Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thomas Talbott's Universalist View of the Meaning of Christ Victorious

Thomas Talbott, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Willamette University (Salem, Oregon), is a ‘Christian Universalist’ who writes:

“Universalists believe that the same God who commands us to love our enemies loves his own enemies as well. But God does not love sin or death or anything that separates us from him, and Paul also referred to these enemies [1 Cor 15:25-28]. So here we must distinguish carefully between the sense in which such personified evils as Sin and Death and various cosmic forces are enemies and the sense in which real people under the power of such evils are enemies. Christ destroys enemies of the first kind (non-persons) by obliterating them, that is, by eliminating them from creation entirely. When he does destroy sin and death and various cosmic forces, he likewise destroys enemies of the second kind (sinful persons) in the only way possible short of annihilating them: by redeeming them while they are yet enemies. For only enemies of the second kind (persons) are possible objects of God’s redemptive love.” (page 27, Christ Victorious, an essay in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, edited by Robin A. Parry and Christian H. Partridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).
A ‘Christian Universalist’ believes that salvation is through faith in Christ as does the evangelical; but the universalist contends that all men without exception will believe, either in this life, or postmortem, after a time of suffering in hell where they will eventually come to repentance and faith. In this way, according to Talbott, Christ is truly victorious, for there will no longer be anyone who remains a sinner in hell.

The assumption is that if a sinner remains forever in his sin (in hell), then that sinner, an enemy of God, remains undestroyed. But Talbott insists this cannot be, for Paul declares that Christ will put all enemies under his feet, and that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:25, 26). Therefore the sinner, who is an enemy of God, must either be annihilated or redeemed. Either the individual is destroyed (annihilation) or the dispostion of the individual is destroyed (transformtion from sinner to saint – redemption).

This position is untenable for the following reasons:

(1) God’s final victory over all his enemies does not require or even imply that all sinners will repent.

1 Cor 15:24, 25 defines the victory of God as the putting to an end of all authority and power by placing it under Christ’s feet. What is the nature of the authority and power that is conquered by Christ? The references to enemies and enemy (‘For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet’ and ‘the last enemy that will be destroyed is death’) in the immediate context can leave no question that the authority and power in mind is characterized by rebellious opposition. Christ will reign until all such rebellion is subjugated. A change of heart on the part of the enemy is not requisite for final and absolute victory (authority) over that enemy. Victory is the confinement of the enemy and the dismantling of his sphere of operation so that he no longer is free or able to rebel. Indeed, the punishment of the enemy for his rebellion during his confinement is not out of order.

A universalist might object that the rebellion continues in the heart, even during the confinement and punishment. Unless the rebellion is eradicated from the heart, namely, unless the sinner in hell repents and believes and thereby transforms, the rebellion continues. Christ is not victorious, there is still an enemy to be defeated.

But this notion is not supported by the scriptures. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, when speaking of the Second Advent, assures us that Christ will take vengeance upon his and our enemies, punishing them and banishing them from his presence, an extreme form of confinement:

...since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe...
The word ‘everlasting’ (aionion) may be literally translated age-like, and there is much ado over this word among universalists. No wonder. If it is translated eternal, everlasting, unending, their doctrine of universalism is doomed forever.

Some universalists would translate the word age-long as

"Any space of time whether longer or shorter, past, present or future, to be determined by the persons or things spoken of, and the scope of the subjects; the life or age of man. Aiónios, a definite and long period of time, that is, a long enduring, but still definite period of time," cited by Rev. John Wesley Hanson in his study of the words aion and aionios in 1875.

But let us assume that aionion has retained a fundamental meaning of age-like or age-long in the New Testament and the inherent meaning is of a duration whose extent is determined by the person or things spoken of. This does not at all favor the universalist. The Second Advent is the pivotal event that separates this age and the age to come. From the perspective of Christ’s second coming everything that precedes is the present evil age, and everything that follows is the age to come. From the vantage point of the Second Advent and its teleological significance, when one looks forward into the age to come, he sees only an age that is endless. Indeed, the experiences of that age will be manifold, but one thing is certain - those experiences will coincide with the endlessness of the age itself. Unless the universalist is willing to place a limit on the duration of that post-Advent age to come, how can he deny that age-like life and age-like destruction, whose nature is contoured by the never-ending duration of that Age par excellence, can be anything less than everlasting.

Granted, there are places in the New Testament where the future is referred to in terms of ages (plural), and one might be tempted to construe that, even in the age to come, there is a division of ages.

For example:

But God who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his kindness toward us who believe, Eph 2:4-7 (but Paul, in the same letter, refers to the exaltation of Christ and his authority over all as not only taking place in this age, but also, in the age to come (singular), Eph 1:20, 21)

Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (lit. unto the ages), Heb 13:8.
For me, it is appropriate to think that the intended use of the plural in such texts is for emphasis or intensity. Regardless, from the perspective of the central event of Christ’s Second Coming, there is the making of two ages, and only two, by the consumation of the present evil age (which is how we may understand our text with regard to the words, ‘then the end’), and the commencement of the age to come. Again, the attributes of age-like life and age-like destruction must be defined in terms of the everlasting, endless character of that coming age (thus, Matt 25:41, 46).

(2) Talbott's interpretation of three stages in the resurrection is eisegesis rather than exegesis (i.e, reading into rather than taking out the meaning).

Talbott assumes that the destruction of the last enemy, death, necessarily requires that the death of the sinner in hell must be brought to an end by one of two ways, annihilation or resurrection. In support of this, Talbott contends that resurrection comes in three stages: Christ the firstfruits, those who are Christ’s at his coming, those who repent and believe afterward (in hell). In terms of our 1 Cor 15 text, this third stage is elicited from the words ‘then (comes) the end...’

15:22-24 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end...
Talbott prefers to translate the words ‘then the end’ as ‘then the remainder’ (ibid., page 26), which, if that were a viable interpretation, would seemingly refer to those who are not resurrected at the time of Christ’s second coming, but later, after a long time in hell. However, Talbott is willing not to press that point seeing that few commentators would agree with the translation.

Whether he presses such a translation or not, Talbott insists that in 1 Cor 15:22-24, there is the image of a procession taking place in three stages.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits [stage 1], afterward those who are Christ's at His coming [stage 2]. Then comes the end [stage 3], when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.
But we object, for the imagery does not bear that out at all. The imagery is Old Testament wherein there are two stages– the early harvesting of the firstfruits (Feast of Harvest), then the later ingathering at the end of the year (Feast of Ingathering):

Exodus 23:14-16 Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread...and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field.
Interestingly, in 2 Thess 2:1, coincidental with the Second Advent, Paul writes of our gathering together to him (hemon episunagoges ep auton). The picture is of gathering in such a way as to bring the objects so close they may be thought of as 'upon' or 'crowding' the one who gathers.

The Greek in 1 Cor 15:23, 24 does indeed, specify a three part order using the words epeita...eita (translated afterward...then, as in Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end...) The epeita...eita construction is used for enumeration and loosely means first this; after that, this; then this. So Paul does have in mind three events that follow in a certain order: Christ’s resurrection; after that, the resurrection of those at his coming; then the end.

The question is, are all three events referring to the same theme – resurrection. The first two clearly do. Resurrection is the making alive of men, and the subjects involved in the first two events are identifiable human beings, Christ on the one hand, and those at his coming on the other. But the third event, the End, does not contain the notion of making alive. Rather, the event of the End is the point in time when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father, when he puts an end to (rebellious) rule, authority, and power. It is an event of deliverance on the one hand, and of destroying and subjugating on the other. The resurrection of persons, so cleary delineated in the first two events, is missing in the third event, for the resurrection harvest is over. With the final ingathering at the Second Advent, the End has come. It is the closing of the present evil age when those resurrected in glory (see 15:43) are delivered to the Father, and those who are not Christ’s (and therefore not raised in glory) are destroyed, bringing their rebellious rule to an end. The timing of that third event is confirmed by other texts (such as the 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 passage cited above) to be coterminous with the Second Advent.

In this 1 Cor 15 text, there is no tension in Paul’s thought of a truly total victory by Christ over all his enemies which does not at the same time require their ultimate salvation. It is the victory of the conquering King who rescues his people from his and their enemies whom he destroys by banishing them from his presence and glory (2 Thess 1:9).

Talbott cannot even raise the objection: If the last enemy to be destroyed is death, how can there be an eternal banishment from God, the essence of death itself? If hell were to continue forever, has not God failed to destroy death? But that is not what the apostle has in mind when he speaks of death as the last enemy to be destroyed. When Paul elucidates in the latter verses of 1 Cor 15 the nature of the resurrection (wherein he answers the question What kind of body is a resurrected body? 15:35), he is thinking of the resurrection referred to in the second event (‘afterward those who are Christ's at His coming’). There is nothing in the passage that would indicate that Paul has any other resurrection in mind. And as such, the destruction of the final enemy of death is precisely the resurrection of the saints at the Second Advent, for Paul writes (15:54, 55),

So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?"
One final note. Talbott and universalists like him rely heavily on the translation of ‘all’ in 1 Cor 15:22 and Rom 5:18 (these texts appear to be the loci classici of their position) to mean ‘all without exception,’ such that as on the one hand all without exception have died in Adam, so on the other, all without exception will be made alive in Christ. They insist that the grammatical parallelism leads to no other conclusion. But if our understanding of the 1 Cor 15 text is correct, that those who participate in the resurrection harvest are only those at Christ’s coming, then Paul, without explanation or apology has used the word ‘all’ differently in a parallel grammatical construction. The point is that such parallelism does not always demand an identity of scope on both sides. Context determines the scope. In some cases the context may extend beyond the immediate text and into the theology of the writer as propounded elsewhere in the New Testament.



  1. 1 Cor. 15:27-28.

    In the NIV it is not clear that the "subjection" of all things to Christ is the same word as the "subjection" of Christ to the Father -- so that God be all in all.

    Although the verbs "subject/be subjected" appear no less than six times in the two verses, the NIV seems to go out of its way to avoid the connection.

    The King James (AV) almost breaks the connection, but the NIV completely breaks the connection altogether. One wonders if the translators want to think of the subjection of all things to Christ as "ever-lasting punishment", while Christ's subjection to the Father is completely different, despite having the same verb.

  2. Well I wonder if this N.I.V thing is the same as its translation at 2nd Thessalonians ch 1 v9.

    The KJV has everlasting destruction which makes the adjective eternal mean a never ending process of destruction.

    I think nearly all modern translations use eternal destruction which is a safer translation. Because the word eternal literally means of the age to come. It describes a quality of the age to come, not a (never ending) quantity of ongoing time. But the N.I.V. has followed the K.J.V. by using everlasting.

    At the very least I think we should leave the issue open by using the word eternal.

    But by using the word everlasting the N.I.V. closes all the doors. I hope that is helpful