If someone could move this review to the Thomas Talbott subforum, that would be great. I don’t have the option of creating threads there.
Thomas Talbott’s “The Inescapable Love of God” (2nd edition) is an excellent book. The logic is (for the most part) sound, the prose is clear, and the tone is friendly. In my view there are few flaws in TILOG, but the flaws that are there are very serious.
Talbott surveys the history of soteriological beliefs (at least from the time of Augustine on), and shows that belief in hopeless punishment has been used to justify persecution. It’s not just that ECT believers happened to support persecution of certain people; their support for persecution was directly tied to their soteriology. When I read these things, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words, “By their fruits you will know them”. That said, I’m not compelled to believe Jesus was referring to ECT believers when he made that statement.
Where Talbott really shines is arguing against arminianism (which is strange for me to say, because I come from an arminian background, but found Talbott’s case against arminianism much stronger than his case against calvinism). Talbott’s argument is that if God loves everyone, and wants us (humans) to love everyone, God would not hopelessly punish anyone because the lasting happiness of any follower of God is conditional on everyone else, sooner or later, achieving lasting happiness themselves. If you love someone, you want what’s best for them, and what’s best for all of us is fellowship with God and humanity. The idea that someone could be in a blissful state – heaven, while knowing that people he loves will never achieve lasting happiness, is absurd. Talbott brings up a possible solution to this problem (p 180-181): God could do some kind of spiritual lobotomy on people in heaven so that they forget all their damned loved ones. Though that would solve the problem, Talbott rejects it by appealing to cases where people’s loved ones are tragically killed and the surviving family members would rather know what happened to their loved ones than be ignorant; for a surviving member to want to be ignorant, according to Talbott, is “preposterous”. Talbott’s argument has intuitive appeal, but I think it is weak; to refute the theory, one must show why it would be preposterous for God to lobotomize people in heaven. If God wants lasting happiness for those who die as good Christians, why would he not do what was necessary to ensure their lasting happiness? Whether or not a good Christian wants to know the fate of the damned seems irrelevant. Talbott cites one scripture (John 8:32) to support his position. I personally find the idea of losing memory of people I love to be horrifying, but I think a stronger scriptural case would need to be made for me to reject the spiritual lobotomy theory. At the very least, I think a strong philosophical case would need to be made.
Talbott’s theodicy is very good. A common philosophical anti-universalist objection is that if everyone’s going to be saved anyway, what’s the point of our earthly existence? Talbott answers the question beautifully. From p 159, “perhaps God had no choice, if he wanted to create any persons at all, but to permit their embryonic minds to emerge and to begin function on their own in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, misperception, and even a god deal of indeterminism.” My only qualm is, that if what Talbott is positing is true, what happens to the souls of dead babies?
One of the most popular universalist proof texts is 1 Corinthians 15:22. I think Talbott does a very good job explaining why it doesn’t make sense to interpret the second “all” as being more restrictive than the first “all”. However, one need not make the second “all” more restrictive than the first to avoid a universalist interpretation; perhaps Paul meant that just as in Adam all Christians died, so too in Christ will all Christians be made alive. That, in my opinion, is a plausible interpretation, and most consistent with Paul’s statements in Romans 3:26, Romans 5:1, and elsewhere about only believers being justified. I suppose it’s possible that Paul was teaching that everyone will eventually believe, and thence be saved, but I think that if that was what Paul was doing, he could have been a lot clearer…
Talbott does not think the language in the Bible about sinners being eternally destroyed necessarily means some people will be hopelessly punished. The focus of Talbott’s exegesis is 2 Thessalonians 1:9, but we find language about people being destroyed in Matthew too. According to Talbott, destruction is the transition from not being a servant of God to being a servant of God . “When the old person … is destroyed, the real person … is unveiled. When Saul, an enemy of Christ, is defeated, Paul, a servant of Christ, is born. In a very real sense … both Abram and Saul were utterly destroyed forever” (p 93). I think what Talbott is saying here makes sense on some level, but I don’t think the idea that destruction is always remedial accords well with Jesus’ words in Matthew. In Matthew 10:39 and 16:25 Jesus talks about destruction; he juxtaposes the fate of his followers and those who reject him. It seems clear that something different is going to happen to the souls of these two groups’ members. Jesus was clearly warning people when he talked about destruction. Does it make any sense to think that when Jesus warned people of destruction he was merely telling his audience that those who reject him will go through the same transition that every saved person goes through? How are we supposed to interpret Matthew 7:13-14 if we accept Talbott’s notion of destruction? Here Jesus says that those who are entering through the narrow gate are finding life. If we think of “destruction” as Abram’s transformation to Abraham and Saul’s transformation to Paul, then it would be those on the broad path to destruction that would be finding life.
Now to the biggest problem in TILOG. Talbott’s motif seems to be that all punishment is corrective. I don’t recall if Talbott ever said such explicitly, but he does come close. Talbott thinks it’s a clear Pauline teaching that “even God’s harshest punishments have a corrective purpose.” (p 82). Later on, Talbott attempts to refute the retributive theory of justice, and I think he makes some good points in his attempt. But Talbott’s punishment theory seems difficult (maybe impossible) to reconcile with three warnings, found in: the blasphemy against the spirit verses (found in the synoptic Gospels), the apostasy verses (Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-29), and the sin unto death verse (1 John 5:16). In my opinion, the plainest reading of these texts is that there are sins a person can repent of and not be forgiven. Talbott devotes a few pages to blasphemy against the spirit, and in my opinion, he utterly fumbles. Talbott distinguishes between two kinds of forgiveness. On p 100, he writes “God’s refusal to pardon a given sin … in no way implies a lack of compassion or mercy on this part. When we speak of forgiveness, we typically have in mind an attitude or state of mind in the one who forgives; that is, a state of mind that exists when a person gives up all resentment towards an offender. But when Jesus spoke of forgiveness in the present context, he had in mind … the canceling of some obligation, debt, or prescribed punishment.” On p 148-149, Talbott applies this two-kinds-of-forgiveness framework, when he asks the reader to consider a hypothetical case in which the daughter of a preacher gets arrested for drunk driving. In one scenario the daughter repents, in the other the daughter does not. For the second scenario, Talbott writes that the father should forgive the daughter in the attitudinal sense, but not in the punitive sense: “But in this case the father’s forgiveness, however heartfelt, may not suffice to heal the broken relationship. … Here it seems clear that he must oppose his daughter’s destructive behavior, and a well-chosen punishment may be the best means of communicating such opposition”. What Talbott is saying here makes sense, but if the reason the daughter should be punished in the second scenario is because, unlike in the first scenario, she continues to rebel, why would God punish someone who blasphemed the spirit after that person repented for blaspheming the spirit? Where does punishing people for sins they’ve repented of fit in to the corrective framework? Punishing someone who has repented seems completely arbitrary if we are to reject the retributive theory. If we accept the idea that some people who have repented should still be punished by God, then why not accept the idea that God should punish these people for all eternity? In other words, how would it be any more arbitrary for God to punish a repentant person for eternity in Gehenna than for God to punish a repentant person for a year in Gehenna? Talbott thinks our energies are misdirected if we attempt to answer the question of, “what is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit anyway?” (p 99), but I think I have shown that answering this question is absolutely crucial if Talbott’s entire soteriology is to be coherent.
In conclusion, I think that if we accept the premise that God unconditionally loves everyone, Talbott’s case that universalism must follow is impeccable. Philosophically, TILOG is brilliant. I, however, do not think Talbott makes a strong scriptural case for universalism, for the reasons I have provided in this review.