Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 3)

The universalist confessor faces what appears to be an insurmountable challenge—reconciling his convictions with the plain and obvious testimony of the Holy Scriptures. Traditional Christians have long believed in the real possibility of everlasting damnation because this is, so they have long believed, what the Scriptures teach. Jesus taught eternal hell. The Apostles taught eternal hell. It’s all there in the Bible. Yet this plain teaching was not so plain in the early centuries of the Church. When Origen, perhaps the greatest biblical exegete of the patristic period, unrolled the sacred scrolls, he read them as declaring apokatastasis; nor was his an idiosyncratic opinion (see John Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“). Almost two centuries after the death of Origen, St Augustine found it necessary to subject the universalist hope to lengthy criticism. He called the proponents of this hope nostri misericordes, “our party of pity,” and numbered them as “indeed very many” (Enchiridion 112). Because of their sentimentality and false sense of compassion, the misericordes evade the plain, and harsh, meaning of the biblical texts. This judgment has been reiterated down the ages ever since. When Western Christians read the New Testament on everlasting punishment, they read it through the eyes of Augustine. (Eastern Christians may substitute the eyes of the Emperor Justinian for those of the bishop of Hippo.)


Thomas Talbott devotes two chapters of The Inescapable Love of God to direct engagement with the New Testament and its commentators. He believes that the universalist hope is so plainly expressed in the New Testament, and particularly in the writings of St Paul, that we must wonder “why so many Christian theologians have struggled heroically to explain it away” (p. 49). The brevity of a blog article does not permit me to survey and summarize his exegesis of the important texts nor his critical analysis of various commentators. (Fortunately for those who are interested but do not yet have access to the second edition of Inescapable Love, Talbott’s first-edition chapter on St. Paul’s universalism is available online.) Consider, for example, this well-known verse from the Epistle to the Romans:

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. (Rom 5:18)

At face value the text plainly supports a strong universalist hope; but the important question arises: does “all” mean the same thing in the first clause as it does in the second? If one is committed to the doctrine of eternal reprobation, then the answer to this question must be no. Yet consider similar constructions found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. (Rom 11:32)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)

Given the parallelism of the two clauses in each sentence, one would expect each “all” to refer to the same class, namely, all human beings. Talbott comments:

In each of these texts, we encounter a contrast between two universal statements, and in each case the first “all” determines the scope of the second. Accordingly, when Paul asserted in Romans 5:18 that Christ’s one “act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” he evidently had in mind every descendant of Adam who stands under the judgment of condemnation; when he insisted in Romans 11:32 that God is merciful to all, he had in mind every human whom God has “shut up to,” or has “imprisoned in,” disobedience; and when he asserted in 1 Corinthians 15:22 that “all will be made alive in Christ,” he had in mind everyone who dies in the first Adam. The grammatical evidence here seems utterly decisive; you can reject it only if you are prepared to reject what is right there before your eyes. And though there seems to be no shortage of those who are prepared to do just that, the arguments one actually encounters have every appearance, it seems to me, of a grasping at straws. (p. 55)

These are strong words. Talbott, of course, is well aware that a single verse does not prove Christian doctrine; but after surveying some of the modern Reformed and evangelical commentary tradition, he questions whether those who reject the universalist reading of Romans 5:18  have legitimate exegetical reasons for doing so. Is it not possible that antecedent doctrinal or philosophical commitments are driving the exegesis?

While reading this chapter I kept wondering, what would the New Perspective folk think about this? How do they interpret Romans 5:18? Well, it just so happens that I have the commentaries of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn sitting on my bookshelf. First, Wright:

The balance he [i.e., Paul] is asserting, after all the imbalances of the previous verses, lies in the universality. Adam brings condemnation for all; Christ, justification for all. Our minds instantly raise the question of numerically universal salvation, but this is not in Paul’s mind. His universalism is of the sort that holds to Christ as the way for all. … Paul here, as usual, refers to the final coming judgment, the time when there will be wrath for some and life for others (2:5-11). The theme remains central in the coming chapters, reaching its dramatic climax in 8:1 (“there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”) and 8:33-34 (“it is God who justifies; who will condemn?”). By referring to Jesus’ messianic action on the cross (this, of course, is what the second half of the comparison in each verse has been about) in terms of an “act of righteousness” or “act of acquittal” (the word is dikaiōma, as in v.16), Paul again draws on the thought of 3:21-26 and 5:9-10. Christ’s dikaiōma in the middle of history leads to God’s dikaiōsis on the last day. What was accomplished on the cross will be effective at the final judgment. (New Interpreter’s Bible, X:529)

Not a strong argument against the universalist interpretation, if I do say so myself. On the basis of Paul’s earlier discussion of judgment by works in 2:5-11, Wright infers that Paul cannot strictly mean what he appears to say in 5:18. I wonder what would happen if he were to read 2:5-10 in light of 5:18, instead of the reverse.

Now Dunn:

With v 18 Paul at least feels able to round off the comparison between Adam and Christ left incomplete in v 12. But it is now a more carefully phrased comparison with major elements of the contrast drawn from vv 15-17. The correspondence has already become plain and Paul is in some danger of merely repeating himself. It lies in that fact that the act of one has determined the destiny of all, humankind in the mass—a typological correspondence of epochal figures in that the first man introduced the original and present epoch, while the other has introduced the ultimate and future epoch. The contrast lies in the nature of the one act and in its effect in each case: Adam’s trespass, Christ’s righteous deed; the result of the first, condemnation (as in v 16); of the second, acquittal which brings life (a combination of vv 16 and 17). Or in the terms of v 19, the contrast between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience, resulting in the many being made sinners in the first case, and being made righteous in the second. …

Here too the degree to which the two verses have been structured to bring out the parallelism between the two men raises the question of whether Paul has sacrificed precision of language for rhetorical effect. How close is the actual parallel in each case? The question arises with particular reference to the parallelism of the “all men” in v 18 and “the many” in v 19. Does the language of v 18 mean that Paul looked for everyone without exception to share in the life of the new age (“universalism”)? Even if Paul had not intended to raise this question, he could hardly deny that it nevertheless arises from the phrasing of his argument. How he would have responded to the question is a good deal less clear. On the one hand, he has already hinted that there is at least an element of human responsibility in the actual receiving of the grace which marks out the members of the new epoch (v 17), with the implication that membership of the new epoch is neither automatic nor conferred without the individual’s consent. (It is hard to imagine Paul or his readers envisaging reception of the gift of righteousness apart form the conversion they had all undergone with the concomitant exercise of faith on the part of the convert—as defined for Paul in Hab 2:4 and illustrated by Abraham in Gen 15:6). So Paul may well have meant “all men” in the sense of everyone belonging to that epoch. On the other hand, he could hardly have complained if his Roman (or subsequent) readership took the “all men” as embracing the totality of the human race in each case. Nor should we exclude the possibility that Paul, enthused by the epochal sweep of his vision, cherished the hope of such a universal salvation, however much a more hard-headed analysis may have persuaded him otherwise in another context (2:8-9). How, after all, can grace be “so much more” in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death? In Paul as in other Christians the logic of love may well have coexisted uneasily with the simpler logic of systematic consistency; according to Jonah it was not otherwise with God! (Romans 1-8, 38A: 296-297)

Dunn here offers a far superior exegesis of the text than Wright. He is taking Paul’s language seriously and therefore has to wonder whether the Apostle has stretched his language for rhetorical effect. At the same time, Dunn acknowledges the possibility that Paul may well have entertained a universalist vision. That at least is what the verse seems to directly state. But Dunn is cautious. He does not see how one can reconcile such a vision with the evangelical demand for faith and repentance. Note how he, like Wright, also appeals to Romans 2. Does not Paul warn us there will be “wrath and fury” for the wicked, and what is this “wrath and fury” but the inferno of Augustine?

But it is not at all obvious that when Paul speaks of the day of wrath, he is thinking of pure, everlasting retributive punishment. Talbott refers us to another “all” text, already cited above: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). Talbott then comments:

But where is the biblical warrant, I would ask, for thinking that divine justice requires something that divine mercy does not, or that divine mercy permits something that divine justice does not? At this point, I fear, we sometimes read our own ideas (and philosophical preconceptions) into the Bible. We think that mercy is one attribute and justice another, so we read this into the Bible; we think that God’s love is an attitude of one kind and his wrath an attitude of an opposite kind, so we also read this into the Bible; we think that God punishes for one kind of a reason and forgives for another, and we tend to picture God as a schizophrenic whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose love pushes him in another; so we again read all of this into the Bible. When we turn to St. Paul, however, we encounter a profound and vigorous challenge to this whole way of thinking. …

Paul expressed his challenge most clearly in the eleventh chapter of Romans, where he explicitly stated that God’s severity towards the disobedient, his judgment of sin, even his willingness to blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the disobedient, are expressions of a more fundamental quality, namely that of mercy, which is itself an expression of his purifying love. …

According to Paul, therefore, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgment, punishment. When we live a life of obedience, we experience it as kindness; when we live a life of disobedience, we experience it as severity (see [Rom] 11:22). Paul himself called this a mystery (11:25) and admitted that God’s ways are, in just this respect, “inscrutable” and “unsearchable” (11:33), but nothing could be clearer than his own glorious summation of the whole thing in 11:32. If the first “all” of 11:32 refers distributively to all the merely human descendants of Adam, if all are “imprisoned” in disobedience, then so also does the second; they are all objects of divine mercy as well. And if one should insist, as some have in a seemingly desperate effort to escape universalism, that neither “all” literally means “all without exception,” the obvious rejoinder is that here, no less than in Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, the parallelism is even more important than the scope of “all.” According to Paul, the very ones whom God “shuts up” to disobedience—whom he blinds, or hardens, or cuts off for a season—are those to whom he is merciful; his former act is but the first expression of the latter, and the latter is the goal of the former. God hardens a heart in order to produce a contrite spirit in the end, blinds those who are unready for the truth in order to bring them ultimately to the truth, “imprisons all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to [them] all.” (pp. 67-69)

Though not a professional biblical scholar, Talbott brings to his reading of the Scriptures a philosopher’s acuity and a precision of argumentation. Ultimately he invites us to look at St Paul and the other books of the New Testament with fresh eyes and a renewed heart.

(Go to Part 4)

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45 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 3)

  1. Father, bless.

    A good Lent to you and your readers.

    I’m struck by how similar Talbott’s argument concerning how we receive God’s mercy (“According to Paul, therefore, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgment, punishment.”) is to Fr. Romanides and Kalimiros on the energy of God. Fascinating.

    I wish the nearest copy of this book, library-wise, wasn’t 50 miles away. One to add to my wish list.

    RVW

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  2. Dallas Wolf says:

    Alexandria, Yes; Hippo, No!

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  3. Jeremy says:

    Great post, Al!

    I liked Dunn’s balanced and honest interpretation of Romans 6. Good find!

    Though it may not be relevant to universalism per say, I was struck by both Wright and Dunn’s use of the word “acquittal” in translating/interpreting Romans :18

    Wright:
    “By referring to Jesus’ messianic action on the cross (this, of course, is what the second half of the comparison in each verse has been about) in terms of an “act of righteousness” or “act of acquittal” (the word is dikaiōma, as in v.16), Paul again draws on the thought of 3:21-26 and 5:9-10. Christ’s dikaiōma in the middle of history leads to God’s dikaiōsis on the last day. What was accomplished on the cross will be effective at the final judgment.”

    Dunn:
    “The contrast lies in the nature of the one act and in its effect in each case: Adam’s trespass, Christ’s righteous deed; the result of the first, condemnation (as in v 16); of the second, acquittal which brings life (a combination of vv 16 and 17).”

    I’m not quite sure what strikes me about it, but I will have to file that away in my mind as I continue to wrestle with understanding the “atonement” – (I hate that word). Rather, what Jesus accomplished in his life/death/resurrection, or rather his incarnation.

    So, Al, while tangential to your argument, was the “one act of righteousness” of Jesus, his willingness to go to the cross, the decision in the garden of Gethsemane to say “not my will, but yours be done”, which mirrored Adam’s decision to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and evil”? Or perhaps that one decision in the garden which exemplified and encapsulated his entire life of obedience?

    Just thinking out loud here. Thanks, again, Al, for your thoughtful and articulate review, and thanks again Dr. Talbott for your awesome book and generous spirit!

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  4. Isaac says:

    I like much of N.T. Wright’s theology, and I think that he encourages Anglicans and Protestants to move in an Orthodox direction, but that was a case of unconvincing and forced exegesis. It is pretty hard to dismiss the parallel statements of St. Paul and the significance of “all.”

    When I try to imagine St. Paul’s vision in the third heaven, the thing I always imagine is that he was given a glimpse of universal reconciliation, including especially the reconciliation of his Jewish brothers, who he was willing to suffer hell for if it could somehow save them.

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    • Isaac says:

      On a related note, this short video features Bishop Wright discussing heaven and hell. He briefly mentions universalism at the end. I don’t know if it is germane to the conversation, but it explains why he won’t read St. Paul through a universalist lens.

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  5. Jeremy says:

    So Wright says he is not a universalist because that would mean the choices in this life wouldn’t matter? Not sure where he gets that from…

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    • Jeremy says:

      Perhaps Wright has in mind what some call “Ultra-universalism”, where there is no consequence for sin, and “hell” or “gehenna” are strictly bypassed because of the work of Christ, as opposed to a “purgatorial universalism”, which I think is the more common and coherent view, where the purgatorial fires of God’s presence are used by God in the salvific process.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I don’t think I’ve ever met a Christian ultra-universalist, except perhaps at funerals, when everyone, including the preacher, appears to become one. 🙂

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        • Jeremy says:

          True… 🙂

          From what I’ve read, so-called ultra-universalists sometimes believe that all God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus in our place, (in a PSA kinda way)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Take a look at at this critique of universalism by a young N. T. Wright: “Towards a Biblical View of Universalism” (Themelios 4 [1979]).

      And here’s an even earlier article: “Universalism and the World-Wide Community” (Churchman 89 [1975]).

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      • Mike H says:

        Right off the bat I see a few points where further discussion could be had.

        #1 – “There are two Biblical ways of looking at salvation. One says that only Christian believers will be saved; the other says that all men will be saved.”

        Oversimplification. Isn’t it precisely the belief of (most) universalists – when one really examines the beliefs – that all men WILL BECOME “Christian believers” (leaving out the complexities of what a “Christian believer” is for a moment)? This seems to be a MASSIVELY important point. And this highlights one of the major differences between the (hopeful) universalist and the rest of the crowd – the nature of “final” punishment/the degree of post mortem repentance. If there is a final point at which God irrevocably abandons his creatures (which is what Wright claims is clear), whether that be physical death or afterwards, then a key pillar of universal reconciliation falls.

        #2 – “More important for our purpose is the fact that the great majority of the ‘hard sayings’, the passages which warn most clearly of eternal punishment, are found on the lips of Jesus Himself.”

        #3 – Wright uses non-universalist texts to trump universalist texts, but thinks that doing it the other way around is illegitimate. He demonstrates a clear recognition that “plain readings” aren’t so plain, and he has a particular hermeneutic to explain them. He picks and chooses where things are literal, where things are exaggerated for effect, etc the same as universalists do. No way around it.

        Putting aside doctrines of biblical inspiration for the time being (as Wright does) what is clear to me is the importance of the word/implications of “eternal” in the 1st two points above. If the word “aionian” does mean “eternal” in an endless time sense, then universal reconciliation has an uphill battle IMO. But it’s precisely the contention that aionian does NOT mean “endless time” that makes these passages less clear rather than plain and obvious. And if I may vent for a moment, I find it to be utterly shocking that we humans could be left in a situation where (legitimate, IMO) contention over the definition of a single word, “aionian”, could leave us in such existential doubt and despair.

        I wonder how much (if at all) Wright’s views have changed since this was originally written – how developed was his narrative/historical framework at that point? He sounds like Piper at times.

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      • Mike H says:

        I’ve also seen some writing (I think from the New Perspective crowd) suggesting that the “all” references, particularly in Romans, are a reference to people groups and that individual salvation simply isn’t the purpose. So it’s not “all individuals”, nor is it the “all kinds” of the limited elect crowd – it’s more like “both” when referring to Jews/Gentiles as a whole, and it’s a treatise about how they’re made into one people. I’ve been trained for so long to view Romans as a treatise on individual salvation that it’s hard to see it as anything else, but I often suspect that there is a more communal/societal perspective than is permitted in modern theology. I’m not sure that I buy that or that one can separate people groups from individuals, but worth throwing out there.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Mike, I recall reading such an argument, and my guess is that it was Tom Wright; but I do not recall where I read it. Perhaps in the same commentary from which I quoted but simply a different page.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I suppose then that Rom 5:18 would then read something like: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all human beings, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all human beings, Jew and Gentile, who enter into the Church through baptism and faith”—thus restricting “all human beings” in the second clause to the baptized.

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          • Mike H says:

            Seems reasonable. I can’t say that I’m very familiar with that particular way of looking at Romans though.

            I might say that the end part about the restriction to the baptized is unnecessary. Not because it couldn’t be inferred, but because the particular paradigm says that Romans is more about the religious walls between people groups being broken down. It seems that an emphasis of Paul was always that faith in Christ didn’t necessitate that one become a Torah observing Jew. It becomes more about people groups and the destruction of laws and customs that keep them apart rather than about individuals. The “all were condemned” is to say that these people groups aren’t as different as they think they are. So while all “individually” have indeed sinned, that’s really not the point in this particular case. Or so the reading goes. One wonders why he couldn’t have just said “both” if that’s the point Paul wanted to make.

            Anyways, I hesitate to say much since I’m not very familiar with it. I could be way off.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Or perhaps this would be the meaning intended: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all human beings, Jews and Gentiles, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all human beings, Jews and Gentiles (i.e., those who enter into the Church through baptism and faith).”

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        • That is one of the defences and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong in some cases. The problem is that what some people do is to jump to a conclusion based on some proof texts without actually paying attention to the particular verse they’re actually studying. So some will be trying defend a non-universalist position in a verse like Romans 5:18 by pointing out that the word ‘all’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘all’. They’ll point out a verse like Acts 19:10 where it says that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (which doesn’t necessarily mean that every single individual did) or where it says elsewhere that “money is the root of all evil”, when it really means ‘all kinds of evil’ or ‘a lot of evil’. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that initially – in fact it’s perfectly legitimate to point that out.

          The issue occurs when people basically point out two verse like that and then go “therefore this verse in Romans/1 Corinthians doesn’t support universalism.” It’s the leap they make from it being possible to it being definite and it’s quite an annoying leap as well.

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          • AR says:

            Johnny, one answer to that is that when interpreting scripture, one must interpret it first as literature. When reporting the news or making a proverb, ‘all’ as a word suffers the same fate as every other word; it is subject to acceptable forms of exaggeration. Paul’s closely reasoned theological argumentation is another form of literature and we expect words to be used differently.

            I think there’s an unconscious sort of assumption that’s made when reading scripture – that inspiration, whatever it is, or that being a religious book, means that every word is used absolutely. When in fact, it’s far more likely that Paul means ‘every person’ in his argument than that Luke means ‘every person’ in his report.

            However, I always read the thing about shutting up in disobedience this way: In order to save all families of the world, God had to give his religion only to the Jews for a time, thus effectively confining the rest of the world to their condition of being ignorant of God’s will. (This corresponds to his sermon in Acts about God “winking at” times of ignorance.) But why? Not because he doesn’t care about everybody – it was just so that the Jews could eventually produce Mary, and thus Christ, which was the only thing that could open salvation to all, both Jew and Gentile. Thus, God’s seemingly preferential treatment of the Jews turns out to have been for the benefit of everyone.

            It’s not that I you can’t be a Universalist while reading this verse, but to see it as a direct argument for God sending people to Hell only to save them later is to ignore the flow of the whole book, I think.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In Surprised by Hope, Wright presents his present views on the subject. From what I can tell, he has simply restated the free-will defense of hell that C. S. Lewis presents in The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain. He writes:

      When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around … My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of the body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful country side, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.

      Can a human being cease to be the image of God, cease to be human? I guess that is the big question.

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      • Jeremy says:

        Yeah, Wright seems to just be regurgitating Lewis. Methinks his book would be better titled “Surprised by Lack-of-Hope”. His view underestimates God’s grace, God’s love, and over-estimates free-will, (as do many Arminians). They misunderstand fallen humanity to be free, when then are really in a state of quasi-freedom. Jesus comes to free us from sin.

        Its as if (and you’ve blogged on similar issues before) that they forget that God is our creator, and think that we were created by Satan or created by some sort of neutral God. They forget that we were made for God, and that our image-bearing, though distorted, is the deepest part of who we are. That, I believe, is God’s trump card. He made us for him, not for sin. As Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”.

        Seems to me that Wright (and others) really cling to that hard cut-off of our death at which God runs out of option, and he has to accept our “freely chosen fate”. I guess that’s one way of interpreting things…but all things considered, a far less persuasive, far less glorious, far less fitting way of viewing the workings of our Amazing God. He does hold the keys to death and Hades, by the way….

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        • brian says:

          Well stated Jeremy.

          I like Wright . . . and Lewis is a foundational figure going back to my childhood, but I think they’re simply wrong here. My sense is that one isn’t going to find a conclusive argument through biblical exegesis. What Talbott and Robin Parry and others have shown is that a plausible case for Christian universalism can be made. The work of Ilaria Ramelli has added scholarly weight to the notion that Christian universalism has deep patristic roots.

          I think the modern understanding of freedom is deeply flawed; as is the common confusion between the individual and the person. Our notions of the individual assume modern notions of freedom and metaphysical presuppositions consistent with nominalism and voluntarism. Post-reformation readings tend to read these views into scripture.

          Just from a philosophical perspective, I think one can derive a better anthropology and better conception of freedom. A biblical theology freed from these misconceptions is, in my view, more open to Christian universalism. Then one has to ask oneself which understanding of God is more persuasive globally, outside of warring proof texts, as the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

          That will always be a matter of discernment. Whatever one chooses, in this life, faith, like happiness, is a risk. We are not granted geometric certitudes. Personally, I’d rather dare with the daring of Love that is greater than any conceivable human resistance to the Good.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Someone posted this video on FaceBook today and I just had to share it. I chuckled when the preacher declared, “If you take a text out of its context, what is left is con.”

    I don’t feel dismantled, though. 🙂

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    • Father Gregory says:

      Funny – I dare say ironic – to hear Joseph Prince denounce a religious “con.” Be that as it may, he does provide an excellent example of how a preexisting “paradigm for reading” determines what is seen in a text. Of course this was already noted by Tom Talbott in the book when he explains how different theologians explain why they reject one of Talbott’s statements (the previously mentioned triad) and how they harmonize the apparent Scriptural support for the statement rejected with the apparent Scriptural support for the statements that are accepted.

      I am also not feeling particularly dismantled …

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  7. Old-souled guardians of order worried about the good of society are perhaps not the most sympathetic readers of a young-souled merkabah mystic enraptured by a post-Resurrection vista of the cosmos.

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  8. In ‘Discipline and Punish,’ Michel Foucault rightly argued that Western social order now relies less on spectacular intimidation (eg the elaborate public execution described in the opening pages) than on subtly induced self-discipline that feels like private choice but achieves public compliance. Perhaps the old souls of the future will see that the disciplinary possibilities of a contemplative universalism better fit the society that we have become. They may then read St Paul with less anxiety than a bishop harrying insurgent heretics or an emperor issuing a code of laws.

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  9. Grant says:

    NT Wright has been a massive influence for me, and the historian approach (having a background in history myself) is something I feel very at home in, and providing the direction to understand Lord Jesus, the early Church and the New Testament within it’s 1st century context and cultures, and it’s something I’m grateful for, particularly helpful is placing the terms Kingdom of God/heaven in it’s 1st century Jewish context and hear that (and other connected implications) rather than the meanings given to such terms later on and anachronistically read back into text, to support a quite different conception of reality and an approach to life and creation that follows from that, and an understanding of apocalyptic language and imagery and their use of investing current historical events and situations in time and space with their theological meaning and interpretation (which is why I don’t take it as obvious that Jesus in the synoptics directly talks or touches the state of people in the resurrection at all), and on strongly bringing home what the resurrection of the dead meant in the ancient world, it always meant bodies and a coming out through and beyond death into immortal bodied life (and therefore today, his often repeated statement that it meant life after life after death, or heaven being nice but it isn’t the end of the world), and the vision of the rescue, renewal and freedom of this earth, this universe from decay and futility (where the dimension of heaven already present joins and united with the dimension of earth, heavenly Jerusalem coming done to earth in St John the Divine’s vision in the Apocalypse), not the end of this world, but it’s saving and completion, and a reminder that this world is our home, and always will be in the future. And the implications that this eschatological reality inaugurated in Christ fully already (together with his thoughts and working out of Jesus as Lord of the world now) has for our lives and approach to others and creation now (given the full continuity between our embodied lives now and the future, and creation now and the future, giving the importance to such phrases as Paul’s ‘your body is the Lord’s, and will be raised by Him’, that how we live and respond now carries on through and is completed then). And with that full agreement with his stance against the use of phrases such as ‘going to heaven’ or similar heaven and hell language among Christians of all persuasions as it seems to always bring with it a concept of reality of being saved to leave this world behind, and go to some otherworldly, disembodied reality elsewhere, in which living in this world is incidental and just a place to wait awkwardly after baptism until death and awaited freedom just try spend time preparing for it (good works and holiness’s value then lies solely in relation to this) and away from the old shabby world and the better disembodied ‘plan b’ world (which then conditions how we see and interact with this world). It becomes very anti-creational in many areas in practice if not word, and is something in which resurrection fits awkwardly and is usefully translated as a meaning just ‘the afterlife and going to heaven’ which is the exact opposite of what resurrection means (that meaning given to going to heaven just is a way of describing death, not it’s defeat). And even when heaven is used to attempt to describe the resurrection and renewed creation it both puts readers/hearers in the wrong frame of mind and takes allot of work and exposition to bring that conception and worldview into their minds (which remains constantly being militated against by the very us of going to heaven and the image this phrase brings to mind) and in many presentations the renewed world still often ends up being when discussed as some form of the timeless, almost non material reality that our reality morphs into (combined with other phrases like the ‘end of time’) so in practice it remains the same conception as former use of going to heaven or heaven and hell, not always but usually (with the same implications on terms of attitude and view to others and creation around us, and what we do with our lives now). And I fully agree with him that such language can’t really be rehabilitated and it is better to talk in terms of resurrection and new (renewed) and freedom of creation and so on.

    All of that long preamble was to say that that is one of the major points arising from his Resurrection and the Son of God and the popular presentation of those ideas (under his Tom Wright handle) in Surprised by Hope and on the whole was focused on that larger picture and doesn’t talk to much on the fate in the resurrection of those who might be lost. He often slightly bemoans the fact that it is such an intense focus in some areas of the Western world (particularly though not exclusively in parts of the US, though it certainly occurs elsewhere) where people want to know exactly who is in and out, how ‘hot the flames of hell is’ etc, particularly when coming from parts of the world so prosperous compared to others in the world living in real hell right now, often strongly held in place there by the very chains of economic slavery our consumerism and debt hold them in to sustain our prosperity. As such I do sympathize with this objection though I think the basic question of the destiny of all humanity (and all the persons in it is more important then he sometimes addressed, which I’ll get to below).

    Where he does address it (such as Surprised by Hope) he does follow that passage with a reference to the leaves of healing for the nations as giving a hint of a larger hope than for humanity after the completion of the resurrection of the dead in the renewed world and stands against being able to know those currently outside Christianity who will enjoy or enter into the full life of the age to come in the resurrection and beyond. However he is firm in his resistance to affirming universalism in any form (possibly besides that of hope perhaps, through I may be reading to much into him here). This makes it somewhat difficult to place his view in an exact category, he is perhaps similar to a hopeful universalist in many respects but with a more strongly affirmed doubt in the negative that places him just outside, and as has been observed places him in a similar view in this aspect, even if strongly different in others, to that popularized by CS Lewis, including the view that people in this situation become once-people who won’t be possible to pity as they no longer be human. This, though it is though given in an attempt to avoid the image of the concentration camp in the middle of the lovely garden, does not to my mind do away with it but makes it even more troubling. The whole ethos behind concentration camps and similar areas is that it was a desolate place of degradation and extreme dehumanization for those declared sub-human to whom even pity cannot be extended. And what is lightly suggested doesn’t seem to avoid that picture but flies straight into it, painting an aspect where that line of thought comes into full effect and generates beings in the future living in the renewed and completed creation in which God is all in all and His glory covers the earth as the waters cover the sea in which these once people (like Morlocks in HG Wells Time Machine, or the orcs in Tolkien’s imaginary pre-Christian pagan mythology for England were to the Elves) are around confined in a part of reality, suffering their state and not having or given love nor ever pity, seems a picture of horror and evil to me, not really when really thought out much better than the image of God torturing people forever to demonstrate His justice somehow (a view that blasphemously enslaves God to sin and death, and who requires it to fully display His nature and exist). Though I don’t think it is Wright’s intention it seems to lead to the very picture he desires to avoid.

    It also flies into the exposition he provides from Paul, where the judgment of God and it’s rescue is seen in the Cross and resurrection, enacted in announcing in word, action and life the gospel in which the new order of things found in the now arrived Lordship of Jesus over the world, manifested through the Church in service and sacrificial love, culminating in defeated death being destroyed at the Lord’s appearing through the completion of the resurrection of the dead and the renewal and freeing of creation in Christ and God being all and all (as in 1 Corinthians, Romans and elsewhere) is then denied here. If there are beings no longer human (or if they are annihilated) death us fully destroyed, but very much in existence and having achieved complete victory in some areas, destroying those in the image and likeness of God. The ultimate iconoclasm, and blasphemy against God and goodness of creation and life, and in contrast to Wright’s exposition and interpretation of Paul, the Gospels (and Acts) and Revelation in everywhere where he doesn’t deal with universalism directly. It leads to as above, awkward moments in which he has to read into Paul’s argument so that it can’t mean all things, people and beings (where Dunn is rightly more cautious).

    It is difficult to fully understand the feeling of needing to deny the universal implications of his own work (which would fit Orthodox expositions of universal restoration as seen in St Gregory of Nyssa or St Issac the Syrian or Origen – whom he admires etc) except there seems a strong commitment from reformed influences in his past to see such as not orthodox belief and to only see universalism as only one which avoids true and hard reconciliation and therefore justice (when this true forgiveness and healing between all would be the only true life and freedom and couldn’t come besides that honest changing of mind and orientation of being to participate in the Life and love of God in the Messiah now or the new (renewed and transfigured) creation. Even stranger given his exposition of seeing justice in terms of the Cross and the rescue and reconciliation in Christ of all things. That when the gospel is announced and acted that is the judgment of God revealed and therefore His promised rescue of creation through humanity, of people being put right so that through them things are put to rights in creation, and when forgiveness and love is given and responded to with reconciliation (as with Philemon and Onesimus) is where judgment and it’s rescue is seen, a healing and restorative justice that truly heals and puts things right culminating in the resurrection. To me that creates a sense of justice at odds with the one he invokes in the end as the reason to stand against universalism in this sense (that of St Issac for example) and seems contradicted to me by his own interpretation and it’s full implications, it seems to put to and necessitate universalism to me.

    And a final word to the understandable reluctance to address the question of the final fate and nature, while I definitely agree with it in some aspects it remains an important and human question in the broader context, as anyone who lost someone who wasn’t a Christian (and even opposed and negative to it) can testify. This becomes a important question which we should work to understand and one in which arbitrary cut off to God’s healing and salvation whether at death ir beyond lead to a very disturbing picture and not the gospel and image of God Wright largerly defends himself.

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    • Mike H says:

      Grant,

      A few thoughts that I had while reading your post:

      I’ve learned a lot from Wright (and Dallas Willard) about Christ and the Kingdom of God on earth/life after life after death type stuff, but it doesn’t eliminate the matters that we’re discussing here (just reiterating your own point). It might distract from them, deemphasize them, or reframe them, but it doesn’t eliminate them.

      In reference to Wright’s thoughts about the Revelation verses about the “leaves of healing” (which come after the lake of fire part), Wright sums up his view by saying:

      “But then, just when we have in our minds a picture of two nice, tidy categories, the insiders and the outsiders, we find that the river of the water of life flows out of the city; that growing on either bank is the tree of life, not a single tree but a great many; and that ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. There is a great mystery here, and all of our speaking about God’s eventual future must make room for it…. God is always the God of surprises.”

      He leaves us with……a God of “surprises”. I have no idea what that means but it seems sort of wishy washy and unlike him. Yes, I think that we should respect the Jewish apocalyptic genre of Revelation. Of course there is mystery and it’s ridiculous to think that we can extract infallible answers on all matters of our future existence, but Wright seems to have an answer for just about everything else (I truly don’t mean that to sound snarky).

      Good (and tough to read) thoughts on Wright’s views of final judgment. The view of “no torture chamber in the middle of paradise” does initially sound good, but it ends up being little more than a glittery distraction from what’s going on elsewhere. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” The Story culminates with a countryside full or resurrected former humans who may not suffer in perpetual literal fire, but are tormented, hopeless, beyond pity and utterly abandoned nonetheless. I think it’s best to acknowledge that rather than pretend not to see it. This isn’t to debate the truth of it or not, but I refuse to gloss over it as if it isn’t tragic or is at least at odds with the vision that “Christ will be all in all” and that sin and death are defeated.

      It really is tough to see any kind of tenable answer to the “all” that was the original topic of this post. The answer will have to be – it obviously can’t mean “all” given verse A,B,C and/or council ruling X,Y,Z. It seems necessary that (given a verbal plenary inspiration/scriptural infallibility and/or infallible Church type starting point at least) verse trumping is going to come into play no matter what, including for the universalist viewpoint. I know that Tom T touched on that in his book – the idea that a “plain reading” will give support to all view points.

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  10. Dan says:

    A simplified Lutheran take…
    There is “objective justification” where Christ truly died for all and draws all to himself. Because of Christ all are truly righteous. Yet people reject what Christ has done for them thereby condemning themselves. When an individual comes to trust the gospel it is “subjective justification” Christ “for me.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Dan. I believe that this Lutheran view would come under what is often called the free-will construal of damnation. Of course, Lutherans also insist that faith itself is a gift created in us by the Spirit through the gospel, do they not?

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      • Dan says:

        Right. One doesn’t choose to trust in Christ. Faith, trust, is pure gift–not intellectual assent–that the Spirit brings/works through hearing the proclaimed/distributed Gospel. If one is damned it is because of his own disbelief of the Gospel. Why do some come to faith and others don’t? That would by trying to know the mind of deus absconditus which according to Luther is futile and worse. We can only work with what is revealed.

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        • AR says:

          Everyone, in this view, starts out in the not-believing category. The pre-damned, as it were. God gives faith to some and not to others, for reasons we can’t fathom and aren’t supposed to wonder about.

          I used to believe that. I had to face the possibility that I myself did not have true, effective faith and would never be given it. That perhaps my creation, my existence, was for the purpose of God glorifying himself, not by my salvation, but by my damnation – to show his righteousness and justice. After all, he had to have someone on which to demonstrate that holy and adorable attribute of his.

          Still, even after the inside-out dark ecstasy of offering myself for eternal damnation, if that would glorify God, was spent, my rational side kicked in and I DID find myself wondering, even if I wasn’t supposed to…. why did God save so many fewer than he damned, especially if he had the power to save them all… did he have some kind of preference for damning people as opposed to saving them? That was against all the doctrine, but…

          Then one day as I parked my car and looked out over the hills and fields behind my parents’ house, I had an apocalyptic vision of my own, suddenly bestowed and complete. I saw the final summation of all things within God’s will. I saw the Universe brought to its knees before God and everything gathered up in Christ – every creature in its place. And off to the side, in that final, finished creation, I saw a bubble of unimaginable evil – not torment, to which I had reconciled myself – but evil. A mass of people whose thoughts and intentions were only evil continually, who raged and fumed with evil, whose only bent was evil. And the more they suffered, the more evil they became, because they had been given no other way to respond to suffering. I also saw that God was the one who was sustaining that place of evil. He had prepared it, he had effectively populated it, and he was making sure it would be there forever, by means of that torment which continually increased the evil of the occupants.

          I had this vision in a brief intense flash, and then it receded, but my whole soul had already risen in revolt. As I sat dumbstruck in my car I knew that it was over – I no longer believed in that God and would have to find Someone Else to believe in.

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  11. What I think is interesting to point out is that Dunn is approaching this from a Methodist (hence, Arminian) perspective and Wright is approaching this from a Reformed Anglican (hence, Calvinist) perspective. I wonder if that is partly what shapes their views on the subject. I am also wondering what councils they accept. I think some Evangelical Anglicans accept just the first four so it seems that for both of them, their objection to universalism would have to stem directly from their Biblical convictions.

    As an Evangelical, I was always told to not go down the universalist path since that is completely un-scriptural. But we didn’t accept any creeds though in my Evangelical churches. I think the Methodists and Evangelical Anglicans are more creedal than other Evangelicals. (But I would need to double-check on the Methodists.)

    Out of curiosity, do you know much of Madeleine L’Engle’s comments on universalism if she even states them? I think that she was a universalist and an Episcopalian. (Incidentally, L’Engle was also influenced by George MacDonald.)

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    • brian says:

      I loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was a child. I’ve only read a few other of her works. I had not heard she was a universalist, but apparently she was. Various Christian bookstores refused to carry her books because of it. Good for her, and shame on them.

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      • My mom was reading me the first section of one of her books recently. L’Engle was commenting on something Sartre said about being. I was thinking, “WOW, L’Engle was a genius!”

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      • AR says:

        I discovered L’Engle’s books as an adult, but I loved them, too. Not everything is of equal interest, but the time quintet is really pretty good throughout. Some of her other books are simple YA without any theological investigations being involved.

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  12. So what’s the point of avoiding sin anyway?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      How do you understand sin, Edward?

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      • LOL! Interesting question. Which “me”are you asking?

        The “me”who at age 18 would have said “Everything that’s fun and that I enjoy.”
        OR
        The “me” who at age 35 would have said “Anything that breaks God’s divine law. Those things that the Bible calls evil or wicked.”
        OR
        The “me” now who sees sin as a lack of the love of God manifested toward God and others.

        I suppose there’s a part of me that will always want to have pleasures that are entirely selfish and self-seeking, such as random sexual couplings on a weekend or light recreational drug use (marijuana). These are things I know I could still enjoy, if I didn’t have that worrisome knowledge of burning forever in the back of my mind. I’d like to say I don’t do them because I love Jesus — but that would be a rancid lie. I wish I could say that, but I can’t.

        But, take the punishment out of the equation, and why should anyone not do exactly what gives him temporal pleasure? It’s a strange life we live on this odd little planet. We are made to enjoy pleasure — from knowing and loving God, yet He is absent because of the choice of our parents in the Garden. Thus, we seek and desire other pleasures which are really a substitute, a kind of hunger for the real thing. It would be so much easier if the love of God were not only pleasurable now, but as easy to feel as the rush that a hit of marijuana gives you.

        We desire the real, we can’t find or have it, so we chase the false.

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    • AR says:

      I gather it’s discourteous, for one thing…

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  13. brian says:

    Perhaps the point is that human happiness is completed in union with God. We strive, and fail often, to reach the Good, because of the wound of sin, but our basic nature is not (as some think) so fallen as to be intrinsically depraved. As Aquinas says, “In tending toward its own perfection, everything tends towards God, for the perfections of all things are images of the divine being.”

    One should pursue truth and grow in love and compassion, because that is what the built in eros of one’s being is made for. It’s really a remedial understanding of life to think that people seek God because of a set of extrinsic rules and that one needs an absolute register of intent in terms of eternal damnation for those whose resistance and confusion ends up in sin in order to validate the actions of those who choose God.

    The happiness of escaping sin is to be fully alive; to be in sin is to lead an unhappy shadow existence. As pilgrims in this time, we experience life in chiaroscuro and being as full of equivocity. There is no way of making the sorrows and struggles and misunderstandings that ensue disappear. Those who see more clearly are precisely those who will have more compassion, more imagination, more hope that love will and should triumph in the end.
    If you are choosing God with the heart and a mind enlightened by the Spirit, you will recognize that your person is not a radically atomized individual whose full flourishing has nothing to do with what happens to another individual or another plant or animal for that matter.

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