Monday, May 16, 2011

Universalism, Colossians 1:15-20, and the Already/Not Yet

A favored proof-text for universalism is Colossians 1:15-20,

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 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.

There is a lot to comment on this passage as regards to its employment as a universalist proof text. However, in this post I’ll just raise one worry for the universalist reading since I haven’t seen this issue raised or addressed in universalist literature. I will first briefly provide the universalist understanding of the text and then point out one strange implication of it.

Cutting to the chase, the issue comes to the forefront at verse 20. It is argued that the “all things” reconciled has the same scope as the “all things” in verse 16, which is, literally, everything (other than God). The verb for restoration, apokatallaso, presupposes a rupture in a relationship which needs to be repaired or restored. In the only other place Paul uses this word (Eph. 2:14-16), the restoration is unto a harmonious relationship. The peace made is through the blood of the cross, which seems to suggest salvation is in view. Salvation and harmony can be seen in other Pauline letters where he uses the root of apokatallaso, such as Romans 5; 1, 10. And later in Romans 5:22-22, we read that “reconciliation” is unto salvation. So, it is argued, Paul is speaking of the salvation of all or the restoration of all unto a harmonious relationship with its Creator. No reconciled beings can remain hostile to God, as the word and the exegesis show. So, as universalist Robin Parry writes, “The word and the context make it abundantly clear that Paul speaks of salvation when he speaks of reconciliation and that, as long as a being remains hostile to God, it cannot be said to be reconciled to him” (Evangelical Universalist, 46).

An initial problem arises when Parry writes, “Paul does not think that this redemption is something God hopes will come to pass in the future. He maintains that it is something already accomplished in Christ. In Christ the whole creation is already reconciled.” But a few sentences earlier, Parry writes, “One could hardly imagine Paul supposing that one of Christ’s enemies suffering eschatological punishment was in a state of peace with God!” (ibid, emphasis mine).

So Parry has said that a being who is hostile toward God cannot be said to be reconciled to him, but he also said that the whole creation is “already” reconciled. However, it is clear that many of God’s creatures are in a state of hostility toward him now, and so how could it be that all are already reconciled if none reconciled can be in a state of hostility toward God? Thus we have a contradiction.

Surely that was too fast. Parry, as a good evangelical universalist, will appeal to the eschatological hermeneutical principle of the already/not yet (cf. p.50-53). So we can grant him that there’s no contradiction between there being hostile beings now even though it is true that all have been reconciled now, for this is consistent with “not” all being reconciled “yet” (consistent according to the already/not yet hermeneutic). The historic or classical Christian makes the same moves. Christ has defeated all of his enemies now, yet we still see enemies seemingly undefeated. They are “not yet” defeated. So far, Parry's claim shouldn’t be a problem for the traditional Christian.

But another problem arises. While it seems clear that the Bible teaches a two age construct where the already/not yet applies in the present evil age or the last days, the Bible nowhere teaches a continued “not yet” in the age to come. When Christ comes again and fully realizes the age to come, so that the age to come is the present reality, the sheep and goats are separated (which does not happen now), we will actually be fully sanctified (which does not happen now), the enemies of Christ will actually and fully be defeated (which doesn’t happen now), we will be completely and totally resurrected (which does not happen now), etc. Paul speaks of “present sufferings of this age” (Romans 8:20) which will be absent in “the age to come.” Knowing this is one reason why we can bear the sufferings now, for we know they will be gone in the new age. In the age to come, “the old is completely passed away” and all will be new. The things of this present age are temporary, they will pass away, they are not part of the new age. However, we have deposits, down payments on the life to come. The age to come has broken into this present evil age, inaugurating the age to come. Now, recall that Parry states, "One could hardly imagine Paul supposing that one of Christ’s enemies suffering eschatological punishment was in a state of peace with God!” Leaving aside the point that subjugated and non-compliant enemies can be said to be at peace with the conqueror, one could hardly imagine Paul supposing that the temporary elements of this present age are a continued, ongoing reality in the age to come!

How is all of this relevant to Parry’s exegesis of Colossians 1:15-20? Recall that Parry wrote that an enemy of Christ’s suffering in hell could not be said to be at peace with God. Recall that he said that no one who is hostile toward God can be said to be reconciled. But Parry also places unrepentant sinners in hell in the age to come. These sinners will be in hell until they repent and trust in Christ for their salvation. Thus, there will be people hostile to God in the age to come. There will be actually unreconciled creatures in the age to come. Parry got around this problem here and now by making use of the two age construct and the already not yet. But on Parry’s view, that construct must also carry over in the age to come. There must be an already/not yet in the age of what is now the not yet! But this idea, I suggest, is totally foreign to the teaching of Scripture. The already/not yet is a hermeneutical principle used to make sense of the two ages, of the in-breaking of the age to come into this present age. But it seems Parry needs that construct to apply even in the age to come, where it supposedly has no purchase. I suggest Paul would be amazed to learn that the already/not yet still applied to the universe after Jesus returns. This seems highly counter-intuitive to say the least, and it is in need of exegetical support of which there currently is none.


  1. I'm glad for it. Paul had a lot of useful thoughts on Aporetic and it would be nice to have it reposted over a period of time here.

  2. Some John Owen on this-

    The sum and meaning of the whole assertion is, that there is a universality of sufficient grace granted to all, even of grace subjective, enabling them to obedience, which receives addition, increase, degrees, and augmentation, according as they who have it do make use of what they presently enjoy; which is a position so contradictory to innumerable places of Scripture, so derogatory to the free grace of God, so destructive to the efficacy of it, such a clear exaltation of the old idol free-will into the throne of God, as any thing that the decaying estate of Christianity hath invented and broached. So far is it from being “plain and clear in Scripture,” that it is universally repugnant to the whole dispensation of the new covenant revealed to us therein;

    Anyone wanting some more arguments?
    Have recently had a discussion on this passage which I actually won!