Steve Chalke (The Lost Message of Paul, ch. 19) argues that, if Paul’s words in Colossians 1:19f mean anything, ‘all’ must mean ‘all’, and that the ‘reconciliation of all things’ must include all people, without exception.
Here’s what Chalke says:
‘The theologian John Piper uses the same kind of ‘does-all-really-mean-all’ argument to dismiss the power of Paul’s magnificent declaration about Christ in Colossians 1.19–20:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], 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.
Piper claims that although some have used this statement from Paul to argue that ‘all rebel creatures . . . will be reconciled to God in the end and there will be no eternal hell’, this is not what it means:
It’s assumed that Paul means ‘all things’ in the universe now will someday be reconciled to God. I don’t think he means that. I think he means that the blood of Christ has secured the victory of God over the universe in such a way that the day is coming when ‘all things’ that are in the new heavens and the new earth will be entirely reconciled to God with no rebel remnants.
But, whatever the fancy exegetical footwork, in the end you have to do one of two things: either conclude that Paul was so loose with his choice of language as to be irresponsibly vague and misleading around the articulation of his central message, or accept that he meant very deliberately to say exactly what he did say. He really is talking about good news for all!’
[By the way, Chalke fails to provide a reference for this quote from Piper. It can be found here.]
It is odd that Chalke cites Piper’s argument (which I think is idiosyncratic, and rather weak) and no other. Is he not aware that most competent scholars do not infer universalism (or universal reconciliation) from this text? They do so for two main reasons:
Firstly, to infer universalism from this text would be to bring it into conflict with the witness of the many non-universalist texts that come from the lips of Christ and from the writings of the inspired apostles.
Secondly, to infer universalism from this text would be to assume (wrongly) that the ‘reconciliation’ referred to is necessarily salvific.
To spell this out in more detail:
F.F. Bruce writes: ‘To deduce from such a passage as this the conclusion that every human being, irrespective of his record of his attitude to God, will at last enjoy celestial bliss, is to deduce something which is contrary to recorded sayings of our Lord, not to mention the teaching of the NT in general. The peace effected by the death of Christ may be freely accepted, or it may be compulsorily imposed. When Paul speaks here of reconciliation on the widest scale, he includes in it what we should distinguish as pacification.’
Moo remarks that this passage has been used since the time of Origen to support a doctrine of universalism. [Indeed, according to Origen, even the devil and the evil angels would be reconciled to God in the end]. But, aside from the consideration that this doctrine ‘cannot be reconciled with clear New Testament teaching about the reality and eternality of Hell’, Col 2:15 makes it clear that there are spiritual beings which are not saved by Christ, but rather vanquished by him.
Elsewhere, Moo says that it is unlikely that Paul is thinking here of salvific reconciliation. Paul’s teaching here is that God will reconcile ‘all things’ to himself: this expression includes, but is not limited to ‘all human beings’, as the elaboration ‘whether things on earth or things in heaven’ indicates. ‘All things’ include, therefore, the ‘thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ of v16; but these are, in Paul’s teaching, hostile powers: ‘they are reconciled through subjugation’ (quoting P.T. O’Brien). What has already been achieved in principle, ‘through his blood, shed on the cross’, will be completed on the last day (Phil 2:10f). (in Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
Garland agrees: ‘The pacification of all things, human and nonhuman, does not mean that the enemies of God are won over in obedience to him. It is not a peace among equals, “but one forcefully brought about by a triumphant victor.” When Paul promises that every knee will bow at the name of Jesus and confess that he is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11), he means that every being will finally acknowledge who is Lord of the universe. The unconditional surrender of the Axis troops in World War II brought a cessation to the hostilities, but war crimes tribunals still awaited those who perpetrated evil (see Rom. 8:19–21; 1 Cor. 15:24–28).’ (Quoting Lars Hartman)
Wright: ‘Paul clearly believed that it was possible for human beings to reject God’s offer of salvation, and that at the last judgment some, having done so, would thereby be themselves rejected (see Rom. 1:18–2:16; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Since he never tells us how he would harmonize this with the reconciliation of ‘all things’, it is risky to guess what he might have said. But the present passage, and the parallel in 2 Corinthians 5, suggest two comments. First, he is emphasizing the universal scope of God’s reconciling purposes; nothing less than a total new creation is envisaged. Secondly, ‘reconciliation’, the re-establishing of a mutual relationship, cannot occur ‘automatically’ in the world of human relations from which the metaphor is drawn. In theological terms, reconciliation occurs ‘when someone is in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), which elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 3:21–31; 6:1–11; Gal. 3:26–29) is correlated clearly with faith and baptism. The expansion of our present passage in Colossians 2:9–12 suggests that this is the right approach.’
Pao: ‘The references to “things on earth … things in heaven” certainly include those forces that continue to oppose him. This verse should therefore be read in light of 2:15, where Christ’s triumph over “rulers and authorities” is noted. Many rightly see this act of “reconciliation” as one that includes the idea of “pacification.” This idea was not foreign to the first-century Colossians. In the nearby Aphrodisias, there were panels in the North Portico that boasted about Augustus and the Roman Empire pacifying various people groups.’
Hendriksen remarks that a universalistic interpretation of this passage would bring it into conflict with a host of other scriptures, such as Ps. 1; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 7:13, 14; 25:46; John 5:28, 29; Phil. 3:18–21; and 2 Thess. 1:3–10.
Talbert agrees that ‘Col 1:20 sounds like universal reconciliation: “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the cross.” Paul spoke of the inanimate creation as sharing in the salvation of humans (Rom 8:19–23). Origen included even the devil and his angels (= “things in the heaven”) in the reconciliation. Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 74) argued for the possibility of universal salvation, partly on the basis of Col 1:20. Wink, in our time, has a section in his Engaging the Powers titled “The Powers Will Be Redeemed,” in which he argues the same case espoused by Origen and Barth. Does “reconcile all things to himself” mean that there will be an ultimate reconciliation of all people and all hostile spiritual powers as well? It depends on how the language is understood. All things may be reconciled, but in Pauline thought the powers are reconciled through subjugation (1 Cor 15:24–28; Phil 3:21; Col 2:15). There is no reason to think, in Pauline terms, that it will be any different for sinful humans (1 Cor 6:9–11; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5; Col 3:6; O’Brien 1982, 56–57; Arnold 1995, 268; Lincoln 2000, 567).
Talbert cites several ancient sources to demonstrate that, in the thought-world of Paul and his readers, reconciliation ‘was not reduced only to making friends of one’s enemies. It also meant subduing enemies.’
Even William Barclay, though a convinced universalist, does not attempt to argue in favour of that doctrine from this text. ‘The point is that the reconciliation of God extends not only to all persons but to all creation, animate and inanimate. The vision of Paul was a universe in which not only the people but the very things were redeemed. This is an amazing thought. There is no doubt that Paul was thinking of the Gnostics. We will remember that they, regarding matter as essentially and incurably evil, therefore regarded the world as evil. But, as Paul sees it, the world is not evil. It is God’s world and shares in the universal reconciliation.’ (My emphasis)