The Inescapable Love of God

I read The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott in 2011. I do not recall who directed me to this book. All I know is that I read it cover to cover and found it com­pel­ling. At the time I was what is called a “hopeful univer­sal­ist” and had been since reading Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar in the mid-90s. I found it an easy step from C. S. Lewis’s God who invites us to take a bus ride to heaven to Balthasar’s God of absolute love who has embraced every human being in the death and resur­rec­tion of Christ. Yet we live under judg­ment, Balthasar reminds us: while we may hope that all will be saved, we cannot claim to know that such will be the case. We still await final judgment. No problema. Who was I to argue with the great Balthasar. I’d rather hope for the salvation of all than not. But the distinction between hope and knowing continued to needle. It didn’t make sense to me at the level of proclamation and faith. Later I discovered Met Kallistos Ware invoking the same distinction.

When I read The Inescapable Love of God, I found my hope for universal reconciliation growing exponentially. Such is the quiet forcefulness of Talbott’s exegesis of the New Testament (especially of the Apostle Paul) and his philosophical critique of traditional formulations of eternal damnation. Is it really obvious that Jesus and his Apostles taught everlasting perdition? If God is omnipotent Love, is it really beyond his resources to effect the salvation of all without compromising the integrity of personal freedom? If God is merciful Love, then how could his justice require the condemnation of even a single human being to everlasting torment? And what is freedom? What is justice? What is love? Talbott tackles all of these questions with precision and care. But most importantly, he offers a vision of the victorious gospel of Jesus Christ that is worthy of proclamation and faith:

The gospel presents, for our consideration, a vision of God and his creation that makes one want to shout with joy, a vision that can free us from all of the fears and the guilt and the worry within which we so often imprison ourselves. That vision may not always satisfy our wishful sentiments . . . but it does satisfy our deepest yearnings; it may at times devastate human pride, but it could never, ever devastate human hope. It is a vision altogether worthy of being true, and that is also, I believe, an indispensable condition of its being true.1

Talbott begins his analysis of damnation and universal restoration by presenting us with three propositions:

(1) All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.

(2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.

(3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever.2

Each of these propositions enjoys support within the Christian tradition:

  1. The universality of God’s salvific will is affirmed by Eastern Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Arminian Protestants. Matters are a bit more confusing in Latin Catholicism because of the historical influence of St Augustine’s formulation of absolute predestina­tion; but recent magisterial teaching has clarified that God offers salvation to all.
  2. The decisive triumph of God’s salvific will was affirmed by universalists in the patristic period (most famously by Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac of Nineveh) and in a different way by St Augustine of Hippo and his followers in the Latin Church, who restricted the triumph of the divine salvific will to the predestined. Today support for the proposition is largely restricted to Calvinist and universalist circles.
  3. Belief in the eternal damnation of the incorrigibly wicked has characterized ecumenical Christianity since the seventh century.

One immediately notes the logical inconsistency of the three propositions. One can reasonably affirm two of them; but one cannot affirm all three without contradiction.

If I believe that God genuinely loves every human being and desires their eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm the eschatological triumph of God’s universal salvific will. If I believe that God will effectively bring his elect to eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm that his love intends every human being. And if I believe that God loves every human being and that his atoning work is decisively efficacious, then I cannot logically affirm the eternal damnation of some.

Talbott acknowledges that not all Christian theologians consistently think through the logic of their respective evangelical claims:

Now a good way to classify Christian theologians and their theological systems, I want to suggest, is according to which of our three propositions they finally reject. Of course, a theologian could always remain a skeptic on this question, but such skepticism would tend to undermine the entire discipline of systematic theology and is virtually nonexistent, therefore, among traditional theologians. Instead of skepticism, however, we sometimes do find a kind of subterfuge: a theologian may embrace, clearly and emphatically, two of the propositions and then try to waffle on the third, either by redefining a crucial term or simply by pretending to hold the third proposition in abeyance. Someone who embraces our first two propositions, for example, may try to ignore the third or to dismiss it with the comment: “The ultimate fate of the wicked is a mystery to be left in the hands of God.” Another may reject proposition (1), which states that God sincerely wills or desires to reconcile all sinners to himself, and then try to identify some artificial sense in which we can still say that God offers salvation to all. But the fact is that a theologian must reject at least one of our three propositions; and when we look carefully at a given theologian’s writings, it is usually rather easy to say which one the theologian in fact rejects.3

If you think of yourself as a hopeful universalist, you find yourself in an awkward position at this point. You affirm the universality of God’s salvific will, and though you would also prefer to reject the eternal damnation of one or more human beings, you do not feel that you can, either because of the dogmatic commitments of your Church or because of the ambiguities and conflicts that you see in the biblical witness. Hence a policy of agnosticism would seem to be necessary regarding propositions #2 and #3. If, as you hope, hell turns out to be empty, then proposition #3 is disproven and proposition #2 validated. This stance has the advantage of theological modesty (and is thus more likely to sneak by the dogma-censors); but it’s too wishy-washy to preach well, and it’s certainly not going to ignite anyone’s evangelical passion. It lacks both the power of unconditional promise and the existential sobriety of perditional threat.

Which one of the above propositions do you deny?

(11, 15 February 2015; rev.)

[1] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed., pp. 32-33.

[2] Ibid., p. 38.

[3] Ibid., p. 41.

(Go to “Was St Paul a Universalist?”)

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14 Responses to The Inescapable Love of God

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Well put. Then it goes to the question of the moral character of God – what kind of God it is that one believes in?

    Oh how terrible! The shining light of the gospel is undermined with every “waffle” that is added: God is all good, all powerful and all loving – but apparently this is not so. The empty tomb put an end to death, but not really. The gospel is good news, but not really. Who wants to believe in that?


  2. Kevin Rosero says:

    I’ve just discovered this site, after reading That All Shall Be Saved (and blogging about it a little). This has all been very bracing for my poor faith, so thank you. It’s been like rediscovering the Good News for the first time.

    As a Catholic child, and a lapsed one, I’ve always assumed Purgatory rather than eternal conscious torment, so I can easily drop proposition 3. DBH, and evidently many others, have shown just how incoherent it is.

    Proposition 1 is easy to affirm. We can all believe that God wants us all.

    Proposition 2 is where some work or decision is required, as you say, for any hopeful, because there are obstacles; and simply because it’s a greater claim. To say that God wants us all doesn’t say nearly as much as declaring that God will win us all in the end.

    But I can affirm it, especially from the arguments I’ve seen so far about the nature of God, the nature of free will, and the moral argument. No need to recap those arguments here, and I’m still exploring/ingesting them. But I do want to say here that it’s been a revelation to me how much of universalism is in accord with reason and logic, and can be worked out in that sphere. There is a hell of a lot (pardon) about faith that involves trust, and the heart, but a heck of a lot of these questions about salvation and ETC ask only logic rather than some blind leap.

    And that’s been very bracing for me.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I really enjoyed Thomas Talbot’s book on the ultimate Salvation of All.
    Also, Professor Ilaria Ramelli’s book: “A larger Hope?–Universal Salvation” is a very thorough work on what the great majority of the ‘Patristics’ saints in the first five centuries of church history believed about the ultimate reconciliation/salvation of All.


    • arthurjaco says:

      I cannot speak for Dr Talbott’s book since I have not read it, though I do have good reason to believe it is a good read and no reason to doubt it.

      Now, even though I agree that Dr Ramelli’s book on the early history of Christian universalism is (by quite a wide margin) the most thorough one on this subject (as well as a *very* precious mine of information), it does *not* actually describe what the GREAT majority of the Fathers (and Mothers) believed during the first 5 centuries of Christianity… Simply because there’s MANY more Fathers and Mothers than what most people assume.
      It *does* however talk about what the great majority of the *most important* Fathers and Mothers supposedly believed during the first 5 centuries of Christianity, albeit especially the *Eastern* ones (simply because universalism was much more popular in the East than in the West).
      Furthermore, although the evidence she provides us with in the book is often strong (even *very* strong, at times), it is also relatively frequently *not* that strong… Objectively speaking, she *does* overstate her case quite a few times.
      The truth is, we will unfortunately NEVER get to truly know with *absolute certainty* what most Fathers and Mothers actually believed when it comes to the Last Things… And that’s simply because too many of their works have not “survived” the passage of time and might very well be lost forever.
      For Fathers and Mothers like Ambrose of Caesarea, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Firmilian of Caesarea, Alexander of Jerusalem, Pierius of Alexandria, Theognostus of Alexandria, Palladius of Galatia and Melania the Elder (among many others), all we are “condemned” to have is this : we know they were VERY heavily influenced by Origen (and Evagrius, in the case of Palladius) and that Origen (and Evagrius) were *both* universalists for whom universalism was of *paramount* theological importance.
      We also know that they typically “surrounded” themselves with fellow priests, teachers and ascetics that were *also* very heavily influenced by Origen.
      In the case of Gregory Thaumaturgus, we *also* know that Rufinus of Aquileia wrote that this great student of Origen taught his teacher’s universalism “without hesitation”, if memory serves me well (and it usually does).
      For *these* Fathers and Mothers (and then again, many more, actually), this is either all we have or *almost* all we have.
      That’s enough for us to *rationally* assume that they WERE indeed very likely to have been at LEAST sympathetic towards universalism (if not ardent universalists)… But that isn’t exactly *absolute proof* either.


  4. Although I admit to still being fearful, I know this says more about ME than it does God. Scripture makes it clear that those perfected by love do not fear. Why? Because fear has to do with torment (punishment!)
    This encapsulates the Hope of the gospel for me, that it truly IS good news, because FEAR does not come from God at ALL!
    Those who would use the term ‘fear OF God’ talk of a different KIND of fear. One we do not realise IS fear and has been lost from our understanding (understandably as we are a fearful human race! Who are, if we are truthful in love WITH the wrong fear..) that fear is not FEAR at all. But AWE. Like seeing a breathtaking sunset and having no words for what it inspires in one.

    Inspire being the operative word! For the Holy Spirit works in us to bring that about!
    For too long, because of bad theology (predestination, hell, toll house!) due to mainly Calvin, Luther and Augustine (who really do need very hard kicks on their shins) making God a judge and putting us in the dock. Which naturally leads to us being guilty and the judge punishing in sentencing! This is not scriptural at all. But a bending of scripture in the very worst way.

    For it is clear, before ALL things, God is first a Father. And a Good Father at that! And a good father does not condemn his child but seeks to restore them. God does not punish. He doesn’t have too! Our actions have punishment attached! God, on the other hand is always running towards us. Or waiting beside us. Desperate to jump in to help!

    The ‘judgement’ of God is not to do with punishing. It is to do with getting us OUT of our punishment mind set! And restoring us to Christ! Think. In Scrooge, Marley shows the spirits in their own torment. Why? The condemnation they have heaped on their OWN head when they realise they are not part material reality any longer and cannot change the selfish ways they lived! They are now only spirit, and cannot change what has been lived by them. Part of Marleys redemption is the crumb of love (he did not even know he had!) for Scrooge. And using it to get the help for him. Probably the first selfless act he ever does. So much more painful because he thinks he IS indeed facing eternal wandering and loneliness! Yet. Rather than not care, or just be wrapped up in his own suffering, he goes to Scrooge to STOP scrooges suffering the same fate if he can!

    If that had been in the physical world it would have been easier! Far easier. Because we do not see the reality of our sin. But in eternity it is harder! Yet still Marley does it. And that to me says it all. (I do truly think A Christmas carol should be part of our scripture! It has so many lessons for us!) it is US who condemn OURSELVES into our own hell of condemnation, not God. The hell of our condemnation. Never of Gods.

    We have a God whose mercy we are told over and over again, lasts FOREVER. Why would it be forever unless someone was offered it? Someone needed it? To exclude even one, is to exclude all. Yet God always hopes. Why? Because we desperately need Him too! We need Him to hope we will change, have faith we will and love us so we can! And these three things, Paul assures us, do indeed last forever! Thank God He is as HE is! For it is He that saves us! Not OF OURSELVES, but His free gift TO us. For that is a good Father. That is a good gospel. Eternally hopeful in the father. Knowing, as Paul said, that some how, some way, God Himself as FATHER (not even as Christ!) will be ALL in ALL. And that THIS is the fulfilment of the scriptures.


  5. Even Augustine admitted in his time that there were ‘a great many’ Christians who believed in the ultimate salvation/reconciliation of All. He called them “Doctors of Mercy”. Origen didn’t originate ‘Apokatastasis’. It all comes from God’s Word in the Greek text, including the O.T. Septuagent.


  6. Rob says:

    After leaving evangelicalism behind, I was a hopeful universalist until I read DBH’s That All Shall Be Saved. That book caused the scales to fall from my eyes with surprising ease and speed.

    Having heard much good about Talbott’s book for years, I have it in my stack. Must get around to reading it one of these years.


    • If you’re pressed for time I would recommend reading the last chapter or two in the near future just to have that tumbling around in your mind until you read the whole book. At least in my experience, there’s just something about the way Talbott sums everything up that makes it absolutely clear that God is better than we can imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Keith DeRose says:

    Well, I’m a universalist, so it’s definitely 3 that I reject. And like just about all Christian universalists who move in the circles I follow, I love Talbott’s work. But his approach to the Biblical case through this triad represents a stressing of the indirect case for universalism (inferring it from 1&2), while I think the direct case — through the kinds of Pauline passages you look at in your next post — is the better one. (By “direct,” I don’t mean conclusive. I just mean, you know, direct: However strong or weak the case is (& I think it’s pretty good – as do you, it seems), it’s made through passages that directly support universalism, rather than directly supporting claims from which universalism may be thought to be inferable (like God’s desire to and ability to save all)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Keith DeRose says:

    Part of my reason for preferring the direct case is that I think it’s quite strong.
    My main problem with the indirect case can be brought out by considering how Talbott formulated his triad back in the first ed. of his book. He had a weaker version of 2, so we can here just call it 2W:
    2W. It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purposes for the world
    The problem is that this didn’t, together with 1 and 3, form a really inconsistent triad: God may have the purpose of saving each person, and God may have the power to achieve this purpose, but may not exercise that full power because, perhaps, doing so might conflict with another purpose of God’s. And, so, if you’re saying that all three of the early version of the claims — 1, 2W, and 3 — have support, and then you have to admit that they’re compatible, you face the pressing question: Well, then, why shouldn’t we accept all three of them?
    Now things are tightened up, and we have a real inconsistent triad. But someone who wants to reject 3 — or 1, for that matter — faces this question: Well, why not reject 2? In that case, we don’t have to *just* reject it, but can rather reject and replace (or “repeal and replace,” as candidate Romney put things wrt Obamacare) it with 2W — which is a nice enough statement in the vicinity of 2 that Talbott himself put things that way at first.

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