Interacting with Joshua Ryan Butler’s “Skeletons in God’s Closet”

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Josh-Butler-headerYesterday, I summarized The Skeletons in God’s Closet, Joshua Ryan Butler’s book that claims the doctrines Christians are often shy about (hell, judgment, and holy war) are truths we should instead be proud of. Rightly understood, these truths point not to a capricious and hateful deity but to a God who is good, and whose judgment reflects His holiness, mercy, and good intentions for creation.

The strengths of Butler’s work are many. Butler combines profound theological reflection with accessible and memorable explanation. Throughout the book, he incorporates biblical analysis, voices from church history, and personal stories that help the reader grasp his overall construction, one building block at a time.

Today, I am following up that summary by adding a few takeaways from this book. I hope my commending words will lead you to pick up the book, even if some of the latter takeaways include caveats.

1. Tap into humanity’s longing for the world to be made right (through judgment).

Butler does well in accomplishing his big goal – making the realities of hell, judgment, and holy war to seem not just plausible but desirable. And the moment you begin to think, Yes, God’s judgment is good! he puts you in the dock, positioning you under that judgment unless you side with Jesus through His atoning sacrifice.

In the past, whenever I have worked with college students and twenty-somethings, I have adopted this same method: stir up a person’s God-given sense of justice, and then surprise them by showing how that justice condemns us, apart from the intervening grace of God.

2. Show the Bible is not only true, but also good.

I love how Butler gets personal. Interspersed in the book are brief conversations with people Butler has counseled, people with significant doubts who openly wrestle with the theological truths in these chapters.

Most apologetics books go to the Bible to prove the “Christian viewpoint.” Butler goes further. He goes to the Bible to show the Christian story is better. His appeal is not just to the mind (“The Bible says this”), but to the heart (“The Bible says this and here’s why it’s good”).

3. Make sure judgment offends religious people and skeptics alike.

Butler challenges “religious followers” and “skeptics” alike. He removes any reason a religious Christian should feel superior in their knowledge about heaven, hell, and who’s going where. But he also challenges the skeptic to submit to what God has revealed in Scripture, and thereby receive a story that is even more satisfying than sentimental visions of God. Butler challenges the religious and the skeptic at the same time.

4. In showing the shalom-destroying aspect of sin, don’t miss the outrageous offense of our sin against God.

Throughout his book, Butler focuses more on God’s anger toward sin because of the harm it does to His image-bearers and His good creation than on God’s anger toward sin because of its idolatrous affront to His glory. Now, as an apologetic strategy, Butler’s method is effective because he paints a picture of sin waging war on God’s shalom, and he invites the reader to react with horror to the sinful things humans do to each other and our world. And to be fair, Butler never denies that our sin is also directed personally toward God; it’s just that he assumes this view without ever explaining it.

Here’s an example:

“God doesn’t just have a problem with [Gehenna] because he’s personally offended; he has a problem because he loves the world and its powers seek to destroy” (38).

True and right, but by the end of the book, I wanted Butler to, at some point, switch those around, and say “God’s problem with sin isn’t just because it damages the world; it’s also because it is a strike against Him personally.” Or to go beyond saying “sin wages war on God’s shalom” to saying “Sin wages war on God… full stop.”

Why does this matter? Because the Christian is most likely to run from sin when we feel how it stabs the heart of God. Psalm 51 is a good example. After David sins against just about everyone, he is undone when he says, “Against you and you only have I sinned.”

5. Be careful not to overplay the “mercy of God” in describing judgment.

For me, it is confusing categories to describe hell as “God’s mercy,” no matter how rhetorically surprising it may be. If the existence of hell is for the protection of heaven on earth, I suppose we could make the case that God’s consignment of people to hell is an act of mercy for the people in His new world of love.

But Butler goes further, following C.S. Lewis’ lead, in that he makes hell an act of God’s mercy toward the rebels. Thus hell is the ultimate tribute to human freedom. God will not heal those who refuse His love, so hell becomes like a tourniquet on the wound, a containment of the poison that limits “the harm they can do to themselves” (61).

Butler makes good distinctions between torment and torture (affirming that hell is a place of everlasting torment, but denying that God is torturing people there), but his mixing up of mercy and punishment clouds the issue rather than clarifies it. I don’t see how God’s containment of rebels in hell can be both punishment and mercy.

6. Recognize you can’t avoid the difficult questions altogether.

Butler tries to avoid some of the thorny issues in the traditional viewpoint, but these questions come up from behind. For example, what happens to an unbeliever at death (before the final judgment)? Butler never addresses that question, one that is certainly relevant for pastors today.

On a similar note, any time we wonder about who will be in God’s kingdom we are confronted with questions regarding exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism. Butler rejects universalism and annihilationism, and he makes a case for God’s judgment upon all religions and ideologies opposed to Scripture. So the weight of his treatment leans toward exclusivism.

But the door appears to be cracked ever so slightly toward seeing Jesus’ light in people who don’t know Him (166), or wondering if Jesus’ sheep outside the fold refer to non-Christians who will be part of the people of God (156). Furthermore, Butler quotes Lesslie Newbigin favorably, who toward the end of his life, wanted to dismiss the inclusivism/exclusivism debates altogether. (I love Newbigin, but I think his exasperation was problematic for his overarching missiological vision.)

Unless we face this question head-on, we can unintentionally minimize the need for personal evangelism and the impulse toward foreign missions. If there is the possibility that people who do not know Christ will be saved, we remove a major impetus for our worldwide missions.

7. A biblical view of hell should always lead us to more urgency in evangelism, never less.

By the end of the book, I was wanting to hear how Butler engages in personal evangelism. He is clear on the need to call people to repentance and faith, and he is prophetic in his call to reject worldly ideologies and religious facades. But what does this look like in practice? In the midst of Butler’s commendable ministry in foster care, human trafficking, and homelessness, how does personal evangelism take place?

I have no doubt Butler is active in leading people to Jesus; I just wanted to see him in action, especially since many people can hardly conceive of evangelism apart from the heaven/hell dichotomy and urgency. Perhaps I can suggest he tackle this in his next book!

Conclusion

Overall, I found The Skeletons in God’s Closet to be a stimulating book full of insights and biblical truth. Butler has done an excellent job placing difficult doctrines into the overall story in which they receive their fullest and most glorious meaning. If you’re a pastor or church leader, wondering how to deal with some of these common stumbling blocks, you’ll find this book to be a helpful guide.

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