2) “Even if such an idea [i.e., the idea of someone freely rejecting God forever] were perfectly coherent, a loving God could never permit his loved ones to make such a choice, because he would never permit them to do irreparable harm either to themselves or to others” (The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 170-171).
The key word is irreparable. Dr Talbott is not speaking of injury that is beyond human healing or damage that is beyond human rectification. Clearly God does permit evils and horrors that surpass the human ability to make right. He is speaking, rather, of a kind of damage that not even God can repair:
So even if a loving God could sometimes permit murder, he could never permit one person to annihilate the soul of another or to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in another; and even if he could sometimes permit suicide, he could never permit his loved ones to destroy the very possibility of future happiness in themselves either. Just as loving parents are prepared to restrict the freedom of the children they love, so a loving God would be prepared to restrict the freedom of the children he loves, at least in cases of truly irreparable harm. (pp. 177-178)
The influence of George MacDonald upon Talbott’s theology is evident. MacDonald was horrified by the Reformed teaching on election and limited atonement, which effectively restricts the love of God to only some human beings. In MacDonald’s novel David Elginbrod, Mrs. Elton reads a homily on divine predestination to a young boy named Harry, who bursts into tears and runs out of the room, exclaiming, “I don’t want God to love me, if he does not love everybody” (chap. XI). For MacDonald, God cannot be less loving than the best fathers and mothers whom we know, and the best parents are those who will do all that is within their power to achieve the good of their children. As MacDonald declares in his remarkable sermon “The Voice of Job“:
The idea that God would be God all the same, as glorious as he needed to be, had he not taken upon himself the divine toil of bringing home his wandered children, had he done nothing to seek and save the lost, is false as hell. Lying for God could go no farther. As if the idea of God admitted of his being less than he is, less than perfect, less than all-in-all, less than Jesus Christ! less than Love absolute, less than entire unselfishness! As if the God revealed to us in the New Testament were not his own perfect necessity of loving-kindness, but one who has made himself better than, by his own nature, by his own love, by the laws which he willed the laws of his existence, he needed to be! They would have it that, being unbound, he deserves the greater homage! So it might be, if he were not our father. But to think of the living God not as our father, but as one who has condescended greatly, being nowise, in his own willed grandeur of righteous nature, bound to do as he has done, is killing to all but a slavish devotion. It is to think of him as nothing like the God we see in Jesus Christ. … God could not be satisfied with himself without doing all that a God and Father could do for the creatures he had made—that is, without doing just what he has done, what he is doing, what he will do, to deliver his sons and daughters, and bring them home with rejoicing.
Talbott too is willing to speak to the inscrutable Whirlwind in the name of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If the Creator truly is our heavenly Father, as Jesus most certainly taught us that he is, then he will not permit his children to cast themselves into the lake of eternal and everlasting torment. He will not allow them to do irreparable harm, either to themselves or to others. Talbott is even willing to speak, as does MacDonald, of God having a soteriological obligation to human beings: just as parents have a natural obligation to do what good they can for the children they bring into the world, so God freely assumes the responsibility to secure the ultimate welfare of the human beings he brings into existence. “God could no more choose to create persons without accepting that responsibility,” comments Talbott, “than human parents can choose to raise children without acquiring an obligation to promote their welfare” (p. 149).
I question the appropriateness of imposing moral obligation upon the transcendent source of moral obligation. If God is absolute love in his inner trinitarian being, then we may certainly trust him to consummate his love in his creatures. The Father of Jesus Christ fulfills his promises. But is God obliged to do so? Is he properly characterized as a moral agent subject to a code of ethics? To put it crassly, is God good because he is well-behaved?
It’s unclear to me how hard Talbott wishes to push the the notion of God’s obligation to humanity. This may just be a figurative way to speak forcefully of the unconditional love of God as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet it rings of anthropomorphism, as if the ineffable Creator is a being whose actions we may applaud or censure. I understand the power of this tack in responding to Calvinists and Augustinians who divorce love and justice and thus end up reducing grace to an arbitrary election of some from the sinful mass of humanity, yet it seems to ignore the infinite qualitative distance between God and creature. At the very least, we must acknowledge the figurative nature of this language: the holy One of Israel may not be moral but he is not less than moral.
And yet having raised these concerns, I still find myself assenting to the truth expressed by George MacDonald: “This is the beginning of the greatest discovery of all—that God owes himself to the creature he has made in his image, for so he has made him incapable of living without him.”