Finally, at the heart of a discussion on Christian universalism sits Colossians 1:20, which falls at the end of the famed Christological Hymn of Praise (1:15-20). This verse, and the broader poem, has been of central importance to and defense of a Pauline universal salvation because of its allusion to universal restoration. Like Origen, contemporary philosopher and theologian Thomas Talbott insists that Colossians 1:20 is universally salvific: As “all things in heaven and on earth…” are created in Christ, so also will they be re-created in Him. For Talbott, Paul applies the concept of reconciliation, which he contends is explicitly redemptive, to all of the spiritual principalities and dominions and all humans in Colossians 1:20. ((Talbott, “Christ Victorious,” 22.)) He and other theologians argue Colossians 1:20 expresses the reality that “all things”—human and non-human beings—will be restored in Christ under the same sovereignty that brought them first into existence.
Some argue on the basis of this passage that because God’s eternal plan and purpose was reconciliation then nothing in His creation will be lost; from the beginning of time God desired to restore the cosmos, including all humans, to the way they were intended to be at the beginning. ((O’Brien, Colossians, 56.)) They believe that Col 1:20 should be taken to mean that Paul looked for ultimate reconciliation between God and all humans, indeed all hostile spiritual powers, too. This very point was made by a 19th century commentator:
The humanity of Jesus bringing all creatures around it, unites them to God in a bond which never before existed—a bond which has its origin in the mystery of redemption. Thus all things in heaven and earth feel the effect of man’s renovation; unnumbered worlds, so thickly strewn as to to appear dim and nebulous masses, are pervaded by its harmonizing influence; a new attraction binds them to the throne. ((Eadie, Colossians, 74-75.))
MacDonald argues that the poem is quite unambiguous about the extent of reconciliation Christ: “The ‘all things’ that reconciled in in v. 20 are, without any doubt, the same ‘all things’ that are created in v. 16. In other words every single created thing.” ((MacDonald, Universalist, 45.))
Accordingly, we find in Colossians a theology that places both creation and reconciliation in Christ; just as the good creation was crafted by the creator in Christ, so too will rebellious creatures find peace with God in Him. ((MacDonald, Universalist, 52.)) Everything finds complete renewal and re-creation to God through Christ, because all creation could not but be affected by the grace and the death of Him who gave it its original life and being. Because Christ gave the universe and all therein its existence, many believe Col 1:20 reveals a re-creation that extends throughout the universe, too. MacDonald argues his case based on his belief that this passage is soteriological: “That reconciliation should be seen in salvific terms is understood by the fact that the poem expands on the notion of reconciling all things in terms of making peace through the blood of his cross. The reconciliation of all things brings peace with God.” ((MacDonald, Universalist, 46.)) Rather than acting as a majestic statement about the the nature of Christ Himself, as this examination will show, MacDonald and others insist Col 1:20 is soteriological.
While on the surface it seems Paul argues for a universal salvation, Col 1:20 instead refers to the reclaiming of the universe under Christ’s lordship. Just as the first strophe of the Hymn of praise emphasized Christ’s universal significance at the creation event, so also does the hymn emphasize His universal significance on the cross for the entire creation. As Lohse asserts, “The hymn emphasizes the universal significance of the Christ-event by exhibiting its cosmic dimensions and by speaking of salvation for the whole world, including the whole creation.” ((Lohse, Colossians, 60.)) Furthermore, Moo explains that the broader pericope “is one of the Christological high points of the New Testament,” which Paul crafts “as his Christological ammunition against the false teachers.” ((Moo, Colossians, 110.)) The passage in which our verse in question finds itself, then, is Christological. Thus, Col 1:20 is not making a universal soteriological statement, but rather asserts the glorious nature of the Person of Christ. Not only that, it also has cosmological flavors as it asserts the universal scope of Christ’s re-creative effort on the same level of His first creative one, which is good news indeed for the universal creation suffers under the effects of universal rebellion.
French theologian Jacques Ellul voices what the Hymn of Praise presupposes in his description of the state of creation post-Fall: “The Great Rupture.” ((Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), chapter 7.)) As “to reconcile” suggests, there was a state of estrangement and hostility, which is presumed between the two stanzas of this hymn. ((Dunn, Colossians, 102.)) Though this estrangement is not explicitly mentioned, it is probable that the estrangement and fall of creation are presupposed throughout the broader Hymn of Praise. ((Barth and Blanke, Colossians, 216.)) Between the two stanzas, and the two phases of Christ’s cosmic activity, there is an unmentioned event or state that relates to the falling of the entire universe. ((Dunn, Colossians, 102.)) Without specifically addressing the rebellion that plunged all of creation into disunity and disintegration, something happened between verses 16-17 and 18-20. That “something” required what is reported in 19-20: “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the Cross.” ((Col. 1:19-20.)) Because the wider creation in general suffers from the effects of human beings rebelling and falling into sin, God needed to make peace not only for them, but for all creation. ((Moo, Colossians, 136.)) Through the work of Christ on the cross God has brought the entire rebellious creation back under the rule of His sovereign power. ((Moo, Colossians, 137.)) The last line of the Hymn of Praise emphasizes the universal significance of the Christ-event by revealing its cosmic dimensions and by speaking of salvation for the whole world, including the whole creation. ((Lohse, Colossians, 59.))
While the first stanza explains how “all things” find their being in Christ, the second explains how “all things” find their restoration to unity and integration in Him, as well. As Murray Harris argues, “’through him’ denotes the agency of the incarnate Christ in the work of reconciliation, just as v. 16d depicts the agency of the preincarnate Christ in the work of creation.” ((Murray Harris, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 50.)) Paul is making a statement about the nature Christ, rather than one about the nature of salvation: just as the universe has been created through Christ, so too does the universe find its re-creation in Him and Him alone. Moo maintains that Paul’s Christological statements function to serve the greater purpose of the letter “by setting forth Christ as the exclusive instrument through whom God created the universe and through whom he is in the process of pacifying the universe.” ((Moo, Colossians, 137.)) Both events (Christ as Creator and Christ as re-Creator) are celebrated by Paul with the “Hymn of Praise” found here in Colossians, where His reconciliation is cosmic in scope. Christ accomplishes what God alone could do, and has received from the Father the right to rule humanity, receive its homage, and judge its history.((R. P. Martin, “Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 422.))
O’Brien says that Paul affirms that the scope of this universal reconciliation has been brought about in history for all creation, not simply between waring powers in some other-worldly drama as some interpret the pericope. ((O’Brien, Colossians, 56. Moo, Romans, 135-136 explains that some believe v. 20 claims that God in Christ brought about an end to a cosmic conflict between good and evil cosmic powers. He and O’brien and others, however, explain the thrust of Paul’s argument isn’t simply a cease fire between waring powers, but rather the renewal and restoration of the universe.)) The universe has been reconciled in that heaven and earth have been brought back into their divinely created and determined order; the universe is again under the head of Christ and cosmic peace has returned. ((Lohse, Colossians, 59.)) Wilson explains that the whole universe has been at war with itself, and so Christ has brought peace into the life of humans because all things have been reconciled, destroying the forces which have created universal chaos. ((Wilson, Colossians, 156.)) Through the event of the cross, the shed blood of Christ brought peace not only to the lives of humans but to the entire universe, as well. Witherington echoes this point: rather than “all” signifying all creatures of every kind will eventually be saved, he insists the universe will one day be at peace. ((Witherington, Letters to the Colossians, 136.)) He also argues this verse makes clear that redemption is not only for those who are on earth, but also for the cosmos. ((Witherington, Letters to the Colossians, 136.)) Commentators believe that this verse makes clear that through Christ, the divine purpose through the reconciling and peacemaking event of the cross was to restore the harmony of the original creation.((Dunn, Colossians, 104.))
In light of the purpose of this pericope—the announcement that Christ is the one through whom the universe was created and finds its re-creation—it seems only plausible that Col 1:20 is meant to reveal that Jesus Christ is the source of a cosmic restoration, not reveal a universal salvation. As noted before, the underlying presupposition in 1:20 is the concept of universal rupture. Following this cosmic rupture, then, is cosmic restoration. Since “all things” refers to the whole of the universe in both stanza of this Hymn, we could conclude that the entire universe is within the scope of reconciliation in Christ. Therefore, it is likely that the reconciliation of which 1:20 speaks relates to the reclaiming of the entire universe under the Lordship of Christ, not a universal salvation. As Marshall argues that this reconciliation is predicated on faith: “The recipients of the letters have experienced this reconciliation, but the ultimate aim of reconciliation is achieved only ‘if you continue in your faith, established and firm.’ Thus the condition of faith is essential.” ((Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” 71.)) Likewise, Harris reminds us that v. 21-23 make it clear that the benefits of Christ’s cosmic reconciliation are not experienced apart from individual faith. ((Harris, Colossians, 51.)) Rather than arguing for a universal salvation, Paul insists the cosmic rescue and re-creation Christ indeed provides comes only through faith.
In the majestic Hymn of Praise, Paul sketches for us a powerful portrait of Christ as both Creator and Reconciler. He argues that from ages past, all things–things in the heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible—came into existence in Christ Jesus; Christ crafted creation. Unfortunately, that very good creation ruptured, creating division, hostility, disharmony, and enmity between God and the cosmos. Just as “all things” were created through Christ, so too are “all things” re-created through Him. Paul’s point is that God has brought his entire rebellious creation (“all things”) back under the rule of Creator Christ. While not a universal salvation, Moo argues this verse and the broader passage certainly asserts a thoroughly biblical universalism: God’s work in Christ is reclaiming the entire universe, tainted as it is by the rebellion of all humans. ((Moo, Colossians, 137.)) While creation ruptured from deliberate human rebellion, the way has been made through the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ to be reconciled and re-created. The point Paul makes is that re-Creation, like the Creation event itself, has and will happen through Christ who alone is the exalted Lord over all creation.