The reconciliation of all things to God: Universalism and the theology of Colossians

A review of The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald – Part 4

If God has reconciled all things to himself in Christ (Col 1:20), it follows that he has reconciled all people, believers as well as unbelievers. And if God will finally unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10), it follows that he will unite all people too, whether believers or those who never believe in Christ in this life.

The question of universal reconciliation

Universalists have looked to texts such Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10 (c.f. 2 Cor 5:19) in asking whether the Bible itself leads us to infer that every single individual without exception will in the end be forgiven by God and receive eternal life, including those who although not saved from ‘final’ judgment, will after death and judgment all eventually be ‘saved’, entering the New Creation after an ‘age’ of second death in the fires of hell.

In The Evangelical Universalist Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry) describes the importance of the theology of Colossians for Universalism:

“...The teaching of Paul in Colossians on Christ, the cosmos, and the church... shows how the main structures of my proposal for a Universalist twist to biblical theology fit together.” (p. 41)
The first step that MacDonald makes when using Colossians 1:20 as a basis for Universalism is to read ‘salvation’ into the universal ‘reconciliation’ described there. In a section headed ‘redemption’ he argues:

“...The cross as a means of salvation also comes out clearly in 2:15, where Christ strips the hostile authorities of their power, making the way for salvation open... The next thing to notice about the salvation is that it extends as wide as creation...” (p. 13).
MacDonald believes that the universal reconciliation described is a peacemaking quest to restore the harmony of the original creation. But he forgets to consider that the original creation described as good in Genesis 2 contained a sharp separation between light and darkness, and between what was good and evil. Satan exists in God’s created order, ready to tempt Eve to disobey God’s word, at a time when they could still be described as ‘very good’. What would a restoration to the harmony of the original creation mean except a return to the clear division between light and darkness, and between what is very good and what is evil and external to God’s blessed creation?

MacDonald wants us to equate universal reconciliation with universal salvation, arguing first in terms of the use of the Greek word rendered here ‘reconciliation’. It is used in only two other places: as well as 1:20 it is used also in Colossians 1:22 where God reconciles believers to God by Christ’s death, to bring an end to the accusation against them; and in Ephesians 2:16 where God reconciles both believing Jews and Gentiles, both by Christ’s death, to bring an end to the hostility between them.

The first use of the Greek word in Colossians 1:20 is followed by Colossians 1:22 where it refers to the removal of the accusation arising from sin. The third use in Ephesians 2:16 refers to the removal of the hostility arising from the law. Having addressed how Christ has dealt with sin and the law, it’s not surprising that Paul also goes on too to address how God has dealt with Satan’s power over people. Reconciliation of evil elements in creation, if we are referring to a restoration to the harmony that existed in ‘the beginning’ at Genesis 2, would require that evil elements are stripped of their power over and therefore excluded from rulership over God’s good creation. And that is exactly what we have described in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Is this not bringing evil back under the rulership of God via the authority of his appointed Adam (now Christ) and is that not what reconciliation means?

But instead, MacDonald feels safe to infer that the ‘reconciliation’ used in Colossians 1:20 must be 'relational':

“...The verb [reconciliation] presupposes some kind of rupture in relationship that is then repaired. The damaged relationship, says Paul, between God and a fallen creation is restored in Christ.”
But nowhere in Colossians do we see evidence for the inference that reconciliation must involve the sort of happy relationship that MacDonald implies here. Certainly when describing ‘believers’ in Colossians 1:22 and Ephesians 2:16 we see relational ‘repair’ being attributed to ‘reconciliation’. But he does not describe the sort of 'relational' repair that MacDonald means when Paul in Colossians describes the effect of Christ’s death and resurrection on the evil ‘rulers and authorities’ in the heavenly realms. Colossians does offer a description of what end the reconciliation of evil elements in creation has affected: Firstly, Christ is now the “head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:10). And secondly, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities...triumphing over them” (Col 2:15).

But what is amazing is that MacDonald does not examine Colossians 2:15 within the context of its context in Colossians 2:9-15. The description of Christ as “head of all rule and authority” in Colossians 2:10 is significant but completely missed by MacDonald.

In the first ‘hymn’ of Colossians 1:15-20, although Christ is described as creator of all “rulers and authorities” (Col 1:16), he is not described there at that point as their ‘head’. But in Colossians 2:9-15 Paul goes further to now describe Christ as “head of all rule and authority” before declaring that “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col 2:15). The reason is that Christ was appointed as “head of all rule and authority” on his resurrection from the dead. This is taught in more detail in Ephesians 1:20-13, which describes Christ:

“... when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” (Eph 1:20-22)
For Paul, clearly this is a reconciliation of “all things” to God, affected by Christ’s resurrection, because he says that after his resurrection, God “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things”. If before Christ’s resurrection, all ‘rule and authority’ – including God’s enemies – were not under the headship of Christ the man, therefore by consequence they are reconciled to God by being brought back to again be under the headship once more of both God and a man (an ‘Adam’).

This is the promise of Genesis 3:15:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."
Actually, this notion that on account of Christ’s resurrection all things have again been placed under the feet of both their creator and a man as designated head (in terms of authority), and will therefore at his coming be made to come under his feet in subjection (as their final state), is taught throughout the New Testament (e.g. Eph 1:20-23, 1Co 15:20-28, Heb 10:12-13). This is reconciliation, but it is not necessarily associated with salvation. Some will willingly come, who have actually already come under Christ as Lord. Others will be brought unwillingly by force to confess him under the compulsion of his irresistible power.

But about ‘reconciliation’ not necessarily implying ‘salvation’, we too today use the word to hold a wide variety of associations and connotations, including its use in accounting and by the law.

But MacDonald says:

“That reconciliation should be seen in salvific terms is underscored 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.” (p. 46)
This is unavoidably a false inference. Never has God’s peace been brought about in biblical history by a victory involving universal salvation. Just as the peace brought about by the ascension of David to be King in the land was to involved a complete defeat of the opposition to his rule from his enemies, so too the peace made by the blood of Christ’s cross is the effect of his ascension to the supreme position of kingship over those evil elements in creation, whose total defeat has brought an end to their power which had allowed their tyranny to reign.

Thought the New Testament we see peace as the result of God’s victory over evil, not his salvation of evil. Romans 16:20 is a startling example:

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” (Ro 16:20)
It is the God of peace who will crush Satan and his followers forever, thus securing perfect and permanent peace, and like the conquest of Joshua's troops of old, God plans to crush Satan under our feet (his church).

The universalism of Colossians

Colossians 1:20 certainly maintains that through the cross, God was to ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’. If anyone thought Christ’s victory limited to his people only, the Apostle Paul forces us to ‘think again’. The scope of Colossians 1:20 clearly exceeds Christ’s own people; Paul speaks in the past tense of a reconciliation of absolutely universal proportions that has been effected by the cross of Christ: whether the seas or the stars, angels or demons, all creatures and the sum of the cosmos itself was ‘reconciled’ to God in Christ who made ‘peace’ by the blood of his cross.

And it’s counterpart, Ephesians 1:10, certainly matches this grand scope with the affirmation that God’s plan is to accomplish in the fullness of time a unification of ‘all things in him’, again including all of creation and its entire contents: ‘things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10).

So what do we make of verses like this against the backdrop of the Biblical doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. How can it be if the Bible speaks of ‘all things’ reconciled to God, that traditionally the church has maintained throughout history that ‘some things’ will never – even in the end – be 'reconciled' to God? (Such as, unbelieving people, the devil and his angels) The doctrine of eternal hell and of everlasting punishment seems to be in conflict here with texts that teach that absolutely everything has been reconciled to God and will finally be united in Christ.

Perhaps the most significant thing for this discussion is to notice that Colossians 1:20 is speaking in the past tense. This is a vital feature that MacDonald cleverly skirts around. Whatever is meant by Paul that ‘through [Christ, God was] to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col 1:20), it must be understood that this has already happened: although evil still exists, although Satan continues to hate God and his people, and although many people continue to reject Christ, it remains true that since Christ’s resurrection from the dead, God has through him reconciled ‘all’ things to himself and made ‘peace’.

The evidence is present in Colossians in order to understand this. When all the data is considered, as briefly described above, God’s reconciliation of all things to himself through Christ must involve his installation of the man Christ Jesus as the head of all things in creation. This was God’s original intention for the first man, Adam. And so in this sense, with Christ as ‘head of all rule and authority’ (Col 2:10), his resurrection has reconciled all things to God. And what is present there in Colossians is elaborated upon more fully and unavoidably in the description of Ephesians 1:20-23 about Christ:

“when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, (23) which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:20-23)
Universal reconciliation in the New Testament

What we see from Paul in Colossians and Ephesians is described too by the Apostle in 1Corinthians 15:24-28:

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (26) The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (27) For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (28) When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1Co 15:20-28)
That God may be “all in all”; that is reconciliation. But how is this achieved in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28? It is by ‘subjection’. This is the language of war; of victorious war; the language of the Book of Revelation too: “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet”. In fulfilment of his word in Genesis 3:15 to the Serpent, “he shall bruise your head.”

That God now fills “all in all” is what Ephesians 1:23 describes. But how is it achieved by God there. It is also when after Christ’s resurrection, “he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things...” (Eph 1:22).

That “Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) is also the message of Colossians. And again too, in the theology of Colossians ‘Christ as all’ is achieved in the book of Colossians by Christ’s ascension to the position of supreme head of all things, to be ruler of rulers, and the authority of all authorities. Contrast and compare:

“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...

“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”

(Col 1:19-20 and 2:9-10)
By putting everything in subjection under his feet, God has brought everything in creation back to himself as their rightful ruler. What does reconciliation to God mean if not ‘bringing back to God’? MacDonald speaks of the ‘relational’ requirement of ‘reconciliation’. But what relationship did all of creation have to God in the beginning if not subjection? As Hebrews 2:8 says, "Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control.” If this is not universal reconciliation to God of all things to their right relationship to him, then nothing is.

* * *

But I need to move on. Much more could be said, particularly on the sister book to Colossians, the book of Ephesians, and MacDonald’s use of it in his appendix. I’d like another article to focus on the future aspect to what I’ve outlined here, to describe a more adequate understanding of Ephesians 1:10 than what MacDonald offers. But next comes Chapter 4 and 5 where MacDonald outlines a new structure for a biblical ‘meta-narrative’ that he hopes will provide a Universalism with the status of a natural extrapolation of the storyline from Adam to Jesus.


MacDonald, G. The Evangelical Universalist, Cascade books: Wipf & Stock, 2006.

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