Was the Gospel Preached throughout the “Whole World” in the First Century?
“What is the meaning of Paul’s statement in his letter to the Colossians, when he suggested that the gospel already had been ‘preached in all creation under heaven’ (Colossians 1:23)? How could this possibly have been an accurate statement?”
As we begin to consider this text, let us also observe that there are other passages of similar import that may be combined with Colossians 1:23. Earlier, in this same chapter, Paul exults in the fact that the gospel was bearing fruit “in all the world” (v. 6). Elsewhere, the apostle stated that the faith of the Christians in Rome was being “proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Romans 1:8; cf. 16:19). Also in Romans 10, Paul, borrowing from language that highlights the vast influence of the sun’s illuminating power (Psalm 19:4), contended that the gospel “sound” went out “into all the earth,” even “to the ends of the world” (v. 18). The brethren in Thessalonica were commended because their evangelistic fervor had echoed not only throughout Macedonia and Achaia, but “in every place” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
The Old Testament even contains samples of this exuberant language format. Isaiah spoke of the time when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Paul quotes from this context in his epistle to the Romans, making the application to the Christian age, and the great gospel harvest to be achieved among the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). When Daniel interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, he spoke of a “stone” that, without hands (a divine activity), was cut out from a mountain. The stone itself “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35). Subsequently, the “stone” is identified as God’s kingdom, the church, which was to be established in the days of the Roman kings (2:44).
Meanings Not Intended
Before we direct our attention to the unusual nature of the language employed in these texts, let us first dismiss several ideas that are not in harmony with the overall teaching of the scriptures.
(1) The passages cited above do not suggest the dogma of “Universalism,” i.e., the notion that ultimately the whole of mankind will be saved. For further study of this theme, see our article, “The Growing Trend toward Universalism.”
(2) Nor does the collection of texts assembled accommodate various “millennial” views that allege a near-universal wave of conversions near the consummation of earth’s history. This is a very common theory, but its essential components are missing from the Bible.
The Figurative Language
One of the most fundamental rules of language interpretation is this: if a word or phrase implies an impossibility, in a document that otherwise is credible, the most reasonable view is that the author has employed terms in a figurative sense.
There are at least two figures of speech that may come into play in discussing the question under consideration.
(1) One of these figures is called “prophetic prolepsis.” The term “prophetic,” of course, has to do with prophecy. “Prolepsis” (from
pro — “before,” and
lambanein — “to take,” is a figure used when a speaker or writer represents a circumstance that shall be, but speaks as if it has occurred already. The writer symbolically represents what is expected to occur at a later time.
For example, Isaiah described the coming Messiah in these terms: "For unto us a child "is born. . . " (9:6). This was some seven centuries before the actual birth of the Lord. Edward J. Young observed: “He speaks of the birth as though it has already occurred, even though from his standpoint it was yet to take place in the future” (The Book of Isaiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, Vol. I, p. 329).
F.F. Bruce felt that this figure reflects the significance of Colossians 1:6, 23 (The Epistles to the Colossians, Philemon and to the Ephesians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, pp. 42-43; 79). In other words, the apostle prophetically looked across the coming centuries and observed the vast influence of the Christian message, noting that its effect, from the vantage point of the first century, would be global.
(2) It must be recognized as well that the passages cited above are hyperbolic in nature. The word “hyperbole” derives from a combination of two Greek terms that signify “to throw above.” A hyperbole, then, is a figure of speech that contains an obvious exaggeration (with no intention of duplicity) for the purpose of emphasizing a truth. The Bible abounds with this figure, which, in most contexts, is perfectly obvious and draws no criticism.
For example, it was said of the pagan peoples east of the Jordan that “their camels were without number, as the sand which is upon the sea shore for multitude” (Judges 6:5; cf. 1 Samuel 13:5). That’s a lot of camels for a few Bedouin tribes!
Jehovah promised Abraham that his “seed,” i.e., offspring, would be “as the dust of the earth,” i.e., numberless (Genesis 13:16; cf. Galatians 3:29). But the earth could not possibly contain as many people as there are specks of dust upon the planet. This is obvious hyperbole.
The apostle John once stated that all the books in the world could not contain the miracles that Jesus performed (John 21:25). Clearly, he employs hyperbolic language. If Christ had performed one miracle each hour, day and night, for the entire 1,260 days of his earthly ministry, such would total 30,240 signs. Even this quantity could have been housed in the libraries of the antique world. The ancient library at Alexandria, according to Strabo, the Greek geographer, contained 700,000 volumes.
In view of these examples, surely no rational person of integrity is going to accuse the biblical records of error, simply because, in revealing the vast expansion of Christianity — even within the first century, some hyperbolic expressions are used to dramatize the point.
The fact is, even Christ’s enemies used language framed in terms of hyperbolic universality, in describing the influence of the Lord and his inspired spokesmen. When the chief priests and Pharisees contemplated the powerful signs that the Savior was performing, they lamented that “all men will believe on him” (John 11:48). When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week of his crucifixion, the Pharisees complained, “the world is gone after him” (John 12:19). Jewish antagonists in the city of Thessalonica, seeing the influence of Paul and Silas, cried out: “these have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6; cf. Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28; 19:27; 24:5). Obviously the term “world” in these texts has a limited scope, literally speaking.
That the early Christian movement had a “growth” explosion that defies any natural explanation is quite evident. I invite the reader to consult our article, “The Origin of Christianity”. Especially see the section in which growth statistics relative to the expansion of the early church are discussed.
The spread of Christianity has been utterly phenomenal, and such well illustrates the propriety of the use of hyperbole in connection with the influence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.