Why I am a Universalist, Part 1: Talbott's Propositions

Since my final post of Freud's Ghost (Heaven) I have been in multiple conversations related to this and other blogs regarding the universalist position. So, to help clarify why exactly I am a universalist, I'm going to devote some posts to the topic.

First, to recap, a little history.

Universalism has been argued for from the earliest days of the church. The influential church father Origen (ca. 185-254) was one of the first to argue for universalism and he was soon followed by Gregory of Nysaa (ca. 335-395) to argue for the position.

Since the earliest centuries, many other Christians have been draw to universalism due to its radical vision of the love of God. The mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her Revelations of the Divine Love is an example. In more recent eras, Christian writers such as George McDonald (1824-1905) and C.S. Lewis wrote pieces sympathetic to universalism (see Lewis' book The Great Divorce). In current evangelical scholarship, the philosopher and theologian Thomas Talbott has argued for a universalist position (see Talbott's book The Inescapable Love of God), although universalism remains controversial in evangelical circles (see the book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate for a survey of the current argument).

In this post I want to walk through some of Talbott's thinking comparing universalism to other theological positions.

(Side note: Through conversations with my friend Dr. Mark Love I've come to realize that I tend to conflate soteriology with eschatology in these conversations. So, I beg forgiveness from professional theologians. I am, truly, an amateur in these matters. As a case in point, this soteriological and eschatological conflation will continue in the account below. I'm just giving you a heads up that I'm aware of the conflation and will, in due course, address this conflation later on in this series.)

Returning now to Talbott...

We might begin by asking, Is universalism unbiblical? Talbott argues that it is not. He supports this view by comparing universalism to two “orthodox" positions, Calvinism/Augustinianism (i.e., salvation through God’s sovereign election) and Arminianism (Theistic free will: The view that, although God intends to save every person, some people are condemned to hell, not as a result of God’s choice, but as the result of free human choice). Most Christian churches build their salvation theologies around one of these two positions, relying on either election (God’s choice) or free will (our choice) as the fulcrum of salvation (or damnation). Thus, to compare Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism, Talbott in Universal Salvation? asks us to consider three theological propositions:

1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.

2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.

3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.

First, it should be noted that significant Biblical support could be cited for each proposition. All are supported by the biblical witness.

However, and here's the rub, Talbott points out that these propositions are logically inconsistent. That is, a Christian cannot, logically, endorse all three propositions. Look back over the propositions and mull them over. You'll see he has a point.

What this implies is that, to maintain logical coherence, a theological system must reject one of the three propositions (all biblical mind you) and embrace the remaining two propositions. What you reject and what you embrace logically defines your theological system.

Let's start with Calvinists. Calvinists tend to accept propositions #2 and #3, and, thus, reject #1. That is, Calvinists believe that God does not love all people universally; His Election selects only a subset of the human population.

By contrast, Arminians tend to accept propositions #1 and #3, and, thus, they reject #2. That is, God’s redemptive plans can be thwarted as some humans exercise their free will in rebellion against God.

Talbott notes that, either way, there is a restriction. Calvinists restrict God’s love (only a few will be elected) while Arminians restrict God’s Ultimate victory (God will fail to reach and save most of the people who have walked the earth).

In contrast to these two positions, universalists embrace both propositions #1 and #2, and, thus, reject #3. That is, by refusing to restrict God’s love and Ultimate Victory you have a God, “the Hound of Heaven,” who will pursue every person until all, by His grace, are saved. As Talbott summarizes in Universal Salvation?):

“…the Western theological tradition seemed to leave me with a choice between an unjust and unloving God, on the one hand, and a defeated God, on the other. But this hardly exhausts the logical possibilities; there remains the additional possibility that it is God’s very nature to love, as 1 John 4:8 and 16 appear to declare, and that he is also wise and resourceful enough to accomplish all of his loving purposes in the end.”

So, in the end, Talbott suggests that universalism is no more unbiblical than the two “orthodox” salvation theologies, Calvinism and Arminianism. That is, every position turns its back on some portion of the biblical witness. Thus compared, universalism is no different and, thus, no more unbiblical. There is a logical symmetry here and people of good will will, naturally, as they have throughout Christian history, differ on how they reconcile these three propositions with the biblical witness.

I don't intend to say that this argument is wholly satisfactory. I start with Talbott's propositions to do a little theological spade work, to break up the ground a little. It also introduces theological positions we shall compare to universalism during these posts.

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4 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 1: Talbott's Propositions”

  1. Yes, I'm a church of Christ universalist. Here's an interesting link to an evangelical guy, a philosopher at Yale, who is as well:


    Came across him over at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank site.

  2. I recently found your blog, and yu have a lot of great stuff here. (Incidentally, I have several friends who are ACU grads, and I was invited to speak at the lectureships a few years ago. It was a lot of fun.)

    Anyway...I wonder if most Christian soteriologies are somewhat misplaced. By placing the emphasis on individual fates in the afterlife, perhaps they miss many of the contextual applications of salvation/redemption/etc in the NT. Maybe what happens to people after they die isn't the poin of salvation?

    I'm looking forward to exploring more of your blog. Thanks

  3. I am glad I ran across your site. I grew up in the churhes of Christ but now preach at a small country chapel that allows me to speak freely about the unconditional love of God. I'm not much for labels but I guess some would call me a universalist. Anyway, I will be looking foward to researching more articles on your blog.

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