A number of interpreters believe that a disciple of Paul or someone in the Pauline tradition wrote Ephesians and Colossians. This is primarily due to Greek stylistic and language differences, as well as shifts in theological emphases from what is found in Paul’s undisputed letters. When I taught a class on Paul a few years ago I basically held to this position, but have now changed my mind. The language differences are not all that significant and the shifts in theological perspective can be attributed to Paul’s theological development; after all, he was working out his theology on the road.
In both Ephesians and Colossians a dominant theme is reconciliation, and Paul’s teaching on the subject is drawn from the perspective of the cosmic Christ and God’s overarching plan to reconcile all things to God’s self. In Ephesians he says, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8b-10). In Colossians he writes, “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” (Col. 1:19-20). Echoes of this hope can be found in passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, where, in Paul’s representative theological perspective, all are justified and made alive in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21) and God becomes all in all (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
In Ephesians, the language of election and destiny is employed to emphasize Paul’s view that this is God’s overarching project/plan for the universe, namely, that all reality, visible and invisible, will be brought together, unified, made whole, reconciled to God and each other through and in Christ. In both letters Paul emphasizes the agency and instrumentality of Christ in this process.
The cosmic Christ is at work in our world in various ways, employing diverse means, engaging in this reconciling work. Like the yeast that leavens the dough, Christ often works anonymously, in hidden ways. The cosmic Christ works through many different religious traditions, mediators, and through non-religious organizations and persons to effect reconciliation. We who are disciples of Christ, especially, are called to engage in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20).
I am convinced that in time all living reality (which has been given the gift and capacity for immortality) will be reconciled to God and to each other. There are some folks who have been so beaten down in life, so neglected and abused, that their hearts have become hardened and resistant. And unless we have walked in their shoes we have no right to judge them. There are others, who, driven by pride or lust or greed, have become entrenched in evil and seem to have no conscience. But no matter how strenuously they have suppressed the light of God that is within them, it is still there; no matter how deep the traces of God have been buried, the residue of God still abides.
I believe that in time God will be able to draw out the flicker of love and goodness that has been buried beneath all the rubble of hate, violence, evil, and injustice. I have hope that, even those who appear to be entrenched and enslaved to evil, will be saved from the terrible mess they have made of their lives and the lives of others, having opportunity to repent, change, and rectify all the evil they have done.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, in their book, If Grace is True, tells about a conservative Christian friend, Harry, who is one of the most compassionate people they know. Harry takes every opportunity to tell of God’s goodness and love, and he creates opportunities by caring for people in whatever ways he can. He’s a good, caring person.
Harry befriended a man who later died of cancer. He did work around his house when his friend was no longer able, and Harry had witnessed to his friend up until his death with no apparent success (that is from his conservative Christian point of view; his friend never made any sort of decision for Christ). At the funeral the deceased man’s wife asked Harry if he thought her husband is in heaven.
Harry said: “I told her that when her husband was lying in that hospital bed unconscious and hooked up to all those machines, I prayed for him. The doctors are always saying people can hear more than we think, so I took his hand and asked him to repent of his sins and accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. I told his wife that I believe Jesus was with her husband in those final moments before he died, and I have every reason to hope that he accepted the Lord.”
I don’t know why he would tell her that he had “every reason” to hope that he accepted Christ, since his friend had never indicated any desire to accept his Christian faith before. But Harry gave the widow the very best reply his theology would allow; in fact, he even pushed the limits. Whether it was any comfort to her or not, it was the very best he could do. Harry was more gracious than his theology. He gave her a little thread of hope.
Surly “the riches of God’s grace” that has been “freely bestowed” and “lavished on us” (Eph 1:5-7) offers more than a little thread of hope, thrown to a dying man with the meager prospect that somehow he will latch hold of it. Gulley and Mulholland make this assessment: “Harry’s God was willing to redeem a person even if that redemption came with the very last breath. But sadly, Harry’s God is powerless in the face of death. Those who resist until their dying breath are forever doomed. Death always has the final word.” I don’t believe death has the final word. In light of the death and resurrection of Christ, grace, hope, and life have the final word.
Someone is likely to point out the passage in Hebrews that says that it is appointed for humans to die once, and after that, face the judgment (9:27). But that is only a bad thing if judgment is a bad thing. Judgment, I believe, is that process all of us undergo that refines, purifies, and purges us, making us, like Jesus, more fully human.
Judgment is only something to be feared if the judge is a hanging judge. But according to Jesus the judge is Abba, the compassionate, caring Parent who will go to any extent to save God’s children. In our judicial system it would be a conflict of interest for a judge to be a parent, but not in God’s court. The judge is the one who loves and loves and keeps on loving.
I think the church that practices an open table (Communion), inviting all to participate, reflects the reconciling nature of God. God is constantly beckoning, wooing, and drawing us to God’s self.
In the parable of Luke 15, the father went out and entreated the older son to join the party. You know he left the door open. I don’t buy the apocalyptic version that says there is only a limited time and if one doesn’t change in the time allotted on this earth then one’s case is hopeless.
Our freedom to choose in this life is limited by any number of factors: our family of origin; the time, place, and circumstances of our existence, and the opportunities or lack thereof that affords; our mental and physical abilities; the socialization process, and the total impact of our culture on our thinking. Someone who has suffered an abusive childhood and encountered little love in this world is not as free to respond to the good as someone who has been well loved and cared for. If God’s love is unconditional, then there can be no time limits or constraints on the invitation to embrace the welcome and hospitality of God.
No one, of course, is ever force, manipulated, or coerced; it has to be one’s free decision. Anyone who remains outside the party, like the elder brother in Luke 15, remains so on one’s own accord. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that hell, whatever it may be or represent, is locked from the inside. But if it is locked from the inside, it can be opened anytime one chooses. My hope in universal reconciliation does not deny the need for or reality of judgment, but sees judgment as a restorative, redemptive process, not a punitive, retributive act that separates and excludes one forever.
If, as Paul says, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19), then Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of how far God is willing to go and how much God is willing to bear, to reconcile us to God’s self. God is patient, not wanting anyone to parish, and will bear with us as long as it may take.