In Western society, if you talk to an unbeliever about a judgmental God who consigns people to a place called hell, you’ll likely encounter a raised eyebrow and a dismissive wave of the hand. Give us a god who approves of our way of life, who reserves punishment for only the worst of offenders, or who tolerates and forgives everyone!
The problem for Christians is that the Bible doesn’t comply with this image of God. The Old Testament describes God commanding His people to destroy nations and occupy their land. The New Testament ends with God’s fiery wrath being poured out on the world. Even “Red Letter Christians” must deal with Jesus’ parables and statements that warn against judgment. If you were forced to pick the New Testament character who most resembles a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, you’d probably have to go with Jesus.
It’s no wonder Christians are tempted to set aside these difficult texts and only address them when necessary. But Joshua Ryan Butler believes we are missing an opportunity and a blessing. Hell, holy war, and judgment may seem like “skeletons in God’s closet,” according to the title of Butler’s book, but it’s God who wants us to see His goodness on display in these realities. Butler writes:
“When properly understood, these are not just pieces of the Christian faith we can learn to live with; they are profound plotlines in the story of the whole we (literally) cannot live without” (xxviii).
The Skeletons in God’s Closet is an ambitious work of apologetics. Butler isn’t satisfied with simply defending traditional Christian teaching; he wants to show how these unpopular, controversial doctrines are actually good news for the world.
Butler’s method is, first, to address the caricature of the Christian position. Next, he articulates the traditional doctrine within the overall framework of the Christian story (in order to give us the proper lens of interpretation). Finally, he makes an emotionally compelling case for hell, judgment, and holy war. Each chapter builds on the next, as Butler carefully dismantles popular-level distortions of biblical teaching and then constructs a robust, biblical viewpoint in their place.
Today, I want to summarize how Butler handles each of these three points: Hell, Judgment, and Holy War and tomorrow I’ll add some thoughts and a few caveats to Butler’s proposal.
The caricature of hell is that God has created an underground torture chamber for all non-Christians. The Christian story is about heaven and hell; the gospel is news about how to get into the former and avoid the latter.
Butler counters the caricature by placing hell within the Bible’s bigger story of heaven and earth. Christians believe heaven and earth were created by God, torn apart by human sin, but are now destined for reconciliation through the work of Christ (8).
Seen within the bigger “heaven and earth” story, hell is not just a place, but also a power. Hell was unleashed in our world through human sin, but God, through the atoning sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Jesus, has promised to rid the world of sin and death and hell. He will kick hell out of the garden city He is coming to restore.
“The King is returning to liberate the capital, establish his good kingdom, and cast all its stubborn opponents… outside the city” (46).
Within this framework, the punishment of hell is that it is a place of containment, a way of protecting God’s new world from all the forces of evil and the humans who remain in rebellion against God. Humans who reject God’s offer of salvation receive their wish – a world without God, a world of torment (not torture) in which the destructive power of sin leads to everlasting ruin.
The caricature of heaven is an elite country club in the sky for people who believe the right doctrines about Jesus. Butler counters this portrait by showing how God’s judgment brings surprising results, and how His ultimate goal is to rescue the nations from sin’s ruin and restore people to Himself and to one another.
Relying on Jesus’ parables and John’s vision in Revelation, Butler speaks of heaven as a wedding feast to which all are invited. But God passes judgment on the “wedding crashers” who want to intrude upon His celebration.
Seen in this light, God’s judgment is never divorced from His love. In fact, our understanding of real love is deepened once we recognize God’s opposition to human sinfulness. Butler writes:
“God stands against our injustice because he identifies in love with those we violate. God’s love is more than a comfort; it is a confrontation. God’s love has teeth” (159).
God’s posture is for people of other faiths, but His kingdom stands against all that is wrong in other religions, including Christianity and the ways even Christians compromise with the world by adhering to false ideologies. “The hope of the world is the death of ideology in the life of Christ,” he says (182).
The caricature of holy war is that Israel, in need of land, raids and destroys the people who inhabit the idyllic countryside of Canaan.
Butler counters the caricature by showing how Israel was a ragtag band of slaves in the shadow of Canaan. “Israel marches in like ants under elephants’ feet,” he writes (213). The Old Testament holy war is a story of God rising up on behalf of the weak against the tyranny of the strong. And the coming holy war at the end of time is when God will reduce human empires to rubble and establish His reconciled world.
Tomorrow, I’m going to make a few observations about Butler’s methods and conclusions, in hopes of continuing the conversation his book begins. For a summary that goes into more detail, check out Derek Rishmawy’s review.