The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott (LentBook #14)

Because I’ve always been interested in the idea of universalism, without quite believing it, several people recommended Talbott’s Inescapable Love of God to me.  The book is an odd hybrid — not a scholarly book, but quite heavy for a popular-level book — but it was fine for my reading level and gave a good thorough overview of why Talbott believes universalism (everyone will be saved in the end) is both the most logical and most Biblical belief.

One thing intrigued me about this book — it appears to be self-published.  I’m not sure why this is.  Is Talbott’s own reputation, or that of universalism, so unpopular that no Christian press would touch this? Or is the book’s straddling of the scholarly/popular line so awkward that it’s hard to market? I don’t know, but an awful lot of people seem to have read this book, so I guess word gets around.

Talbott sets up a very detailed argument contrasting what he sees as the three main views within Christianity. The first, the view of limited election that most of us think of as Calvinist, he identifies as “Augustinian” since he says it goes back to St. Augustine.  The second he calls, as it is usually called, Arminian — the belief that God wants to save everyone but some people will be lost through their own free choice. The oft-rehashed problem with both these beliefs is that limited election denies the love of God (what kind of God creates creatures and then damns them to hell without ever giving them a chance?) and Arminianism denies the omnipotence of God (He wants to save all His creatures, but is defeated by their own free will).

Like most Seventh-day Adventists, I’m an Arminian — although I never learned that term in church — I believe in human free will so strongly that it’s a major point in my theology.  I am attracted to universalism, though — I’d be quite happy to get to heaven and find that God somehow found a way to get everyone there willingly, even Hitler.

This is exactly what Talbott believes will happen, but like every thoughtful exposition of universalism I’ve ever seen, his belief requires a belief in the immortality of the soul and in a purgatorial experience after death for those who, in this life, stubbornly refuse to accept God’s will.  In other words, Talbott thinks even Hitler will make it to heaven in the end, but that God will have to work him over quite a bit first, and it may not be pleasant.

Talbott’s argument is relentlessly based on logic, and his logic seems to me to work, most of the time.  When it gets to the Biblical side, his exegesis often has to become quite tortured in order to explain away texts he disagrees with — but, as he rightly points out — this is also true of his opponents on both sides of the argument.  You can find Scriptural support for any of these three positions, but you also have to wrestle with texts that apparently say the opposite.  He spends a lot of time on the famously difficult  Romans 9-11 (a passage which made me come as close as I’ve ever come to rejecting Christianity, some twenty years ago) in which Paul starts out sounding like a proponent of limited election and ends up sounding like a universalist.

I’m still not a universalist, mainly because I can’t bring myself to believe in the immortality of the soul — which means I don’t have to worry about an eternally burning hell, either.  I believe the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of limited election are pure evil and a slander on the character of God — but apart from those two beliefs, I’m willing to keep an open mind and admit that God’s ways may be far stranger than anything I could come up with.  I found Talbott’s presentation of universalism well thought-out and informative even though not ultimately convincing.  In the end, I guess I’m most comfortable with the position of Julian of Norwich — no systematic theologian! — who believed that God’s love was triumphant and “all would be well” but didn’t know how to square that with the doctrines of hell and judgement as taught by the church.  She concluded that it was a mystery that God would be happy to reveal to her at a later date, and until then she would trust Him to make all things well…and so do I.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott (LentBook #14)

  1. Peter Feddema

    Hi Trudy,

    I have a subscription with Google to forward me postings on the Internet concerning Thomas Talbott. Tonight, they sent me the following:

    Google Blogs Alert for: Thomas Talbott

    The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott (LentBook #14)
    By trudyj65
    Because I’ve always been interested in the idea of universalism, without quite believing it, several people recommended Talbott’s Inescapable Love of God to me. The book is an odd hybrid — not a scholarly book, but quite heavy for a …
    Compulsive Overreader – https://compulsiveoverreader.wordpress.com

    I’ve been a Scriptural Universalist these past 28 years. (I’m 77 years young. 🙂 Yes, I’ve read Talbot’s book and appreciate what he believes, but do not agree with him on some details.

    Reading your comments makes me realize that you are wondering about a few aspects of what constitutes God’s plan and purpose for all mankind.

    I would love to discuss these and share my perspective on them with you.

    May God Bless!

    Peter

  2. I enjoy reading your well reasoned book reviews. Thank you for reading so much – and writing about it! : )

  3. What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe in the immortality of the soul? (That confused me because you refer to heaven earlier in your post.) Do you hold the “annihilationism” position that those who are not saved simply do not partake of the resurrection?

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Bubandpie, this is something that might come up in the “for Dummies” version of SDA beliefs when I do my interview questions (thanks!) but SDAs do not believe that human beings have an “immortal soul” that must necessarily continue on after death. Those who will live forever in heaven are given the gift of eternal life by God; those who won’t, don’t (I make no assumptions about who will be in either category!). I have seen this position described as “annihilationist,” though I never heard this term growing up in the SDA church. I think the term assumes a belief in the immortality of the soul, with the idea that God is “annihilating” the souls of those who don’t believe or accept eternal life. I would say not so much that God is annihilating anybody — though even that is more acceptable to me than the idea that God would give some people the “gift” of eternal life so that they could be tortured in Hell forever — but that those who don’t receive the gift of eternal life get what all humans are due anyway — death. We are mortal beings with a short little lifespan and when it’s over it’s over — unless God intervenes.

    Of course, I’d be quite happy to learn that He’d found a way to intervene and give everyone the gift of eternal life … that’s why I say I’d be glad to find out universalism is true, but I’m willing to reserve judgement on that till, well, judgement day.

  5. This is such a fascinating topic. I have heard this position (the one advocated in the book) described as “total reconciliation” rather than universalism, because where universalism is associated with a denial of the existence of hell, this position assumes that hell exists, but that it has a back door (one that eventually everyone will go through). Like agnosticism, this view seems to come in “hard” and “soft” versions: the soft version is the one you describe – we hope this is true, we think that there is some scriptural evidence to support its truth, but ultimately that evidence isn’t strong enough to support anything more than hope. The hard version claims that the scriptural evidence is not consistent with such wishy-washiness: the passages that refer to “all things” being made new either mean all things or they don’t.

    I suppose another version of the “soft” position would be to say that not only do WE hope for the salvation of all (without being able to affirm it absolutely), but that God himself hopes for it and works toward it, while being unable to guarantee it (because of free will). That position, I think, is the one most explicitly rejected by the “hard” version (since it raises the same omnipotence issues that Arminianism does, and then throws in some omniscience problems to boot).

  6. I haven’t decided if I’m a Universalist or an Atheist, (so I suppose Agnostic is the best label for me until I figure it out).

    I don’t have a problem with the evidence for Universalism not being strong enough to support anything more than hope since it seems to me the evidence for God is about the same. However, the Universalist take is the only way that God makes sense to me. People can argue it whatever way they want and pull out bible texts that seem to clearly support both sides, but the Universalist side is the only side that I can reconcile with the idea that God is indeed loving.

    I read this book after reading If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James R. Mulholland. I kept coming across Talbott’s name in this and some other books I had been reading. I agree with you that it’s a little heavy in some places. It wasn’t as enjoyable a read as Gulley/Mulholland, but it was certainly more thorough.

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