How Did God Reconcile ‘All Things’ to Himself?
Happy Monday, and welcome back to the podcast. Today, I’m going to batch several questions together all on the same Bible text: Colossians 1:20. Here’s the first one, from John, a listener to the podcast in Mullumbimby, Australia. “Pastor John, hello! What does it mean that God reconciled to himself all things, whether in heaven or on earth? And why did he need to reconcile all things to himself?”
A listener named Ryan writes in, “Dear Pastor John, a friend of mine and I have been discussing Colossians 1:20 and the reconciliation of ‘all things’ in heaven and on earth, making peace by the blood of the cross. What does this mean for those who are not elect? Does Colossians 1:19–20 allude to a reconciliation for both elect and non-elect alike? Many thanks from a longtime listener!”
And a listener named Lake writes in, “Pastor John, I understand that earth needs reconciliation. But what’s in heaven needing reconciling?” So also asks Vikki in Dayton, Ohio. “Pastor John, Colossians 1:20 seems to imply that not just earth but also heaven has been reconciled to God. The ladies in my Bible study group can’t agree here. Some think Paul means the general universe. Others think he means the actual heavenly abode of God. We’re wondering which is correct? It would seem to me that when the devil originally sinned, he contaminated heaven. Therefore, part of Christ’s atonement also cleansed the heavenly sanctuary. Maybe. Is that consistent with Scripture?” So, a lot of questions on Colossians 1:20.
Well, let’s get the text in front of us. This is Colossians 1:19–20: “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.”
So, the questions our listeners are raising revolve mainly around what it means that God, through the ministry of the divine Christ, will reconcile to himself all things. The phrase “all things” raises the question of universalism for a lot of people. That is, will every person, even the demons and Satan himself, be reconciled to God — and there will be no hell, and there will be no final judgment, no final destruction of anyone? That’s the first question. Second question is raised by the phrase “whether on earth or in heaven.” What would it mean to speak of reconciling anything or any being in heaven? What in heaven needs reconciling? And then the third question I hear would be, How does the blood of Jesus establish peace in heaven and on earth?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Will Everyone Be Saved?
First, through Christ, God reconciles all things to himself, whether in heaven or on earth. Does that mean that there is universal salvation and that, in the end, hell will not exist, and all unbelievers and all demons and Satan himself will be reconciled and saved?
The first problem with that interpretation is that Paul himself, both in this letter of Colossians and elsewhere, teaches that there will be the final wrath of God that will last forever on people. It’s not even that they will be put out of existence (called annihilationism). For example, in Colossians 3:5–6, he says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
Then if you ask, “Well, how long will that wrath last? What will that experience be like?” And he says in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “[Those who do not obey the gospel] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
And if we look for confirmation that we’re on the right track here in understanding Paul, we find in the teachings of John and the teachings of Jesus the same kind of thing. For example, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus says, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” And since “eternal life” is parallel with “eternal punishment,” then it seems clear that the eternal punishment will have the same duration as the eternal life.
And then in Revelation 14:11, John uses the strongest phrase possible in Greek to express eternity. He says, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” The Greek phrase behind that “forever and ever” is as strong as it can be.
So, we’re talking everlasting duration of wrath, and therefore, the problem with thinking that Colossians 1:20 is teaching that all things will be reconciled and thus saved — with no hell, no eternal punishment, and no unbelievers or demons in existence — is that Paul says that’s just not true.
What Does ‘All Things’ Mean?
So the question is, Well, what does it mean? If it can’t mean universalism or annihilationism, what does it mean — “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”?
I would say to our readers, Have you ever asked why it doesn’t say “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven or under the earth”? Why does Paul omit “under the earth”? And I say that because he uses that phrase in Philippians 2:10, when he says that every knee will bow to Jesus and confess that he’s Lord — every knee “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Even the unsaved will grant that Jesus is Lord.
But here in Colossians 1:20, he doesn’t mention “under the earth” as what will be reconciled. It only says that he will reconcile all things to himself in heaven and on earth. So, here’s my suggestion: Paul is not at all contradicting the fact that the Bible teaches eternal judgment on Satan and his angels and on humans who are unrepentant, but all of those persons will be consigned to a realm outside the new heavens and the new earth.
“Everything in the new heavens and the new earth that has been contaminated with sin in any way will be reconciled.”
In Matthew 22:13, Jesus calls this “outer darkness.” They will be in a realm that is not part of the new heavens and the new earth. Everything in the new heavens and the new earth that has been contaminated with sin in any way will be reconciled, will be redeemed.
So, when Paul says that all things will be reconciled in heaven and on earth, he means that because of the work of Christ, there will be nothing unreconciled on earth, nothing unreconciled in heaven, when God consummates his purposes. For demons and unbelievers, there will be another entirely different realm of existence, which we call “under the earth” or “outer darkness,” but it will not be part of the new creation. All things will be reconciled in that earth and that heaven. So, that’s my answer to the first part of the question.
What Needs Reconciliation in Heaven?
Let’s turn to the second question: What would it mean to speak of reconciling anything or any being in heaven? What in heaven needs reconciling? What would Paul mean when he says that through Christ God reconciles to himself, “whether on earth or in heaven,” all things? And one answer is implicit in what I’ve already said — namely, he may not be talking about reconciling what is in heaven now but what will inhabit the new heavens and the new earth. And his point is, nothing contaminated by sin will inhabit the new heavens and the new earth that’s not reconciled to God. Everything will be reconciled that’s there.
But if someone pushes back and says, “Well, it looks, Piper, like it’s referring to the present heaven and earth, not just the future heaven and earth,” then my suggestion would be — if they’re right and I’m mistaken in that first suggestion — that Paul teaches in the next chapter, Colossians 3:4, and in Philippians 1:20 and 2 Corinthians 5:8, that Christians who have died are now in heaven. And Paul would then be saying that all of them are reconciled to God by the work of Christ.
That’s my suggested answer to the pushback and the suggestion that he may be referring to the present heaven and not just the future heaven: Christians are there. Christians are reconciled in heaven through the blood of Christ.
How Does Jesus’s Blood Make Peace?
One last question: How does the blood of Jesus establish peace in heaven and on earth? Paul says, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). And I add this question for two reasons. One, because we know that demonic beings not only inhabit the earth but are referred to, for example, in Ephesians 6:12 as being operative in the heavenly places. For example, Job teaches that Satan had some kind of access to God.
“The blood of Christ takes away the one damning weapon that Satan has: the power to accuse us for sin.”
The other reason I ask this question is because Paul connects the blood of Christ with the defeat of the demonic rulers and authorities in Colossians 2:15. So, right after saying that the record of our sins, the record of our debts, is nailed to the cross so that our guilt is removed and our forgiveness is secure, he says in Colossians 2:15 that God, by this work of Christ, stripped (or disarmed) the demonic powers and shamed them and triumphed over them in him.
I take that to mean that the blood of Christ takes away the one damning weapon that Satan has — namely, the power to accuse us for sin, because they’re all forgiven. Our sins are all forgiven. He doesn’t have that weapon because of the blood of Christ. He’s stripped of it. He’s disarmed. And with that triumph over Satan and his demonic forces, all demonic hopes of victory are shattered, and Satan is finally consigned to outer darkness with his forces. And in that way, complete peace is established in the new heavens and the new earth.
So, when Paul says that God made peace through the blood of his Son, he means not only that Christians enjoy no condemnation and peace with God forever, but also that the marauding, tempting, destructive work of Satan and his forces is totally disempowered and consigned outside the new heavens and the new earth forever. There’s only peace.