“…a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
In my interpretation of this wonderful passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, I have made a conscious effort to avoid a kind of typical Reformed, predestinarian understanding of these verses, in spite of the fact that many persons who adopt that view would doubtless point to this pauline text as a proof in favor of their position. Why should I prefer my interpretation to the other?
For me, this particular verse is very important. In it I think the Apostle specifies very clearly that God’s unifying purpose extends to all of creation. God’s goal is to bring all things back to a unity in and through Christ. The theme of unity will be very important later on in the epistle, especially in the second chapter where Paul will discuss the newly restored unity between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, something accomplished by God in Christ. Because God’s unifying purpose extends to all aspects of creation, I think it is unwarranted to interpret Paul’s language of election as individualistic or direct, preferring instead an indirect, christocentric interpretation.
The question then arises: will all of the creation, in the end, be brought back to this unity in Christ? This is, of course, the question of universal salvation. There are certainly themes in Paul’s theology which push in this direction. There are also statements of Paul’s which might incline a person to believe that not everyone will in the end participate in this unity, at least not in a salvific way. This matter obviously cannot be settled on the basis of a single verse, but perhaps it might be worthwhile to consider the options before us.
Paul’s teaching that God’s purpose in Christ is to bring all things into a unity especially suggests universal salvation when it is conjoined to the Apostle’s very robust doctrine of providence. It would seem that nothing could stand in God’s way, if this really is His goal, since He is the Lord of the cosmos and of all history. On the other hand, belief in universal salvation has not been a majority view throughout most of the history of the Church, and it comes with its own problems, which are well known. At best, I think that the Bible suggests its possibility as a final outcome with tantalizing hints, but it is probably not wise to take this possible end for granted.
On the other hand, even if Paul in this part of his epistle emphasizes God’s providence and purpose, later on he will turn to the Ephesians themselves and call on them to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). This suggests that it is possible to lead a life which is not worthy of this calling, on account of which one might be excluded or disqualified from the final inheritance. This is something always present in Scripture: God’s will and purpose are disclosed, but then the human being is called to exercise her volition in participating in it, cooperating with it, always with the help of God’s grace. And if someone does not do this, of course, the consequence is that she is left out of that glorious end of unity towards which God is directing us.
There are three possibilities, as far as I can tell. One of them is that God’s providence will accomplish its unifying purpose and bring all of creation to salvation in the end. (Does this include Satan and the demons? Presumably not.) Another is that God will bring all things to the end of unity, but those who by their obstinacy refuse God’s efforts will eventually go out of existence altogether. On this picture, all of creation will exist in unity because those factors which might have disrupted the unity have been removed forever. A third is that even the damned somehow are “gathered up in Christ,” but for them this gathering does not produce beatitude and joy but rather torture, since they hate Him.
Which of these options should we prefer? My own opinion is this. I don’t think there is much value in speculating on the eventual fate of the damned, whether they go on forever in torment or else are eventually annihilated. I have no firm opinion on the matter. Rather I think we should collaborate with God on the task of gathering up all things in Christ — through prayer, through evangelization, through good works, and the rest — while taking seriously the possibility that others and even we ourselves may be lost. Put another way, we should work and hope and pray for universal salvation in the face of the very real possibility that we and others will finally be lost if we do not cooperate with God and take advantage of “every spiritual blessing” which we have in Christ.