Colossians 1:15-20 - Exegesis of 'All Things'
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
If we apply a consistent hermeneutic to the passage, Paul makes it very clear what the scope of all things includes:
- Everything that was created
- All things in heaven
- All things on earth
- All things visible
- All things invisible
- All thrones
- All dominions
- All rulers
- All authorities
All of these things were created by him, he is before them all, and holds them all together. And the purpose of the cross was to reconcile this same scope which he very clearly defines, and reinforces again in v20 by repeating "whether on earth or in heaven". Such readings are problematic for readers who are instinctively on-edge around concepts which may lend support to Universalism, but that is not a good enough reason to rush to an alternative conclusion.
We must be careful to always start with a pure exegesis of texts like this, and to not read in our own biases as linchpins of interpretation. We must aim to understand the intended meaning of the passage, before we risk modifying it with our preferred biases and related passages. Previous answers to this question used throwaway comments which allow them to bypass the phraseology of the passage, such as:
- "The Scripture as a whole deny the concept of Universalism."
- "'All' in the first passage does not speak of everything, since there are some things that will not be reconciled destined for destruction."
- "This supposition does not mean universal salvation for all sinners"
This is perhaps the strongest text in the scriptures which (at face value) backs universalist concepts - and has been thoroughly exegeted and defended by Robin Parry in his book 'The Evangelical Universalist', writing under the alias 'Gregory MacDonald'. He argues for an eventual reconciliation of all things, after the judgements and punishments which the biblical texts describe to us. This is not my understanding, but does make for a good exegesis of the text in front of us, and so is not to be discarded hastily.
A plain reading of most English renditions of the text does definitely infer that all things is a universal scope, and ultimately depends on what meaning we derive from reconcile / ἀποκαταλλάσσω, apo-kata-allasso:
- ἀπό - of separation
- κατά - down to an exact point (intensifying attached verb)
- ἀλλάσσω - to change
The terms ἀποκαταλλάσσω and καταλλάσσω more generally are strong and consistent phrases used by Paul throughout the New Testament when talking of total reconciliation:
"by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility." - Ephesians 2:15-16
"while we were enemies we were reconciled to God" - Romans 5:10
"(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife." - 1 Corinthians 7:11
And perhaps most relevantly:
"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. " - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
We find a perfect parallel to Colossians 1 here, where Paul declares Christ was 'reconciling the world', and yet Paul's application is 'we implore you... be reconciled to God'. Yes, the intention of the cross in both passages is a global reconciliation, and at face value this is the intended scope of what Christ accomplished.
Conditionality of Reconciliation
Rightly, you've picked up on Colossians 1:22-23, which suggests that at least in some instances, in the near term, that there are further conditions to that reconciliation. Therefore, you're asking the right question, "How did Paul understand the effectiveness of God's "reconciling all things" in Christ?" Well, it's something that for Christians is now a thing of the past, but for the rest of the world is a present, continuous work:
'God through Christ reconciled us and gave us a ministry of reconciliation; in this, he was reconciling the world to himself...' (2 Cor 5:18-29, my paraphrase)
Given the usage of the concept of 'reconciliation' in Corinthians, it would seem that Paul's concept of Christ's 'reconciliation' is both past and present. Christ's past work is in the most important sense perfect and provides for that total reconciliation of all things, but is now an ongoing present work of reconciliation. Indeed, Christ's life, death and resurrection urge this onwards:
“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;" - Luke 12:51
"And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” - Matthew 21:44
"For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life." - 2 Corinthians 2:15-16
The world is no longer permitted to continue in indolence, but by the work of God in Christ and the ongoing presence of the Church in the world is divided and forced to choose. Paul taught that the present and future work of the church is to continue this ministry, that as the world is confronted with the reconciling work of the Christ, they cause others to become partakers in that reconciliation, or otherwise to reject it entirely. God is "making his appeal through us" (2 Cor 5:19) for the things to come and become partakers of this peace which the cross has provided for.
In a Universalist view this 'reconciliation' does reach ultimate perfection in the future, and for the rest of us that 'reconciliation' of all things merely involves things being 'put right' as all creation responds to the work of the Cross and is compelled out of passivity to choose life or death. Both views are compatible with the passage at hand.