(Col. 1:20) Does this passage teach universalism?

CLAIM: Paul writes that Jesus’ death will “reconcile all things to Himself” (v.20). Universalists argue that this implies that God will save all people in the end. In particular, Origen held this view (Commentary on John 1.35).

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, reconciliation is contingent on our response. This is the repeated teaching of the NT. When Paul speaks of Christ’s reconciliation of mankind (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19), he explains that this is contingent on our receiving this gift (Rom. 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:20). This is even true in the letter itself. The Colossians were “formerly alienated” and “hostile in mind,” but now they have been “reconciled… in His fleshly body through death” (Col. 1:21-22). However, Paul continues that this is contingent on having faith in the gospel: “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23; cf. 2:9-12; 3:6).

Second, the concept of “all things” raises problems for the universalist. The reference to “all things” most likely refers to both physical and spiritual creation. Jesus created “all things” that are “in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible” (v.16), and therefore, this means that he will reconcile “all things” as well. However, this creates a difficulty for the universalist because Jesus didn’t purchase salvation for angels (Heb. 1:14). Surely, Satan will not be saved in the end (Rev. 20:10).

Third, reconciliation refers to a healed universe—whether voluntarily or involuntarily. The term “reconcile” (apokatallassō) typically refers to restoring a broken relationship. In this passage, Paul is referring to Jesus’ relationship with his fractured and fallen creation. Thus, in our view, Paul is using the term “reconcile” to describe how Jesus will bring peace to the world. However, this could be through “voluntary submission” or through “involuntary submission.”[1] That is, the universe will be “reconciled” because “everyone and everything will be subordinated to Christ.”[2] Bruce concurs, “This reconciliation of the universe includes what would otherwise be distinguished as pacification. The principalities and powers whose conquest is described in Col. 2:15 are certainly not depicted as gladly surrendering to divine grace but as being compelled to submit to a power which they are unable to resist. Everything in the universe has been subjected to Christ.”[3] This seems to be what Paul means when he writes, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). This means that all people will bow to Christ. Yet, some will bow to him as their Savior, and others will bow to him as their Judge.

The Bible clearly teaches that some people will not be in heaven (Rev. 20:11-15; Mt. 25:31-46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Mt. 26:24). Thus, in our view, reconciliation refers to Jesus ruling and reigning over a world reconciled to God’s will and way (Mt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 15:25). As Vaughn writes, “Here perhaps the main idea is that all things eventually are to be decisively subdued to God’s will and made to serve his purposes.”[4] Bruce writes that the peace can be “freely accepted, or … compulsorily imposed.”[5]

For more reading on universalism, see “Critical Review of Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins.’”

[1] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 227.

[2] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 227.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 76.

[4] Curtis Vaughan, “Colossians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 186.

[5] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 210.