(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.

RESPONSE: In this passage, it is clear that Paul is not claiming that all will come to Christ—even though Christ’s saving work applies to all men (Jn. 1:29; 1 Jn. 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 2:9; Titus 2:11).

First, reconciliation is contingent on our response. Usually, 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). Some argue that God reconciled all creation to himself through Christ’s finished work; however, this is contingent on receiving the gospel in verse 23 (“if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel”).

Second, reconciliation refers to creation in a general sense. Since Colossians 1:20 speaks of the cosmic scope of God’s creation (“whether things on earth or things in heaven”), Paul might be speaking of the general, cosmic scope of Jesus’ finished work—similar to Romans 8:19-22. Since Jesus will inaugurate a New Heaven and New Earth (Rev. 21-22), Paul might have the entire creation in view—not the entire humanity.

Third, reconciliation refers to the submission of defeated enemies. Since 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), some interpreters point out that reconciliation does not refer to harmony through repentance but harmony through the final judgment of God. Under this view, this reconciliation has not been realized yet, but it will be realized in the future. This would be a case of “already-not-yet” language, which is throughout the Bible. 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.”[1] Bruce writes that the peace can be “freely accepted, or … compulsorily imposed.”[2]

For a critique of universalism, see our critique of Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.”

[1] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 186). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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