the clear universal intent of passages such as Romans 5, it is then possible - and in fact preferable - to understand passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1 and the condemnation scenes in Jesus' parables as consistent with this intent.
The second part of the book deals with a number of issues of religious philosophy. The first is the nature of God and particularly the idea that "God is love", as articulated by John. What part does love play in God's character? Augustinian theologians often portray God as having a number of attributes - love, mercy, wrath, justice and so on. God's love requires him to have compassion on us, but his justice requires that our sin be punished.
Within this framework it is easy to slip into a picture of God at war with himself and of the Trinity as divided - the Father expressing justice while the Son expresses love. Talbott is aware that this is a caricature but this hasn't stopped it finding its way into popular piety, as shown in some of our more gruesome worship music. Talbott suggests it makes much more sense to see God's nature as simple and undivided - God's love, mercy and justice are expressions of the one character - his love is just, his justice is loving. Once we understand this it takes us away from a view of justice as retributive, towards a view of restorative justice guided by love.
This leads directly into what Talbott refers to as the "Augustinian paradox". The paradox is this - those who God elects will be admitted to God's presence to enjoy eternal bliss, while those he rejects will be consigned to eternal torment. However, we are not isolated individuals and our happiness depends on the happiness and wellbeing of others. If I am in heaven but my mother, wife or child is in eternal torment, heaven will not be heaven for me. I will be tormented every day by the thought of their suffering.
If, as we are generally taught, we will be perfected in heaven and cleansed of our sin and selfishness, our torment will be all the greater as we think of those who suffer, even if they are strangers to us. To avoid inflicting this suffering on us God will either have to hide it from us (perhaps also blotting out our memories of those loved ones - in effect, a kind of spiritual lobotomy) or teach us to enjoy it. Neither option is consistent with the character of God. Heaven can only truly be heaven if we are all there together.
These considerations apply more to a Augustinian view, but Talbott also deals with the question of free will which is central to Arminian theology. For Augustinians God consigns some people to hell. For Arminians some people consign themselves to hell by refusing God's mercy and God does not force them - as CS Lewis says, "the doors of hell are locked from the inside". Is this position logically tenable?
The key question here is: Can God save everyone, even the most reluctant and determined, without violating human free will? Talbott accepts that a certain level of alienation from God may be essential for us to become truly human - to grow up, as it were, as independent thinking beings made in God's image. However, is it essential that such alienation always be possible?
Interestingly Lewis himself talks about his own conversion in terms of compulsion - of coming to the point, with great reluctance, where he felt he had no other choice. Is this not possible with everyone? In a cosmos where God is ever-present and the veils are removed, why would anyone deny God? Even those who are reluctant or firmly rebellious, brought face to face with God and perhaps, in the extremities, sent into the "outer darkness", would eventually acknowledge God as all in all without any violation of their free will, even if there is an element of pressure and a stripping away of alternatives as happened for Lewis.
Now, as you know I'm a Universalist and I find Talbott's arguments helpful and convincing, as you'd expect. He is clear-headed and thorough in making his case, and he has honed his arguments carefully over multiple controversies. I doubt he will convince either confirmed Calvinists or confirmed Arminians but he has ensured that the debate can continue and given comfort to Universalists who frequently find themselves isolated within their churches.
However, it occurred to me that he hasn't solved his own problem. He started his journey into Universalism as a result of the problem of suffering, but Universalism doesn't solve this. Certainly it eases it a little in psychological terms with the promise of its eventual end, something neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can claim. Yet in the meantime we still suffer. I suspect the problem is insoluble, but I would love Talbott to explain how he has solved it....