Colossians 1:15–23 is a majestic text, my favorite text in the Bible. But Colossians 1:20 is notoriously challenging, and it has baffled and befuddled Bible interpreters and theologians for many centuries. The question comes in today from a listener named Heather. “Hello, Pastor John! I have a question about Colossians 1:20, about Christ ‘reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ For the unsaved and for fallen angels, how are they ‘reconciled’ to Christ?”
I just did a Look at the Book session on this very question recently. Let me see if I can sum up my argument for Heather here on APJ.
“‘All things’ refers to the new heavens and the new earth, where absolutely everything is reconciled through Christ.”
It really matters because it’s a question about what’s commonly called universalism, or the teaching that in the end, everyone, even demons, will be saved. It insists that there’s no hell and no eternal punishment. It believes that sooner or later, even if it takes a thousand years of some kind of purgatorial discipline, everybody gets saved. That’s what some people say this text, Colossians 1:20, supports.
Let me read it. “In him [Christ] 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” (Colossians 1:19–20). The question is, When Paul says all things — that all things will be reconciled to God through Christ — does all things mean every unbeliever who has ever lived, including Satan? My answer is no.
Rather, all things is a comprehensive term referring to the new heavens and the new earth, where absolutely everything — all things that exist in the new heavens and the new earth — will have been reconciled to God through the blood of Christ. There is a reality excluded from the creation. There is hell that’s outside God’s new creation, where impenitent believers and demons suffer justly forever. There is, over and against that new heavens and new earth, an outer darkness, an away-ness, an other.
Now, here are four passages that point me to this understanding of Colossians 1:20. These teach me that Paul just doesn’t believe in universalism.
The Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9)
Now, that passage shows that Paul does not believe all will be saved. He believes that there will be an eternal destruction for those who disobey the gospel. Paul does not believe that everyone will be reconciled to God. Not everyone will be saved, and he says that they will suffer a punishment away from the presence of the Lord and of his glory. That points, I think, to what I mean by “outside of the new heavens and the new earth.” Now, I think the next text supports that.
Exiled from the Kingdom
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11–12)
They will be thrown outside the kingdom — away. So, what Paul calls “away from the Lord’s glory,” Jesus describes as that place that will be outside of the established kingdom of God, and outside of God’s saving rule. It will be outside the place where all is reconciled — the place of outer darkness.
Under the Earth
At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. (Philippians 2:10)
Remember in Colossians 1:20 that these all things that are going to be reconciled are things on earth and things in heaven. Now, why doesn’t Paul say “all things under the earth”? He says “all things on earth or in heaven.” All things in heaven, all things on earth, all things under the earth — he uses all those three in Philippians 2:10. But that phrase under the earth is not used in Colossians 1:20.
Now, when he uses it in Philippians 2:10, he’s not saying there’s universal salvation, but universal submission. Willingly or unwillingly, every knee is going to bow, including the demons under the earth. Could it be that Paul did not use the phrase under the earth in Colossians 1:20 because those under the earth will not be reconciled to God? They’re not part of the all things. They will have to submit, but they will not be reconciled.
Here’s my last text, and a very, very important observation, I think. These are the very last verses of the prophet Isaiah. The point of this text is simply to illustrate how careful one has to be in taking a phrase like all things and assuming it includes what it does not include. Here’s what it says:
For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22–23)
Now, if we stopped right there, after verse 23, we might say, that’s Colossians 1:20, right? All things are going be reconciled; everybody’s worshiping; all flesh is worshiping.
Here’s the problem. The next verse goes like this: “And they” — that is, all flesh — “shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24).
“Willingly or unwillingly, every knee is going to bow, including the demons under the earth.”
Now, I think this is clear, and what is clear is that all flesh in the new creation — like all things in Colossians 1:20 — does not include the flesh of those who have rebelled against God. What all flesh means in Isaiah 66:23 is the totality of humanity in the new heavens and the new earth.
There will be nothing and no one there who does not joyfully worship God. Rebels will be outside, away from the glory of the Lord. And that’s what I think Colossians 1:20 means as well.