Talbott starts out by discussing his own disenchantment at the vision of God he encountered as an undergraduate student. Both his instructors and the books he read seemed to portray a God devoid of love. He writes:
“The problem was that I kept bumping up against this awkward fact: I seemed unable to find a single mainline Christian theologian who truly believed, anymore than my atheistic professor did, in a loving God. They all claimed to believe in a just and holy God, but this God seemed not to care enough about created persons even to will or to desire the good for all of them. And anything less than a perfectly loving God, I was already persuaded, would be far worse than no God at all.”
The turning point occurred when he discovered the writings of George MacDonald, a writer who “never asked me to believe something that was 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.” As he came to believe in a doctrine of Universal Restoration, he came to wonder why this doctrine--popular among the earliest Christians--had been all but relegated to the ashbin of history. This phenomenon, he believes, can be attributed more to imperial politics than sound biblical exegesis, noting “Those who prevailed were those with the civil authorities on their side and the power of the sword at their right hand.” One of the things he finds most striking is what he believes to be a causal connection between belief in eternal torment and religious oppression, citing the fact that the oppressors often employ this doctrine in defense of the oppression. He cites Matthew 17:6: “You will know them by their fruits”-- as an indictment of the doctrine of eternal torment, noting that it so often produces bad fruit.
If Talbott’s book has an over-arcing theme, it is perhaps the idea that the doctrine of eternal torment has prevailed due to fear and lack of imagination. His goal, as he says, is not to refute every conceivable argument for eternal torment, but rather to find a way of putting things together that takes into account broader ethical and philosophical considerations. He notes that the bible, as a book compiled by many authors over many centuries, and not written with a view toward systematic theology, lends itself to many interpretations. He observes that “a fertile imagination can almost always find a congenial way of putting things together. Even wildly implausible interpretations of specific texts are apt to seem utterly compelling to some…”
This, of course, does not mean his way of “putting things together” is right; it does, however, argue compellingly against a ridged, literalistic exegesis that ignores larger philosophical issues. He writes: “A theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole is as much an art, as much a work of the imagination, and as much a product of philosophical reasoning as it is of historical and linguistic study.” Here, I believe, is where he makes an absolutely crucial point: “But even in cases of systematic distortion, one cannot document such distortion simply by pointing out this or that text in the Bible … Instead, one must tackle an entire system of interpretation, a way of putting things together, including the theological and philosophical assumptions that lie behind it; and one must somehow demonstrate a better way of putting things together.”
It seems to me that here Talbott is proposing a necessary alternative to the all too familiar mode of theological debate--bible boxing. This method has grown even more popular with the ascendance of the internet, which has spawned a fantastic profusion of self-styled experts hurling out bible verses like a boxer slinging out punches, each verse designed to knock the other guy off his exegetical moorings.
His point, as I see it, is that reason ought not be removed from the discussion. Yes, the Word alone is our final authority, but is the word ever alone? Is it not always accompanied by our own fears and prejudices? Our own antecedent opinions? Does anyone come to the word a blank slate, perfectly suited to receive unfiltered instruction? Of course not. We all bring our antecedent opinions to the table and Talbott clearly believes those antecedent opinions have colored for the worse the way we interpret scripture. One of the larger philosophical considerations he mentions is the fact that of the three theological systems--Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism--only Universalism can “fully satisfy the demands of logical consistency.”
The Case For Universalism
After explaining what he wishes to accomplish, and how he wishes to accomplish it, Talbott then proceeds to make a positive case for his position. He begins with the bold assertions that “the universalism of the New Testament is not only all-pervasive, but clear and obvious as well,” then proceeds to explore the writings of St. Paul, starting with Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. The verses, respectively, state:
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation (or doom) for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
“As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.”
The apparent thrust of both verses is obvious: all died in Adam and all will one day live in Christ. He notes, however, that conservatives oppose this reasoning by insisting that the second all is not as inclusive as the first. Their strategy, he observes, is to point to other instances in the bible where the word all is used in a limited sense, and he acknowledges that many such instances can be found. It’s his contention, however, that this fact has no bearing on the meaning of the verses in question, and offers the following illustration as proof:
“Suppose that a future racist society should come to regard our country’s Declaration of Independence as a sacred document, and suppose further that some scholars in this society, being determined to explain away the statement that “all men are created equal,” should scour other letters and documents of the time in order to find instances in which “all” does not literally mean all. We might suppose that they find “some fifty places”… where [the words all and every] are used in a limited sense. Would this have any bearing on the meaning of “all men” in the statement, “all men are created equal,” as it appears in the Declaration of Independence?”
In the third section of the book Talbott goes on to discuss the logical inconsistencies of other theological systems. He begins by citing what he believes is an inherent contradiction in the conservative theology, namely, the idea that we could love our neighbor as ourselves while loving a God we believe hates our neighbor.
“Indeed, if we say that we love God whilst hating some of our brothers and sisters, then we are liars. But the reverse is true as well: Just as we cannot love God and hate those whom He loves, neither can God love us and, at the same time hate those whom we love. If I truly love my daughter as myself, then God cannot love (or will the good for me) unless He also loves (or wills the good for) her...”
“So as long as I love my daughter as myself, then God cannot truly love me without loving my daughter as well. An additional point is this: So long as I love my daughter as myself, I can neither love God nor worship him unless I at least believe that he loves my daughter as well; the idea that I could both love my daughter and love a God whom I know to hate her is also logically absurd. For consider what my love for God would have to entail: It would entail, first, that I respect God and approve of his actions, second, that I am grateful to God for what he has done for me, and third, that my will is, on the important issues at least, in conformity with his. But if I truly love my daughter, desiring the good for her, and God does not, then (a) my will is not in conformity with God's, (b) I could not consistently approve of God's attitude towards my daughter, and neither could I be grateful to him for the harm he is doing to me... As a matter of logic, either I do not love my daughter as myself, or I do not love God with all my heart, or I do not believe that God himself fails to love my own daughter.”
One of Talbott’s most compelling insights is the idea that the usual basis for eternal torment--that man rejects God--contains a fundamental flaw. Indeed he argues that it is impossible to make a fully informed decision to reject God, noting:
“But what might qualify as a fully informed decision to reject God? Once one has learned…that evil is always destructive, always contrary to one’s own interest…and once one sees clearly that God is the ultimate source of human happiness…an intelligent motive for such rebellion no longer seems even possible. The strongest conceivable motive would seem to exist, moreover, for uniting with God. So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, than that person…would seem to display the kind of irrationality that is itself incompatible with free choice.”