Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God

I read The Inescapable Love of God three years ago. I do not recall how or why I was directed to this book. All I know is that I read it cover to cover and found it utterly compelling. I had been what is often called a “hopeful universalist” ever since reading Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar oh so many years ago. I found it an easy step from C. S. Lewis’s God who invites us to take a bus ride to heaven to Balthasar’s God of absolute love who has embraced every human being in the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet we live under judgment, Balthasar reminds us: while we may hope that all will be saved, we cannot claim to know that such will be the case. We still await final judgment. Okey dokey. Who was I to argue with the great Balthasar. But the distinction between hope and knowing continued to needle. It simply didn’t make sense to me at the level of proclamation and faith. Later I discovered Met Kallistos Ware invoking the same distinction.

Then I read The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D., and I found my hope for universal reconciliation growing exponentially. Such is the quiet forcefulness of his exegesis of the New Testament (especially of the Apostle Paul) and his philosophical critique of traditional formulations of eternal damnation. Is it really obvious that Jesus and his Apostles taught everlasting perdition? If God is omnipotent Love, is it really beyond his resources to effect the salvation of all, without compromising the integrity of personal freedom? If God is merciful Love, then how could his justice require the condemnation of even a single human being to everlasting torment? And what is freedom? What is justice? What is love? Talbott tackles all of these questions with precision and care. But most importantly, he presents a vision of the victorious gospel of Jesus Christ that is truly worthy of proclamation:

The gospel presents, for our consideration, a vision of God and his creation that makes one want to shout with joy, a vision that can free us from all of the fears and the guilt and the worry within which we so often imprison ourselves. That vision may not always satisfy our wishful sentiments … but it does satisfy our deepest yearnings; it may at times devastate human pride, but it could never, ever devastate human hope. It is a vision altogether worthy of being true, and that is also, I believe, an indispensable condition of its being true. (pp. 32-33)

Talbott is an academic philosopher, now retired, who was raised in an evangelical Christian family. My guess is that he would still identify himself as an evangelical, though I imagine that many of his fellow evangelicals might debate that, given his forthright universalist convictions. Holy Scripture serves as his foundational and decisive theological authority against which theological tradition must be judged. He brings to his reading of Scripture a formidable philosophical intellect. He is well aware of the hermeneutical challenges involved in the interpretation of the Bible as the Word of God.

It is with great pleasure that I take up the task of reviewing the revised and expanded edition of The Inescapable Love of God. This will be a multi-article review. I will take a look at some of Talbott’s key arguments and concerns. I imagine it will take me two or three weeks to complete the review. Look for the next installment the middle of next week, God willing.

(Go to Part 2)

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15 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God

  1. Isaac says:

    I have the book that starts with Talbott’s arguments and then is followed by counter-arguments by non-universalists, but I have not read this one so I am looking forward to reading your review before I actually settle in with a copy when I have the time to really focus on it.

    Assuming universalism is true without a doubt for a moment, I wonder why it remains shrouded and I wonder if there is something to the idea that the revealing of this view might do some people more harm than good in the short run. I assume we are dealing with variable durations of suffering in a purifying Gehenna and perhaps the certainty that all will eventually choose repentance and reconciliation may actually work to prolong their suffering because of laziness or neglect in this life. I don’t have a settled view on this by the way. I was just curious what your thoughts were on this Father.

    I should point out that conversely, it seems like at least some people are only relieved when they reach a certainty about complete reconciliation for any number of reasons including an overwhelming conviction that a person suffering forever is incompatible with a loving God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Isaac, given that you already own Universal Salvation?, I wouldn’t say that Inescapable Love is a must buy for you, as you are already acquainted with Talbott’s primary arguments. But … one can never own too many good books. 😉

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  2. Robert Manner says:

    Father Kimel,

    I am looking forward to your review. It would be helpful if you could lay out the reasoning as to how universal reconciliation preserves the freedom of the individual. If a person in this life has rejected God, what can cause us to think that this person will change his mind after death? (Cf. the Rich Man and Lazarus as to hearing Moses and the Prophets, etc.).

    The sentiment for desiring universal reconciliation is easily understood. It reflects God’s own desires and evidences love for all men. But it would be good to see clearly where the evidence comes from that individuals are more likely to turn towards God in the afterlife, when they have not done so in this life. One might imagine some number of individuals turning to God in the afterlife, but to say it will be universal is creating quite a goal to achieve. It is hard to see how freedom of the will is not forfeited, at least for some.

    Thank you for your work and for the care with which you approach such important topics.

    Robert

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Robert, in anticipation of Talbott’s discussion of freedom, please take a look at this series that begins with this post: “Who damns whom?

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Thank you for your comment, Robert, and for raising the important issue of free will, which is the main point on which my Arminian friends, who share my understanding of divine love, nonetheless differ with me. For you see, I hold that St. Paul’s pre-philosophical understanding of God’s all-pervasive grace provides a perfectly clear picture of how free will, indeterminism, and even sheer chance, if you will, could fit into a predestinarian scheme in which a glorious end for each of us is ultimately inescapable.

      I also argue in the book that, as surprising as it may at first appear, a free will theodicy of hell ultimately requires of God that he interfere with human freedom in morally inappropriate ways; hence, only universalism can do full justice to God’s respect for human freedom. I give a very condensed version of the argument in section 4.2 of my entry on heaven and hell for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is available at the following URL:

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heaven-hell/#ArgAgaFreWilTheHel

      So you could check it out there if you prefer. And because I fully appreciate how crazy my view here might at first to seem, I would of course welcome any criticism that you or anyone else might feel inclined to share.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      -Tom

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  3. Mike H says:

    Looking forward to this Father.

    I’m about 2/3 of the way through the 2nd edition of this book (never read the 1st edition). A few overall observations:

    1. Regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions, this book is exceptionally well written.

    2. Talbott doesn’t set up straw men arguments in order to knock them down. His arguments address some of the most influential names in Christian thought – historical and contemporary – Augustine, Calvin, Piper, William Lane Craig, etc.

    3. He seems to be addressing the western tradition. Orthodox readers may find his working paradigm to be a bit unfamiliar – though I can’t say that for certain. If a person is looking for arguments that address the infallibility of Orthodox doctrine etc. you won’t find it here.

    4. For a guy as sharp as he is, the book is surprisingly readable. I don’t recall running into any 12 syllable words designed to verbally bully or obscure his (or anyone else’s) arguments.

    5. Though the book is very readable, his arguments are also very sophisticated. So for me at least, it’s a slow read. His arguments are gradual and flow logically one to another, so it’s necessary to understand a point before moving onto the next. That is difficult at times though – there are points at which I had to move on.

    6. It can be a bit of a depressing read. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can only handle so much talk of eternal damnation at once. While the book certainly addresses the positive case for universal reconciliation, it necessarily addresses the case against other views of judgment. When faced head on with the implications/doctrines that generate certain views of eternal punishment, it can get dark and depressing. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the arguments (both weak and strong) and where they come from.

    Father, any thoughts as to your overall timeline on the review? Chapter or two per week type of thing? I wouldn’t mind rereading it to better follow your thoughts and review.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mike, I agree with all of your listed points. Talbott is a rare philosopher–not only is he sophisticated incisive but he writes well for non-philosophers. But one cannot rush through his book, because he is actually advancing arguments that demand our attention. That doesn’t mean that I always agree with him—I don’t even agree with myself 100% of the time—but I do believe that he is an exceptionally thoughtful and gracious writer.

      I hope to get through the series in the next two weeks. My next four days are already committed to other matters, so I do not anticipate returning to the keyboard until Monday–hence the prediction of Wednesday for the next installment. I could envision perhaps four more articles in addition to this intro.

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  4. Thank you, and I look forward to reading your upcoming review. I am off to see if our library system owns this book, and if they don’t, I will ask them to acquire it. (They have been very accommodating fulfilling my requests).

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  5. Charles Twombly says:

    Tom Talbott, whatever one thinks of his conclusions, is a modern saint. His life lends credit to his views. So happy you’ve publicized his views, Aidan.

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  6. Tom Talbott says:

    Father Kimel,

    I doubt that I could ever find the words to thank you enough for your efforts in what promises to be a lot more than a normal book review. As you point out, it is almost impossible for any two people to agree on everything, so I hope you will feel free to criticize when such criticism seems appropriate. For even criticism will be a pleasure to read when coming from such a thoughtful and articulate observer.

    -Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      One of the advantages, Tom, of being a blogger is that one is free to write “abnormal” book reviews. 🙂

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  7. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan: I do not recall how or why I was directed to this book.

    Tom: Uh, that would be me. Yes. I pushed you in this direction (back when we first met on some heretical FB discussion).

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  8. Eric McCarty says:

    “It is a vision altogether worthy of being true, and that is also, I believe, an indispensable condition of its being true.”

    This, to me, is as convincing an argument for UR as any. I find it similar to George MacDonald’s “This is too good not to be true” (paraphrase). If God is truly good, then we should expect the best of possible outcomes for His creation. Christ taught us to judge a tree by its fruit. Should we not do this with His works? Is the fruit of His hand mostly miserable in the end? That would not be worthy of Him.

    Robin Parry recently critiqued Calvinism with this type of argument which stemmed from Anselm . . .

    “One thing has always perplexed me about classical Calvinism — it so strongly insists on God’s perfection (I love that theme within the Reformed tradition) and yet it simultaneously insists on a God who is, despite their protests to the contrary, less than perfect. This is not a new criticism, but it bears repeating. Anselm insisted that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” But it seems that, in Christian terms, it is easy to conceive of a God greater than the God of classical Calvinism. ”

    Can we not carry this “nothing greater can be conceived” argument through to the fruit of the tree?

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