Published in 1999, Thomas Talbott’s thesis has just come swashbuckling over my horizon. In it he attempts to present a Universalist reading of the Bible, and especially Paul, an ambition that for most evangelicals at least, would appear doomed from the outset.

The most important works I have encountered on the issue of Endless Punitive Separation / Eternal Damnation / The problem of Hell include:

  • F.W. Farrars “Mercy and Judgment” (1881)
  • James Mulholland and Phillip Gulley’s “If Grace is True” (2003)
  • Brian McLaren’s “The Last word and the Word after that” (2005)

I must now add The Inescapable Love to this list. Significantly, of these 4 books, Talbott’s is the most assured, rigorous and confident. Farrar is at pains to declare his “hope”, rather than doctrine, in the eventual restoration of all things, reluctantly opposing any suggestion of “universalism”. Mulholland and Gulley are honest enough to say that a few aspects of their view maybe seen to be at odds with certain readings of scripture, but perhaps because of their Quaker or mystical tradition, do not find this a showstopper. McLaren’s goal is to open the debate to the Emergent audience via a cunning narrative, giving credit to all points of view, and without sticking his neck too far onto the chopping block of heresy.

Now, clearly no-one should take confidence to equate to correctness. But in his systematic refutation of the idea of Eternal Punishment and its supporting theology and assumptions, Talbott seems a step ahead of others. But despite the strength of his arguments and the unabashed rebuttals to his opponents, he manages to avoid arrogance. Rather, he exhibits the calm awareness of having hewed an immense and pernicious root from underneath our theological and cultural feet.

The success of his approach owes much to the fact that his starting point and his diagnosis is clear and incisive, from the outset: “Those who believe that God has revealed himself in the Bible will face … the problem of interpreting the Bible as a whole: They must provide an interpretive structure that avoids a fundamental logical inconsistency in what they take to be the revealed truthabout God”. [p 46] He avoids the common tendency to explain away that which is incompatible with the traditionally “soft” liberal agenda, which will emphasise mercy over judgment and can in no ways be charged with holding a “low view of scripture” or sidestepping the hard questions.

Thomas Talbott is first and foremost a philosopher of religion. This gives him certain advantages over those whose primary skill is theological, and for me is one reason for the clarity and range of his thinking. He manages to identify the paradigm in which most theology operates (and seems incapable of transcending) rather than the familiar and perhaps hackneyed set of ideas themselves. In his bold embracing of an alternative view, he states “Universal Reconciliation is a clear and pervasive theme in the letters of Paul … the standard ways of explaining away this theme are untenable, even contrived”. [p 107]

It is the philosopher’s job to show up fallacious arguments; and he does this with aplomb, but not without a certain empathy for our failings: “Of course people are not always consistent and do not always see the moral implications of their own beliefs, neither do they always believe what they think they believe”. [p 141] The doctrine of “election”, originating with Augustine, comes under particular scrutiny, and he gives voice to some of my own deepest intuitions: “One cannot both believe that he has divided the world into the elect, whom he loves, and the non-elect, whom he despises, and believe that he is worthy of worship, and, at the same time, love one’s neighbor as oneself”. [p 142]

It is not just the average believer who suffers from bad thinking; Talbott takes on distinguished current thinkers and revered church fathers as well. He shows Augustine’s thought on the issues of Judgment to be fundamentally flawed. For example, he exposes the Saint’s explanation of the key text 1 Tim 2:4, describing “God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. Augustine manipulates its meaning shamelessly: “… by all men we are to understand the whole of mankind, in every single group into which it can be divided”. [p 49] So he arbitrarily forces “all” to equate to “some from all categories”.

And he squares off with that twisted logic that an infinitely holy God needs to exact an infinite punishment for sin: “If, as Calvin suggests, we have inherited a depraved and corrupt nature, if we are subject to evil impulses not of our own making, then God has less to forgive us for, not more”. [p 152]

Talbott’s basic goal is “simply to work out the implications of Christian hope with as much consistency as possible”. [p 213] To this end, he proposes that philosophically, there are 3 basic views one can take in these matters. In a useful heuristic, he suggests 3 propositions, of which only 2 can be true. These are

  1. God, in his merciful Love, is desirous of saving all.
  2. God, in his just and powerful Sovereignty, is capable of saving all.
  3. There are those who will be damned: not all will be saved, but some will be consigned to the eternal punitive separation of Hell, or be annihilated out of existence.

On the surface of it, the majority of those professing Christian belief will want to hold to all 3 of these statements. But he shows that is not possible, and that one of them HAS to be rejected. What happens is that this (logically) rejected belief causes us to “save face”, such that by holding it we harbor a deep inconsistency in our view of God.

In essence then, the 3 views are as follows:

  • The Augustinian: If we hold to Sovereignty (2) and Damnation (3), we reject and have to save face on Love and Mercy.
  • The Armenian: If we hold to Love (1) and Damnation (3), we reject and have to save face on Justice and Sovereignty.
  • The Universalist: If we hold to both Sovereignty (2) and Love (1) we reject Damnation. What is key is that by so doing, we will not need to save face. (Rather, we shall have to account for the problem of evil).

Ambitiously, Talbott attempts to do this. Needless to say, to hold that evil will be overcome but also that all sinners will be saved, is asking almost too much of our imaginations, conditioned as we are by myths of punishment. But in this stretching, I have a sense of Jesus own radicality, asking of us the (almost) impossible. That is, to believe in the ultimate, and inescapable love, and at the same time, justice, of God.

At the risk of hyperbole, I believe that such ambition is nothing short of an attempt to redefine orthodoxy. Although Talbott makes no such claim, he does take the axe to the root of “orthodox” thought as defined since the 4th Century. As such his thesis finds a place alongside other contemporary visionaries like Brian McLaren, with his “Generous Orthodoxy”, or Phyllis Tickle with her “Great Emergence”.

And the Neo-Orthodox-Emergent Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, in his pithy “Evil and the Justice of God” (2006), concurs on the radical nature of love, justice and forgiveness:

“The tough, many-sided offer of forgiveness should be the ultimate aim as we think about the problems of global empire and international debt, of criminal justice and the problem of punishment, and of war and international conflict … but forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. It is not the same as inclusivity. It is not the same as indifference, whether personal or moral. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we don’t take evil seriously after all, it means we do. In fact, we take it doubly seriously.” [p 105, p 99]

What sets Talbott apart from other refuters of the purely punitive vision of God (who would normally be classed as “Liberal” or having a “Low view of scripture”) is that he does not attempt to sidestep difficult scriptures, but rather heads directly and deeply into their most profound and hidden meanings. He is like a diver who is prepared to go the extra distance to get a proper handle on what lurks below. And the pearls he brings to the surface are often unexpected and surprising.

A key achievement of The Inescapable Love is showing how the normal dualism of justice vs. mercy becomes false, if our view of Love is big enough. What is asserted is that these 2 aspects of God are one and the same thing. He observes “his mercy demands everything his justice demands, and his justice permits everything his mercy permits. According to the alternative picture, in other words, ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’ are but two different names for God’s one and only moral attribute, namely his love”. [p 146]

Put more extremely, (and at great risk of being misunderstood), the claim is that punishment and forgiveness are the same. There are false notions of either, but an expanded view of Love will encompass both justice/punishment and mercy/forgiveness. The contacted view of justice/punishment however, amounts to retribution, and serves no ultimate redemptive purpose. The contracted view of mercy/forgiveness amounts to the conditional releasing of the wrongdoer from guilt, and thus fails to truly liberate.

Peter Rollins, another irrepressible emergent and postmodern philosopher of religion, echoes this radical view as he ponders (on his blog) the radical meaning of true forgiveness:

What if “forgiveness” that has conditions, that is wrapped up in economy, is not really forgiveness at all but rather nothing more than a prudent bet. What if such forgiveness was like a love that only loved those who loved in return i.e. a forgiveness without blood and sweat and tears? What if repentance was not the necessary condition for forgiveness but rather the freely given response to it?

In Talbott’s expanded view then, there is no Punishment that is not Loving, Just and Forgiving, and there is no Forgiveness that is not Loving, Punishing and Just. Herein lies the radical nature of his thesis, and the hope that we may in fact remain true to scripture and yet believe in the universal restoration of all things.

The “Inescapable love of God” is a triumph. It is a triumph of right thinking, and squarely challenges many theological fallacies going back to Augustine. If Orthodoxy is defined as right thinking, Talbott’s voice is Orthodoxy of the highest order.

And above all, it is a triumph of hope and imagination: “… given a long enough stretch of time, the Hound of Heaven can overcome all of the obstacles that our wrong choices present and can thus achieve all of his redemptive purposes, in that respect, he is like the grand chessmaster who, though exercising no direct causal control over the moves of a novice, is nonetheless able to checkmate the novice in the end”. [183]

Love endures all. May it be that love is, indeed, Inescapable.