He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of some people; for in him some people in heaven and on earth were created… some people have been created through him and for him. He himself is before some people, and in him some people hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in some people. For in him most of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself some people, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
No, I know, it doesn’t actually say that. It doesn’t even read very well when you do the substitutions I’ve done. Yet this is how most Christians, at least evangelical Christians, seem to read it. ‘The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to save the souls of a minority’ (1 John 3:8b). Our emphasis on orthodoxy above orthopraxis, on believing the right things in order to get a ticket to heaven; our urge, even when we are tending to sick or deprived bodies, to use this work as a gateway to the ‘more important’ work of saving souls; our ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs which repeat endlessly sickly sweet sentiments about ‘Jesus and me, me and Jesus’ and which never refer to either the broken world or the Kingdom of God entering and transforming it – all these demonstrate that we have fundamentally misunderstood the mission of God.
This is how that passage from Colossians 1 really reads:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
What part of ‘all things’ or ‘everything’ don’t you understand, folks? When and how did this get translated into ‘God’s plan is to save a small minority of people to live in a disembodied state of bliss for eternity (except that for some unfathomable reason we get our bodies, or a new version of them, back some time later), while the rest, God is going to keep in disembodied torment for eternity’? (how does that work exactly? Disembodied torment?). In what sense does that represent the triumph of God’s will, the victory of good and the destruction of evil? (The verse from 1 John, by the way, really reads: The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. ).
Rob Bell asks an interesting question: ‘Does God get what God wants?’ Because if people in whom evil is predominant (and I don’t believe there are many, if any, people in whom there is nothing left but evil), are kept for eternity in suspended animation to be tormented, then clearly God doesn’t get what God wants, which is to ‘reconcile to (God)self all things’. If this is the case, the prophecy of 1 Corinthians 15:24ff can never be fulfilled:
Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 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 this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
Tell me, how can God be ‘all in all’ if there is forever a corner of reality where evil people remain in some sense alive and where the force of evil forever holds sway? How can Jesus’ task of ‘destroying the works of the evil one’ ever be completed?
In this I think my Christadelphian inlaws, though there are many things on which I disagree with them, have got it right. God’s plan is not to save a few souls, destroy creation, and keep the unsaved souls in perpetual misery. (What artist would destroy her best works but keep an archive of photographs of her failures?). It is to transform all of creation and its inhabitants into the best they can be. If there is a remnant who are essentially unredeemable, God’s plan is to destroy them and all their works (that, by the way, is my own version of Christadelphian teaching – they would expect only a remnant to be transformed and the rest to be destroyed, but I believe God’s vision is bigger than that). You may be surprised to learn that as great an evangelical luminary as the late John Stott, along with many other evangelical scholars, believed in the doctrine of annihilation of the unsaved, rather than eternal torment. He just didn’t, and they still don’t, talk about it, because of the trouble they’d get into. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit cowardly.
If the full meaning of the Kingdom of God is the redemption of all God has made, then surely this should inspire us, not to be mere ambulance-chasers, mopping up the needs the state is no longer meeting, but to be transformers of the world we live in. Or to put it another way, ‘If it is for the next life only we have hope, then we are of all people most useless’ (check the correct version at 1 Corinthians 15:19).
Try doing a New Testament word search on ‘all things’, ‘everything’, and ‘all’. And then ask this: why is this rarely taught in our churches?