Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 8)

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.”

(Go to Part 9)

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28 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 8)

  1. “I question the appropriateness of imposing moral obligation upon the transcendent source of moral obligation.”
    It’s become almost typical in Evangelical literature to impose moral obligation on God. I’m quite baffled by it myself. All respect to Thomas Talbott of course. I’m not certain though if the way to go about the universalist discussion is by having moralist discussions though. All we are told is that God desires that all be saved.

    But to Talbott and MacDonald’s defense, I do concur that this is a way to speak forcefully of the unconditional love of God rather than to subject God to human moral principles.

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  2. God’s attribute of creativity seems able to explain everything in scripture that we describe as ‘loving,’ so we can dispense with moralizing if we are willing to ontologize instead. Martin Luther may have been the first in the West to relate God’s concern for sinners to their status as his creatures, (eg Heidelberg Disputation of 1518; cf Manermaa and the Finnish School).

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  3. Mike H says:

    From Athansius – “On the Incarnation”

    It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

    This, to me, seems a far cry from the “God doesn’t owe you anything” starting point in looking at Christ.

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    • tgbelt says:

      I love this passage from Athanasius. I don’t think it means he views God as obligated by having created to sufficiently make good on creation. It looks more like he views reason itself as obligating us to conclude that divine goodness renders a ‘failed creation’ not truly conceivable. God being the benevolent being he is, its inconceivable that he abandon creation in its troubles.

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  4. Tom Talbott says:

    Just one clarification, Father Kimel. I do not believe that God has any moral obligations at all. For the idea of a moral obligation makes sense only in a context in which a failure to meet the relevant obligation is a genuine possibility. So if it is God’s very nature to love and it is therefore logically impossible for him to act in unloving ways, then in the very nature of the case he is under no moral obligation to love. That is why in the text you quoted I wrote: “God could no more choose to create persons without accepting that responsibility [of meeting their true spiritual needs] than human parents can choose to raise children without acquiring an obligation to promote their welfare” (p. 149). Note that I here use the word “obligation” in connection with human parents and the word “responsibility” in connection with God. Most Christians believe that God has all the responsibilities of the Creator. But these do not add up to moral obligations, because they are simply an expression of his own perfect nature.

    Thanks again for all of your magnificent efforts in this series.

    -Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Tom, for that clarification. I appear to have misunderstood you. Sorry about that.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      BTW, Tom, was there a particular sentence or passage I may have overlooked or forgotten that made your view clearer?

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        I can’t think of any offhand, Father. It is a point I have made scads of times in the classroom. But I don’t think I ever addressed it clearly in the book, which is why I wanted to add this particular clarification to your excellent summary.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Whew (wiping brow with relief). Glad I didn’t (hopefully) overlook something obvious. 🙂

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          May I ask you to elaborate a little on why God has no moral obligations to humanity.

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            Well, if God has no moral obligations at all, then he has no moral obligations to humanity. But there is also, if you accept the classical understanding of God as a supremely perfect being, a hard metaphysical necessity at work here. For just as it is metaphysically impossible that God might never have existed, so it is metaphysically impossible, given his loving nature, that he might never have been committed to the welfare of every human being whom he loves into existence. Put it this way: whereas we must learn to love both God and other people, God loves us because that is just the kind of being he is, as 1 John 4:8 and 16 explicitly state. And the concept of a moral obligation makes sense, it seems, only in a context in which moral flaws are possible.

            Hope that helps.

            -Tom

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    • I am slowly warming up to this discussion, with great hope in my heart that my view of God and His being will change so that I can deepen my view of Him as loving.

      You state: “So if it is God’s very nature to love and it is therefore logically impossible for him to act in unloving ways, then in the very nature of the case he is under no moral obligation to love.”

      This is at the very heart of the struggle I have been having to reconcile eternal torment with a Being who is pure love — who IS love. As you state, because this is God – because God is love – then it is impossible for Him to act in any other way than in love and how love MUST act.

      Given this, there comes then a strange act of etymology in which the word “love” is changed in an Orwellian manner to mean something other than what we commonly understand it to mean. Somehow, a Father who is pure love would, in the outworking of such an ontological reality, happily hang sinners like some loathsome spider over an eternal roaring fire while singing Amazing Grace! (Protestantism is so strange!).

      One thing I have to wonder about: where did love get so maldefined? Who is responsible for this? I think that in part, Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros states it well in his paper THE RIVER OF FIRE when he reminds us that one of the works of the evil one is to malign God in our understanding, so that ultimately, rather than fearing the evil one, we turn around and find ourselves fearing the very one we should be running towards in love and joy.

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  5. East is East, and West is West. But, yes,Athanasius does seem to be positing God’s interest in his creatures as their creator in a way outside ordinary moral categories. Thus universalists need not pit God’s love against his power,

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For those interested in what a Thomist thinks about the question of God and moral obligation, check out Ed Feser’s article “God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma.” I just stumbled upon this piece this afternoon.

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  7. Please forgive me if this sounds like an ignorant statement. I mean no harm nor offense by what I am about to ask. I shudder at the thought of anyone spending an eternity in torment, and if I do not wish this, then certainly God, who is INFINITELY more loving than I could ever dare be, must not wish it either.

    But…..what of justice? What of those who choose, in the face of the Gospel claims, the witness of the Church and Her martyrs, and all that points to doing right and just in this world, who nonetheless choose evil? Who hurt others in ways we cannot even begin to fathom and with savagery that is hard to comprehend?

    What? They get a pass?

    I’m sorry. This just doesn’t compute for me. Perhaps you could help me reconcile this in my mind.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ed, I’m grateful you raised the question of justice, as this is a topic that Talbott discusses at some length but which I will not be blogging on. Fortunately, Talbott’s original essay on this subject is available online: “Punishment, Forgiveness, and Divine Justice.” Talbott’s understanding here is captured in the following quotation:

      Consider this question: Exactly what is it that real justice would require in the event that one should do something morally wrong, something that harms another or even oneself? I mean to ask here a very general question: What sort of thing would satisfy justice to the full in the event that one should do some-thing morally wrong? The answer, it seems to me, is obvious: If one could somehow make amends for the wrong action, that is, undo any harm done, repair any damage, in a way that would make up for, or cancel out, the bad consequences of the action (in one’s own life as well as in the life of others), one would then satisfy justice to the full. …

      So the sum of the matter is this: If we suppose that God’s moral nature is simple, we must also admit that his justice requires exactly the same thing his love requires: the absolute destruction of sin; it requires that sinners repent of any wrong they have done to others and that they be reconciled one to another.

      Take a look at this essay and see what you think.

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      • Wonderful essays, father. I am bookmarking them for more study. This is stuff that demands more than a single and cursory reading.

        Let me see if I get this straight: (help please).

        1. Those who have done evil in this life will not escape unpunished in some form in the next.

        2. This punishment, however, has not just a retributive aspect (does it have a retributive aspect, or am I reading into the text?) but a restorative one, i.e. that the sinner will come to the point of realizing that remaining in his ontological state is not in his best interest.

        3. The purpose therefore of any punishments in the next life is not to restore some idea of “God’s lost honor” (as if that were needed) but rather to bring the sinner to his senses. (An analogy just came to me: think of the Prodigal in the pig pens. Certainly that is analogous to a self-inflicted punishment in the next life in which the Prodigal finally wakes up, hungry, alone, sad, and remembering his father’s love, and says “Idiot! Return home now!” Is this not what God desires and will get from even the worst of sinners in the end?)

        Have I gotten this right?

        You know, the Romish/Protestant idea of God in the afterlife appears to be more like the vengeful “gods” of paganism and Islam than that of a loving Father? Agree?

        Thank you for this series. You are helping me tremendously, even though this is a real struggle for me.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Edward, I think you have a good handle on the critical questions. Keep wrestling and include your questions in your prayers.

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        • Jeremy says:

          Edward,

          I am so encouraged by your persistance in seeking understanding this matter, and touched that you feel some of this is starting to fall into place for you. It has certainly been transformative to me and my family in recent years.

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          • Mike H says:

            +1 Edward.

            I’ve appreciated your thinking and pushback. It encourages me as I also continue to wrestle thru these tough questions.

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    • Mike H says:

      Ed,

      One of the things that I’ve had to think through as I’ve wrestled with that same question is the definition of the word “justice”.

      Along those lines, see “Justice” by George MacDonald – posted by Father Aiden about a month ago. This was a paradigm shifter for me years ago when I first read it. What do you think of his argument?

      https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/justice/

      If justice is defined in forensic terms as retributive punishment and a “balancing of the scales” (done with pain and/or punishment) then I’d have to agree that the universalist hope doesn’t manifest “justice”. I do recognize that perspective – the need for someone to “pay” for something that they’ve done – as if the suffering of another somehow makes up for it.

      The thing is, I have to admit that I’ve participated in all kinds of things that would require this “justice” be imposed on me – both willingly and unknowingly. I have, and quite honestly, I will again. I cannot set right all of the things that I’ve done. So why should there be any redemption or forgiveness at all? Is God unjust to forgive? Why doesn’t God just blow it all up, or strike us dead the moment that we screw up? This is often where we see “grace” or “mercy” enter the conversation (at least in the Protestant tradition that I’m familiar with). We see “justice” defined as “getting what we deserve” and “mercy” as “not getting what we deserve”. Given those definitions, a fundamental conflict is created between justice and mercy – we have a God who would seemingly like to be merciful but finds his own wrath and need for justice getting in the way. It’s that foundation that leads to “penal substitutionary atonement” as a proposed metaphysical solution to a legal tension. I think that it’s this apparent conflict this is addressed by MacDonald in his essay.

      So at the end of the day, I’d say that those who hope for universal reconciliation do so because of a fundamental difference about what “justice” really is. If God is indeed reconciling the world and putting all things right, then conceiving of justice and mercy as opposed to one another is fundamentally flawed. In this view, there’s nothing just about unending retributive punishment or the tragedy of a creature’s ultimate destruction, whether self-imposed or not. That doesn’t mean that there are no consequences – far from it – it just means that justice is ultimately manifested in God setting things right, and so ALL things find their “being just” in relation to that end.

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      • “… those who hope for universal reconciliation do so because of a fundamental difference about what ‘justice’ really is… Justice is ultimately manifested in God setting things right, and so ALL things find their ‘being just’ in relation to that end.”

        Yes. But then how do those who do not hope for universal reconciliation conceive of justice? Often, it seems, they see it as the triumph of the majesty of the divine law over disobedient humanity. To those who live by an honor code, this may make such intuitive sense that the universalist hope seems irrational. Conversely, to those who inhabit a more relational ethos, any stubborn preoccupation with transgressed boundaries can itself seem foolishly sentimental. Universalism may make less sense to a herdsman defending his land from encroachment than it does to a merchant who bargains a price for his wares in faraway lands.

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      • I did a first reading last night. This view is so much at odds with the retributive view that it ain’t funny! It was like I was in a different world, reading this. Yet it has sentences which go to the very heart of struggles I have been having with the issue of the afterlife:

        1. The idea that if even one soul were to go to hell, then the devil could gloat forever in this “victory.” And then, what of the “millions dropping into hell like snowflakes” of the supposed visions that Romish seers have had over the last couple of decades? Would such a reality make the Cross a place of victory, or of ignominious defeat, seeing that humanity would be so little affected by it?

        2. The idea that God creates a world knowing that men and women would ultimately go into eternal torment. Not just lex talonis punishment, a punishment to fit the crime, but unending horror. This knowledge made me want to throw up every time I heard the phrase “O blessed fault, that brought to us such a Redeemer.” as if the horror of unending torment should be looked upon as a good because a relative FEW of the human race benefited from it.

        3. Then there was the problem for me of what kind of God this idea of punishment presented to me. A loving Father? No. The more I began to understand my own fatherhood, as warped and bad as it was in comparison, the more I was really having problems with the picture of God’s fatherhood that eternal hell paints. If the fatherhood of God is of such that He delights, gets revenge, and is satiated by tormenting his child forever for offenses, then I think I would rather be an orphan, thank you.

        Would it be safe to say that the retributive view is a development from the Roman fascination with law and justice, as opposed to the Greek interest in the ontological understanding of God and man?

        I will be reading this article again and again. It is speaking to my heart in hope, for I have been in despair for a while over my sins, those of my children, and the condition of mankind in general.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Edward, after you have inwardly digested MacDonald’s sermon “Justice,” may I recomend that you then read his sermon “The Consuming Fire.” I suspect that things will then begin to fall into place for you. There is no contradiction between mercy and justice.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I was skimming through Jerry Walls’s book Hell and came across his discussion of Talbott’s argument on irreparable harm. Walls argues that the intuition that God humanity to do irreparable harm to themselves is based on a shared intuition regarding the value of freedom. He submits that it is this possibility that confers genuine seriousness upon the moral life of the human being: “Our choices are far more significant if th consequences are eternal and inescapable rather than merely temporal, or, like the choice of annihilation, eternal but escapable because not experiencable” (p. 136).

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    • This appears to be at the heart of my confusion. If there is either annihilation or ultimately eternal joy in the next life, then what difference does any moral choice make here on earth.

      Oh, my brain! This is profound and deep stuff for a high school educated moron like me.

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      • AR says:

        Edward, I agree we need to understand that this life, the challenges we face here, our deeds and intentions and our relationship to God are all significant. We need to know that they matter. And, in the eyes of many of us, the only thing that matters is the thing that has consequences.

        But does this life need to matter so much that nothing else matters? You seem to be saying that our deeds before death only matter if nothing after death can affects us at all. I don’t think that’s self-evident.

        Here’s another way to put it. Is the only acceptable consequence for sin the consequence that is 1) as bad as possible and 2) never-ending? Or is a million years in Hell still a consequence? Is ten minutes in Hell still a consequence? Might being required to experience the reality of everything we are and have done, in the furnace of God’s embrace, a consequence so massive that it outweighs, in moral significance, the cruelest torture human minds can divine?

        Granted this might not mean anything to the people we are trying to preach to in this life. Religious people and prophets have usually had that problem. But that doesn’t mean such a consequence will be regarded as nothing by the sinner actually experiencing it.

        Hope that helps.

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  9. Ronald Murphy says:

    “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your (mortal) ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9) I know that Calvinists and other “eternal” hell believers use this passage to shrug off anyone who disagrees with their “limited atonement” theology, but God is a God of Eternal Divine Love, Mercy, and Hope. Some blogger in this thread brought up that God “desires” that all men would be saved, but the Greek word for desires (NIV) in this passage is *will*–thelei (KJV & YLT) have all mankind to be saved and come to the full knowledge of the Truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). Thayer’s Lexicon emphasizes an absolute determination, resolve, purpose. How much clearer could it be–its God’s absolute purpose to ultimately save all mankind! Praise God for His Eternal Love and Mercy!

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