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Reconciling All Things and the Mystery of the Incarnation: Cosmic Reconciliation


Sandro Botticelli, "Mystical Nativity, 1500
Sandro Botticelli, "Mystical Nativity," 1500

In a post in 2020, I considered some points on which we should meditate during the Christmas season. I stressed that while Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, that birth is significant because of the incarnation of Christ. That is, Jesus Christ is both God and man. He bears both the human nature and the divine nature.


The doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is a mystery. By "mystery," I refer to a doctrine revealed but whose fullness is not immediately known to us. In fact, the incarnation defies our intellect and imagination. How can the very same Person be both God and human? How can the eternal God be born? How can the omnipresent God be present in a manger in Bethlehem? For some, this indicates that the doctrine is self-referentially incoherent and should be rejected. For Christians, this is not the case. We accept that divine doctrines will challenge our abilities to comprehend them. Then we can spend ourselves contemplating these mysteries and meditating on their significance, as Christians have done for centuries. One of my favorite examples of an historical meditation on the incarnation comes from the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition in the hymn, "Forefeast of the Nativity of Our Lord," especially these lines:

"Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!"

In these lines, we see that Eden (that is, the Garden of Eden from Genesis 2-3) is "opened to all" through the birth of Jesus. The "tree of life" (that is, one of the two trees mentioned in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:9) can be found with the "Virgin" (that is, Mary) in the cave where Jesus is born. The promise contained in the Nativity is that if we trust in Christ, the One born of the virgin Mary, we will "live forever," and the "image" (that is, the image of God) will be restored.


The Nativity, then, is a singular moment in history whose significance is eternal. All of history hangs on the birth of Jesus Christ, and as a result of His birth, everything changes. What was promised in the future becomes a present reality. Thus, Jesus begins His ministry with the proclamation that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15).


This is the time of year in which we meditate on all of these things, thinking about their significance. However, for this post, I want to focus on an aspect of the incarnation that you may not think about. It's been on my mind all year, and I'm afraid that I won't be able to adequately describe it in this post. For now, I'll have to do my best.


This post will be divided into two parts. In the first part, I will discuss the biblical passage that was my inspiration for the title of this post: Colossians 1:15-20. This will be the source for my discussion on the various types of reconciliation as presented in the biblical text. In the second part, I will discuss the history of Western philosophy (with a nod toward Eastern philosophical traditions) and its perennial metaphysical problems and consider the striking possibility that the incarnation provides the answer to these metaphysical problems. Lastly, in that part, I will consider the potential ramifications of this perspective and how it might be developed in the future.


The first part will be divided into two sections. In the first section, I will discuss Colossians 1:15-20 and introduce the concept of "cosmic reconciliation." The second section, I will explore the different types of reconciliation as presented in Scripture and suggest that one type of reconciliation can be understood metaphysically or conceptually. This last suggestion will be little more than that, however, as we will have to examine it in greater detail in the next part of this post.


Colossians 1:15-20


The beginning of the title of this post is a reference to Colossians 1:20, which is itself at the end of the so-called "Christ Hymn" in Colossians in 1:15-20. The entire passage can be found below (NASB):

"15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation: 16 for by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, 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 He is also the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross."

Verses 15-17 These verses begin the passage with Christ's divine nature. He is God. These verses could be confusing. To say that He is the image of the invisible God is initially strange. How can an invisible Being have an image? Since Jesus is incarnate, however, He is the God who can be met, whose hand you can shake. When people encountered Jesus in His three-year ministry, they encountered the living, invisible God in the flesh. Some have taken the phrase, "the firstborn of all creation," to indicate that Jesus was the first created being. This is mistaken. In the ancient world, the term, "firstborn," can indicate either the one literally born first or the one of primary significance. To say that Christ is "firstborn" over creation is to say that He is the most important Being in creation. Note that here, the incarnation must be kept clear. Christ's human nature is created; His divine nature is uncreated and eternal. His human nature began to exist; His divine nature has always existed. Christ takes preeminence over creation as its incarnate Creator.


Verses 16-17 make this crystal clear. Christ is Creator of all things. In fact, He is the One by whom, through whom, and for whom all things were made. He is creation's purpose for being. The first italicized section, which I'll want to discuss in more detail, is found in verse 17: "in Him all things hold together." This suggests that Christ, the God-man, occupies a central place in the whole of creation. He somehow holds it all together. I will explore this notion more below.


Verse 18 This verse emphasizes, first, Christ's proper place at the top of the hierarchy of the church. The head of the church is the God-Man. The latter part of the verse is fascinating because it refers to Christ's resurrection from the dead; He is "the firstborn from the dead." The words "so that" indicate that Christ's resurrection somehow enable Him to "have first place in everything," the second italicized section. Christ's place as highest and most important applies not just to the church, but also to all of the created order. This exalted place is secured through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.


Verses 19-20 These verses tell us something very important: the Father's will. That verse 19 begins with the word "for" indicates that what follows is an explanation. That is, verse 19 explains why Christ will come to have first place in everything. The explanation is that it was the Father's will (that is, His good pleasure) for "all the fullness to dwell in Him" (verse 19). The meaning of this phrase can be difficult to discern, but it is related to what follows in verse 20. This brings us to the third italicized section: "through Him to reconcile all things to Himself." The next clause clarifies what "all things" include: things on earth and in heaven (that is, all of created reality). This reconciliation has been achieved "through the blood of His cross." Thus, verses 19-20 maximize the impact of Christ's death. Through His sacrificial death on the cross, mysteriously, all things are reconciled. We might expect that Christ's death benefits only or primarily humans, whose sin prompts the need for reconciliation. This passage shows that the impact of Christ's death is cosmic. All of creation will experience this reconciliation.


There are, then, three italicized phrases from the passage that I want to highlight:


  1. "in Him all things hold together" (v. 17)

  2. "He Himself will come to have first place in everything" (v. 18)

  3. "through Him to reconcile all things to Himself" (v. 20)


Each of these phrases suggests that Christ's person and work has an impact not just on sinful human beings (which may strike us as obvious), but also, and perhaps primarily or ultimately, on all created reality. In this next section, I will discuss the notion of reconciliation and its different types and end by introducing the concept of cosmic reconciliation.


Various Types of Reconciliation


Among evangelicals today, reconciliation is a much-discussed issue. Typically, the kind of reconciliation discussed has an ethical emphasis. Reconciliation, in the sense in which we typically use it, involves a restoration of a relationship between persons. Said relationship is in need of restoration because it has been damaged in some way. Christians think of reconciliation in two broad senses. First, there is reconciliation between human beings and God because of sin. We must be reconciled to God in order to be restored to a right relationship with Him, so that we no longer fear His right judgement for our sins. Second, there is reconciliation between human beings. This occurs when some interpersonal wrong has been done and must be resolved for the relationship to be restored. Most naturally, we think of this on an individual level, but there has been much discussion and debate about corporate reconciliation in recent years. The most prominent example of so-called corporate reconciliation is "racial reconciliation," which seeks to restore a right relationship between racial groups.


Reconciliation, as often discussed, then, has at least three main components. It is interpersonal, ethical, and relational. It is interpersonal in the sense that it involves persons. It is ethical in the sense that it has an evaluative element; parties in a relationship needing reconciliation must be able to evaluate actions as either maintaining or damaging the relationship in question. It is relational in the sense that reconciliation, in the colloquial sense, always involves actions as evaluated in the context of an established relationship whose duties and responsibilities are well-understood. For instance, it is only within the covenant bond of marriage that the concept of fidelity can be understood. If a husband has sexual relations with someone other than his wife, then he has committed infidelity; he has violated the covenant that he has with his wife. If a single man, however, has sexual relations with a woman, he has committed sexual immorality, but he has not committed infidelity, per se. He has no wife with whom he has a covenant relationship to violate. Thus, no reconciliation is necessary within the bonds of a covenant marriage for the single man, though he still requires reconciliation with God.


Reconciliation is a central theological concept in Scripture and can be found in both the Old Testament and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel must continually offer animal sacrifices in order to approach the Lord God. In the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, we read that these animal sacrifices were just a foretaste of Christ, who would be the one ultimate sacrifice sufficient for all sins. The animal sacrifices stayed God's wrath, but they could not take away any sins (cf. Hebrews 10:1-10). Thus, Jesus Christ is the only means by which we can be reconciled with God, the only One through whom our sins are forgiven. Scripture likewise has much to say about reconciliation between human beings. In the Old Testament, many of Israel's laws have to do with means of reconciliation between an offending party and the party offended by an action (e.g., theft). In the New Testament, Christ's sacrifice is a means of reconciliation between parties once in conflict with one another, such as the Jews and Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).


In the New Testament, the Greek words translated to English as "reconciliation" are closely related to the Greek word for "peace" (εἰρήνη). Hence, for instance, the Greek word translated as "to reconcile" in Colossians 1:20 is εἰρηνοποιέω. So, it is not a stretch to think of reconciling as making or restoring peace.


Since Christians tend to think of reconciliation in this way - as interpersonal, ethical, and relational - already, all of this is somewhat par-for-the-course. It seems, however, that at this point, we need to raise a question about the kind of reconciliation referred to in Colossians 1:20. That reconciliation is a reconciliation "of all things," including all of created reality. It is a reconciliation of "things on earth" and "things in heaven," that is, of material and immaterial reality. Other New Testament passages, though they may not use a Greek term for reconciliation, likewise hint at this dimension of it. I'll consider three examples.


1 Corinthians 15:20-28


In this passage, Paul considers the significance of the resurrection of Christ, just as he does in the Colossians passage (NASB):

"20 But the fact is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man death came, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to our God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, 'All things are put in subjection,' it is clear that this excludes the Father who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all."

For the sake of space, I won't examine the entire passage in detail. Rather, I will discuss the passage above in summary. In this passage, the apostle Paul claims that Christ's death and resurrection will result in His exaltation over all things. "All things" can be understood in the same way as it is understood in Colossians 1:20. As I've noted elsewhere on this blog, reality is necessarily hierarchical under God. God is always at the top of that hierarchy as the Being of highest authority, power, and rule. He is the only Being who deserves our worship because of His own nature. This relationship between God the Creator and creation is damaged in the attempted inversion of sin, in man's attempt to make himself God instead.


Thus, Christ's person and work set the created world back in its proper order. This is remarkable, to say the least. The eschatological hope, then, which we have because of Christ, is that when He returns again, all will be set right in the cosmos. Everything will be set in its proper order. So, when the final phrase says that God will be "all in all," this means that God's presence and glory will be manifest throughout a properly-ordered and restored cosmos. Once everything is set in place again, all of creation will flourish.


Romans 8:19-22


In this passage, Paul speaks of creation not as it will be, but primarily as it is. Creation is not as it should be in the present age (NASB):

"19 For the eagerly awaiting creation waits for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now."

Death and suffering currently reign in the created order because of the fall. Paul, however, makes clear that this is not the way things will always be. The hope of restoration that Christians have is also the hope that all of creation has. Therefore, the "revealing of the sons and daughters of God" is integrally connected to the restoration of all of creation; those who are in Christ are signs of that coming cosmic restoration.


Isaiah 11:1-10


In this passage, the coming of the promised Messiah is connected to the restoration of all of creation (NASB):

"1 Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make decisions by what His ears hear; But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the humble of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt around His hips, And faithfulness the belt around His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fattened steer will be together; And a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord As the waters cover the sea. 10 Then on that day The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal flag for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious."

Verse 1 describes a "shoot" that will come from Jesse, a "Branch" from his roots. That is, from the father of David (and thus, from David's line) will come the promised Messiah. He will reign in righteousness, knowledge, and strength. So, the Messiah will reign over all things, bringing justice and peace. This strong description of justice and righteousness conveys the promise of a restored Kingdom, one in which there is no corruption, oppression, or injustice (verses 1-5).


In verses 7-9, the effects of the reign of the Messiah extend to all of creation. Again, it is expected that the reign of a king would impact his human subjects, but how could this reign affect all of created reality? Read Isaiah 11:1-10 together with 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and you'll see how these passages are connected. The reign of Christ will set everything back in its proper order. There is some debate as to whether these verses are to be understood literally. Will natural predators really lie with natural prey, as if predators no longer require meat to survive? We don't know exactly what the restored creation will look like, but we can know that it will be accompanied by peace. Therefore, the restoration of all things under Christ will restore peace in God's creation. This is why the restored created order is described as "His resting place" in verse 10. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author refers to this as "His rest" (Hebrews 4:1).


Colossians 1:15-20, then, is not the only passage that points to this broader sense of reconciliation. I will refer to this broader concept of reconciliation as "cosmic reconciliation." It has at least three elements that we need to remember as we continue this discussion:


  1. Christ's person and work set the created world back in its proper order.

  2. The "revealing of the sons and daughters of God" is integrally connected to the restoration of all of creation; those who are in Christ are signs of that coming cosmic restoration.

  3. The restoration of all things under Christ will restore peace in God's creation.


Cosmic reconciliation, then, should be added to our theological understanding of reconciliation from Scripture. For our purposes, I will distinguish between two broad types of reconciliation: interpersonal reconciliation and cosmic reconciliation.


The moniker of interpersonal reconciliation highlights the interpersonal element of the three discussed above. It is the type of reconciliation with which we're most familiar because it occurs between persons as a response to actions that damage a relationship.


Cosmic reconciliation involves a relationship, but the primary relationship at issue in cosmic reconciliation is that between God the Creator and His creation. That relationship includes non-persons, such as mountains, rivers, and stars, so cosmic reconciliation is not exclusively interpersonal. Finally, cosmic reconciliation is not exclusively ethical. This, again, is connected to the fact that the relationship at issue in cosmic reconciliation is all of creation, which includes non-persons whose actions are not subject to ethical evaluation. Rather, we may say that cosmic reconciliation deals with the consequences of the fall, the disorder and chaos that results from it.


As I conclude my introduction of the concept of cosmic reconciliation, I will make three claims about cosmic reconciliation that are important for the discussion in the second part of this post. These claims are debatable, but I will do my best to defend them in the limited space that I have:


First, cosmic reconciliation is the purpose of human reconciliation with God. The salvation of mankind is the means to the end of cosmic reconciliation. If true, this will greatly affect our understanding of the Christian worldview. My claim is that cosmic reconciliation, rather than the reconciliation of human beings with God, is the ultimate purpose for which Christ became incarnate and was born on earth. This does not imply that human reconciliation with God is unimportant; rather, it is of ultimate, eternal importance. It is the thing for which creation groans in expectation and hope (Romans 8:19-22). That cosmic reconciliation is the purpose of human salvation elevates all the more our salvation. God has chosen to save human beings as the precursor to putting everything in its proper order and place and restoring all of created reality in a state of flourishing.


Second, cosmic reconciliation is the primary means by which the consequences of the fall are reversed. God has secured the salvation of those who trust in Christ, such that now they hope for Christ's return, when they will be perfected in their sanctification. As I've said before on this blog, the problem of sin will be dealt with in one of two ways: either through judgement or through God's grace through Christ Jesus. On the last day, sin will be dealt with, but the consequences of sin - a scarred and damaged creation - still remain.


What are the consequences of the fall? This is a great topic for a different blog post, but a summary must suffice here. I'll summarize this by saying that sin afflicts all of creation, including every part of the human person. Sin results in disordered chaos. Similarly, sin afflicts every part and faculty of the human person. The body fails to function properly because of the fall. We experience death because of the fall. Every faculty of the soul - the mind, emotions, desires, passions, etc. - is corrupted by sin.


It is important for my discussion in the next part of the post to claim that one of the consequences of the fall is conceptual. That is, we cannot adequately make sense of the nature of the world and being because of the fall. These are great and mysterious things anyway, but we cannot make sense of these things on our own for two reasons. First, our sin prevents us from making conceptual sense of the world. Cut off from God, we cannot comprehend the whole or its parts, much less how they fit together. Second, our sin afflicts our mental faculties, such that we reason sinfully and are prevented from conceptualizing the world rightly. Cosmic reconciliation, then, will reverse even the conceptual consequences of the fall.


Third, cosmic reconciliation reverses all of the consequences of the fall. This almost goes without saying. If anything of the fall is left in the created order, then God has not finished "reconciling all things" to Himself. Thus, cosmic reconciliation leaves nothing undone.


The upshot of this is that cosmic reconciliation reverses the conceptual consequences of the fall. Human experience and history have told us that there are conceptual gaps and tensions in our understanding of the world. Somehow, this will be reversed in the new heavens and new earth, and we will be able to conceive of the world rightly at the return of Christ.


Conclusion


In the latter section of this post, I have argued that cosmic reconciliation reverses the conceptual consequences of the fall. As it stands right now, these concepts have not been developed in great detail. In the next part of this post, I will examine in greater detail what I mean by "the conceptual consequences of the fall." Specifically, I will argue that many of the perennial questions in philosophy, especially as they concern metaphysics, are a consequence of the fall, the result of mankind attempting, often futilely, to gain knowledge unaided. This can be seen by examining the history of philosophy, especially the ancient Greek philosophical problem of "the one and the many." Thus, the next part of this post will get into the history of philosophical ideas.


Finally, I will argue in the second part of this post that the incarnation is, in a mysterious way, the answer to these perennial philosophical problems. Though the problem of "the one and the many" still perplexes us, the revelation of Christ, who is God incarnate, is a declaration that two seemingly incompatible aspects of reality can be brought together without compromising the nature of either aspect. I suspect that we scarcely have the conceptual categories capable of describing this well, but the truth of the Christian faith testifies to this binding together of the one and the many.


That's it for this post! This post was planned as a Christmas post because it has to do with the central doctrine on which we meditate during this season: the incarnation of Christ Jesus. That Jesus has two natures, each complete and uncompromised, yet bound together in one Person, is a mysterious and glorious doctrine on which Christians have meditated for millennia. My thesis is that, just as the incarnation is the binding-together of the divine and the human in one Person, what it announces in the end is the binding-together of heaven and earth, of the world of transcendent unity and the world of empirical observation. The greatest human minds have not been able to draw these aspects of reality together, but Christ is their union. He indeed is the One in whom "all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).


Thus, my goal is to help you in this meditation on who Christ is and how significant His birth on earth was. I hope that this post encourages you and draws you into deeper contemplation of these mysteries. If you were encouraged and want others to be, please share this post on social media for others to see! If you want to reach out, you can do so by either commenting here or reaching out to me via social media or email. And as always, thanks for reading!

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