The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Annihilationism and Universalism (the Glen & Tom dialogue)

[Forum note: members may offer comments on the ongoing dialogue, in [url=]this thread specially created for that purpose; Tom and Glenn can read that forum, but will not be able to comment there until after the dialogue has finished (in order to keep their discussion focussed here as much as possible. Comments in that thread should be about the dialogue, and not be addressed to the authors. Comments – which should be to the authors themselves – can be composed and posted to this thread, too, but will be invisible to everyone until after the dialogue is finished.]

Thanks, Jeff, for your introduction. I’m grateful for the opportunity to take part in this discussion with Dr Talbott, and I want to thank him for his openness to such discussions. I want to thank Gene for being my initial contact on this and inviting me to take part, and I’m also thankful for the welcome that folk in general have extended to me. I hope – and I assume – that this discussion will be an enjoyable one.

I’m an annihilationist. That means that I think that one day, God’s redeemed people will enjoy everlasting life with him, and that some other people, because of their relationship with God (or lack thereof) will not be alive anymore in any way, shape or form, and that things will stay this way forever. This is not because I am personifying their old self as the “old man” who no longer lives, having been replaced by a new nature personified as a “new man.” It is because those whole persons, understood in fairly ordinary terms, are dead and gone forever. Although the idea can be presented in multiple different forms and with all kinds of variations, that general idea is what I’m referring to when I use the term annihilationism. To say that this annihilation is going to take place is to reject universalism.

Related to the doctrine of annihilationism is the doctrine of conditional immortality. I’m a conditionalist. That means that I think that eternal life – immortality – is not inherent in the human condition, nor is it unconditionally granted. It is something that God will give to people on the condition that they are found among the people of God. Strictly speaking, this doctrine (unlike that of annihilationism), is compatible with universalism. After all, if literally everyone is part of the people of God, then immortality can be conditional and yet everyone could one day receive immortality.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic – a faith not at all conducive to the beliefs I now hold about eternity. In fact, it was my new beliefs about the hereafter (actually my beliefs about the so-called intermediate state) that prompted me as a very young teen (I started this journey of becoming an irritating questioner at a rather young age) to begin questioning my Catholic beliefs about the value in praying to the spirits of departed saints. I later encountered the idea of conditional immortality when I was about seventeen. At first I rejected it immediately. A little too immediately, rather like a lot of evangelicals I suspect. I knew that it was not true because it was not what I already believed, so it just had to be wrong. Right? I have recognised that very same reaction in so many of my Christian peers, and it’s possible that this one issue more than any other has opened my eyes to the depth and power of partisanship in the way that people assess somebody else’s theological persuasion.

One thing that has bothered me for a long time now about the debate over eternal punishment – in fact over theological debates in general – is the way proponents of majority viewpoints portray other points of view in an uncharitable, unfair and untrue way. I have lost count of the times, for example, that I have read or heard a proponent of the doctrine of eternal torment say that I or other annihilationists “don’t believe in hell.” What they really mean (or should mean) is that we don’t think the Bible describes “hell” in the same way that they think the Bible describes hell. The same thing happens, for example, when some Pentecostal Christians tell me (or each other) that I or people who share my point of view “don’t believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or in one rather unfortunate case, that I “don’t really believe in the Holy Spirit!” What they ought to have said in order to be more truthful and fair is that while I believe very much in the Holy Spirit, and while I explicitly profess belief in a baptism of the Holy Spirit, I do not agree with them about what these things amount to in practice. The same thing happens when the word “liberalism” is hurled at those of us who want nothing more than to submit to God and the teachings of his word, and who are simply not able to find therein the doctrine of eternal torment. This has taught me a great deal about how I should, for example, approach those who sincerely believe that Scripture sanctions their views about, say, abortion or women in leadership in churches. How often, likewise, have any of us been called “heretics” in spite of affirming the ecumenical creeds of Christendom. It bothers me, both in the case of disputes about hell and disputes about spirituality, and plenty of other things, those who throw out such rhetorical nail bombs really think they are making a profound point, or making a reasonable observation. They smack of the kind of tactics that we might actually lull ourselves into thinking we can get away with when we think that enough of our supporters are watching, perhaps cheering us on, that any objections will almost certainly be a minority voice in the crowd.

Proponents of universalism are, as one would expect (they are human after all), not immune from this tendency – any more than I am at times, no doubt. Dr Talbott provides an example when recounting his own struggle with a traditional Christian view of God. His unbelieving professor challenged him with the notorious problem of evil, and in an effort to grapple with and answer it, he turned to the theologians of the past. He gives examples like Luther, Calvin, Augustine and Aquinas. He tells us that he was troubled by what they had to say. He was troubled, he said, not because he disagreed with them about the objects or practical implications of divine love. Whether I agreed with Dr Talbott or not, I could have understood his concern if that had been how he expressed it. But this is what he tells us was of concern to him: “I seemed unable to find a single mainline Christian theologian who truly believed, any more than my atheistic professor did, in a loving God.” [Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Universal Publishers, 1999, revised printing 2002), 5.] Not only are exclusivists (those who believe that God will not save everybody) portrayed as disagreeing with universalists over the nature and/or extent of God’s love, but they are said to disbelieve that there even is a loving God just as much as somebody who says that there is no God of any kind. This unfortunate tendency has reared its head to an even greater extent in some of the online discussions about universalism that I have encountered (although not at this website in particular). For the sin of believing, simply on the basis of the biblical evidence as I see it after revisiting it many times and as criticially as I am able, I have been told that my views on exclusivism are born of a “pride” that I simply need to overcome and swallow, that I worship a God who is literally “demonic” (a term that even Talbott has used in his published work), that I am hateful and literally don’t want the lost to be saved, and so forth.

As I’ve indicated, universalists are by no means unique here. I mention all of this only as a kind of biographical note. I have come to think that getting Christians writing in defense of their theological points of view and in criticism of others to be fair in the debates they take part in is actually the larger part of the work. It’s frustrating that prior to making any headway through the jungle of theological disagreement I have found myself having to clear the ground of a mass of rhetorical overgrowth in order to take a single productive step. In fact, rather than seeing this general point as a critcism of his beliefs, I would hope that Dr Talbott can gladly affirm this concern as an important one regardless of which side of the disagreement one stands, and I hope that it can set the tone for any dialogue we have on the subject of universalism, annihilationism and related issues.

So what do annihilationists like me and universalists like Dr Talbott have of interest to say to each other?

Let me start with a picture:

There are really three views on hell within the Christian faith. There are countless variations I’m sure, but I think all of them fit within one of the three broader views. What’s more, each of them has something in common with both of the other views. I sometimes hear traditionalists (believers in eternal torment) attempting to engage in the fallacy of attributing guilt by association while criticising annihilationism. When this is done, it’s common to lump it together with universalism and associate them with each other as views that present God as a big softie. I think the idea is that some of the “ick factor” that traditionalists have (rightly or wrongly) with universalism will stick to annihilationism. What they might not appreciate is that universalism has as much in common (if every agreement carries equal weight) with the traditional view as it does with annihilationism. At times universalists side with the annihilationists, and at other times with traditionalists. I thought it might prove interesting, therefore, to look at these specific areas of agreement and disagreement. In short, I think universalists and annihilationists do (or should) agree on the meaning of destruction as presented in Scripture, and we disagree with traditionalists. It really does mean literal destruction, to the point where something was once is no more. Some universalists may challenge this claim, but I think those challenges are fairly easily met. So the issue of destruction is the first I intend to address. Here is where annihilationists and universalists can agree.

When it comes to the issue of the scope of immortality, universalists have picked the wrong side (namely, traditionalism). It is here that conditional immortality has something quite substantial to offer the discussion. If eternal life is conditional, and if it is not universal, then annihilationism is true, and both universalism and the doctrine of eternal torment are false. The second theological and exegetical issue, then is that of immortality. Alongside this – but by no means identical with it, is the question of exclusivism. If what I say about Scripture and immortality is correct, then we should be exclusivists of some sort (that is, we should deny that everyone will be saved).

Thirdly, I’d like to say a thing or two about where traditionalists and annihilationists do agree, namely on the objects of destruction. I think Scripture teaches that it is persons themselves who will one day be destroyed rather than have everlasting life. It’s common for universalists to argue that it is sin, or the old self, that will be destroyed, personifying these things. This invites questions about hell as a purging after death, or the view taken by some universalists that some kind of process in the afterlife will actually make sinners worthy of everlasting life. I don’t think we have good reasons for accepting anything like this, and I’ll offer some reasons for thinking that the objects of eternal destruction will actually be people in the ordinary sense of that term.

This last point leads to a general cluster of arguments that universalists may find themselves drawn to, namely the moral objection to destroying people, so I think it’s inevitable that we will have to say some things about that as well.

Having hopefully indicated the type of dialogue that I anticipate having, and having also given an outline of the content of the dialogue that we will (gradually) work our way through, I’ll end my first post there and give Dr Talbott the offer his thoughts on this intersection of beliefs before I fire my first salvo, so to speak.

I want to begin, Glenn, by extending to you the warmest possible welcome to this forum and to our specific conversation on the ultimate fate of the wicked. When I was first approached about the possibility of such a discussion several months ago, I went to your website and really liked what I saw. I especially got a kick out of your debates with some traditionalists over the meaning of “destruction” in the New Testament. But I also thought I detected, both on your website and in your opening statement here, evidence that you may have had some distasteful experiences when you have expressed some of your own “heretical” views and have then had to endure less than respectful responses. Am I right about that?

Anyway, let me assure you that I am not one to worry about heresy at all. I do not for a moment believe that God himself confuses “saving faith” with the possession of correct doctrine; neither do I believe that he would ever permit an honest mistake in abstract theology to jeopardize our future. As I see it, therefore, we can all proceed in the confidence that our Creator knows us from the inside out far better than we know ourselves; that he will appreciate the ambiguities, the confusions, and the perplexities we face far better than we do; and that he will understand the historical and cultural factors that shape our beliefs far better than any historian does. Such a Creator–loving, intimate, and wise–would know how to work with each of us in infinitely complex ways, how to shatter our illusions and to transform our thinking when necessary, and how best to reveal himself to us in the end.

And believe me, I fully appreciate the following:

I also agree that “Proponents of universalism are, as one would expect (they are human after all), not immune from this tendency…” Indeed, I have witnessed first hand some disgraceful (and highly embarrassing) behavior on the part of universalists in some web based theological forums, and, as I have already pointed out on this forum, I now find an early article of my own embarrassing in this regard (here is a link to my most recent reflections on that article [Reformed Journal)). But at the risk of sounding defensive, I also want to suggest that your cited example from The Inescapable Love of God rests, so far as I can tell, upon a misunderstanding–one that arises, no doubt, because I failed to express myself as clearly as I might have. For consider the following sentence that you quote from the first chapter: “I seemed unable to find a single mainline Christian theologian who truly believed, any more than my atheistic professor did, in a loving God.” When I wrote that sentence, it was neither my intention to throw a rhetorical bomb, nor my assumption that only a “minority voice” would see things differently. Instead, I was giving an autobiographical description of how, as a young college student who had never even questioned the reality of an eternal hell, I reacted when I first discovered what some of the mainline theologians actually taught about the love of God. As I pointed out in the very next paragraph, moreover, “Part of the problem may have been the ‘authorities’ to whom I then turned and the filter through which I then viewed the tradition.” That filter included the following view, which I had encountered in Gordon Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation:

So perhaps here is a good place to begin our discussion, one that might enable us to find a substantial area of agreement before moving on to explore possible areas of disagreement. Is it so much as logically possible, in your opinion, that a loving God would set up the universe in the way that Clark describes? Does it not seem as if Clark rejected a loving God every bit as much as my atheistic philosophy professor did? And finally, would you deny that there is indeed something morally repugnant (and in that sense demonic) in the idea that God foreordained, even before the foundation of the world, that some of those whom he might have loved would come to a terrible end?

One further clarification. As I use the term “exclusivist,” it refers not to those who reject universalism, but to those, such as Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, who (like Gordon Clark) insist that God restricts his love and mercy to a limited elect. That these theologians rejected universalism was of no concern to me at all during my college days, because I did so as well. But that they rejected the clear New Testament teaching, as I saw it even then, that God at least wills or desires the salvation of all humans shocked and disturbed me at the time. So the following, I think it fair to say, really does rest on a misunderstanding:

I think it fair to point out that I have never said–or at least have never intended to say–anything remotely like that about those who reject universalism. To the contrary, I have repeatedly insisted in print (see, for example, Chapter 4 of The Inescapable Love of God) that the Arminians and other freewill theists who reject universalism believe in a loving God every bit as much as the universalists do. I would also add many annihilationists to the list. But as for the exclusivists in my sense (i.e., those who explicitly deny that we are all equal objects of God’s redemptive love), what can I say? I still believe that their theology, whether they know it or not and whatever might be said about the grandeur of their characters, excludes the very idea of a loving God in the end.

All of which points back to the questions that I set forth above, and I’ll look forward to seeing your answers. In the meantime, I want to welcome you again and to thank you for your opening statement and for the many important points it makes.


Tom, thank you for your warm welcome.

It seems that the first question stirred up is not directly about universalism or annihilationism, but it’s a worthy and interesting one nonetheless, and one that both universalists and annihilationists (among many others of course) have a keen interest in. And you’re right: I construed exclusivism more broadly than you did in your claim that exclusivists lack belief in a loving God, just as atheists do. You didn’t mean those who think that God will exclude some people from eternal salvation, a belief held by Arminians and Calvinists alike. You use the term to refer to those who say that God has set out to save some, and only some – that God has chosen not to save some. In other words, an Augustinian or Calvinistic view on who God will save.

So, how does my objection fare now? I actually think my objection fares well. Take Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, or Gordon Clark. Now, I think Gordon Clark is a little strange among Calvinists (as plenty of Calvinists realise) and probably among those who would state their views on God’s providence much more strongly than even most Calvinists would be happy with, but is it really true, not only that he is wrong about the way in which God’s love operates, but that he is wrong because he literally doesn’t even believe in a loving God – any more than an atheist? I continue to think that this is simply unfair.

It think it reflects the type of argument that a fan of Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God might use against me: Glenn doesn’t believe in eternal torment, therefore he doesn’t believe in Hell. I see little difference between this and the following: Exclusivists don’t believe that God’s love requires of him what I believe it requires of him, therefore they don’t believe in a loving God. I think they clearly do. I think at the root of all this is a different approach to fairness. I think a mark of fairness is that we must be both willing and able to describe another person’s position in terms that they themselves could accept. We all know, surely, that Calvinists do affirm, in their own words, that God is loving. See what Calvin said about 1 John 4:8 (“whoever does not love does not know God, since God is love”):

Calvin says later in the same work, “Christ, then, is so illustrious and singular a proof of divine love towards us, that whenever we look upon him, he fully confirms to us the truth that God is love.” Could it really be true that an atheist can affirm belief in a loving God to this same extent? How could that be?

Obviously Calvin is not alone among exclusivists, and I think it is best for us all to admit without the need of countless quotations that throughout the ages and today, Christians who would fit under the “exclusivist” umbrella have all affirmed that they do in fact belief in a loving God. I am not going to call their autobiographical statements false.

I realise, of course, that universalists might object to what exclusivists believe about God’s love and what it compels him to do. In a similar way, believers in eternal torment disagree with universalists (and annihilationists) about what God’s justice requires of him. But for them to warn us away from our convictions about what we think Scripture teaches on the grounds that it means that we “don’t believe in a just God, any more than an atheist does,” is just not going to cut it. I think exegesis should be free, in the sense that you should be able to be honest with what you think Scripture says about salvation, about eternal life, about judgement etc, without any fear that you’re falling afoul of somebody’s framework of what’s good enough to count as “real” love or “real” justice. I know, Tom, you’ve said that you’re not at all worried about rules about things like heresy. I do wonder at that, however, when I see titles like “the heresy of exclusivism.” If you see that you can come to your conclusions about eternal life while still verbally (and honestly) maintaining belief in a God of justice since you no longer agree with your former beliefs about justice, is it really that much of a stretch to allow exclusivists the recognition that they do verbally and honestly believe in a loving God, and that they do not agree with your beliefs about divine love?


Here is my problem, Glenn. I have no inclination at all to apologize for any of the things that seem to worry you most about me, such as (1) my ongoing conviction that a doctrine of limited election is logically inconsistent with a loving God, or even with a God who has a genuine love for the elect, (2) my autobiographical description of how, as an undergraduate, I concluded that the mainline theologians no more believed in a loving God than my atheistic philosophy professor did, and (3) the title of my paper “The Love of God and the Heresy of Exclusivism [see the appendix to this post]. And yet, I fully appreciate that these are genuine concerns of yours. So, before concluding that you and I must simply agree to disagree on these matters, I propose to address your concerns one more time.

Perhaps the best place to begin is with your interesting suggestion that “a mark of fairness is that we must be both willing and able to describe another person’s position in terms that they themselves could accept.” I certainly agree that you have identified a worthy goal. But I also doubt that there can be any hard and fast rule here, because virtually any philosophical criticism of one’s own position, provided that one continues to reject the criticism, will likely appear to violate such a rule. I’ll give two examples below.

Example 1
Suppose that a critic of universalism should argue as follows: Universalists not only fail to appreciate the seriousness of sin; they cannot consistently believe that it even matters what we do, because God will save everyone in the end regardless of what a person does. So why not continue in sin so that grace may abound all the more? Now I may regard this objection as pretty confused (I do). But suppose now that, instead of addressing the criticism directly, I should merely complain that my critic has failed to describe my own position in terms that I can accept. I think this would be pretty silly or even–dare I say it?–unfair to my critic. For how else could a critic express such an objection except by describing my position in terms that I would probably never accept?

Example 2
In several places I have argued as follows: It is logically impossible that God should both love Jacob (or Rebecca, for that matter) and literally hate Esau, or even fail to love Esau as much as he loves Jacob. Therefore, one cannot consistently believe both that the doctrine of limited election is true and that God genuinely loves Jacob (or any of the elect at all). The details of this argument, first suggested to me by the words of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats, need not concern us here. For even if my argument is unsound and utterly confused, an important question remains: How could anyone express such an argument, or even offer it for rebuttal, without describing the doctrine of limited election in terms that a serious proponent of the doctrine would likely be unwilling to accept? Does not almost any criticism of a position carry the implicit assumption that its proponents have not yet understood it properly?

But let all of that pass. Let us now try to be as fair as possible to Calvin’s own words, making every effort to do justice to them, and let us ask this question: “Did Calvin even so much as claim that God has a loving nature, or that it is God’s very nature to love? I doubt it.

I’ll probably never forget the time I went searching for such a claim in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and discovered, to my astonishment, that in this entire work, as massive and complete as it is, he never once mentioned the Johannine declaration that God is love. How, I wondered, could this have happened? Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of over 1500 pages; in it he sought to provide an exhaustive summary of Christian doctrine, as he understood it, along with the biblical support for it. In the Westminster Press edition, the index of Bible references alone is 39 pages of small print with three columns per page. And yet, in this entire work Calvin never once found the Johannine declaration that God is love important enough to discuss. I was stunned. Here was a statement that, to all appearances at least, provides a glimpse into the very nature of the Christian God, and in his Institutes Calvin ignored it altogether; he did not even find it important enough to explain it away.

So I next turned to Calvin’s commentary on I John. I figured that here, at least, he would have to comment upon I John 4:8 & 16, and here I indeed found the passage that you have quoted. But we can hardly be fair to Calvin’s own words in this passage unless we include the very next sentence, which was in fact Calvin’s own conclusion. Accordingly, here is the full comment including (in bold) the inference that Calvin himself drew from the words that you have quoted:

Thanks Tom.

It will come as no surprise that I continue to defend the claim that whether exclusivism is true or false, those who hold it cannot fairly be said to lack belief in a loving God. I do hope that this initial point of disagreement can be set aside in favour of delving into the question of eternal destinies.

That said, I really do think that the right thing to do is to describe your opponents belief in terms that he can accept. True, some opponents will simply be unreasonable and will not be willing to allow any use of terms that they would not themselves use, or any terms that are not totally favorable. But still, I do not think that your examples overturn this rule:

I daresay that the answer to this is fairly easy to find: It would be wrong for your opponent to declare that you do not believe that sin matters, for this attributes to you beliefs that you will not admit having, and rightly so. The critic in this case fails my test, for he has not described your position in terms that you accept.

On the other hand, if this critic says that your position on sin, if true, would cause him to think that sin doesn’t matter, then he is being fair and has not misrepresented you. I think it is always possible for someone who holds that your view is false can still describe it in terms that you can accept as properly representative.

My claim is not you can only make claims that the other party accepts. My claim is only that when you describe the beliefs of your opponent, you should be able to to do so in terms that they can accept as being true representations of their beliefs. For example, it is fair game to tell the Calvinist: “In spite of what you believe, in fact it is inconsistent to believe that God loves one person (in the way that you think God loves people) and that he also fails to love other people.” This way, obviously, you’re making no claim about what people believe. What would not be fair game, for example, would be to say “not only do I think that there is a contradiction here, but you actually affirm that contradictions can be true.” This, logically, is what is happening when you say that exclusivists do not even believe in a loving God.

I cannot help but notice now a somewhat new goal. Previously you had claimed, and I had objected to the claim, that exclusivists do not believe in a loving God. Presumably a loving God is a God who loves. Looking back over our posts thus far, that seems quite clearly to be what we were talking about.

Now, however, Calvin’s affirmation that God is love and that God loves do not seem good enough, even though they certainly satisfy the claim that he thought that God is loving. Now the claim seems to be much more technical in nature about how Calvin construed the divine essence. It seems greatly important that Calvin said “Here then he does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God, but only shows what he is found to be by us.” What he is warning against is that John’s statement that “God is love” must not allow us to reduce God’s entire nature to one facet - love. For example other “God is” statements (e.g. God is holy) much not be construed as total descriptions either, even though they do use the formula A is B. The error that this guards us from is the error of seeing “is” to mean the same thing as “equals” in a mathematical equation. An apple is red, but the concept of an apple is not identical with the concept of red. Likewise, God is love, but it would be wrong to reduce the concept of God to the concept of love. God is a person.

But if we could change the past and re-write your challenge, Tom, to say that exclusivists do not believe that God is nothing but love, any more than an atheist does, I would never have objected.

I am fairly sure that we will have to agree to disagree on this, and I do look forward to discussing the interaction - not between exclusivism and your view, but between universalism and annihilationism. Although to satisfy curiosity, I’m more than happy to reply to your questions on where I stand:

Here is where I confess: I do not dogmatise on the question. The very best ability that I have, I have applied to try and understand what the Bible teaches about this. I have changed my mind - against my will - on the subject, and like most of us, I simply lack the power to make things appear to me in any other way than they currently do. As best I can tell, Scripture teaches that God does not love everyone equally or in the same way, and that while the rain may fall on the righteous and the unrighteous, he has chosen to eternally save some, and not all. Here I stand, I can do no other!

I can imagine that the rhetorical naughtiness of calling another view “heresy” must have been a bit of a kick. I for one didn’t realise that the term was meant in a theologically unfamiliar way. Of course, if any view that might be tempting to some can be called heresy, then I don’t think a single participant at this site could deny that universalism is a heresy! The trouble is that this definition makes what is and is not heresy dependent on how people feel about it, and when everything is heresy, nothing is.


Note: On 7/9/09 I rewrote the final paragraph of this post in an effort to make the paragraph clearer.

In your latest post, Glenn, you made some good points about belief, and perhaps you and I are not quite as far apart on this matter as I had originally thought. For even when, as an undergraduate, I concluded that few of the mainline theologians really believed in a loving God, I was fully aware that people’s beliefs are not always consistent and people do not always accept even the obvious implications of their professed beliefs. I once even encountered a white racist who, despite his belief in the forced segregation of the races, nonetheless professed to believe in equal rights for all people. Sometimes a belief can be quite irrational, in other words. I have also encountered more than a few who have suddenly discovered, perhaps after a great tragedy such as the suicide of a loved one, that they did not really believe a lot of what they had long professed to believe. And, in general, it is our behavior, not what we profess to believe, that is the best indicator of our actual beliefs.

Accordingly, I am quite prepared to concede (and in fact have never denied) that all of the mainline theologians believe, however inconsistently, that God loves the elect. Does it follow that they all believe, albeit inconsistently, in a loving God? I continue to doubt that. For the description “a loving person” surely entails a disposition to love not just one person or even a few people; it entails instead a disposition to love virtually everyone that one meets and gets to know. Indeed, as I use the expression, it entails a disposition to love all people in much the way that my daughter loves all cats, not just any cat that she happens to own as a pet. So if I were to believe, perhaps inconsistently, that Ted Bundy, a serial murderer of young women, genuinely loved and cared for his own mother, it simply would not follow that I believed him to be a loving person in any ordinary sense. The mere fact that he willingly acted in an utterly unloving way towards a whole group of women would preclude his qualifying as a genuinely loving person. And, at this point, the distinction between a question of belief and that of logical consistency begins to break down–as your own response to the two examples in my previous post also illustrates, I think. Insofar as John Calvin explicitly affirmed that God hated Esau and, in addition, hated a huge number of other people, he explicitly denied that God is a loving person in my sense. As I see it, therefore, my claim that many of the mainline theologians do not believe in a loving God is almost a trivial point, given the ordinary way in which we think of loving people, and that is why it surprised me that this should have become a “bone of contention” between us. But I am perfectly content to agree to disagree on this point, or even to make you a present of the expression “a loving person.” For I could always switch to a different expression, such as “an authentically loving person” and use this expression to describe those whose love for some is in no way encumbered by a hatred of others. No sense haggling over the meaning of words.

At first I was disappointed that we had gotten “hung up,” so to speak, on the issue of a loving God, which I mistakenly took to be a rather peripheral issue between us. But after reading your latest post more carefully, Glenn, I now believe that this was just the right place to begin our discussion. For it brings us to the very heart of what will probably be our most basic disagreement. As a universalist, I believe it to be necessarily true that God loves every human being equally; in that way, he is no respecter of persons. And as a Christian universalist, I believe that this is also the best interpretation of the Bible as a whole. As you see it, however, “Scripture teaches that God does not love everyone equally or in the same way, and that while the rain may fall on the righteous and the unrighteous, he has chosen to eternally save some, and not all.”

So now I must ask two additional questions in order to ensure that I truly understand your view. First, do you hold that God’s love is conditional in the sense that it depends on a person’s own choices, actions, beliefs, faith, or something else of that sort? I ask this because you have said that you believe in conditional immortality, and I do not know you well enough to discern whether you would also speak of God’s love as conditional. For my own part, as you might guess, I agree with Calvin and the mainline theologians concerning this: With respect to those whom God does love, he loves them unconditionally. I just don’t believe that God could love anyone, unconditionally or otherwise, unless he loves everyone equally. Second, do you think it so much as logically possible that God should will the best for you and not, at the same time, will the best for each of your four children whom you no doubt love even as you love yourself?

Finally, I simply cannot resist one more comment on the term “heresy.” You wrote:

Although I’m not sure I follow the reasoning here, perhaps the following clarification will help: One does not in general regard a doctrine as heretical, however tempting it may be, unless one also believes it to be mistaken or false; and even as no one holds that every consistent proposition is false, neither does any Christian hold that every religious doctrine is heretical. So even if every consistent proposition should be such that someone or another believes it to be false, it would hardly follow that no consistent proposition is false; and even if every religious doctrine should be such that someone or another should believe it to be heretical, it would hardly follow that nothing is heretical. But in any event, I personally couldn’t care less about the issue of heresy. If I had a dollar for every person who regards universalism as a heresy, I would be a rich man–mega-rich, as a matter of fact. So, does it bother me in the slightest when someone describes my own view as heretical, as many do? And would I respond as if this were an instance of “rhetorical naughtiness,” to use your own term? Not at all. It is not my place to exercise a kind of intellectual tyranny over the religious concerns of others or to dictate how they should frame their own arguments. Besides, in what other way could some people express their honestly held opinion that universalism is indeed heretical?

Thanks for your latest response.


In this post, I want to say what will probably be the last that I have to say about the issues Tom says we initially got “hung up” on. For my part, I don’t think we did. I think I brought the issues up because they matter, and I am glad that we have said what we did about them. The back-and-forth that Tom and I have had about firstly the question of whether or not exclusivists believe in a loving God, and secondly whether or not exclusivists are heretics, highlight what is surely (in my opinion, at any rate) an important issue in the practice of theological scholarship – and for that matter, everyday theological conversations, and more broadly, in the duty that we have to treat our brothers and sister in a certain way. I realise that Tom has cleared the air at his end on this one, but this is cathartic for me, as it has to do with not merely the subject matter itself, but about how any of us should even approach the subject, so they will be my last reflections on that in this discussion.

Consider the two descriptions. These are descriptions given to you by your new Christian friend Jerry. Jerry wants to warn you about the beliefs of a friend you have known for some time, Karen. Here they are:

Description 1:

As someone who speaks English, you know what all those words mean. You know what love is (roughly speaking, at least), and you therefore know what it means for someone to not love. You also have a good idea of what heresy is. You’re not only a competent speaker of modern English, but you’re also a Christian with an interest in the history of the faith. You fully realise, therefore, that a heresy is not just an error, but it’s an error so significant that it marks one as someone who is not within the fold of Christian orthodoxy.

As a normal modern speaker of English, you understand what has just been said, and it ain’t pretty. Karen, Jerry has told you, is outside of Christian orthodoxy and she doesn’t even think God loves anyone – any more than an atheist.

Now here’s description 2:

Which version of Jerry do you think is more fair? Which version of the description is more likely to convey the truth? I submit that the only real appeal in Description 1 is it’s rhetorical “punch,” but what good is that punch if it comes at the price of fundamental misrepresentation that then needs to be undone when you have to explain your real meaning to those who take offence? I could call a black man a nigger, only to then ask that he not take offence, since I was merely using the word in a historical way as expressed in a book I once read where it was explained that the term is connected to the word Niger, which is a place of ancestral origin for the man that I was addressing. Would anyone have sympathy for the way I had spoken to this man? I do see the connection between Dr Talbott’s use of the word heresy and the literary use when using the phrase “the perennial heresy,” since it mimics the title of the book he is imitating, but to see it then adopted as normal in titles like “The Love of God and the Heresy of Exclusivism” is not encouraging. Why say in terms that will almost certainly be interpreted in ways that you say you wish they were not – that which could be expressed in terms that you can be fairly sure everyone will understand? I fear it is just because the truer and fairer terms do not carry the same rhetorical satisfaction.

If Dr Talbot is right to speak this way, then I would be just as right to deny that he believes in a loving God, since he holds a particular nuance of belief about the relationship between love and the divine essence than I do, and I would have as much justification for saying that he, rather than I, is a heretic. The trouble is, I know that he does belief in a loving God (as I do), and he is not a heretic (as I am not). I do not know whether my protests will have any effect at all, but if they do – whether on Dr Talbott or on the reader – I hope that it will be to give them pause before opening their mouth or putting pen to paper. Are you trying to convince, or merely aggravate and start disputes that could have been avoided? Looking at it another way, it is no good using a private language when you are speaking in public. It you have arcane definitions of heresy that you personally like to use, fine. If you like the sound of the claim that someone does not believe in a loving God any more than an atheist does and this has taken on a certain meaning for you, fine. But remember that when you’re speaking to other people, you will need to speak a language that is agreed beforehand. Plain English is usually best (unless one of you can’t speak it).

On that note, I move away from what I take to be the subject of practical ethics, and onto more theological matters. We haven’t even gotten to the distinctives of conditional immortality yet, but I think the questions that Tom is putting to me are very interesting (even enjoyable) ones: First, I believe in conditional immortality, but do I believe that God’s love is conditional? The most straightforward answer is no. Yes, God’s saving me is conditional on Christ’s atoning death, but I realise that Dr Talbott will have taken this as a given. I do not believe that God treats me as forgiven and eternally his because of anything I have done. I think that plenty of Christians hold beliefs that are inconsistent with this – even Christians who are aware of that fact. Under the banner of things “done,” I include mental actions (just as we might think of sins of thought as well as deed). I include attitudes and stances taken, like trust or rejection. As such, if a person is saved because they have made an uncaused decision to take a certain stance towards God, and if (as I think Dr Talbott is) we are treating “save” in the same way as “love,” then that view of salvation would amount tot he claim that God saves us conditionally based on what we do. I realise that not all Christians share my view that mental deeds and stances count as things that we have done, but I think this disagreement exists because if more Christians saw it that way, they would be compelled to either admit that their synergism amounts to believing that God saves them partly because of their good works, or they would have to give up their synergism, which is a price higher than they are willing to pay. The solution is an awkward one: Saying that God saves in part because of how we act towards him, and also saying that this simply doesn’t count as God doing something because of our works. It just doesn’t, and that is that, we are told.

So yes, God’s saving love is unconditional, by which I mean that he is no respecter of persons - salvation is not merit based or determined by our “likeableness.” God does not save because of anything we have done or because of any attribute we have.

(Incidentally, not being a respecter of persons has nothing to do with God’s actions towards everyone being the same. It has, rather, to do with motive.)

Dr Talbott’s second question to me is: “do you think it so much as logically possible that God should will the best for you and not, at the same time, will the best for each of your four children whom you no doubt love even as you love yourself?” The trouble with questions about logical possibility is that there are a great many things that are logically possible that are simply wrong and silly to believe. It’s logically possible that I am Batman (but for those wondering, I’m not). But quite apart from what is logically possible, I have met people who, as far as I can tell, wish the very best for some people, and not for others. This fairly common phenomenon suggests to me that it must be logically possible to do so, or it could not happen.

What’s more, I think Scripture teaches that God in fact will not treat everyone the same in the long run. Here is where the subject must turn more towards biblical theology. If the biblical basis for believing in annihilationism is as overwhelmingly strong as I think it is, then quite apart from what you or I can fathom, the Bible asserts that God will give some eternal life, and he will no longer give life to others. I have some idea of how an evangelical Universalist will reply to the passages in mind. Matthew 10:28 records Jesus warning about God’s ability to destroy people, body and soul, in Gehenna. Is this in anyone’s best interests? Perhaps it is, but not the interests of the person being destroyed. The Apostle Peter said that God turned Sodom and Gommorah into ashes and “condemned them to extinction” (ESV), making them into an example of what will one day happen to the unrighteous. Again, if this is in anyone’s best interest, it may not be in the best interest of the unrighteous.

There’s no need at this stage to continue to go through a laundry list of texts that teach annihilationism. I’m sure Dr Talbott has seen them before. My point is only that there are plenty of texts that have the appearance of saying that God will do to some people what Dr Talbott thinks is not in their best interests.

If any view is in serious philosophical trouble, it is the view that wants to allow these texts to carry their full force, but to say that they apply, not to the person, but only to the sinful nature of that person, or to “the old person,” so to speak. Obviously it is no comfort to this particular sinner to think that I will be replaced by a righteous version of myself at the resurrection, if I will not be there myself! Being destroyed “body and soul” surely does not refer to an invisible thing we call a sin nature, and nor does the historical act of reducing a city to ashes set much of an example of this either. But that argument can wait until – should he choose to – Dr Talbott raises it. For now, I will only say that as best I can tell, Scripture teaches that God will treat some in a way that, I think, Dr Talbott does not consider to be in their best interests.

As you’ll have noticed, Tom (and all readers, for that matter), the rate of my replies has slowed considerably. Life is somewhat busier for me now than before, but this slow pace is perfectly manageable. I have also become aware, Tom, of your wife’s illness. You (and she) are very much in my thoughts and prayers at the moment.


Thanks for your latest reflections, Glenn. Although your remarks raise a host of questions in my mind, I’m going to restrict my attention here to a single issue. In my previous post, I put to you the following question: “do you think it so much as logically possible that God should will the best for you and not, at the same time, will the best for each of your four children whom you no doubt love even as you love yourself?” And in your most recent post you replied as follows:

Questions about logical possibility are especially relevant in a context where someone suspects a logical impossibility. For though many logically possible propositions are quite false (and in some cases silly to believe, as you point out), it is clear that all logically impossible propositions are false. So one way to criticize a position is to argue that it entails an impossibility, and the most effective reply to such a criticism is to argue that some proposition is, contrary to what someone has claimed, logically possible after all. The logical problem of evil illustrates the point nicely. In response to the claim of some atheists that theism entails an impossibility because evil is inconsistent with the existence of God, many theists have responded by defending the logical possibility of God creating a universe with at least some evil in it. Or, consider your own batman example, and imagine that someone should argue that, because the very concept of batman is deeply incoherent, your being batman is not even logically possible. You might not take such an argument seriously and might not reply to it at all. But if you did reply to it, you would most likely find yourself defending a logical possibility.

Now my own view, as you know, is that God could not love you or will the best for you unless he also wills the best for each of your own children (see the chapter entitled “The Paradox of Exclusivism” in The Inescapable Love of God). Yes, we humans are indeed different from God in this respect. For (a) we are not yet perfected in love, and (b) we inevitably operate in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and illusion. More often than not, we do not even know the conditions of our own ultimate happiness, not to mention those of our loved ones; and so, even if my daughter should love her brother dearly, I may fail to discern the extent to which her own happiness requires his happiness as well. But how, I wonder, is this even relevant to the case of God, whose love never needs to be perfected and whose perfect will is never encumbered by ambiguity, ignorance, or illusion?

So I guess my basic question stands. But this time I’ll express it a bit more pointedly: Do you really think it logically possible that God might reject one of your own children, whom you love even as you love yourself, and, at the same time, will the best for you? Or, to put it another way: Do you think it possible that God would both will the best for you and, at the same time, annihilate one of your own children? And if you do believe this, could you perhaps explain further how you come to believe it?

Thanks again for your latest reflections.


I think we’ve reached a very important juncture. I said in my previous post that it is possible to will the best for one person and not for another. Tom has, quite rightly, drawn my attention to the fact that he has not asked whether it is logically possible for just anyone to do so. Sure, it’s logically possible to do it. The question is whether or not God could do so. Fair enough.

At the risk of asking an outrageous question, what difference does it make that we are talking about God and not one of us? The reason I ask the question is here: I am going to say that the difference that Tom is banking on is not what Tom says it is. He says that we might will the best for some and not others, but this has no bearing on whether or not God could, because:

However, I put it to everyone here – Tom included – that the issue is not that God is “perfected in love.” Tom is asking about what is logically possible. It’s possible for us to be inconsistent and illogical, but not God. It is not God’s love, but God’s logic that is driving this argument. The claim is that there is a logical contradiction in willing the best (that is, willing eternal salvation) for some but not for others. We mere mortals are less than perfectly logically consistent, so we may well do things that conflict. God, however, so the rationale for this argument seems to be, is a paradigm of perfect logic and is therefore fully consistent. That, rather than his love, is the reason we are being told that it is impossible for him to will the best for some and not others. To do so, Tom believes, is logically inconsistent.

But is it really? My answer is going to be more or less the same as in my previous post. Firstly, who knows? Secondly, in situations like this, Scripture is the best guide we have.

To my first answer: Who knows? It’s easy to say that something is logically impossible, but talk of what is and is not logically possible or impossible is often a product of our wishful thinking. I turned to chapter eight of Talbott’s work on the love of God to see exactly how he goes about his logical proof, only to find that there is nothing like a logical proof here. One of his key arguments, for example (pp 137-138), is based on God’s injunction that we love our neighbour as ourself.

After all, Talbott tells us, to fail to act in the best interests of his daughter is to fail to act in his best interests.

This is wrongly presented as an argument. It is not an argument, but rather a claim. It is the conclusion of what should be an argument, but the argument is missing. I think it is a claim that gets the divine-human relationship quite wrong. It assumes, for example, a reciprocity between our stance towards others and God’s stance towards others. But why should there be such a reciprocity? It’s not a logical necessity, so we need good reasons for accepting that such reciprocity exists. There is certainly no such reciprocity between our stance towards God and God’s stance towards us. For us to love God means literally worshiping him, declaring God to be the greatest good that exists, serving God and only God above all else. But clearly when we say that God loves us, we are not saying that God does any of these things – nor for that matter should we do any of those things towards those whom God commands us to love! When God commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves, I am assuming that those who read this think that God wants us to regard one another as equals. But our love for God is nothing like this. So the assumption of reciprocity is clearly false, and any argument that depends on it should be rejected.

Not only is any assumption of reciprocity false, but the claim that Talbott presents above assumes much more than it is entitled to. Talbott does not offer an argument for the claim that fail to act in the best interests of someone he loves is to fail to act in his best interests. Is he entitled to think this? More importantly, is he so clearly entitled to this belief that he can appeal to it to block competing beliefs? No, he is not. As Talbott would readily admit, we can be mistaken about what is in our best interests. What we now think is in our best interests might in fact not be so, and likewise what we now think is contrary to our best interests might not be so; perhaps it is in our best interests after all, or perhaps in reality – in spite of how we currently feel and think – it would make no long term difference to our best interests. Given that there’s no attempt at a proof that the best for all is required in order for the best for me to come to pass, it’s not something that can be appealed to against those who find themselves not sharing the belief.

To my second reply: Scripture is the best guide we have.

C S Lewis told us, rightly so, that nonsense does not cease to be nonsense just because we attribute it to God. If something really is a logical contradiction, it does not good saying “but I think this is what God will do. God! He can do anything!” A contradiction is a contradiction is a contradiction. However, where there is no proof that a genuine contradiction exists, we’re perfectly within our epistemic rights as Christians to argue as follows:

  1. Some people claim that action X is logically impossible
  2. No proof the logical impossibility of X is forthcoming, but some hold a strong belief that it is logically impossible
  3. Whatever God will do is logically possible
  4. The Bible says that God will do X
  5. If the Bible says that God will do X, thwen God will do X
  6. Therefore God will do X
  7. Therefore X is logically possible

The above represents the way I think about the eternal loss of some and the salvation of others. There’s no logical proof of its impossibility. All we have is a “surely not!” argument, like the one Talbott presents in his book. Where we have a standoff like this, the proper type of appeal that Christians should make is to biblical theology. This, in fact, is the reason that I reject universalism and embrace annihilationism: It seems to me that either is possible as far as we can prove with logic (or at any rate, no logical disproof of either view is forthcoming), and biblical theology seems to me to absolutely require a rejection of universalism and eternal torment, and the acceptance of annihilationism.

If doing what is in a person’s best interest means giving them immortality and eternal fellowship with God, then the Bible teaches that God will do what is not in some people’s best interests. When Jesus tells people to fear God who is able to destroy body and soul in Gehenna, it is difficult to think of this as being in a person’s best interests, isn’t it? The same is true of Peter’s warning that the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah serves as an example of what God will one day do to the ungodly. The “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” doesn’t sound like something that those enemies ought to regard as being in their best interests, nor does the prospect of Christ destroying his enemies with “everlasting destruction.”

Given, then, that God only does what is logically consistent, it is – failing some extraordinary explanation of these and many other passages of Scripture – logically consistent to act in the best interests of some but not others.

I am aware of what some universalists make of these texts (the most novel approach, in my view, being the view that God promises to destroy the “old man” or sinful nature, rather than the person with that sinful nature). I’ll address those re-appraisals of the relevant passages should Dr Talbott see fit to raise them. But in the meantime I see no reason to think that universalism is required by the law of non-contradiction. This removes one of the objections to the overwhelming exegetical evidence for annihilationism.

Thanks for your latest post, Glenn. As I said at the outset, I prefer to proceed one tiny baby step at a time in these discussions. So I’m going to begin this post with the same question with which I ended my previous post. I there asked:

Although you do not address the question directly, may I presume that the import of your latest post is something like the following? “Yes, God could love me or will the best for me and, at the same time, fail to love or to will the best for one of my own children.” I fully appreciate that it takes something of a “logical leap” to move directly from anything you said in your latest post to that specific answer. So I’ll have to rely upon you to correct me if I am here misinterpreting your own view. But if I am indeed interpreting it correctly, then you and I definitely have a fundamental disagreement at this point. For, as you know, I hold just the opposite view. I cannot, of course, refute your claim by the mere expedient of repeating my own claim, which contradicts yours; you are quite right about that. But neither can I, for the life of me, see why you would say that I have given no argument for my own claim (See pages 134-137 of The Inescapable Love of God). My argument may be, in part, a conceptual argument (having to do with the nature of love and how it ties people’s interests together), but a conceptual argument is still an argument. You may disagree with my argument or even think it pretty lousy, but a lousy argument is still an argument. [Note: If you are looking for an attempt to deduce an explicit contradiction in a more rigorous way, as some of your remarks suggest you are, see my article “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” reprinted in Kevin Timpe (ed.), [i]Arguing About Religion (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 482-499. See especially pp. 485-493.]

Be all of that as it may, let’s start at the very beginning. The first step of my argument rests upon the claim that the following is conceptually true: A person A loves a person B only if A wills the good for B. In the case of God, he loves you, for example, only if he wills or genuinely desires the best for you; and he wills or genuinely desires the best for you only if he is prepared to act in your best interest. A lot will no doubt depend here on how one might understand (or how a Christian should understand) your best interest. But can we at least agree concerning the conceptual truth that God truly loves someone only if he is prepared to act in that person’s best interest? If not, then perhaps you can explain why you would disagree; if so, then perhaps we can proceed to the next step of the argument.

Finally, at the risk of trying to cover more ground than is fruitful in a single post, I have an additional question about your own understanding of what the Bible as a whole teaches. You wrote:

So far as I can tell, none of the texts to which you have here alluded so briefly and quickly, as if they carried their correct interpretation on their face, entails that some people will never receive “immortality and eternal fellowship with God”; much less do they entail that God sometimes acts contrary to a person’s best interest. At the very least, I would like to see a strong exegetical argument here. My present question, however, concerns how you would interpret a different set of texts in relation to the ones cited above. When you read that God wills or “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4), or when you read that God is “not willing that any should perish, but [wills instead] that all should come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9), or when you read that, even in his severity, God is merciful to all (Rom. 11:32), would you agree that such texts initially appear to imply that God wills the best for all people? Mind you, I am not now asking whether you would interpret any of these texts as teaching an explicit universalism; even as a universalist myself, I would reject that extravagant claim. Instead, I am asking whether you would interpret any of them as teaching that God loves all people in the sense that he at least wills the best for them all. Or, would you interpret them in some other way?

Once again, I’ll look forward to your answer to my questions.


The question that Tom left me with in mid September was this: “Do you really think it logically possible that God might reject one of your own children, whom you love even as you love yourself, and, at the same time, will the best for you?” He also asked me to give some indication of how I came to hold me view.

My answer was briefly this: There’s no logical proof here. If there were this could be settled fairly easily, but there’s no logical case that loving or willing the best for one person is logically incompatible with not loving or willing the best for another person.

Where a Christian is asking a question about what’s logically possible and what’s not and there’s no analytical proof of logical impossibility in sight (and in spite of what Dr Talbott maintains, I see no such argument in his book. What I see is an appeal to the assumption that there is a logical incompatibility here), he or she is perfectly entitled, I explained, to ask what Scripture says about it. If Scripture appears to teach that something is true, then absent any logical proof to the contrary, a Christian has good grounds for thinking that it is both logically possible and true. I would hope that all readers realise straight away that this does not amount to the claim that God will reject some people because it’s logically possible for him to do so!

In turning briefly to the Scriptural argument, I was addressing the question about what is possible, but also answering Dr Talbott’s second question – the question of how I arrived at my view. I provided a small sample of texts that appear to teach that God will – if his love involves giving people eternal life and fellowship with himself – not love everyone.

Then came Dr Talbott’s most recent post. Here we focus closely on two things (I don’t think two is too many, and I think we’re proceeding slowly (!) enough that each question will get adequate attention). Those two things are: What love is and what love requires on the one hand, and what Scripture allows a loving God to do on the other.

To the question. Dr Talbott says:

There is actually a slip between different claims here. The first claim is:

“A person A loves a person B only if A wills the good for B.”

The second claim is:

“[God] loves you only if he wills or genuinely desires the best for you.”

The precise difference is obvious: The good has become the best. It is hopefully clear that a person A can love a person B by desiring or willing good for them but not desiring or willing the best for them. Be that as it may, I think that Tom’s claim proceeds just fine even if we restrict ourselves to the modest claim: A loves B only if A wants what is good, and not bad, for B. What this tells us is that – as I think all of us see already – love is the kind of thing that can come in degrees. Naturally, this fact doesn’t tell us that God loves anyone in degrees, but it is a feature of love nonetheless.

I’m perfectly willing to proceed on the agreement that love involves willing what is good and not bad for the one you love.

As for the exegetical issue, I think Dr Talbott is certainly mistaken when he says that the texts that I briefly presented do not entail ‘that some people will never receive “immortality and eternal fellowship with God’.” In fact I think they do. The point of Christ’s contrast between men who can kill the body – but that is only temporary, and not as terrible as God’s act of destroying a person body and soul certainly, on the face of it, has the appearance of being a contrast between temporary death and eternal destruction. And if ever there was a way to say that a person’s destruction is not temporary but everlasting, the Apostle Paul was surely making use of it by saying that some shall be punished with “everlasting destruction.” So the prima facie meaning of at least some specific texts of Scripture really is that some will never ever receive everlasting life.

Since I am fairly certain that Dr Talbott’s position is that having eternal life and fellowship with God is in everyone’s best interests (he is welcome to correct me if this is not his position), there are texts of Scripture that show – failing some compelling alternative explanation – that God will do for some people that which is not (in Talbott’s view) in their best interests.

Next, Dr Talbott refers to some texts of his own, and in doing so he presents an excellent opportunity to discuss how various types of biblical texts should be interpreted. He says:

Yes, I do agree with this.

Romans 11, I think, has the most readily available explanation, since the whole context suggests it: the context of Romans 11 is all about the difference between Israel and all the nations. “All” here, I would think, is in contrast to “Israel only.” But in the case of 1 Timothy and 2 Peter, yes, the appearance of a desire to save (do the best for) every individual person is easy to see if these texts are presented as texts in favour of that view.

The issue that this opens up for us is the role that broad texts from which we draw over-arching principles from play compared with the role of texts that seem to be more specific, referring to acts of God. The texts that Dr Talbott has chosen are texts of the former sort. The texts that I presented were of the latter sort. The principle that I want to suggest to Dr Talbott and the reader is this: If we think that we’ve uncovered a rule in Scripture, but then we find a laundry list of exceptions to that rule, then we were probably mistaken in thinking that we had discovered a rule.

This is precisely why more Christians do not interpret these two texts (1 Timothy and 2 Peter) to teach that God will ultimately do what is best for every individual – there are too many specific indications in Scripture that the principle that Dr Talbott infers from those texts is not correct.

But to reiterate – Yes, I agree that the first impression one could quite understandably get if presented with a piece of paper and nothing but these two verses written out on it, is that God intends to do what is best for all, and ultimately save all.

Awaiting your reply, Tom
All the best

As you know, Glenn, I hold that God, whose perfect love (unlike our imperfect love) is in no way a matter of degree and in no way encumbered by ambiguity, ignorance, or illusion, could not possibly love you unless he loves each of your children as well. Call this the conclusion of an argument that you seem unable to find in my book. Put in a more general form and stated a bit more rigorously, the conclusion is this:

© Necessarily, for any two persons S and S*, if S loves or wills the best for S*, then God loves or wills the best for S only if God also loves or wills the best for S*.

Here it is important not to conflate, as you appear to do in a couple of places, a specific claim about God, one that takes into account his unique perfections, with an obviously false claim about people in general. For in producing a conceptual argument for ©, in no way am I claiming, as you put it, a “logical case that loving or willing the best for one person is logically incompatible with not loving or willing the best for another person.” My genuine love for my daughter, for example, hardly requires that I also love some Chinese peasant of whose existence she and I are both quite ignorant. Nor does some degree of love for my daughter even require, I would concede, a great love for everyone, such as a particular boyfriend, that she might happen to love. As I wrote in a previous post:

The difference between God (with his unique perfections) and people in general is also relevant to the first step of my argument for ©. In my previous post I thus wrote:

To which you replied as follows:

Now you are certainly right that the two claims above are quite distinct: Whereas the first is a claim about people in general, including created finite persons, the second is a specific claim about God, taking into account the divine perfections. But the distinct character of the second claim, which I marked with the words “In the case of God,” was quite intentional and, contrary to what you suggest, in no way “a slip” of any kind. For as you point out yourself, “love is the kind of thing [at least in the case of human beings] that can come in degrees”; however, “this fact doesn’t tell us that God loves anyone in degrees.” So if we can agree that God does not love in degrees, can we also agree that God never wills less than the best for those he loves? If so, then perhaps we can move to the second step of my argument for ©.

The second step concerns the way in which love ties peoples’ interests together in an inclusive way. Here is how I expressed it in The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 137-138:

Although many opponents of universalism and even many annihilationists are quite prepared to accept this second step of my argument for © and indeed are quite prepared to accept © itself, I am presuming, given some of your past responses, that you disagree with them. I find this puzzling, to say the least. But in any event, am I right to infer that you disagree with those annihilationists who believe in the universal love of God?

One final point on a different topic. As you might expect, I strongly disagree with your interpretation of Matthew 10:28. As I see it, the destruction of the body is a necessary condition of its resurrection, and the destruction of a soul, though indeed a fearful thing, is likewise a necessary condition of its revivification. Here we must pay close attention to how the Gospel writers use the word “appolumi” (“to destroy") when translating the words of Jesus. To be destroyed is simply to be lost or brought to ruin, a necessary precondition of being found or saved from ruin. In Matthew 10:6 Jesus thus commands his disciples to go to certain destroyed sheep in the house of Israel; in Luke 19:10 we read that the Son of Man came to seek and to save (literally) the thing having been destroyed; in the parable of the prodigal son, the father likewise says of the prodigal that, having been destroyed, he was found (Lk. 15:24); and in the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd goes after the one sheep having been destroyed until he finds it.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said here. But it is now past the time to bring an overly long post to its close. Thanks for your most recent response.


I apologise for the delay in this reply. The last couple of months have been crazy for multiple reasons. I’ll offer some comments on the overall issues that I see going on here, and also some comments on specific points raised.

As Tom and others will be aware, there are at least a couple of stances that non-Universalists take on the issue of whether or not God loves those who will be lost and how God loves them.

Some take the view that God loves all people identically, that is, there’s no distinction to be made between the love that God has for John Lost and the love that God has for Mary Saved. Love is like a passive force (like sunlight or radiation, or just “the force” from Star Wars) that radiates from God and passes through everyone the same. God’s love is the same for all, no degrees, no distinction, it’s just this stuff called God’s love and everyone is in it. People who hold this combination of views that I have in mind (exclusivism and a distinctionless view of divine love) view might reason that since God, according to their model, loves all exactly the same, and since some, according to their exegesis, will not be saved, it must be that God’s love for them (which is exactly like God’s love for everyone else in all respects) is compatible with (or perhaps even requires) that they not be saved. If they grant that love involves doing what is best for that person, they must claim that either withdrawing life from that person – or sustaining that person forever in conscious misery (or in the theology of many, sustaining them and allowing or causing them to suffer the worst agony possible) – is actually better for them than giving them eternal life, happiness, a redeemed character and fellowship with God. I make the conservative guess that I am not the only person privy to this discussion who believes that this sounds implausible. I am unable to fathom how the former could be better for someone than the latter.

Although I think the above is implausible, the actual exegetical evidence for annihilationism is, as I see it, absolutely overwhelming. I also think that rejecting this view of the love of God (however it is re-characterised – I have not attributed the above description of it to Tom), is not something anywhere decried in Scripture, and is, I think compatible with it and at times very agreeable to it. My approach, as readers will have gathered by now, is not to put together a doctrine of God’s love or God’s character, and then to apply this mold top-down onto what the Bible says about God’s actions and declarations. I can recall discussions with advocates of eternal torment where people were disappointed by my unwillingness to do this. They had a model of divine justice and how it needed to be satisfied. No interpretation of specific texts would be adequate unless and until they conform to this model. In other words, the model itself was almost beyond critique. This very feature of the thought of those evangelicals is what made me keenly aware of the need to do things in just the reverse order. A model of God’s character and love – while it will find expression in some overt statements in Scripture, must be built up from the bottom. Our approach needs to be inductive – looking at all of the things Scripture says God will do. The more I look over the discussion that Tom and I are having, the more I think that this is – in practice at least – something that is perpetuating our disagreement. It is also why, I think, I am (as far as I can tell) chomping at the bit to actually dig in and discuss the specifics of what Scripture tells us God will do, while Tom (again, as far as I can tell) has his concerns more focused on presenting a model of divine love and then asking what is or is not logically compatible with that model, and then moving on to ask what future divine actions this model and its logical implications are compatible with.

As I said in my very early comments in this discussion, I do not believe that God loves everyone in the same way:

I will come back to this shortly. Here’s something that came up over the last couple of posts. Tom says that “A person A loves a person B only if A wills the good for B.” I haven’t taken issue with this. I did however take issue with the suggestion that we can get from here to the claim: “[God] loves you only if he wills or genuinely desires the best for you.” Tom called this an “example” of the first statement in action, when it comes to God. I don’t think that this has been shown true.

Tom thinks that this has to be true for God on account of God’s perfection.

As noted earlier, I have granted that Tom’s claim does not amount to the claim that I cannot love one unless I love all. I can indeed be inconsistent, ignorant and so forth. But God, as the paradigm of knowledge and logic, Tom is arguing, cannot love one without loving all, and although for us, loving person A means willing what is good for A, God’s perfections raise the bar on this, meaning that God cannot love A unless he wills the absolute best for A in all things.

It is this jump to what God’s perfections require that I find lacking in rationale. If love is willing what is good for someone (which Tom accepts when it comes to humans), why must love morph into willing the absolute best for someone.

For example, it is loving to send rain on Benjamin’s crops that need rain. When God sends rain because he wants Benjamin’s crops to grow, is he not being loving if the amount of rain sent is not the optimum amount for optimum growth? Perhaps God sends enough rain so that the yield is 95% of what it could be. Is this an act of something other than love? If so, what is it? Maybe Tom doesn’t see things like this as acts of love at all if God does them. I don’t really see why not, however.

I made this distinction between a person loving A if he wills what is good for A, and a person loving A only if he wills the best for A. I noted that you can’t get the latter our of the former. After all, we are capable of loving in degrees. But I don’t think this is any sort of proof that in the case of God, love comes in degrees. After all, the absence of proof is not the same as the presence of a disproof. So I conceded: “this fact doesn’t tell us that God loves anyone in degrees.”

Tom, here you took this and made it into a concession of something else. You said: “So if we can agree that God does not love in degrees, can we also agree that God never wills less than the best for those he loves?” In fact we haven’t agreed here. It seems to me that there is nothing inherently impossible about God loving people in degrees or in different ways (or stated negatively, withdrawing himself from certain people and not others).

Now, why would God do that? Because some are sinners? Clearly not, because that would require God to withdraw from everyone. No charitable description of an exclusivist view would actually portray it as deeming some lost and others saved because those who are lost are more wicked than those who are saved. On the contrary – Calvinism is often lampooned for quite the opposite reason: It takes the rationale of God’s decision making away from the moral goodness of human beings altogether. If one takes a very strongly synergistic/Arminian exclusivist view, I suppose one might be a target for the criticism that God loves people to the extent that they love, so the more wicked people who do not love the creator are less likely to be objects of God’s love to the same extent, but my view bears little resemblance to anything like that.

The reality is: were I to find a really compelling argument that divine love is always and only expressed in doing the absolute best that can possibly be done for a person, then instead of being moved towards universalism, I would instead be moved towards reconsidering the possibility that I have already called implausible: that view that the total loss of life is what is best for some (I would move this way rather than towards univeralism because I consider the biblical evidence for annihilationism to be overwhelmingly strong, perhaps as strong as the claim that God intends to save anyone at all). I admit that I do not currently see how this could be, but then, I also admit that I do not think I need to defend that view, so I am currently not bothered by this apparent implausibility.

Tom, your next argument concerned the way that what God commands in regard to love can be turned around and applied to God. God commands us to love, therefore God loves, and loves all of us for that matter, because failing to love those whom I love shows a lack of love for me. I have already said something about the aspects of this argument that treat God’s love as reciprocal: He loves us in the same way that we are meant to love him. I think this is simply wrong for reasons already given. My second reply is simply to note something uncontroversial: We are ignorant and we lack omniscience about the future. Nobody here doubts this, of course. The reality is, I cannot and do not know what my relationship with my own beloved son will be like in the future. I am perfectly happy to believe that if I eternally remain in God’s love, and my son eternally remains in my love and I in his, that we will both eternally remain in God’s love. But what if our destinies are such that we will not always stand in this relationship with one another? As I think I can take for granted, readers are familiar with the biblical use of language whereby to “love” or to “hate” sometimes means to accept or reject (e.g. “Jacob I have loved, but Esau have I hated”). Of course, given the relationship that I now enjoy with my son, it’s not nice to imagine the possibility, but at some point we simply have to take seriously those unpleasant texts about family relationships that record the teaching of no less than Jesus. He brings a sword that will divide family members on from the other. He tells us that unless we hate our own family members and love him, we cannot so much as be his disciples. I realise that the very idea of an “us and them” mentality cuts right against the grain of a universalist mindset, but I don’t think Scripture offers much comfort to that mindset. It boils down to this: If my son ultimately rejects my Lord, and declares him unworthy of worship, then – difficult though it is for me to appreciate now – my son will not always remain in my love. The same psalm that declares “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” also declares “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? Do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred, and I count them my enemies.”

Turning lastly to an exegetical matter, let me say with all respect that you comments on Matthew 10:28, Tom, I found simply bizarre. You say:

Jesus’ comparison is between what men can do and what God can do. Men can kill the body and not the soul, whereas God can destroy the body and soul in Gehenna, so we should fear God rather than men. As I read this passage, what men can do is only temporary, whereas what God can do is not. More on this later.

I agree that we must pay close attention to how the Gospel writers use the word apollumi. However, I daresay that the above comment is not an example of paying close attention at all. When the verb apollumi is used in the synoptic Gospels to refer to the actions of one personal agent against another (e.g. Matt 2:13, Matt 9:22 etc) – apart from the texts on eternal punishment – it always refers to someone literally killing another. There is not a single exception to this. In context this makes sense as well. I for one am not a platonic dualist, so I do not analyse the terms here as referring to a mere mortal body and an immaterial immortal soul. However even if I did this, there’s little doubt about what it means to destroy or kill a body: it means to bring its life to an end. I take psuche in this verse to refer to one’s life, but even if I took it to refer to an immaterial soul, the meaning remains the same, namely to kill or destroy the soul.

What is truly strange, Tom, is the way that you talk about these frightful acts as the prerequisite to resurrection and revivification. What men do when they kill us is a prerequisite to our resurrection, and yet Jesus tells us not to fear them. If God is going to do something that is really no worse, and is likewise merely a prerequisite for ultimate restoration, then why would the act be any more fearful than what man can do?

In fact, if we should read this verse as referring to a prerequisite for the final “revivification” of us prior to our eternal glory, then what it represents is a hermeneutical method that actually makes it impossible for us to find annihilationism in the Bible even if that is precisely what the biblical writers intended. Sure, they could directly state that God will end the life of the lost, but, as you say Tom, ending one’s life is precondition of bringing a person back to life! Since destroying something can always be undone by God, no biblical reference to the destruction of the lost would ever suffice, meaning that in my view, your method of denial that this text teaches annihilationism makes your denial unfalisfiable.

A far more natural contrast here is the contrast between men who can only kill you in this life on the one hand, and God, who can destroy you in the world to come. Also instructive here is the language used by the Apostle Paul, who uses language closely related to apollumi when he tells us that God will punish his enemies with “everlasting destruction.” If there was any strange hope that the destruction of Matthew 10:28 might only be temporary (in spite of the oddity of reasoning this way), it is surely laid to rest with the revelation that the destruction will be eternal.

With that, this late and long contribution to the discussion ends.

Wow, Glenn, your latest post covers so much ground that it would take several full-length papers to cover all of the points raised in it. So, in an effort to avoid the curse of these internet discussions, where each post back and forth becomes longer and more diffuse than the previous one, thereby making it impossible for a reader to follow the discussion, I’m going to restrict my attention here to a single issue. Unfortunately, I have repeatedly failed to stick to my own avowed intention to proceed one tiny baby step at a time, and my present post will be an attempt to rectify this.

Evidently, I misunderstood you when I previously asked: “So if we can agree that God does not love in degrees, can we also agree that God never wills less than the best for those he loves?” As you explain in your latest post, correcting my misunderstanding: “It seems to me that there is nothing inherently impossible about God loving people in degrees or in different ways (or stated negatively, withdrawing himself from certain people and not others).” Similarly, even as I have misunderstood you in this respect, I think I have detected several misunderstandings in your latest response to me. And that merely illustrates, of course, why it is so essential to proceed slowly in these discussions.

Accordingly, I now want to clarify in my own mind just what you have been claiming about the concept of love (agape), as we encounter it in the Bible. Towards that end, here are three initial questions:

First Question: We agree, I take it, that we are commanded to love our neighbor even as we love ourselves. So how, I wonder, do you understand this specific command? Do we have here a command merely to will or to desire that our neighbor achieve some limited good out of life for some limited period of time? And would meeting the terms of this command, as you understand it, perhaps be compatible with our willing (hoping?) that our neighbor should then come to a terrible end? Or, do we have here a command requiring that we will or desire the very best for our neighbor? Granted, love is a matter of degree in human beings, even as knowledge is a matter of degree, and perhaps none of us are able to love our neighbors perfectly during our earthly lives. But my question concerns the content of the command, the ideal set forth, not the extent to which we are able to live up to the ideal. Could I, as you see it, both will less than the best for my neighbor and nonetheless fulfill the command that I love my neighbor as myself?

Second Question: As I have said before, my argument concerning the inclusive nature of God’s love is not an argument for universalism; it is instead an argument against limited election, an argument that many opponents of universalism among the Arminians, Roman Catholics, freewill theists, and annihilationists would gladly accept. But even as an annihilationist, you appear not to accept it. So my second question is this: Would you agree that at least some human beings–the elect, perhaps–are such that God loves them perfectly and thus wills the very best for them?

Third Question: You have quoted Psalm 139:22, which no doubt provides a true description of the Psalmist’s own attitude at the time of writing. Do you hold that the Psalmist’s hatred for those whom he counts as his enemies is a proper attitude for a Christian? Is this, as you see it, what the text is teaching? If so, how would you square this with Jesus’ command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? One possibility, of course, is that we simply have an inconsistency here. But in any event, bear in mind that the Psalmist is speaking of people who have not yet died, some of whom could possibly repent even in this life. So when Saul of Tarsus consented to the stoning of Stephen, would it have been proper for Stephen to hate this “chief” of sinners, who was also the most notorious religious terrorist of his day? Would it have been proper for Stephen, in other words, to say: “I hate Saul with a perfect hatred, and I count this terribly wicked man as my enemy because he obviously hates Jesus Christ as well as the followers of Christ”?

Thanks for your most recent post, and I’ll look forward to your reply to my questions.


Hello again, Glenn:

Because my latest post in this discussion dealt only with the first half of your previous post, and because I now have a small window of opportunity, I have decided to comment further on Matthew 10:28. Although I consider this a sidebar of sorts, you are, of course, free to respond in any way you choose. But my own main focus will remain on the three questions I put to you in my previous post, and so I make no commitment, at least not at the present time, to pursue any further the issues that I discuss here. Anyway, here are some additional thoughts on Matthew 10:28.

Matthew 10:28
It seems that you and I have a fundamental disagreement over the correct interpretation of this text; indeed, as you said yourself, you found my previous remarks simply bizarre. And as an illustration, you quoted the following:

Here I would underscore two points in the above quotation. Note first my statement that the destruction of a soul can indeed be a fearful thing. I daresay that Adolf Hitler and many others who have committed suicide would prefer to have chosen, perhaps even thought they had chosen, a complete annihilation of themselves as subjects of experience. From their own (confused) perspective, in other words, annihilation might seem by far the least fearful option. Note also my clarification that “we must pay close attention to how the Gospel writers use the word “appolumi” (“to destroy") when translating the words of Jesus.” With that in mind, now consider your reply:

Accordingly, let’s simply stipulate that whenever the “verb ‘apollumi’ is used in the synoptic Gospels to refer to the actions of one personal agent against another . . . it always refers to someone literally killing another.” How, I wonder, is this supposed to counter my own assertion that the destruction of a body is a necessary precondition of its resurrection? Or counter my assertion that the destruction of a soul (or a life) is a necessary precondition of its revivification? Remarkably, you appear to concede the irrelevance of the above stipulation when you go on to say: “Since destroying something can always be undone by God, no biblical reference to the destruction of the lost would ever suffice” to demonstrate–that is, would ever suffice to demonstrate apart from an explicit denial of future restoration–that some persons will be extinguished forever. Exactly! That is just my point! Nothing in the context of Matthew 10:28 excludes the possibility of a future restoration. So why read such an exclusion into the text? You will say, of course, that II Thessalonians 1:9, to which you allude briefly at the end of your post, precisely excludes this possibility. But may I suggest as gently as possible that, given the millions of words written on the correct translation of “aionios,” you need something more at this point than a brief allusion to II Thessalonians 1:9? (See my own contribution to these millions of words at the following URL on this site:

There is, however, a much more important point to be made here. For in fact Matthew 10:28 is not the only place where Jesus speaks of destroying (or losing) a soul; in Mark 8:35, indeed, we find the idea of destroying a soul being explicitly linked to that of salvation. According to Jesus, those who try to save their soul will end up destroying it, and those who destroy their soul for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will end up saving it. These paradoxical words are no doubt subject to many different interpretations. But one point seems indisputable: Salvation takes place only when a soul (in some sense of the term “psuche”) is destroyed (in some sense of the term “apollumi”). Now I agree with you that “psuche” essentially means life, but it can also signify a specific kind of life. One kind of life must be destroyed in order for another (more abundant) kind of life to be secured. But in no case, so far as I can tell, does the destruction of a specific kind of life entail the extinction of a person, conceived of as a metaphysical subject of experience; and even if it did entail this, a later restoration would still be possible, as you point out yourself.

You also asked: “why would the act [of God’s destroying a soul] be any more fearful than what man can do” to the body? The answer lies in the fact that the destruction of a soul (or the false self, or the life to which one clings, whatever one wants to call it) requires that one confront all that is false within oneself. Consider again Hitler at the end of World War II when all of his evil plans and ambitions had come to ruin. As his suicide suggests, the last thing he wanted to confront at this time was the kind of person he had become; we can hardly even guess, I suspect, how much fear he would have experienced had he known that he must yet confront his Lord, or perhaps even confront the millions of Jews who had suffered under him. In his great sermon, “The Consuming Fire,” George MacDonald put it this way: “When we teach that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless? No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more.” It is, after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But as the consuming fire of God’s love continues to consume the very thing that sinners identify with, the very thing they might call themselves, they will then begin to learn, at last, why the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10)–why what begins in fear, because of our own imperfections, can only end in love beyond measure and eternal blessedness. For one way or another, according to MacDonald, God will consume the death within us, so that we might all be saved from sin in the end. But in the case of some people, at least, it will be as Paul described: They themselves “will be saved, but only as through fire” (I Cor. 3:15). “Then indeed will you * be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one–O God, we trust in you, the Consuming Fire–shall have been burnt clean and brought home.”*

This is just a quick note to all those in waiting - I’ll have a chance to finish my next post in a few days and it will be up then.

Tom, thank you for your last couple of posts.

It will come as no surprise by now that what you see as a side issue, I do not. You have a position centred around your view on divine love and what it must require, and I have my view, centred around (as I see it, at least) what the Bible says God will do. I get the feeling (a feeling that could simply be wrong) that you think the latter is less important, and that it amounts to chasing little details and missing the big picture. I, on the other hand, think that such details are really the be all and end all of the issue. This is because I think they are more textually grounded (i.e. they arise because of specific and clear examples of what Scripture predicts), whereas your position hinges on a much more easily disputed philosophical construct. I realise, too, that this won’t be how you – or other universalists at this site – see the shape of our disagreement. So we have quite different outlooks, not just on the conclusions, but on how we should go about getting there!

Regarding divine love again:

In light of my view that it is possible for God to show love to some more than others, Tom, you ask me how I see the command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. You ask me if I think it means willing one thing or another for that person. The reality is, I don’t think of this command in terms of a mental disposition at all. I see the command more as a requirement of conduct. I ought to do that which is good for my neighbour as I can. However, there are obvious limits on the expectations of this requirement – but limits that exist because of our humanness. I’m able to sell everything I have, donate all of my income, and literally starve in order to provide for people, but I don’t think I’m required to, nor do I think that I’m required to do more than this, even if that is what is required in order to do the very best for someone. But this is what I think the command requires, to do the good that I can do for my neighbour.

Your second question is whether or not I think that there are any human beings at all who God loves perfectly, and for whom God will do the very best. I must protest at your way of asking the question however, and I sincerely hope it was merely an oversight. You as if I think that “some human beings – the elect, perhaps – are such that God loves them perfectly and thus wills the very best for them?” My answer is no! Nobody is such that God loves them perfectly. My view is that instead, God loves people in spite of the way they are. If you don’t mind, I will re-phrase the question so that you’ll get a somewhat more helpful answer: “Are there any people for whom God has perfect love and for whom he wills to do the very best?” And here my answer is yes. God perfectly loves his only begotten son, and wills to do the very best for him. By proxy, all those who are in Christ are recipients of God’s perfect, saving love, and God will do the very best for them. Not because they “are such,” of course, but because God elected them to be in Christ. All those in Adam (i.e. the whole human race) warrant God’s rejection, but all those in Christ (i.e. the elect) will find acceptance, and God will not withhold his love from them at all. Do other people receive good things from God? Yes, of course.

I have to confess a rather large qualification in answering this second question. Yes, I think that Calvinism is the best approximation of biblical teaching, but over the last year or so I have become very friendly with Molinism. I don’t hold that view, but let’s just say that should I end up being a Molinist in the future and then discover a time machine and travel back to today, the Glenn who is alive today would not think that anything terrible had happened to the Glenn from the future.

Your next question opens up an area of discussion that has not yet been addressed. I referred to the words of the Psalmist, who said 1) that he hates those who hate God, and 2) that he counts as enemies those who hate God (not quite, as you say “the Psalmist’s hatred for those whom he counts as his enemies”). You ask whether or not this is an appropriate attitude for Christians – especially given the way that Jesus said that we should love our own enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. The latter of these two things isn’t as much of a problem, since praying for those who persecute us is very likely to involve praying for their improvement so that they will no longer be people who persecute us, but of course I take your point about loving our enemies.

As an exegetical difficulty it’s just as tricky for the universalist as for anyone else. I could just say that in the Old Testament when this Psalm was written, God was different and expressed himself differently. God encouraged so-called virtues that we now know are really vices. Some, as you’ll know, have done precisely this (Marcion being an obvious example). Neither you nor I would do this.

At least a couple of issues are raised here. For example, you ask if it would have been appropriate for Stephen to say “I hate Saul with a perfect hatred” when Saul approved of his stoning. There’s actually a difference between saying “Do I not hate those who hate you? I count them as enemies” and saying “I hate John, who hates you. I count him as an enemy.” The difference, however, might not be important enough to appropriate the Psalmists attitude to our own lives. After all, saying “I hate anyone who does, in fact, hate you” surely requires us to say that we hate a person if we discover that they do, in fact, hate God. The other issue is, I think, more interesting. That issue is what we could call a “pre-eschatological ignorance.” By that I mean to express the fact that we don’t really know who is a sheep and who is a goat (to borrow from Jesus’ comparison) until the end comes. It is premature to say of a person “he is reprobate. He hates God and is God’s enemy and will always be so.” Think, for example, of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. When workers asked the owner if they should tear out the weeds, the owner tells them to wait, because they will eventually be torn out and thrown into the fire at the harvest. It is, to borrow another biblical phrase, God’s place to avenge.

I think that the answer therefore would have to be a certain tension: We do good to those who are at present our enemies, we express an earnest desire that the best will come of their lives, we hold out the hope that they will embrace the Lord, we show kindness to them, but we at the same time recognise that as long as they hate God, as long as they oppose the Gospel, as long as they seek to undermine the knowledge of Christ, then there is a basic level at which we despise what they stand for, we oppose what the want to achieve, and as we cannot reasonably separate a person from their own life, we oppose them.

Regarding Matthew 10:28 (and other texts)

By now, it is apparent that we disagree with one another about which parts of this discussion are more important, and consequently the areas that we emphasis in our replies reflects this difference. What follows is an illustration of this fact.

Tom, you find it pointless of me to explain that every time the synoptic Gospels use the word apollumi to refer to the actions of one person or agent towards another, it clearly has literal killing or literal destruction. I don’t think that’s irrelevant or pointless. I think it’s the right way to prepare my comments, attempting to protect the discussion from the insertion of other meanings into that term, as sometimes happens in discussions on the verses that speak of the final destruction of the lost.

I don’t think, however, you quite appreciate the seriousness of my objection to your exegesis on Matthew 10:28. You’ve said, in effect, (my paraphrase) “sure it might refer to the literal destruction of body and soul, but destruction is a precondition of restoration.” My objection is that if we say this, then the Bible is literally incapable of teaching annihilation by stating that some day God will destroy the wicked. In other words, even if Scripture stated what annihilationists believe, that would not be enough. Your comment on this observation, however is to say “Exactly! That is just my point! Nothing in the context of Matthew 10:28 excludes the possibility of a future restoration. So why read such an exclusion into the text?”

This really worries me, since it suggests to me that you are raising the hurdle for annihilationism incredibly high – quite unfairly so. It seems to me that you would never accept that any text teaches annihilationism, even if it said “the day will come when God will annihilate the wicked” (as I think several texts do basically say), unless it also added “and by the way, this will be irreversible and there is no coming back from it.” Once the sentence has been announced and God announces what will happen to the lost, the universalist pipes up and says “… and then what?” You surely cannot think, Tom, that this is natural, nor should you express any surprise at all over the fact that I find it a highly strained way to read Matthew 10:28.

However, more unusual still is your appeal to Mark 8:35, where Jesus says that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. (Not “whoever destroys his soul”). Translating the verb here as “destroy” is simply wrong, as it entails suicide. The word apolesei here means, as all our translators note, “lose,” which is a perfectly reasonable choice in the range of meaning in the apoleia word group. What you say here, Tom, constitutes a formal logical fallacy. You say: “These paradoxical words are no doubt subject to many different interpretations. But one point seems indisputable: Salvation takes place only when a soul (in some sense of the term “psuche”) is destroyed (in some sense of the term “apollumi”).”

Not only is this point disputable, but it is obviously false. You’ve said here that Jesus teaches that losing one’s life for Christ’s sake is a necessary condition for finding it. But this is not what Jesus says. Jesus says that if someone loses his life for Christ’s sake then he will find it, but he doesn’t say that nobody will find his life unless he loses it for Christ’s sake. In other words, losing one’s life for Christ’s sake is a sufficient, rather than a necessary, condition for finding it. If it is also a necessary condition, that is certainly not taught here.

You next say “But in no case, so far as I can tell, does the destruction of a specific kind of life entail the extinction of a person, conceived of as a metaphysical subject of experience; and even if it did entail this, a later restoration would still be possible, as you point out yourself.”

I do not know why you say, Tom, that in no case does the destruction of a specific kind of life entail extinction. You are surely aware of many such cases, unless by “a specific kind of life” you do not mean life itself but rather a quality of life, or a type of experience one can have while one has life. But if this is what you’re driving at, I’m afraid you’re trying to find in Mark 8 what is not there. Jesus said nothing about losing only a certain type of life, or a certain lifestyle, or a certain orientation of your life, or what have you. He spoke about people actually losing their lives.
What’s more, you’re looking for a meaning associated, not with psuche, but with one of the other Greek words for life, primarily zoe but also bios. When you talk about a specific kind of life, Tom, you’re clearly talking about the life that someone lives. Zoe is used this way (e.g. in the LXX translation of Joshua 1:5 or Dt 16:3), as is bios (e.g. Proverbs 31:12 in the LXX or 2 Timothy 2:4), but psuche is not used this way. While bios and zoe can refer to the life a person lives, psuche refers to the life that a person has by virtue of being alive. Here’s an example of how it works: At the end of a person’s life (bios), they lose their life (psuche). It is therefore not exegetically defensible to say that Matthew 10:28 refers to the destruction of a certain type of life, the life a person once lived, the type of life they lived etc. It refers to a person having life, and according to Matthew 10:28, God will one day take that away.

The meaning of Mark 8 :35 is relatively clear in its context. Jesus was quite literally referring to the fact that the disciples risked losing their lives (and not merely a quality of life) for his sake, but that they should not shrink back from it or be ashamed of him because of this. By losing their life, they would ultimately find it. I think this meaning is eminently visible from a reading of this verse on context, like so:

Now, being martyred for Christ is obviously in some sense an honour, but it is surely not a precondition for salvation! I find your comments here, Tom, to be a bit of a flight of fancy constructed to shoe-horn into the text the idea of destruction being a prerequisite for salvation, as required for a universalist treatment of Matthew 10:28.

I previously asked you why, if the destruction of Matthew 10:28 is actually a prerequisite to “revivification,” why it should be any more fearful than destruction at the hands of men, which itself sets the stage for resurrection to glory. Your answer here, I fear, is strange and unpersuasive. You say that it is more fearful because it requires that a man face all that is false about himself. But why suppose this? Certainly nothing in Matthew 10 gives this impression. If we agree – as we have – that this word apollumi in the synoptics when used this way (to describe what a person does to another person) means literally kill or destroy, then nothing in the act of destroying a person seems to make them face up to all that is false about themselves. They might, but they equally well might not. When we perform this very act on a criminal who dies on death row, whether or not he faces up to all that is false about himself is surely not determined by the act. No, a far more readily available meaning exists here: When a human being kills a human being, there are no eternal consequences for the person killed. When God destroys a person in gehenna, this is not so.

Following on from this, I alluded to Paul’s claim that those who are destroyed by God will suffer “everlasting destruction.” I did this to indicate that although Matthew 10:28 itself teaches the destruction of the lost, there are other texts that go further and indicate that this destruction, and not something wonderful afterwards, is actually the end of the lost. Replying to this, Tom, you “gently” reminded me that “millions of words” have been written about the meaning of the Greek aionios. This is, of course, true, but it is certainly not true that there are millions of possible meanings. As you’ll know, there are two broad types of meaning attributed to that word: a quantitative meaning, where it refers to duration, and a qualitative meaning, where it refers to the nature of something but not its duration. My own view is that both ideas are often in view when the word is used. The worry I have when we strip the word of time oriented meaning is that we actually make it much harder for biblical writers to refer to the idea of eternity even if they want to do so. Given the general tendency in how this word is used in the Greek Scriptures as well as in ancient Greek more generally, nobody could be faulted for thinking that if Paul had wanted to refer to “everlasting” destruction in the sense that annihilationists think of that term, he chose precisely the terminology that one would expect in speaking of olethron aionion.

What’s more, there are other texts that similarly stress that the death or destruction awaiting the lost really is their destiny, and not something wonderful in store afterwards. Jesus told people to seek out the narrow way that leads to life, rather than the wide path that leads “to destruction.” Destruction here is surely not just a stop en route, but the destination itself. Paul told the Philippians that for those enemies of the cross, their “end is destruction.”

When I see the virtual unanimity across the writers of Holy Scripture in declaring the fate of the lost to be death and destruction, and then I see the universalists saying that it’s not at all clear, and that really by destruction or death, the Scripture mean the end of one phase of life, or the end to one part of a person’s character, my (admittedly) gut reaction is like when I see those who say that Christ never rose from the dead, and when the Scripture says that he did, what we’re really seeing is a metaphor for his values living on in our hearts. I’m not saying the issues are on the same level of seriousness (nor am I saying that they are not), I’m only talking about the free and loose method of interpretation that I see at work in each case. When we give the Scripture this much flexibility, is there really any limit to what we can believe and call it biblical?

It remains my conviction (however unpopular I might be here for saying so) that as a philosophical thesis, universalism (insofar as it depends on the kind of thinking represented in this discussion) offers much that makes for interesting discussion, but any plausibility that the thesis might have had begins to fade when the subject moves from speculative philosophy to biblical exegesis.

Thanks for your latest reply, Glenn. In keeping with my professed intention to proceed slowly in this discussion, taking one tiny baby step at a time, my preference for this post would ordinarily have been to restrict my attention to a single issue, namely, your understanding of Jesus’ command that we love our neighbor even as we love ourselves. But unfortunately, I also need to correct a careless error that I made in my previous post on Matthew 10:28, and that may lead to several additional comments as well. So this one, I fear, may turn out to be rather long.

Concerning Jesus’ command that we love our neighbor, you wrote:

I must confess that this puzzles me more than a little. Once again, I agree with you that, given our human limitations, we are not always required “to do the very best for someone,” particularly when we lack the power to do so. If I am a quadriplegic, for example, I may be in no position to do much of anything for my neighbor. Neither am I required to permit my own children to starve in order to save from starvation some child in Africa. But Jesus’ command surely does require something more than an outward conformity to a “requirement of conduct,” if I may use your own expression; it requires instead a transformed heart, one that expresses itself in desiring or willing the best for my neighbor. Contrary to what you suggest, in other words, it requires a psychological or a “mental disposition” of some specifiable kind.

Suppose, by way of illustration, that I meet my perceived obligation to do as much good as I can for my neighbor; and suppose further, as is clearly a logical possibility, that in the depth of my heart I nonetheless secretly harbor a deep-rooted hatred for my neighbor and even the hope, perhaps, that my neighbor will somehow come to a bad end. Still, I always meet the relevant “requirement of conduct” in the sense that my actions outwardly conform to it (and this might not even be difficult if I am a quadriplegic). Would this, as you see it, satisfy the second of Jesus’ two great commandments? I say, “Clearly not.” It is just such outward conformity to “a requirement of conduct” that Jesus preached against, proclaiming that this is not nearly enough. If I refrain from committing adultery even as I harbor lust in my heart, for example, then I have indeed, Jesus declared, committed adultery in my heart; if I am angry with my brother, then I remain liable to judgment, however much I conform my behavior to external moral rules; and if I secretly hate my neighbor even as I continue to do whatever good I can for my neighbor, then I have not met the terms of Jesus’ command. In fact, according to I John 3:15, I am a murderer. My point, then, is that any mere “requirement of conduct” can theoretically be met even by a heart filled with hatred, anger, lust, or in a word sin. Accordingly, what Jesus’ command in fact requires, it seems to me, is an inner transformation of a kind that implies a host of psychological dispositions.

Do you disagree with this? If so, why?

** More on Mark 8:35**

As I said above, I made a careless error in my previous post on Matthew 10:28, one that you have correctly pointed out. Here I have in mind the following comment about Mark 8:35: “Salvation takes place,” I said, “only when a soul (in some sense of the term ‘psuche’) is destroyed (in some sense of the term ‘apollumi’).” What I should have said is that, according to Mark 8:35, salvation takes place whenever a soul (in the relevant sense of the term “psuche”) is destroyed (in the relevant sense of the term “apollumi”). The difference here is between a necessary and a sufficient condition, and you are absolutely right about this: Strictly speaking, the form of the sentence in Mark 8:35 sets forth a sufficient condition for salvation, not a necessary condition. But here two points are in order: First, if you combine verse 35 with the previous verse 34, it seems clear that the sufficient condition set forth in Mark 8:35 is also a necessary condition (see the final paragraph below); and second, although I should not have neglected the form of the sentence in 8:35, the idea of a sufficient condition actually strengthens the point I was making. For whenever a soul is destroyed, either in this life or in hell itself–that is, whenever a soul (in the relevant sense of the term “psuche”) is destroyed (in the relevant sense of the term “apollumi”), salvation takes place. Or at least so I contend.

Now yes, Glenn, I fully intended for my appeal to Mark 8:35 to be surprising, perhaps even startling, the sort of thing that sometimes awakens someone from a “dogmatic slumber,” if I may borrow an expression from Emmanuel Kant. For the bottom line, as I see it, is just this: The relevant Greek verb in Mark 8:35b is the third person future tense of “appolumi” (“to destroy”), which is the same verb (together with the same noun “psuche”) that also appears in Matthew 10:28. I therefore appealed to Mark 8:35b and gave it a very literal translation in order forcefully to call attention to this very point. So why, I still wonder, do you suppose that the same verb (together with the same noun) implies the extinction of a person (or the extinction of a subject of experience) in Mathew 10:28 but does not carry that implication in Mark 8:35b?

Anyway, a correct interpretation of Jesus’ enigmatic saying, which appears in several contexts in addition to Mark 8:35, requires that we identify correctly the subject and the object of the relevant action. I can perhaps best explain this in response to the following criticism:

Obviously, I disagree with the following sentence: “Translating the verb here as “destroy” is simply wrong, as it entails suicide.” For one thing, I can find no clear antecedent for your use of the pronoun “it.” Just what is it that supposedly entails suicide? Is it the Greek sentence in the text? Or, is it my translation of the Greek sentence? We agree, I presume, that the Greek sentence itself carries no implication of suicide, at least not in any ordinary sense of “suicide.” But neither does my English translation carry such an implication. When a woman says, “I destroyed my life [or simply destroyed myself] with alcohol and drugs,” she is hardly claiming to have committed suicide.

Neither can I agree with your contention that in Mark 8:35 Jesus was talking about someone losing one’'s life through martyrdom. To the contrary, he clearly had in mind a voluntary action, not something that **happens to ** someone against that person’s will and not someone losing one’s life at the hands of another. Indeed, verse 34 explains exactly who they are that lose their life in a proper sense that results in saving it: They are precisely those who “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” him. As the New Testament scholar R. E. Nixon thus wrote, commenting on the parallel passage in Matthew 17:25: “The verse means that a man finds his real self when he abandons his own self-assertion and self-seeking for the sake of Christ” (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, p. 838). Similarly, commenting on the same text, J. I. Packer rightly observes that to lose one’s life for the sake of Christ is “to ‘lose’ it by denying oneself, shouldering one’s cross, becoming a disciple, and letting Jesus have His own disruptive way with one” (Knowing God, p. 138). If these scholars are right, as I believe they are, then those who lose their life in the relevant sense are also those who initiate the relevant action (by the grace of God, perhaps, working through their own wills). It is something they do to (or for) themselves, in other words; and though voluntary self-denial is hardly suicide in any ordinary sense, one might nonetheless think of it as a kind of suicide in a relevant metaphorical sense.

Here is a further reason why the relevant idea of losing one’s life is not essentially connected to that of martyrdom at all. In Matthew 10:39 the context in which Jesus expresses the same idea is not one of suffering, persecution, or martyrdom; it is instead one where we are exhorted to love Jesus more than we do the members of our family. (Granted, Jesus’ hyperbole here must also be explained, but that’s another story for another day.) Even clearer is the context of Luke 17:33, which deals with the coming of the Kingdom or the day on which “the Son of Man is revealed” (17:30). In that context, those who lose their life in the relevant sense are the obedient ones who, because they belong to Christ, need no longer have any fear of martyrdom. All of which supports, I think it fair to say, my previous interpretation of Mark 8:35, which such scholars as Nixon and Packer also endorse.

As for your claims about “psuche,” “zoe,” and “bios,” you seem to ignore, so far as I can tell, the normal flexibility of language, not to mention Jesus’ penchant for highly symbolic and paradoxical uses of it. I’m still unclear why the normal use of “psuche” could not, in your view, accommodate a distinction between something like a real self, on the one hand, and an egoistic self that must be destroyed, on the other. Such a distinction seems to me perfectly natural as an interpretation of the intentionally paradoxical expression that we find in Mark 8:35b. When it comes to the reported words of Jesus, moreover, we must surely bear in mind that he often used particular words in an extended, unusual, symbolic, metaphorical, paradoxical, or hyperbolic sense–e.g., the use of “hate” in Luke 14:26. You say that “psuche” does not normally refer to a specific mode of life. So what? Neither does “anthropos” (“man” or “human being”) normally refer to a set of dispositions or to a mode of living. But consider now Paul’s exhortation “that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man “anthropos”] which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man “anthropos”] which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24 NKJV). Or consider Romans 6:6: “our old man was crucified with Him [and hence destroyed], that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (NKJV). What does it matter, I ask, that “anthropos” is not being used in a normal way in these texts? Paul clearly exhorts us to extinguish one set of dispositions or one way of life and, with divine help, to adopt another set of dispositions or another way of life; and in his own way, I believe, Paul was also expressing the same idea that we can trace back to Jesus in texts like Mark 8:35 (and others). I also find most interesting John 12:25, which expresses essentially the same idea in a less paradoxical way than we find it expressed in the synoptic gospels: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

One final comment (I hope!) on Mark 8:35. As already indicated, I agree with you that, taken by itself, this text carries no implication that losing one’s life for Christ’s sake is a necessary condition of saving one’s life. To get that result, one must turn elsewhere, namely to verse 34! For according to 8:34, denying oneself and taking up one’s cross daily is indeed a necessary condition of becoming a follower of Christ. So if the concept of denying oneself and that of losing one’s life in the relevant sense are logically equivalent, as my interpretation implies, then losing one’s life is also a necessary condition of becoming a follower of Christ; and if becoming a follower of Christ is a necessary condition of saving one’s life, then losing one’s life is likewise a necessary condition of saving one’s life!