Thomas Talbott begins his analysis of damnation and universal restoration by presenting us with three propositions:
(1) All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.
(2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.
(3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 38)
Each of these propositions enjoys support within the Christian tradition. #1: The universality of God’s salvific will has always been affirmed by Eastern Orthodox, modern Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Arminian Protestants. #2: The decisive triumph of God’s salvific will was affirmed by Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and, in a different way, by St Augustine of Hippo in the fifth. Today support for the proposition is largely restricted to Calvinist and universalist circles. #3: Belief in the eternal damnation of sinners has characterized ecumenical Christianity since the sixth century.
One immediately notes the logical inconsistency of the set. One can reasonably affirm two of the propositions; but one cannot affirm all three without contradiction. If I believe that God genuinely loves every human being and desires their eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm the eschatological triumph of God’s salvific will. If I believe that God will effectively bring his elect to eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm that his love intends every human being. And if I believe that God loves every human being and that every human being will be effectively restored to eternal life, then I cannot logically affirm the eternal damnation of some.
Talbott acknowledges that not all Christian theologians consistently think through the logic of their respective evangelical claims:
Now a good way to classify Christian theologians and their theological systems, I want to suggest, is according to which of our three propositions they finally reject. Of course, a theologian could always remain a skeptic on this question, but such skepticism would tend to undermine the entire discipline of systematic theology and is virtually nonexistent, therefore, among traditional theologians. Instead of skepticism, however, we sometimes do find a kind of subterfuge: a theologian may embrace, clearly and emphatically, two of the propositions and then try to waffle on the third, either by redefining a crucial term or simply by pretending to hold the third proposition in abeyance. Someone who embraces our first two propositions, for example, may try to ignore the third or to dismiss it with the comment: “The ultimate fate of the wicked is a mystery to be left in the hands of God.” Another may reject proposition (1), which states that God sincerely wills or desires to reconcile all sinners to himself, and then try to identify some artificial sense in which we can still say that God offers salvation to all. But the fact is that a theologian must reject at least one of our three propositions; and when we look carefully at a given theologian’s writings, it is usually rather easy to say which one the theologian in fact rejects. (p. 41)
If you think of yourself as a hopeful universalist, you find yourself in an awkward position at this point. You of course emphatically affirm the universality of God’s salvific will, and though you would also like to reject the eternal damnation of one or more human beings , you do not feel that you can, either because of the dogmatic commitments of your church or because of the ambiguities and conflicts that you see in the biblical witness. Hence you announce a policy of agnosticism regarding both propositions #2 and #3. If, as you hope, hell turns out to be empty, then proposition #2 will also be validated. This stance has the advantage of theological modesty (and is thus more likely to sneak by the dogma-censors), but it’s too wishy-washy to preach well, and it’s certainly not going to ignite anyone’s evangelical passion. It lacks both the power of unconditional promise and the existential sobriety of perditional threat.
Which one of the above propositions do you deny?