Is there such a thing as the “Cosmic Christ”?

Read time: 12 minutes

I can understand why the idea of the “cosmic Christ” has come back into vogue. It is a corrective to the hyper-individualism of much modern theology—and indeed of much popular culture. It stretches Christian spirituality to encompass an eco-mysticism that is not merely pantheistic. Its association with a somewhat heterodox strand of Catholic spirituality, going back through the Franciscan Richard Rohr, and the Dominican Matthew Fox, to the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, has a strong appeal to jaded evangelicals. It can now draw on the stunning and vast beauty of the images of deep space provided by the Hubble telescope, and to that extent, at least, it may help to reconnect the religious and the scientific imaginations. Lastly, it is a way of speaking about incarnation apart from the traditional preoccupation with sin, shame, death, and the ethical problems of a bloody atonement theory.

I get all that. My problem, as so often, is that it is just another way of not dealing with the central thesis of the New Testament, which is neither individualistic nor cosmic but political, as best we can name it—that is, the proposition that Israel’s crucified Messiah would one day rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

I think that this oversight can be demonstrated from the text at the heart of the doctrine—the hymn-like celebration of Christ as “firstborn of all creation,” through whom all things were created and hold together, in Colossians 1:15-20.

…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; who delivered us from the authority of darkness and removed us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins, who is an image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, because in him all things were created in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rules or authorities; all things through him and for him have been created; and he is before all things, and all things in him hold together; and he is the head of the body of the church, who is beginning, firstborn from the dead, in order that he might be in all things pre-eminent, because in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to him(self), making peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on the earth or things in the heavens. (My translation)

The kingdom of his Son

Interpretation of this passage has been skewed, in the first place, by the tendency to detach it from the argument of the letter and treat it as a self-contained piece of hymnody. If we read it in context, the cosmic Christ hypothesis becomes much more difficult to sustain.

The good news concerning the sonship of Jesus (cf. Rom. 1:1-4) is bearing fruit “in the whole world (kosmoi).” A number of Gentiles in Colossae have come to believe that Jesus will judge their world and rule over the nations of the oikoumenē, and Paul says that he has been praying that they will grow in their understanding of how to please their new Lord (Col. 1:9-10). Even discipleship is political!

God has delivered them from the authority of the darkness that oppresses the pagan world (cf. Eph. 4:18; 5:8, 11; 6:12) and “removed” (metestēsen) them to the kingdom of “the Son of his love” (Col. 1:13). This is the language of imperial relocation: Tiglath-Pileser, Josephus says, “made the inhabitants prisoners, and transplanted (metestēsen) them into his own kingdom” (Jos. Ant. 9:235). Same idea.

The phrase “the Son of his love” (tou huiou tou agapēs) recalls the Gospel story. Jesus is the “beloved (agapētos) Son,” who was anointed and empowered by the Spirit of God at his baptism (Mk. 1:11) and sent to the vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant-prophet (Mk. 12:1-11). What distinguished him from the servant-prophets who preceded him was not the place of origin but his status, and in particular the fact that, at some point in the future, he would come into an inheritance, which the wicked tenants (that is, the corrupt leadership of Israel) thought they could get their hands on.

He is the cosmic Christ in this very specific sense: because he was obedient to the Father, he has attained a position of rule above all other powers in the cosmos, whether earthly or heavenly, visible or invisible. This is an argument about kingdom.

In this beloved Son they have “the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins” (cf. Eph. 1:7). Paul, the Jewish apostle, is thinking of the suffering and death of Jesus in the past for the sins of his people (ie. the sins that would soon bring wrath upon Israel), but “redemption” (apolytrōsis) has a future aspect too: redemption will come at the parousia, when Jesus will be revealed both to apostate Israel and to the nations, and the suffering of his followers will be brought to an end (cf. Lk. 21:28; Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14).

Paul’s argument, therefore, is that the Gentile believers in Colossae have now also been qualified by God to share in the future inheritance, alongside Jewish believers who have “the redemption” of Israel, the forgiveness of “the sins” of Israel in Jesus (Col. 1:12).

So this is all about the hope that Jewish and Gentile believers have in a future fulfilment or realisation of the “rule” or “kingdom” of Jesus. That’s why Paul prays that they will be strengthened “for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11). It would be a long and painful struggle of life and witness before the rule or kingdom of Israel’s Messiah over the nations was brought about.

Firstborn of all creation

Paul then has more to say about this Son who would eventually rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12). The relative clause that connects verses 14 and 15 makes the continuity of thought clear: “…the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins,” who is an image of the invisible god, a firstborn of all creation….”

So here we have what we might call a “cosmic” theme—Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” or perhaps “of every creature.” But the matter we have to consider is the relation of the “creation” statements in Colossians 1:15-17 to the kingdom narrative that has dominated the argument to this point.

The first point to make is that “firstborn of all creation” belongs naturally to the kingdom argument. The background in Jewish thought can be delineated quite easily.

1. Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh, “My firstborn (prōtotokos) son is Israel” (Exod. 4:22 LXX). Israel/Ephraim is God’s “firstborn” (prōtotokos) because in the past God found them in the wilderness; therefore, in the future he will bring them back from Babylon (Jer. 38:9 LXX = 31:9 MT). To be “firstborn” was to be “head of nations” (Jer. 38:7 LXX)—not the first nation to come into existence, nor even a people having authority over other nations, but a people pre-eminent among the nations in God’s eyes.

Writing after the war against Rome, the author of 4 Ezra asks why God’s people, “whom you have called your firstborn (primogenitum), only begotten,” have been given into the hands of their enemies. “If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance?” (4 Ezra 6:58-59). The relevance is apparent: Israel as God’s “firstborn” should inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13).

2. In the Wisdom literature it is said that God will “admonish a righteous man as a son of his love (huion agapēseōs), and his discipline is as that of a firstborn (prōtotokou)” (Ps. Sol. 13:9). This can be applied either to the righteous within Israel, as here, or to the people as a whole, among the nations:

Your judgments are over the whole earth with pity, and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the sons of Israel. Your discipline is upon us as on a firstborn (prōtotokon), an only son, to turn back the obedient soul from ignorant stupidity. (Ps. Sol. 18:3–4)

A similar idea is found in Hebrews, where it is said of Jesus that he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

3. David will call on YHWH, saying, “My Father you are, my God and supporter of my deliverance!”; therefore, God will make him “a firstborn (prōtotokon), high among the kings of the earth” (Ps. 88:27-28 LXX = 89:26-27 MT). The king who calls on God as Father will embody the firstborn status, the pre-eminence, of the people.

If Paul had this background in mind, which seems entirely plausible, the phrase “firstborn of all creation” presents Jesus, in effect, as the beloved Son, who is obedient Israel, who is disciplined through suffering, who calls out “Abba! Father!” when he is in need of deliverance, and who has been made pre-eminent among all creatures as the king who will inherit the world even though Rome will destroy Jerusalem.

The “all things” that are not “all things”

Beyond this, I don’t have a fully settled understanding of how verses 15-20 work, but I think some more or less fixed points can be established.

Most importantly, what is created is not the world and the living creatures in it but specifically political realities or entities: “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16). This creation or new creation is quite narrowly conceived.

The distinction between heaven and earth, things invisible and things visible, is also significant. The creator God is invisible (cf. Rom. 1:20-23) and belongs to the sphere of heaven, but an “image” is visible and in principle belongs to the sphere of the earthly, perhaps in the way that a statue constitutes the “presence” of a remote and “unseen” ruler:

When people could not honor them in their presence because they lived far off, they imagined their appearance from afar and made a visible image (eikona) of the king whom they honored, that through diligence they might flatter the absent one as though present. (Wis. 14:17)

The Son who suffered and died on earth, disarming the “rulers and authorities” by his death on a Roman cross, has been seated at the right hand of God in heaven (Col. 3:1), so the visible and triumphant “image” is now located in the invisible sphere of heaven, with God.

In this we have the reconciliation of the specific set of “all things” that matters in this passage: visible rule on earth and invisible rule in heaven have been reconciled in king Jesus. The hostile, anti-YHWHistic rulers on earth (Herod, Pilate, Caesar) have been defeated (cf. Col. 2:15), and their power, authority and glory have been given to the Son of Man, who was rejected, who suffered, and who has been seated at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies until the last enemy has been destroyed (cf. Mk. 14:62).

As such, Jesus is “firstborn (prōtotokos) from the dead,” the beginning and head of the community of resurrected saints who will rule with him once this new state of affairs has been publicly and politically recognised in the real world.

That “all things” were created in Jesus looks like wisdom language and must have some reference to the original creation of the world. But the focus is so consistently on political transformation that I think verses 16-17 must be assimilated to this perspective. We may get an idea of the force of Paul’s fusion of kingdom and wisdom language from the proposal of Paulus Fabius Maximus: the birthday of the “most divine” Augustus was a date that

we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: Caesar.1

The cosmic wisdom of God

There has to be a moment when a person becomes a messiah or “Christ.” Jesus was anointed at his baptism as a Son/servant of the God of Israel. He was “made” or confirmed as Israel’s messiah and Lord by his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. In that regard, he came to have an authority above “all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21).

He is the cosmic Christ, therefore, in this very specific sense: because he was obedient to the Father, he has attained a position of rule above all other powers in the cosmos, whether earthly or heavenly, visible or invisible. This is still essentially an argument about kingdom.

Within the historical purview of the New Testament churches, this meant two practical things. On the one hand, no opposition that the churches would encounter—from the authorities in Jerusalem, from Gentile magistrates and kings, or even from Satan—could ultimately defeat them (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). On the other, they could be certain that this supreme authority of Israel’s uniquely qualified Messiah would eventually be acknowledged by the political-religious systems that now opposed them.

The really quite revolutionary manner of YHWH’s annexation of the ancient world (cf. Phil. 2:6-11) could also be described, in Jewish terms, as an unprecedented embodiment or “incarnation” of the Wisdom of God by which all things were created. So we may speak of the “cosmic Wisdom” of the creator God. But the movement of Paul’s argument is forwards, not backwards. The incursion of cosmic Wisdom has created a new world, a new oikoumenē, in which kingdom on earth and kingdom in heaven are reconciled, through the death of Jesus and in the person of Jesus, who is an image of the invisible God. It was only a matter of time before this new political-religious order would be manifested in the world.

The Bible provides us with a fully fledged language for embracing the wonder and mystery of creation. The cosmos is an expression of the creative wisdom of the living God, and it seems to me that there is adequate scope in that narrative to address both the enormity of the universe and the fragility of the natural world. The incarnation of that wisdom in Jesus, however, defined the beginning of a new political order that can only be understood historically.

At a later stage the historical argument could reasonably be compressed into the tight metaphysical proportions of classical Trinitarianism. But we are again in need of a sense of history, and I think it is time to recover the narrative-historical perspective.

  • 1OGIS 458.5-9; and see B.W. Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses (2015), 34.

Andrew, I think I agree with the thrust of your argument — it does all come down to the issue of Kingdom. Just a thought on the ‘..political realities or entities: “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” ’ — I recall Paul in Ephesians talks about the demonic realm with similar hierarchy. I think the influence of the demonic is much more pervasive than we are oft willing to articulate. There is truly a battle of cosmic proportions underway. 

Being a simple man, I find this construct helpful: Jesus as a true representative of the Father, declares I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. Anywhere that I depart from the Truth, I move into agreement with a lie, and the father of lies has thus gained influence in my life. Thus whilst not necessarily demonically possessed, I am in this area of life, believing a lie, in effect partnering or working in alignment with the father of lies rather than the Kingdom of light and Life.

Hence the huge need to be hearers and doers of the Word, so our world view can become more Kingdom oriented and walking in the Spirit, we thus more accurately represent Jesus day by day in thought, word and action.

@Rob Kampen:

Yes, I think Paul must have believed that political hierarchies on earth were in some way mirrored in a “spiritual” realm (cf. Eph. 6:12). Where we might disagree is over the significance of that for us today. I rather think that in Jewish-Christian apocalyptic thought the fate of the dominion of Satan was bound up with the fate of hostile pagan Rome. When Rome is overthrown and the persecution of the churches comes to an end (Rev. 18-19), Satan is cast into the abyss for the rest of human history (Rev. 20:1-3).

Satan is not presented as an eternal evil counterpart to God but as an actor in the story about Israel and pagan empire. The point is that the church will never again be threatened with the sort of overwhelming satanic opposition that it encountered in that early period.

It may still be meaningful to talk about the demonic, I’m not sure. But if we are currently living through John’s symbolic thousand year period, which I think is the best way to understand it, then we must suppose that Satan, as the supreme “spiritual” opponent of God, has been defeated and imprisoned.

Tim Peebles | Tue, 07/21/2020 - 15:43 | Permalink

As always, Andrew, I can’t quite find a simple way to question back. Normally, I’d be at the front of the line for a straightforwardly political reading of Jesus (and the scriptures as a whole), but I can’t quite align my biblical and theological views with what you present. Perhaps my reservations here (and in your wider work) have to do with what’s on the other side of this, theologically speaking; I’m not sure. In any case, a couple questions and some extended comments— one more effort to sort out your thinking (and my own).

First, you seem to divide political and metaphysical in a somewhat modern way, a way that I’m not sure folks in the biblical worldview did. In other words, yes, the metaphysical/creational language is used as a political trope, as a kind of justification or validation of a particular, historical political arrangement as rooted in “the nature of things”. But does that mean the biblical writers (and their broader worldview) didn’t really believe the broader metaphysical/creational language they used—that it didn’t have reference to the broader structures of reality, as well as utility for supporting their politics? I would be sympathetic with this reading (although see the next question), but I’m pretty the biblical writers (and their context) weren’t operating with this kind of conception (at least it is not explicitly stated or indicated that they are).

A second question: if we do think they used metaphysical/creational language only in a metaphorical sense—as a kind of trope for political talk—then why do we believe the biblical writers didn’t use their political talk in the same way? Why isn’t Paul’s language about Jesus as “king” just one more trope-like use of available language to talk about Jesus in a way that is not simply using it the same way as every-day discourse, but in some kind of extended, contrastive sense?  (There’s nothing in the text that signals what is to be taken as “literal” and “metaphorical”.) A metaphorical (not spiritual) reading of the politics of Jesus and his people would seem to be a good direction to go, since Jesus is not a king in the same way that other kings are identified, recognized, characterized—he is killed, resurrected, ascends/disappears, rules invisibly through a non-territorial and non-ethnically specific people, and is recognized as king by other nations only insofar as he is represented by visible, present, in-person kings (e.g., Constantine). None of this fits within usual, every-day notions of “king” and “kingdom.” But this metaphorical reading of “the politics of Jesus” vis-a-vis the politics of his time, doesn’t seem to fit with your over-all interpretations of Jesus and the Kingdom.

This second question gets into a whole nest of your interpretations that I remain unable to disentangle, some of which show up in this post. If talk of “future inheritance,” suffering “brought to an end,” realization/recognition of Christ’s rule, the ruling of saints with Jesus—if the political dimension of all of these is used in the same, contextually straightforward way they would have been used in the context of other contemporary politics (Herod, Caesar, imperial armies, palaces, etc.), then they must also have—like their contextual sources—a particular, real material presence and a particular concrete place, in space-time history. But I’m at a loss for knowing what these are in your use. For example, the benefits to those who are members of this visible and tangible kingdom would be material and current (or nearly so). Yet in your use the politics of peoplehood in the church retains the literalness of such political talk, while at the same time doing two further things: rendering it somehow present, but in a different way than all these other kingdoms are present; and/or extending the full, literalness of this kingdom into the remote future (in some cases centuries later).

I’m not sure how to do this in a way that is internally coherent or scripturally congruent. My view would be that Jesus is really “king,” his people really in a kingdom, but “king” and “kingdom” (along with “visibility” and “victory”) have been thoroughly redefined, such that they don’t map onto culturally available literal king/kingdom talk (whether in a metaphysical mode or not) except in the most abstract and general way.

So, I’m with you in the political reading of Jesus and the scriptures. But I continue to find your use of “political” both metaphysically reductionistic (it’s not creational in any kind of real way), ethically inconsistent (Jesus can be a king in the same form as other kings, while being different materially—somehow), and experientially confusing (the manifestation and time frame for visible vindication and victory for Jesus and his followers don’t fit usual notions and time frames).

Much of this has to do with the theology we construct in relation to our biblical interpretations; but I can’t help but thinking that something is not quite right with your (properly) political interpretation of Jesus and the Kingdom.

@Tim Peebles:

1. I wouldn’t equate “metaphysical” with “creational”. There is a sense in which creational language, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, is subordinated to the political narrative—it is used as a “political trope,” as you say. So the restoration of Jerusalem is a new Eden (Is. 51:3). That does not exclude a broader discourse about the creator God and the world; nor is the hope of a “real” new creation completely eclipsed, though I would say that it is not at all present in the Old Testament and only found on the periphery of the New Testament. Indeed, the whole premise of the “political” narrative through scripture is that the creator God, who is bigger than the God of Israel, chose Abraham to be the father of an obedient priestly people some extent, at least, for the sake of the whole creation.

So that is all one story, with the “parochial” story about kingdom and the nations in the foreground. By contrast, I use the word “metaphysical” with reference to the rationalised, universalised, and massively reductionistic reconfiguration of the story in Trinitarian-incarnational terms at a later stage.

2. So I think that creation matters in its own right in scripture, and arguably matters more in principle than the particular experience of the historical priestly people of God—it’s just that the authors of scripture wrote from within their limited and self-interested (rightly) perspectives.

We could still argue, of course, that the “kingship” of Jesus is a metaphor, but I think that what determines the nature of “kingdom” in the New Testament is less the person of the king than the action of God. Jesus is king insofar as he will be implicated in certain key political events—the judgment of rebellious Jerusalem, the overthrow of classical paganism and of Rome as a hostile pagan power, and the establishment of a renewed and publicly vindicated people of God under very different real world conditions.

Having said that…

The kingship of Jesus is portrayed in the language of the Psalms, the prophets, and early Jewish apocalyptic, and there is clearly a symbolic aspect to it. But I rather think that at least for the earliest believers, he was thought of as being quite literally in the presence of God as a resurrected person, to whom his followers could directly appeal, and who might reveal himself to certain people. This specificity was lost as Greek categories took over.

If talk of “future inheritance,” suffering “brought to an end,” realization/recognition of Christ’s rule, the ruling of saints with Jesus—if the political dimension of all of these is used in the same, contextually straightforward way they would have been used in the context of other contemporary politics (Herod, Caesar, imperial armies, palaces, etc.), then they must also have—like their contextual sources—a particular, real material presence and a particular concrete place, in space-time history.

Yes, why not? The church did inherit the “world” that had formerly been under pagan control, it took over from the pagan priesthoods. The persecution of those who witnessed to the future reign of “another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7) was brought to an end. The nations as nations confessed that Jesus was Lord. This is all as solidly material as the fulfilment of a Jewish eschatology would have been with a new Davidic dynasty established in Jerusalem and the nations flocking with their gifts to learn the ways of YHWH. The difference is that the king was executed and so reigns in a heavenly Jerusalem, and the priestly-scribal community is found not in the temple but dispersed among the nations (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:4-5). It’s a reimagined social-political order, but it is still realistically conceived.

I’m not sure how to do this in a way that is internally coherent or scripturally congruent. My view would be that Jesus is really “king,” his people really in a kingdom, but “king” and “kingdom” (along with “visibility” and “victory”) have been thoroughly redefined, such that they don’t map onto culturally available literal king/kingdom talk (whether in a metaphysical mode or not) except in the most abstract and general way.

I think I understand the problem, but I would argue that there is more overlap than you suggest. In ancient terms, what the New Testament envisages is a new order that is not fundamentally or ontologically different from the old order, in which Israel struggled to maintain a valid witness among the hostile nations. It’s just that the killing of Jesus opened up some radically new possibilities.

Finally, I use the word “political” for want of a better alternative, but the reductionism is rhetorically intentional. The aim is to focus attention, to restrict the field of vision of the modern reader.

But that’s all history. The other question is whether it is a useful term to use today. Arguably, the collapse of Christendom brought the “political” narrative to an end. We are now living in a very different world, as you rightly point out.