To Every Creature Under Heaven?
Only about 30 years after the Lord’s church was established on Pentecost (Acts 2), the apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Colosse about their reconciliation in Christ. He then mentioned to them how the Gospel had been “preached to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). However, according to skeptics who have commented on Colossians 1:23, “Never at any time has every living person heard the gospel. Millions of people have come and gone without having had any contact whatever with Christianity or the Bible” (McKinsey, 2000, p. 569). Thus, Paul allegedly was mistaken and therefore not inspired by God to write to the Colossians or anyone else in the first century. Are we really to believe, as skeptic Tony Kuphaldt asked, “that the entire world had heard about Jesus at this time (about 60 A.D.)?!” (2002).
The phrase en pase ktisei (“to every creature,” NKJV) could just as easily (and accurately) be translated “in all creation” (ESV, NASB)—that is, Paul declared that “the gospel…has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Colossians 1:23, ESV). Is it possible that some 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection and the establishment of the church that the early apostles, prophets, and evangelists had preached the Gospel “in all the world” (Colossians 1:6)—“in all creation under heaven”? Although admittedly, such a feat may seem quite unlikely, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:26). If Jesus could use His disciples to feed 5,000 men (plus the women and children) with only five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:19); if He could allow the apostle Peter to miraculously walk on water (Matthew 14:29); if God could use Peter and Paul to raise the dead (Acts 9:36-42; 20:10-12); if He could call “a man in Christ” (probably Paul) up into Paradise without killing him (2 Corinthians 12:1-6); if God could deliver His spokesmen from imprisonment and shipwreck (Acts 12:5-10; 27:13-44); if Jesus could miraculously ensure that the apostles could cast out demons, speak in tongues, and be unaffected by poisonous concoctions and venomous snakes (Mark 16:17-18; Acts 28:3-6)—it may very well be that by the time Paul wrote to the Colossians the Lord had miraculously and providentially helped Christians spread around the globe with the Gospel. After all, this was the commission given to the apostles—“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15, ESV).
Most likely, however, when Paul wrote that “the gospel” had been preached “in all the world” (Colossians 1:6), “to every creature under heaven” (1:23), he merely was using a figure of speech known as hyperbole (exaggeration). Consider how people today will often make the statement, “Everyone knows that,” yet they do not literally mean that all seven billion-plus people on Earth actually know the subject matter being discussed. A frequent world traveler may say, “I’ve been all over the world,” but does not literally mean he’s been over every square mile of Earth. Similarly, the Bible writers often employed the same type of hyperbolic statements. Luke wrote that prior to the birth of Christ “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city” (Luke 2:1,3, emp. added). It should be obvious that Luke did not literally mean that every single person in every country on Earth (even those outside the Roman Empire) were expected to be registered. Similarly, in Acts 2:5 Luke mentioned that on the Day of Pentecost “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (emp. added). Although the Jews were dispersed in many countries around the world, it is likely that Luke merely used another hyperbolic statement to describe the various backgrounds among hundreds of thousands of Jews. There is no need to interpret Luke’s words to mean that Jews must have come from North America, South America, and Australia.
The fact is, “everyone” understands that Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:23 was intentionally exaggerated, at least to some extent. Even the skeptic would not contend that by indicating the Gospel had been preached “to every creature under heaven,” Paul meant that all of the animal kingdom had heard the Gospel. Most likely, the skeptic would not even demand that “every creature” (or “all creation”) must include infants, the mentally ill, etc. Although “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), Paul’s statement was not meant to be taken strictly literal. Most likely, Paul was merely using hyperbole to communicate an astounding truth: the then-known world (of both Jews and Gentiles) had been exposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Kuphaldt, Tony (2002), “The Word of the Lord,” The Secular Web, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/tony_kuphaldt/word.html.
McKinsey, Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).