Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations

cover

*****The Inescapable Love of God

by Thomas Talbott

Reviewed January 10, 2005.
Universal Publishers, 2002.  223 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #2, Christian Nonfiction

In last issue of Sonderbooks, I reviewed If God Is Love, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.  From the Amazon page for that book, I found a link to The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott, as well as If Grace Is True, an earlier book by Gulley and Mulholland.  I asked for and got those two books for Christmas and devoured them.  The Inescapable Love of God was exactly the book I was looking for.

I’ve mentioned in my earlier reviews how George MacDonald’s writings changed my view of God and made me come to believe that God would, eventually, save everyone.  I read George MacDonald’s books innocently enough, knowing only that C. S. Lewis regarded him highly, and that he had written some excellent fairy tales and novels.

As it dawned on me that MacDonald was teaching that God will eventually save everyone, at first I thought it was too good to be true.  After all, the Bible doesn’t teach that, does it?  George MacDonald clearly believed that it did, and he showed such deep knowledge of the Bible, even in the original languages, and such deep love for Jesus, I felt that I could trust his view.  Mind you, I did read again through the entire New Testament, amazed at how easy it was to interpret the words this way.  Suddenly I was reading them with a completely different perspective from the one I’d been taught, at my Christian high school and Christian university.

However, George MacDonald didn’t present the evidence for his beliefs in a systematic format.  I had to glean the teaching and arguments out of his larger works, finding bits and pieces in different places.  The more I learned and studied, the more it made sense.

Thomas Talbott’s book, The Inescapable Love of God, is exactly the book I wanted to find.  He presents a systematic defense of Christian Universalism.  He presents historical, Scriptural, and philosophical reasons why this view makes sense.

Interestingly, Thomas Talbott had a background similar to mine, very conservative, attending a Christian high school.  After college, he went on to seminary.  Like me, his first encounter with universalism was in the writings of George MacDonald.  He says of MacDonald:  “Here, at last, was a religious writer who seemed to appeal not to fear or guilt or mean-spiritedness, but to the very best within me.  Here was someone who never—and I mean never asked me to believe something that seemed unreasonable; who insisted, to the contrary, that I not accept anything—not even anything he might say—that seemed to me, for whatever reason, unworthy of human belief….  The spirit of what MacDonald had to say seemed utterly different from, and far more uplifting than, anything I had encountered in the mainline theologians.”

Like me, Talbott found when he looked at Scripture through MacDonald’s eyes:  “It was almost as if the paradigm from which he operated was entirely different from the one I had come to expect; from his perspective, everything seemed to have a different slant.  Part of the difference was that MacDonald somehow managed to see everything, even divine judgment and wrath, as an expression of God’s perfecting love, a love that is both all-pervasive and, in the end, inescapable.”

Like me, Talbott wondered why the church as a whole didn’t teach these ideas.  Unlike me, he had the resources to look into it.  He found that there was strong early support for this idea before the time of Augustine, including St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Why did those ideas leave the mainstream teaching?  Well, one reason was that those who believed differently also came to power in government and were willing to kill those who disagreed with them.  Church leaders like Augustine and later John Calvin reasoned that someone who preached different teachings than their own was sending souls to hell for all eternity.  Therefore, a person with such teachings was worse than a murderer and should receive punishment worse than that of a murderer.

Talbott sums up:  “Many religious doctrines serve, among other things, a sociological function, and over the centuries the traditional understanding of hell has served one function especially well:  It has enabled religious and political leaders to cultivate fear and to employ fear as a means of social control.  That more than anything else explains, I believe, why the imperial church came to regard the idea of universal reconciliation as a threat not only to social stability, but to its own power and authority as well.”

He goes on to show how exclusivism undermined the Church’s moral and spiritual authority and led to all that is worst about the history of the Church—the persecution and harsh judgment for which it has been given a bad name among unbelievers.  (Instead of “See how they love one another!”)

Now, mistakes made by the church do not nullify the transforming message of Christ.  Talbott says, “That those who call themselves ‘Christians’ have made a mess of the Christian religion is no more surprising, I would suggest, than that the scribes and the Pharisees (during New Testament times) made a mess of the Jewish religion.”

The book goes on to present a defense of Christian Universalism, both from the teachings of the Bible and from philosophical contradictions in the other views.

I like his organized, logical discussion of the topic.

“Here is a relatively easy way to understand these issues and to organize our thinking about them.  We begin with an inconsistent set of three propositions:
1.    It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;
2.    It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;
3.    Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.”

These three propositions cannot all be true at the same time.  “Although at least one of the propositions above is false, we nonetheless find theological arguments in support of each of them; we also find texts in the Bible that may appear, at least initially, to support each of them.”

I like his logical approach:  “With respect to each of them, some theologians and Bible scholars have concluded that it is a fundamental—not a peripheral, but a fundamental—teaching in the Bible.  But as a matter of logic, not all of them can be true; at least one of them is false.  So if we consider the matter purely as an exercise in logic—that is, without considering any textual evidence at all—we confront this alternative:  We can say, on the one hand, that the Bible teaches all three propositions and is not, therefore, infallible in all its teachings; or we can say, on the other hand, that the Bible is indeed infallible in all its teachings, but does not really teach all three propositions.”

Talbott goes on to classify Christian theologians and their theological systems according to which of the three propositions they finally reject.  He names those who reject the first proposition Augustinians.  They believe strongly in the sovereignty of God’s will and the doctrine of eternal punishment.  He calls those who reject the second proposition Arminians, after Jacobus Arminius who opposed the Calvinistic understanding of predestination.  This category includes C. S. Lewis, who believed that man’s free will is an obstacle that God will not be able to get around with some people, who will essentially send themselves to hell.  Universalists reject the third proposition, many believing in the existence of hell, but that it is a temporary tool to achieve God’s redemptive purpose in the world.

Talbott had already pointed out that the Bible, on first reading, seems to have verses supporting all three propositions.  Those who have been taught from childhood the views of Augustinians or Arminians may have trouble at first seeing how clearly the Universalist views are presented.  For example, I was sitting in Sunday School recently, and the verse was read about how every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue confess that He is Lord.  Immediately afterward, someone said, “But then it’s too late!”  I was dumbfounded, noticing that there’s absolutely nothing in the text suggesting that then it’s too late, but that everyone in the room automatically read that into it because of what they’d been taught.  I would have done the same before I read MacDonald and changed my perspective.

Talbott spends the next two chapters showing how easy it is to explain away verses that apparently support Proposition 3.  He looks at difficult passages, such as Paul’s talk about election in Romans 9 through 11, and Jesus’ teaching about the Sheep and the Goats in the Gospel of Matthew.  He beautifully cleared up some passages I still wondered about, looking at the original Greek and showing how they fit nicely with the idea of remedial punishment and the eventual salvation of everyone.  He believes that predestination is a fundamental Pauline teaching—only he believes that every single human is predestined to be conformed to the likeness of Christ one day.

“If sin is anything that separates us from God and from each other, then if God is to be ‘all in all,’ he must sooner or later destroy all sin, thus removing every stain from his creation.  According to the New Testament as a whole, I want to suggest, God’s strategy for accomplishing this end is two-fold:  On the one hand, he sent the Son into the world to defeat, in some unexplained mystical way, the powers of darkness and to pioneer the way of salvation (see Hebrews 2:10)—a way of repentance, forgiveness, and personal sacrifice.  On the other hand, for those who refuse to step into the ordained system of repentance, forgiveness, and personal sacrifice, he has an alternative strategy:  In their estrangement from God, they will experience his love as a consuming fire; that is, as wrath, as punishment, and, in the end, as a means of correction.  So in that sense, they will literally pay for their sin; and God will never—not in this age and not in the age to come—forgive (or set aside) the final payment they owe, which is voluntarily to step inside the ordained system of repentance forgiveness and personal sacrifice.”

In the next chapter, Talbott shows arguments from the Bible against Augustinianism and Arminianism.  He looks at particular passages and how they have been misinterpreted.  He looks at the doctrines of specific early and modern theologians and argues against them.  He asserts that God loves every person He has created, and He indeed has the power to overcome every obstacle and bring each one to Himself.

After looking at the Biblical support for Universalism, in his last section, Talbott looks at logical and philosophical arguments in its favor.  He shows how exclusivism is self-contradictory.  For starters, if God truly loves me, how can He fail to love someone whom I love?

He also covers a point that MacDonald often brings up, that punishment cannot pay for sin.  “I shall now argue that Anselm was right about this; if God should torment us from now until the end of time, that would not successfully cancel out a single sin.  But unfortunately, Anselm never fully grasped why he was right, because he never fully grasped this all-important point:  Punishment is simply not the sort of thing that could pay for any offense; it is no equipoise at all for sin.”

He discusses the retributivist view of justice and hell and where that view falls short.  He talks about perfect justice.  “So what, specifically, does perfect justice require?  What sort of thing would make up for, or cancel out, sin?  If we accept the Christian view, according to which sin is anything that separates us from God and from each other, then the answer to our questions is clear:  Perfect justice requires reconciliation and restoration.  It requires, first, that sinners repent of their sin and turn away from everything that would separate them from others; it requires, second, that God forgive repentant sinners and that they forgive each other; and it requires, third, that God overcome, perhaps with their own cooperation, any harm that sinners do either to others or to themselves.”

He talks about how there’s no true triumph of justice where there are still unrepentant sinners.  “Whether real justice, God’s justice, will finally triumph, whether God will ever achieve a final restitution of all things (Acts 3:21) or the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20) is, of course, another matter.  But it is hard to see how anything short of such restitution and such reconciliation could possibly qualify as a triumph of justice.”

Talbott also talks about why God saving every person does not conflict with our free will.  Here is part of his argument:  “The picture is this:  The more one freely rebels against God in the present, the more miserable and tormented one eventually becomes, and the more miserable and tormented one becomes, the more incentive one has to repent of ones sin and to give up ones rebellious attitudes.  But more than that, the consequences of sin are themselves a means of revelation; they reveal the true meaning of separation and enable us to see through the very self-deception that makes evil choices possible in the first place.  We may think that we can promote our own interest at the expense of others or that our selfish attitudes are compatible with enduring happiness, but we cannot act upon such an illusion, at least not for a long period of time, without shattering it to pieces.  So in that sense, all paths have the same destination, the end of reconciliation, but some are longer and windier than others.  Because our choice of paths in the present is genuinely free, we are morally responsible for that choice; but because no illusion can endure forever, the end is foreordained.  As Paul himself puts it:  We are all predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (see Romans 8:29); that part is a matter of grace, not human will or effort.”

In conclusion, Talbott reminds us that the message of Christ is a message of hope.  “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 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 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.”

“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.”

I hope this review gives you a sense of what this book holds.  The Inescapable Love of God is an intellectual argument, and an argument from the Bible, that God loves everyone and means to save everyone.  If you are not convinced that the Bible is true or want a lighter approach, I suggest reading instead If Grace Is True, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.

For someone like me, this book was exactly what I needed.  I admit that I chose Universalism with my heart, after George MacDonald assured me that the Bible taught this view.  Thomas Talbott has now shored up my position by giving me strong intellectual support for this view.  If, like me, you are interested in Biblical support, as well as logical and philosophical arguments, this book presents a powerful defense for Christian Universalism.

I didn’t present nearly all the specific arguments in this review.  I did go into great detail to give you an idea of the scope of Thomas Talbott’s arguments.  I hope that you can tell from this if you would be interested in reading further or not.  Even if you strongly disagree, you might find it helpful to think through exactly where you disagree.

As for me, after my eager initial devouring of this book, now I’m going to go back and read it more slowly.  I want to understand the arguments better, but most of all I want to dwell on the beautiful picture it presents of my loving Father God.

Reviews of related books:
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Brad Jersak
Hope Beyond Hell, by Gerry Beauchemin
At the End of the Ages... The Abolition of Hell, by Bob Evely
If Grace Is True, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland
If God Is Love,  by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland
What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen
Knowing the Heart of God, by George MacDonald
Discovering the Character of God, by George MacDonald
Unspoken Sermons Series I, II, and III, by George MacDonald
The Hope of the Gospel, by George MacDonald
The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald
Until They Are Found by Peter Gray
Every Knee Shall Bow, by Thomas Allin and Mark T. Chamberlain
Love Wins, by Rob Bell
Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years, by John Wesley Hanson

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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