Who Should Read This Book – Readers interested in theology, specifically wrestling with questions of God, hell, love and eternity.
What is the Big Takeaway – God is Love and through this Love desires all persons to be saved and will never give up until all are saved.
And a Quote – “If supreme power lies on the side of supreme love, then none of us, whether Christian, Muslim, or even atheist, need fear that the One who loved us into existence in the first place might wantonly abandon us in the end. Nor need we worry that an honest mistake in abstract theology will somehow jeopardize our future. For if a perfectly loving Creator does exist, then he knows us from the inside out far better than we know ourselves; he appreciates the ambiguities, the confusions, and the perplexities we face far better than we do; and he understands the historical and cultural factors that shape our beliefs far better than any historian does. Such a Creator—so loving, intimate, and wise—would know how to work with each of us in infinitely complex ways, how to shatter our illusions and transform our thinking when necessary, and how best to reveal himself to us in the end” (224)
Thomas Talbott begins this book with some autobiographical reflections. After this, he gets into the meat of his argument with sections focusing on scripture and philosophical argument. He begins by offering three inconsistent propostions:
“(1) All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him. (2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires. (3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever” (p. 38).
You cannot believe all three of these at the same time. Thus, for Christians who believe that most of humanity will be consigned to eternal, unending separation from God (3) they cannot also believe God desires all to be saved or that God will be reconciled to all whom God desires. Augustinians and Calvinists would reject #1 – God only desires to save some humans. Arminians argue that God does want to save all, but is unable to due to human freedom that can forever reject God (thus, Arminians reject #2).
Talbott’s book is an argument that all will ultimately be saved, thus he rejects #3. His argument is broken into two primary sections. First, he argues that the New Testament presents a picture of universal salvation. He focuses on the clearest proponent for this, the apostle Paul. Paul clearly writes that as in Adam all die so in Christ all are made alive. Talbott’s argument is that “all” means the same thing in both cases. From this, he responds to those who may argue Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else, by explaining just what Jesus meant by “Gehenna” (the word translated hell). Through this, he argues that our foundational belief about God is that God is Love (stated clearly in 1 John).
This reminds me of what many other authors have emphasized – we all bring assumptions and presuppositions to how we read scripture. Scripture presents us with a variety of images of God and what God is like. How do we judge (interpret) who God is? Brad Jersak’s Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut does a better job than Talbott of recognizing this. Talbott’s argument from scripture is not exhaustive, nor does it intend to be. I think the point is that every reader of scripture must decide the lens through which we read scripture. For Talbott (and certainly not just Talbott), it is “God is Love”.
This begs the question, how different will we read scripture when we read it through the Love of God revealed in Jesus? Proponents of eternal conscious torment have taught us to read it through a retributive God who casts most people to unending hell. We see “hell” in the text and import all we’ve been taught. And when we see passages that hint at universal salvation, we interpret them in ways that mean something else (so the “all” saved in Christ are not actually all people but all Christians…if we even ask the question). We need to learn to read scripture in a better way. When we read it through the Love of God in Jesus, the universal, inescapable love of God becomes clear. Passages once ignored or explained away just click into place. Overall, this reading makes more sense of the whole of scripture as even the justice and judgment passages find a place in which they make sense.
Some may argue that the fact those of us who have come here had to learn from theologians like Talbot (and Jersak, Hart, Gregory of Nysa, George MacDonald) shows this is not a clear reading of the text. But our previous reading was also taught to us. We learned it in Sunday school and from pastors in our youth. It was never the plain reading of the text. Whether we interpret scripture the way we were taught as children or interpret in ways we’ve learned as adults, we’re all interpreting it. For many of us, it makes more sense to interpret it in the way Talbott teaches.
The second part of Talbott’s book is a philosophical argument on the Love of God. This is where Talbott excels even more, it seems he is more a philosopher than a Bible scholar. In the beginning of the book he says he wrote this for a popular level audience, but I think the arguments here would stretch many people. That said, for those who work through them the arguments are sound. Many of these arguments are echoed in the writing of folks like David Bentley Hart. Talbott argues for a version of free will that is not just the ability to choose randomly with no end in sight, but to freely choose towards good ends. When the blinders are removed and we see the ultimate Good we will freely choose it as good for us.
Talbott also shows the absurdity of some answers Christians give when asked about how they can worship in heaven if their friends are in hell. William Lane Craig argues that God may erase from our minds the memories of these loved ones. This is both absurd and horrific. As Hart also argues, this would mean we are not the people who are ultimately saved. Once our memory and connection to these others is broken, we are fundamentally different people. Second, this argument shows how far even most who endorse unending hell have strayed from the tradition. Christians of the past would just say the sight of our loved ones in torture will move us to praise God. The resistance to this by apologists for hell shows how illogical and unloving eternal torment is.
Overall, this is one of the best books on the subject of universal salvation. I think most readers would do better to start with the work of Brad Jersak (Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut). In some ways, this is a good companion to David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. The arguments are similar, but Talbott fleshes them out in much more depth.
In the end, Talbott’s picture of God is compelling, beautiful and ultimately loving. God wants all humans to be saved. God knows how to continually reach out to us, woo us and bring us to the place where we freely choose what is the best for us – to be reconciled to God. This may take ages and ages as we experience the purgation of God’s consuming fire. But ultimately, we all will joyfully know and be known by our Creator:
“When we finally weary of our own selfishness, petty jealousies, and lust for power; when we learn at last, perhaps through bitter experience, that these lead only to ruin and cannot bring enduring happiness, that nothing short of union with God and reconciliation with others will satisfy our own deepest yearnings; when we discover that the Hound of Heaven has finally closed off every alternative to such a union, we shall then, each of us, finally embrace the destiny that is ours (226).”