Can Almighty God effect the universal reconciliation of human beings, while respecting their libertarian freedom and autonomy? This question brings us to the heart of Thomas Talbott’s proposal and will occupy the final articles in our review of The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott accepts the Arminian construal of freedom: “Insofar as freedom and determinism are incompatible, free choice introduces into the universe an element that, from God’s point of view, is utterly random in that it lies outside of his direct causal control” (p. 167). On the basis of this understanding, the Arminian argues that not only is it possible for human beings to embrace evil definitively and irrevocably set their wills against the divine will, but God is ultimately helpless to do anything about it. Not only is he helpless to prevent our self-damnation, given the self-imposed limits upon his omnipotence, he is also helpless to rescue us from our perdition. While the Arminian does not know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some, many, or most human beings will suffer everlasting separation from their Creator, he will not be surprised if such is the case. Hell is the unavoidable, but finally acceptable, consequence of human freedom—collateral damage, as it were.
In response to Arminian damnation, Talbott advances three propositions:
(1) “The very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever is deeply incoherent and therefore logically impossible” (p. 170).
Talbott asks us to consider the example of a young boy who puts his head into a fire and keeps it there, despite the intolerable pain, despite all pleas from his parents and friends. What would we say about this boy? Is he acting rationally? morally? freely? responsibly? Would we not think, rather, that something must be terribly wrong with him? Perhaps he suffers from congenital analgesia. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by self-destructive impulses. The point Talbott is making is that other necessary conditions besides the absence of coercion obtain in order for an action to be judged a free action. A minimal degree of rationality is also needed. “That which is utterly pointless, utterly irrational, and utterly inexplicable, “he writes, “will simply not qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible” (p. 172).
Everyone agrees that eternal damnation represents the absolutely worst thing that can happen to a human being. It is not just tragic; it is the maximal tragedy. So why would a rational being make such a choice for himself when it contradicts his fundamental good and makes impossible his own happiness? We can entertain such a decision if it rests upon ignorance, deception, pathology, or addiction; but all such conditions result in diminished capacity and therefore diminished freedom.
Of decisive consideration here is the coincidence between the ultimate happiness that we will for ourselves and the ultimate happiness that God wills for us:
Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. … But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God. (p. 172)
When I first read Inescapable Love three years ago, this paragraph in particular jumped out at me. My readings in the moral theologies of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, mediated in particular by Servais Pinckaers, had prepared me to receive Talbott’s argument. Here is the secret of the universalist hope. The good that we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! At any given moment we may not be able to see this profound truth of our lives, due to our egotism, violence, and alienation; but no matter how hardened our hearts become, we remain creatures made in the image of God. God, and only God, can satisfy our deepest desires.
In order, therefore, for a person to irrevocably reject God and the happiness that union with him brings, he must irrevocably reject the happiness that he yearns for. “So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then,” Talbott concludes, “that person, like the boy in our story above, would seem to display the kind of irrationality that is itself incompatible with free choice” (p. 173).
Would a God of absolute love permit this to happen? We pray that he would not. Yet isn’t the Arminian God impotent before our self-chosen hells?