[Forum note: members may offer comments on the ongoing dialogue, in [url=http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=57&t=435]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 This is not because I am personifying their old self as the “old man” who no longer lives, having been replaced by a new nature personified as a “new man.”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.