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.