Like many of you, one of my favorite ways to introduce universalism and to compare and contrast it with other soteriologies–Calvinism and Arminianism in particular–is to use Thomas Talbott’s propositions as described in his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.
Specifically, Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
As Talbott points out, what is interesting about each proposition is that all three have ample biblical support. But, as Talbott goes on to point out, you cannot logically endorse all three. You have to accept two of the propositions and reject a third. And depending upon which propositions you either accept or reject you end up with either Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universalism.
To review what many of you already know, this ends up looking like this:
Adopts Propositions #2 and #3. God will accomplish God’s plans and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #1, that God wills to save all humanity.
Adopts Propositions #1 and #3. God wills to save all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #2 as God will fail to accomplish something God wills (i.e., to save all people).
Adopts Propositions #1 and #2. God wills to save all people and God will accomplish God’s purposes. This implies a rejection of Proposition #3, that some people will be separated from God forever.
Again, most of you know these propositions very well. What I’d like to draw attention to are the ancillary hypotheses associated with Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism in association with Talbott’s propositions.
First, to clear up the jargon. The definition of ancillary is “providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, institution, industry, or system.” Something ancillary is in the background working in a support role.
An ancillary hypothesis, then, is a theoretical notion that works in the background to support some theoretical model. Theories as they grow more complex are often confronted with contradictory data or logical inconsistencies. In the face of that theories often add ancillary hypotheses to fill in the gaps or to strengthen up the logical connections. In this case our theoretical models are Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism.
Specifically, after you adopt two of Talbott’s propositions and reject a third you’re left with a logical conclusion but are without a mechanism. For example, Calvinism rejects Proposition #1, logically implying that God doesn’t want to save all people. Well, that seems strange. God doesn’t love everybody? Could you explain what you mean by that? What’s the mechanism here?
Arminians, by contrast, reject Proposition #2, logically implying that God’s will to save all people will be thwarted. Well, that seems strange. God’s sovereign and omnipotent will can be thwarted? Could you explain what you mean by that? What’s the mechanism here?
Finally, Universalists reject Proposition #3, logically implying that people won’t be separated from God forever. Well, that seems strange. Hell isn’t eternal? Could you explain what you mean by that? What’s the mechanism here?
The point being, after you accept and reject Talbott’s propositions there are are some residual questions, issues that need to be resolved. Why doesn’t God love everybody? How can God’s will be defeated? How can hell not be forever?
To answer these questions you need some ancillary hypotheses. Mechanisms that explain how the three propositions might work together given how you’ve accepted or rejected them. These ancillary hypotheses aren’t found in Talbott’s propositions–that is why they are ancillary–and we could imagine a variety of potential mechanisms to make the various propositions work together. But generally speaking, the accepted ancillary hypotheses are these:
**Ancillary Hypothesis of Calvinism: **Election
Ancillary Hypothesis of Arminianism: Free Will
Ancillary Hypothesis of Universalism: Duration (and/or Function) of Hell
In order to explain why God doesn’t will to save everyone, Calvinism posits the ancillary hypothesis of election, where God restricts God’s saving actions to only a few, the elect. In order to explain why God doesn’t always get what God wants, Arminianism posits the ancillary hypothesis of free will, the exercise of which gives humans the ability to thwart God’s efforts to save them. And finally, Universalism posits an ancillary hypothesis about hell, arguing, in most formulations, that hell is finite in duration.
Election, free will, a finite hell. These are the ancillary hypotheses sitting behind Talbott’s propositions. They are not contained in Talbott’s propositions, but they function in the background to to make each theoretical model work.
And here’s my observation about all this. Each of these ancillary hypotheses are hotly contested. And no wonder, as ancillary hypotheses tend to be the weakest links in any theory, the bits of post hoc speculation and jury-rigging needed to make the system work.
And that goes to my point. Is the doctrine of, say, election any less controversial and contested then, say, a universalist speculating about the duration of hell? To say nothing of free will.
As I see it, all three ancillary hypotheses are equally speculative, equally debatable and equally problematic (from the point of view of the other positions).