I consider myself a reader. I try to read four or five books every year and anything more than that is gravy. For every two or three books I read where I know I will probably agree with the author’s conclusions, I try to read one that I feel like I will probably disagree with if only for the sake of hearing from people outside of my usual camp.
I follow Donald Miller on Twitter because he’s one of those guys outside of my camp. I find him interesting. Back in October, he tweeted this:
— Donald Miller (@donaldmiller) October 14, 2014
I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins and as I expected, I couldn’t agree with his message. But it was a valuable read simply because it gave me perspective on the some of the poor theology afloat within culture. With Love Wins I felt like I knew what Bell was trying to accomplish, but he delved too much into heresies to be taken seriously.
Enter Joshua Ryan Butler. I had never heard of this guy, but Donald Miller recommended him, so I thought this might be a good disagree read. His book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War, sounded intriguing. I mean who has ever though of hell as merciful or that there’s any hope to be found in holy war? So I took the bait.
I began reading. I kept waiting for that, “See, I told you this guy would be full it,” moment. Chapter after chapter, as I read further and further, I kept agreeing and not disagreeing. After I made it to the midway point in the book, it began sinking in: this is not going to be a disagree book.
Thanks for messing up my rotation, Josh.
After I finished the book, I went and read some reviews of the book to see what others were saying. Some clearly didn’t like it. Some did. I found myself in the liked it group. The most helpful review I read was from the Gospel Coalition and it captured most of my sentiments.
Butler is not trying to rewrite the book on hell, judgment, and holy war. He doesn’t tamper with the essential nature of the doctrines. He’s attempting to set them in their proper place within God’s story of redemption. This book is clearly written for a Postmodern audience who is skeptical toward organized religion and doubtful about certain doctrines of the Christian faith. And since Postmoderns tend to view the world through the lens of narrative and story, Butler appeals to them by casting hell, judgment, and holy war within the story of God in their Biblical roles.
The Mercy of Hell
Butler’s chapters on Hell were probably, for me, the most thought provoking. To summarize, his constant reminder is that Heaven and Hell are not parallel components, but rather the Bible casts Heaven and Earth as parallel and Hell as a third wheel. Hell exists, not because God wants to torture people, but because Satan and his angels sinned, and humans who choose to remain in their sin will ultimately join Satan and his angels in hell. Hell is not something God originally created, but it is the consequence of sin entering the creation. And in the end, when God finally redeems all things, hell will be a protection, or as Butler puts it, it will be God’s mercy toward the new creation, by keeping the destructive power of sin contained outside.
Nothing Butler wrote changes what the Bible says about hell. In fact, what he writes kind of pulls hell from the pages of Scripture, blows it up, expands on what we already know, and diminishes the caricatures that both pop culture and the evangelical church tends to use. For my money, Butler has actually deepened the misery of hell and effectively shown how people, not God, send themselves into this eternal state.
The Surprise of Judgment
Butler’s pages on judgment, like the ones on hell, are refocusing our thoughts on what the Bible says about judgment. Why does God judge? Who will be judged? The why is consistently because God hears the cries of the innocent. He hears the cries of Abel’s blood coming from the ground. He hears the cries of his people in Egypt. He hears the cries of the martyrs beneath his altar in heaven. Judgment is God’s holy and just response to evil.
The who is everyone. All men and women will be judged, but in that, all men and women will be surprised at the outcome of judgment! Butler relies on Jesus’ teachings about judgment to remind us that when the final judgment arrives, everyone will be surprised at the verdict. The people who thought they were good will be surprised at who is judged a sheep and even more surprised that they were judged a goat. And the people who are judged a sheep won’t understand either.
We should be slow to speak and quick to listen. The people we see today who seem to be far from God, may have a turn around that we can’t see yet, that perhaps we wouldn’t even imagine. Don’t prematurely judge your neighbor. Keep a humility that understands your own tendency toward wickedness and you won’t be so quick to judge your neighbor. I’m preaching…. moving on.
The Hope of Holy War
Our concept of holy war is slanted toward what we see on television. Radical Muslims, armed to the teeth, killing anyone who stands opposed to their vision of worldwide Sharia. Then people look at the Old Testament and see Israel slaughtering entire villages and cities – men, women, and children – and those same images from television tell us that the holy war in the Old Testament is reprehensible.
Butler helps us understand that God’s holy war is nothing like our concept of holy war. First, after being in the wilderness for forty years, the Israelites were a nation of former slaves with little more than sharp sticks, slings and stones for weapons. They were about to face an armed empire with the best weapons of the day. Israel was the underdog of underdogs.
Second, Canaan wasn’t innocent. God had been merciful with them for four hundred years, giving them opportunity to repent. They worshiped idols. They sacrificed their children. They were a brutal people. God’s actions against them weren’t the actions of a merciless, bloodthirsty deity. His actions were just judgment against the destructive power of sin that had overtaken Canaan.
Finally, it wasn’t Israel doing the fighting. God was fighting on behalf of the Israelites. Real holy war isn’t fought by people; it is fought by God himself on behalf of his people. ISIS isn’t a holy war. The Crusades were not holy wars. In fact, only one holy war remains to be fought. When Christ returns, he will wage holy war for his people and purge all of creation of the destructive power of sin forever! This is the hope of holy war! Holy war isn’t you fighting, it’s him fighting for you!
If you approach this book with a clenched fist, you might not gain much. For those of you who know me, you know that I love the Word of God. I don’t take false teaching lightly and I value orthodoxy. Joshua Butler’s book is written to the skeptic with genuine questions about the heart and character of God.
- He doesn’t give in to universalism as some have because he upholds repentance and faith as the means to receive salvation.
- He doesn’t reduce God to a one-dimensional, god-is-love god, by minimizing his judgment. Rather he upholds judgment as a critical aspect of God’s love toward his people.
- He doesn’t downplay hell by making it temporary or turning to annihilationism. He upholds hell as a place of eternal separation from God, tormented by the undying flames of your own sin and eternal absence of hope.
Do I agree with every last thing he says? No. There are some things he talks about where I believe differently, and that’s okay. Unless you’re reading the Bible, you aren’t condemned for disagreeing with the author on a few points. But those points don’t amount to enough for me to dislike the message. Joshua Butler’s book is on point, illuminating, and it doesn’t hedge on doctrine. It has given the church a resource to show how hell, judgment, and holy war aren’t the ugly doctrines that they seem, and strengthens the case that God is incredibly, unimaginably good in everything he does.