A Response to Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Skeletons in God’s Closet

Hell is on a lot of people’s radars these days. We here are obviously not the only ones rethinking hell. Rob Bell’s Love Wins brought the discussion to the popular level. Love it or hate it, Love Wins got people talking.

Another, more recent book has many talking again. Joshua Ryan Butler (pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland) has recently published The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. The book covers more than just the doctrine of hell/final punishment, but for our purposes, I will only address the first part, in which Butler examines the topic of hell (look for responses to parts 2 & 3 on my own blog). Joshua was kind enough to supply me with a free copy to review (two, in fact. One will be given away through my own blog, so stay tuned if you want to dive into this yourself). After two attempts to get the book to me and over a month of frustration, it finally arrived.

Through our interactions on Twitter and email I’ve found Joshua to be a genuinely kind and gracious individual, and he has a definite passion for doing justice in Jesus’s name.

Butler begins by saying that he is addressing popular caricatures of these three topics. He doesn’t intend this to be a thorough or comprehensive treatment, but a challenge to popular-level misconceptions, which he says “are like cartoons: good for us to laugh at, but not to live by” (xxiv).

The popular caricature of hell as Butler describes it is that hell is an underground torture chamber. He confronts these three descriptors: 1) hell is located underground, somewhere near the earth’s core; 2) hell’s purpose is to torture those in it; and 3) hell is a chamber, locked from the outside so no one can escape.

Before getting into each of these aspects, Butler examines the underlying “Problematic story” which this caricature results from. He describes the problematic story like this:

“Right now I live on earth. One day I will die. When I die, I will stand before God and God will either send me up to heaven if I’ve done the right things, or down to hell if I haven’t.” (p. 5)

So far, so good. This is indeed a problematic story, and the view of hell as an underground torture chamber is something we here at Rethinking Hell would obviously reject. Butler argues that the gospel story speaks of hell invading earth and causing separation between heaven and earth, and of God’s salvation being the reunification of earth to heaven. In other words, God plans to get the hell out of earth (as in, to remove hell from earth).

This is where Butler and conditionalists begin parting ways. Butler has rightly spotted a problem, but the alternative is perhaps equally problematic:

Image used in book (p. 16) provided by the author, and used with permission.

What has happened here is the conflation of hell with sin so the two are almost indistinguishable from each other. Hell, for Butler, is the forces working for evil in the here and now: “our world is being ravaged by the destructive power of hell” (16). Hell is something that humanity, by our sin, has unleashed on earth now; we lit the fires of hell, and they are burning right now. Hell is the cause of the evil in our world–slavery, sex trafficking, genocide, etc. are all outworkings of hell’s power (e.g. “Genocide is a problem from hell” [31]).

These things are certainly evil. But evil does not come from hell, nor is hell evil in the present. This really doesn’t fit with Scripture. While I would affirm in a very definitive way the view of heaven’s coming to us rather than we going up to heaven, and while I would affirm that hell is destructive (or more accurately, will be destructive), this is where Butler and I start thinking very differently. Hell is not a present, animated force, causing suffering and destruction in our world right now, which God has to root out. Hell (Gehenna), as it is depicted in Scripture, is the place and time where God will bring final closure between himself and those who refuse his gracious gift of eternal life. Hell is where evil goes to die. Butler and I agree that hell is not an underground torture chamber, designed and constructed by God to imprison and torment sinners for all eternity. But Butler goes in a direction I don’t think Scripture does.

From this foundational story, then, Butler goes on to address the three aspects of the caricature of hell.

1. Underground vs Outside the City

Butler argues that although many people view hell as located somewhere beneath the earth’s crust, nowhere does Scripture say that. He draws attention to the term used by Jesus, “Gehenna,” as being outside the city. This is of course all true. Gehenna is usually translated hell, but it should probably be read as the Valley of (the sons of) Hinnom, which is of course “a place you could MapQuest” (36. As a side note, do people still use MapQuest?). In this place, we are told in the Old Testament, two of Israel’s kings (Ahaz and Manasseh) offered human sacrifices to the Moabite god Molech.

Butler then suggests that the redeemed will dwell in the new Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven (Revelation 21:2) and those who reject God will dwell in Gehenna outside the city.

The flaw in this is fairly obvious to me. The new Jerusalem is located within the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1). The old is gone. (“And there was no more sea.”) The earth is in a sense resurrected, and in the new heavens and the new earth there is no more suffering and death to found anywhere (21:4). But in Butler’s vision, the new earth is divided into the new city and the outside of the city. And those outside still mourn and suffer.

The inconsistency here is quite problematic. The cosmic dualism of heaven or hell is not resolved but is simply restated with new labels; instead of “up to heaven” or “down to hell,” it is “inside the city” or “outside the city.”

Butler’s argument is that hell is an act of mercy–allowing those who rejected God to continue to live, but being restricted to the outer regions. In this way, his view is still within the umbrella of eternal conscious torment, although the torment is more spiritual/emotional and self-inflicted than the classic torture view. God does not round these people up for execution or imprisonment; they simply live outside the city and outside of God’s presence. But a serious problem occurs when we note that “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12) or that those shut out from the presence of God suffer “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). God is the giver of all life. Eternal life is a gift which God alone gives. The notion of continued existence for those who have excluded themselves from God doesn’t fit Scripture. For those who have been excluded from God to remain alive outside the walls of the city is problematic.

So where is hell? Is it underground? In a valley outside the current city of Jerusalem? Outside the new Jerusalem? Scripture seems less interested in the precise details of location. What we can say is that those who are judged and found guilty will perish, and the place where this occurs is tied (whether literally or typologically is not made explicit) to the Valley of Hinnom. This “place” is described in the chapter immediately preceding the description of the new creation (Revelation 20) as the “lake of fire,” which is “the second death.” It is not a place of banishment or exile, but a place of death and destruction, where sin and death are dealt with and then are no more.

2. Torture vs Protection

Next, Butler moves from the where to the why. Why is hell? In other words what is the purpose of hell?

Hell, for Butler, is a place of exclusion, and its boundaries are for the protection of the city. Those banished and exiled outside the city are to remain there to keep the power of sin outside. Just as Ahaz and Manasseh went outside the city to do their wicked deeds in the Valley of Hinnom, so too will the new Jerusalem be a place where sin and idolatry happen “outside.” The holy city, argues Butler, will not be subjected to the power of Gehenna. Even though “On no day will [Jerusalem's] gates ever be shut,” the power of hell will not enter, because God will guard the city.

A few questions jump out immediately:

a. Much of Revelation is, of course, highly symbolic. What do open gates symbolize? Gates are to be passed through. The scene in Revelation 21 seems to imply that people will go in and out of the city at will, with no fear of anything “out there” (the walls are more symbolic than anything else, it seems). The whole of the heavens and earth with be at shalom. Nowhere will there not be shalom. Open gates signify that there is no threat. The absence of the sea further symbolizes that the chaos waters which God has held back (e.g. Genesis 1:1-3; Job 16:5-15, 38:8-18; Psalm 18:15-16, 65) will be altogether removed. There will be no threat of the destructiveness of evil, chaos, or sin, because all those things will be no more–not simply moved to the outside.

b. If God’s purpose is to have shalom, the harmonious relationship of heaven and earth and God and his people, then the continued presence of all of those who brought the power of hell into the old creation seems strange indeed. God would be granting immortality to those responsible for the corruption of the old creation so that they could remain present in the new creation (albeit isolated to the fringes).

c. In this section, Butler argues that his view is most merciful and consistent with the character of God. He uses the image of a marriage proposal to depict the various views. He describes universalism as “marry me and bring in your old lovers.” Annihilation is “marry me or I’ll kill you,” and the underground torture chamber is “marry me or I’ll lock you in the basement.” His own view is “marry me or go your own way” (62-67). The problem in this is very simple: “go your own way” assumes that life apart from the Giver and Sustainer of life is possible. Scripture says only God is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16) and life is conditional on God’s bestowing of it, and that this immortality comes through the gospel (1 Timothy 1:10). In other words, “go your own way” means rejecting life.

Butler assumes that immortality is inevitable for all people. He even argues this exact thing: that because Christ has been raised, death is defeated and all will be raised immortal. But Scripture never applies immortality to those who reject and oppose the gospel, only to those who receive life through Christ. “go your own way” is actually a death sentence.Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14) and was raised to life. But the victory over death is something we participate in “in Christ.” Those outside of Christ do not share in that victory (see for example 1 Corinthians 15). “Go your own way” is actually a death sentence!

So why is hell? What is its expressed purpose? For Butler, it is a place of banishment and containment for the protection of the new Jerusalem. But does Scripture support this? Obviously, conditionalists would say no. Jesus taught that body and soul would be destroyed in Gehenna (Matthew 10:28). The “lake of fire” in Revelation is “the second death.” The epistles only once speak of hell by name, and the context is very different there (James 3:6). However, we do read much in the Epistles about the outcome of judgment. We read of it as death, perishing, and destruction, and we are told that those found guilty will ultimately be consumed or burned up.

In other words, the biblical depiction of hell is that its purpose is the destruction of all opposition to God’s good intentions for creation. I wholeheartedly agree with Butler that hell does not exist for the purpose of tormenting sinners. God is not interested in inflicting unending pain on humans he created in his image, however wickedly they may have acted in their lifetimes.

3. Chamber vs Freedom From God

Finally (after a chapter devoted strangely to Luke 16, a story that doesn’t really speak of hell but the intermediate state, and does so through the use of parable) Butler argues against the notion that hell is a chamber or prison cell, locked by God who throws away the key. Instead, he argues that hell is a place where those who want to live without God get their wish. God, rather than imprisoning them, sets them free from himself. They are allowed to “go your own way”. Hell is our independence from God. Here Butler leans heavily on C.S. Lewis’ depiction of hell as filled with those to whom God says “thy will be done”, and the gates are locked from the inside.

This of course suffers from the same short comings as the previous affirmations. Can humans live apart from the source of life? I would simply echo Iranaeus:

it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised Him who bestowed [the gift upon him], deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever. (Against Heresies, II.XXIV.3)

So what is hell like? What are it’s dimensions? How is it constructed? Hell is not a chamber into which we thrown by God, who locks us in. But neither is hell freedom from God and a place in which we go into self-imposed exile from our source of life, and simply live out the eternal consequences of the absence of God. Hell is the second death. Hell is the end of those who choose not to receive eternal life.

Concluding remarks:

Butler has put together an attempt to make hell seem more palatable (an accusation often thrown at conditionalists). He is right in wanting to distance himself from the underground torture chamber view. But do we reject a depiction of hell because it’s unpleasant? No. As evangelicals we rely on Scripture. Butler has not provided much in the way of exegesis of the relevant texts. He weaves in his personal experiences and witness such as the horrors of sex trafficking, slavery, etc. But we simply can’t read those into the text. Butler is determined to present the most merciful view, but in attempting to do so, fails to take several essential factors into consideration. Scripture does not assume the continued existence of those who reject God. Quite the opposite in fact. Those who choose to be absent from are allowed to do so, but the consequence of that is to be cut off from the source of life, finally and irreversibly. Yes, God is absolutely merciful. But Butler’s vision of hell comes up short. It is repackaged to sound nicer, but still suffers from the fundamental flaws of all arguments for eternal conscious torment: it assumes all humans are, or will be made immortal, that a perpetual dualism will be present for eternity, and that destruction and death when used in Scripture don’t really mean destruction and death.

Book Reviews Criticisms Graham Ware Hermeneutics
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  • jim ottaway

    Thanks for doing this review. I always look forward to these posts.

  • Chuck

    Read Butler a few months ago, and thought the same thing… so much semantic exercise to avoid falling off the “all souls are eternal” wagon. Why do they do that? I guess there’s a lot of “PPP ” (Preacher peer pressure) ….

  • Mark Mcculley
  • HaakAway

    Thanks Graham for taking this assessment back to truly wrestling with Scripture. It is the Trump Card of CI that we must keep playing in the hopes that other thinkers will actually engage in a discussion on it.

    I think we are only saying what an old professor of mine made stick with me: “Bad doctrine comes from bad Bible study.” And so your hermeneutics tag is key here.

  • Brad

    Butler is attempting to make hell sound more merciful? I guess that would depend on ones perspective. My wife who has slid full on into occult/new age started reading my copy of the book and has railed on what is her consistent criticisms of what “you people” keep harping on. Butlers views in no way appeal to her one bit. She finds it unappealing and consistent with “typical” christian theology. Although we as believers may have our disagreements to someone on the outside who is well acquainted with my evangelical/orthodox worldview this is just more of the same to her. What she is complaining to me about is Butlers insistence on hell being a real place rather than a state of mind. Thats what “you people” insist upon. You might say that Butlers version of hell comes up short however according to my wife its spot on with the rest of christian thought. By the way I found Butlers take on hell to be consistent with CS Lewis, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard, to name a few. If we are really being honest, we dont really know what hell actually is. I think the most honest thing any Jesus follower can say is I know its real, I dont want any part of it, and Jesus has a provided a way to avoid it.

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