I have been interested in this topic for quite some time. I grew up in a church where there was a person on the elder board who actually believed that in the end all men will be saved (some go even further and state that all things including evil spirits and Satan himself will also be saved). This, however, is contrary to the overall teaching of Holy Writ on this subject (see e.g. passages which are clearly teaching eternal damnation can be seen for example in Mt 25:41, 46; John 3:36; Rev 20:10; 21:8 among many others).
This article will attempt to show that Col 1:20 of the Christ hymn (Col 1:15-20) is not signifying universalism in the sense that all men or even all things, including evil spirits and Satan himself, will be saved in the end, but rather this article proposes it to have the scope of subjugation and submission of the cosmic realm. This will be seen in light of the following arguments: (1) the meaning of “he reconciled all things to himself,” (2) the relationship of that phrase to “making peace through the blood of his cross,” (3) the relationship of 1:20 and 1:21-23, and (4) the relationship of 1:20 and 2:15.
This study is a worthwhile endeavor, since the meaning and application of Christ’s work are under critique. It is to be realized that his work alone is sufficient for salvation, but that salvation is not available for those who rebel against him and reject him, despite his gracious gift.
(1) The meaning of “he reconciled all things to himself.” In order to grasp the meaning and significance of this phrase, we first need to look at, (a) the meaning of the word “to reconcile,” and (b) the extent of the “all things.”
(a) The meaning of the word “to reconcile” (and its cognates) here and in general. It is necessary to see that a word by itself does not clarify the meaning of any given text, but that with the consideration of the context it does shed some light on the overall meaning of the passage.
In the Christ hymn’s highpoint Paul uses apokatalassō, a word that some consider being his own coinage (Büchsel, 258). This double compound word might suggest “intensity or completeness” (cf. House, 332 and Vaughn, 186). Moo, however, observes that this word might emphasize the idea of a restored relationship…or, perhaps more likely, the completeness of the restoration.” Yet on the other hand he states that “koinē Greek was known for its preference for compound forms, so the verb might carry no particular emphasis” (Colossians and Philemon, 134, n. 207). Since then the compound word might not be the crux of the matter, let us look at Pauline usage of cognate words.
Looking at these cognate words (especially katallassō and katallagē) will further help us in understanding the word under consideration. As Moo talks about the Tendenz of redaction in this hymn, he states that “in verse 20 [the author] implicitly [is] redirecting the universal reconciliation of the original hymn to the reconciliation of human beings with God in the church in verses 21-23.” Then he goes on to say that “there is good lexical basis for such a limitation: Paul elsewhere confines reconciliation language to the new relationship offered to humans through the sacrifice of Christ” (“Nature,” 470-71; emphasis mine). This latter point is of importance to us now (the former part of this quote will be treated in relationship to vv. 21-23).
In Pauline writings (cf. e.g. Rom 5:10, 11; 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18,19, 20; Eph 2:16; Col 1:20, 22; 1 Cor 7:11 is the only exception where Paul talks about reconciliation in a marriage bond) reconciliation “is that which has been wrought by the cross of Christ” (Murray, 5). The death of Christ is mentioned as a means by which reconciliation is brought forth. Though this helps us understanding the issue at hand, it does not solve the problem. Therefore we need to further investigate.
(c) The extent of “all things.” It is difficult to maintain that the meaning of “all things” does not in fact encompass a cosmic perspective. In pointing out the parallelism of v.16 and v. 20, Dunn writes that “[i]t is obviously no accident that the verse  echoes the ‘all things through him and to him’ of 1:16…nor that the last line echoes the earlier phrase of 1:16” (104). This strong parallelism does not leave any doubt concerning the scope of “all things”; the “same totality is intended in reconciliation as in creation” (Bruce, 293). Not only is there a strong parallelism between vv. 16 and 20, but all other occurrences of “all” in the immediate context (five in all!) seem to refer to the entire universe and not to some limited scope of it (cf. Moo, “Nature,” 471). Porter further points out that,
On the basis of the grammar, the contrasting structure and the context of the work of Christ extending from before creation to reconciliation on the cross, the antithetical elements apparently form a comprehensive or inclusive statement, that is, embracing all the things in heaven, upon the earth, seen and unseen, thrones, principalities, rulers and powers (Col 1:16). (698)
We see therefore that the scope of “all things” is cosmic meaning “the universe” and embraces “inanimate nature…, the world of human kind…, and those angelic powers that were at variance with God” (Harris, 46). Christ in His death on the cross reconciled everything to himself. But what kind of reconciliation Paul is talking about has still to be seen.
(2) The relationship of “to reconcile all things to himself” to “making peace through the blood of his cross.” The main question is how the participle (“making peace”) is related to the infinitive (“to reconcile”). Is it to be understood as a causal one? Then we would render “…and to reconcile…because he made peace.” Is it temporal (“…and to reconcile…after making peace”)? Or is it even modal (“he was pleased [v.19]…to reconcile…by making peace”)? We are opting for the latter solution in seeing that it was one action of reconciliation which was accomplished “by making peace through the blood of his body” (Harris, 47). Thus reconciliation is best understood in connection with “making peace through the blood of his cross” (cf. O’Brien, 51 and Büchsel, 259).
This established peace is difficult to understand at first. As mentioned above reconciliation language in Paul connotes “the new relationship offered to humans through the sacrifice of Christ” (Moo, “Nature,” 470-71). The crux now is the offering of such a peace. For Paul the cross is associated with shame (i.e., the death of a criminal on the cross), offense, and foolishness “whereas here it is itself an instrument of warfare by which peace is achieved (see on 2:14–15)” (Dunn, 103-04). The means by which this peace is achieved is the cross. But what kind of peace is this and does it encompass salvation? The next two points will clarify the issue.
(3) The relationship of 1:20 and 1:21-23. Coming from the cosmic picture of Christ’s reconciling work, Paul now turns to the Colossian church. Gundry-Volf points out that Paul uses the “significance of cosmic reconciliation” to show the church to whom they belong. Their Lord is “supreme Lord, and all other powers in the universe are under his lordship” (959). This however does not limit the scope of reconciliation, but places emphasis of its application to the Colossian church (cf. Moo, “Nature,” 472).
The apostle turns now to an aspect which he has not talked about so far in the scope of the Christ hymn – the aspect of faith. While the Christ hymn speaks of the cosmic scope of reconciliation, vv. 21-23, especially “if you remain in the faith” v. 23a, show that the Colossian church still needs to exercise faith in order to appropriate salvation (cf. Harris, 47). It seems therefore that the weight of the apostle’s teaching in regards to reconciliation is not the cosmic scope by itself, but his concern is much more in regards tor men and especially the church (Murray, 10). The entire purpose of the reconciliation of the Colossian believers is written out by Paul: “in order to present you holy and without blemish and blameless before him” (v.22b). The apostle appropriates the cosmic scope of Christ’s work to encourage the Colossian Christians who are struggling. Universal salvation does not emerge in this text. The apostle is writing about the salvific aspect of reconciliation in regards to the Colossians only. Paul is writing to those exercising faith at Colossae (v.4) and therefore he can exhort “them toward steadfastness” (Gundry-Volf, 959) in v. 23.
When we look to the parallel passage of 2 Cor 5:19-21 we can clearly note two aspects of reconciliation: “God has ‘reconciled the world to Christ’ (v. 19); but it is by responding to the message of reconciliation that the Corinthian Christians have experienced its benefits (vv. 20–21)” (Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 136, n. 217). The same is true in the Roman passage in which we find “justification by faith” (Rom 5:1). Bruce comments that “[t]hose who respond in faith to the invitation [of being reconciled to God, as in 2 Cor 5:20] have thereby ‘received the reconciliation’ (Rom. 5:11); they ‘have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1)” (291). So we see that in all instances faith is a crucial element of the salvific aspect of reconciliation; and this faith is expressed by a conscious commitment “to the lordship of Jesus Christ not as a statement about his control of the cosmos but as a personal confession of their being in his kingdom and under his rule (1:13)” (Martin, “Reconciliation,” 113).
In summary of vv.21-23 we see that v.21 classifies the recipients of the reconciling work of Christ, v.22 states the purpose for such, and v.23 “introduces the condition for the continuing efficacy of the reconciliation” (Moo, Colossians and to Philemon, 139).
But some might rightly ask now: “What then is this ‘reconciliation of all things’ Paul talks about in v.20? It seems best to see reconciliation as “a broad term embracing both the aspects of salvation and subjugation” (Gundry-Volf, 959). Let us therefore turn to the next point to state what we are thinking in terms of subjugation/submission.
(4) The relationship of 1:20 and 2:15. Since we have laid a foundation to understand 1:20 we need to look for further aspects in Paul’s treatise on this subject (especially in Colossians!). We read in 2:15 that “by disarming the rulers and authorities he made a public disgrace (of them), by triumphing over them in him.” There is now no reason to think that these “rulers and authorities” are different from v.16 (and via the strong parallelism v. 20 too). Nobody would argue here of a graceful ingathering of the opposing spirits. It is clearly seen that these “are disarmed and incorporated in the triumphal procession of Christ” (O’Brien, 52). They have been defeated in their rebellious sphere and “now can be reconciled as subjects” (Wright, 118) where they belong under the rightful ruler (2:10) (cf. Martin, Colossians And Philemon, 60). Christ is portrayed as Reconciler (1:20) and Conqueror (2:15) and these two descriptions are closely linked (cf. Bruce, 293).
We see then that through the reconciling work of Christ on the cross, God will indeed be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). It is because of this work of universal pacification that God will one day indeed be “all in all” and that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11; ESV; cf. Moo, “Nature,” 472). Everything will be summed up in Christ (Eph 1:10). This divine purpose is accomplished through him who died on the cross, was buried, rose on the third, who is seated at God’s right hand, from whence he will come “to bring the universe into harmony with the divine purpose (reconciliation)” (Martin, “Reconciliation,“ 110).
In this article we have seen that the universalistic reconciliation, which Moo calls “biblical universalism” in that “God’s work in Christ has in view a reclamation of the entire universe” which has been marred by human sin (cf. Rom. 8:19–22; Moo, Colossians and to Philemon, 137), of Christ’s work on the cross does not necessitate in salvation to everyone, but that through this act Christ established cosmic peace and order, though in an “already but not yet” fashion (idem., 136-37) and that the church has such a King to worship!
Bruce, F. F. “Colossian Problems, pt 4: Christ as Conqueror and Reconciler.” 141.564 (1984): 291-302. Büchsel, Hermann Martin Friedrich. “ἀλλάσσω, ἀντάλλαγμα, ἀπ-, δι-, καταλλάσσω, καταλλαγή, ἀποκατ-, μεταλλάσσω.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Edited by ed. Gerhard Kittel et al. Electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-. Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. Gundry-Volf, Judith M. “Universalism.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited Gerald F. Hawthorne et al., 743-746. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Harris, Murray J. Colossians And Philemon. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010. House, H. W. “The Doctrine of Salvation in Colossians.” 151, no. 603 (1994): 325-338.Martin, Ralph P. Colossians And Philemon. London: Oliphants, 1974. Idem. “Reconciliation and Forgiveness in the Letter to the Colossians.” Reconciliation and Hope. New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to L.L. Morris on his 60th Birthday. Edited by Robert Banks. Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1974. Moo, Douglas J. Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. Idem. “Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment.” 49, no. 3 (2006): 449-488. Murray, John. “The Reconciliation.” 29, no. 1 (November 1, 1966): 1-23. O’Brien. Peter T. “Col 1:20 and the Reconciliation of All Things.” 33, no. 2 (May 1, 1974): 45-53. Porter, Stanley E. “Peace, Reconciliation.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited Gerald F. Hawthorne et al., 301-303. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Vaughn, Curtis. Colossians. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 11. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978. Wright, N. T. The Epistles Of Paul To The Colossians And To Philemon: An Introduction And Commentary. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1986.