Joshua Ryan Butler. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. Nashville: W Publishing Group (an Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2014.
Will God torment people in hell forever and ever just because they had the wrong religion? Should we celebrate a God who ordered the Israelites to slaughter every Canaanite—-man, woman, and child? These are important questions for a lot of people. As Rick McKinley says in the book’s Foreword, many think that “God’s hiding skeletons in his closet, showing us a smiling face of love but holding a whip behind his back in case we don’t do as we’re told” (page xv).
Christian pastor Joshua Ryan Butler tackles these questions in The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. Regarding hell, Butler’s belief is similar to what I have read a number of Christians say: that people who will be in hell will be there by their own choice, since they will refuse to repent and obey the rules of God’s kingdom, and God cannot allow them to come into the holy city and morally pollute it. As C.S. Lewis said, the door of hell is locked from the inside.
What sets Butler’s book apart, and what ultimately makes it worth the read, is that Butler actually supports this view with Scripture. Butler looks at the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), and what he sees is that the rich man in Hades still wants Lazarus in a subordinate position and clings to his sinful attitude after losing everything. Yet, Butler notes, Abraham still loves the rich man enough to call him “son.” In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Butler observes that the Father pleads to the resentful older son to come to the party celebrating the prodigal younger son’s return, yet the older son refuses. The older son’s attitude locks him in a miserable hell.
Butler also answers questions about hell. What is the worm that does not die? What are the darkness, God’s wrath, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Butler points out examples in which some of these concepts describe a spiritual state. For Butler, hell will be God allowing people who reject him to keep on in their independence, resulting in their spiritual darkness and misery. Butler does not believe that God will torture people in an underground chamber.
Butler’s Scriptural case regarding hell was the best part of his book. Also to be commended are his thoughtful engagement with theologians and scholarship, his uncanny ability to guess what questions people might ask in response to what he is saying, his bold insights about social justice and the evils of corporate greed, and his honest and reasonable thoughts about just war and pacifism, even as he draws from thinkers whose views he does not entirely accept.
In some cases, I was not convinced by Butler’s argument. This was particularly the case with his discussion of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. I respected his engagement with scholarship, but I was not convinced by his view (held by scholar Richard Hess) that the Canaanite cities the Israelites conquered lacked civilians and were military centers. Moreover, Butler depicted the Conquest as a group of underdogs who had left oppression in Egypt and were challenging powerful oppressors in Canaan, after God had patiently endured the sins of these Amorites. While there may be something to this, I do not think that it exhausts the meaning of the Conquest. Deuteronomy 20 shows that the Hebrew word ir referred to cities that had women and children, and that one reason for the Conquest was so that the Israelites would not learn the religion of the Canaanites. In my opinion, there is a tradition within the Hebrew Bible that God wanted the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites so that the Canaanites would not be around to tempt the Israelites with Canaanite religion. There were other traditions in the Hebrew Bible as well, however—-that God himself would fight the Canaanites, or that Canaanites were still around to tempt the Israelites.
There were other qualms I had about the book, as well. First, notwithstanding Butler’s insightful Scriptural case for his view on hell, he seemed to leave certain passages untouched. He argued that the Lake of Fire in Revelation was about God overthrowing the Babylonian system, not hell, and yet Revelation 20:15 states that those not found in the Book of Life at the judgment were cast into the Lake of Fire. Butler seems to contend that God will not turn away people who are pleading to enter the holy city, and yet Luke 13:25-27 appears to depict a scenario of people asking the master to open the door, yet the master refuses. (Perhaps Butler could respond that the master knew these people were not spiritually ready to enter.)
Second, there were times when Butler seemed to contradict himself. He said that God was fighting for the Israelites, yet acknowledged that the Israelites were fighting. He noted that the biblical historians depicted the Israelites as underdogs, and yet Butler said that they were bragging about the Conquest with hyperbole. Butler said that the Canaanite cities were military centers, yet at one point seemed to suggest that any civilians in those cities fled before the Israelites came. On the subject of hell, there were some loose ends. Butler disagreed with universalism and annihilationism, yet it was not always easy to tell if he repudiated such concepts entirely. His arguments about the worm that does not die and the fire that goes up forever were similar to things that annihilationists have said, and Butler even talked about the destructive nature of sin. Moreover, Butler did not seem to think that Christ’s second coming closes the door to opportunities for people to be saved. After Christ returns, he said, many from the nations will come to the holy city.
Third, I did not always feel hopeful in reading the book. Butler acknowledged his own flaws, yet he also said that one can tell a true Christian by his or her love. I somewhat felt as if I need to be perfect to enter God’s kingdom. But what if I am sinful, and I do not know the way out of my sins? I wish that Butler had spent more time on this topic. I would be unfair to say that he does not address it, however, for he does talk a lot about the mercy and grace of Christ and the transformation in one’s attitude that can come when one embraces the Gospel and looks to Christ. But the book also had a bit of a “shape up or ship out” tone (not that he uses those words).
Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers (http://booklookbloggers.com/) book review bloggers program. The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.