Olson and Talbott: Is there a difference between expecting and hoping?

This will be a quick post.  My intent is more to open up a question for discussion than to advance a sustained argument.   Last week Arminian theologian Roger Olson declared that he and his fellow Arminians are “immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy.”  Olson is willing to acknowledge universalism as a valid hope; but he insists that the Arminian cannot go beyond hope because “the only possible ground for such a claim (beyond hope) is belief that God will (not can) over ride free will in the matter of salvation.”  Olson thus seems to be positing a distinction between hope and expectation.

I have been wondering the past few days about the practical traction of this distinction.  Is it, for example, a matter of probabilities?  The weather man tells me that there is a 95% chance of snow.  Hence I expect it to snow, and if I like snow, I may even hope for it—but obviously this is not what Olson is saying.

Perhaps we should instead contrast two possible immensely positive outcomes—one that has been promised by the omnipotent and benevolent God and one that has not.   Instance the topic at hand—eternal salvation.  God has promised that if we repent of our sins and turn to him in faith, he will bestow eternal life upon us.  Hence I fully expect that all who fulfill the stipulated conditions will receive the promised results.  May I simultaneously affirm that I also hope that all who fulfill the stipulated conditions will receive the promised benefits?  I think so.  After all, what is hope but faith directed to the future?   If I expect something to happen, and if I want this something to happen, then hoping for it to happen seems quite natural.  But I admit that it almost doesn’t feel quite right to use “hope” in this context, given Olson’s previous distinction between “expectation” and “hope.”  But perhaps this is just semantic quibbling.

Elsewhere in the same thread, though, Olson clarifies his meaning by invoking the category of dogma.   In response to Tom Talbott’s first comment, he replies:

At the end of the day, however, I cannot see how an Arminian, believing in libertarian free will, can assert (as opposed to hope) that all will be saved. It is a valid hope, but not one that can be turned into dogma. It is a worthy opinion, but not one that can be proved–from Scripture or reason.

Now things are getting interesting.  I asked the professor to elaborate a bit further, and this is what he said:

When I hold something as dogma I want everyone in my community of faith to believe it and will argue vociferously for it. When I hold something as hope I may argue for it but with humility knowing it’s my opinion and not based on firm evidence; it can’t be proven or demonstrated. I may hope for universal salvation but I cannot claim that hope is firmly grounded in the organic, canonical Word of God.

There’s some kind of slippage going on here between a dogmatic belief and opinion.  With the former Olson is willing to forcefully argue for its truth, presumably because it enjoys firm support in the written Word of God.  A mere opinion, on the other hand, lacks this kind of clear biblical support and therefore should not be vigorously presented.  Does that sound right?  Am I reading Olson accurately?  We can thus put aside questions like “What kind of evidence does an opinion need to qualify as a dogmatic belief?”  Olson’s distinction seems to be commonsensical enough.   We can also put aside Orthodox and Catholic concerns about what makes dogma dogma.  Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that the testimony of the Bible alone establishes dogma. But that is by the by.  We want to accept Dr Olson’s arguments on their own terms.

Let’s now come back to Olson’s insistence that universalism can only be entertained as a hope but not as an expectation that flows from revealed truth.  Olson’s “hope” here is hardly any hope at all.  It’s more like a wish asserted against reality.  Even though the odds are vastly against me being dealt a straight flush in Five Card Stud, I may still wish for that lucky deal. I just know it ain’t ever going to happen to me or to anyone I know in my lifetime. This ain’t the movies. So what’s the point even in hoping for one?  I’d be satisfied with a pair of kings.

But Tom Belt zeroed in on the real flaw in Olson’s argument:

When Olson says, “Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy,” he is taking love to imply things it needn’t imply. Divine love for us may very well imply our being libertarianly free with respect to some possibilities. There’s an argument to make for that. But Olson takes it further when he says divine love for us requires that freedom include the power to self-determine irrevocably out of all possible Godward movement. But love implies no such thing, at least not obviously. Rather than securing that kind of absolute freedom for finite creatures, I should think love precludes it. That’s the more intuitive/commonsensical notion of love and freedom.

Olson seems to believe that the only alternative to libertarian freedom is some kind of determinism or invasive manipulation.  But as Tom points out, all infinite Love needs to do is to keep on wooing and waiting.  God has all the time in the world.  Hence it is reasonable for us to hope, really and confidently hope, that all will be saved. Olson’s argument only acquires persuasive force if God has set an arbitrary cut-off point, such as death, beyond which God will no longer actively work to secure the conversion of the impenitent; but either Olson forgot to mention this as another of his dogmatic beliefs, or he has improperly imported it into his understanding of divine freedom.

Hence when Dr Thomas Talbott proposes that God can save all without in any way violating anyone’s personal integrity, Olson lacks a convincing retort.  Talbott’s words:

Now it is theoretically possible, I gladly admit, for sinners to separate themselves from God as far as is metaphysically possible short of annihilation (in the outer darkness, for example). It is also possible for them to cling to their illusions and to various forms of self-deception. From these possibilities alone, however, it simply does not follow, so far as I can tell, that minimally rational agents, those capable of acting in moral freedom, could both separate themselves from God in the way just described and do so without shattering the very illusions that made such a choice possible in the first place. And that, I believe, opens up a very natural route from Arminianism to Christian universalism.

All Talbott’s proposal requires is the refusal of God to abandon his creatures.  There’s no need for him to override the free-will of anyone. Or as Talbott puts it:   “I hold that God has no need to interfere with human freedom in order to guarantee a glorious end for each of us; he need only permit us to experience the very condition of separation (the logical limit of which is the outer darkness) that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves.”

If I were scoring a debate, Talbott has won hands-down—and he hasn’t even gotten started yet.

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12 Responses to Olson and Talbott: Is there a difference between expecting and hoping?

  1. Dominic says:

    I am uncertain about Olson’s view of the afterlife and the nature of damnation, but supposing we accept the common account nowadays that hell is simply sinners separating themselves from God by an act of their freewill, it seems that libertarian freewill can be compatible with universalism given the following premises.

    (1) God’s love is permanently opened even to the damned into his divine fellowship.
    (2) Those so called unto his divine fellowship would never fall again.
    (3) Libertarian freewill implies that at any given moment in “hell”, it is possible for the damned to choose to be reconciled back to God.

    Thus given these three premises, eventually hell would be empty as over time all possibilities would be exhausted and eventually everyone would have “chosen” at some point in time in hell to be reconciled and once they have chosen so to be there forever. I like an analogy used by a theologian about shaking a table full of coins where one side has glue on it and if you shake it long enough, eventually all coins would be “glued” downwards on the table. Likewise if at any moment it is possible for the damned to be reconciled and once reconciled they can never fall again, then given enough time all possibilities would be exhausted and everyone would be reconciled.

    The only way to reject this argument is to reject any one of the three premises. I don’t see how Olson can do that without incurring rather problematic consequences.


  2. First off, you said “This will be a quick post”–it was not. Second, some of your examples of trying to find a difference between “hope” and “expect” in the context Olson is implying are off the mark. For instance, if the weatherman tells you there’s a 95% chance of rain tomorrow, you expect rain whether or not you actually hope there will be rain. Hoping for rain would be more like if you either like rain a lot or it hasn’t rained in your area in a while–you actually try to do something to make rain happen.

    The other example you use would not even come close to what Olson is saying here. We can expect all who fulfill the stipulated conditions will merit the grace of salvation. We can hope that all will. The difference between expecting and hoping is that in one, it is going to happen regardless, in the other, you wish for that outcome to happen but cannot be absolutely certain or maybe it’s more likely that the opposite will happen.


  3. Hence it is reasonable for us to hope, really and confidently hope, that all will be saved.
    This certainly doesn’t follow from anything that seems to have been said, there or here; it appears to assume an inevitability that is never justified, and to assume that all free decisions are provisional and never capable of being presumed stable. (It’s also unclear to me how infinite wooing is not invasive manipulation — benign manipulation, perhaps, but it seems clearly to fall under the category of what we would usually call manipulation, since it involves ignoring any unliked decision and endless persuasive pressure to change it.)

    Note also that the reply from Talbott appears logically to imply that the only thing making the relevant kind of free choice possible is ‘illusions’; whereas it would be a much more plausibly Arminian position to say the reverse, that it is free choice that makes the illusions themselves possible (and this is certainly closer to what Olson has in mind). While I’m not sure that Arminianism is quite so strong a position from which to reject universalism as Olson thinks, it seems to me that you are weighing the arguments with your finger on the scale.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “This certainly doesn’t follow from anything that seems to have been said, there or here.”

      That may well be the case, Brandon. I have probably unconsciously assumed everything I have read by Talbott and Olson on this topic, particularly the former.

      But I think I will stand by my judgment that, at least according to my flow sheet, Talbott is winning the “debate.” Olson has not yet responded to Talbott’s suggestion that if anyone is given sufficient time to live into their rejection of God, they will experience such a degree of torment and unhappiness as to shatter all illusions that they can find happiness apart from God.

      Perhaps Olson can advance a critique of Talbott’s proposal along the lines that you suggest, viz., “that it is free choice that makes the illusions themselves possible.” But he hasn’t done so yet … or have I missed something in his published comments?


      • It isn’t clear to me that Olson has to have a specific response to this; his ongoing claim in the thread is that universalists cannot get universalism on Arminian principles. But as I also noted, it’s precisely at the argument that you point out that it’s at least not clear that Talbott’s assumptions are definitely Arminian; and, what’s more, making the assumption Talbott is making does not itself address Olson’s claim that no proof is possible. (Talbott does address the proof point by making a distinction between proving something and being able to show that it is necessary; Olson quite clearly thought this a potential quagmire, and so simply tried to reformulate his point in a way that would not use the word ‘proof’.) What he needs to establish in response to Olson is that the assumptions he is using are, in fact, Arminian — it’s clear he does think that, and perhaps that’s right, but it’s not something he’s shown, and it’s not obvious they are.


  4. Dominic says:

    “to assume that all free decisions are provisional and never capable of being presumed stable”.

    I think this premise flows from the concept of “libertarian” freewill which is by definition a freewill defined in terms of the possibility of choosing alternatives. Even if a will “stabilises” towards a certain regularity of choice, the possibility of choosing otherwise must be permanently open for one to retain libertarian freewill. If one were a “soft” determinist one can affirm that both a will is free and that it is somehow determined towards a single course, but that is another issue altogether. The other alternative is to say that in the afterlife everyone loses their libertarian freewill and the possibility of choosing otherwise is non-existent after the Judgement.


    • It certainly does not follow from libertarian free will, which is about possibilities and does not of itself commit one to any position on presumptive stabilities or even probabilities of action. Libertarian free will is a fairly minimal constraint, beyond possibilities, and has always been formulated in such a way that it is consistent with habits, virtues, vices, and addictions — all of which can be argued to create presumptive stabilities. It is possible, in libertarian free will terms, for me to leave all my obligations and responsibilities behind, just walking out and never coming back. But there is nothing about this possibility that conveys any information at all about the ease or difficulty I would have in doing it, nor about whether it is consistent with my developed character or would require violence to it, nor about whether it becomes more or less likely as time goes on, nor about whether doing it is something I could do all at once or would have to steadily work up to doing over a period of time (or, if so, how long a period of time it would take), etc., etc. Nor does it convey any information about whether I can continually rule it out as a possibility on the table for my decision-making — because libertarian free will only says the option is open, not that I ever have to consider it seriously.


  5. Mike H says:

    “All Talbott’s proposal requires is the refusal of God to abandon his creatures.”

    This sums it up pretty well, and this is the impasse.

    From what I’ve seen and heard, there is ALWAYS a point and form in Arminian theology in which God abandons his creatures. I’d never considered that this abandonment be an act of and consistent with “love” but that does seem consistent with the overall theology – and there is one of those points where the conversation can’t go much further. Isn’t that a good way to sum up the disagreement – it’s about differences over the nature and extent of love? Everyone could lob individual bible verse grenades back and forth, but it’s really just a way of forming a coherent picture of God’s love.

    They differ on when and how this abandonment might happen. For some, free will is taken away at the moment of death (so the abandonment takes the form of removing free will). Or it could be that “holiness” kicks in at the moment of death so punishment HAS to start even thought God doesn’t want it to (the abandonment takes the form of “justice” trumping “love”. Or, the Arminian might believe that there are, indeed, an unlimited number of chances for the sinner to repent, but after so many denials the sinner has ontologically become something so lost that repentance is impossible (so the abandonment takes the form of sinners effectively killing off their free will and God refusing to sustain it).


    • brian says:


      Arminian resignation then implies that there is a limit to God’s ingenuity. I really think they sell the Holy Spirit short. Yet either man’s will and imagination can stubbornly outwit love’s intentions, or love will win.

      I’m inclined to think that the Last Judgment involves the speaking of one’s true name. One will then see the distance between one’s calling and one’s life. Yet I don’t think this is a prescription for despair, just as I don’t think there is ever any separation between God’s love and God’s justice. The discovery of one’s true name is not ultimately a condemnation, but the beginning of healing, the cauterizing fire that ends the deleterious effects of wounds (sin) and makes possible a true aim that will no longer “miss the mark.” In short, God is a God of life and he is a judge who does not imprison, but enacts true freedom. It is fallen men who can only “think justice” in juridical terms that involve eternal suffering and loss.


      • Mike H says:


        Arminian theology may be selling grace short – I really don’t know what I can say for sure anymore. And I was (more or less) raised in Arminian theology so I do feel like I understand the arguments even if I don’t necessarily understand all the terminology. But apologies if I’m not representing the beliefs accurately.

        In the end, any conversation reaches an impasse because 1) all Arminian theology that I’m familiar with holds that God WILL irrevocably abandon those who don’t repent (though there is disagreement as to what this abandonment looks like) and 2) that this abandonment is perfectly compatible with an all-loving God, even a necessity. I think it’s completely fair to use the 3 point Talbott argument to say that Arminians believe in 1) eternal hell and 2) the love of God for all people so they therefore believe that God doesn’t get what he wants. The rest is just details that will fit this framework – how, where, when. I’ve found it best to be honest about that – enough time within this theology has enabled me to pretty much gloss over when I hear a lot of talk. Maybe the Arminians are right – who knows – but I’m not afraid to admit that if they are, then my thoughts about the meaning of “unconditional love” is either so off as to be considered largely meaningless or else God’s love is very very conditional. And that’s fine, I wish they’d just stop calling it “unconditional”.

        If an Arminian does believe that free will repentance is an eternal possibility that is never ever completely gone, then there could be discussion about hopeful vs expected, etc. But as it stands it just doesn’t seem like there is much point. In my view, the Arminian view free will serves more as an explanation for evil than anything else (and that’s a compelling point). But most ultimately believe that it’s taken post mortem in some capacity – either “naturally” or directly by God. It’s true that those who don’t believe this – those that do believe that free will does continue on indefinitely – consider themselves to be hopeful universalists and not necessarily pure Arminians.

        Your thoughts above are beautiful. I do hope that you’re right.


  6. Bilbo says:

    George MacDonald offers an imaginative narrative in his book, Lillith, that might help us understand Talbot’s point. Lillith, the unrepentant villain, finally has a white-hot worm enter into her being, exposing to her mind the real truth of who she was. After a while, she begins to moan and weep, and finally repent. She cannot continue to choose evil once it is exposed and completely revealed for what it is. Our free will is grounded in the being of goodness, and cannot in the end act independently of that ground. It seems that if MacDonald is correct, in the end, Socrates is right: Evil is the result of ignorance….I hope.


    • brian says:

      Ugh. This topic is made for migraines.

      I don’t really want to enter into the question of whether Arminean views are compatible with universalism. Giant tomes have been written on freedom and it is difficult to write briefly without badly distorting a complex argument. Nonetheless, I want to throw this out as grist for the mill.

      How does a person begin to realize self-consciousness and the capacity for choice? Why is a child, cherished and cared for, more capable of human flourishing than an unfortunate feral child? The person emerges as a result of nurturing that is prior to individual choice. No one chooses to be born and many frequently wish they hadn’t been.

      So, the good of personal being does not begin in choice. Birth may very well transcend the limits of libertarian freedom.

      Further, let us say one is a dipsomaniac. One yearns for alcohol, but surely, the drunkard is not free. We say the individual enslaved to delusions or passions that destroy is not free, even if the individual superficially chooses the enslavement. The person who is incapable of being oppressed by illusions, who chooses only what is truly good, is freer than the individual who can still choose between “good and evil.”

      If parents desire good for their child, they desire the ontological good, i.e., what is truly and actually good for their child, not simply the good their child may want, even if it is a lie. So perhaps God’s respect for freedom is a respect for the full flourishing of his children. If a respect for libertarian freedom means allowing the child to continue for eternity in a destructive mode, it may be that Love does not respect it, or that the providential allowance of that “imperfect freedom” is truly destined to be ultimately vanquished by a fuller, more real freedom.

      One may object that this is “manipulative” or goes against the interior will of the individual. Yes? Perhaps not. Manipulative implies an exterior coercion. Yet Augustine and many others have stated that God is at the center of our being, that our true “selves” are known by God before we ourselves are aware of our deepest root. If libertarian freedom is tied to what the individual chooses, it may be that the individual is a “false ego” that strays from the heart’s true intentions.

      If choice is ultimately for the Good and evil is a mistaken attempt at the good, would not a fully free choice achieve the genuine Good? Libertarian choice refuses this understanding. (Bilbo, this where MacDonald’s insight comes in.)

      Even this is too simple, however. If the Triune God is the exemplar of what it means to be a person, then relations are just as constitutive of the person as “substance.” In short, a fully flourishing personhood may require all that is, every person, perhaps every rock, plant, solar system. It may be that ontological freedom requires the making new of the entire cosmos, for my liberty may require the good of all that is in order to realize the plenitude of the scope of what I “will” in my depths.

      In this sense, the arguments over Armenian and libertarian freedom may be far too limited in scope to properly envision what is actually going on when Love creates. I suggest a perusal of Pavel Florensky’s chapter on jealousy in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth where he subverts the odium associated with the term in modern times. The jealousy of God is the refusal to let any beloved persist in unrequited love.

      This could get more complicated yet again, because eschatologically, the good that is good is properly not simply the good sans evil, but a good that is “beyond good and evil” because it will transcend the kind of reality that is split between a potential good and an illusory one. It will certainly transcend a kind of ethical reasoning or a deliberation that is anxious about excess. Berdyeav writes about this sort of thing, though “everyone knows he’s a Gnostic.” (He is, a bit, but I still think he’s more right than a lot of docile, unimaginatives who never take a chance when they approach the mysterious God.)

      Benjamin Constant distinguished between “freedom for” in antiquity (I realize my liberty by engaging in civic action that allows me to serve the common good and develop excellence) and modern “freedom from” (don’t tread on me, don’t introduce “heteronomy” into my quest for autonomous liberty.) Both views, perhaps, are incomplete and imperfect. Certainly, both are stuck at the “ontic” level and do not have any sense of an eschatological completion of human personhood that cannot really be anticipated. There is no “apophatic reserve” with regards to freedom.

      This is by no means an argument. I’m just trying to give a gesture at the range of conceptual possibilities when one broaches the subject of liberty.


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