2015 Reading List: The Skeletons in God’s Closet

Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War.

I’m very thankful to Alia Hagenbach (@AliaJoy), from whom I won this book in her very generous giveaway!

Butler is a pastor in Portland, Oregon, and he writes this book as a pastor to people who struggle with the difficult truths in the Bible about hell, judgment, and holy war. This is one of the major strengths of the book: this is no “safe” academic discussion; this is borne out of the struggles of one desperate for truth.

The title comes from the idea that God has skeletons in His closet that He doesn’t want us to see and that we don’t want to look at. Hell and wrath and judgment make us uncomfortable, because they seem to conflict with the loving God we worship. What if He’s not like what we thought after all?

The subtitle of the book gives the reader the structure of the book’s three sections: the mercy of hell, the surprise of judgment, and the hope of holy war. In the beginning, he explains how our understanding of these three are often like a caricature drawing: close enough to the real thing to be recognizable, but with major exaggerations or distortions of certain features. Without the original to compare it with, however, the caricature can become the original in our minds, and we become blind to the distortions.

Hell is not an “underground torture chamber,” but rather the merciful (hence “mercy of hell”) containment of sin’s devastation from spreading throughout the new heavens and new earth. The most powerful portrayal of this is in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16. The rich man is in torment, not torture; furthermore, his questions to Father Abraham are actually cheap shots at God. Never once does the rich man express a desire to get out of where he is. The “great chasm” fixed between him and Lazarus prevents the spread of his destructive hatefulness into the shalom of Abraham’s bosom, where Lazarus now receives his reward.

Judgment is a surprise, because we are so easily deceived by appearances. There is so much injustice in the world that it often blinds us to the reality and hope of real justice. At the end of all things, however, the surprise of judgment will be when all the deceptive appearances are removed and shown for the truth. Butler takes us to the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 to show the surprise: “When did we do these things [or not do them] to You, Lord?”

Holy war is a picture of God’s upending of systemic evil. The Canaanites were not happy-go-lucky, peaceful folks who were brutally slaughtered by the bloodthirsty, overpowering Israelites. The Canaanites had 400 years from Abraham to Joshua to repent, and they didn’t. Their sins and the blood of their victims screamed for vengeance, just as Abel’s blood cried out to God. After 400 years, the point of no return was reached. The descriptions of the fall of Babylon in Revelation are full of holy war language–the demolition of the systemic godlessness and oppression of the weak.

This book made me uncomfortable in a lot of places, and mostly because I found myself clinging to the caricature instead of the biblical reality. My discomfort wasn’t because Butler was wrong, but because I was being confronted with the original image without the caricature’s distortions. This is an immensely helpful book, because Butler’s primary purpose in the book is to show the goodness of God, even in the doctrines of hell, judgment, and holy war. Mission accomplished, without a doubt.

I do have a couple of hesitations about the book, which most likely arise because of focus or emphasis. First, the emphasis in the book is on God’s jealousy for His creation in general and His people in particular; there’s not as much emphasis on God’s jealousy for His own name and holiness. Hell, judgment, and holy war are geared more toward rescue and protection of us, and there’s not much discussion about how God feels about sin because of what it is to Him, independently of us. Again, this is most likely simply an issue of emphasis; I don’t for a second believe that Butler disagrees with my point. But I’d be interested to have the discussion to see where that fits into his paradigm.

Second, or perhaps another facet of the first, what about the language of God hating sinners and being angry with sin (e.g., Psalm 5:5)? Where does that fit within the book’s paradigm? This is traditionally seen as an expression of God’s holiness and purity; He is the One whose eyes are too pure to look on sin (Habakkuk 1). How should we understand this kind of language?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, in no small part because I was challenged and made helpfully uncomfortable by it. This is a remarkably well-done offering to the Church and the world.

Mercy

From Eugene Peterson’s fantastic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us and that He will get His way in us. He does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to His plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand or put us in jail if we get obstreperous. He is a potter working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming until, finally, he has shaped a redeemed life, a vessel fit for the kingdom.

“Mercy, [Yahweh], mercy!”: the prayer is not an attempt to get God to do what He is unwilling otherwise to do, but a reaching out to what we know that He does do, an expressed longing to receive what God is doing in and for us in Jesus Christ. In obedience we pray “Mercy!” instead of “Give us what we want.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Reward us for our goodness so our neighbors will acknowledge our superiority.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Punish us for our badness so we will feel better.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Be nice to us because we have been such good people.”

We live under the mercy. God does not treat us as alien others, lining us up so that He can evaluate our competence or our usefulness or our worth. He rules, guides, commands, loves us as children whose destinies He carries in His heart.

Amen.