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.
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.