The Ancillary Hypotheses of Talbott's Propositions


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:

Proposition #1:
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.

Proposition #2:
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.

Proposition #3:
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:

**Calvinism: **
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.

**Arminianism: **
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).

**Universalism: **
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).


However I think the position is not as symmetrical as your list suggests. One of my reasons for adopting universalism was that whenever I investigated anything to do with the concept of eternal hell I found errors, misconceptions, and the contamination of the Christian message by outside sources.


Both God’s sovereignty and His desire to save all are plainly and repeatedly stated, whereas most of the commonly held concepts of hell come from pagans, parables and apocalypses. What’s more, these concepts themselves seem to be contradicted by perfectly plain statements: “Christ shall be all in all”, “Love never fails” etc.


Without prejudice to any side, I would note that Calvs, Arms and Kaths do not regard the ancillary doctrines to be merely hypothetical. They are not ad hoc speculations, but positions that could theoretically be reached by anyone who interprets the scriptural data (and/or the metaphysical logic) in particular ways, be those ways accurate or not. Atheists and other sceptics usually agree the scriptures teach the Calv or Arm understanding of those doctrines, for example, and they’re hardly proposing hypotheses to save a theory!

Of course these positions are hotly debated between the groups, but not in my experience any less so than the main propositions of the Talbottian Trilemma (to coin a term), because debate over the main propositions will typically include debate on the mechanism propositions. I might even go so far as to say the main propositions wouldn’t have been arrived at in the first place without the mechanisms.

Consider that one of the first necessities in any exegetical universalistic argument, for example, is to point out that certain Greek and Hebrew terms do not always mean “everlasting” or “never-ending”. This is not optional. (There are some rare variations which allow that the terms do always mean that, but one reason those variations are rare is because the case can be technically demonstrated so solidly: no one thinks the times of the secret of Christ which have explicitly ended are instead never-ending and everlasting!)

If the mechanisms are necessary to understand the main principles in such a way as to promote one of the three sides, then does it even make much sense to call them “ancillary”? I accept God’s election and human free will very strongly, but I’m also a Kath so by logical necessity (insofar as my beliefs are coherent) I must (and do) have at least a few significant differences in how I understand election and free will compared to Calvs and Arms respectively.


That’s a great point. It’s sort of a figure/ground issue. I agree, I think that in the churches the mechanisms are the figure with Talbott’s propositions as the background. I’m simply noting that, as far as Talbott’s propositions are concerned, there are these other doctrines “in the background” that aren’t overtly articulated by the propositions but that, as you point out, is where most of the hot debate and theological weight is located.


These are interesting observations Richard. I tend to think (like Jason a bit) that these ancillary questions and hypotheses are implicitly unavoidable as one considers the main propositions…

However, there are other ways of formulating these ancillary or supporting ideas…

For example, I am often baffled by the widely differing definitions of a crucial word like “LOVE”.

Love, for a Calv, compels saving. Love for an Arminian however must allow the possibility of ECT hell!
For a Calv, it would be anathema that Love wouldn’t compel; for an Arminian, a love that compels would be anathema.

I come along and am just utterly baffled that Love could even remotely include/allow ECT hell! So with such an incredibly wide variation in definitions of love, how on earth shall we have a rational discussion about all this with each other? (ie Calvs, Arms, and Kaths - as Jason calls them) That is a fundamental hurdle that I face all the time…

So is the idea of Love, and it’s definitions, an ancillary hypothesis to the ancillary hypothesis? I don’t know…

I ask myself; Does love force salvation? Well, I agree with the Calvs in a real way; yes it does.
However, if we are to speak of God using force (yet another ancillary concept to be explored?) I would also say that God respects our free will so much that He intends to force us to employ it!

(Which is to say that I don’t accept that an ultimate and final choice against God is free at all; but is rather an obvious symptom of delusion. So yes, God does have the obligation – because of Love – to “force” us out of our delusions. And that process of being “forced” really can be “hell” for us!)



Richard, thank you for your post. However, I strongly disagree with your last sentence. The problems with accepting Propositions #1 and #2 are not nearly as problematic as rejecting Proposition #3. But I need more than a post to explain why Proposition #3 is a faulty assumption and likewise all ancillary hypotheses based on Proposition #3 are wrong.


Well said, James! Thanks for such a clear statement of God’s power and his love and His respect for the freedom of those He loves. :smiley:


Bobx3, actually. Credit where credit’s due. :slight_smile:


I thought more about this thread:

Any hypotheses that says God irrevocably gives up on humans in hell has insurmountable problems. For example:

  1. Could one say that God always loves the damned in hell but irrevocably gives up on the damned in hell?
  2. Could one say that God temporarily loved humans who never accepted salvation in life but God irrevocably gives up on those humans in hell and stops loving them?
  3. Could one say that God never loved the lost who never accepted salvation?

Is there some other possible explanation for God irrevocably giving up on people in hell that I did not mention?

All of these positions appear to me to include insurmountable problems.

If we reject that God irrevocably gives up on people in hell, then we are left with two options: (1) everybody eventually accepts God’s relentless pursuit and (2) some people continually reject God literally forever.

Option 1 could include reasonable limits on human freedom that appear consistent with the Bible and science. Option 1 could also include a model of radical human free will while we could never predict it until we see it, but then such a model of radical human free will might necessarily include the possibility of backsliding in heaven. Option 2 could happen only with a model of radical human free will.

In any case, rejecting that God irrevocably gives up on humans leaves us with a worse case scenario of the hope of universalism.


I also came to embrace UR because as I studied scripture concerning Hell, I found that scriptural support for Hell slipped between my fingers like sand. What I thought was a rock solid castle (the doctrine of Hell) turned out to be nothing but a sand castle painted to look solid.

When sharing UR using such statements I like to use 4.

  1. God is love to all
  2. God is sovereign over all
  3. God is savior of all
  4. God is judge of all.

There are passages that affirm all 4. Because Calvinists believe 4) God being judge leads to either annihilation or Hell for some/most of humanity, they dismiss, explain away the passages that affirm 1) God loves all, and 3) God is savior of all.
Because Arminianists believe 4) God being judge leads to either annihilation or Hell for some/most of humanity, they dismiss, explain away the passages that affirm 2) God is sovereign over all, and 3) God is savior of all. Because Reconciliationists believe that 4) God being judge over all results in repentance and reconciliation we do not dismiss or explain away 1), 2), or 3). So to me UR is the most “Biblical” because it has the broadest view of scripture and affirms all the passages that affirm that God is love, sovereign, savior, and judge! We have the most biblical and wholistic view of God, seems to me.


I suppose an ECT or Anni proponent could reply that there is a fifth category of scriptural testimony, that punishment seems hopeless one way or another, which has to be reckoned in and dealt with, too. They aren’t just pulling their beliefs that God’s judgment leads to ECT or Anni out of thin air, even if their interpretations are faulty.


Hi Jason,

I agree that scripture includes vivid imagery of both everlasting punishment and complete annihilation. But there are great hermeneutical and philosophical obstacles to teaching a literal interpretation of these images. Alternatively, the biblical imagery of salvation after postmortem punishments in Hades or hell involves smaller obstacles.